Kick-ass witch and bounty hunter Rachel Morgan lost her lover, and now she wont rest until his murder is solved and avenged. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Rachels past comes back to haunt her – literally.

Kim Harrison

White Witch, Black Curse

The seventh book in the Rachel Morgan series, 2009

To the guy who finishes my sentences and gets my jokes.

Even the lame ones.

One

The bloody handprint was gone, wiped from Kisten’s window but not from my memory, and it ticked me off that someone had cleaned it, as if they were trying to steal what little recollection I retained about the night he’d died. The anger was misplaced fear if I was honest with myself. But I wasn’t. Most days it was better that way.

Stifling a shiver from the December chill that had taken the abandoned cruiser, now in dry dock rather than floating on the river, I stood in the tiny kitchen and stared at the milky plastic as if willing the smeared mark back into existence. In the near distance came the overindulgent, powerful huff of a diesel train crossing the Ohio River. The scrape of Ford’s shoes on the metallic boarding ladder was harsh, and worry pinched my brow.

The Federal Inderland Bureau had officially closed the investigation into Kisten’s murder-Inderland Security hadn’t even opened one-but the FIB wouldn’t let me into their impound yard without an official presence. That meant intelligent, awkward Ford, since Edden thought I needed more psychiatric evaluation and I wouldn’t come in anymore. Not since I fell asleep on the couch and everyone in the FIB’s Cincinnati office had heard me snoring. I didn’t need evaluation. What I needed was something-anything-to rebuild my memory. If it was a bloody handprint, then so be it.

“Rachel? Wait for me,” the FIB’s psychiatrist called, shifting my worry to annoyance. Like I can’t handle this? I’m a big girl. Besides, there wasn’t anything left to see; the FIB had cleaned everything up. Ford had obviously been out here earlier-given the ladder and the unlocked door-making sure everything was sufficiently tidy before our appointment.

The clatter of dress shoes on teak pushed me forward, and I untangled my arms from themselves and reached for the tiny galley table for balance as I headed to the living room. The floor was still, which felt weird. Beyond the short curtains framing the now-clean window were the dirty gray and brilliant blue tarps of boats at dry dock, the ground a good six feet below us.

“Will you hold up?” Ford asked again, the light eclipsing as he entered. “I can’t help if you’re a room away.”

“I’m waiting,” I grumbled, coming to a halt and tugging my shoulder bag up. Though he’d tried to hide it, Ford had some difficulty getting his butt up the ladder. I thought the idea of a psychiatrist afraid of heights was hilarious, until the amulet he wore around his neck turned a bright pink when I mentioned it and Ford went red with embarrassment. He was a good man with his own demons to circle. He didn’t deserve my razzing.

Ford’s breathing slowed in the chill silence. Wan but determined, he gripped the table, his face whiter than usual, which made his short black hair stand out and his brown eyes soulful. Listening in on my feelings was draining, and I appreciated his wading through my emotional crap to help me piece together what had happened.

I gave him a thin smile, and Ford undid the top few buttons of his coat to reveal a professional cotton shirt and the amulet he wore while working. The metallic ley line charm was a visual display of the emotions he was picking up. He felt the emotions whether he was wearing the charm or not, but those around him had at least the illusion of privacy when he took it off. Ivy, my roommate and business partner, thought it stupid to try to break witch magic with human psychology in order to recover my memory, but I was desperate. Her efforts to find out who had killed Kisten were getting nowhere.

Ford’s relief at being surrounded by walls was almost palpable, and seeing him release his death grip on the table, I headed for the narrow door to the living room and the rest of the boat. The faint scent of vampire and pasta brushed against me-imagination stoked by a memory. It had been five months.

My jaw clenched, and I kept my eyes on the floor, not wanting to see the broken door frame. There were smudges of dirt on the low-mat carpet that hadn’t been there before, marks left by careless people who didn’t know Kisten, had never known his smile, the way he laughed, or the way his eyes crinkled up when he surprised me. Technically an Inderland death without human involvement was out of the FIB’s jurisdiction, but since the I.S. didn’t care that my boyfriend had been turned into a blood gift, the FIB had made an effort just for me.

Murder was never taken off the books, but the investigation had been officially shelved. This was the first chance I’d had to come out here to try to rekindle my memory. Someone had nicked the inside of my lip trying to bind me to them. Someone had murdered my boyfriend twice. Someone was going to be in a world of hurt when I found out who they were.

Stomach fluttering, I looked past Ford to the window where the bloody handprint had been, left like a signpost to mock my pain without giving any prints to follow. Coward.

The amulet around Ford’s neck flashed to an angry black. His eyes met mine as his eyebrows rose, and I forced my emotions to slow. I couldn’t remember crap. Jenks, my backup and other business partner, had dosed me into forgetting so I wouldn’t go after Kisten’s murderer. I couldn’t blame him. The pixy was only four inches tall, and it had been his only option to keep me from killing myself on a suicide run. I was a witch with an unclaimed vampire bite, and that couldn’t stand up to an undead vampire no matter how you sliced it.

“You sure you’re up to this?” Ford asked, and I forced my hand down from my upper arm. Again. It throbbed with a pain long since gone as a memory tried to surface. Fear stirred in me. The recollection of being on the other side of the door and trying to break it down was an old one. It was nearly the only memory I had of that night.

“I want to know,” I said, but my voice sounded wobbly even to me. I had kicked the freaking door open. I had used my foot because my arm had hurt too much to move. I’d been crying at the time, and my hair had been in my eyes and mouth. I had kicked the door down.

A memory sifted from what I knew, and my pulse hammered as something was added, the recollection of me falling backward, hitting a wall. My head hit a wall. Breath held, I looked across the living room, staring at the featureless paneling. Right there. I remember.

Ford came unusually close. “You don’t have to do it this way.”

Pity was in his eyes. I didn’t like it there, directed at me, and his amulet turned silver as I gathered my will and passed through the door frame. “I do,” I said boldly. “Even if I don’t remember anything, the FIB guys might have missed something.”

The FIB was fantastic at gathering information, even better than the I.S. It had to be since the human-run institution had to rely on finding evidence, not sweeping the room for emotions or using witch charms to discover who committed the crime and why. Everyone was capable of missing something, though, and that was one of the reasons I was out here. The other was to remember. Now that I was, I was scared. My head hit the wall…just over there.

Ford came in behind me, watching as I scanned the low-ceilinged living room that stretched from one side of the boat to the other. It looked normal here, apart from the unmoving Cincy skyline visible through the narrow windows. My hand went to my middle as my stomach cramped. I had to do this, no matter what I remembered.

“I meant,” Ford said as he put his hands in his pockets, “I’ve other ways to trigger memories.”

“Meditation?” I said, embarrassed for having fallen asleep in his office. Feeling the beginnings of a stress headache, I strode past the couch where Kisten and I had eaten dinner, past the TV that got lousy reception, not that we ever really watched it, and past the wet bar. Inches from the undamaged wall, my jaw began to ache. Slowly I put a hand to the paneling where my head had hit, curling my fingers under when they started to tremble. My head had hit the wall. Who shoved me? Kisten? His killer? But the memory was fragmented. There was no more.

Turning away, I shoved my hand in my pocket to hide the slight shaking. My breath slipped from me in an almost-visible cloud, and I tugged my coat closer. The train was long gone. Nothing moved past the curtains but a flapping blue tarp. Instinct told me Kisten hadn’t died in this room. I had to go deeper.

Ford said nothing as I walked into the dark, narrow hallway, blind until my eyes adjusted. My pulse quickened as I passed the tiny bathroom where I’d tried on the sharp caps Kisten had given me for my birthday, and I slowed, listening to my body and realizing I was rubbing my fingertips together as they silently burned.

My skin tingled, and I halted, staring at my fingers, recognizing the memory of feeling carpet under my fingers, hot from friction. I held my breath as a new thought surfaced, born from the long-gone sensation. Terror, helplessness. I had been dragged down this hall.

A flash of remembered panic rose, and I squelched it, forcing my breath out in a slow exhalation. The lines I’d made in the carpet had been erased by the FIB vacuuming for evidence, erased from my memory by a spell. Only my body had remembered, and now me.

Ford stood silently behind me. He knew something was trickling through my brain. Ahead was the door to the bedroom, and my fear thickened. That was where it had happened. That was where Kisten had lain, his body torn and savaged, slumped against the bed, his eyes silvered and truly dead. What if I remember it all? Right here in front of Ford and break down?

“Rachel.”

I jumped, startled, and Ford winced. “We can do this another way,” he coaxed. “The meditation didn’t work, but hypnosis might. It’s less stressful.”

Shaking my head, I moved forward and reached for the handle of Kisten’s room. My fingers were pale and cold, looking like mine but not. Hypnosis was a false calm that would put off the panic until the middle of the night when I’d be alone. “I’m fine,” I said, then pushed the door open. Taking a slow breath, I went in.

The large room was cold, the wide windows that let in the light doing little to keep out the chill. Arm clutched against me, I looked to where Kisten had been propped up against the bed. Kisten. There was nothing. My heart ached as I missed him. Behind me, Ford started to breathe with an odd regularity, working to keep my emotions from overwhelming him.

Someone had cleaned the carpet where Kisten had died for the second and final time. Not that there had been much blood. The fingerprint powder was gone, but the only prints they had found were from me, Ivy, and Kisten-scattered like signposts. There’d been none from his murderer. Not even on Kisten’s body. The I.S. had probably cleaned his corpse between when I’d left to kick some vampire ass and my bewildered return with the FIB after I’d forgotten everything.

The I.S. didn’t want the murder solved, a courtesy to whoever Kisten’s last blood had been given as a thank-you. Inderland tradition came before society’s laws, apparently. The same people I’d actually once worked for were covering it up, and that pissed me off.

My thoughts vacillated between rage and a debilitating heartache. Ford panted, and I tried to relax, for him if nothing else. Blinking back the threatened tears, I stared at the ceiling, breathing in the cold, quiet air and counting backward from ten, running through the useless exercise Ford had given me to find a light state of meditation.

At least Kisten had been spared the sordidness of being drained for someone’s pleasure. He had died twice in quick succession, both times probably trying to save me from the vampire he’d been given to. His necropsy had been no help at all. Whatever had killed him the first time had been repaired by the vampire virus before he died again. And if what I’d told Jenks before losing my memory was true, he’d died his second death by biting his attacker, mixing their undead blood to kill them both. Unfortunately, Kisten hadn’t been dead for long. It might only have left his much older attacker simply wounded. I just didn’t know.

I mentally reached zero, and calmer, I moved toward the dresser. There was a shirt box on it, and I almost bent double in heartache when I recognized it.

“Oh God,” I whispered. My hand went out, turning to a fist before my fingers slowly uncurled and I touched it. It was the lace teddy Kisten had given me for my birthday. I’d forgotten it was here.

“I’m sorry,” Ford rasped, and my gaze blurring from tears, I saw him slumped in the threshold.

My eyes squinted shut to make the tears leak out, and I held my breath. My head pounded, and I took a gasping breath only to hold it again, struggling for control. Damn it, he had loved me, and I had loved him. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. And it was probably my fault.

A soft sound from the threshold told me Ford was struggling, and I forced myself to breathe. I had to get control of myself. I was hurting Ford. He was feeling everything I was, and I owed him a lot. Ford was the reason I hadn’t been hauled in for questioning by the FIB despite my working for them occasionally. He was human, but his curse of being able to feel another’s emotions was better than a polygraph or truth charm. He knew I’d loved Kisten and was terrified of what had happened here. “You okay?” I asked when his breathing evened out.

“Fine. Yourself?” he said in a wispy voice.

“Peachy keen,” I said, gripping the top of the dresser. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was going to be this bad.”

“I knew what I was in for when I agreed to bring you out here,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye that I no longer would cry for myself. “I can take anything you dish out, Rachel.”

I turned away, guilty. Ford stayed where he was, the distance helping him cope with the overload. He never touched anyone except by accident. It had to be a crappy way to live. But as I rocked away from the dresser, there was a soft pull as my fingertips left the underside of the dresser top. Sticky. Sniffing my fingertips, I found the faint bite of propellant.

Sticky web. Someone had used sticky web and smeared it off on the underside of the dresser top. Me? Kisten’s murderer? Sticky web worked only on fairies and pixies. It was little more than an irritant to anyone else, like a spiderweb. Jenks had begged off coming out here on the excuse of it being too cold, which it was, but maybe he knew more than he was saying.

My heartache eased from the distraction, and kneeling, I dug in my bag for a penlight and shined it on the underside of the lip of the dresser. I’d be willing to bet no one had dusted it. Ford came close, and I snapped the light off and stood. I didn’t want FIB justice. I wanted my own. Ivy and I would come out later and do our own recon. Test the ceiling for evidence of hydrocarbons, too. Shake Jenks down to find out just how long he’d been with me that night.

Ford’s disapproval was almost palpable, and I knew if I looked, his amulet would be a bright red from picking up my anger. I didn’t care. I was angry, and that was better than falling apart. With a new feeling of purpose, I faced the rest of the room. Ford had seen the smeared mess. The FIB would reopen the case if they found one good print-other than the one I’d just made, that is. This might be the last time I was allowed in here.

Leaning back against the dresser, I closed my eyes and crossed my arms, trying to remember. Nothing. I needed more. “Where’s the stuff?” I asked, both dreading and eager to realize what else lay hidden in my mind, ready to surface.

There was the sound of sliding plastic, and Ford reluctantly handed me a packet of evidence bags and a stack of photos. “Rachel, we should leave if there’s a viable print.”

“The FIB has had five months,” I said, nervous as I took them. “It’s my turn. And don’t give me any crap about disturbing evidence. The entire department has been through here. If there’s a print, it’s probably one of theirs.”

He sighed as I turned to the dresser and arranged the plastic bags, print side down. I took up the photos first, my gaze rising to the reflection of the room behind me.

I moved the picture of the smeared, bloody handprint on the kitchen window to the back of the stack, and tidied the pile with several businesslike taps. I got nothing from the handprint apart from the feeling that it wasn’t mine or Kisten’s.

The picture of Kisten was absent, thank God, and I crossed the room with a photo of a dent in the wall. Ford was silent as I touched the paneling, and I decided by the lack of phantom pain that I hadn’t made it. There’d been a fight here other than mine. Over me, probably.

I slid the photo behind the stack. Under it was a close-up of a shoe imprint taken under the bank of windows. My head started to throb, and with that as a warning, I knew something was here, lurking in my thoughts. Jaw tight, I forced myself to the window, kneeling to run a hand over the smooth carpet, trying to spark a memory even as I feared it. The print was of a man’s dress shoe. Not Kisten’s. It was too mundane for that. Kisten had kept only the latest fashions in his closet. Had the shoe been black or brown? I thought, willing something to surface.

Nothing. Frustrated, I closed my eyes. In my thoughts, the scent of vampire incense mixed with an unfamiliar aftershave. A quiver rose through me, and not caring what Ford thought, I put my face on the carpet to breathe in the smell of fibers. Something…anything…Please…

Panic fluttered at the edge of my thoughts, and I forced myself to breathe more deeply, not caring that my butt was in the air as primitive switches in my brain fired and scents were given names. Musky shadows that never saw the sun. The cloying scent of decayed water. Earth. Silk. Candle-scented dust. They added up to the undead. If I’d been a vampire, I might have been able to find Kisten’s killer by scent alone, but I was a witch.

Tense, I breathed again, searching my thoughts and finding nothing. Slowly the feeling of panic subsided and my headache retreated. I exhaled in relief. I’d been mistaken. There was nothing here. It was just carpet, and my mind had been inventing smells as it tried to fulfill my need for answers. “Nothing,” I murmured into the carpet, inhaling deeply one last time before I sat up.

A pulse of terror washed through me as I breathed in the scent of vampire. Shocked, I awkwardly scrambled to my feet, staring down at the carpet as if having been betrayed. Damn it.

In a cold sweat, I turned away and tugged my coat straight. Ivy. I’ll ask her to come out and smell the carpet, I thought, then almost laughed. Catching it back in a harsh gurgle, I pretended to cough, fingers cold as I shifted to the next photo.

Oh, even better, I thought sarcastically. Scratch marks on the paneling. My breath came fast and my gaze shot straight to the wall by the tiny closet as my fingertips started to throb. Almost panting, I stared, refusing to go look and confirm that my finger span matched the marks, afraid I might remember something even as I wanted to. I didn’t recall making the marks on the wall, but it was obvious my body did.

I’d seen fear before. I’d seen fear bright and shiny when death comes at you in an instant and you can only react. I knew the nauseating mix of fear and hope when death comes slow and you frantically try to find a way to escape it. I’d grown up with old fear, the kind that stalks you from a distance, death lurking on the horizon, so inevitable and inescapable that it loses its power. But this outright panic with no visible reason was new, and I trembled as I tried to find a way to deal with it. Maybe I can ignore it. That works for Ivy.

Clearing my throat, I tried for an air of nonchalance as I set the remaining pictures on the dresser and spread them out, but I wasn’t fooling anyone.

Smears of blood-not splattered, but smeared. Kisten’s, according to the FIB guys. A picture of a split drawer that had been slid back out of sight. Another useless bloody handprint on the deck where Kisten’s killer had vaulted over the side. None of them hit me like the scratches or carpet, and I struggled with wanting to know, but was afraid to remember.

Slowly my pulse eased and my shoulders lost their stiffness. I set the pictures down, bypassing the bags of dust and lint the FIB had vacuumed up, seeing my strands of red curls among the carpet fuzz and sock fluff. I watched myself in the mirror as my fingers touched the hair band in a clear evidence bag. It was one of mine, and it had held my braid together that night. A dull throb in my scalp lifted through my awareness, and Ford shifted uneasily.

Shit, the band meant something.

“Talk to me,” Ford said, and I pressed my thumb into the rubber cord through the plastic, trying to keep the fear from gaining control again. Evidence pointed at me to be Kisten’s killer, hence the not-quite-hidden mistrust I now felt at the FIB, but I hadn’t done it. I’d been here, but I hadn’t done it. At least Ford believed me. Someone had left the stinking bloody handprints.

“This is mine,” I said softly so my voice wouldn’t quaver. “I think…someone undid my hair.” Feeling unreal, I turned the bag over to see that it had been found in the bedroom, and a surge of panic rose from out of nowhere. My heart hammered, but I forced my breathing to steady. Memory trickled back, pieces, and nothing of use. Fingers in my hair. My face against a wall. Kisten’s killer taking my hair out of its braid. No wonder I hadn’t let Jenks’s kids touch my hair much the last five months or why I’d freaked when Marshal had tucked my hair behind my ear.

Queasy, I dropped the bag, dizzy when the edges of my sight dimmed. If I passed out, Ford would call someone, and that would be that. I wanted to know. I had to.

The last piece of evidence was damning, and turning to rest my backside against the dresser, I shook a small, unbroken blue pellet to the corner of its bag. It was filled with a now-defunct sleepy-time charm. It was the only thing in my arsenal that would drop a dead vampire.

A faint prickling of the hair on the back of my neck grew as a new thought lifted through me and a whisper of memory clenched my heart. My breath came out in a pained rush, and my head bowed. I was crying, swearing. Pointing my splat gun, I pulled the trigger. And laughing, he caught the spell.

“He caught it,” I whispered, closing my eyes so they wouldn’t fill. “I tried to shoot him, and he caught it without breaking it.” My wrist pulsed in pain and another memory surfaced. Thin fingers gripped my wrist. My hand went numb. A thump when my gun hit the floor.

“He hurt my hand until I dropped my splat gun,” I said. “I think I ran then.”

Afraid, I looked at Ford, seeing his amulet purple with shock. My little red splat gun had never been missing, was never recorded as having been here. All my potions were accounted for. Someone had clearly put the gun back where it belonged. I didn’t even remember making the sleepy-time charms, but this was clearly one of mine. Where the other six were was a good question.

In a surge of anger, I kicked the dresser with the ball of my foot. The shock went all the way up my leg, and the furniture thumped into the wall. It was stupid, but it felt good.

“Uh, Rachel?” Ford said, and I kicked it again, grunting.

“I’m fine!” I shouted, sniffing back the tears. “I’m freaking fine!” But my lip was throbbing where someone had bitten me; my body was trying to get my mind to remember, but I simply wouldn’t let it. Had it been Kisten who had bitten me? His attacker? I hadn’t been bound, thank God. Ivy said so, and she would know.

“Yeah, you look fine,” Ford said dryly, and I pulled my coat closed and tugged my shoulder bag up. He was smiling at my lost temper, and it made me even madder.

“Stop laughing at me,” I said, and he smiled wider, taking off his amulet and tucking it away as if we were finished. “And I’m not done with those,” I added as he gathered the pictures.

“Yes, you are,” he said, and I frowned at his unusual confidence. “You’re angry. That’s better than confused or grieving. I hate using clichés, but we can move forward now.”

“Psychobabble bull,” I scoffed, grabbing the evidence bags before he could take them, too, but he was right. I did feel better. I had remembered something. Maybe human science was as strong as witch magic. Maybe.

Ford took the bags from me. “Talk to me,” he said, standing in front of me like a rock.

My good mood vanished, replaced by the urge to flee. Grabbing the shirt box from the dresser, I pushed past him. I had to get out. I had to put some distance between me and the scratch marks on the walls. I couldn’t wear the teddy Kisten had given me, but I couldn’t leave it here either. Ford could gripe all he wanted about removing evidence from the crime scene. Evidence of what? That Kisten had loved me?

“Rachel,” Ford said as he followed, his steps silent on the carpet in the hall. “What do you recall? All I get is emotion. I can’t go back and tell Edden you remembered nothing.”

“Sure you can,” I said, my pace fast and my blinders on as we crossed the living room.

“No, I can’t,” he said, catching up with me at the broken door frame. “I’m a lousy liar.”

I shivered as I crossed the threshold, but the cold brightness of late afternoon beckoned, and I lurched for the door. “Lying is easy,” I said bitterly. “Just make something up and pretend it’s real. I do it all the time.”

“Rachel.”

Ford reached out and drew me to a surprised stop in the cockpit. He was wearing winter gloves and had only touched my coat, but it proved how upset he was. The sun glinted on his black hair and his eyes were squinting from the glare. The cold wind shifted his bangs, and I searched his expression, wanting to find a reason to tell him what I remembered, to let go of the them-versus-us attitude between human and Inderlander and just let him help me. Behind him Cincinnati spread in all her mixed-up, comfortable messiness, the roads too tight and the hills too steep, and I could sense the security that so many lives entangled together engendered.

My eyes fell to my feet and the crushed remains of a leaf the wind had dropped here. Ford’s shoulders eased as he felt my resolve weaken. “I remembered bits and pieces,” I said, and his feet shifted against the polished wood. “Kisten’s killer took my hair out of my braid before I kicked the door off the frame. I’m the one who made the scratches by the closet, but I only remember making them, not who I was trying to…get away from.” My hand fisted, and I shoved it in a pocket, leaving the shirt box tucked under an arm.

“The splat ball is mine. I remember shooting it,” I said, throat tight as I flicked my eyes to his and saw his sympathy. “I was aiming at the other vampire, not Kisten. He has…big hands.” A new pulse of fear zinged through me and I nearly lost it when I remembered the soft feel of thick fingers on my jawline.

“I want you to come in tomorrow,” Ford said, his brow pinched in worry. “Now that you have something to work with, I think hypnosis might bring it all together.”

Bring it all together? Does he have any idea what in hell he is asking? The blood drained from my face, and I pulled out of his reach. “No.” If Ford put me under, I had no idea what might come out.

Fleeing, I dipped under the railing and swung my weight out and onto the ladder. Marshal waited in his big-ass SUV below, and I wanted to be in it with the heater going to try to drive away the chill Ford’s words had started. I hesitated, wondering if I should drop the shirt box or keep it tucked under an arm.

“Rachel, wait.”

There was the rattle of the lock being replaced, and leaving the box under my arm, I started down, watching the side of the boat as I descended. I toyed with the idea of taking the ladder away to leave him stranded, but he would probably put it in his report. Besides, he did have his cell phone.

Finally I reached the ground. Head down, I placed my boots carefully in the slush, aiming for Marshal’s car, parked behind Ford’s in the maze of impounded boats. Marshal had offered to bring me out after I’d complained during a hockey game that my little red car would get stuck in the ruts and ice out here, and since my car wasn’t made for the snow, I’d said yes.

Guilt tugged at me for avoiding Ford’s help. I wanted to find out who’d killed Kisten and tried to make me their shadow, but there were other things I wanted to keep to myself, like why I’d survived a common but lethal blood disease that was also responsible for my being able to kindle demon magic, or what my dad had done in his spare time, or why my mother had nearly gone off her rocker to keep me from knowing my birth father wasn’t the man who’d raised me.

Marshal’s eyes showed his concern when I got in his SUV and slammed the door. Two months ago, the man had shown up on my doorstep, back in Cincinnati after the Mackinaw Weres had burned his garage down. Fortunately he’d saved both the house and the boat that had been his livelihood-now sold to pay for getting his master’s at Cincy’s university. We’d met last spring when I was up north rescuing Jenks’s eldest son and Nick, my old boyfriend.

Despite my better judgment, we’d been out more than a few times, realizing we had enough in common to probably make a good go of it-if it weren’t for my habit of getting everyone close to me killed. Not to mention that he was coming off a psycho girlfriend and wasn’t looking for anything serious. The problem was, we both liked to relax doing athletic stuff, ranging from running at the zoo to ice-skating at Fountain Square. We’d kept it friendly but platonic for two months now, shocking the hell out of my roommates. The lack of stress from not wondering will-we, won’t-we was a blessing. Curbing my natural tendencies and instead keeping our relationship casual had been easy. I couldn’t bear it if he got hurt. Kisten had cured me of foolish dreams. Dreams could kill people. At least, mine could. And did.

“You okay?” Marshal asked, his low voice with his up-north accent heavy with worry.

“Peachy,” I muttered as I tossed the box with the teddy onto the backseat and wiped a cold finger against the underside of my eye. When I didn’t say anything more, he sighed, rolling his window down to talk to Ford. The FIB officer was making his way to us. I had half a mind to accuse Ford of asking Marshal to drive me here and back, knowing I’d probably need a shoulder to cry on, and though he wasn’t my boyfriend, Marshal was a hundred percent better than taking my raw turmoil back to Ivy.

Ford looked up as he angled to my door, not Marshal’s, and the tall man behind the wheel silently pressed a button to roll my window down. I tried to roll it back up, but he locked the controls and I gave him a dirty look.

“Rachel,” Ford said as soon as he closed the distance between us. “You won’t be out of control for even an instant. That’s how it works.”

Damn it, he had guessed why I was afraid, and embarrassed that he was bringing this up in front of Marshal, I frowned. “We don’t have to do it at my office if you’re uncomfortable,” he added, squinting from the bright December sun. “No one needs to know.”

I didn’t care if the FIB knew I was seeing their psychiatrist. Hell, if anyone needed counseling, it was me. But still…“I’m not crazy,” I muttered as I angled the blowing vents to me and my hair flew up from under my hat.

Ford put a hand on the open window in a show of support. “You’re probably the sanest person I know. You only look crazy because you’ve got a lot of weird stuff to deal with. If you want, while you’re relaxed, I can give you a way to keep your mouth shut about anything you want under just about any circumstance. Completely confidential, between you and your subconscious.” Surprised, I stared at him, and he finished, “I don’t even have to know what you’re keeping to yourself.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” I said, but my knees felt funny. What has he figured out about me that he isn’t saying?

Shifting his feet in the slush, Ford shrugged. “Yes, you are. I think it’s cute.” He glanced at Marshal and smiled. “Big bad runner who can take down black witches and vampires afraid of little helpless me.”

“I am not afraid of you. And you’re not helpless!” I exclaimed as Marshal chuckled.

“Then you’ll do it,” Ford said confidently, and I made a noise of frustration.

“Yeah, whatever,” I muttered, then fiddled with the vent again. I wanted to get out of here before he really figured out what was going on in my head-and then told me.

“I have to tell Edden about the sticky silk,” Ford said, “but I’ll wait until tomorrow.”

My eyes flicked to the ladder, still propped against the boat’s side. “Thanks,” I said, and he nodded, responding to the heavy emotion of gratitude I knew I must be throwing off. My roommate would have time to come out with the Jr. Detective Kit she probably had stashed in her label-strewn closet and take whatever prints she wanted. Not to mention sniffing the carpet.

Ford smiled at a private thought. “Since you won’t come in, how about me coming over tonight about…six? Somewhere after my dinner and before your lunch?”

I stared at him for his brazenness. “I’m busy. How about next month?”

He ducked his head as if embarrassed, but he was still smiling when he met my gaze. “I want to talk to you before I talk to Edden. Tomorrow. Three o’clock.”

“I’m picking my brother up at the airport at three,” I said quickly. “I’ll be with him and my mother the rest of the day. Sorry.”

“I’ll see you at six,” he said firmly. “By then, you’ll be home trying to get away from your brother and your mom, ready for some relaxation. I can teach you a trick for that, too.”

“God! I hate it when you do that!” I said, messing with my seat belt so he would take the hint and go away. I was more embarrassed than angry that he’d caught me trying to evade him. “Hey!” I leaned out the window as he turned to go. “Don’t tell anyone I had my face on the floor, okay?”

From beside me, Marshal made a wondering sound, and I turned to him. “You either.”

“No problem,” he said, thunking the SUV into gear and moving forward a few feet. My window went up, and I loosened my scarf as the vehicle warmed. Ford slowly managed the slushy ruts back to his car, pulling his phone from his pocket as he went. Remembering my own phone, on vibrate, I dug my cell out of my bag. Scrolling through the menu to put it on ring, I wondered how I was going to tell Ivy what I remembered without both of us flaking out.

With a small noise of concern, Marshal put his SUV back into park, and my head came up. Ford was standing beside his open door with his phone stuck to his ear. A bad feeling began to trickle through me when he started back to us. It grew worse when Marshal put his window down and Ford stopped beside it. The psychiatrist’s eyes carried a heavy worry.

“That was Edden,” Ford said as he closed his phone and returned it to his belt case. “Glenn’s been hurt.”

“Glenn!” I leaned over the center console toward him, getting a good whiff of the scent of redwood coming off Marshal. The FIB detective was Edden’s son and one of my favorite people. And now he was hurt. Because of me? “Is he okay?”

Marshal stiffened, and I leaned back. Ford was shaking his head and looking at the nearby river. “He was off duty investigating something he probably shouldn’t have. They found him unconscious. I’m going to the hospital to see how much damage he’s suffered to his head.”

His head. Ford meant his brain. Someone had beat him up. “I’m coming, too,” I said, reaching for my seat belt.

“I can drive you out,” Marshal offered, but I was winding my scarf back up and grabbing my bag.

“No, but thanks, Marshal,” I said, my pulse fast as I gave his shoulder a quick touch. “Ford’s going out there. I’ll, ah, call you later, okay?”

Marshal’s brown eyes were worried, and his black hair, tight to his skull, hardly shifted as he nodded. It had been growing in for only a few months, but at least he had eyebrows now. “Okay,” he echoed, not giving me any grief for ditching him. “Take care of yourself.”

I exhaled, glancing once at Ford, waiting impatiently for me, then back to Marshal. “Thanks,” I said softly, and gave him an impulsive kiss on the cheek. “You’re a great guy.”

I got out, and, pace fast, followed Ford to his car, my thoughts and stomach churning at what we might find at the hospital. Someone had hurt Glenn. Sure, he was a FIB officer and ran the risk of injury all the time, but I had a feeling this involved me. It had to. I was an albatross.

Just ask Kisten.

Two

We’ll take the next elevator,” the tidy woman said with an overly bright smile as she pulled her confused friend back into the hall and the silver doors slid shut before Ford and me.

Wondering, I glanced at the huge lift. The thing was big enough for a gurney. Ford and I were the only two people in here. But then the woman’s harsh whisper of “Black witch” came in just before the doors met, telling me all I needed to know.

“The Turn take it,” I muttered, tugging my bag back up on my shoulder.

Beside me, Ford edged away, not enjoying my angry emotions as I fumed. I wasn’t a black witch. Okay, so my aura was covered with demon smut. And yeah, I’d been filmed last year being dragged down the street on my ass by a demon. It probably didn’t help that the entire universe knew I’d summoned one into an I.S. courtroom to testify against Piscary, Cincinnati’s top vampire and my roommate’s former master. But I was a white witch. Wasn’t I?

Depressed, I stared at the dull silver panels of the hospital elevator. Ford was a dark blur beside me, his head bowed as I stewed. I wasn’t a demon to be pulled back to the ever-after when the sun rose, but my children would be-thanks to the illegal genetic tinkering of the now-dead Senior Kalamack. He had unknowingly broken the checks and balances that elves magicked into the demon’s genome thousands of years ago, effectively allowing only magically stunted demon children to survive. The elves named the new species witches, telling us lies and convincing us to fight demons in their war. When we found out the truth, we abandoned the elves and demons both, migrating out of the ever-after and doing our best to forget our origins. Which we did admirably, to the point where I was the only witch to know the truth.

Ceri had filled in the gaps of Mr. Haston’s sixth-grade history class, having been a demon’s familiar before I rescued her. She’d read up on it between twisting curses and planning orgies.

No one knew the truth but me and my partners. And Al, the demon I had a standing teaching date with every Saturday. And Newt, the ever-after’s most powerful demon. There was Al’s parole officer, Dali. Mustn’t forget Trent and whoever he’d told, but that was likely going to be no one, seeing that his dad’s breaking of the genetic roadblock had been a stupid thing to do. No wonder they’d killed all the geneticists at the Turn. Too bad they’d missed Trent’s dad.

Ford jiggled on his feet, then, looking embarrassed, he pulled a black metal flask from a coat pocket, twisted off the top, tilted his head to the ceiling, and took a swig.

Watching his Adam’s apple move, I gave him a questioning look.

“It’s medicinal,” he said, a charming shade of red as he fumbled recapping it.

“Well, we are in a hospital,” I said dryly, then snatched it. Ford protested as I took a sniff, then touched it to my lips. My eyes widened. “Vodka?”

Looking even more embarrassed, the slight man took it from my unresisting fingers, capped it, and tucked it away. The elevator chimed and the panels slid apart. Before us was a hallway like any other in the building, with its low-mat carpet, white walls, and banister.

My worry for Glenn came rushing back, and I lurched forward. Ford and I bumped as we got out, and I felt a wash of chagrin. I knew he didn’t like to touch anyone. “Can I steady myself on your elbow?” he asked, and I glanced at the pocket he had dropped the flask into.

“Lightweight,” I said, reaching out for him, careful to touch him only through his coat.

“I’m not drunk,” he said sourly, linking his arm in mine in a motion that held absolutely no romance, but rather, desperation. “The emotions are sharp in here. The alcohol helps. I’m in overload, and I’d rather feel your emotions than everyone else’s.”

“Oh.” Feeling honored, I strode forward with him and past the two orderlies pushing a hamper. My good mood soured when one of them whispered, “Should we call security?”

Ford’s grip tightened when I spun to give them my opinion, and the two skittered away like I was the boogeyman. “They’re just afraid,” Ford said, his fingers tightening on me.

We continued down the hall, and I wondered if they could kick me out. The beginnings of a headache pulsed. “I’m a white witch, damn it,” I said to no one, and the guy in a lab coat coming toward us gave us a cursory glance.

Ford was looking pale, and I tried to calm myself before they admitted him. I should step up my efforts to find a muffler for him-other than alcohol, that is.

“Thanks,” he whispered as he picked up on my concern, then, voice stronger, he added, “Rachel, you summon demons. You’re good at it. Get over it, then find a way to make it work for you. It’s not going to go away.”

I huffed, ready to tell him he had no right to sound so high and mighty, but turning a liability into an asset was exactly what he had done with his “gift.” I gave his arm a squeeze, then started when I saw Ivy, my roommate, bending over the nurses’ desk, not caring that a male orderly had just walked into a wall watching her. Her black jeans were low and tight, but she had the body of a model and could get away with it. The matching cotton pullover was cut high to give a glimpse of her lower back as she craned to see what was on the computer. In deference to the cold, her long leather coat was draped over the counter. Ivy was a living vampire, and she looked it: svelte, dark, and broody. It made it hard to live with her, but I was no picnic either, and we knew each other’s quirks.

“Ivy!” I called, and her head turned, her short, enviably straight hair with the gold tips swinging as she came up. “How did you find out about Glenn?”

Ford’s shoulders slumped, all his tension slipping from him as he held my arm. He looked happy. But he would, seeing that he was picking up my emotions and I was happy to see Ivy. Perhaps I might invest in a little talk time about Ivy when Ford and I got together again. I could use his insight into our uneasy relationship.

I wasn’t Ivy’s blood shadow, but her friend. That a vampire could be friends with anyone without sharing blood was unusual, but we had an additional complication. Ivy liked both boys and girls, mixing blood and sex into one and the same. She’d been clear that she wanted me, too, in any capacity, but I was straight, apart from a confusing year of trying to separate blood lust from gender preference. That she’d bitten me more than once hadn’t helped. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. The rush from a vampire bite was too close to sexual ecstasy to dismiss, and it had taken me thinking I’d been bound to Kisten’s killer to wake me up. The risk of becoming a shadow was too great. I trusted Ivy. It was her blood lust I was worried about.

So we lived together in the church that was also our runner business, sleeping across the hall from each other and doing our best to not push each other’s buttons. One might think Ivy would be ticked off after wasting a year chasing me, but she had a blissful happiness that vampires didn’t often find. Apparently my telling her I wasn’t ever going to let her sink her teeth into me again was the only way she’d believe I liked her for her and not the way she could make me feel. I just admired the hell out of anyone who could be that hard on herself and still be so incredibly strong. And I loved her. I didn’t want to sleep with her, but I did love her.

Ivy came to meet us, her small lips closed and her slim boots silent on the carpet. She moved with a memorable grace, and there was a slight grimace on her usually placid face. Her features held a slight Asian cast, having an oval face, a small nose, and a heart-shaped mouth. It was seldom she smiled, afraid the emotion would break her self-control. I think that was one of the reasons we were friends-I laughed enough for both of us. That, and the fact that she thought I could find a way to save her soul when she died and became an undead. Right now, I was just looking to find the rent money. I’d get to my roommate’s soul later.

“Edden called the church first,” she said by way of greeting, her thin eyebrows high as she spotted Ford’s arm linked in mine. “Hi, Ford.”

The man reddened at the lilt she’d put in her last words, but I wouldn’t let him take his arm back. I liked being needed. “He’s having trouble with the background emotion,” I said.

“And he’d rather be abused by yours?”

Nice. “Do you know what room Glenn is in?” I said as Ford’s arm slipped away.

She nodded, her dark eyes not missing a thing. “This way. He’s still not conscious.” Ivy headed down the hallway with us in tow, but when we passed the desk, one of the nurses stood, determination on her no-nonsense face. “I’m sorry. No visitors except family.”

A pang of fear went through me, not because I might not see Glenn, but that his condition was so serious they wouldn’t let anyone in. Ivy didn’t slow down, though, and neither did I.

The nurse started after us. My pulse quickened, but another waved us on, then turned to the first nurse. “It’s Ivy,” the second nurse said, as if that meant something.

“You mean the vampire who’s-” the first nurse said, but she was pulled back to the desk before I heard the rest. I turned to Ivy, seeing that her pale complexion had shifted to pink.

“The vampire who’s what?” I asked, remembering her stint here as a candy striper.

Ivy’s jaw tightened. “Glenn’s room is down here,” she said, avoiding my question. Whatever.

An unexpected sense of panic hit me when Ivy made a sharp left into a room and vanished behind the oversize door. I stared at it, hearing the soft sounds of delicate machinery. Memories of sitting with my dad as he took his last, struggling breaths swam up, then more recent, of watching Quen fight for his life. I froze, unable to move. Behind me, Ford stumbled, as if I had slapped him.

Crap. I flushed, embarrassed that he was feeling my misery. “I’m sorry,” I gushed as he stood in the hallway and held up a hand to tell me he was all right. I thanked God Ivy had already gone in and wasn’t seeing what I’d done to him.

“It’s okay.” His eyes were weary as he came close again, hesitant until he knew I had the old pain safely tucked away. “Can I ask who?”

I swallowed hard. “My dad.”

Eyes down, he guided me to the door. “You were about twelve?”

“Thirteen.” And then we were inside, and I could see that it wasn’t the same room at all.

Slowly my shoulders eased. My dad had died with nothing to save him. As a law enforcer, Glenn was getting the best of everything. His father was in the rocker pulled up to his bedside, ramrod straight. Glenn was being taken care of. Edden was the one in pain.

The small, stocky man tried to smile, but he couldn’t do it. In the few hours since learning about his son’s attack, his pale face had acquired wrinkles I’d only seen hints of before. In his grip was a winter hat, his short fingers working the rim around and around. He stood, and my heart went out to him when he exhaled, the sound carrying all his fear and worry.

Edden was the captain of the FIB’s Cincinnati division, the ex-military man bringing to the office the hard, succeed-against-all-odds determination he’d gained in the service. Seeing him down to the bare bones of himself was hard. The lingering questions in the FIB as to my “convenient” amnesia concerning Kisten’s death had never occurred to Edden. He trusted me, and because of that, he was one of the few humans I absolutely trusted in return. His son, unconscious on the bed, was another.

“Thank you for coming,” he said automatically, his gravelly voice cracking, and I worked to keep from crying when he ran a blunt hand over his short-cropped, graying hair in a recognizable sign of stress. I came close to give him a hug, and the familiar scent of old coffee hit me.

“You know we wouldn’t let you do this alone,” Ivy said from her corner where she’d folded herself stiffly into a padded chair, quietly giving support the only way she could.

“How is he?” I asked as I turned to Glenn.

“They won’t give me a straight answer,” he said, his voice higher than usual. “He’s been beaten up pretty bad. Head trauma-” His voice broke, and he went silent.

I looked at Glenn on the bed, his very dark skin standing out starkly against the sheets. There was a white bandage around his head, and they had shaved a swath of his tightly curling black hair. Bruises marked his face, and he had a split lip. A nasty swath of bruised skin ran from his shoulder to under the sheets, and his fingers resting on the blanket were swollen.

Edden sank into his chair and looked at his son’s damaged hand. “They wouldn’t let me in,” he said softly. “They didn’t believe I was his father. Bigoted bastards.” Slowly his hand went out, and he cradled Glenn’s hand as if it were a baby bird.

I swallowed hard at the love. Edden had adopted Glenn when he married his mother-must have been at least twenty years ago-and though they looked nothing like each other, they were exactly alike where it counted, both strong in their convictions and consistently putting their lives in danger to fight injustice. “I’m sorry,” I almost croaked, feeling his pain.

In the threshold, Ford closed his eyes, clenched his jaw, and leaned against the frame.

Grabbing a chair, I dragged it across the linoleum to where I could see Edden and Glenn both. My bag went on the floor and my hand on the FIB captain’s shoulder. “Who did this?”

Edden took a slow breath. In her corner, Ivy sat up. “He was working on something on his own,” the man said, “after hours, in case what surfaced would be better left off the record. One of our officers died last week after a long wasting illness. He was a friend of Glenn’s, and Glenn found out he’d been cheating on his wife.” Edden glanced up. “Keep that to yourselves.”

Ivy got to her feet, interested. “She poisoned her husband?”

The FIB captain shrugged. “That’s what Glenn thought, according to his notes. He went to talk to the mistress this morning. That’s where-” His voice cut off, and we patiently waited while he steadied himself. “The working theory is,” he said softly, “that the husband was there and freaked out, attacked Glenn, and then they both left him for dead in their living room.”

“Oh my God,” I whispered, going cold.

“He was off duty,” Edden continued, “so he lay there almost an hour before someone checked on him because he didn’t come in to work. He’s a smart kid, and one of his friends knew what he was doing and where he had gone.”

My breath caught when Edden turned to me, pain etched deep in his brown eyes as he tried to find an answer. “We never would have found him otherwise. Not in time. They left him there. They could have called 911 and fled, but they left my boy to die.”

The warm prick of tears hit me, and I gave the stocky, heartbroken man a sideways hug. “He’s going to be okay,” I whispered. “I know it.” My gaze went to Ford as he came in to stand at the foot of the bed. “Right?”

Ford gripped the footboard as if struggling for balance. “Can I have a moment with Glenn alone?” he asked. “I can’t work with all of you in here.”

Immediately I stood. “Sure.”

Ivy touched the lump that was Glenn’s feet as she passed, and she was gone. Edden slowly stood, letting go of his son’s hand with an obvious reticence. Leaning over Glenn, he whispered in a severe tone, “I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere, young man. You hear me?”

I drew Edden out of the room. “Come on. I’ll get you some coffee. There’s gotta be a machine around here somewhere.”

I looked back as we left. Glenn looked like crap, but as long as his mind was undamaged, he’d be okay. Ford could tell, couldn’t he?

As I escorted Edden down the hallway in Ivy’s wake, I felt a moment of guilty relief. At least Glenn hadn’t been hurt because of someone trying to get to me. It might sound like vanity on my part, but it had happened before. Ivy’s old master vampire had raped her to get her to kill me, had given Kisten to his death for the same reason. Piscary was dead now, Kisten, too; I was alive, and I wasn’t going to let others get hurt for me again.

Edden pulled out of my grip when we reached a bench across from a vending machine. Everything was done in institutional comfort: soothing shades of taupe and cushions not soft enough to encourage lingering. A wide window opened onto the snowplowed parking lot, and I sat so my feet were in the shaft of dusky sunlight coming in. There was no warmth. Edden sat beside me with his elbows on his knees, his forehead cupped in his hands. I didn’t like seeing the intelligent, quick-fingered man so depressed. I didn’t think he even remembered I was here.

“He’s going to be okay,” I said, and Edden took a deep breath.

“I know he will,” he said with a forcefulness that said he wasn’t sure. “Whoever did this was a professional. Glenn stumbled into something bigger than a wife cheating on her husband.”

Ah hell. Maybe it is my fault. Ivy’s shadow fell on us, and I looked up. Her silhouette was sharp against the bright window, and I leaned back into shadow.

“I’ll find out who did this,” she said, then turned to me. “We both will. And don’t insult us by offering to pay for it.”

My lips parted in surprise. She had tried to hide herself in shadow, but her words gave away her anger. “I thought you didn’t like Glenn,” I said stupidly, then went hot.

Her hand moved to her hip. “This isn’t a matter of like or dislike. Someone mauled a law officer and left him for dead. The I.S. won’t do anything about it, and anarchy can’t be allowed a toehold.” She turned and the sun came in. “I don’t think a human did that to him,” she said as she moved to sit across from us. “Whoever it was knew exactly how to cause an excruciating amount of pain without letting him pass out from it. I’ve seen it before.”

I could almost hear her think, Vampire.

Edden’s hands clenched, then he visibly forced himself to relax. “I agree.”

Unable to sit still, I squirmed. “He’s going to be okay,” I said. Damn it, I didn’t know what else to say! Ivy’s entire vampiric culture was based on monsters who worked outside the law, people who treated people like boxes of chocolates. The biggest and baddest, the ones who made the rules, got away with anything.

Ivy leaned across the wide space between us. “Give me the address where he was found,” she demanded. “I want to look.”

Edden pressed his lips together, making his mustache bunch out. It was the first sign of him regaining himself. “Ivy, I appreciate your offer,” he said, his voice firm. “But we can handle it. I have people out there right now.”

Her eye twitched, and though it was hard to tell, I think her pupils were dilating in pique. “Give me the address,” she repeated. “If an Inderlander did this, you’re going to need Rachel and me. The I.S. won’t help you.”

Not to mention that the FIB will probably miss the Inderland stuff, I thought, settling myself with a soft huff more firmly in the thin padding.

Edden eyed her, clearly peeved himself. “My department is working on it. Glenn will be conscious in a few days, and then-”

His eyes closed, and he became silent. Ivy stood, agitated. Almost brutal, she said, “If you don’t put the heat on whoever did this in the next few hours, they will be gone.” Edden met her eyes and she added more gently, “Let us help. You’re too involved. The entire FIB is. You need someone out there who can look at what happened with dispassion, not a desire for revenge.”

I made a small noise and crossed my arms over my middle. Revenge was on my mind. “Come on, Edden, this is what we do for a living!” I said. “Why won’t you let us help?”

A dry humor was in the short man’s eyes as he looked askance at me. “It’s what Ivy does for a living. You’re not a detective, Rachel. You’re a haul-them-in-girl, and none better. I’ll let you know when we find out who it is, and if it’s a witch, I’ll give you a call.”

That hit me with all the pleasure of a slap in the face, and my eyes narrowed. Ivy saw my irritation, and she leaned back, content to let me yell at him. But instead of standing up and telling him to get Turned-which wouldn’t do anything but get us thrown out-I swallowed my pride, contenting myself with bobbing my foot in anger.

“Then give Ivy the address,” I said, wanting to accidentally kick him in the shins. “She can find a fairy fart in a windstorm,” I said, borrowing one of Jenks’s favorite expressions. “And what if it is an Inderlander? You want to risk losing them because of your human pride?”

Maybe that was low, but I was tired of looking at crime scenes after the cleaning crew.

Edden looked from Ivy’s mocking expectancy to my admirably contained redhead anger, then pulled out a palm-size spiral notebook. I smiled at the scratch of the pencil as he wrote something down, a pleasant slurry of contentment and anticipation filling me. We’d find whoever attacked Glenn and left him to die. And whoever it was better hope I was there with Ivy, or they’d be subjected to her own personal version of justice.

The sound of the paper tearing free was loud, and with a wry grimace, he extended the strip of white and blue to Ivy. She didn’t look at it, handing it to me instead.

“Thank you,” I said crisply, tucking it away.

A soft scrape of shoe on carpet brought my attention up, and I followed Ivy’s gaze, over my shoulder. Ford was shuffling to us, his head bowed and my bag in his grip. I felt a moment of panic, and in response, he looked up, smiling. My eyes closed. Glenn was okay.

“Thank you, God,” Edden whispered, standing up.

I had to hear it, though, and as Ford handed me my forgotten bag and took the cup of coffee Ivy gave him, I asked, “He’s going to be okay?”

Ford nodded, eyeing us over the rim of the paper cup. “His mind is fine,” he said, grimacing at the coffee’s taste. “There’s no damage. He’s deep into his psyche, but as soon as his body repairs itself enough, he will regain consciousness. A day or two?”

Edden’s breath shook as he exhaled, and Ford stiffened when the FIB captain shook his hand. “Thank you. Thank you, Ford. If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.”

Ford smiled thinly. “I’m glad I could give you good news.” Regaining his hand, he backed up a step. “Excuse me. I need to try to convince the nurses to back off on the meds. He’s not in as much pain as they think, and it’s slowing down his recovery.”

“I’ll do it.” Ivy eased into motion. “I’ll tell them I can smell it. They won’t know the difference.”

The beginnings of a smile curved my lips up as she almost sauntered down the hall, calling out to one nurse by name. Edden couldn’t stop smiling, and I could see a hint of tears in his eyes as he shifted from foot to foot. “I need to make a couple of calls.” He reached for his cell phone, then hesitated. “Ford, can Glenn hear me when I talk to him?”

Ford nodded, smiling tiredly. “He might not remember it, but he can.”

Edden looked from me to Ford, clearly wanting to be with Glenn. “Go!” I said, giving him a happy little push. “Tell Glenn I want to talk to him when he wakes up.”

His steps fast, Edden strode toward Glenn’s room. I sighed, glad this story would have a happy ending. I was tired of the other kind. Ford looked pleased, and that was good, too. His life must be hell. No wonder he didn’t tell anyone he could do this. They’d work him to death.

“What happened to Glenn’s mom?” I asked now that we were alone.

Ford watched Edden wave to the nurses as he passed beyond the wide, smooth door and into Glenn’s room. “She died fifteen years ago during a sixty-dollar stab-and-grab.”

That’s why he’s a cop, I thought. “They’ve had only each other for a long time,” I added, and Ford nodded, starting for the elevators. He looked whipped.

Ivy joined us after a last comment to the nurse. Falling into place on my other side, she looked across me to Ford. “What happened at the marina?” she asked as she shrugged into her long coat, and the afternoon’s memories rushed back.

Her tone was slightly mocking, and I gave her a sidelong glance. I knew she was secure in her belief that her slow, steady investigations would find Kisten’s killer faster than my reconstructing my memories. It was with no little pleasure that I glanced at Ford, then said to her, “Do you have time to go out tonight and smell the carpet?”

Ford chuckled, and Ivy stared, rocking to a halt at the elevators. “Excuse me?”

I punched the button for the lift. “Your nose is better than mine,” I said simply.

Ivy blinked, her face blanker than usual. “You found something the FIB missed?”

I nodded as Ford pretended not to listen. “There’s sticky silk stuck to the rim of the dresser’s top. There might be a print, ah, other than the one I made today. And the floor under the window smells like vampire. It’s not you or Kisten, so it might be his murderer.”

Again, Ivy stared, looking uncomfortable. “You can tell the difference?”

The elevator doors slid open, and we all entered. “Can’t you?” I said, backing up and pushing the button for the street level with a booted toe just because I could.

“I’m a vampire,” she said, as if this made all the difference.

“I’ve lived with you for over a year,” I said, wondering if I wasn’t supposed to be able to tell the difference. “I know what you smell like,” I muttered, embarrassed. “It’s no big deal.”

“Yes, it is,” she whispered as the doors closed, and I hoped Ford hadn’t heard.

I watched the numbers count down. “So you’ll go out tonight?”

Ivy’s eyes were black. “Yes.”

I stifled a shiver, glad when the doors opened to show the busy lobby. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” she said, her gray-silk voice so thick with anticipation that I almost pitied the vampire who had killed Kisten.

Almost.

Three

I gripped the wheel of my car tighter in annoyance as Jenks continued to sing. Though the sun was going down and the roads had an arid frozenness, the interior of the car was hot. I had half a mind to turn off the heat. Anything to get Jenks to shut up.

“Five trolls in dra-a-a-a-ag,” the four-inch man sang from my shoulder. “Four purple condoms, three French ticklers, two horny vamps, and a succubus in the snow.”

“Jenks, enough!” I shouted, and from the passenger seat, Ivy snickered, idly tracing a hand on the inside of the misted window to clear a spot from which to gaze out at the evening. The street was thick with holiday lights, and it was holy and serene, in a money-oriented, middle-class sort of way. Unlike Jenks’s carol. Which was thirteen-year-old humor to the max.

“‘On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me-’”

I checked behind me and thunked the brakes. Ivy, with her vamp reflexes, easily caught herself, but Jenks was catapulted from my shoulder. He short-stopped himself inches from the windshield. His dragonfly-like wings were a blur of red and silver, but not a shadow of dust slipped from him, saying he’d half expected this. The smirk on his angular face was classic Jenks.

“What…,” he complained, hands on his hips in his best Peter Pan pose.

“Shut. Up.” I rolled through the stop sign. It was icy. Safer that way. At least that was going to be my story if a zealous I.S. cop stopped me.

Jenks laughed, his high-pitched voice sounding right with the easy companionship that filled the car and the festive warmth displayed outside it. “That’s the trouble with you witches. No Christmas spirit,” he said, going to sit on the rearview mirror. It was his favorite spot, and I turned the heater down a smidge. He wouldn’t be there if he was cold.

“Christmas is over,” I muttered, squinting to see the street sign in the dusk. I was sure we were close. “I’ve got plenty of holiday spirit. It’s just not Christian in origin. And though I’m no expert, I don’t think the church would be happy with you singing about succubi.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said as he shifted the layers of green cloth Matalina had draped over him-her attempt at pixy winter wear. “They’d rather hear about rutting incubi.”

The pixy yelped, and I jumped when he darted off the mirror, Ivy’s hand just inches from smacking him. “Shut up, pixy,” the soft-spoken vamp said, her gray-silk voice severe. Her working leathers made her look like a biker chick gone sophisticate, slim and sleek, and her eyes were pupil black under her Harley-logo cap. Jenks took the hint, and muttering something it was probably just as well I didn’t hear, he settled on my big hoop earring to snuggle in between my neck and the soft red scarf I had worn for just this reason. I shivered when his wings brushed my neck, a whisper of chill that felt like water.

A sustained temperature below forty-five would send him into hibernation, but he could handle short, protected trips from the car to wherever. And after he’d found out about Glenn, there was no stopping him from coming out with us. If we hadn’t invited him to the crime scene, I’d find his half-frozen body in my shoulder bag as a stowaway. Frankly, I think he was out here trying to get away from his brood of kids, spending the winter in my desk.

Jenks, though, was worth five FIB investigators, and that was on a bad day. Pixies excelled in sneaking around, making them experts at finding the smallest thing out of place, their curiosity keeping them interested after everyone else had come and gone. Their dust didn’t leave a lasting impression, and their fingerprints were invisible unless you used a microscope, in my opinion making them excellent first-ins at a crime scene. ’Course, no one at the I.S. had cared what I thought, and it wasn’t often that a pixy would work in anything other than a temporary backup position anyway. That was how I’d met Jenks, and it had been my good fortune. I would’ve taken him with me to the boat earlier today, but he would have had severe problems with the temperature.

Ivy sat up, inadvertently telling me we were close, and I started paying attention to house numbers. It looked like a human neighborhood, on the outskirts of Cincinnati in what was probably a lower-to lower-middle-class neighborhood. It wasn’t a high-crime district, from the number of lights and the general tidiness of the homes, but it held a slightly rundown, soft comfortableness. I’d be willing to bet the area was mostly retirees or new families just starting out. It reminded me of the neighborhood I’d grown up in, and I could hardly wait until tomorrow when I’d be picking up my brother, Robbie, at the airport. He had worked through the solstice, but had somehow managed to get New Year’s off.

That the lights around me now were the green and red of Christmas didn’t mean it was a human neighborhood. Most vampires celebrated Christmas, and lots of humans celebrated the solstice. Ivy still had her tree up in the living room, and we exchanged presents when we felt like it, not on a specific date. Usually that was about an hour after I got back from shopping. Delayed gratification was Ivy’s thing, not mine.

“That’s got to be it,” Ivy said softly, and Jenks shivered his wings for warmth, tickling me. Down the street on the left was a cluster of FIB cruisers, parked with their lights off and looking gray in the dim light. At the corner in a drop of light, two people stood gossiping, their dogs tugging at their leashes to go in. There weren’t any news vans yet, but there would be. I could almost smell them.

Not an I.S. cruiser in sight, which was a relief since they’d probably send Denon out here. I hadn’t seen the living low-blood vampire since blowing apart his cover-up of the Were murderers last summer, and I’d be willing to bet that he had suffered another demotion. “Looks like the I.S. isn’t coming,” I said softly, and Ivy shrugged.

“Why would they? They don’t care if an FIB officer gets beat up.”

I pulled to the curb and parked the car. “They might if it was an Inderlander who did it.”

Jenks laughed. “Doubt it,” he said, and I felt a tug on my hat as he ducked under the soft yarn for the trip inside.

Unfortunately, he was right. Whereas the I.S. policed the supernatural species, they would, and did, ignore a crime if it suited them. Hence the human-run FIB that had come into being. I had once thought that the FIB was way outclassed by the I.S., but after working with them for a year, I was impressed and shocked by the information they could dig up and put together.

It had been only forty years ago during the Turn that the combined Inderland species of vamp, witch, Were, and more had actively lent a hand to prevent humans from becoming the latest endangered species when a badly engineered, genetically altered tomato mutated and wiped out a large chunk of the human population. Though to be honest, if humans had died out, most of Inderland would suffer when vamps started preying on us instead of soft, naive, happy humans. Not to mention that Mr. Joe Vampire and Ms. Sue Were liked their high-maintenance lifestyles, impossible without the backing of a large population.

“What are you doing?” Ivy said, her hand on the door as I fumbled around under the seat.

“I’ve got an FIB sign in here somewhere,” I muttered, fingers jerking back as they unexpectedly found something cold and squishy.

A closed-lipped smile came over Ivy. “The entire FIB knows your car.”

Making a soft sound of agreement, I gave up and tugged on my gloves. Yeah, they did, seeing that they’d given it to me in payment for helping them out once, something most of them seemed to be forgetting lately. “Ready, Jenks?” I called, and got a half-heard stream of curses back. Something about my cream rinse and puking fairies.

Ivy and I got out together. The excitement of a run hit me when the doors thumped shut. Standing by my car, I pulled the sharp, dry air all the way to the bottom of my lungs. The clouds had that solid feel that they only get right before a heavy snow, and I could smell the pavement, white with salt and so dry and cold it would burn your fingers if you touched it.

Heels snapping, Ivy came around the car, and I followed her to the small house. The crunchy five inches of snow had been packed down, but a sad-looking three-foot snowman presided over a corner of the yard, his face melted and his hat covering his eyes. The curtains were open, and the yellow rectangles of light on the snow were starting to become obvious. Red and green lights from a neighbor’s display made an odd counterpoint, and I could hear the conversation from the duo on the corner. Cold, I tugged my bag up higher as we walked.

More neighbors were coming out; I felt a surge of disgust when the slow-creeping lights of a van with an antenna showed under the streetlight.

Crap, they were here already? I’d wanted to talk to the neighbors before the interviewers had them thinking sensationalism instead of realism. I was sure Edden had interviewed the closest, but his people wouldn’t ask the questions I wanted answers to.

“There,” Ivy murmured, and I followed her gaze to the dark shadow coming out from the garage’s side door to meet us.

“Hey, hi!” I called out, pitching my voice high to give the impression we were harmless. Yeah, right. “Edden asked us to come out. We’re from Vampiric Charms.” Asked us? It was more like forced into it, but why bring that up.

The young FIB officer flicked on the outside lights, washing the crusty drive in an artificial glare. “Can I see some ID?” he asked, then did a double take. “Oh!” he said, tucking his clipboard back under an arm. “You’re the witch and the vamp.”

From my hat came a disgusted “And a really cold pixy. Can you hurry it up, Rache? I think my ’nads fell off.”

I stifled a grimace, pasting on a fake smile. I’d rather be known by our company name than “the witch and the vamp,” but at least Edden had told them we were coming. Maybe he wasn’t going to be such a pain in the butt about us helping. I watched the officer’s body language, but couldn’t tell if his impatience was from the FIB’s new distrust or simply the cold.

“Yes, Vampiric Charms. We’re here to help with the possible Inderland connection,” I said before Ivy could get all vampy. Her pulling an aura and scaring the crap out of him wouldn’t help-as entertaining as it might be.

“Can we go in?” Ivy asked with a faint promise of threat, and Jenks snickered.

“Sure.” The officer’s head was down as he wrote something. “Put on a pair of booties, okay?”

Ivy was halfway to the door off the garage, her motions stiff at his assumption that she didn’t know her way around a crime scene. I glanced back at the street, hesitating. The news crew had set up, and the huge light they had was gathering people like a bonfire. “Hey, uh, Ivy…,” I murmured, and she hesitated, a long, gloved hand resting on the open door.

She smiled with half her mouth. “You want to go talk to them?” I nodded, and she added, “You’ll be okay, Jenks?”

“Oh crap,” I swore under my breath. I’d forgotten about him.

“I’m fine!” he barked, and I felt a soft tug as he settled himself. “Nothing’s going to change inside, but I want to hear what the neighbors say. Gossip, Ivy. That’s where the truth is. It’s all about the gossip.”

I didn’t know about gossip, but if he said he’d be okay, I’d rather get first impressions than stale, regurgitated comments after everyone had had a chance to think.

Ivy frowned, clearly of the opinion that crimes were solved by carefully gathered evidence, not nebulous feelings and hunches. But with a shrug, she went inside and I headed out into the night.

Pace fast, I found a spot at the back of the growing crowd, trying to stay out of the camera’s line of sight. Jenks was probably hearing twice what I could, and I went on tiptoe to glimpse the man with red cheeks in the felt coat the newscaster was interviewing. I didn’t think it was live, seeing that it wasn’t six yet, and I eased closer, jostling for position.

“They were the nicest people,” the man was saying, his eyes bright with excitement. “Nice people. I never would have expected anything like this from them. They kept to themselves and were real quiet.”

My eyebrows rose, and Jenks snorted. Sounded like Inderlanders to me.

But then the kid next to me made a rude sound, and Jenks tugged my hair when the boy said snidely to his friend, “Like he knew him. The guy is a creep, and the woman is whacked.”

“Got it, Jenks,” I whispered so he would stop yanking on my hair. Slow and steady investigation was nice, but I wanted to find them before the sun went nova.

Smiling, I turned to find a young man in a black knit hat with the Howlers’ emblem, and encouraged by the show of Inderland acceptance, I felt an unusual surge of kinship. He wasn’t wearing a coat, and his hands were jammed into his jeans pockets. “Whacked?” I said, giving his friend a quick smile to include him in the conversation. “You think?”

“I know,” he shot back, then fidgeted. I was guessing he was in high school, and I turned the Mrs. Robinson charm on full.

“Yeah?” I said, almost bumping into him as the crowd grew noisy when the newscaster looked for fresh meat. “Don’t you love how they always say one thing in front of the camera, but at the bar, the truth comes out?”

He grinned, clearly thinking I thought he was older than he was. From under my hat came Jenks’s impressed “Nice. Reel him in, Rache.”

“So you know them?” I said, linking my arm in his and easing him from the news crew. I kept us close so as not to leave the highly charged atmosphere the news van was creating, angling so that if a camera should point our way, all they’d get would be my back. His friend had stayed behind, and was currently jumping to try to get in the background of the shot. He didn’t have a coat either, and I thought it unfair that they were warm and I was freezing my butt off out here. Witches had a lower cold tolerance than just about everyone else, excluding pixies.

“You’re not a reporter,” he said, and I smiled, glad he was smarter than I’d thought.

“I’m from Vampiric Charms,” I said, digging in my bag until I found a bent card and handed it to him. “I’m Rachel. Rachel Morgan.”

“Righteous!” he said, his face becoming animated. “My name is Matt. I live over there. Hey, I’ve heard of you,” he said, tapping the card against his hand. “Is that really you in that shot, being dragged down the street-”

“On my ass,” I finished for him, adjusting my hat to send a whiff of cold air under it to get Jenks to stop laughing. “Yeah, that’s me. But I don’t really summon demons.” Much.

“That’s cool. That’s cool,” he said, seeming to grow three inches taller. “You’re trying to find the Tilsons?”

A jolt of adrenaline made me shiver. Edden hadn’t told me their names. “More than just about anything. Do you know where they went?”

He shook his head, trying to look older than he was as he gave his friend a superior look. “No, but they are weird. The entire family. I mowed their lawn this summer. The guy is a janitor at my school. He says he’s allergic to grass.” Matt smirked. “He’s allergic to work if you ask me. But if you make him mad, stuff happens to you.”

My eyes widened. “Magic?” Were they Inderlanders, like Ivy thought?

Matt shook his head and looked ill. “No, stuff like your dog dying. But his wife is even weirder. I don’t see her much. She stays inside a lot with their kid. She talked with my mom once, and she wouldn’t let my mom touch her baby.”

“No kidding,” I said, hoping he’d say more.

“And that baby of theirs is just as freaky as they are,” he said, glancing at his friend. “Got these weird blue eyes that follow you around. She’s quiet, like she’s deaf or something. Her mom never puts her down. Mrs. Tilson wears the pants in the family, that’s for hell sure.”

“Is that so…,” I prompted, and Matt bobbed his head.

“Last year, someone put a firecracker in the can in the back toilet. Blew shit all over the place. Tilson was screaming about killing someone, so they sent him home. I mowed their lawn the next day. I was scared, man, but my dad made me. Tilson is nuts. He thought I knew who blew up the john and he pinned me against the fence. God, I thought I was going to die. But then she came out and he went all soft and stuff. He even apologized. Freakiest shit I’ve ever seen. She’s smaller than you, and all she did was say his name and he went all meek and shit.”

I blinked, my mind racing as I tried to figure it out. Mr. Tilson was a homicidal maniac with a chip on his shoulder. Mrs. Tilson was in charge. And the kid was weird. Living vampires, maybe?

“How old is the baby?” I asked, trying to keep him talking. This was pure gold.

Matt made a face. “I don’t know. A year? My mom says she’s going to be a spoiled brat and Mrs. Tilson shouldn’t wait five years before having another one, like she says she wants. Some kind of medical reason. She wants five or six kids, my mom says.”

“Five or six?” I said, truly surprised. Maybe the Tilsons were Weres and the woman was from a highly dominant pack. But why space them out over five years? “That’s a lot.”

“Yeah,” the kid said, scoffing. “I’m not having any kids. But if I do, I’m going to have them all right away. Get it over with. I don’t want to be sixty and changing diapers.”

I shrugged. There was eight years between me and Robbie, and I didn’t see anything wrong with it. He’d raised me as much as my parents, and I had no complaints. But my mom was a witch, so changing diapers at sixty was about the norm. Glenn’s attack was sounding more and more like an Inderland incident. “Thanks,” I said, suddenly wanting to get inside. Jenks was probably freezing. “I should get in there. But thank you. You really helped.”

The boy’s expression became disappointed, and I smiled. “Hey, I could use someone this spring to mow my graveyard.” I hesitated. “If you don’t think that’s too weird. My number is on the card.”

He beamed, fingering it. “Yeah, that would be great,” he said, then glanced at the house. “I don’t think my dad will let me mow their lawn anymore.”

“Call me, about April?” I said, and he nodded. “Thanks, Matt. You were a big help.”

“No problem,” he said, and I gave him a final smile and walked away. When I looked over my shoulder, he had his head bent to his friend’s, and they were ogling my phone number. “You okay, Jenks?” I said, hoofing it away from the lights and back to the garage. Damn, wait until Ivy heard what I’d found out.

“Yeah,” he said, gripping my hair harder. “But will you slow down? Unless you want pixy barf in your hair.”

Immediately I checked my pace, tripping when I took the curb without looking so I wouldn’t have to tilt my head. Jenks swore when I stumbled, but my pulse jackhammered when my head swung up. It wasn’t the almost-fall that shook me, but who was standing by my car, staring at it. Tom Bansen-it had to be-the same man who had tried to kill me by way of Al.

“Holy crap, it’s Tom,” I said, then shouted, “Get away from my car!” as I started to jog.

“Son of a fairy whore,” Jenks swore. “What’s he doing here?”

“I don’t know.” Caution slowed me down as I approached. “Better be quiet. If he knows you’re here, all he has to do is knock my hat off and Matalina is a single parent.”

Jenks became quiet. Tom continued to stand with his hands in his pockets, looking at my car as if debating something. Nervousness coated my anger as I halted a careful five feet back, puffing out white clouds in the streetlight and looking at the man like the snake he was. I’d heard he’d gotten fired from the I.S.-probably for the stupidity of being caught summoning demons to murder someone-but since I’d been the one Tom had been trying to off, the I.S. had done nothing more than that.

“What are you doing here?” I said, not anxious to have to defend myself, but not wanting to let him poke around in my car either.

The young man had a new hardness in his blue eyes as he stood on the shoveled sidewalk and looked speculatively at me in the lamplight. He was clearly cold in his parka and hat, the chill almost killing the redwood scent that all witches had. I’d once thought he was attractive in a tidy, almost-scholarly way-I still did, actually-but freeing Al to kill or abduct me had long since shifted the attraction to disgust.

“Trying to make a living,” he answered, a tinge of red showing on his cheeks. “I’ve been shunned, thanks to you.”

My jaw dropped and I backed up. I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t going to take the blame for it either. “I wasn’t the one kidnapping girls to pay demons for black curses,” I said. “Maybe you should rethink your logic, Sherlock.”

He smiled in a not-nice way. Turning as if to leave, he said, “I’ll be around if you want to talk.” I sputtered in disbelief at the invitation and he added, “Nice car,” before he walked away, hands still jammed into his big pockets.

“Hey!” I shouted, almost going after him, but the thought of his shunning and Jenks in my hat changed my mind. Rocking back on my boot heels, I exhaled loudly. Shunned? The coven of ethical and moral standards had shunned him? Damn! I hadn’t thought they’d go that far. Sure he summoned demons, but that didn’t get one shunned. It must have been kidnapping that girl for black magic. Shunning was exactly what it sounded like, and the man was in trouble. Getting the ethical and moral standards coven to reverse a decision was like surviving an I.S. death threat. He was absolutely cut off, and any witch associating with him ran the risk of being shunned in turn.

Making a living, I thought as I watched him. Tom had probably gone independent, seeing that the I.S. wouldn’t touch him now, even under the table. And looking like he was having a hard time of it, I added as he got into a rust-cut ’64 Chevy and drove away.

I headed for the Tilsons’ house, jerking to a halt at a sudden thought. Fingers fumbling in my bag, I pulled out my key ring and the lethal-magic detection amulet on it. The thing had saved my life a couple of times, and Tom had a vested interest in seeing me gone.

“Rache…,” Jenks complained as I started to make a slow circuit around my vehicle.

“You want to be blown up smaller than fairy dust?” I muttered, and he tugged on my hair.

“Tom’s a weenie,” the pixy protested, but I finished my circuit, breathing easier when the amulet stayed a nice, healthy green. Tom hadn’t spelled my car, but a sense of unease lingered, even as I turned to the cordoned-off house and crossed the street. And it wasn’t because I might have some competition in the independent-runner arena. My car had originally belonged to an I.S. agent who died in a car bombing. Not this car, obviously, but a bomb had killed him.

Just that fast, my life can end. Tom hadn’t left a charm on my car, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask Edden if he’d have one of his dogs sniff around it. Boot heels clacking, I reached the door off the garage and went inside. Jenks sighed heavily, but I didn’t care if I did look like a paranoid chicken when I asked Edden for a ride home.

I was done with being stupid about these kinds of things.

Four

The sudden cessation of wind as I passed into the garage was a blessed relief, and I paused, taking in the curious mix of space and clutter, the edges stacked with old boxes from grocery stores and mail-order places. Close to the steps leading inside were several large toys, bright with primary-colored plastic. The toddler sled had been used from the looks of it, but the rest was summer stuff. It had been a good Christmas, apparently.

Tracks of flattened snow showed where a big-assed truck had been on the otherwise swept cement. There wasn’t room for two vehicles, and I wondered if Mr. Tilson was overcompensating for something. ’Course, maybe it was Mrs. Tilson who had the truck fetish. I sniffed deeply for the scent of Inderlander, finding only the dry smell of old concrete and dust, and I shivered.

I eyed the storage boxes, remembering what my dad had once told me when I’d tried to get out of cleaning the garage. People put things in garages that they don’t want but can’t get rid of. Dangerous stuff, sometimes. Too dangerous to keep inside, and too dangerous to throw out and risk someone finding. Mr. and Mrs. Tilson had a very full garage.

“Come on, Rache!” Jenks complained, tugging on my hair. “I’m cold!”

Giving the boxes a last look, I went up the cement steps. The hum of a vacuum was a faint presence as I opened the cheerfully painted door and entered a seventies kitchen, nodding to the officer with a clipboard seated at the table. The window above the sink looked out over the front yard and the news van. A high chair done in pinks and yellows was pulled up beside the square table. A box of throw-away boot covers was on it, and I sighed, taking my gloves off and tucking them in my coat pockets.

Plush baby toys were in a large basket tucked neatly out of the way, and I could almost hear a contented, gurgling laughter. The sink held a bowl of cookie-dough-encrusted utensils. A dozen sugar cookies sat on the counter, cooling for the last eight hours. A tear-away tag was tied to the oven, the upper part signed and dated, with the time, stating that Officer Mark Butte had turned off the oven. The Tilsons had left in a hurry.

The kitchen was a curious mix of warmth and cold, the heater on to combat the in-and-out traffic, and I unzipped my coat. My first impression of the house was just as jumbled. Everything to make a home was here, but it felt…empty.

There was the chatter of work in the next room, and when I bent to put a blue bootie over my boot, Jenks shot out from under my hat. “Holy crap!” he swore, flitting over the entire kitchen in three seconds, giving the seated officer a coronary. “It smells like green baby paste in here. Hey, Edden!” he said louder. “Where you at?” And he darted out, his wings a gray blur.

From deeper in the house came an exclamation as Jenks probably startled another FIB officer. A set of heavy steps approached, and I straightened. I’d gotten my boots at Veronica’s Crypt, and covering them in blue paper should be outlawed.

Edden’s squat figure suddenly took up the archway to the rest of the house. Jenks was on his shoulder, and the FIB captain looked better now that he was doing something to help his son. He nodded to the seated officer and smiled briefly at me, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He was still in his street clothes. In truth, he probably shouldn’t be out here, but no one was going to tell him he couldn’t oversee the investigation of his son’s mauling.

“Rachel,” he said in greeting, and I coyly waved a bootie-covered foot at him.

“Hi, Edden. Can I come in?” I asked, hardly sarcastic at all.

He frowned, but before he could start in on me about my lousy investigation techniques, I remembered Tom in the street. “Hey, can I ask a favor?” I said hesitantly.

“You mean more than letting you in here?” he said so dryly that I was sorely tempted to tell him about the sticky silk at Kisten’s boat, which they’d missed, but I held my tongue, knowing he’d find out about it tomorrow after Ivy had had a chance to go out.

“I’m serious,” I said as I undid my scarf. “Can someone check out my car?”

The squat man’s eyebrows rose. “Having trouble with the transmission?”

I flushed, wondering if he knew I was the one who’d trashed it while learning how to drive a stick shift. “Uh, I saw Tom Bansen at my car. Maybe I’m being paranoid-”

“Bansen?” he blurted out, and Jenks nodded from his shoulder. “This is the same witch you tagged in his basement for summoning demons?”

“He was looking at my car,” I said, thinking it sounded lame. “He said something about making a living, and seeing that there are lots of people who want to see me, uh, dead…” I let my thought trail off. I kept to myself that he’d been shunned and Jenks didn’t say a word. It was a witch thing. When someone got shunned, it was an embarrassment to all of us. “I checked for lethal charms, but I wouldn’t know a car bomb from an odometer cable.”

The FIB captain’s expression grew hard. “No problem. I’ll have the dog unit come out. Actually…” He looked at the seated officer and smiled. “Alex, go wait by Ms. Morgan’s car for the explosives team.”

The man stiffened, and I winced apologetically. “Don’t let anyone get within ten feet,” Edden continued. “It might turn you into a toad if you touch it.”

“It will not,” I complained, thinking being a toad might be pleasant compared to what Tom could probably do.

Edden shook his head. “There is a news van in the street. I’m not taking any chances.”

Jenks snickered, and I warmed. Chances were good nothing was wrong with my car, and I felt like a baby, but Edden’s hand on my shoulder made me feel better. All the way up until he turned me back to the kitchen’s door and Alex’s retreating back. “Maybe Alex should take you home right now,” he said, “so he can check out your church. For your own safety.”

Oh for God’s sake, he’s trying to get rid of me. “That’s why we’ve got a gargoyle in the eaves,” I said sharply, and slipping out from under him, I resolutely paced deeper into the house. Take me home for my own safety, my ass. He was letting Ivy stay. Why couldn’t I?

“Rachel,” Edden protested, his compact bulk spinning to follow.

Jenks laughed, taking to the air and saying, “Give it up, FIB man. It’ll take more than you to get her out. Remember what Ivy and I did to your finest last spring? Add Rachel to that, and you can say your prayers.”

From behind me came Edden’s dry “You think Ivy wants another stint as a candy striper?” But I was here and he was going to let me in on the evidence-gathering part of things. The FIB was confident that Mr. Tilson had attacked Glenn, seeing that it was his house, but his lawyer might try to pass it off on a burglar or something else. Not cool.

“Nice house,” I said, eyes roving over the bright walls, low ceilings, and clean but worn carpet. We passed a short hallway, then stepped down into a large living room. Immediately I stopped. “Oh my God,” I said, taking it in. “They have shag carpet.” Green shag carpet. This might be why Mr. Tilson was nuts. It would make me nuts.

There were only a few FIB personnel still here doing their FIB thing. One of them flagged Edden over, and he left me with a stern look that said not to touch anything. The faint tickle of fingerprint dust caught in my nose. Ivy was in the corner with a tall woman who, by the twin cameras draped over her, had to be the photographer. They were both looking at her laptop and the shots she had taken earlier.

It was bright and overly warm, and Jenks left Edden to park it on the top of the curtains. Warmer up there, probably. The FIB had been here most of the day before letting us in here, not wanting to chance my messing up their precious virgin site, but it still looked raw to me.

The green-tiled coffee table between the olive-and-orange-striped couch and the brick fireplace-painted to match the floor, incidentally-was on its side and shoved into the raised hearth. The curtains over the wide windows were open to the backyard. God help me but the curtains matched the putrid color combination. Looking at everything, I started to feel nauseous, as if the seventies had taken refuge here against extinction and were preparing to take over the world.

There was no blood except a small splatter against the couch and wall, an ugly brown against the yellowish green paint. From Glenn’s broken nose, perhaps? An armchair had been shoved into an upright piano, and loose-leaf sheets of music were stacked on the bench. Leaning up against the wall by the large window overlooking the snow-covered swing set was a picture. It had fallen turned against the wall, and I wanted to see what it was in the worst way.

A Christmas tree was propped up in the corner, disheveled and clearly having fallen at some point if the dark spot on the rug where the water had drained out wasn’t enough of a clue. There were a lot of decorations for one room, and they were a curious mix of style. Most were the inexpensive, mass-produced variety, but there was what was probably a two-hundred-dollar snow globe and an antique Tiffany-style mistletoe display. Weird.

Three stockings hung from the mantel, and these, too, looked expensive-too classy for most of the decorations. Only the smallest had a name. HOLLY. The baby’s probably. The mantel was empty of pictures, which I thought was odd seeing as there was a new baby in the house. The top of the piano was bare as well.

Jenks had dropped down to talk with the guy at the piano. Ivy had her head next to the photographer’s. Edden wasn’t paying me any attention. Everyone looked busy, so I wandered to the fireplace and ran a finger over the smooth wood for evidence that the mantel had once held pictures. No dust.

“Hey!” the man with Edden exclaimed. “What do you think you’re doing?” His face red, he glanced at Edden, clearly ticked off because he wanted to kick me out but couldn’t.

Faces turned, and embarrassed, I backed up. “Sorry.”

Ivy glanced up from the laptop in the sudden quiet. Both she and the photographer wore questioning expressions as they stared at me, looking like yin and yang with Ivy’s short black hair and the photographer’s long blond tresses. I remembered seeing the photographer at Trent’s stables, taking pictures, but Ivy hadn’t been there, and I wondered how she had gotten chummy enough in fifteen minutes to have their heads together discussing the niceties of angles and shadows.

Almost smiling, Edden harrumphed. Head bowed and stubby-fingered hand in the air to say he was taking care of it, he rocked into motion. Ivy gave the photographer one of our cards, then crossed the room to join me. Jenks landed on her shoulder halfway there, and I saw her lips move in a soft comment that made the pixy laugh.

By the time they all reached me, I had cocked my hip and crossed my arms over my chest. “I’m not going to touch anything else!” I exclaimed, wondering if the harsh expressions on the FIB officers’ faces were for me breaking protocol or a lingering doubt about my involvement in Kisten’s death. I knew Edden had done his best to squelch it, but that meant little to a lifetime of prejudice.

Rolling his eyes at Ivy, Edden took my elbow to lead me into the hallway. Ivy, too, was smiling, but as soon as the privacy of the hall took us, she became serious. “Rachel’s here now, so how about showing us where Glenn was beat up?” she asked, surprising me.

“That’s it,” Edden said, glancing past me and into the living room. “Everything else looks untouched.”

I jerked my elbow from Edden and leaned against the wall. Jenks’s wings clattered as he flew to snuggle in my scarf, and Ivy shook her head. “There isn’t enough emotion in the room for someone having been mauled,” she said. “You say it happened this morning? No way.”

Edden’s face scrunched up, and I looked at Ivy. A vampire could read the pheromones left in a room, giving a qualitative, though not terribly quantitative, impression of the emotions that had been given free rein. By the way Edden looked, I guessed he knew about the ability but didn’t trust it. Neither did the courts, disallowing a vampire’s testimony unless they were trained, registered, and attended quarterly calibration seminars. Ivy didn’t, but if she said there wasn’t a sign of a struggle here, then I’d believe her over a blood-splattered wall.

“The rest of the house is undisturbed,” he said, and Ivy frowned. “Do you want me to tell you what we do know while we tour the house for signs of…emotion?” he finished, and I smirked. Wait until they heard what I found out. But Ivy shot me a look to shut up, and my breath slipped from me. Okay…I’ll wait.

“I’m listening,” she said to Edden as she went down the short hall. Her stride was long and confident, and the man toting the FIB evidence vacuum pressed into the wall to let her pass. She went first into a tidy, opulent bedroom with pillows, rich drapes, rugs, and beautiful things arranged on what looked like an antique carved bedroom set. Drawers were open and the closet clearly had hangers missing. The rich femininity didn’t match the rest of the house. Not at all. Well, except for the snow globe, stockings, and mistletoe display.

“The mortgage is in Mr. and Mrs. Tilson’s names,” Edden said, his hands in his pockets as he rocked back on his heels, clearly not interested in the incongruity of decorating styles. “They’re human,” he added, and I almost blurted, No they aren’t, biting my tongue instead.

“He and his wife bought the house about a year and a half ago,” Edden continued, and Jenks snorted, silent to all but me. “She’s a stay-at-home mom caring for their daughter, but we’ve found that Holly is registered at three day cares. Mr. Tilson works as a janitor, retired from being a science teacher in Kentucky. Took early retirement, I guess, and wanted something to do and to supplement his pension.”

Like clean crap from the walls of the boys’ bathroom? Yeah, that sounded right.

“We have a tap on the phone and we’re watching the credit cards,” Edden was saying as Ivy skulked around the room. “There’s no extended family that we know of yet on either side, but everyone is out for the holidays and it’s taking a long time to get anything.”

His words broke off suddenly, and he stared at me. “Why are you smiling?”

Immediately I forced my expression to go innocent. “No reason. What else have you got?”

“Very little.” He eyed me. “We’ll find them.”

Ivy eased around the carved furniture like a shadow, using a pen to shift the curtains and nodding at the security-system sticker on the window. Her sleek leather made her look like a well-paid assassin against the elegant surroundings hidden inside the depths of the house. Someone had excellent tastes and I didn’t think it was Mr. Tilson the janitor. Mr. Tilson the hit man, maybe.

“Here’s a recent picture,” Edden said, handing me a piece of paper with a copy of Tilson’s school ID. Jenks startled me when he vaulted from the folds of soft yarn to hover over the nine-by-eleven paper. The face not smiling back at me was blurry, but according to the tag he was blond and blue eyed. There were some wrinkles, but not a lot, and he had a receding hairline.

“Pretty harmless looking for someone who can beat up an FIB detective,” Jenks said.

“It’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for,” I murmured, silently asking Jenks if he was done before handing the paper back to Edden. Ivy hadn’t come over to look, so she’d probably seen it already.

“We don’t have anything yet on Mrs. Tilson,” Edden said, starting when Ivy jerked into a fast pace and left the room. “But we’re working on it.”

His last words were rather distant, and I could guess why. Ivy was edging into the eerie vamp quickness she took pains to hide from me. Her unnerving speed aside, I enjoyed seeing her like this, wrapped up in thinking. Work was the only time she let herself forget the misery of her wants and needs and found a feeling of self-worth.

Edden followed me into the hallway. It wasn’t hard to figure out where Ivy had gone. Jenks had already flown past the open door to the bathroom, and there was a frightened, older FIB officer leaning against a wall at the end of the hall.

“She in there?” Edden asked the man, who clearly had not been expecting an intense vampire in leather to burst in on him. Edden gave the sweating man a pat on the shoulder. “Will you find out if the fingerprints have been sent off yet?”

The officer walked away gratefully, and Edden and I entered what was clearly the baby’s room.

If Ivy looked out of place in the bedroom, she looked like she was from Mars next to the crib, frilly lace curtains, and brightly colored expensive toys. The child had been lavished with attention, from the looks of it. And where Ivy stuck out, Jenks fit right in, hovering with his hands on his hips and staring in disgust at a framed shot of Tinker Bell.

“We’re gathering information for a trial more than searching for a way to find them,” Edden said to keep the conversation going and cover the pain in the back of his eyes. “I’m not letting a lawyer uphold the Constitution so far that we have to let them go.”

I jumped when one of the toys burst into music. Jenks just about hit the ceiling in a cloud of dust, clearly the guilty party.

“You can’t pack up a baby and go that fast without leaving a trail,” I said, adrenaline flooding me. “I heard the woman dotes on her kid.” I gazed at the mounds of toys. “All you’ll have to do is post a man at the toy store. You’ll have them in a week.”

“I want them now,” Edden said grimly. The music cut off, and seeing Jenks hovering miserably in the middle of the room, Edden added, “Don’t worry, Jenks. We were done here.”

Oh, sure, I get yelled at, and the pixy gets told it doesn’t matter. But as Ivy poked around, I drifted to the books in the overstuffed rocking chair, smiling at a familiar title. I reached for them, not wanting to leave this spot of innocence and good taste. A feeling of melancholy had overtaken me. I knew it was from my dilemma about having kids. If it had just been my blood disease, I might have taken my chances, but I couldn’t face my children being demons.

I had let the hide-and-seek book slip from my fingers when Ivy gingerly came to a halt among the stuffed animals and pastel colors, standing as if the soft domesticity might be catching. “Is this the last room?” she asked, and when Edden nodded with a tired motion, she added, “Are you sure Glenn wasn’t attacked somewhere else and dropped here?”

“Pretty sure. His prints on the walk come right to the door.”

Her calm face showed a glimmer of anger. “There’s nothing in this room either,” she said softly. “Nothing. Not even a whisper from a cranky baby.”

Seeing her ready to go, I stacked the books on a small table. The thump of a small cardboard doll hitting the floor drew my attention, and I picked it up. The lavish hide-and-seek book was extravagant for a small house in a depressed neighborhood, but after seeing the bedroom, I wasn’t surprised. It was obvious they spared no expense when it came to their kid. Nothing fit. Nothing made sense.

Jenks flitted to Ivy’s shoulder, clearly trying to cheer her up. She was having none of it and waved him away. Edden waited for me by the door as I leafed through the book to put the doll back. But there was already a hard bump in the pocket where it belonged.

“Just a minute,” I said, using two fingers to dig it out. I didn’t know why, but the doll needed to go back in her bed and I was the only one who could do it. That’s what the oversize print said. And I was feeling melancholy. Edden could wait.

But when my fingertips connected with the smooth bump in the pocket, I jerked my hand out, jamming my fingers into my mouth before I knew what I was doing. “Ow!” I yelped from around my fingers, then stared at the book, now fallen onto the chair.

Edden’s face became wary, and Jenks flew to me. Ivy stopped dead on the threshold, staring with eyes black from the surge of adrenaline I’d given off. Embarrassed, I took my fingers out of my mouth and pointed. “Something’s in there,” I said, feeling quivery inside. “It moved. Something is in that book! And it’s furry.” And warm, and it shocked the hell out of me.

Ivy came back in, but it was Edden who took his pen and stuck it in the pocket. The three of us crouched over the book while Jenks stood nearby and bent to look in.

“It’s a stone,” he said as he straightened, looking at me quizzically. “A black stone.”

“It was furry!” I backed up a step. “I felt it move!”

Edden wedged the pen in, and a black crystal came sliding out to glint dully in the electric light. “There’s your mouse,” he said dryly, and I felt the blood fall to my feet as I recognized it.

It was a banshee tear. It was a freaking banshee tear.

“That’s a banshee tear,” both Ivy and I said together, and Jenks gave a little yelp, taking flight to flit madly between me and Ivy until he finally landed on my shoulder.

I stepped back, wringing my hand as if I could erase having touched it. Damn, I’d touched a banshee tear. Double damn, it was probably evidence.

“It felt furry?” the pixy said, and I nodded, eyeing my fingers. They looked okay, but it had been a banshee tear, and it gave me the creeps.

Edden’s expression of confusion slowly cleared. “I’ve heard of these,” he said, tapping it with his pen tip. Then he straightened to his entire height and looked me directly in the eye. “This is why there’s no emotion here, isn’t it.”

I nodded, deciding this was why it looked like a home, but didn’t feel like it. The banshee tear explained everything. The love had been sucked right out. “They leave them where there’s likely to be a lot of emotion,” I said, wondering why Ivy had gone pale. Well, paler than usual. “Sometimes they will tip the scales and make things worse-sort of push everyone to a higher pitch. The tear soaks everything up, and then the banshee comes back to collect it.” And I had touched it. Euwie.

“A banshee did this?” Edden said, his anger slipping through a crack in his veneer of calm. “Made that man hurt my son?”

“Probably not,” I said, thinking about what Matt had told me and glancing at Ivy. “If Mrs. Tilson was cheating on her husband, that’s reason enough for a banshee to leave a tear. I bet she got it in here by posing as a babysitter or something.”

I looked at the tear, heavy and dark with the stored emotion of Glenn’s mauling-and I shivered, remembering how warm it had felt. “The I.S. has a record on every banshee in Cincinnati,” I said. “You can analyze the tear, find out who made it. The banshee might know where they went. They usually choose their victims carefully and will follow them from place to place if the pickings are good. Though they prefer to feed passively, they can suck a person dry in seconds.”

“I thought that was illegal.” Edden slid the crystal into an evidence bag and sealed it.

“It is.” Ivy’s voice was mild, but I thought she looked ill.

Jenks was picking up on her mood, too. “You okay?” he said, and she blinked her softly almond-shaped eyes once.

“No,” she said, her gaze falling to the tear. “Even if Mrs. Tilson was cheating on her husband, the suspect knew exactly where to hit Glenn to hurt but not maim. The house is clean to the point of obsession, but there’s too much money being spent on the little girl and the wife for him to be a wife beater. The man doesn’t even have a remote for the TV, for God’s sake,” she said, pointing to the unseen living room, “yet they have silk sheets and a baby computer.”

“You think the woman beat him up?” I interrupted, and Ivy frowned.

Edden, though, was interested. “If she was an Inderlander, maybe a living vampire, she could do it. She’d know how to induce pain without damage, too.”

Ivy make a noise of negation. “I’d be able to smell it if a vampire had visited, much less lived here,” she said, but I had my doubts. Last year, I would have said it was impossible to make a charm to cover an Inderlander’s scent from another Inderlander, but my mom had spelled my dad into smelling like a witch for their entire marriage.

I stood there and tried to figure it out, both Jenks and me jumping when Edden clapped his hands once. “Out,” he said suddenly, and I protested when he manhandled me into the hall. “Ivy, you and Jenks can stay, but, Rachel, I want you out.”

“Wait a minute!” I complained, but he kept me moving, yelling for someone to bring the vacuum. Ivy just shrugged, giving me an apologetic smile.

“Sorry, Rachel,” Edden said when we reached the activity of the living room, his brown eyes glinting with amusement. “You can poke around in the garage if you want.”

“Excuse me?” I exclaimed. He knew I hated the cold. It was an offer that really wasn’t one. “How come Ivy gets to stay and help?”

“Because Ivy knows how to handle herself.”

That was just rude. “You suckwad! I’m the one who found the tear!” I said as I stood in the archway to the living room and watched everyone buzz about the new development. Several heads turned, but I didn’t care. I was being gotten rid of.

Edden’s face darkened with emotion, but his next words were postponed when Alex, the officer he had sent to watch my car, came in, cold on his breath and snow on his boots. “Ah, they won’t be able to have a dog out to look at your car for a couple of hours,” he said nervously, seeing Edden’s anger directed at me. “There’s a big Brimstone bust out at the Hollows airport.”

I jumped as, suddenly, Ivy was next to me. “What’s wrong with your car?” she asked, and I let my air out in a huff.

“Tom Bansen was standing next to it,” I said. “I’m being paranoid.”

Ivy smiled. “Don’t worry about him,” she said. “You’re under Rynn Cormel’s protection. He wouldn’t dare.”

Unless the vampires want me dead, I thought, then turned back to Edden. “Edden…,” I complained, but the squat man put a hand on my shoulder and moved me to the kitchen.

“Alex, take Ms. Morgan home,” he said. “Rachel, I’ll call you if we need you. If you don’t want to leave, you can wait in the kitchen, but it’s going to be hours. Probably not until tomorrow. You might as well go home.”

He wasn’t telling Ivy to go home. I took a breath to whine some more, but someone had called his name, and he was gone, leaving only the faint scent of coffee.

A familiar wing clatter drew my attention to Jenks, sitting on top of a picture frame, and he dropped to me. “Sorry, Rache,” he said, and I slumped back into the wall, disgusted.

“I’m staying,” I said, loud enough for everyone to hear, and Alex exhaled in relief, going to stand over a heating vent. “How come Ivy gets to help?” I asked Jenks, already knowing the answer and envious of how she, a vampire who had once beaten up an entire floor of FIB guys, was fitting in better than me, a witch who had helped them bring in the city’s master vampire in their own back room. It wasn’t my fault Skimmer killed him.

Hell, I thought. Maybe I should take some classes on crime scene protocol. Anything would be better than standing on the sidelines and watching everyone else play. I was not a bench warmer. Not by a long shot.

Jenks landed on my shoulder in a show of support. I knew he wanted to help, and I appreciated his loyalty. At his movement, Edden looked up from his cell phone. “Is your finger okay?” he asked suddenly, and I glanced at it. It looked fine.

Not answering him, I pushed from the wall and stomped out. Jenks rose to follow me at head height into the empty kitchen. “Rache…,” he started, and I grimaced.

“Stay with Ivy if you want,” I said bitterly, zipping up my coat and wrapping my scarf around my neck. I wasn’t going home. Not yet. “I’ll be in the garage.”

His tiny features became relieved. “Thanks, Rache. I’ll let you know what we find out,” he said, slipping a trail of gold dust as he zipped back to the nursery.

It’s so unfair, I thought as I took my blue booties off. So my protocol sucked dishwater. I was getting results faster than a houseful of FIB agents. Leaving, I slammed the screen door and stomped down the cement steps. Home. Yeah. Maybe I’d make cookies. Gingerbread men with little FIB badges. Then I’d bite their freaking heads off. But when my feet hit the cement floor, I slowed. Oh, I was still mad, but Edden had said I could look through the garage. I thought he’d offered only because he knew it was too cold, but why not?

Hands on my hips, I used a boot tip to unwedge the informal closure on the nearest box. It popped open to show a mishmash of stuff that looked like classic post-yard-sale clutter: books, knickknacks, photo albums, and several cameras. Expensive ones.

“Photo albums?” I questioned, looking at the silent walls. Who keeps their photo albums in the garage? Maybe it was temporary, for Christmas, to make room for all the baby toys.

I moved to the next box, slipping on my gloves for warmth as I opened it to find more books and clothes from the seventies-explaining their living room, perhaps. Under it was another box that contained last year’s styles. I held up the first-a dress that I might find in my mother’s closet-thinking that Mrs. Tilson must have been heavy once. The dress was way bigger than me, but not a maternity cut. It didn’t match Matt’s description. It didn’t match what I’d seen in the open closet, either.

Frowning, I put the dress back, digging to the bottom to find a stack of yearbooks. “Bingo,” I whispered, kneeling to feel the cold cement go right through my jeans. I didn’t have to wait until Edden’s office dug up a photo of them. I could see for myself.

My knees were cramping, so I pulled the kiddie sled over and sat on it, knees almost to my ears as I leafed through a yearbook with CLAIR SMITH penciled on the front flap. Clair had graduated from a high school a few hundred miles upstate, and was apparently popular if the overwhelming number of signatures meant anything. Lots of promises to write. Apparently she toured Europe before going to college.

There was another yearbook from a local college where she’d gotten her four-year journalism degree, majoring in photography, and had met Joshua, according to the hearts and flowers around his signature. My gaze slid to the box of albums. So maybe it was school stuff. It might explain the cameras, too.

She was a member of the photography club in high school, and had graduated in ’82. I stared at the picture of the young woman standing on the bleachers surrounded by awkward teenagers, my finger resting on her name. Unless there was a misprint, Clair was a rather round young woman with a cheerful smile, not the slight, mild woman Matt had described. She wasn’t fat, but she wasn’t my size either. And if she’d graduated in ’82, that would make her…over forty now?

I felt my face lose its expression, and I turned to look at the wall of the house as if I could pull Ivy out here with my thoughts. Over forty with one kid and wanting five more? Spacing them five years apart?

She had to be an Inderlander. Witches lived a hundred and sixty years and could have kids the entire span, apart from twenty years on either side. Maybe that was the source of strife? Mr. Tilson found out his wife was a witch? But it didn’t smell like a witch lived here. Or a vampire. Or a Were.

I exhaled, setting the book aside and shuffling until I found one with JOSHUA TILSON printed on the front cover. His school had splurged for real fake-leather bindings. Nice.

Joshua had graduated from Kentucky State the same year as Clair. I thumbed through the pages, looking for him. My lips parted, and a chill tightened my muscles. Slowly I brought the page closer to my nose, wishing the light were brighter out here. Joshua didn’t look anything like the photo Edden had shown me.

My eyes went to the surrounding stuff, then remembered Edden’s comments about Mr. Tilson retiring. Then Matt’s complaint that the same man ought to be able to mow his own lawn, the rage Mr. Tilson had fallen into, how young his family was, and how they were going to have lots more kids. Stuff in the garage they didn’t want in the house but couldn’t risk throwing away.

I didn’t think Mr. and Mrs. Tilson were the people who lived here. They were someone else and couldn’t risk being found out by calling the ambulance, so they had fled.

I shivered, the motion reaching all the way to my fingertips. “I-i-i-i-ivy-y-y-y-y!” I shouted. “Ivy! Come see this!”

I listened to the silence for a moment. She wasn’t coming. Annoyed, I got up, book in hand. My knees were stiff from the cold, and I almost fell, jerking myself straight when Ivy poked her head out.

“Find something?” she said, amusement in her dark eyes.

Not “Are you still here?” or “I thought you left,” but “Find something?” And her amusement wasn’t at my expense, but Edden’s, who was now behind her.

I smiled, telling her I had indeed found something. “Glenn wasn’t beaten up by Mr. Tilson,” I said smugly.

“Rachel…,” Edden started, and I triumphantly held up the yearbook and came forward.

“Have you gotten your fingerprints back yet?” I asked.

“No. It’s going to be almost a week-”

“Be sure to check them against known Inderland criminal offenders,” I said, shoving the book at him, but Ivy took it. “You won’t find them matching up to Mr. Tilson’s record, and that’s assuming he has one. I think the Tilsons are dead, and whoever is living here took their names along with their lives.”

Five

Thanks, Alex!” I shouted, waving to the FIB officer as he drove down the shadowy, snow-quiet street to leave me standing on the sidewalk outside our church. Ivy was already halfway up the walk, anxious to be on her own turf where she had her ironclad ways of coping. She’d been quiet all the way home, and I didn’t think it was from us needing a ride because I was too chicken to open my car door and see if I exploded.

Alex’s taillights flashed as he rolled through a stop sign at the end of the road, and I turned away. The church that Ivy, Jenks, and I lived in was lit up and serene, the colors bleeding out of the stained-glass windows and onto the untouched snow in a fabulous swirl. I studied the roofline to try to spot Bis, our resident gargoyle, but there was nothing between the white puffs of my breath. The church was pretty with its Christmas and solstice decorations of live garlands and cheerful bows, and I smiled, glad to live in such a unique place.

This last fall, Jenks had finally fixed the spotlights angling onto the steeple, and it added to the beauty. The building hadn’t been used as a church for years, but it was sanctified-again. Ivy had originally chosen the church to operate our runner firm from to tick off her undead mother, and we’d never moved to more professional digs when the opportunity had arisen. I felt safe here. So did Ivy. And Jenks needed the garden out back to feed his almost four dozen kids.

“Hurry up, Rache,” Jenks complained from under my hat. “I’ve got icicles hanging.”

Smirking, I followed Ivy up the walk to the worn front steps. Jenks had been silent on the ride home, too, and I’d have almost been willing to find out what happened on the ninth day of Christmas just so I wouldn’t have had to keep the conversation going with Alex all by myself. I couldn’t tell if my roommates, Ivy especially, had been thinking or just mad.

Maybe she thought I’d shown her up by discovering that the Tilsons were impostors before she had. Or maybe she was upset that I wanted her to go out to Kisten’s boat. She’d loved him, too. Loved him more deeply than me, and longer. I’d have thought she’d be eager for the chance to find his killer and the vampire who had tried to turn me into a blood toy.

Ivy’s pace ground to a stop on the salted steps, and my head came up when a soft curse slipped from her. Halting, I sent my gaze to follow hers to our business sign, over the door. “Damn it all to the Turn and back,” I whispered, seeing the spray-painted Black Wit and a half-scripted c trailing down the brass plaque to drip onto the twin oak doors.

“What is it?” Jenks shrilled, unable to see and tugging on my hair.

“Someone redecorated the sign,” Ivy said blandly, but I could tell she was mad. “We need to start leaving some lights on,” she muttered, yanking open the door and going inside.

“Lights?” I exclaimed. “The place is already lit up like a…a church!”

Ivy was inside, and I stood there with my hands on my hips, getting more and more pissed. It was an attack on me, and I felt it to my core after the hint of FIB animosity at the crime site. Son of a bitch.

“Bis!” I shouted as I looked up and wondered where the little guy was. “You out here?”

“Rache,” Jenks said as he tugged on my hair. “I gotta check on Matalina and my kids.”

“Sorry,” I muttered. Pulling my coat tight about me, I passed into the church and yanked the door shut. Angry, I let the locking bar thump down, though technically we were open until midnight. There was a soft lifting of my hat, and Jenks darted off into the sanctuary. I slowly took my hat off and hung it on the hook, my mood easing at the high-pitched chorus of hello-o-os from his kids. It had taken me four hours to scrape the paint from the brass the last time. Where in hell was Bis? I hoped he was okay. The “artists” had clearly been interrupted.

Maybe I should spell the sign, I thought, but I didn’t think there was a charm to make metal impervious to paint. I could put a black spell on it to give whoever touched it acne, but that would be illegal. And despite what the graffiti said, I was a white witch, damn it.

The warmth of the church soaked into me as I hung my coat on a peg. Past the dark shadow of the windowless foyer was my desk, at the back of the sanctuary where the altar used to be, the oak rolltop currently covered with plants and serving as a winter home for Jenks and his family. It was safer than hibernating in the stump in the backyard, and since I didn’t ever use my desk, it was only a matter of enduring the indignity of finding pixy girls playing in my makeup or using the hair in my brush to fashion hammocks.

Across from my desk was an informal grouping of furniture around a low coffee table. There was a TV and a stereo, but it was more of a place to interview clients than a real living room. Our undead patrons had to come around to the back and the unsanctified part of the church and our more private living room. That’s where Ivy’s Christmas tree was, with one present still under it. After ruining David’s coat trying to tag Tom, I’d had to get him a new one. He was in the Bahamas right now, at an insurance seminar with the ladies.

One front corner of the church held Ivy’s baby grand piano-out of sight from where I now stood-and across from that, a mat where I’d taken to exercising when Ivy was out. Ivy went to the gym to keep her figure. At least that’s where she said she was going when she left anxious and came home rested, relaxed, and satiated. In the middle of it all was Kisten’s battered pool table, rescued from the curb whereas Kisten himself hadn’t been.

My mood slowly shifted from anger to melancholy as I took off my boots and left them under my coat. A passel of Jenks’s kids were in the open rafters singing carols, and it was hard to stay upset with their ethereal three-part harmony mixing with the smell of brewing coffee.

Coffee, I thought as I flopped onto the couch and pointed the remote at the stereo. Crystal Method filled the air, fast and aggressive, and I tossed the remote to the table and put my feet up, out of the draft. Coffee would make everything better, but I probably had at least five minutes until it was done. After that close ride in the cop car, Ivy needed some space.

Jenks dropped down onto the elaborate centerpiece Ivy’s dad had brought over one night. The thing was all glitter and gold, but Jenks went well with it, standing on the painted sticks that looped in and around. He had one of his kids with him; the little pixy boy had his wings glued shut again, tear tracks giving away his misery.

“Don’t let it get to you, Rache,” Jenks said as he sifted dust from himself and wedged it in the fold his son’s wings made. “I’ll help you clean the paint off tomorrow.”

“I can do it,” I muttered, not relishing the idea that whoever put it up there would probably do a drive-by to see me busting my ass on a ladder. Jenks helping me was a nice thought, but no way would it be warm enough.

“I don’t get it,” I complained, then did a double take at the tiny cutout snowflakes now decorating the windows. That’s why the glue. They were the size of my pinkie nail, and were the sweetest things I’d ever seen. “No one cares about the good stuff I do,” I said as Jenks’s son squirmed under his dad’s attention. “So what if I had to summon a demon if it all ended well? I mean, you tell me Cincinnati isn’t better without Piscary. Rynn Cormel is a way better crime boss than he was. Ivy likes him, too.”

“You’re right,” the pixy said as he gently pulled his son’s wings apart. Behind him, Rex, Jenks’s cat, peeked in from the dark foyer, pulled from the belfry by the sound of her four-inch master’s voice. Just last week, Jenks had installed a cat door in the belfry stairway, tired of asking one of us to open the door for his cat. The beast loved the belfry with its high windows. It made easy access for Bis, too. Not that the cat-size gargoyle came in much.

“And Trent,” I said, watching Rex since Jenks was preoccupied with a flightless child. “Beloved city son and idiot billionaire goes and gets caught in the ever-after. Who has to bust her butt and make a deal with demons to get him back?”

“The one who got him there?” Jenks said, and my eyes narrowed. “Hey, kitty, kitty. How’s my sweetest fluff ball?” he crooned, which I thought risky, but hey, it was his cat.

“It was Trent’s idea,” I said, foot bobbing. “And now it’s my tail in the ever-after paying for his rescue. Do I even get one thank-you? No, I get trash painted on my front door.”

“You got your life back,” Jenks said, “and an end to Al trying to kill you. Got an understanding in the ever-after that any demon messing with you is messing with Al. You got Trent’s silence as to what you are. He could have brought you down right there. It wouldn’t be graffiti on your door but a burning stake in the front yard, with you tied to it.”

I froze, shocked. What I am? Trent kept silent as to what I am? I should be thankful he didn’t tell anyone? If he told anyone what I was, he’d have to explain how I got that way, which would put him on the stake next to me.

But Jenks was smiling at his son, oblivious. “There you go, Jerrimatt,” he said fondly as he gave the youngster a boost into the air where he hung, shedding bright sparkles to pool on the table. “And if glue should somehow end up in Jack’s mittens, I won’t have any idea who did it.”

The small pixy’s wings fanned into motion and a cloud of silver dust enveloped both of them. “Thanks, Papa,” Jerrimatt said, and his tear-wet eyes took on a familiar glint of deviltry.

Jenks watched his son fly away with a fond look. Rex watched, too, tail twitching. Turning back to me, Jenks saw my sour mood. Trent kept silent as to what I am, eh?

“I mean,” the pixy backpedaled, “what Trent’s dad did to you.”

Mollified, I took my feet from the table and put them on the floor. “Yeah, whatever,” I muttered as I rubbed my wrist and the demon mark there. I had another on the bottom of my foot, since Al hadn’t traded it back for his summoning name yet, enjoying my owing him two marks. I lived with the worry that I’d be pulled into someone’s demon circle some night, but no one had summoned Al and gotten me instead-yet.

The demon marks were hard to explain, and more people than I liked knew what they were. It was the victors who wrote the history books, and I wasn’t winning. But at least I wasn’t living in the ever-after, playing blow-up doll to a demon. No, I was just playing his student.

Leaning my head back and looking at the ceiling, I shouted, “Ivy? That coffee done?”

Rex skittered under the pool table at my voice, and at Ivy’s positive call, I clicked off the music and lurched to my feet. Jenks went to help Matalina break up a fight about glitter, and I paced down the long hall that bisected the back end of the church. I passed the his-and-her bathrooms that had been converted into Ivy’s opulent bathroom and my more Spartan facilities that also boasted the washer and dryer. Our separate bedrooms were next, my best guess putting them originally as clergy offices. Though the dark hallway didn’t change, the feeling of the air did as I entered the unsanctified back end of the church, added on later. This was where the kitchen and private living room were, and if it had been sanctified, I would have slept here.

Put simply, I loved my kitchen. Ivy had remodeled it before I had moved in, and it was the best room in the place. A blue-curtained window over the sink looked out on the small witch’s garden. Beyond that was the graveyard. That had bothered me at first, but after mowing the site for a year, I had a fondness for the weathered stones and forgotten names.

Inside, it was all gleaming stainless steel and bright fluorescent light. There were two stoves-one gas, one electric-so I didn’t have to do my spells and cook on the same surface. The counter space was expansive, and I used it all when I spelled, which was often, since the charms I used were expensive unless I made them myself. Then they were dirt cheap. Literally.

In the center was an island counter with a circle etched into the linoleum around it. I used to keep my spell books in the open rack under it until Al had burned one in a fit of pique. Now they were in the belfry. The counter made for a secure place to spell, unsanctified or not.

Up against the interior wall was a heavy antique farm table. Ivy was sitting at the back corner of it, near the archway to the hall, with her computer, printer, and stacks of carefully filed papers. When we’d moved in, I had the use of one end of it. Now I was lucky if I got a corner to eat on. So of course I’d taken over the rest of the kitchen.

Ivy looked up from her keyboard, and I dropped my bag on yesterday’s unopened mail and collapsed in my chair. “You want some lunch?” I asked, seeing as it was nearing midnight.

She shrugged, eyeing the bills. “Sure.”

I knew it bugged her, so I left the mail where it was under my bag, and I lurched back to my feet with tomato soup and cheese crackers in mind. If she wanted something more, she’d say so. A pang of worry went through me as I pulled a can of soup off the pantry shelves. Glenn liked tomatoes. God, I hoped he was okay. That he was unconscious had me concerned.

Ivy clicked through a couple of Web pages as I made good with the can opener. I hesitated at the sight of my copper spell pots, then reached for a more mundane saucepan. Mixing spell prep and food prep wasn’t a good idea. “Research?” I asked, hearing in her silence that she was still upset about something.

“Looking up banshees,” she said shortly, and I hoped she didn’t know how coy she looked with the end of the pen between her teeth. Her canines were sharp, like a cat’s, but she wouldn’t get the extended ones until she was dead. She wouldn’t get the light sensitivity or the physical need for blood to survive until then either. Ivy still had a taste for it, however, and though it made her devilishly hard to live with, she could do without.

The lid came off with a ting, and I sighed. “Ivy, I’m sorry.”

Her foot moved back and forth like an angry cat’s tail. “For what?” she said mildly, then stilled her foot’s motion as she saw me notice it.

That my methods are getting faster results than yours, I thought, but what I said was, “For sending you out to Kisten’s boat?”

I hated the question in my voice, but I didn’t know what was bothering her. Ivy looked up, and I studied the rim of brown around her eyes. It was wide and full, telling me she had control of her emotions. “I can handle it,” she said, and I frowned, hearing something else.

Turning my back on her, I shook the congealed soup into the pan with a dull thwap. “I don’t mind going out with you.” I did, but I was going to offer.

“I’ve got it covered,” she said more forcefully.

Sighing, I searched for a wooden spoon. Ivy dealt with the uncomfortable by ignoring it, and though I wasn’t averse to avoiding issues to maintain a pleasant living space, I tended to poke sticks at sleeping vampires when I thought I could get away with it.

The phone rang, and I caught Ivy’s dark glare as I whipped around to answer it.

“Vampiric Charms,” I said politely into the receiver. “How can we help?” I used to answer with my name, until the first graffiti incident.

“Rachel, it’s Edden,” came the FIB captain’s gravelly voice. “Glad you’re home. Hey, we’re having trouble getting the fingerprints out-”

“Re-e-e-eally?” I interrupted, making a mocking face at Ivy and turning the receiver so she could hear him with her extraordinary vamp hearing. “Imagine that.”

“They keep going to the wrong office,” the man continued, too intent to hear my sarcasm. “But we do know the banshee tear belongs to a Mia Harbor. The woman’s been around since Cincinnati was a pig farm, and I wanted to ask you to come down tomorrow about nine and help us interview her.”

I leaned against the counter with a hand to my forehead. What he wanted was for me to bring a truth amulet. Humans were adept at reading body language, but a banshee was devilishly hard to interpret. Or so I’d heard. The I.S. never sent witches after banshees.

Ivy was staring at me, brown-rimmed eyes wide. She looked surprised. No, shocked. “Nine is too early,” I said, wondering what was up with her. “How about noon?”

“Noon?” he echoed. “We need to move quickly on this.”

So why did you kick me out when I was making progress? “I need the morning to make up a truth charm. Those things are expensive. Unless you want a five-hundred-dollar bill for it tacked onto my consultant’s fee?”

Edden was silent, but I could hear his frustration. “Noon.”

“Noon,” I said, feeling like I’d won some points. Actually, I had a truth amulet in my charm cupboard, two feet away, but I didn’t get up until eleven most days. “As long as we’re done by two. I’ve got to pick up my brother at the airport.”

“Not a problem,” he said. “I’ll send a car. See you here.”

“Hey, has anyone looked at my car yet?” I said, but the line had gone dead. “Tomorrow,” I said with a smile, setting the phone back in its cradle. I waltzed to the fridge for the milk, then looked at Ivy when I realized she was still just sitting there. “What’s the matter?”

Ivy leaned back into her chair, her expression worried. “I met Mia Harbor once. Right before I was assigned to work with you in the I.S. She’s an…interesting lady.”

“Nice lady?” I asked as I dumped in the milk. If she had been around since Cincy was a pig town, then she was probably a really old nice lady.

Ivy’s brow was furrowed when I glanced at her, and she put her eyes on her screen. Her behavior was off. “What is it?” I asked as neutrally as I could.

The pen she was tapping stilled. “Nothing.”

I made a scoffing sound. “Something’s bothering you. What is it?”

“Nothing!” she said loudly and Jenks buzzed in.

Grinning, the pixy landed on the island counter between us in his best Peter Pan pose. “I think Ivy’s pissed ’cause you found the banshee tear and she didn’t,” he said, and Ivy’s pen started tapping again. It was so fast, it almost hummed.

“Nice going, Jenks,” I muttered as I stirred the milk into the soup. The ticking of the burner was loud until the gas lit with a whoosh and I turned it to low. “Where’s that buddy gargoyle of yours? He’s supposed to keep watch at night.”

“I don’t know,” he said, not worried at all. “But he’s as hard as a rock. I wouldn’t worry about him. Maybe he’s visiting his folks. He does have a life, unlike some of us here.”

“I think Rachel finding that tear was great,” Ivy said tightly.

I glanced over my shoulder at Jenks, and at my encouragement, he went to make irritating circles around her. He could get away with a lot I couldn’t, and if we didn’t find out soon what was bothering her, it might be too late to head it off when we did.

“Then you’re mad because you’ve been working on Kisten’s murder for six months, and Rachel got farther in six minutes by sniffing the floor,” he guessed.

Ivy leaned her chair back on two legs, balancing as she measured his flight, probably calculating where she’d have to be to catch him. “Both are valid ways of investigation,” she said, her pupils widening. “And it’s only been three months. I didn’t look the first three.”

I continued to stir the soup with a clockwise motion as Jenks rose up in a column of sparkles and darted out of the kitchen. The pixy noise in the sanctuary had reached dangerous levels, and I knew he wanted to handle it to give Matalina a break. She was doing great this winter, but we were all still worried about her. Nineteen was old for a pixy.

That Ivy hadn’t done anything to find Kisten’s killer for the first three months wasn’t a surprise. The hurt had been that bad, and she thought she might have been the one who had done it. “I don’t mind going out with you tonight,” I offered again. “Ford left the ladder.”

“I’m doing this myself.”

I bowed my head over the soup, breathing in the acidic scent and feeling Ivy’s pain now that Jenks wasn’t here cluttering everything up. I’d been Kisten’s girlfriend, but Ivy had loved him, too-deeper, on a gut level, with the strength of the past, not like my new love, based on the idea of a future. And here I was, making her deal with the pain. “Are you okay?” I asked softly.

“No,” she said again, her voice flat.

My shoulders slumped. “I miss him, too,” I whispered. I turned to see her perfect face frozen in grief. I couldn’t help it, and risking a misunderstanding, I crossed the room. “It’s going to be okay,” I said, touching her shoulder for an instant before I withdrew and went into the pantry for the crackers.

Ivy had her head bowed when I came out, and I said nothing as I found two bowls and set them on the table with the crackers between them, shoving my bag and the mail out of the way. Uncomfortable with the silence, I hesitantly stood before her. “I’m, uh, starting to remember a little,” I said, and her dark eyes flicked to mine. “I didn’t want to tell you in front of Edden because Ford thinks he’ll reopen the case when he finds out.”

Fear flickered behind her eyes, and my breath caught. Ivy is scared?

“What did you remember?” she said, and my mouth went dry. Ivy was never scared. Ticked, seductive, chill, occasionally out of control, but never scared.

I shrugged, trying to look nonchalant when I pulled back, a sliver of my own fear sliding under my skin. “I know for sure it’s a man. I got that today. He caught a splat ball without breaking it when I tried to shoot him. And he dragged me down the hall on my stomach after I tried to get out.” I looked at my fingertips, then put a hand to my middle. Eyes on the hallway behind her, I whispered, “I tried to claw my way out through a wall.”

Ivy’s voice was a thin whisper. “A man. You’re sure?”

She doesn’t still think it was her, does she? I nodded, and her entire posture slumped.

“Ivy, I told you it wasn’t you,” I blurted. “God, I know what you smell like, and you weren’t there! How many times do I have to say it!” I didn’t care that it was really weird I knew what Ivy smelled like. Hell, we’d been living together for a year. She knew what I smelled like.

Ivy put her elbows on either side of her keyboard and dropped her forehead into the cradle of her fingers. “I thought it was Skimmer,” she said flatly. “I thought Skimmer had done it. She still won’t see me, and I thought that was why.”

My lips parted as it started to make sense. No wonder Ivy hadn’t been hell-bent on finding Kisten’s killer. Skimmer had been both her best friend and girlfriend in high school, the two sharing their blood and bodies while Ivy was out in a private school on the West Coast. The intelligent, devious vampire had moved east to get Piscary out of prison and hopefully become a member of a foreign camarilla to be with Ivy, and the top-of-her-class lawyer would cheerfully kill Kisten or me if that’s what it would take. That the petite but deadly woman had killed Piscary only added to the travesty of vampire logic. She was in jail for the crime of killing a city master-in front of witnesses-and would likely stay there until she died and became an undead herself.

“Kisten couldn’t be taken down by another living vampire,” I said, pitying Ivy for having lived with this alone for six freaking months.

Her deep brown eyes had lost their fear when they met mine. “He’d let Skimmer kill him if Piscary gave him to her.” Ivy looked at the mirrored black square the night had turned the window into. “She hated him. She hates you-” Ivy’s words caught, and she shifted her keyboard in a nervous reaction. “I’m glad it wasn’t her.”

The bubbling soup was threatening to run over, and I got up, giving her shoulder a squeeze of support before I went to turn it down. “It was a man,” I said, blowing on the top and flicking the gas off. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll find him, and we can put an end to it.”

My back was to her, and I froze as a faint tingle started at my neck, the scar she’d given me hidden under my curse-smoothed skin. I felt the muscles in my face grow slack, and my motion of stirring the soup slowed as the feeling deepened into a soft anticipation that struck the pit of my being and rebounded. Knowing Ivy couldn’t see, I let my eyes close. I knew this feeling. Missed it, even as I struggled, against my instincts, to push it away.

In her relief that Skimmer hadn’t killed Kisten, Ivy had unconsciously filled the air with pheromones to soothe and relax a potential source of blood and ecstasy. She wasn’t after my blood, but she’d been uptight for the last six months, which was probably why just this hint of pheromones felt really good. I breathed them in, enjoying the rush of desire that tightened my gut and set my thoughts spinning. I wasn’t going to act on it. Ivy and I had a safe, secure, platonic relationship. I wanted to keep it that way. But that wouldn’t stop me from this tiny little indulgence.

Sighing, I forced myself to focus on what I was doing. I adjusted my posture and shoved the whisper of desire deep, where I could ignore it. If I didn’t, Ivy would sense my willingness, and we’d be right back where we’d been six months ago, unsure, uneasy, and way too confused.

“Are you going to open your mail sometime this century?” Ivy asked, her voice distant. “You’ve got something from the university.”

Glad for the distraction, I tapped the spoon and set it in the spoon cozy. “Really?” I said, turning to find her eyeing the half-hidden stack of mail. Wiping my fingers off on my jeans, I came closer, pulling the slim envelope with the university emblem on it out from under my bag but leaving the rest, as it so clearly bothered her. I’d registered for a couple of ley line classes right before winter break, and this was probably the confirmation. I could use ley lines, but everything I knew had been learned by the seat of my pants. I was in desperate need of some formal classes before I fried my synapses.

Ivy shifted her crossed legs and focused on her computer as I ran my finger under the seal, having to tear the envelope to actually get it open. I pulled the letter out, hesitating as my check floated to the floor. Ivy was on it in a flash, short hair swinging as she bent to pick it up.

“I’ve been denied entrance,” I said, bewildered as I scanned the formal letter. “They say there was a problem with my check.” My eyes shot to the date under the letterhead. Crap, I had missed early registration and now I’d have to tack on another fee. “Did I forget to sign it or something?”

Ivy shrugged, handing it to me. “No. I think this has more to do with the professor dying the last time you took a class.”

Wincing, I jammed everything back in the envelope. Problem with my check? I had money in my account. This was crap. “She’s not dead. She’s in Trent’s basement playing Ms. Fix-it with the elven genetic code. The woman is in heaven.”

“Dead,” Ivy said, smiling to show a slip of teeth.

I looked away, stifling a quiver at the sight of her fangs. “This is so unfair.”

The harsh clatter of pixy wings gave us a second of warning, and I dropped the letter in disgust as Jenks buzzed in. Ivy’s eyes were wide in question as she gazed at him, and turning, I was surprised to see a stream of red sparkles slipping from him. “We got trouble,” he said, and I jumped, looking down when a faint bump came from under the floor.

Ivy stood and looked at the faded linoleum. “Someone’s under there.”

“That’s what I’m telling you!” Jenks said, sounding almost snotty as he hovered between us with his hands on his hips.

There was a masculine, muffled shout and a series of thumps. “Holy crap!” I shouted, dancing backward. “That sounded like Marshal!”

Ivy was a blur headed for the back door. I jumped to follow, jerking to a halt when the rear door in the back living room thumped open unseen. Bis, who rented out the belfry, flew into the kitchen at shoulder height, his skin a stark white to match the snow and his eyes glowing like a demon’s. The cat-size gargoyle beat his wings in my face, and I backed up. “Get out of my way, Bis!” I shouted, squinting at the draft and thinking about Jenks’s cold sensitivity. “What the Turn is going on out there?”

There was a commotion in the living room, but Bis wouldn’t get out of my way, shouting in his resonant voice about how he was sorry, and he’d clean it up. That he had followed the kids with the paint and didn’t know it was a distraction. I was ready to smack him one when he landed on my shoulder.

I could barely feel his weight, but vertigo hit me and I slumped back into the counter, shocked into thoughtlessness. The sensation wasn’t unexpected, but it got me every time-with Bis’s touch, every single ley line in Cincinnati became clear and present in my mind. It was sensory overload, and I wavered on my feet, focus blurred. It was worse when he was excited, and I almost passed out. That Jenks’s kids were darting among the hanging pots didn’t help.

“Get. Off,” I breathed forcefully, and looking chagrined, the gargoyle beat his wings three times and perched himself sullenly on top of the fridge. The pixy kids scattered, shrieking as if he were death itself. Bis’s creased face scowled at me with teenage bad temper, and his pebbly skin shifted to match the stainless steel of the appliance. He looked like a sulky gargoyle peering over the edge like that, but that’s what he was.

My head jerked up when Ivy shoved a snow-and-dirt-covered man into the kitchen. His face was hidden by a hood, and frozen chunks of dirty snow scattered across the floor, leaving streaks of mud as the kitchen’s warmth thawed them. The odor of cold earth rose, and I wrinkled my nose, thinking it almost smelled like the man who had killed Kisten, but not quite.

Ivy sauntered in behind him to take a stance in the door with her arms crossed over her chest. Marshal was behind her, and he came in, sliding around Ivy with no hesitation and grinning from ear to ear, excited and bright eyed under his knit hat. His coat and knees were covered in dirt as well, but at least he hadn’t rolled in it.

The unknown man in the parka lifted his head, and I almost flew at him. “Tom!” I shouted, then checked myself. It was Tom. Again. Under my house instead of looking at my car. Fear slid through me, replaced with anger. “What are you doing under my house!”

Jenks was at the ceiling yelling at his kids to get out, and when the last fled, with their wooden swords and plastic-coated straightened paper clips, Tom pulled himself upright and pushed his hood back. His lips were blue with cold, and his eyes held an irritated anger. It was then that I noticed the ley line zip-strip on his wrist, where his gloves ended. He was basically magically neutered, and my estimation of Marshal went up a notch for not only knowing what to do with an experienced ley line witch, but for having a zip-strip to begin with.

“I was coming over to drop off that box you left in my car,” Marshal said, shifting to stand between Tom and me. “That’s when I saw this”-he gave Tom a shove and the man caught himself against the island counter-“coming over the far wall. So I parked and watched. He gave a couple of kids a can of black spray paint and a twenty, and after Bis chased them off your front door, he snuck around back and broke the lock on your crawl space access.”

Mouth open in anger, I thought about giving Tom a shove myself. “You paid someone to ruin our sign!” I shouted. “Do you know how long it took me to clean it the first time?”

Tom’s lips were starting to pink up, and he pressed them together, refusing to answer. Behind him, I saw Bis sneak out of the kitchen. The small gargoyle had gone entirely white to match the ceiling, and only the rims of his ears, his long clawlike nails, and a thick stripe down his whip-like tail were still gray. He was crawling along the ceiling like a bat, wings held to make sharp angles and claws extended. It just about broke my creepy meter.

“Rachel,” Marshal said gently, “he did it to get rid of Bis.” Marshal took off his hat and unzipped his coat, sending a wave of redwood into the kitchen, heady from whatever magic he’d used to catch Tom. “What’s important is finding out what he was doing under your church.”

We all turned to look at Tom. “Good question,” I said. “Got an answer, witch?”

Tom was silent, and Ivy cracked her knuckles one by one. I hadn’t even known she could, but that’s what she was doing, pop, pop, pop.

“Ivy,” I said when it was clear he wasn’t going to say anything. “Why don’t you call the I.S.? They might be interested in this.”

Tom snickered, his arrogance clear. “Sure, you do that,” he said. “I’m sure the I.S. would love to know a shunned witch was in your kitchen. Who do you think they’ll believe if I tell them I was buying charms from you?”

Oh shit. My gut twisted, and I frowned when Marshal’s eyes widened at the word “shunned.” Without a word, Ivy set the phone down. Her eyes a dangerous black, she eased closer. A threatening haze seemed to drift a few seconds behind her as she placed her finger under his chin and asked in a soft voice, “Is there a contract out on Rachel?”

Fear bubbled against my skull, and I caught it before it triggered something worse in Ivy. I’d lived with a death threat before, and it was hard. If not for Ivy and Jenks, I would have died.

Tom took a step back and rubbed his wrist. “She’d be dead already if there was.”

Jenks bristled, his wings a sharp clatter as he came to stand on my shoulder.

“Oooooh, I’m scared,” I said to hide my relief. “What are you doing here, then?”

The angry witch smiled. “To wish you a happy New Year.”

My eyes narrowed, and, fist on my hip, I looked at the dirty puddles his boots were making. Gaze slowly rising, I took in his white nylon pants and his gray coat. His face was calm but the hatred was there, and when Ivy shifted her feet, he jerked, tense. “I’d start talking,” she threatened. “If you’re shunned, no one will care if you don’t show up for church next week.”

The tension started to rise, and my gaze broke from Tom when Bis flew back in.

“Tink’s diaphragm!” Jenks shouted. “When did he leave? Rachel, did you even see him leave?”

“Here, Rachel,” the gargoyle said as he dropped an amulet and my hand flashed out to catch it. The metallic circlet hit my palm with a cool sensation, smelling like redwood and frozen dirt. “I found it stuck to the floorboards. It was the only one.”

Tom’s jaw went stiff as he clenched his teeth. My anger grew as I recognized it from the days when I’d sit with my dad while he prepped his spells for a night at work. “It’s a bug,” I said as I handed it to Marshal to look at.

Ivy’s face grew even grimmer, and spreading her feet, she tossed her short, gold-tipped hair out of her eyes. “Why are you bugging our kitchen?”

Tom didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to. I’d found him in front of the Tilsons’ house. He had told me he was working. He probably thought we’d have the inside scoop on the situation, and since he didn’t have access to anything magical or the Inderland database, he was going to steal what we knew and use it to jerk the tag out from under us.

“This is about the Tilsons, isn’t it,” I said, and I knew I was right when his eyes went to the soup, scumming over. “You want to tell me now? Save me the trouble of having Ivy beat it out of you?”

“Stay away from her,” Tom said vehemently. “I’ve been watching that woman for five months, and she’s mine! Got it?”

I leaned back, nodding as he confirmed my thoughts. Tom knew they weren’t the Tilsons and was probably working on the murders already. He seemed to think the woman had done it. “I’m just doing my job, Tom,” I said, starting to feel better. Sure he had bugged me, but my car was probably not wired to explode; dead people don’t talk-usually. “Tell you what. You stay out of my way, I’ll stay out of yours, and the best witch will win. Okay?”

“Sure,” the man said, confidence suddenly flowing from him. “Good luck with that. You’re going to come begging to talk to me before this is all over. I guarantee it.”

Jenks’s wings made a cool draft on my neck. “Get the cookie out of here,” he said sharply, and Marshal came forward to manhandle him out. Ivy beat him to it, gripping Tom’s wrist and twisting his arm into a painful angle to propel him into the hall.

“Don’t forget his amulet,” I called after her, and Bis darted down to take it from Marshal and fly after them. I heard a muttered comment from Ivy, and then the back door shut. Bis didn’t come back. I assumed he’d gone with her.

“She can handle him okay?” Marshal asked, and I nodded, my knees suddenly shaky.

“Oh yeah. She’ll be fine. It’s Tom I’m worried about.” My stomach hurt. Damn it, it had been ages since anyone had dared to violate the security of my home, and now that it was over, I didn’t like it. Grimacing, I stirred the soup, nervous energy making me slop it over. Jenks was flitting like a mad thing, and while wiping up my spill, I muttered, “Park it, Jenks.”

The kitchen grew quiet apart from the rasp of Marshal taking off his coat, but it was the gurgle of him pouring two cups of coffee that brought my attention back. I managed a thin smile when he brought me one. Jenks was on his shoulder, which was unusual, but the man had saved us a lot of trouble, and Jenks had to appreciate that since he couldn’t go outside and Bis was just one gargoyle-and a young, inexperienced one at that.

“Thanks,” I said, turning from the soup and taking a sip of coffee as I leaned against the counter. “For Tom as well as the coffee,” I added.

Looking satisfied and smug, Marshal pulled a chair around and sat with his back to the wall and his legs in the middle of the room. “Not a problem, Rachel. I’m glad I was here.”

Trailing a thin green dust, Jenks flew to land beside me, pretending to feed his brine shrimp on the sill. I knew Marshal thought my estimation of the danger I could attract was overrated, but even I’d admit that his catching a shunned ley line witch was impressive.

I breathed deep as I listened to the pixy play-by-play, filtering in from the sanctuary, of what Ivy was doing to Tom. The subtly masculine-flavored scent of redwood eased about me, a witch’s characteristic smell. It was nice smelling it in my kitchen, mixing with vampire and the light garden scent I was starting to recognize as pixy. Marshal was eyeing the ceiling in an expectant way, and chuckling, I went to sit with him.

“All right,” I said as I touched his hand encircling his coffee. “I admit it. You saved me. You saved me from whatever Tom had planned. You’re my great big freaking hero, okay?”

He laughed at that, and it felt good. “You want that box from my car?” he said, starting to gather himself to stand.

I thought about what was in it, and froze. “No. Will you throw it out for me?” I’m not throwing Kisten away, I thought guiltily. But to keep his last gift in my bottom drawer was pathetic. “Uh, thanks again for going with me out to the boat.”

Marshal shifted his chair, angling it to face me. “No problem. Is your FIB friend okay?”

I nodded, my thoughts drifting to Glenn. “Ford says he’ll be awake in a few days.”

Jenks had gotten himself a pixy-size mug of coffee from the still-dripping machine, and he settled between us on the box of crackers. He was unusually quiet, but he was probably keeping an ear on his kids. There was a sound of rising awe from the sanctuary when Ivy did something, and I winced.

My eyes went to the corner of the envelope, and in a sudden surge of irritation, I picked it out. “Hey, will you do something for me?” I asked as I handed it to Marshal. “I’m trying to pay for some classes, and I need to get this to the registrar’s office, like yesterday.”

“I thought registration ended,” Jenks piped up, and Marshal’s eyebrows went high as he took it.

“It did,” he said, and I shrugged.

“They sent my check back,” I complained. “Can you see if they will take it? Use your connections to get it in the system? I don’t want to have to pay the late fee.”

Nodding, he folded the envelope over and slid it into a back pocket to look at later. Brow furrowed, he leaned back in his chair, thinking. “You want some soup?” I asked, and Marshal smiled.

“No, thanks,” he said, then his eyes brightened. “Hey, I’ve got tomorrow off. It’s a teacher workday at the university, but it’s not like I’ve got any papers to grade. You want to go do something? Blow off some steam? After I get your check in, that is? I hear they opened up a new skate park on Vine.”

Whereas two months ago the offer would have tripped all my warning flags, now my lips curled up in a smile. Marshal wasn’t my boyfriend, but we did stuff together all the time. “I don’t think I can,” I said, annoyed that I couldn’t say yes and go. “I’ve got this murder I’m working on…and my sign to clean…”

Jenks’s wings clattered. “I said I’d help you with that, Rache,” he said brightly, and I smiled and curved my hand around him.

“It’s too cold, Jenks,” I protested, then turned back to Marshal. “Then I’ve got to pick up my brother at the airport at three, talk to Ford at six, and then go back to my mom’s and do the good-daughter thing by having dinner with her and Robbie. Saturday I’m in the ever-after with Al…” My words trailed off. “Next week, maybe?”

Marshal nodded in understanding, and suddenly seeing a golden opportunity to avoid being badgered at my mom’s, I blurted out, “Uh, unless you want to come with me to my mom’s for dinner? She’s making lasagna.”

The man laughed. “You want me to play boyfriend so your life doesn’t look pathetic, right?”

“Marshal!” I gave his shoulder a smack, but I was red-faced. God, he knew me too well.

“Well, am I right?” he needled, his eyes glinting under his hat-flattened hair.

I made a face, then said, “You going to help me here or not?”

“You bet,” he said brightly. “I like your mom. Is she making pi-i-i-ie?”

He stressed the word as if it meant the world to him, and I grinned, feeling better about tomorrow already. “If she knows you’re coming, she’ll make two.”

Marshal chuckled, and as I sipped my coffee and smiled back, content and happy, Jenks flew out of the kitchen on quiet wings, a green trail of dust spilling from him to slowly fade to nothing.

Six

The FIB’s lobby was noisy and cold. Gray street slush had been tracked in, making a soggy mess of the rug and creating a slowly diminishing black path to the front desk, set back from the twin glass doors. The FIB emblem in the middle of the room was dingy from a hundred footprints. It reminded me of the emblem on the floor of the demons’ law offices. A joke, Al had said, but I had my doubts. I shifted nervously in the nasty orange chairs they had out here. Saturday, and my teaching date with Algaliarept, always seemed to come up too fast. Trying to explain to Robbie and my mom why I was going to be incommunicado all day would be tricky.

I had cheerfully strode into the FIB about ten minutes before-my mood excellent since Alex had brought my car home-my snappy boots leaving prints on their emblem as I went to the front desk to announce who I was-only to be asked to take a seat, like I was some weirdo off the street. Sighing, I hunched over with my elbows on my knees and tried to find a comfortable position. I wasn’t happy about being asked to wait. If Ivy had been here, they would’ve fallen all over themselves, but not for me-a memory-challenged witch they didn’t trust anymore.

Ivy was currently out on the street trying to pick up the sixth-month-old trail of Kisten’s killer. Guilt for not having done anything sooner had gotten her up long before me. Jenks had come with me today in the hopes that we’d stop at a charm shop on the way home. He wasn’t interested in a charm, but the stuff that went into making them-things that a garden-loving pixy cheating hibernation can’t get in December. Matalina wasn’t doing well, and I knew he was upset, ready and willing to spend some of the rent money he got from Ivy and me on his wife. Sitting here in the FIB’s lobby was a poor use for both our days. Not to mention that it was cold.

I straightened to swing my bag between my knees to try to burn off some irritation, and snuggled into my scarf, Jenks wiggled to life. “What’s up, Rache?” he asked, landing on my hands to get me to stop swinging my bag.

“Nothing,” I said shortly.

His brow rose, and he gave me a look. “Then why did your pulse quicken and your temperature rise?” He made a face. “Your perfume stinks. God, what did you do, bathe in it?”

I stared at the receptionist, avoiding Jenks’s question. I couldn’t tell him I was worried about his wife not making it through the winter. He buzzed his wings for my attention, and I tapped the banshee report on my knee. I had written it for Edden this morning-which only made me madder. I was here to help, and they left me waiting with distraught parents and thugs cuffed to the walls? Nice.

“Lookie here, Rache,” Jenks said, not a speck of dust falling from him as he flew heavily two seats down and landed on a discarded paper. “You made some print.”

“What?” Expecting the worst, I leaned over and snatched it up. Jenks laboriously flew back and settled on my hand as I held the paper up, scanning the picture. This was all I needed, but my worry eased when I found it was just a shot of the Tilsons’ house with a crowd and a news van out front. The caption said YEAR-END BRIMSTONE BUST GONE WRONG, and you couldn’t even tell it was me unless you knew it.

“Gonna save it for your scrapbook?” Jenks asked as I quickly read the article.

“No.” I tossed the paper back where it had been, then stretched to turn the picture side down. Drug bust, eh? Good for them. Keep it that way.

Hands on his hips, Jenks flew into my line of sight, but I was saved from whatever smart-ass remark he was going to gift me with when the doors cycled open and two uniformed FIB guys roughly escorted in a thin Santa. The man was shrieking about his reindeer. The cold draft hit us, and Jenks dove for my scarf.

“Tink’s titties, you think you could put a little more perfume on, Rache?” he complained, and I shivered as his wings brushed my bare skin.

“It’s from Ivy,” I said.

“Oh.”

I sighed as I settled in to wait. I’d found the new bottle of citrusy scent on the kitchen table this morning. I’d known what it meant and had immediately dabbed on a splash. Apparently, after yesterday, Ivy thought it prudent to reinstate our practice of trying to muddle the mixing of our natural scents. We hadn’t had to resort to chemical warfare on her instincts for a while, but we’d been trapped in the church with the windows closed for months.

The Santa broke from the officers and bolted for the door. I jerked upright, then relaxed as the two officers fell on him. All three slid into the doors with a thump. The guy was cuffed. How far was he going to get? “Damn,” I swore softly, wincing. “That’s going to leave a mark.”

A presence of old coffee tickled my nose, and I wasn’t surprised when Edden appeared at my elbow. “The one on the bottom is Chad. He’s new. I think he’s trying to impress you.”

My irritation at having to wait returned, and I looked up at the squat FIB captain. He was in his usual khakis and dress shirt. No tie, but his brown dress shoes were polished and he held himself with his familiar uprightness. His eyes, too, looked more determined. Tired, but the fear was gone. Glenn must be doing better.

“I’m impressed,” I said, catching the drama out of the corner of my eye as Chad dragged Santa into the back. “Can’t you bring the loonies in the rear door?”

Edden shrugged. “It’s too icy, and we’d get sued.”

From my scarf, Jenks said, “And crashing into the door like that is soo-o-o much safer.”

“Resisting arrest with lots of witnesses,” he said. “I’d say that’s safer.” Then he tilted his head and peered at my scarf. “Hi, Jenks. I didn’t see you. Kind of cold, isn’t it?”

“Enough to freeze my balls together, yeah,” Jenks said, peeking out at the sound of Edden’s louder voice. “You got anyplace warmer? Between the cold and Rachel’s perfume, I’d be more comfortable at a fairy’s bris.”

The short man smiled, and he extended a hand to take the banshee essay that I’d written for him in my copious spare time. “Come on back. Sorry to make you wait here. New rules.”

New rules, I thought sourly as I stood. New rules or new mistrust? Old mistrust, maybe given new life. At least Chad liked me. “No problem,” I said sourly, not wanting to let him know how much it bothered me. He knew it was there, I knew it was there. Why rub my nose in it? “How’s Glenn doing? Has he regained consciousness yet?”

Edden had a hand on the small of my back, and where I’d usually take offense, he could get away with it. Edden was cool. “No,” he said, his eyes down with a thought. “But he’s doing better. More brain activity.”

Once away from the cold draft, Jenks left my scarf, and I nodded, thinking I should go out and see Glenn tonight after dinner. I’d be ready for some silent company by then. Maybe tickle his feet until he woke up or peed his sheets or something. I smiled at the thought, almost missing it when Edden made an unexpected left away from the interrogation rooms.

“Aren’t we going to the interrogation rooms?” I said, and Edden led me to his office.

“No. We can’t find Mia Harbor.”

My pace didn’t slow, but me cooling my heels in the lobby was making a lot more sense. So much for the truth amulet stuffed in my bag.

Jenks was starting to slip a thin trail of dust, telling me he was warm and in good form. “She went AWOL?” the small pixy said, flying backward to create a small commotion among the watching officers.

Edden wasn’t impressed with Jenks’s aerial display, and he held the door to his office open and gestured for me to enter. “Yup,” he said, but he didn’t follow me in. “She moved without filing her new address. We’ve a warrant out for her arrest, so if you want her, she’s all yours, Rachel.”

“A banshee?” I said, laughing. “Me? How much money you got, Edden? I don’t do suicide runs.”

Edden tossed my essay on his desk, hesitating as if trying to decide whether I was kidding. “You want some coffee?” he finally said. “How about you, Jenks? I think I saw a honey packet from someone’s biscuits in the fridge.”

“Hell yes!” he exclaimed before I could protest, and Edden nodded, leaving the door open as he went in search of it.

I gave Jenks a wry look as he buzzed over Edden’s office to check out the new bowling trophy. Spinning the chair around, I plunked into it and set my bag at my feet. “I was really hoping you’d be sober for this,” I said, and Jenks landed on Edden’s cluttered desk with his hands on his hips.

“Why?” he said, unusually belligerent. “You don’t need me if the banshee isn’t here. Give me a break. Like I’ve been honey drunk any longer than five minutes.”

I looked away in disapproval, and he buzzed a harsh flight to Edden’s pencil cup to sulk. Crossing my knees, I bobbed my foot. I was waiting again, but it was warmer, quieter, and I had the promise of coffee.

Edden’s office was a pleasant mix of organized clutter that I could identify with and was part of the reason I had taken to him so quickly last year. The man was ex-military, but you’d never know it by the dust and stacks of files. Still, I bet he could put his finger on anything he wanted in three seconds flat. The pictures on the walls were few, but in one of them he was shaking hands with Denon, my old boss at the I.S. It would worry me if I hadn’t once heard the pleasure Edden had taken in jerking a case out from under him. The smell of old coffee seemed embedded in the gray tiles and institutional-yellow walls. A new laptop sat open on his desk instead of a monitor, and the clock that had once been behind him was now behind me. Otherwise, it was the same as the last time I had sat here, waiting for Edden to bring me coffee.

I heard Edden’s footsteps before his bulky silhouette showed through the blinds between his office and the rest of the other offices, all open. The man came in with two china mugs instead of the expected foam ones. New rules again? One was clearly his by the brown-stained rim. I got the clean one with rainbows. How sweet…

Jenks rose up in a column of blue sparkles as Edden sat behind his desk, the pixy taking the packet almost as large as he was and retreating to a corner, out of my reach. “Thanks, Edden,” he said, wrestling with the plastic to tear it open.

I leaned to shut the door with my foot, and Edden eyed me. “You have something to say in private, Rachel?” he asked, and I shook my head. Taking the packet from Jenks, I tore it open and handed it back.

“Trust me,” I said, thinking that having the harried FIB officers deal with a drunk pixy was too much to ask for. My reputation was bad enough as it was.

“So,” I said to draw Edden’s attention from Jenks, who was humming happily and starting to list already, one wing not fanning as fast as the other. “Isn’t a felony charge a little harsh for failure to register a new address?”

Edden’s gaze darted from me to Jenks, and then back. “It’s not for failure to register. It’s because she’s a suspect.”

“’S good honey, Eddie,” Jenks interrupted, and I set my coffee mug down loud enough to make his wings hum.

“The banshee is a suspect?” I questioned. “Why? All she did was leave a tear.”

Edden leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee. “Alex took her photo out to the neighbors to see if she had been near the scene recently. Babysitter, cosmetics lady, whatever. Every single person asked ID’d Ms. Harbor as Mrs. Tilson.”

“What?” I yelped, sitting up fast.

“Holy crap,” Jenks swore, almost crashing into the stack of files on Edden’s desk as he took flight with his honey packet. “The banshee took a human’s name? What the hell for?”

My first wash of surprise ebbed into an uneasy answer, and by looking at Edden’s severe face, I knew he had the same idea. Mia had killed them and was trying to cover it up. Good God. Tom is trying to tag a banshee? By himself? Go for it, coffin bait. “That might explain why Tom Bansen was under our kitchen floor yesterday,” I said, and Edden started.

“Under your-”

“Kitchen floor,” I finished. “All dressed up like a military guy on urban-assault detail. Bis and one of my friends caught him trying to bug the church.”

“Why didn’t you call me?” Edden said, and I made a face while Jenks slurred something about the gargoyle.

“Because Tom’s been, ah, shunned,” I said, flushing. “No Inderlander will hire him, the I.S. included. He has no choice but to go independent. Bringing in a banshee will probably earn him enough money to get himself set up somewhere he can live his life out in the wilds. He warned me off the case. Now that I think about it, he told me specifically to stay away from Mia. He probably knows at least as much as we do.”

“Then why bug you?” he asked, and I shrugged.

“Because if he’s been shunned, he lacks the resources of both the FIB and the I.S. I guess he figured he’d listen in to what we found and act on it before we did. Tom probably knows exactly where she’s gone. Maybe I should try to bug him.”

Edden looked grim, rubbing his mustache, when I finally looked back. “Want a car at your house?”

Immediately I shook my head. “No, but one at my mom’s might be nice.”

“Within the hour,” he promised, the pen almost lost in his grip as he made a note.

Jenks had started climbing Edden’s desk files like a drunken mountaineer, and I blushed when I found out what happened on the tenth day of pixy Christmas. Shaking off the visual, I turned to Edden. “If Mia is Mrs. Tilson, we need to find her fast. The man with her is in danger.”

Edden made an ugly sound and just about threw the pen in the cup. “I don’t care.”

“He’s liable to wind up dead,” I protested, then took a sip of my coffee now that Jenks wasn’t hiding behind it. My eyes closed in bliss for a moment. I’d give the FIB one thing: They knew how to make coffee. “A banshee’s live-ins never live long,” I said. “And if Mia has a baby, her emotion requirements will be almost triple.” I paused in my motion to take another drink. That was probably why she had to put five years between her children.

Edden’s mustache was bunched up, and his expression was hard. “I’m not concerned about Mia’s accomplice,” he said. “He was healthy enough to beat up my son. We pulled his record this morning by way of his fingerprints. His name is Remus, and we would never have found him this fast but he’s got a file thicker than my fist, starting from high school with an attempted date rape, up to about three years ago when he spent time in a psychiatric jail for an especially foul animal-cruelty charge. They let him out, and he dropped off the face of the earth. No credit card activity, no rental history, no W-2 forms. Nothing until now. So you can understand if I don’t rush out and try to find him for the sake of his own health.”

My stomach hurt. God, the two of them had probably killed the Tilsons together. They had killed those happy faces that were in that yearbook and taken their names, their lives, everything. Shoved what they didn’t want into boxes in their garage.

Jenks dropped the empty honey packet, staggering under the desk lamp and staring up at it. Realizing that he was singing to it to get it to turn on, I flicked the switch. Jenks exploded into gold sparkles and collapsed, giggling. My expression went blank. He was stuck on the tenth day of Christmas, but finally he gave up and started singing about four purple condoms.

I looked at Edden and shrugged. “Maybe the little girl belongs to Remus,” I said, and Edden jerked the topmost file out from under Jenks. The pixy rose three inches before falling down, mumbling as he pillowed his head on his folded arms and fell asleep in the artificial warmth of the light. Edden handed me the file, and I opened it. “What is this?”

He leaned back to lace his hands over his middle. “Everything we have on Mia. That baby makes her a lot easier to track. Without her, Remus wouldn’t exist. We found another licensed day care that Mia frequents, making four now and at least two more informal ones.”

I leafed through the small packet to read the addresses, impressed again with the FIB’s investigative techniques. The day cares were mostly in Ohio, on Cincy’s outskirts.

“I called them all this morning,” Edden said. “Mia didn’t show up anywhere yesterday, and the one she was scheduled for was concerned. Apparently she always stays to help instead of paying them for care, claiming that she wants Holly to have more socialization skills.”

“No kidding?” I said, eyebrows high. I could buy that, but not if she was taking her daughter to five other day cares to do the same thing.

“No, no, no,” Jenks slurred from under the glaring light. His eyes weren’t open, and I was surprised he was conscious enough to listen, much less comment on the conversation. “Kid isn’t socializing. The kid is sucking down emotion like…”

His words trailed off in confusion, and I offered, “A pixy with honey?”

Jenks cracked an eye and gave me a thumbs-up. “Yeah.” His eyes closed, and he started to snore. I didn’t know why, but I unwound my scarf and covered him. Embarrassment, maybe?

Edden was watching us with a questioning expression, and I lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “Mia’s probably trying to spread her daughter’s damage around.”

Edden made a noncommittal grunt, and I continued to leaf through the information. “The neighbor kid who mowed their lawn said that Mia told his mom she wanted a lot of kids but had to space them out, five years apart,” I said. “That would go along with Holly being a banshee. You can’t have two kids around like that. Hell, a banshee usually has a kid once every hundred years or so, so if Mia is thinking another one in five years, she must have a really good way to keep from killing people to support her daughter’s growth…”

My words drifted to nothing. Either that, or someone with her who knew how to abduct people in a way so that they never went reported as missing. Someone like a homicidal maniac capable of serial murders. Sort of like Remus-someone who would enjoy hunting people and bringing them back for his wife and darling baby to drain. That might be why Remus was in good enough health to beat up an FIB officer, feeding his two tigers well enough that Mia could plan on adding to her little family. This was really not good.

Edden was quietly waiting for me to come to just that conclusion, and I closed the file. Numb and feeling sick, I glanced at Jenks, out cold, then to Edden, silently waiting. “I’m not doing this,” I said, dropping the packet on his desk. The draft shifted Jenks’s hair, and the pixy grimaced in his drunken stupor. “Banshees are dangerous-apex predators. And I thought you didn’t want my-excuse me-our help.”

At my blatant accusation, Edden reddened. “Who is going to bring her in, then? The I.S.? I talked to them this morning. They don’t care.” His eyes went everywhere but to mine. “If we don’t bring her in, no one will,” he muttered.

And he would want justice, seeing that she had something to do with his son being in the hospital. Frowning, I slid the file back off Edden’s desk and onto my lap, but I didn’t open it. “Next question,” I said, my tone clearly stating I wasn’t taking the job-yet. “What makes you so sure the I.S. isn’t covering it up?” I wasn’t about to get on the I.S.’s bad side for a paycheck. I’d done that before, and was smarter now. Yeah, it had felt great showing up the I.S., but then Denon took my license and I was stuck riding the bus again.

Edden’s expression went tight. “What if they are?”

My face scrunched up, and I fingered the file. Yeah, it left a bad taste in my mouth, too.

“According to the woman I talked to at the I.S.,” Edden said, “there should be a trail almost eighteen months long on this woman, starting with several simultaneous deaths at the time of Holly’s conception and continuing on to today. That’s probably when the Tilsons were murdered. Ms. Harbor is devious, clever, and has a tremendous knowledge of the city. About the only thing going for us is that she won’t leave Cincinnati. Banshees are highly territorial and dependent upon the people they’ve been siphoning off for generations.”

I bobbed my foot and looked at the essay I had written. “Why did you ask me to write this if you already knew it?” I asked, my feelings hurt.

“I didn’t know it yesterday. You were sleeping, Rachel,” Edden said dryly, then hid his slight guilt behind a sip of coffee. “I talked to Audrey something or other in records this morning. She was going to make me fill out a year’s worth of forms until I dropped your name.” A faint smile replaced his concern, and I relaxed.

“I know her,” I said. “You can trust what she said.”

Edden laughed, making Jenks mumble in his sleep. “Especially after I promised you’d babysit for her.” He ran a hand over his mustache to hide a smile. “She was kind of cranky. You witches aren’t at your best before noon, are you?”

“No,” I said, then my smile faded. Audrey had three kids last I checked. Crap. I was going to have to have Jenks help me; otherwise they’d railroad me into a closet or trick me into letting them eat candy.

“Audrey said Mia’s net of people is probably so intricate that she can’t risk leaving Cincy. If she does, the deaths to support the baby will be fast and easy to find, rather than the carefully chosen, hidden ones.” He hesitated, and a flash of worry for his son crossed his face. “Is that true? They already killed an FIB officer. That wasting disease was probably Mia, right?”

He was too far away for me to reach out and touch his hand in support, but I wanted to. I really needed to visit Glenn and look at his aura. It wasn’t as if I could help him, but I’d like to know if that’s why he was still unconscious. “Edden, I’m sorry,” I finally said. “Glenn will be okay, and we will find them. They won’t be allowed to think they can do this with impunity.”

The older man’s jaw clenched, then relaxed. “I know. I just wanted to hear from you that we have a chance and that they didn’t hop a plane and are in Mexico, sucking the children there dry.”

From under my scarf came a high-pitched sigh, and Jenks mumbled, “On the eleventh day of Christmas, my lover gave to me…”

I nudged the stack of files. “Hush, Jenks,” I said, then pulled my eyes to Edden, softening my gaze. “We will get them, Edden. Promise.”

Jenks’s mumbling grew loud, and I felt uneasy when I realized he was apologizing to Matalina. That was a hindsight better than what the drummers had been doing with the piper’s pipes, but his heartfelt whining was almost worse.

“Then you’ll help us?” Edden asked, rather unnecessarily, I might add.

It was a banshee, but with Ivy’s help-and a lot of planning-we three could do it. “I’ll look into it,” I said, trying to drown out Jenks’s vow that he would never touch honey again if she would get better. This was getting depressing.

Edden, too, was glancing at my scarf as he rummaged around in a top drawer. He found what he was looking for, and extended his fist, palm down. “Then you might need this,” he said, and I reached for whatever it was.

The smooth feel of crystal fell into my palm, and I jerked back. Heart pounding, I stared at the opaque drop of nothing, warming fast against my skin. I waited for my hand to cramp up or the stone to feel fuzzy or move or something, but it just sat there, looking like a cheap, foggy crystal that earth witches sell ignorant humans down at Finley Market.

“Where did you get this?” I asked, feeling squeamish even as the tear did nothing. “Is it one of Mia’s?” It seemed to wiggle in my hand, and it was all I could do not to drop it, but then I’d have to tell him why, and then he might take it back. So I blinked at him, my fingers going stiff in an open cradle.

“We found a stash of them in a glass flower vase, disguised as decorative stones,” Edden said. “I thought you might be able to make one into a locator amulet.”

It was a great idea, and I dropped the crystal into my coat pocket, deeming I’d held the squirmy thing long enough. My held breath slipped from me, and the hesitant, almost belligerent embarrassment he was hiding gave me pause until I realized he had taken the tear from evidence.

“I’ll give it a try,” I said, and he grimaced, eyes lowered. I had to pick up my brother at the airport, but I might be able to squeeze in a stop at the university library as well as a charm shop for Jenks before that. A locator charm was devilishly hard. I honestly didn’t know if I could pull it off. The library would be the only place I could find the recipe. Well, besides the Internet, but that was asking for trouble.

My scarf was now spouting poetry, waxing lovingly about Matalina’s charms in beautifully poetic to downright lustful terms. Giving the stack of papers a push, I flicked off the light. Jenks let out a long complaint, and I stood.

“Come on, Mr. Honeypot,” I said to Jenks. “We gotta go.”

I flicked my scarf off him, and the pixy didn’t move apart from huddling into a ball. Edden stood up, and together we eyed him. I was starting to get a bad feeling about this. Usually when Jenks got honey drunk, he was a happy drunk. This looked depressed, and I felt my face lose its expression when I realized Jenks was saying Matalina’s name over and over.

“Oh crap,” I whispered as he started making promises he couldn’t keep, asking her to make one she couldn’t. My own heart breaking, I carefully scooped him up, holding the unaware pixy in my hands, cupping him in a soothing darkness and warmth. Damn it, this wasn’t fair. No wonder Jenks took the opportunity to get drunk. His wife was dying, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

“Is he going to be all right?” Edden whispered as I stood in front of the desk, not knowing how I was going to get home with him like this. I couldn’t just shove him in my bag and hope for the best.

“Yes,” I said absently, deep in thought.

Edden shifted from foot to foot. “Is his wife okay?”

I brought my eyes up, unshed tears for Jenks warming them as I found a deep understanding in Edden’s gaze, the understanding of a man who had lost his wife. “No,” I said. “Pixies live only twenty years.”

I could feel Jenks light and warm in my hands, and I wished he was bigger so I could just help him into the car, take him home, and cry with him on the couch. But all I could do was carefully slide him into the masculine glove Edden was holding out to me. The lined leather would keep him warm, whereas my scarf wouldn’t.

Jenks hardly noticed the move, and I could get him to the car safely and in a dignified manner. I tried to tell Edden thanks, but the words stuck in my throat. Instead, I picked up the folder. “Thanks for the addresses,” I said softly, and I turned to go. “I’ll give them to Ivy. She can make sense out of rat tails in the dust.”

Edden opened the door, and the noise of the open offices hit me like a slap, jerking me back to reality. I wiped my eyes and tugged my bag higher up on my shoulder. I held Edden’s glove carefully. Ivy and I would map out Mia’s network, starting with the day cares. Then move on to see if she worked at elderly day care centers or volunteered at the hospital. This could get really ugly.

There was a soft pull on my elbow as I rocked into motion, and I paused. Edden had his eyes on the tile, and I waited until he brought them to mine.

“Tell me when Jenks needs someone to talk to,” he said, and my throat closed. Recalling what Ford had told me about Edden’s wife dying in a stab-and-grab, I mustered a smile and nodded. My boots clicked fast on the tile as I made for the door, head high and eyes unseeing.

I wondered if Edden would talk to me next year when we went through the same ordeal with Jenks.

Seven

The airport was noisy, and I leaned against a support beam and tried not to fidget as I waited. Jenks and I had been here for nearly an hour, but I was glad I’d gotten here early when security stopped me at the spell-checker gate. It had either been my truth amulet or my lethal-spell detector interfering with theirs, because they were about the only invoked charms I had on me. Dumping out my bag for three uniformed stiffs to paw through was not my idea of how to meet guys. Jenks had thought it was hilarious. No one else was getting searched.

The pixy was currently down the hall at the flower cart, not a single indication that he had been honey drunk earlier. He was working a deal with the owner for some fern seed if he could entice a few people to buy roses for their departing loved ones. He had still been out cold when we passed the charm shop, and I hadn’t stopped either there or the library. But if he could get the fern seed, he’d be a happy pixy.

It was cool in the drafty terminal, but vastly warmer than the blue, white, and gray world outside the huge plate-glass windows. Plows kept the runways clear, and the mounds of snow at the outskirts just begged to be played on. The people around me were a mix of hurried harassment, bored irritation, and anxious expectation. I fell into the last, and as I waited for Robbie’s plane to clear checks and disembark, I felt a shiver of anticipation-though some of that might have been lingering anxiety from having been stopped at the heavy-magic detector.

Witches had always worked in aviation, both on the ground and in the air, but during the Turn they’d taken it over and hadn’t given it back, changing the laws until there had to be at least one highly qualified witch on duty at each security checkpoint. Even before the Turn, witches had been using heavy-magic detectors right along with the mundane metal detectors. What had looked like a random check on a harmless-looking man or woman had often been a covert search for contraband magic. Why I’d been stopped I didn’t know. Bothered, I tried to smooth out my brow and relax. Unless Robbie was in first class, it would be a while.

A cloying, too-sweet scent of cinnamon and the rich aroma of coffee gave a glimmer of contentment to the rising excitement. The conversations grew loud when the door opened and the first yawning person pushed through, intent on reaching the rent-a-car stand, his eyes glazed and his pace fast. A few feet from me was a mom with three toddlers, like stair steps, probably waiting for their dad. The eldest wiggled from his mom and ran for the huge windows, and I jumped when the mom set a circle to stop the toddler dead in his tracks.

A smile curved over my face when the little boy screamed in frustration, pounding at the faintly shimmering barrier glowing a thin blue. That had been something I’d never had to worry about when I was little. Mom sucked dishwater at making circles. I hadn’t been able to walk until I was three anyway, too sick to do much more than survive before then. It was a miracle I’d made it past my second birthday-an illegal medical miracle that worried me every time I went through something like the heavy-magic detection field. There was no way to detect the tampering done to my mitochondria, but I worried anyway.

Anxious, I shifted my weight to my other foot. I was eager to see Robbie, but tonight’s dinner wasn’t going to be fun. At least I’d have Marshal to take some of the heat off me.

The toddler’s screaming shifted from frustration to recognition, and I turned when his mother dropped her circle. She was beaming, looking absolutely beautiful despite the weariness of keeping three energetic children within society’s norms. I followed the toddler with my eyes as he ran to an attractive young woman in a smart-looking suit. The woman bent to pick him up, and the five of them came together in a wash of happiness. They all began to move in a confused tangle, and after a heartfelt kiss between the two women, the one in the suit exchanged a trendy bag for a gurgling infant. It looked noisy, messy, and utterly comforting.

My smile slowly faded as they moved away, and my thoughts went to Ivy. We’d never have such a recognizable relationship, where we somehow fell into normal roles that could function within society’s parameters. Not that I was looking for something so traditionally nontraditional. Ivy and I did have a relationship, but if we tried to make it fit her ideas or go past my limits, it would blow everything to hell.

Something older than the spoken word tickled my instinct, and I pulled my eyes from the couple’s vanishing backs. My gaze landed on my brother, and I smiled. He was still in the tunnel, obvious over the shorter people ahead of him. His red hair stood out like a flag, and he had a sparse beard. Sunglasses almost made him look cool, but the freckles ruined it. Seeing his smile widen as our eyes met, I pushed from the piling and waited, anticipation tingling my toes. God, I’d missed him.

People finally moved out from between us, and I could see his narrow-shouldered frame. He had on a light jacket and was carrying a shiny leather satchel and his guitar. At the head of the tunnel he stopped and thanked a short, awkward-looking salesman-type guy who handed him a piece of luggage and vanished into the crowd, carrying it for him so he wouldn’t have to check it, I suppose.

“Robbie!” I called, unable to stop myself, and his smile grew. His long legs ate up the distance, and he was before me, dropping his things and giving me a squeeze.

“Hi, sis,” he said, his hug growing fierce before he let go and stepped back. The crowd flowed around us, but no one minded. Little pockets of reunion were going on all over the terminal. “You look good,” he said, tousling my hair and earning a slug on his shoulder. He caught my fist, but not until after I’d connected, and he looked at my hand, smiling at the little wooden pinkie ring. “Still not liking your freckles, eh?” he said, and I shrugged. Like I was going to tell him I didn’t have freckles as the side effect of a demon curse?

Instead, I gave him another hug, noticing that we were almost the same height with me in heels and him in…loafers? Laughing, I looked him up and down. “You are going to freeze your butt off outside.”

“Yeah, I love you, too,” he said, grinning as he removed his sunglasses and tucked them away. “Cut me some slack. It was seven in the morning and seventy-two degrees when I left. I haven’t had any sleep but for four hours on the plane, and I’m going to crash if I don’t get some coffee in me.” He leaned to pick up his guitar. “Mom still making that nasty excuse for road paste?”

Smiling as if I would never stop, I picked up the larger bag, remembering the last time I’d carried his luggage. “We’d better stop and get some now. Besides, I’m waiting for Jenks to finish up with something, and I want to talk to you about Mom.”

Robbie straightened from trying to grip his satchel and guitar in the same hand, his green eyes looking worried. “Is she okay?”

I stared for a moment, then realized what my last words must have sounded like. “Mom’s happier than a troll under a toll bridge. What happened out there with you, anyway? She came back tan and humming show tunes. What’s up with that?”

Robbie took the bag from me, and we angled to the nearest coffee stand. “It wasn’t me,” he said. “It was her, ah, traveling companion.”

My brow furrowed and my pulse quickened. Takata. I’d thought as much. She’d gone out to the West Coast to spend time with her college sweetheart, and I wasn’t sure what I thought about him. I mean, I knew who he was, but I didn’t know him.

Silently we got in line, and as I stood shoulder to shoulder with Robbie, I suddenly felt tall. Takata was birth father to both of us, a college sweetheart who gave our mom the children her human husband-and Takata’s best friend, incidentally-couldn’t, while Takata ran off and traded his life for fortune and fame, down to dying his hair and changing his name. I couldn’t think of him as Dad. My real dad had died when I was thirteen, and nothing would change that.

But standing beside Robbie now, I snuck sidelong glances at him, seeing the older rocker in him. Hell, I could look in the mirror and see Takata in me. My feet, Robbie’s hands, my nose, and both our heights. Definitely my hair. Takata’s might be blond where mine was red, but it curled the same way.

Robbie turned from the overhead menu and gave me a sideways hug. “Don’t be mad at him,” he said, instinctively knowing where my thoughts were. He’d always been able to do that, even as kids, which had been really frustrating when I was trying to get away with something. “He’s good for her,” he added, shoving his luggage farther along the line. “She’s moving past the guilt of Dad dying. I, uh, spent some time with them,” he said, nervousness making his words soft. “He loves her. And she feels special with him.”

“I’m not mad at him,” I said, then smacked his shoulder just hard enough to make him notice. “I’m mad at you. Why didn’t you tell me Takata was our dad?”

The businessman in front of us turned around briefly, and I made a face at him.

Robbie moved forward another foot. “Right,” he murmured. “Like I’m going to call you up and tell you our mom was a groupie.”

I made a scoffing noise. “That’s not what happened.”

He looked at me and made his eyes wide. “It makes more sense than what did happen. For Christ’s sake, you would have laughed your ass off if I had told you our real dad was a rock star. Then you would have asked Mom, and then she would have…cried.”

Cried, I thought. Nice of him to not say “go off her rocker,” because that’s what she would have done. It had been bad enough when the truth came out. A sigh shifted my shoulders, and I scooted forward to the counter when the guy ahead of us ordered his tall latte something or other and moved off.

“I’ll have a grande latte, double espresso, Italian blend,” Robbie said, his eyes on the menu. “Light on the froth, heavy on the cinnamon. Can you make that with whole milk?”

The barista nodded as he wrote on the paper cup. “This together?” he asked, looking up.

“Yeah. Um, just give me a medium-size cup of the house blend,” I said, suddenly disconcerted. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought that Robbie’s order had sounded exactly like how Minias took his coffee.

“You want a shot of something in it?” the barista persisted, and I shook my head as I ran my card through the machine before Robbie could.

“Just black.”

Robbie was struggling with his stuff, so I grabbed both cups when they came up and followed him to a table too small and sticky to encourage anything but the shortest of stays. “I can carry stuff now,” I said as I watched him stagger under it.

He gave me a sideways smile. “Not while I’m around. Sit.”

So I sat, and it felt good as he bustled about, arranging his things and asking an old couple if he could have one of their chairs. I had a moment of panic when I realized the abandoned paper on the table was folded to show that shot of the Tilsons’ house. Snatching it up, I jammed it in my bag just as Robbie joined me.

Landing heavy in his chair, he took the lid off his coffee and inhaled his first deep sniff, followed by a deep draft. “That’s good,” he said around a sigh, and I followed suit. For a moment he was silent, and then he eyed me expectantly over his paper rim. “So, how’s Mom?”

The businessman who had been ahead of us had foam on his nose as he stood and looked at the departure screens. “Fine.”

Robbie silently cracked his knuckles. “Do you have anything to say to me?” he asked so smugly that I turned to look at him.

There’s a cop car outside Mom’s house, and you’ll want to know why. I’m doing a murder investigation, and it might spill over into my home life. The university won’t let me attend classes. I have a date every Saturday in the ever-after with Big Al the demon. And thanks to Trent Kalamack’s dad, I’m the source of the next demon generation.

“Uh, no?” I said, and he laughed, scooting his guitar closer.

“You bailed on the I.S.,” he said, green eyes showing his amusement. “I told you joining them was a bad idea, but no-o-o-o-o! My little sister has to do things her way, then work twice as hard to get out of them. I’m proud of you for realizing it was a mistake, by the way.”

Oh, that. Relieved, I took the lid off my coffee and blew across the top of the rich blackness, giving him a sideways look. “Bailed” wouldn’t quite be the word I would use. “Stupidly quit” might be more appropriate. Or “attempted suicide.” “Thanks,” I managed, though what I wanted to do was start a tirade about how it hadn’t been a mistake in the first place. See, I can learn.

“They aren’t still after you, are they?” he asked, glancing to the side and shifting uncomfortably. I shook my head, and his long face became relieved-apart from a remaining hint of caution. “Good.” He took a deep breath. “Working for them was too dangerous. Anything could have happened.”

And usually did, I thought as the first hot sip of coffee slipped down and I closed my eyes in bliss. “Like what I’m doing now, is that safe?” I said as my eyes opened. “Jeez, Robbie, I’m twenty-six. I can take care of myself. I’m not the puny ninety-pound nothing I was when you left.” It might have been a tad harsh, but the resentment of his trying to stop me from going into the I.S. remained.

“All I meant was that the people who run it are liars and corrupt vamps,” he cajoled. “It wasn’t just the danger. You would never have been taken seriously there, Rachel. Witches never are. You hit that glass ceiling, and there you sit for the rest of your life.”

I would have gotten mad, but looking in hindsight at the last year I spent at the I.S., I knew he was right. “Dad didn’t do too bad,” I said.

“He could have done a lot more.”

Actually, he had done a lot more. Robbie didn’t know it, but our dad had probably been a mole in the I.S., passing information and warnings to Trent’s dad. Crap, I thought in sudden realization. Just like Francis. No, not like Francis. Francis had done it for money. Dad must have done it for the greater good. Which begged the question of what he’d seen in the elves to risk his life helping them stay out of extinction. It hadn’t been in return for the illegal medicine to save my life. They had been friends even before I was born.

“Rachel?”

I took another sip of my coffee, scanning the busy terminal for Jenks. A sense of unease was growing in me, and I almost choked on my drink when I spotted the security guard looking at us from across the hall, just standing there, watching. This keeps getting better and better.

“Earth to Rachel…Come in, Rachel…”

I gave myself a mental shake and pulled my gaze from the air cop. “Sorry. What?”

He looked me up and down. “You got quiet all of a sudden.”

I forced my eyes to stay off the armed guard. Another one had joined him. “Just thinking,” I hedged.

Robbie looked into his coffee. “That’s a switch,” he needled. But there were three rent-a-cops now. Two I could handle, but three was iffy. Where are you, Jenks? I wanted to get out of here, and I pretended to accidentally knock my coffee over.

“Whoops!” I exclaimed brightly, and while Robbie jumped up to avoid getting soaked, I scurried for the napkins to get a better look at the terminal police. Two Weres, I thought, and a witch. They had joined forces and were making their slow way over here. Shit.

“Think you can walk and drink at the same time?” I muttered to Robbie when I returned and started mopping up the mess. “We need to find Jenks and get out of here.”

“The cops?” he said, and my eyes jerked to his in surprise. “You didn’t have to waste good coffee like that to get me to move.”

“You know?” I said, and he grimaced, his green eyes showing more than a hint of anger.

“They’ve been dogging me since I got to the airport,” he said, his lips barely moving as he put the lid on his cup and hoisted his bag. “I was all but strip-searched at security, and I swear the air marshal was sitting beside me on the plane. What did you do, little sister?”

“Me?” I almost hissed, peeved that his first thought was that they were after me. I wasn’t the one who played in Brimstone-laced dives and went on season-long tours, moving to a new city every night. No, I just stayed in little old Cincinnati, bumping into city leaders the way most people run into their neighbors at the grocery store.

“Can we just get out of here?” I said, thinking this might explain why I’d been searched on the way in.

Robbie made a noise of agreement, and as I shouldered one of his bags and picked up his instrument, he handed me his coffee and took his guitar back. “You break things,” he said in explanation, and the strap slipped from my grip.

The cops swaggered behind us as we headed to the luggage claim, and it gave me the creeps. Robbie was silent until we hit one of the moving sidewalks, and in the soft hum of it, he pulled me close and whispered, “Are you sure the I.S. isn’t still after you for quitting?”

“Positive,” I insisted, but I was starting to wonder. I was working on a twin murder involving a banshee and a human. Edden said they didn’t care about Mia, but what if they were covering something up? Not again, I thought dismally. But they would have sent Denon to threaten me by now. Maybe he’d gotten a promotion instead. The last time I’d seen the ghoul, he’d looked better.

We were nearing the end of the sidewalk, and Robbie hoisted his bag higher in such a way that he could glance at the armed men behind us. The twenty feet had become fifteen, and I was getting edgy. Jenks’s distinctive wing chirp pulled my attention to a flower cart, and seeing him busy, I pointed to the baggage claim, then jerked my head behind me. He made a burst of light in acknowledgment, which delighted the woman with him, and we continued on.

“Jenks?” Robbie said softly. “That’s your backup, right?”

“Yes.” I frowned as I shifted Robbie’s bag to a more comfortable position. “You’ll like him. He’s getting something for his wife. I don’t know why those guys are following us.”

“You’re not trying to get out of dinner tonight, are you?” Robbie said loudly as we got off the walk, and I forced a laugh.

“Maybe,” I said, willing to play along. “I have a few things I have to do. I’ve got a library book to return, and a sick friend in the hospital I want to visit tonight.”

“Don’t you dare,” Robbie said for the benefit of security as we slowed to funnel through a small hallway by the security gates. “I need you there as a buffer in case Mom gets the photo albums out.”

I smirked, knowing exactly what he meant. “Mmmm, you should have brought Cindy with you. I’m bringing someone tonight.”

“Not fair,” he exclaimed as we passed into the unsecured part of the airport, and I glanced behind us to see that our escort had dropped to one. Thank God it’s the witch. One witch I can handle, even without Jenks.

“Yes fair,” I said as I pointed to the hallway we had to take. “His name is Marshal, and he works at the university as a swim coach. He helped me once on a run, and he’s the first guy I’ve ever hung with who isn’t trying to get a little something, so be nice.”

Robbie eyed me as we got on the escalator. “He’s not…”

I looked over at his hesitation to see him holding the moving railing with his pinkie delicately extended, and I smiled with half my mouth. “No, he’s straight. I can be with a straight guy who’s single and not sleep with him. God!”

“Well, I’ve never seen it,” Robbie said, and I shoved him, burning off a little of the adrenaline from the three security guys. “Hey!” he exclaimed good-naturedly, catching himself in time to handle the end of the escalator with no problem.

We were silent as we scanned the monitors for his flight number and carousel, then slowly joined the growing group of people angling for a good spot. Any day, Jenks.

“You still living in that church?”

My blood pressure spiked, and I dropped his bag with a thump. “With that vampire, yes.” How does he hit my buttons so fast?

His gaze on the bags spilling out one by one, Robbie made a noise deep in his throat. “What does Mom think?”

“I’m sure you’ll hear all about it tonight,” I said, tired already. Actually, my mom was pretty cool about it. And with Marshal there, she might not bring it up at all.

“There it is,” Robbie blurted out, saving me from further conversation, and then his expression became concerned. “I think it’s mine,” he added, and I dropped back when he wedged himself between two shorter women to lug the rolling suitcase off the belt.

The clatter of pixy wings and the soft sound of cooing people told me Jenks was around, and I wound my scarf around my neck to give him a place to warm up. The lights had been bright around the flower cart, but it was drafty here by the doors.

“Hi, Rache,” Jenks said as he landed on my shoulder with the scent of cheap fertilizer.

“Get what you want?” I asked as Robbie lugged his rolling suitcase off the belt.

“No,” he said, and I could hear the annoyance in his voice. “Everything had a waxy preservative on it. Why, by Tink’s little red shoes, are three cops following you?”

“I have no idea.” Robbie trundled his suitcase to us, his head down and looking annoyed. “Hey, Robbie, I want you to meet Jenks, my business partner,” I said as my brother halted before us, disgust clear in the way he yanked the pull lever up.

“Someone broke the lock on my suitcase,” he said, then forced the irritation from his face when Jenks flew down to look at it.

“Yep,” the pixy said, hovering before it with his hands on his hips, then darting up, making Robbie’s head snap back. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” Jenks said.

“You’re the one keeping my sister out of trouble?” Robbie said as he offered Jenks a hand to light upon, his smile honest and full. “Thanks. I owe you big.”

“Naahh.” Jenks’s wings turned a delicate shade of red even as they hummed to life. “She’s not that hard to watch. It’s my kids who run me ragged.”

Robbie sent his eyes to me, then back to Jenks. “You’ve got kids? You don’t look old enough.”

“Almost four dozen,” he said, justifiably proud that he could keep that many children alive. “Let’s get out of here before cookie-farts over there starts to have delusions of grandeur and tries to search your underwear again.”

Lips parted, I glanced at the security cop standing thirty feet back-smiling at me. What in hell was going on? “You want to see if anything is gone?” I asked.

“No.” He frowned at the busted lock. “Jenks is right. There’s nothing in there but clothes and a half ream of music.”

“I know,” Jenks said. “I was listening to the radio chatter at the flower cart. I should have guessed it was you they were talking about, Rache.”

“Did you hear why they’re watching us?” I asked, heart pounding. “Is it the I.S.?”

Jenks shook his head. “They didn’t say. If you go for another coffee, I can find out.”

I looked at Robbie in a question, but he was shifting uneasily from foot to foot. I glanced at the security guy, now standing with his arms crossed over his chest, as if begging me to complain. “No,” Robbie said as he started gathering his things. “It’s not worth it. Where are you parked?”

“Idaho,” I quipped, but inside I was getting upset. Why did they search my brother’s bag if I’m the one they’re watching? “So…tell me about Cindy,” I asked as we neared the big glass doors. Jenks dove for my scarf as they slid open, and we went out into the bright but cold afternoon.

Robbie’s face lost its uneasy expression, beaming as he launched into a stream of happy conversation, as I’d hoped he would. I made the right sounds at the right times, almost having to force my interest in his girlfriend as Robbie and I found our way to my car.

All the way to the lot I scanned faces, watched the horizon, checked behind me, and breathed deep for the distinctive scent of Were, vampire, or witch while trying to pretend everything was normal and keeping up my end of the conversation about new bands and what I’d been listening to. Though still uptight, I breathed easier when we got to my car and found that Denon wasn’t waiting for me. It helped that my bad-mojo amulet on my key ring stayed a nice bright green.

Clearly glad to be going home, Robbie continued to chat while we loaded his bags in the back and bundled into the front seat. I cranked the heater on full for Jenks, who immediately started cussing about perfume and left me to settle on Robbie’s shoulder. I think it was more because my vastly underdressed brother had angled all the vents toward himself than my perfume. The conversation bobbled when Robbie noticed the lethal-magic detection charm hanging from my keys. He knew what it was-he’d watched our dad prep for work, too-and though his face creased in concern because his little sister had to have an amulet to warn her of car bombs, he didn’t say anything.

It wasn’t until we hit the expressway and started for home that I began to relax, but all the while I was checking my rearview mirror for the flashing of I.S. lights, and thinking, Am I coming too close again to one of their cover-ups? And if I am, am I going to back off or bust it open once more?

Eyes squinting because of the bright sun as much as my sour mood, I recalled the look of anger on Robbie’s face when he saw that his stuff had been pawed through, and I decided that yup, I was going to crack it open and let the sun shine in.

Eight

The draft from the heater made my curls tickle my neck as I sat at Ivy’s antique table and looked through one of my dad’s old demon texts for a recipe for twisting a locator amulet. A curse, to be excruciatingly honest. Jenks was reading over my shoulder, hovering an irritating two feet up. I don’t think he was pleased that even though I’d found a locator-amulet recipe in my safely mundane earth-magic books, I was still looking. Most detecting charms, be they earth or ley line magic, were sympathetic magic-using something you have to detect whatever it is you’re interested in: car bombs, shoplifters, listening devices, whatever. Earth-magic locator charms, however, worked by finding auras over long distances. It was very sophisticated magic, and I was hoping that the demons had an easier version. Chances were good they did.

I’d escaped my mom’s about an hour before, claiming I had work to do and promising that I’d be back at midnight. Robbie hadn’t said anything to Mom about the airport cops, but I was still peeved his stuff had been searched. Worried, really, but I handled anger better than fear.

The sun was going down now, and a dark gloom had taken the kitchen. Past the blue curtains, the sky was a dull gray, and, wanting to get Jenks off my shoulder, I stood, open book tingling in my hand as I went to thunk on the rocker switch by the archway. Jenks’s wings hummed as bright fluorescent light flickered into existence, and I shuffled to the center counter. The curse book thumped down and, still not looking up from the pages, I crossed my ankles and leaned over the book, using the end of a pencil to turn the page. I’d like to say that the book was cold from having been in the unheated belfry, but I knew better.

Jenks buzzed closer, his wings managing to sound disapproving. Rex watched from the threshold, her ears pricked and the little bell Jenks had put on her last fall gleaming. I’d try to coax her in, but I knew better. The only reason she was here was Jenks. Hovering an inch above the yellow pages, Jenks put his hands on his hips and looked at me. I couldn’t help but notice that the dust he was letting slip was making the hand-penned words glow. Interesting…

“Ra-a-a-ache,” Jenks drawled in warning.

“I’m just looking,” I said, waving him off before turning another page. Demon books didn’t have indexes. Most didn’t have titles. I was reduced to browsing. It made for slow going. Especially since I was one to linger, curious as to how bad a bad curse could be or how neutral some of them were. Some were easy to tell by just the ingredients, but others seemed to be a curse only because of the mixing of earth and ley line magic that all demon curses contained. They were black only because they threw nature’s book so far out of balance. I was hoping the demon equivalent of a locator charm was one of these.

I had decided last year that I wasn’t going to avoid twisting a demon curse solely on the basis of the smut. I’d been given a brain, and I was going to use it. Unfortunately, the rest of society might not agree with me. Jenks, apparently, wanted to play the part of Jiminy Cricket, and he was reading the pages as carefully as I.

“That’s an excellent one,” he said, sounding almost reluctant to admit it as he dusted the curse that detailed out how to twist a broomstick-size rod of redwood into flight. There was an earth charm to do the same thing, but it was twice as complicated. I’d priced it out last year, deciding the only flying this little witch was going to do would be in the seat of an airplane.

“Mmmm,” I said, turning the page, “I could pay my rent for a year for just what the stick costs.” The next page was a curse to turn human flesh into wood. Yuck. Jenks shivered, and I turned the page, sending his blue sparkles sifting to the floor. Like I said, some of these were really easy to tell they were black.

“Rachel…,” Jenks coaxed, clearly thrown.

“I’m not doing that one, so relax.”

His wings buzzed fitfully, and he sank an inch in height, preventing me from easily turning the page. Exhaling, I stared at him to get him to move by my will alone. Crossing his arms over his chest, he stared right back. He wasn’t going to give an inch, but when two of his kids, in front of the dark kitchen window, started arguing over a seed they’d found in a crack in the floor, the distraction lifted him up enough so that I could turn the page.

My fingertips resting on the faded yellow pages were going numb, and I curled them into a fist. But my heart started beating faster when I thought I recognized what was a locator charm under them. If I was reading it right, the demon curse used sympathetic magic, like a detection spell, not auras, like regular locator charms. Though a curse, the magic before me looked a hell of a lot easier than the aura-based one in the earth-magic book. All the better to tempt you with, my dear.

“Hey, look at this,” I said softly as Jenks gave a warning chirp to his offspring to settle their argument. Together we read through the ingredients. “The attunement object has to be stolen?” I questioned, not liking that, so it was no surprise that I jumped when the front doorbell rang.

Hands on his hips, Jenks alternated his stern gaze between me and his two children, their faces red and wings dusting a black haze into the sink. “I’ll get it,” he said before I could move. “And you two better have this decided before I get back, or I’ll decide it for you,” he added to his kids before he darted out.

Their volume dropped, and I smiled. It was almost six, which meant human or witch. Possibly Were or a living vampire. “If it’s a client, I’ll see them in the sanctuary,” I called after him, not wanting to have to hide my books if they should peek into my kitchen on the way to the back living room.

“Gotcha,” Jenks shouted faintly. Rex had run off under him, her tail up, ears pricked, and little bell jingling. The two pixies at the window started right back up again, their hushed, high voices almost worse than their loud ones.

I gave a last look at the curse before I marked the page and closed the book. I had everything I needed, but the identifying object, in this case the crystal tear, had to be stolen. That was kind of nasty, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that made it a black curse. Earth magic had a few ingredients like that. Rue, for example, worked best when it was sown while cursing, and it didn’t work in a charm unless you stole it. Which was why mine was planted by the gate for easy pilfering. Jenks stole mine for me. I didn’t ask from where. The charms made from stolen rue were not considered black, so would this one be?

Standing, I crossed the room to my coat for the tear Edden had given me. He had stolen it from evidence. Wondering if that was enough, I pulled the tear out, shocked to see that it had lost its clarity, and had turned black. “Whoa,” I whispered, and I looked up as Ford’s voice became obvious in the hall. Immediately I looked at the clock. Six? Crap, I’d forgotten he was coming over today. I was in no mood for his mumbo jumbo, especially if it worked.

Ford came in with a tired smile, his dull dress shoes making wet spots as they lost the last of their snow. Rex trailed behind with feline interest, sniffing at the salt-and-water mix. A mess of Jenks’s kids were with him, all talking in a swirl of silk and pixy dust. Ford’s brow was creased in pain, and they were clearly sending him into overload.

“Hi, Rachel,” he said, taking off his coat in such a way that it made half the pixies retreat, but they came right back. “What’s this about you being followed at the airport?”

I gave Jenks a dark look, and he shrugged. Gesturing for Ford to sit, I dropped the demon book on the stack I’d brought down from the belfry and wiped my hands on my jeans. “They were just harassing me,” I said, not knowing how my brother fit into it, but sure it was me they were after, not him. “Hey, what do you think about this? It was clear this morning when Edden gave it to me.”

Ford sat at Ivy’s spot and held out his hand, shaking his head when a trio of pixy girls asked him if they could braid his hair. I shooed them away when I came around the counter to give the tear to him, and the girls flitted to the windowsill to take sides in the seed issue.

“Tink’s tampons!” Jenks yelped when he saw the tear on Ford’s palm. “What did you do to it, Rache?”

“Nothing.” At least it hadn’t felt furry or wiggled when I touched it. Ford squinted as he held it to the artificial light. The argument at the sink was starting to spill into the rest of the room, and I gave Jenks a pointed look. The pixy, though, was with Ford, fascinated by the black swirls running through the gray crystal.

“Edden gave it to me to make a locator charm,” I said. “But it didn’t look like that. It must have picked up the emotions at the airport when they were following us.”

Ford looked at me over the tear. “You got angry?”

“Well, a little. I was more peeved than anything else.”

Jenks darted to the window as the argument reached an eyeball-hurting intensity. “Peeved, nothing. She was like a pimple on a fairy princess’s ass, red and ready to pop,” he said, then started speaking to his kids too fast for me to follow. Instant pixy silence ensued.

“Jeez, Jenks!” I exclaimed, warming. “I wasn’t that upset.”

Ford shifted the tear back and forth between his fingers. “It must have absorbed the emotions from not only you, but everyone there.” He hesitated, then added, “Did the tear…take your emotions away?”

Seeing his hope, I shook my head. He thought it might be a way to help him muffle emotions, perhaps. “No,” I said. “Sorry.”

Leaning across the corner of the table, Ford handed the tear back, doing a pretty good job of hiding his disappointment. “Well,” he said, settling into Ivy’s chair and pulling Rex onto his lap. “I’m on the clock. Where would you be most comfortable?”

“Can’t we just have coffee instead?” I suggested as I tucked the tear back in my coat pocket for lack of anywhere better. “I’m not in the mood to try to remember Kisten’s killer.” Stupid cat won’t let me touch her, but a perfect stranger gets head butts and kitty kisses.

His dark eyes went to the silent coffeemaker. “Like anyone ever is?” he said softly.

“Ford…,” I whined, and then one of the pixy kids shrieked. Ford shuddered and turned a shade whiter. Irritated, I looked at Jenks. “Jenks, can you get your kids out of here? They’re giving me a headache.”

“Jumoke gets the seed,” Jenks said flatly, cutting off the rising protests with a sharp wing chirp. “I said you wouldn’t like it!” he exclaimed. “Get out. Jumoke, ask your mother where she hides her seeds. It will be safe there until spring.”

It also would ensure that she wouldn’t die without someone else knowing where she hid their valuable seed stash. Pixy life spans sucked.

“Thanks, Papa!” the exuberant pixy shouted, then fled, trailing the rest of them in a calliope of sound and color.

Relieved, I came around the counter to sit at my spot. Ford looked better already, and he shifted to a more comfortable position when Rex followed the pixies out. Jenks dropped down before him in his best Peter Pan pose, hands on his hips. “Sorry,” he said. “They won’t come back.”

Ford glanced at the coffeemaker again. “One of them is still in here.”

I shoved the demon texts next to the mundane university textbooks to make some space. “Cheeky bugger,” I muttered, standing up to get Ford a coffee.

Jenks’s brow furrowed, and he made a harsh whistle. Smirking, I waited to see who the eavesdropping pixy was, but no one showed. Maybe I could fritter all our time away, and that would be that. Talk about Jenks, maybe.

“Thanks, Rachel,” Ford said with an exhale. “I could use some caffeine. It’s real, yes?”

Pouring a cup, I slid it into the microwave and hit “fast cook.” “Decaf is cruel and unusual punishment.”

Jenks was buzzing around the kitchen like a firefly from hell, shedding sparkles to make artificial sunbeams. “I can’t find anyone,” he grumbled. “I must be getting old. Are you sure?”

Ford cocked his head and seemed to be listening. “Yup. It’s a person.”

A smile came over Jenks as the sensitive man included pixies as people. Not everyone did. “I’ll go do a nose count. Be right back.”

He zipped out, and I opened the nuker. Ford’s cup was steaming, and leaning close as I set it by him, I whispered, “Can we go out and talk about Jenks instead of me?”

“Why?” Ford asked, as if knowing I was stalling, then took a sip. “His emotions are stable. It’s yours that are jumping like bunnies in a fryer.”

I frowned at the connotation, then sat in my own chair, pulling my cold coffee close. “It’s Matalina,” I said softly, hoping the eavesdropper couldn’t hear, much less Jenks.

Ford set his mug down, but his fingers didn’t leave it, seeking the warmth. “Rachel,” he said even more softly, “I don’t mean to sound trite, but death comes to everyone, and he will find a way to deal with it. Everyone does.”

My head went back and forth, and I felt a sliver of fear. “That’s just it,” I said. “He’s not human, or witch, or vampire. He’s a pixy. When she dies, he might go with her. Will himself to death.” It was a wildly romantic notion, but I had a feeling it was standard pixy fare.

“He has too much to live for.” Ford’s knobby fingers tightened on the porcelain, then released. “You, the firm, his children.” Then his eyes lost their focus. “Maybe you can ask one of his kids if that’s common.”

“I’m afraid to,” I admitted.

There was the buzz of Jenks’s wings darting past the arch as he went into the living room, and Ford’s expression became neutral. “What’s this Edden was saying about Marshal catching someone under your church?”

I rolled my eyes. “Tom Bansen, formerly of the I.S. Arcane Division, was bugging the church. Marshal was returning the box I forgot in his car and he caught him.” I managed a smile despite the pang of hurt from what I’d asked Marshal to throw away. “Marshal is coming to dinner tonight with my mom and brother.”

“Mmmm.”

It was long and drawn out, and I brought my gaze up to see the usually stoic FIB psychologist wearing a wan smile. “What’s that supposed to mean? Mmmm?” I said tartly.

Ford sipped from his mug, his dark brown eyes twinkling deviously. “You’re taking someone to meet the family. It’s good to see you moving forward. I’m proud of you.”

I stared at him, then laughed. He thought Marshal and I… “Marshal and me?” I said with a guffaw. “No way. He’s coming over as a buffer so I don’t walk out of there tonight facing a blind date with my mom’s paperboy.” Marshal was great, yeah, but it was also nice knowing I could leave things alone if I tried.

“Right.”

His voice dripped disbelief, and I set my mug down. “Marshal is not my boyfriend. We just do stuff together so no one hits on either of us. It’s nice and comfortable, and I’m not going to let you turn it into anything more with your psychobabble bull.”

Ford placidly arched his eyebrows at me, and I stiffened when Jenks zipped in and said, “You musta hit pretty close to the mark there, sheriff, to get her riled up like that.”

“He’s just a friend!” I protested.

Relenting, Ford dropped his eyes and shook his head. “That’s how good relationships start, Rachel,” he said fondly. “Look at you and Ivy.”

I felt the muscles in my face go slack and I blinked. “Excuse me?”

“You’ve got a great relationship there,” he said, busying himself with his coffee again. “Better than a lot of married couples I see. Sex ruins it for some people. I’m glad you’re learning that you can love someone without having to prove it with sex.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said uneasily. “Hey, let me top your coffee off there.”

I could hear him shift as I turned my back on him and went to get the carafe. And he wanted to put me under hypnosis? No freaking way. He knew too much about me already.

“Ford,” Jenks said gruffly, “your spider sense is whacked. All my kids are accounted for. Maybe it’s Bis.” He looked at the corners. “Bis, you in here?”

I smiled as I poured half a cup into Ford’s mug. “Not while the sun is up, he’s not. I saw him on the front eave when I went out for the paper this afternoon.”

Taking a sip of coffee, Ford smiled. “There are three emotion sets in this room other than mine. Someone’s nose got counted twice. Look, it’s okay,” he added when Jenks started dripping green sparkles. “Forget about it.”

The soft strains of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” drifted into existence, muffled but annoying. It was Ford’s phone, and I eyed him with interest, thinking it an odd sort of tune for the straitlaced guy, but then my lips parted when I realized it was coming from my bag. My phone? But I knew I’d had it on “vibrate.” At the very least, it wouldn’t be playing that song. “Cripes, Jenks,” I said, scrambling for my bag. “Will you leave my phone alone!”

“I haven’t touched your phone,” he said belligerently. “And don’t be blaming it on my kids either. I bent their wings back last time, and they all said it wasn’t them.”

I frowned, wanting to believe him. Unless it was general nuisance, Jenks’s kids usually didn’t make the same mischief twice. Dropping my bag on my lap, I pulled out my phone, finding the call to be from an unlisted number. “Then why does it keep going off ‘vibrate’? I almost died of embarrassment the night I tagged Trent.” Flipping it open, I managed a courteous, “Hello?”

Jenks landed on Ford’s shoulder, smiling. “It started playing ‘White Wedding.’”

Ford laughed, and I pulled the phone from my ear. There was no one there. Clicking through the menu, I put it on “vibrate.” “Leave it alone,” I growled, and it went off again.

“Jenks!” I exclaimed, and the pixy flew up to the ceiling, grinning from ear to ear.

“It’s not me!” he chimed out, but he was having too much fun for me to believe him.

It wasn’t worth trying to catch him, so I dropped the phone in my bag and let it ring. Ford was very still, and a wave of apprehension swept me at the look in his eyes. Scared, almost.

“Someone else is in this room,” he said softly, and Jenks’s laughter cut off. I watched as Ford pulled out his amulet. It was a swirl of emotions, confusing and chaotic. No wonder he liked to work one on one. “Both of you, go back by the fridge,” he said, and it was as if the warmth left my body. Shit, what in hell is going on?

“Go,” he said, waving, and I stood up, totally creeped out. Maybe it’s a demon, I thought. Not really here, but here on the other side of the ever-after, looking at us with his second sight. The sun wasn’t down yet, but it was close.

Jenks silently landed on my shoulder, and we backed up until the amulet shifted to a frustrated black.

“And he or she is extremely frustrated,” Ford said mildly. “He, I think.”

I didn’t believe this. How could he be so calm? “You sure it isn’t a pixy?” I almost whined, and when Ford shook his head, I asked, “Is it a demon?”

Ford’s amulet flashed a confused orange. “Maybe?” Ford offered, and when the amulet turned the purple of anger, he shook his head. “Not a demon. I think you have a ghost.”

“What?” Jenks yelped, the burst of yellow pixy dust settling onto the floor to slowly fade. “How come we didn’t know before? We’ve been here a year!”

“We do live next to a graveyard.” I looked over my kitchen, feeling it was alien suddenly. Damn it, I should have gone with my first gut feelings when I saw the tombstones. This wasn’t right, and my knees weren’t feeling all that sturdy. “A ghost?” I stammered. “In my kitchen?” Then my heart did a flip-flop, and my gaze shot to my demon library, down from the belfry. “Is it my dad?” I shouted.

Ford put a hand to his head. “Back up. Back up!” he cried. “You’re too close.”

Heart pounding, I looked at the eight feet between us and pressed into the fridge.

“I think he meant for the ghost to back up,” Jenks said dryly.

My knees started to shake. “This is freaking me out, Jenks. I don’t like it.”

“Yeah,” Jenks said. “Like I’m all peach fuzz and nectar here?”

Ford’s expression eased, and the amulet around his neck went a sorrowful brown tinged with the red of embarrassment. “He’s sorry,” Ford said, gaze unfocused as he concentrated. “He didn’t mean to scare you.” A smile came over him, unusually soft. “He likes you.”

I blinked, and Jenks started to swear in one-syllable sentences in a way that only a pixy can manage. “Likes me?” I stammered, then got the willies. “Oh God,” I moaned. “I’ve got a peeping Tom of a ghost. Who is it?”

The amulet went entirely red. Ford looked down at it as if needing confirmation. “I’d say not a peeping Tom. I’m getting that he’s frustrated, benevolent, and he’s starting to feel better now that you know he’s here.” Ford’s eyes slid to my bag. “Ten to one he’s the person who has been changing your ring tones.”

I fumbled for a chair, yanked it to the fridge, and sat down. “But my phone has been doing this since the fall,” I said, looking at Jenks for confirmation. “Months.” Anger started trickling in. “He’s been here all that time? Spying on me?”

Again, the amulet went an embarrassed red. “He’s been trying to get your attention,” Ford said gently, as if the ghost needed an advocate.

I put my elbows on my knees and dropped my head into my hands. Swell.

Clearly frustrated, Jenks landed on the sill beside his brine shrimp tank. “Who is it?” he demanded. “Ask him his name.”

“Emotions, Jenks,” Ford said. “Not words.”

Taking a calming breath, I looked up. “Well, if it’s not my dad…” I went cold. “Kisten?” I warbled, feeling my entire world take a hit. God, if it was Kisten. There was a spell to talk to the dead who were stuck in purgatory, but Kisten’s soul was gone. Or was it?

Ford seemed to waver, and I held my breath. “No,” he finally said, and the amulet swirled with black and purple. “I, ah, don’t think he liked Kisten.”

Jenks and I exhaled together, and Ford straightened in his chair. I didn’t know what I was feeling. Relief? Disappointment?

“Sir,” Ford said to a corner in the kitchen, and my skin crawled. “Think about your contact to this plane. Ah, that would be Rachel, probably.”

Again I held my breath. Jenks was shedding gold sparkles. Colors shifted across Ford’s amulet, but I didn’t know enough to interpret them when they were all mixed up like that.

“I’m feeling the excitement of a past danger shared,” Ford said softly. “Of fondness, gratitude. Heavy gratitude to you.” His eyes opened, and I stifled a shiver at the alien look in them. They were his, but they carried the shadow of the soul of the person he was picking up on.

“Have any of your clients died?” Ford asked. “Someone you were trying to help?”

“Brett,” Jenks said.

“Peter?” I blurted out.

But the amulet went a negative gray.

“Nick,” Jenks said nastily, and the color on the metal disk became a violent shade of purple.

Ford blinked, trying to divorce himself from the hate. “I’d say no,” he whispered.

This was really weird. Whoever it was knew my old boyfriends. My eyes closed in a wash of guilt. I had known a lot of people who were now dead. I was a freaking albatross.

“Rachel.”

It was gentle and caring, and I opened my eyes to find Ford looking at me with compassion. “You are worthy of accepting love,” he said, and I flushed.

“Stop eavesdropping on me,” I mumbled, and Jenks’s wings hummed an agitated whisper.

“The ghost thinks so, too,” Ford added.

I swallowed a lump. “Are you sure it isn’t my dad?”

Ford’s smile turned benevolent. “It’s not your dad, but he does want to protect you. He’s frustrated, watching you these past…months? And being unable to help.”

I let out my breath in a huff. Jenks’s wings hit a higher pitch, and he took to the air. Great. I really needed another white knight. Not. “Who is it?” Jenks said, almost angry. Then, in a burst of sparkles that rivaled the lights, he shouted, “Rache, where’s your Ouija board?”

I stared at the wildly darting pixy, then, understanding what he wanted to do, I shuffled through Ivy’s papers for the back of one she wouldn’t miss. “I don’t have one,” I said, turning over a hand-drawn map of the conservatory and writing out the alphabet in big, bold letters. “They give me the creeps.”

Feeling light-headed, I pushed the hand-drawn alphabet in front of Ford and backed up. Ford gave me a wondering look, and I said, “Run your finger under the letters. When you feel a positive emotion, that’s the first letter of his name.” I looked at the empty-seeming kitchen. “Okay?”

The amulet went gold in affirmation, and I sat down to hide my shaking knees. This was really, really weird.

“I’d say he’s okay with that.” But Ford looked uneasy for the first time. With a single finger, he began at A, running over them with a deliberate slowness. I watched as he paused at one, then backed up. “P,” Ford said.

My thoughts flashed to Peter, then Piscary. One dead, the other really dead. Both impossible. But what if it was Peter? He was living as an undead, but if his soul was in purgatory, and I could get it into his body, would he be whole? Was this Ivy’s answer?

I licked my lips and watched Ford reach the end of the alphabet and start over. “I,” he said, then hesitated. “Yes, I.”

My exhale was long. Not Peter, then. But Piscary? Ford had said the ghost was benevolent, and the vampire hadn’t been. Unless it was a trick. Or Piscary had been a good man before he’d become a vampire. Did their souls renew themselves at death, not disintegrate? Revert to a state before everything went wrong?

Ford reached the end and started again. “E,” he said, looking as if he was more relaxed. Not Piscary, then, and I felt better.

“Pie,” Jenks said snidely. “Did you kill a baker we don’t know about, Rachel?”

I leaned forward, breathless. “Shut up, Jenks.”

Ford’s finger stopped again, almost immediately. “R,” he said, and I felt myself go cold, then hot. No freaking way…

“Oh my God!” I shouted, jumping to my feet. Jenks hit the ceiling at my outburst, and Ford covered his ears, eyes closed in pain. “I know who it is!” I exclaimed, eyes wide and my heart pounding. I could not believe it. I could not freaking believe it. But it had to be him!

“Rachel!” Jenks was in my face, shedding gold sparkles. “Stop! You’re killing Ford! Knock it off!”

His hand to his head, Ford smiled. “It’s okay,” he said, grinning. “This is good stuff. From both of you.”

Wonder filled me, and I shook my head as I looked around my kitchen. “Unbelievable,” I whispered, then more loudly said, “Where are you? I thought you were at peace.” I stopped, hands falling to my side, disappointed somehow. “Wasn’t saving Sarah enough?”

Ford was leaning back in his chair, grinning as if he was witnessing a family reunion, but Jenks was pissed. “Who the hell are you talking to, Rache? Tell me or I’m going to pix you, so help me Tink.”

Hand gesturing at nothing, I stood in the middle of my kitchen, still not believing it. “Pierce,” I said, and Ford’s amulet glowed. “It’s Pierce.”

Nine

The dusty box my mom had brought over last fall was pretty much empty. There was a scarily small T-shirt from Disneyland. Some bric-a-brac. My old diary, which I had started some time after my dad died and I realized pain could be remade once you gave it the permanence of words. The books that had once filled the box were now in the kitchen, but the eight-hundred-level ley line arcane textbook Robbie had given me for the winter solstice hadn’t been among them. I hadn’t thought it was here, but I had wanted to check before I went over to my mom’s and got her stirred up by looking for it in her attic. It had to be somewhere.

But it wasn’t in my closet, and sitting back on my heels, I pushed a long curl out of my eyes and exhaled, gazing at the single-paned, night-darkened stained-glass window my bedroom had. Without the book, I had no hope of re-creating the spell I’d done eight years ago to give a spirit in purgatory a temporary body. I was missing a few hard-to-find ley line tools as well. Not to mention that the charm needed a whopping big boost of communal energy.

Being at the closing of the circle at Fountain Square on the solstice would do it. I knew that from experience, but the solstice was come and gone. I was banned from the Howlers’ arena, so that was out, even if they did have a game in the snow. New Year’s was my next best bet. They didn’t close the circle, but there would be a party, and when people started singing “Auld Lang Syne,” the energy flowed. I had three days to find everything. It didn’t look good.

“Well, Tink loves a duck,” I said, and Jenks, resting on my dresser among my perfumes, buzzed his wings. The pixy hadn’t left my side since finding out we had a ghost. I thought it was funny. Pierce had been here almost a year. Why it bothered Jenks now I had no idea.

Though our hour had come and gone, Ford was still in the kitchen, slowly talking to Pierce one letter at a time as I listened in while whipping up a batch of earth-magic locator amulets. The demon curse would have been easier, but I wasn’t going to twist demon magic in front of Ford. I had a bad feeling I’d done the complex charm wrong since nothing happened when I invoked the first potion with a drop of my blood and spilled it on the amulet. Mia was probably outside the quarter-mile radius within which it worked, but I should’ve smelled something.

“You think the book is still at your mom’s?” Jenks asked, his wings a blur though his butt was still settled on my dresser. The sound of his kids playing with Rex was loud, and I wondered how long the cat would last before she hid from them.

“I’ll find out tonight,” I said firmly as I refolded the box and shoved it into a pile of boots. “I must have left it at Mom’s when I moved out,” I said around a stretch to get the kinks out of my back. “It’s probably in the attic along with the stuff to do it.” I hope.

I stood, glancing at my alarm clock. I was meeting Marshal at his apartment in less than an hour, and from there we were driving to my mom’s so it would look more like a “date.” Finding an excuse to get up into the attic might be hard, but Marshal could help. I didn’t want to ask my mom about the book. The first time I’d used it, I’d gotten in major trouble with the I.S.

Hands on my hips, I gazed at the unusual sight of the back of my closet. Shoes and boots were everywhere, and the thought of Newt possessing me, clearing out my closet in the search for her memory, rose up. Suddenly nervous, I shoved the box away and began carefully putting my boots back.

Jenks took to the air, his legs unfolding to reach the top of the dresser and his face tight with worry. “Why do you want to give him a body anyway? You don’t even know why he’s here. How come Ford hasn’t asked him that? Huh? He’s been spying on us.”

Wondering where that had come from brought my head up. “Jenks, he’s been dead for a hundred years. Why would Pierce be spying on us?” I huffed, nudging the last of my boots into line.

“If he’s not spying on us, then why is he here?” Jenks asked, arms crossed belligerently.

Hand on my hip, I gestured in exasperation. “I don’t know! Maybe because I helped him once and he thinks I can help him again. That’s what we do, you know. What’s with you, Jenks! You’ve been bitchy all night.”

The pixy sighed, his wings stopping to look gossamer and silk. “I don’t like it,” he said. “He’s been here for a year watching us. Messing with your phone.”

“He’s been trying to get noticed.” The air pressure shifted, and Ivy’s footsteps echoed in the sanctuary.

“Ivy?” Jenks said loudly, then he darted out.

Hearing Ivy’s steps, I started throwing my shoes in the closet, trying to get it shut before Ivy offered to help me organize. My thoughts went back to that solstice night, trying to remember the charm. I saw Robbie pick up the rare red-and-white shallow bowl before we fled Fountain Square. But what he did with it between that and Pierce and me going to the vamp’s house and saving the girl, I didn’t know. The kitchen had been clean by the time I was strong enough to stand again, and I had assumed Dad’s ley line stuff was back in the attic. I never did see the book again. My mom hadn’t said much about me summoning a ghost out of purgatory, and it would be just like her to hide everything to keep me from doing it again. Especially when I’d been trying to summon my dad, not a young man accused of witchcraft and buried alive in the mid-1800s.

Ivy’s shadow passed my door, Jenks a small glow and a hushed voice of panic on her shoulder. “Hi, Ivy,” I called as I kicked the last shoe in and forced the door shut. Then, knowing how she disliked surprises, I added, “Ford is in the kitchen.”

From Ivy’s room came a preoccupied “Hi, Rachel.” Then a terse “Get out of my way, Jenks,” followed by a soft thump. “Hey. Where’s my sword?”

My eyebrows rose. Nudging my flip-flops under the bed, I went to the hall. “You left it in the belfry stairway after you oiled it the last time.” I hesitated, hearing Jenks tattling on me. “Ah, what’s up?”

Ivy was halfway back to the sanctuary. Her long winter coat swayed, and her boots hit the wood floor with purpose. Gold sparkles fell from Jenks as he flitted back and forth in front of her, flying backward. I hated it when he did that to me, and by her stiff arm movements, I figured Ivy did, too.

“It’s a ghost, Ivy!” he shrilled. “Rachel summoned it when she was a kid, and it’s back.”

Leaning against the door frame with my arms crossed, I said, “I was eighteen, not a kid.”

His sparkles shifted to silver. “And he likes her,” he added.

Oh for God’s sake, I thought, losing sight of them in the dark foyer but for Jenks’s glow. “We have a randy ghost?” Ivy asked, faintly amused, and my eyes narrowed.

“This isn’t funny,” Jenks snapped.

“He’s not randy!” I said loudly, more embarrassed by Jenks than anything else. Pierce was probably hearing every word. “He’s a nice guy.” But my gaze became distant as I remembered Pierce’s eyes, the flinty black of them and how I’d shivered when he kissed me on my front porch, ready to go off to tag the bad vampire and thinking he could make me stay behind.

I smiled, remembering my past emotional inexperience. I’d been eighteen, and totally impressed by a charismatic witch with mischievous eyes. But it had been the turning point in my life. Together, Pierce and I had saved a little girl from a pedophile vamp-the same vampire who’d gotten him buried alive in the 1800s, which I thought beautiful justice. I’d expected the deed would have been enough to put his soul at rest, but apparently not.

That night had been the first time I’d felt alive, the adrenaline and endorphins making my body, still recovering from disease, feel…normal. It was then that I realized I’d risk anything to feel that way all the time-and most days, I did.

Ivy’s lithe shape seemed to ghost across the dim sanctuary toward me, pixies whirling in her wake with too many questions. She had her sheathed sword in her hand, and concern hit me. “What do you need your sword for?” I asked, then froze. She’d been out to the boat. She’d found something, and was going to follow it up with cold steel before sunrise. Crap. “You’ve been to the boat.”

Her perfect, oval face was placid, but the intent eagerness of her pace tightened my gut. “I’ve been to the boat,” Ivy said. “But I don’t know yet who else was out there, if that’s what you’re asking. Don’t you have a date tonight with Marshal?”

“It’s not a date,” I said, ignoring Jenks hovering nearby, shedding frustrated sparkles. “He’s rescuing me from my overzealous mother. How come the sword if you don’t know who was at the boat?”

“The hell with the sword, Ivy,” Jenks shouted, and I didn’t wonder that his kids were now whispering in the sanctuary’s shadowed rafters. “This is serious! It’s been here for months! Changing her ring tones and scaring my cat. Spying on us!”

“Pierce is not spying on us. God, Jenks, lighten up!” I exclaimed, and Ivy came out of her room with her sword, a rag, and the cleaner she used on her steel. “I don’t mind skipping dinner at my mom’s. You want to take a girls’ night out?” I asked, eyeing her blade.

“No, but thanks for the offer.” Ivy eased the blade out an inch and the biting scent of oiled metal tickled my nose. “I got a look at the list of people who visited Piscary when he was in jail.” Her smile made me stifle a shudder, and when I dropped my gaze, she added, “The sword is a conversation starter. Rynn…” A faint blush marred her pale complexion, and she started for the kitchen. “I’m not his scion, but he’s letting me lean on him.”

Lips pressed, I couldn’t help but wonder what she gave him in exchange, then squelched it. Not my business. As long as Ivy was happy, I was happy.

“So did your chat with Ford bring anything to light?” Ivy asked over her shoulder, and I pushed into motion behind her, headed for the kitchen.

“Just that we’ve got a freaking ghost!” Jenks said loud enough to make my eyeballs hurt. Rex padded at Ivy’s heels, ears pricked up and eager. “Aren’t you listening? I think it’s one of her old boyfriends she killed, spying on us.”

“Jenks. Listen to me. Pierce is not an old boyfriend,” I said, exasperated, as I followed them. “I only knew him one night. And he was dead when I found him.”

Ivy chuckled. “You could fall in love in an afternoon when we worked at the I.S.,” she said, then added, “But he’s dead?”

“That’s what I’ve been saying!” Jenks shouted, flitting from me to her. “Tink’s little green panties! You got fairy dust in your ears?”

I entered the kitchen through a sheet of glittering sparkles. The room was a mess, and I flushed when Ivy stopped short and stared. My spelling cupboards were all open, stuff strewn across the counters, evidence of me cooking up the locator amulets. I should have just used the demon curse and been done with it, ’cause the last two hours had been a big waste of time. I hadn’t even bothered invoking the last six potions, lined up at the back of the counter.

Ford looked up from the far corner where he had put himself to talk to Pierce. Beside him was the makeshift Ouija board and a pocket-size notebook with Ford’s messy scrawl filling a page. Seeing us, the man brushed cookie crumbs from himself and leaned back. I wondered if I should say hi to Pierce. He was in here…somewhere.

“I’ll tell her,” Ford said softly when Rex jingled in and twined around his feet. The psychiatrist clearly wasn’t talking to us, and his amulet turned a thankful blue, rich and deep.

Jenks darted about like a hummingbird on steroids. “Tell her what? What did the ghost say?” he asked, and I glared. His paranoia was getting old.

Her eyes still wide and questioning, Ivy delicately nudged a mesh sack of herbs down the counter to make room for her sword. “Doing a little cooking?” she asked mildly.

“Uh, a locator amulet to find Mia,” I said, not wanting to admit that my first attempt hadn’t worked. Shifting my shoulders, I started to put things away.

“If you’d let me organize your stuff, you wouldn’t make such a mess,” she said, and after pushing a box of candles to the back of the counter, she shifted the toaster forward. “Hi, Ford,” she added, sashaying to the fridge, then coming out with the bagels. “Rachel giving you problems?”

Ford chuckled. “It wouldn’t be Rachel if she wasn’t.”

I took in a breath to complain, catching it when Jenks unexpectedly dropped in front of me, hands on his hips. His green shirt had a tear in it, which was unusual for the usually meticulous pixy. “Tell her what you’re trying to do,” he demanded, putting his arms down to hide the small rip when I noticed it. “Tell her!”

Rolling my eyes, I turned to Ivy. “If I can find it, I’m going to spell Pierce a temporary body so I can talk to him.”

Ivy paused with the sliced bagel in one hand, my ceremonial ley line knife in the other. The ornate handle looked odd in her fingers, and her expression was amused. “That’s the ghost, right?”

A burst of light came from Jenks. “He’s been spying on us!” he yelled, and I wondered why he was freaking out. Ivy and Ford weren’t. “Tink’s titties! Doesn’t anyone see a problem with this? He’s been here a year, listening to everything! Do you have any idea the crap we’ve been through in the last twelve months? And you want to give this guy a voice?”

My brow furrowed as I realized Jenks had a point. Secrets. They were what kept me alive: Trent being an elf, me being a proto-demon, my arrangement with Al. Crap, Pierce probably knew Al’s summoning name. Mine, too. Everything.

“Pierce wouldn’t say anything,” I said, but Jenks took my soft voice for insecurity, and he flew triumphantly to Ivy.

Ignoring him, Ivy shoved the bread in the toaster. “You can do that?” she said, still facing away. “Give a ghost a body…?”

Her voice cut off, and she turned. The hint of hope was like thin ice, rimming her eyes, fragile. It hurt to see it there. I knew where her thoughts had gone. Kisten was dead. Seeing her hope as well, Jenks lost some of his vim.

I shook my head, and the skin around her eyes tightened almost imperceptibly. “It’s a temporary spell,” I said reluctantly. “It only works if a person’s sprit is stuck in purgatory. And only if you have a huge amount of communal energy to work it. I’m going to have to wait until New Year’s before I can even try. I’m sorry, but it can’t bring Kisten back even for a night.” I took a careful breath. “If Kisten were in purgatory, we’d have known it by now.”

She nodded as if she didn’t care, but her face was sad when she reached for a plate. “I didn’t know you could talk to the dead,” she said in an even voice to Ford. “Don’t tell anyone, or they’ll make you an Inderlander and the I.S. will put you to work.”

Ford shifted uneasily on his chair, her depression probably getting to him. “I can’t talk to the dead,” he admitted. “But this guy?” Smiling faintly, he pointed to where Rex was now sitting in the threshold, staring at me like the creepy little cat she was. “He’s unusually coherent. I’ve never run into a ghost who knows he or she is dead and is open to communication. Most are stuck in a pattern of compulsive behavior, trapped in their own personal hell.”

Kneeling, I stacked the still-clean copper spelling pots under the counter with my cherry red loaded splat gun nestled in the smallest. I kept it at crawling height for good reason. But when Ivy gasped, I popped back up.

“This is mine!” she exclaimed, waving the map of the conservatory I had scribbled the alphabet on. Ford was scrunched back in his chair, and her eyes were going black.

“Sorry,” Ford offered, shrinking back while trying not to look as if he was.

Jenks took flight, and I brushed the salt from my knees. “I did it,” I said. “I didn’t know it was important. Sorry. I’ll erase it.”

Ivy stopped short and fumed, her short black hair with the gold tips swinging as Jenks landed protectively on Ford’s shoulder. The man winced at the close contact, but he didn’t move as Ivy seemed to catch herself. “Don’t bother,” she said stiffly, and when her bagel jumped in the toaster, she smacked the paper back down on the table in front of Ford.

Wincing, I wiped the crumbs from my ceremonial knife and slid her a table knife instead. Leave it to a vamp to slice her bagel with a ceremonial device designed for black magic. Ivy slowly lost her stiff posture as she layered a thick swath of cream cheese on the bagel. She glanced at the drawer where I had stashed my knife, and with what I thought was a huge concession on her part, she broke the silence with a terse “It’s not a big deal.”

Ford tucked his amulet away as if getting ready to leave. “Going out, Ivy?” he asked.

She turned with her bagel on a plate, and leaned against the far counter. “Just chatting with a few people,” she said, flashing her sharp canines as she took a careful bite. “I’ve been out to the boat,” she said around her chews. “Thanks for waiting. I appreciate that.”

The man bobbed his head, and the tension in the room eased. “Find anything?”

I already knew the answer, and I dipped below the level of the counter to shove my twenty-pound bag of sea salt into a back cupboard. The deep-fat fryer went in front of it, and I shut the door with a hard thump, thinking the last couple of hours had been a real waste. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d worked a charm and gotten no result. Maybe I could ask my mom. She was good at earth charms. It might be an excuse to get into the attic, too.

“An undead vampire killed Kisten,” Ivy said, her gray-silk voice holding so much repressed fury it chilled me. “But we knew that already. He smells familiar,” she added, and I turned with a stack of ceramic spelling spoons in hand. Her eyes were going black, but I didn’t think it was from my rising pulse.

“Which is good,” she said, her voice almost husky. “He’s probably a Cincy vamp and still here, as Rynn Cormel suggested. I know I’ve smelled him before. I just can’t place him. Maybe I ran into him in a blood house once. It’d be easier if the scent wasn’t six months old.”

That last was more than slightly accusing, and I quietly returned to putting things away. I was glad I hadn’t been there to watch Ivy discover she knew the vampire who had killed Kisten. It had to be someone outside the camarilla, or she would have noticed his scent the morning we’d found Kisten.

“This wouldn’t have been a problem if someone hadn’t dosed me with a forget spell,” I said dryly, and Jenks lit up in a burst of white.

“I said I was sorry about that!” he shouted. His kids scattered, and Ford’s head jerked up. “You were going to try to stake the bastard, Rachel, and I had to stop you before you killed yourself. Ivy wasn’t here, and I’m too damned small!”

Shocked, I reached after him as he flew out. “Jenks?” I called. “Jenks, I’m sorry. That’s not the way I wanted it to sound.”

Depressed, I turned to Ford and Ivy. I was acting like an insensitive jerk. No wonder Jenks was in a bad mood. Here Ivy and I were trying to find Kisten’s killer, and Jenks was the one who had destroyed the easy answer. “Sorry,” I said, and Ford met my guilty gaze. “That was thoughtless.”

Ford pulled his legs back under him. “Don’t beat yourself up. You’re not the only one who makes quick decisions that come back to bite them. Jenks has a few guilt issues he needs to work out is all.”

Ivy snorted as she turned her bagel to get a better grip on it. “Is that your professional opinion?”

Ford chuckled. “You’re the last person to be throwing stones,” he said. “Ignoring a lead for six months because you felt guilty that you weren’t there to save the two people you love the most.”

Surprised, I turned to Ivy. Her first startled look turned into a one-shouldered, embarrassed shrug. “Ivy,” I said as I leaned against the counter, “Kisten’s death is not your fault. You weren’t even there.”

“But if I had been, it might not have happened,” she said softly.

Ford cleared his throat, looking at the archway as Jenks buzzed back in, sullen. Matalina was hovering at the lintel, her arms crossed and a severe expression on her face. Apparently the wise pixy woman was doing a bit of psychoanalyzing herself and didn’t want Jenks sulking in the desk.

“Sorry, Rache,” he said as he lit on my shoulder. “I shouldn’t have flown out like that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I murmured. “I only said what I did because I was so far from putting blame on you that what I sounded like never occurred to me. You saved my life. And we’ll get my memory back. You did okay. I just want to know what happened.”

Ford leaned back and tucked his pencil away. “You will. It’s starting to surface.”

“Can we get back to the ghost?” Jenks said, his wings making my hair fly, and the wan-looking human smiled.

“He says thank you, by the way,” Ford said, glancing at his notebook. “He didn’t find his rest, much to his shame, but he wouldn’t be allowed to walk as he is if it hadn’t been for Al freeing him.”

“Al!” I exclaimed, squinting to see Ford’s smile through the cloud of sparkles Jenks had made, hovering in midair, in shock. Even Ivy paused, bagel halfway to her mouth. “What does Al have to do with this?” I stammered as Jenks made self-congratulatory sounds.

“I knew it!” he crowed. “I knew it all along!”

But Ford was still smiling, the faint wrinkles around his eyes making him look tired. “Nothing intentionally, I’m sure. Remember that tombstone your demon cracked?”

I shook my head, biting back my ire at his use of the term “your demon.” Then I changed the motion into a nod. “The night I rescued Ceri?” I said, then blinked. “My God. Pierce is buried here? In our backyard?”

If pixies could have coronaries, Jenks was having one. Sputtering, he hovered, his face frightened and a steady stream of black sparkles puddling on the center counter to spill over and eddy about my stocking feet. “You’re talking about the one with the weird-ass statue of the angel?” he managed, and Ford nodded.

No way! I thought, wondering if I had enough time to find my flashlight and go out and look at it before Marshal got here.

“The name was scratched off!” Jenks shrilled, and Rex stretched, going to twine about my feet as she tried to get closer to her tiny master.

“Take a chill pill, Jenks,” I said, “before you set your dust on fire.”

“You shut up!” he shouted, then flew to Ivy. “I told you! Didn’t I tell you? You don’t chisel off someone’s name unless…” His eyes widened. “And he’s in unsanctified ground!” he squeaked. “Rachel, he’s trouble. And he’s dead! Doesn’t it bother you that he’s dead? How come he’s dead!”

Ivy’s dark eyes went from me to Jenks, and then to Ford, who was sitting back and watching it all in a rather clinical way.

“He was dead when I met him,” I said dryly, “and he was nice enough then. Besides, a good slice of Cincy’s population is dead.”

“Yeah, but they aren’t lurking in our church, spying on us!” he yelled, getting right in my face. “Why are you trying to make him real!”

I had endured just about enough. Slamming a cupboard door shut, I stepped forward to push him back. “He’s been trying to make contact,” I said, eyes narrowed and inches from him. “Making him solid is the only way I can talk to him without a frickin’ Ouija board. If you have to know, he was cemented into the ground because he was accused of being a witch in the 1800s. He’s probably trying to find a way to get out of purgatory and just die, so lighten up!”

Ivy cleared her throat, her bagel perched on her fingertips. “He was accused of being a witch?” she asked. “I thought you guys were really careful before the Turn.”

I backed off from Jenks and took a cleansing breath. “The vamp he tagged as a blood pedophile ratted on him,” I said. “Told everyone he was a witch. The ignorant SOBs cemented him into the ground alive. He’s not a black witch any more than I am.”

Ford’s chair scraped as he rose. Grabbing his coat, he came forward as he shuffled into it. “I have to go,” he said, giving my shoulder a squeeze. “I’ll call you tomorrow and we can set up a time to do the hypnosis.”

“Sure,” I said absently, glaring at Jenks, glowing fiercely by the fridge.

“Pierce wanted me to tell you that he’s been here since Al cracked his stone. It made a path a willing spirit could use, and he followed his thoughts back to you.” Ford was smiling at me as if it was good news, but I couldn’t smile back. Damn it, I had been in such a great mood, and now it was gone. First the thing with the failed earth charms, and now Jenks thought Pierce was a demon spy.

“This is bad, Ivy,” Jenks said, lighting on her shoulder. “I don’t like it.”

My anger flared. I wanted him to shut up. “I don’t care if you like it or not,” I snapped. “Pierce is the first person I helped. The first person who needed me. And if he needs my help again, I’m going to give it.” Frustrated, I threw a handful of ley line stuff in a drawer and shut it so hard Rex darted away.

Ford shifted from foot to foot. “I have to go.”

No doubt, after my little show of temper. Jenks got in his way, and the man hesitated. “Ford,” he said, sounding desperate. “Tell Rachel this is a bad idea. You don’t bring back the dead. Not ever.”

My heart seemed to clench, but Ford raised a placating hand. “I think it’s a great idea. Pierce is not malevolent, and what harm can she do to him in one night?”

Jenks’s wings hit an unreal pitch, and his sparkles sifted to gray. “I don’t think you grasp the situation here,” he said. “We don’t know this guy from Tink! So Rachel feels sorry for him and brings him back for a night. He was buried alive in blasphemed ground. We don’t know the way to bring him all the way back from the dead, but I bet a demon does. And what’s to stop this guy from whispering in some demon’s ear, exchanging our secrets for a new life!”

“That’s enough!” I shouted. “Jenks, you need to apologize to Pierce. Right now!”

Trailing a ribbon of sparkles like a wayward sunbeam, Jenks flew to me. “I will not!” he said vehemently. “Don’t do this, Rachel. You can’t risk it. None of us can.”

Jenks hovered before me, tense and determined. Behind him, Ivy looked at me. Suddenly, I didn’t know what to say. I’d met Pierce, saved a little girl with him, but had I been looking at him through innocent, eighteen-year-old eyes, easily misled and hoodwinked?

“Jenks,” Ford said, looking pained by my sudden doubt.

The small pixy darted up, his frustration obvious. “Can I talk to you in private?” he said, looking angry enough to pix the man.

Head down, Ford nodded, angling to leave the kitchen. “Let me know if you can’t find the spell, Rachel, and I’ll come over and you can talk to Pierce some more.”

“Sure.” I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned against the counter. “I’d appreciate that.” My jaw was clenched, and I was getting a headache. Rex followed Jenks and Ford out, and I wondered if the cat was following them, or Pierce. The sound of Ford’s feet faded, and then a soft, one-sided conversation started up from the sanctuary. Ivy could probably hear Ford clearly enough to make out the words, but I couldn’t, and that’s all Jenks was after.

Forcing my teeth apart, I looked at Ivy across the long length of the kitchen. She had gotten out another small plate, and as I nodded sourly, she put the other half of her dinner on it and handed it to me. I stiffly took it. “You don’t think this is a bad idea, do you?” I asked, and Ivy sighed, staring at nothing.

“Is it a demon curse?” she asked. “The one to give Pierce a temporary body, I mean.”

My head moved back and forth, and I took a bite of bagel. “No. It’s simply hard.”

Her dark eyes focused on me and she lifted a thin shoulder. “Good,” she said. “I think you should do it. Jenks is a paranoid old man.”

Relief brought my shoulders down and I managed a thin smile. Turning my bagel to get to the side with the most cream cheese, I took a bite, and the tart tang of cheese hit my tongue. “Pierce isn’t up to anything,” I said as I chewed. “I just want to help him if I can. He helped me realize what I wanted to do with my life, and I sort of owe him.” I looked at her, seeing her eyes distant in thought. “You know what I mean? Owing someone for changing your life in a good way?”

Her attention flicked to me. “Uh, yeah,” she said, then set her plate down to go to the fridge.

“I know I can do the spell; all I need is the recipe, the equipment, and a gathering of witches to siphon off the power.” I looked at my bagel and sighed. This was going to be hard.

Ivy was silent as she poured a glass of orange juice, then said softly, “I’m sorry. This means a lot to you. Jenks is being an ass. Ignore him.”

I ate another bite of my bagel and said nothing. Pierce was one of the few people who knew me before I had demon marks, or smut, or anything else. I had to help him if I could.

Ivy shifted to the sink to wash the crumbs from her plate, and knowing my agitation was hard on her instincts, I slid away a few feet. “Can’t you just buy the book?” she asked, gazing at the porch light shining on the snowy garden. “If it’s not demon magic, it should be out there.”

My head nodded. It was nice that someone didn’t think Pierce was a spy. “I’m sure it is, but level-eight-hundred Arcane ley line textbooks aren’t common. They usually don’t show up unless someone is teaching a class. Getting one before New Year’s will be a problem. That and the crucible. If Robbie doesn’t know where it is, it might take months.”

The front door thumped shut, and Jenks darted in with the icy scent of a summer field on a winter night. He was in a much better frame of mind, and I couldn’t help but wonder what Ford had told him.

“I’m out of here,” I said, snagging my bag from the far chair before Jenks could try to start a conversation. “I probably won’t be back until almost four. It’s going to be bad,” I said around a sigh. “Robbie has a girlfriend and my mom’s nuts about her.”

Ivy smiled, a closed-lipped smile. “Have fun.”

I glanced at her sword on the counter, thinking I’d rather go with her and face ugly vampires than my mom and Robbie and the inevitable “when are you going to settle down” conversation. “Okay. I’m out of here.” I glanced around the almost-tidy kitchen, and wondered if they would think it was weird if I said ’bye to Pierce. “You going to be okay here alone with Pierce, Jenks?” I mocked as I shoved the invoked locator amulet in my bag to ask my mom about, and Jenks flashed an annoyed red.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” he muttered. “We’ll have a nice chat, Mr. Ghost and me.”

“A little one-sided, isn’t it?” I said, and Jenks smiled, his eagerness worrying me.

“Just the way I like it. He can’t talk back to me the way my kids do.”

My coat and boots were in the foyer. “Call me if you need me,” I said, and Ivy gave me a wave. Jenks was already on her shoulder, and the two clearly had things to discuss. Even more worrisome. Giving them a last look, I headed to the front of the church, keys jingling against my lethal-magic detector.

The pixies were busy in the corner with a terrified mouse, and ignoring the drama, I wiggled my feet into my boots and tightened them up. I shrugged into my coat, and looked out from the dark room into the shadowed sanctuary, still decorated with Ivy’s Christmas stuff and my solstice things. A soft, warm feeling took me, relaxing me. I wondered if I could really smell the scent of coal dust and shoe polish, or if it was just my imagination. I hesitated when the tinkling of Rex’s bell joined the noise of the pixies, and I watched her sit primly in the opening to the hallway to stare at me. Maybe she was staring at Pierce?

“’Bye, Pierce,” I whispered. “Don’t mind Jenks. He just wants to keep me safe.” And with a small smile, I pushed open the door and headed out into the cold.

Ten

The dishcloth had long since become damp, but we were almost done and it wasn’t worth the effort to get a dry one. Robbie was washing, I was drying, and Marshal was putting away with the help of my mom. The truth was, she was out here supervising so Robbie and I didn’t lapse into one of our infamous water fights. I smiled and handed a bowl to Marshal. The scent of roast beef and butterscotch pie was heavy in the air, a big trigger for the memories of the Sunday nights when Robbie would come over. I had been twelve and Robbie twenty. And then it had all stopped when Dad died.

Robbie saw my mood shift, and he made a fist half in the water, half out. Squeezing his hand, he made a short burst of water arc up and splash into my side of the sink.

“Knock it off,” I complained, then shrieked when he squirted me again. “Mom!”

“Robbie.” Mom didn’t even look up from arranging the coffee tray.

“I didn’t do anything,” he protested, and my mom’s eyes glinted when she turned.

“Then don’t do anything a little faster,” she complained. “Honestly, I never understood why it took you two so long to get the kitchen cleaned up. Put some hustle into it. Marshal is the only one out here working.” She beamed at him, making the young man flush when Robbie muttered a good-natured “Suck-up.”

Robbie and Marshal had hit it off great, the two of them spending much of the evening with talk about college sports and music. Marshal was closer to Robbie’s age than mine, and it was nice seeing my brother actually approve of one of my boyfriends. Not that Marshal was a boyfriend, but watching them made me wistful, as if I was getting a glimpse of something I’d turned my back on. This was what a normal family must be like, with siblings bringing new people into the family, becoming part of something bigger…Belonging.

It didn’t help that most of the dinner conversation had centered on Robbie and Cindy. They were obviously serious about each other, and I could just see my mother becoming happier by the moment because Robbie might start a family and find himself part of the “circle of life.” I’d given up on the white picket fence after Kisten had died-finding out my kids would be demons was the nail in the coffin-but seeing Robbie getting kudos for doing something I deemed not socially responsible for me to pursue was irritating. Sibling rivalry sucked.

With Marshal here, I could at least pretend. Both Mom and Robbie were impressed that he’d just sold his own business with enough profit to put him through getting his master’s without having to work at all. The swim-coach thing now was just to lower his tuition and give him a whole lot more disposable income. I’d hoped he’d heard from admissions about my declined check by now, but apparently not everyone was working over the winter break.

Giving Robbie a light smack from the back of her hand for the suck-up comment, my mother pointed out to Marshal where the glasses went, then busied herself arranging the last of the solstice cookies on a plate. The round sugar cookies were bright with solstice green and gold, and lettered with runes of good fortune. My mom put her heart into everything she did.

As soon as her back was turned, Robbie threatened to shoot another jet of water at me. I closed my eyes and ignored him. I’d been trying to get him alone all night to ask him about that book, but between Marshal and my mother, I hadn’t had the chance. I was going to have to bring in some help. Marshal wasn’t devious by nature, but he wasn’t slow on the uptake either.

Humming happily, my mom sashayed out with a plate of cookies. The stereo in the living room went on, and I grimaced. I had thirty seconds, tops.

“Marshal,” I said, pleading with my eyes as I handed him a plate. “I’ve got a big favor to ask. I’ll tell you all about it later, but will you keep my mom busy for about ten minutes?”

Robbie stopped what he was doing and just looked at me. “What’s up, firefly?”

My mom came back in, and following the pattern we’d laid down when we were conniving kids, Robbie turned back to the sink as if I’d said nothing.

“Please…,” I whispered to Marshal when he came back from sliding the stack of plates away. “I’ve got to talk to Robbie about something.”

Oblivious, my mom puttered with the coffeemaker, jostling Robbie and me aside and looking small next to us as she filled the carafe.

“Marshal,” Robbie said, eyes twinkling as they met mine behind my mom’s back. “You look as tired as a dead carp. Rachel and I can finish here. Why don’t you go and sit in the living room and wait for coffee? Look at a few photo albums.”

Immediately my mother brightened. “What a fantastic idea! Marshal, you must see the photos we took on our last summer vacation. Rachel was twelve, and just starting to have some strength,” she said, taking his elbow. “And Rachel will bring the coffee out when it’s done.” Smiling, she turned to me. “Don’t be too long, you two,” she said, but the lilt in her voice gave me pause. I think she knew I was getting rid of them. My mom was nuts; she was not stupid.

I slipped my hands into the warm water and pulled out a dripping serving platter. From the front of the house came Marshal’s resonant voice. It sounded good balanced against my mom’s. Dinner had been pleasant, but again, almost painful listening to Robbie go on and on about Cindy, my mom joining in when they talked about her two weeks out there. I was jealous, but everyone I got attached to seemed to end up hurt, dead, or crooked. Everyone but Ivy and Jenks, and I wasn’t sure about the crooked part with them.

“Well, what is it?” Robbie said, dropping the silverware so the rinse water splashed.

Quietly I ran the back of my hand across my chin. And here I am, trying to resurrect a ghost. Maybe I could be friends with a ghost. I wouldn’t be able to kill him. “Remember that book you gave me for the winter solstice?” I asked.

“No.”

My eyes came up, but he wouldn’t meet them. His jaw was clenched, making his long face appear longer. “The one that I used to bring-” I started.

“No.” It was forceful, and my lips parted when I realized he meant no as in “I’m not telling,” not “I don’t know.”

“Robbie!” I exclaimed softly. “You’ve got it?”

My brother rubbed his eyebrows. It was one of his tells. He was either lying, or about to. “I’ve no clue what you’re talking about,” he said as he wiped off the suds he’d just put there.

“Liar,” I accused, and his jaw tightened. “It’s mine,” I said, then softened my voice when Marshal raised his voice to cover us up. “You gave it to me. I need it. Where is it?”

“No.” His gaze was intent and his voice determined as he scoured the pan the roast had been in. “It was a mistake to give it to you, and it’s going to stay right where it is.”

“Which is…,” I prompted, but he continued to scrub, his short hair moving as he did.

“You gave it to me!” I exclaimed, frustrated and hoping he wasn’t going to tell me it was four time zones away.

“You have no right to try to summon Dad again.” Only now would he look at me, and his temper was showing. “Mom had a devil of a time pulling herself back together after that little stunt. Took me two weeks and almost five hundred dollars in phone bills.”

“Yeah, well, I spent seven years putting her back together when you left after Dad died, so I think we’re even.”

Robbie’s shoulders slumped. “That’s not fair.”

“Neither is leaving us for a stinking career,” I said, my heart pounding. “God, no wonder she’s so screwed up. You did the same thing Takata did to her. You’re both exactly alike.”

My brother’s face became closed and he turned away. Immediately I wished I could take it back, even if it was true. “Robbie, I’m sorry,” I said, and he flicked a glance at me. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just…I really need that book.”

“It’s not safe.”

“I’m not eighteen anymore!” I exclaimed, dish towel on my hip.

“You sure act like it.”

I dropped the dry silverware in the drawer, slammed it shut, and turned. Seeing my frustration, Robbie softened, and with his voice carrying a shared pain, he said, “Dad’s at rest, Rachel. Let him go.”

Peeved, I shook my head. “I’m not trying to talk to Dad. I need it to talk to Pierce.”

Robbie huffed as he drained the sink and rinsed the cooking pan under tap water. “He’s at rest, too. Leave the poor guy alone.”

A faint excitement lifted in me at the memory of the night Pierce and I had spent in the snow of Cincinnati. It had been the first time I had really felt alive. The first time I’d ever been able to help anyone. “Pierce is not at rest. He’s in my church, and has been for almost a year, changing my phone’s ring tones and making Jenks’s cat stare at me.”

Robbie turned, shocked, and I reached to turn the water off for him. “You’re kidding.”

I tried not to look smug, but he was my brother, and it was my right. “I want to help him find his rest. Where is the book?” I asked as I took the pan and shook the water from it.

He thought for a moment as he rummaged under the sink for the cleanser, dusting a little in the sink and then replacing it where it had sat for almost three decades. “The attic,” he said as he started to scrub. “I’ve got Mom’s crucible up there, too. The really expensive red-and-white one? And the bottle to hold the potion. I don’t know where the watch is. Did you lose it?”

Elated, I put the roaster away half dried. “It’s in my dresser,” I said, trying not to sneeze at the sharp scent of cleanser as I jammed the dish towel over the rod to dry and started for the door. I was going to get everything in one go. How lucky could I get?

I was halfway to the kitchen door when Robbie caught my elbow. “I’ll get it,” he said, glancing past me to the unseen living room. “I don’t want Mom to know what you’re doing. Tell her I’m looking for my bottle-cap collection.”

Snorting, I nodded. Yeah, like he’d really take his beer-bottle-cap collection on the plane with him. “Ten minutes,” I said. “If you’re not down here by then, I’m coming up after you.”

“Fair enough.” He smiled as he pulled the towel from the rack and dried his hands. “You are such a sweet sister. I truly don’t know how those rumors get started.”

I tried to come up with something, my mind going blank when he flicked the towel at me, scoring. “Hey!” I yelped.

“Leave your sister alone, Robbie,” my mom said faintly from the living room, her voice carrying a familiar firmness, and both Robbie and I smiled. It had been too long. Smirking at his innocently wide green eyes, I grabbed the sponge and hefted it experimentally.

“Rachel!” came my mom’s voice, and grinning, Robbie tossed the dish towel at me and sauntered confidently out of the kitchen. Almost immediately I heard the attic door being pulled down, and the thunk of the stairway hitting the carpet in the bedroom hallway. Confident now that I’d be going home with everything I’d need, I wiped the sink out and hung up the dish towel.

“Coffee,” I whispered, sniffing at the coffeemaker and hoping she’d lightened up on the grounds in deference to having a guest.

Shoes a soft hush on linoleum, my mom came in. “What’s Robbie doing in the attic?”

I pulled back from the still-dripping coffee machine. “Looking for his bottle-cap collection.” Okay, so I lied to my mother. But I’d be willing to bet he’d find something up there to take back with him, so it wasn’t a lie altogether.

She made a small sound as she pulled four white mugs from the cupboard and set them on the tray. It was the set she used for her best company, and I wondered if it meant anything. “It’s nice to have you both here,” she said softly, and my tension vanished. It was nice to have Robbie here, to pretend for a while that nothing had changed.

My mom busied herself fussing with the tray as the last of the coffee dripped into the coffeemaker, and again I noticed how young her hands were. Witches lived for almost two centuries, and we could almost pass for sisters-especially since she had stopped dressing down. “Cindy is nice,” she said from out of the blue, and I started, jerked back to reality by the mention of Robbie’s girlfriend. “He teases her like he teases you.” She was smiling, and I went to get the cream out of the fridge. “You’d like her,” she added, her eyes on the backyard, lit from the neighbor’s security light. “She’s working at the university while finishing up her degree.”

Smart, then, I thought, not surprised. This hadn’t come out in dinner conversation. I wondered why. “What is she taking?”

My mom’s lips pressed together in thought. “Criminology.”

Really smart. Too smart?

“She has one year left,” my mom said as she arranged a set of spoons on the napkins. “It was nice watching them together. She balances Robbie out. He’s so pie in the sky, and she’s so down to earth. She has a quiet beauty. Their children will be precious beyond belief.”

Her smile had gone soft, and I smiled, realizing that by settling down, Robbie was setting himself up for an entirely new set of mom-wants. She might have given up on me, but now Robbie was going to take the full brunt. Oh so sad…

“Tell me,” she said in a deceptively mild tone, “how are you and Marshal getting along?”

My smile faded. Okay, maybe she hadn’t given up on me completely. “Fine. We’re doing great,” I said with a new nervousness. She’d been the one to tell me that we weren’t suited for more than a rebound relationship, but after hearing at dinner how Marshal had pulled Tom out from under my kitchen, she might have readjusted her thinking.

“Robbie really likes him,” she continued. “It’s nice for me to know that you have someone looking after you. Able to go under your house and kill snakes for you, so to speak.”

“Mom…” I felt trapped all of a sudden. “I can kill my own snakes. Marshal and I are friends, and that’s enough. Why can’t I just have a guy friend? Huh? Every time I push it, I mess it up. Besides, you told me he wasn’t a long-term solution but a short-term diversion.”

I was whining, and she set the sugar bowl down and turned to face me. “Sweetheart,” she said, touching my jaw. “I’m not telling you to marry the man. I’m telling you to keep the lines of communication open. Make sure he knows what’s going on.”

My stomach, full of gravy and beef, started to churn. “Good,” I said, surprised. “Because I’m not dating him, and nothing is going on. Everyone I date ends up dead or going off a bridge.”

Her lips twisted into a wry expression as she took the carafe and poured the coffee into the best silver pitcher. “They do not,” she chided. “I really like Marshal, and he’s been good for you, but he’s too…safe, maybe, to keep your interest, and I want to make sure he’s not thinking there’s more to this than there is. He’s too good a person to lead on like that, and if you’ve given him any indication-”

“He knows we’re just friends,” I interrupted. God! What was it with her?

“Friends is fine,” she said firmly. “And it’s good to know he can come through in a pinch. This thing with the Bansen character, for example. I’ll sleep better knowing you have someone to go to if I’m not around. I worry about you, sweetheart.”

My jaw clenched, and I could feel my blood pressure start to rise. This was not what I wanted to talk about. “If I find any more snakes under my floorboards, I’ll know who to call.” Then I hesitated. If she isn’t around?

“Uh, Mom?” I said as she fussed over the tray. “You’re okay, right?”

She laughed, the sound of it pulling my shoulders down. “I’m fine!”

Not quite reassured, I set the good silver coffeepot on the tray, now knowing what it meant. She considered Marshal casual company, not a future son-in-law, and a part of me was disappointed even as I knew it was the best thing. A thump from the attic pulled my attention up. It was followed by another, and I started to fidget. I grabbed the tray as the distinctive bump of the attic door folding up into the ceiling filtered in. He was downstairs.

“I’ll take it in,” my mother said briskly as she plucked the tray from my hands and gave a nod to the hallway. “Poor Marshal must be bored, sitting there by himself. See if Robbie needs any help with what he pulled out of the attic. Bottle caps! I thought I threw those out!”

“Thanks, Mom.” Anxious to get my hands on that book, I followed her, smiling sadly at Marshal’s cheerful comment about the beautiful coffeepot as I headed in the other direction, almost running into Robbie. I gasped, and he steadied me with both hands. My eyes narrowed. Both hands? “Where’s the book?” I whispered.

Robbie’s eyes were pinched in the dim greenness of the hall, cold now from the attic. “It wasn’t there.”

“What?” I yelped, then lowered my voice and leaned in. “What do you mean, it wasn’t there?”

“I mean, it’s not where I left it. The box is gone.”

Not knowing if I should believe him or not, I angled around him to look for myself. “What does the box look like?” I asked as I reached for the pull cord. Had Mom found it, or was Robbie simply telling me it was gone to keep it out of my reach?

Robbie grabbed my shoulder and turned me back. “Relax. It has to be up there,” he said. “I’ll check again in the morning after she goes to sleep.”

My eyes narrowed, and I hesitated. From the front room came my mom’s voice raised in question. “Did you find your rusty caps, Robbie? I want them out of my attic!”

Robbie’s grip on my shoulders tightened, then relaxed. “Got ’em, Mom,” he said. “I’ll be right there. I’ve got something for you and Rachel.”

“Presents?” My mother was suddenly in the hall, beaming as she linked her arm in mine. “You know you don’t need to bring us presents. Just having you here is present enough.”

Robbie grinned back, winking when I gritted my teeth. Now I’d never get up there to make sure he didn’t “miss” something. Crap, he’d done this on purpose.

But my mother was happy, and I followed her back to the living room for coffee as Robbie went to rummage in his luggage. Marshal looked suitably relieved by my appearance, and I plunked myself down on the brown tapestry-covered couch, bumping into him and staying where I was, our thighs touching.

“You owe me,” he whispered, his lips twisted in both fun and sly annoyance. “You owe me big.”

I looked at the thick photo album of Robbie and me as kids. “Two tickets to the next wrestling event at the coliseum,” I whispered back. “Front row.”

“That might cover it,” he said, laughing at me.

Almost humming, my mom sat and bobbed her foot until she saw me notice it and she stilled it. “I wonder what he got us?” she asked, and the last of my bad mood evaporated. I liked seeing her this way. “Oh, here he comes!” she added, eyes lighting up at the sound of Robbie’s footsteps.

Robbie sat across from us and put down two envelopes, each having our names on them in a clearly feminine script. His long face was full of excitement, and he slid them to us with two fingers, one for me, one for my mom. “Cindy and I got these for you,” he said as we both reached for them. “But you can’t use them until June.”

“June?” I mused.

“June?” my mom echoed, then let out a joyous yelp that made me jump. “You’re getting married!” she shrieked, and threw herself around the coffee table. “Robbie, oh, Robbie!” she burbled, starting to cry. “Cindy is so sweet. I know you will be so happy together! I’m so excited for you both! Have you found a church yet? What are the invitations going to be like?”

I scooted away from Marshal and stared at the two plane tickets in my envelope. My eyes met Robbie’s when I looked up.

“Please say you’ll come,” he asked me, his arms around our mother as she cried joyful tears. “It would make us both very happy.”

“Look at me,” my mom warbled, pulling away to wipe her face. “Son of a bitch, I’m crying.”

Robbie blinked at her rough words, but I smiled. Same old Mom. “Of course I’ll come,” I said, standing up and moving around the table. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Al could just suck my toes and die. So he’d have to pick me up in an unfamiliar ley line. They had ley lines in Portland, same as everywhere else.

The hug turned into a group thing, and it felt good, secure and bittersweet. The lilac and redwood scent from my mom mixed with the aroma of electric amps, but even as my thoughts rejoiced, another worry took me. Maybe I should back off from the magic completely. I mean, I’d never forgive myself if something happened to Robbie or his new bride…or their children.

Giving them both a last squeeze, I let go and retreated. Marshal, standing forgotten, swooped in and shook Robbie’s hand, smiling as he offered his “condolences.” My eyes were wet, and I smiled through the worry. “I’m really happy for you, Robbie,” I said, meaning it. “When’s the date?”

Robbie exhaled as he let go of Marshal’s hand, becoming truly relaxed. “We haven’t set it yet. It’s going to be determined by the caterer, I’m afraid.” He grinned, embarrassed.

My mom continued to weep happy tears, promising to help in any way she could. Robbie turned from me back to her, and I smiled awkwardly at Marshal. Nothing like your brother announcing he was getting married to make an awkward situation even better.

Someone’s phone started to ring, ignored until I realized it was mine. Relishing the chance to extricate myself, I fled to the front door where I’d left my bag and searched it, thinking “Break on Through to the Other Side” must be Pierce’s idea of a joke. Not bad, considering he had a hundred and fifty years of music to catch up on. “Sorry,” I said when I read Edden’s number. “I should take this. It’s my cop friend’s dad. The one in the hospital?”

My mom made flustered waving motions, and I turned my back on them for some privacy. A ping of adrenaline pulsed through me. I didn’t think this was about Glenn, but I didn’t want to tell them I was working on bringing in a banshee. Robbie thought I was irresponsible enough already.

My mom and Robbie’s excited conversation retreated to background noise when I flipped the top open and put it to my ear. “Hi, Edden,” I said in greeting, immediately recognizing that he was in the office by the faint chatter. “What’s up?”

“Don’t have your TV on, do you,” he said, and a second flush of adrenaline built on the first.

“What is it?” I said, looking for my boots. My first thought was Glenn, but Edden sounded excited, not upset.

“Mia is at Circle Mall,” he said, and my eyes darted to my bag, glad now I’d brought the charm. I didn’t need it, but I’d know for sure if I’d done it right or not. “She was in the food court,” Edden was saying, “her and her baby soaking up the ambient emotions. I’m guessing it wasn’t enough because a fight broke out and turned into a riot. Never would have found her otherwise.”

“Holy shit,” I breathed, then covered my mouth. My eyes went to my mom’s, and she sighed when I leaned against the wall to put on my boots. “Is Remus there?”

“Ye-e-ep,” Edden said dryly. “We’ve got most of the bystanders out and the mall locked down. It’s a mess. I’m on my way there now, and I’d like you there to help bring her in. She being an Inderlander and all. I don’t have many of them on my payroll.”

He didn’t have any on his permanent payroll for legal reasons. My hands were shaking as I shrugged into my coat, but it was excitement. “I can be there in ten minutes. Five if I don’t have to park my car.”

“I’ll tell them you’re on the way,” he said, and I made a noise so he wouldn’t hang up.

“Wait. I’m going to be a while. I need to go back and get Jenks.” If I was bringing in a banshee, I needed him. I’d like to have Ivy, too, but she was out.

“Alex is on his way to get Jenks already,” Edden said, and I zipped my coat closed and dug out my keys, smacking the bad-mojo amulet with my knuckles. “I called the church first, and he wanted in on it.”

“Thanks, Edden,” I said, truly pleased that he was sending someone for Jenks not only because now I didn’t have to, but that he’d thought of Jenks at all. “You’re a peach.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, and I could hear his smile. “I bet you say that to all the captains.”

“Just the ones who let me kick ass,” I said, then broke the connection.

Excited, I turned to the living room. I froze, seeing Mom, Robbie, and Marshal sitting on the couch together, all staring at me. I looked at myself, already dressed for the cold, and I warmed. My keys jingled as I shifted, and I gave them a sick smile. Damn it, I was ready to walk out the door, and I had forgotten all about them. Oh crap. We’d driven Marshal’s car.

“Uh, I have to go,” I said as I put my keys away. “There’s a problem at the mall. Uh, Marshal?”

Marshal stood, smiling in a rather fond way that I wasn’t sure how to take. “I’ll get the car warmed up while you say good-bye.”

Robbie’s expression was dark, like I should sit and have coffee with them instead of going to do my job, but damn it, runs happened when runs happened, and I couldn’t live up to his ideas of what my life should be. “Rachel-” he started, and my mother put a hand on his knee.

“Robbie. Shut the hell up.”

Marshal made a guffaw he quickly shifted into a cough, but I felt miserable. “Don’t worry about it,” the tall man muttered from beside me, then purposely bumped into me as he put on his shoes. “It’s not a problem.”

“Mom,” Robbie protested.

My blood pressure spiked. Maybe we should have brought two cars, but then I’d be leaving Marshal alone here, and that wasn’t any better.

Putting her hand heavily on Robbie’s shoulder, my mother stood. “Marshal, I’ll pack your pie up for you. It was nice to see you again. Thank you for coming over.”

Marshal looked up from tying his boots and smiled. “It was a real pleasure, Mrs. Morgan. Thanks for having me. I enjoyed the pictures.”

She hesitated, a hint of her worry showing, then she nodded and hustled into the kitchen.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Marshal.

Marshal touched my shoulder through my coat. “It’s okay. Just bring the pie out with you, okay? Your mom makes great pie.”

“Okay,” I whispered, and he turned and left. A brief gust of cold air blew in. It was snowing again. I still felt bad, and when I turned from shutting the door behind Marshal, I almost ran into Robbie. My head snapped up, and immediately my worry turned to anger. He was staring at me, and I stared right back, eye to eye, me in my boots and him still in socks.

“Rachel, you are such an ass sometimes. I can’t believe you’re walking out of here.”

My eyes narrowed. “This is my job, Bert,” I said, hitting the nickname hard. “Mom doesn’t have a problem with it. You aren’t around enough to have a say, so get out of my face.”

He took a breath to protest, grimacing and dropping back when Mom hustled in from the kitchen, two pieces of pie on a plate covered with clear wrap. “Here you go, sweetheart,” she said, elbowing Robbie out of her way to give me a hug good-bye. “Give us a call when it’s over so we can sleep this morning.”

Relief spilled through me that I didn’t have to explain or that she wasn’t trying to make me feel guilty for cutting out early. “Thanks, Mom.” I breathed in her lilac scent as she gave me a quick squeeze and rocked back.

“I’m proud of you,” she said as she handed me the pie. “Go kick some bad-guy ass.”

I felt the prick of tears, glad she accepted that I couldn’t be the daughter she wanted, and that she was proud of the daughter I was. “Thanks,” I managed, clearing my throat to get the lump out of it, but it didn’t work.

Giving Robbie a sharp look in turn, she said, “You two make up. Now.” And with nothing more, she took the tray of coffee and returned to the kitchen.

Robbie’s jaw tightened, belligerent to the end, and I forced myself to relax. I knew better than to walk out of here mad at him. It might be another seven years before I saw him again.

“Look,” I said. “I’m sorry. But this is what I do. I’m not nine to five, and Mom’s cool with that.” He was looking at the bad-mojo amulet in my open bag, and I hid it behind my back. “You’ll try to find that book, right?” I said, suddenly unsure, then I tightened my scarf.

Robbie hesitated, and then his shoulders eased. “Yeah. I will,” he said around a sigh. “But I don’t agree with what you’re doing.”

“Like you ever did,” I said, finding a smile somewhere as I opened the door. “I’m happy for you and Cindy,” I said. “Really. I can’t wait to meet her.”

At that, he finally smiled, too. “I’ll give you her phone number,” he said, gesturing to the night, “and you can call her. She’s dying to meet you. She wants to do her thesis on you.”

I jerked to a stop in the threshold and turned. “Why?” I asked suspiciously, and he lifted one shoulder and let it fall.

“Uh, I told her about your demon marks,” he said. “I mean, she’s a witch and all. She was going to see the smut on your aura and figure it out.”

I came back inside and shut the door. “You told her what?” I said loudly, glad I had my gloves on to cover the demon mark on my wrist. I really needed to push Al into taking his name back so I could get rid of at least one of them.

“Sorry,” he said smugly, not looking at all apologetic. “Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t want her to meet you and not have an explanation about the smut.”

I waved a hand between us. “I mean, why does she want to do her thesis on me?”

Robbie blinked. “Oh! Uh, she’s majoring in criminology. I told her you’re a white witch with demon smut gained saving someone’s life. That you can still be good and be covered in smut.” He hesitated. “That’s okay, isn’t it?”

Giving myself a mental shake, I nodded. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Here,” he said, handing me the envelope with the tickets. “Don’t forget these.”

“Thanks.” The banshee tear was a hard lump in my pocket when I shoved the tickets away. “Maybe I’ll trade them in for an earlier flight.”

“That’d be great! We’d love it if you came out early. Just let us know, and we’ll get the guest room cleaned up.” He smiled at me toothily. “You know you’re welcome anytime.”

I gave him a hug good-bye before I stepped away and opened the door. The night had a dry sharpness, and I looked at Marshal, waiting, as I went down the shoveled walk. The porch light flicked on, and I waved at the shadow by the window. Robbie’s last words went around and around in my thoughts, and I kept repeating them, trying to figure out why they bothered me.

“The mall?” Marshal said cheerfully when I got in, probably glad that I’d pulled him out from under my mom’s often one-sided conversation. I handed him the pie and he made an appreciative “Mmmm.”

“Yes, the mall,” I said before putting on my seat belt.

The car was warm and the windows defrosted, but cold hit me when Robbie’s last words finally penetrated and I blinked fast. I’m welcome anytime. I knew he had meant them to be full of acceptance, but that he had felt the need to say them said much more. He was getting married. He was moving on with his life, becoming a part of it, immersing himself and finding a place on the wheel. By getting married, he was no longer just my brother, he was someone else’s husband. And though we argued a lot, a bond was being broken by the simple fact that he was no longer alone. He was a part of something bigger, and by inviting me in, he had unintentionally told me I was an outsider.

“Your mom makes really good pie,” Marshal said, and I smiled at him across the long seat. Mindful of the ice, he put the car in gear and slowly headed for the mall.

“Yes, she does,” I said, depressed. Maybe I should look at it as if I hadn’t lost a brother, but had gained a sister.

Ri-i-i-i-ight.

Eleven

I hesitated at the edge of the crowd, gaze fixed on the placid vamp being led under the yellow tape to the waiting I.S. cruisers at the curb. “I don’t know,” the cuffed man said, sounding bewildered. “I don’t give a fuck what a Were thinks of my mom. He pissed me off.”

The undead vamp’s response was mostly unheard, and I watched the two meld into the lights and excitement of six I.S. cruisers, two news vans, eight FIB vehicles, and all the people who went with them. Everyone’s lights were on, revolving if they could. The cold night air had the feeling of wrap-up, and I sighed. I hated being late to a riot.

I wasn’t going to wait for Marshal, who was still parking his car. They wouldn’t let him in. I’d be surprised if I got in without some trouble; invited or not, the FIB didn’t trust me anymore. Stupid-ass prejudice. How many times did I have to prove myself?

Chin high and eyes scanning, I edged through the crowd to where the yellow ribbon met the wall, deciding I would just slip under the line and hope for the best. My motion to dip under the tape was halted, however, when I almost knocked heads with a familiar face doing the same thing.

“Hi, Tom,” I said acerbically as I drew back. “We just keep running into each other.”

The former I.S. agent dropped the tape, his shocked expression turning to frustration. He took a breath to say something, then clenched his jaw. Silent, he shoved his hands into his pockets and walked away.

Surprised, I stared after him until the snow and the crowd took him. “Huh,” I muttered, then, sort of disappointed he hadn’t stuck around to exchange barbs, I dipped under the yellow tape and yanked the closest door open, eager to get out of the cold. The air was still between the twin sets of doors, and I could hear voices echoing, raised in anger and frustration. A cluster of FIB uniforms gathered past the second set of doors, and I decided that was my best bet.

“Sorry, ma’am,” a low voice said, and I jerked my hand from the inner door, instinct pulling me back before a thick-fingered hand could touch me.

It was a dead vampire, a fairly young one by the looks of him, set to be door guard. Heart pounding, I cocked my hip and gave him an up-and-down look. “I’m with the FIB,” I said, and he laughed, the rim of his blue eyes thinning as he started to pull an aura.

“Witches don’t work for the FIB,” he said. “You look more like a reporter. Get behind the line, ma’am.”

“I work outside the lines, and I’m not a reporter,” I said, looking up at his clean-shaven face. Any other time, I would have stopped to enjoy the view, but I was in a hurry. “And knock off the aura crap,” I said, ticked. “My roommate could eat you for breakfast.”

The vamp’s eyes went full black. The background noise of angry people abruptly vanished. The blood drained from my face, and I found my back against the outer doors. “I’d rather sip you for breakfast,” the undead vampire murmured, his voice running like cool fog through my soul. A pulse from my scar sent a shock of reality through me. Damn it, I hated it when vampires didn’t recognize me.

My gloved hand had covered my neck, and I forced it down and my eyes to open. “Go find a rat,” I said, even as his playing on my scar felt really good. My thoughts went to Ivy, and I swallowed. This was so not what I needed.

Vamp boy blinked at my unusual resistance, and with that slight show of confusion, his hold on me broke. Damn, I had to quit teasing the dead ones.

“Hey, Farcus!” a masculine voice shouted from beyond the glass, and he turned, even as he kept me in his vision. “Leave the witch alone. That’s Morgan, the FIB’s whore.”

Farcus, apparently, dropped back, the rim of his blue eyes growing in surprise. “You’re Rachel Morgan?” he said, then started to laugh, showing his pointed canines. Somehow that irritated me more than him playing on my scar had.

I pushed forward. “And you’re Farcus, rhymes with Marcus, another lame-ass vampire. Get out of my way.” His laughter cut off as I bumped him, and he growled when I leaned on the door and passed into the warmth of the mall.

As far as malls go, it was nice, with the food court up front, wide aisles, and two stories to make a fun place to shop. I slowly loosened my coat and scarf as I scanned the open area. I was too late to do anything. Thick in the air was the choking scent of angry Were and the spicy tang of angry vampire, all mixing with the aroma of burgers, fries, and Asian food ruined by too much grease. Over it all was the sound of eighties pop done instrumentally. Surreal.

The surrounding shops on both levels had their gates down, and employees were clustered behind them, loud with gossip. The lower floor was a mess, with several tables sporting broken legs and everything shoved out of place. A red smear on the floor and pilings gave me pause until I decided the splatter pattern wasn’t right for blood. It was ketchup, which might be why the humans had gathered by the ice-cream counter. Young kids wearing too much black mostly, but there were some late shoppers braving the encroaching Inderlander shopping hours, too. They looked scared, but there were no paramedics.

At the other end of the food court were the Inderlanders, and here was where the lawsuits would come from. Most had makeshift bandages pressed against their arms or legs. One was flat out on the floor. Weres and vampires. No witches, who were like humans in that they knew to get out of the way when predators fought. It was quiet over there, and most looked confused, not angry. Clearly the riot had ended as quickly as it had started. So where’s the little instigator? I thought, not seeing anyone matching Mia’s description among the walking wounded.

Stopping in the middle of the open hall, I dug the locator amulet out of my bag with a faint, foolish sense of optimism. Maybe I’d done it right and didn’t know it? But as I held the smooth disk of wood in my hands, it stayed a slightly damp disk of wood. No glow, no tingle. Nothing. Either I’d flubbed the charm, or she wasn’t here.

“Damn,” I whispered, brow furrowed. It had been a long time since I’d misspelled a charm. Doubt in one’s abilities wasn’t healthy when you worked with high magic. Self-doubt led to mistakes. Double damn. What if I really messed up one day and blew myself to bits?

The familiar cadence of Ivy’s boots pulled me around, and I shoved the amulet back in my bag. I was really glad she was here. Bringing in a banshee, even a cuffed one, was not as easy as it sounded-which was probably why the I.S. was either ignoring or covering up her activities.

“I thought you were working,” I called out as she approached, and she shrugged.

“I finished early.” I waited for more, disappointed when she shook her head and added, “Nothing. I didn’t learn jack.”

Jenks was with her, and he lit on my offered fist, looking tired and cold. “You’re late,” he said. “You missed all the fun.”

A passing vampire with his hands cuffed snarled at us, trying to scratch at the new blisters on his neck. “Pull your damned wings off and then see if you can fly,” he muttered, lunging, and making the I.S. cop with him jerk him back.

“Shove it up your ass and make a breath mint out of it!” Jenks shouted after him, and I wondered just how much “fun” I had missed, and if it would be showing up on our doorstep in about forty-eight hours, after it posted bail.

“Making friends, I see,” I said, gazing at the aftermath.

Ivy took my elbow and began leading me from the Inderlander side of things. The I.S. officers were watching me, and I felt uneasy. “What took you so long?” she asked. “Edden said he called you.”

“I was at my mom’s. It takes three times as long as it should to leave.” I exhaled loudly, not seeing Mia anywhere. “It’s over? Where’s Mia? Was Remus with her?”

Jenks clattered for my attention, and he pointed to the human side of the food court. My lips parted, and I blinked. The fussing child should have clued me in even if the man standing protectively over the slight, elegant woman hadn’t. Damn, she looks midthirties, not three hundred, I thought as I took in her slight, almost fragile-seeming frame next to the average-looking man as he held a baby bundled up in a pink snowsuit. The toddler was probably only hot, and I wondered why he just didn’t take the snowsuit off her. Not a scrap of skin was showing apart from her face and her hands, gripping a sticky lollipop. Disappointment that my amulet hadn’t worked filled me, then I shoved it aside.

Apart from his ever-moving eyes, Remus looked entirely unremarkable in his jeans and cloth coat. Not ugly, not attractive, maybe a little tall and bulky, but not overly so. That he could have beaten up Glenn looked doubtful, but knowing how to hurt a person and the willingness to use that knowledge, coupled with surprise, could be deadly. To be honest, he looked harmless-until I saw his eyes follow an FIB officer, hatred in the way he clenched his jaw, an almost eagerness to hurt reflected in his gaze. And then he dropped his attention and shuffled his feet, becoming a janitor standing over a woman way out of his league.

“Why are they just sitting there?” I asked, turning away before they felt my eyes on them. “Did the warrant fall through?”

Jenks slowly rose from Ivy’s shoulder to see them better. “No, Edden’s got it, but both of them are quiet right now, and he doesn’t want to do anything until he gets more people out of here. I’ve been listening, and the I.S. doesn’t care that Mia’s killing humans.”

A pang of worry made me stiff with tension. “Are they covering it up?”

“Nah. Just ignoring her. Everybody has to kill to eat, right?”

He said it with just the right amount of sarcasm, and I knew he didn’t agree with their policy. Everyone had to eat, but eating people wasn’t polite.

Jenks’s wings fanned, to send the smell of soap to me. He was wearing his wraparound robe instead of his usual work clothes, making him look exotic, and I wondered how Bis was doing watching the church by himself. “I think she and Remus think they are going to slip out with the humans,” he said as he landed on my shoulder.

Ivy laughed softly. “I call dibs on the big one.”

“I don’t know,” I said, trying to read Mia’s body language from across the large room. “They have to guess we know who they are. I mean, we’ve been to their house. I think they’re waiting because we are.”

Ivy smiled, showing a slip of teeth, potent after Farcus’s play for my blood. “I still call dibs on the big one.”

“Rache,” Jenks said, his voice concerned. “Look at Mia’s aura. Have you ever seen anything like that?”

Taking a slow breath, I willed my second sight into play. All witches could see auras. Vampires couldn’t. Weres couldn’t. Some humans could, gaining the ability from hybridizing with elves. Pixies saw them all the time whether they wanted to or not. If I tapped a ley line and worked at it, I could see the ever-after layered over reality. This far out from the center of Cincinnati, it would likely only be stunted trees and frozen scrub. When I’d been in my early teens, I’d spent a lot of time overlaying the ever-after on reality until a trip to the zoo cured me. The tigers had known what I’d been doing, and they’d started for me as if they could walk through the glass to reach me.

I didn’t look at auras much. It was illegal to screen employees by their auras, though I knew for a fact some food chains did. Dating services swore by them. I was of the opinion that you could tell more about people in a five-minute conversation than by looking at their auras. Most psychiatrists agreed with me, whether they were human or Inderlander.

Exhaling with a long, slow sound, I turned back to the cluster of humans. Blues, greens, and yellows predominated, with the accompanying flashes of red and black to give evidence of the human condition. There was an unusual amount of orange in a few people’s outer fringes, but everyone was upset, and it didn’t surprise me.

Remus’s aura was a nasty, ugly red with a sheen of purple and the yellow of love at its core. It was a dangerous combination, meaning that he lived in a world that confused him and that he was moved by passion. If one believed in that kind of thing. Mia’s…

Jenks clattered his wings, shuddering almost. Mia’s was not there-sort of. I mean, it was there, but wasn’t. Looking at her predominantly blue aura was like looking at the candles of a protective circle when the candles existed both here and in the ever-after. It was there, but sort of displaced sideways. And it was sucking in everyone else’s aura with the faint subtlety of the incoming tide filling a tidal pool. The baby’s was exactly the same.

“Look at Remus,” Jenks said, shifting his wings to tickle my neck. “His aura isn’t being touched at all. Even by the baby’s, and he’s holding her.”

“That might explain why he’s still alive,” I said, wondering how they managed it. I’d been told that banshees didn’t have any control over whose aura they sucked up along with ambient emotions, but clearly that wasn’t the case.

Ivy stood beside us with her hip cocked, looking miffed that we were discussing things she couldn’t see. It was with an unfamiliar enthusiasm that she straightened and smiled, saying loudly to someone behind me, “Edden. Look, she finally made it.”

I dropped my second sight and turned, finding the squat, muscular man almost to us. “Hi, Edden,” I said, shifting my bag up higher and unintentionally making Jenks take flight.

The captain of Cincinnati’s FIB department shuffled to a stop, his khakis and starched shirt saying he was in charge as much as the badge pinned to his belt and the blue FIB hat he had dropped on his graying head. The gray seemed to be heavier now, and the few wrinkles deeper.

“Rachel,” he said as he extended his hand and I shook it. “What took you so long?”

“I was at my mom’s,” I said, watching the cops behind him start to gossip about us, and he raised his eyebrows knowingly.

“Say no more,” he said, then went silent when a Were walked past, limping and with a nasty gash on his forearm.

“You gotta keep ’em separated,” Ivy murmured, then turned to us, her expression sharp. “You really think having those two in with the humans is a good idea?”

Edden put a thick hand on my shoulder and turned us away, moving slowly to the cluster of FIB officers by the kiddie rides. “I’ve got three plainclothes with them. We’re getting people out one by one. Nice and easy.”

I nodded, seeing the cops in there now. Ivy seemed less than convinced, and at her sigh he held up a hand. “We’re waiting for social services to get here to take custody of the kid,” he explained. “I don’t want charges dropped because of a sympathy plea if it goes to trial.”

His voice was grim, and I remembered that these were the people who’d put his son in the hospital.

“That’s great,” Ivy said, her eyes on the group, “but I don’t think it can wait any longer.”

Jenks spilled a yellow sifting of dust, and Edden and I turned. Remus watched from under lowered brows as two more bystanders were escorted away for “questioning.” As we watched, his voice became loud, almost echoing. Holly started crying in earnest, and Mia took her, holding her close, clearly peeved.

“Edden, do something,” I said, ready to go over there myself. Missing baby wagon or not, Remus had put an experienced FIB agent in the hospital. I didn’t like unaware innocents surrounding him. And if I could tell who the plainclothes were, so could Remus. He was a child of the system, all grown up and made deadly. Like raising a wolf among people, society had turned something already dangerous into twice the threat.

Edden looked at the three officers in with the humans and, frowning, he bobbed his head in a meaningful way. Immediately the female cop got between Remus and the last few people. Two hefty-looking men in identical coats went for Remus, one angling to get him away from his wife and child, the other pulling his cuffs. It was way too soon, and Remus lost it.

Shouting, Remus jabbed a fist out, almost scoring on the smaller FIB agent, who stumbled back. Remus lunged after him, smacking an elbow viciously into his head, then grabbing the hand of the dazed officer and twisting it to force the man to the floor. Remus knelt on his shoulder, and at a snap of cartilage, the downed officer cried out in pain. My gut clenched. It sounded like Remus had just dislocated the man’s shoulder; Jenks vaulted into motion, Ivy leapt at them, and suddenly-I was standing alone.

“Jenks, no!” I cried out, heart pounding at the thought of Remus’s hand smacking into the small pixy. But he had come to a halt two feet from contact. Ivy, too, slid to a stop. The sound of fear rose from high-pitched voices, and every vampire in the place turned, their eyes black.

Remus had taken a hostage. And with one hand, he worked the gun from the downed officer’s holster and stood up with it, still holding the downed officer’s wrist with one foot on his shoulder. Shit. Why had I agreed to this again?

Mia and the baby were in the grip of the second officer, being slowly pulled back. She could kill them in an instant, but she only looked annoyed. The third officer had the humans and was hustling them out. The click of six safeties going off sounded loudly, and then Edden shouted, “Don’t do it, Remus! Let him go and get your face on the floor!”

“Stay back!” Remus screamed as the remaining humans and Inderlanders dove for cover. “Let go of my wife! Let go, or so help me, I’ll kill him! I broke his fucking arm, and if you don’t get back, I’ll shoot him!”

Ivy was between me and Remus, feet wide and hands out in a show of goodwill. Her body was tense, but she was about ten feet back-it was too far away for her to grab him easily but also far enough that she could evade all but the most accurate bullet. Jenks had vanished into the ceiling somewhere; I’d be willing to bet he could dust someone’s eyes in half a second if he wanted to. Edden and the rest of the FIB officers had frozen, not wanting to trip the man into further action-but it was Mia who was the real threat. From across the court, I.S. officials were watching with concern, not wanting to have to take action. Mia sniping a human in corners and dark alleys could be overlooked to promote a greater peace. Murdering FIB officers in the mall would force them to react, and neither party was eager for a war.

Mia’s lips were open and her pale eyes were narrow in anger. Holly’s voice was high, complaining, and the banshee looked insulted as she jerked out of the grip of the FIB officer holding her. Upstairs, the people behind the gates pressed close, trying to see, thinking they were safe. A cool draft replaced the fleeing Inderlanders and humans.

“I said back off!” Remus shouted, glancing up at the people whispering from the second floor. “Let my wife go! You’re hurting my baby! Let them both go!” Eyes wide and wild, he looked to the front of the mall. “I want a car! Get me a car!”

Edden shook his head. “Remus, we can’t let you out of here. Put the gun on the floor and lay down with your hands on your head. I promise you no one will hurt your wife or baby.”

Remus looked panicked. The officer he had pinned under his knee was sweating, panting in pain, expression tight and probably kicking himself for letting Remus get his gun. The I.S. personnel inched closer. Ivy didn’t move, but I saw her tense. So did Mia.

“Stop!” she shrilled, letting the toddler slip gently to the floor, where the little girl stood, gripping her mother’s leg, her eyes wide, and silent at last. “Remus, stop,” she said softly, her voice elegant and holding an odd accent. “This isn’t going to help me. This isn’t going to help Holly. Listen to me. You’re going to hurt Holly if you do this. She needs a real father, Remus, not a dead memory. She needs you!”

The man brought his attention from the upper floors and focused it on his wife. Grief marked his expression. “They’ll take you from me,” he begged. “Mia, I can get us away. I can keep you safe.”

“No.” Mia started for Remus, and Ivy intercepted her, holding her in a loose but unbreakable grip, six feet back. Holly wobbled unsteadily after her, again latching on to her mother’s leg for support. The I.S. personnel watched, tensing.

One hand on her daughter’s blond head, Mia gave Ivy a mocking look, then focused on Remus. “Love,” she said, her well-born voice full of persuasion. “It’s going to be all right.” She glanced at Ivy, and in a voice carrying strong conviction, she said, “Let me go. I can calm him. If you don’t, he’s going to kill that officer before you can move, and I will lose the only man I can love. You know what he means to me. Let me go.”

Ivy’s grip tightened, and Mia frowned. “I can give him peace,” she insisted. “It’s what I do.”

“You hurt my friend,” Ivy said softly, and a shiver ran through me at her anger.

“It was an accident,” Mia responded coldly. “Leaving him like that was a bad decision. We will accept our mistake and do what’s necessary to make reparations. I have not lived this long by risking my life or letting my instincts rule me. I can calm him.” Her voice changed, becoming softer, but her eyes were almost black with what looked like vampire hunger. “No one will get hurt,” she said. “Let me go. The law can decide what is just.”

Yeah, like I believe that.

Remus’s breathing was harsh, and the man under him was gasping in pain, eyes trying to stay open as the agony pulled them shut. Mia hadn’t said “trust me,” but I’d heard it. Ivy must have, too, for she hesitated only briefly before she slowly released the banshee. My pulse hammered as the woman stood free, shaking her coat as if she were shaking off the memory of Ivy’s touch.

Edden shouted, “Back off!” and I felt the tension wind tighter even as everyone retreated. A faint dusting of gold was sifting down, and Jenks dropped to my shoulder.

Mia picked up Holly, and with the toddler on her hip, she went to Remus as calmly as if they were shopping for peanut butter. “Let the officer go,” she said, laying a light hand on his shoulder.

“They will separate us,” he pleaded. Behind him, FIB officers were creeping closer, but Edden waved them to a stop when Mia caught sight of them. “I love you, Mia,” Remus said, desperate. “I love Holly. I can’t live without both of you. I can’t go back to that place in my head.”

Mia made a shushing noise and smiled at him. “Let the man go,” she said, and I wondered if this had played out in their living room before they had fled, leaving Glenn for dead. “Once they hear what happened, we can return to the way we were.”

I doubted that, but Remus shifted in uncertainty. Around me, the officers tensed.

“Let them cuff you,” she whispered, the small woman on tiptoe to almost whisper the words in his ear. “I will protect you. We will not be separated. If you love me, trust me.”

My eyes narrowed in suspicion. Trust me? Jenks’s wings clattered, and I glanced at him.

“I don’t li-i-i-ike this,” he said in a singsong voice.

Yeah. Me either. I was a witch, damn it. Banshees were way out of my league.

Mia put a small hand against his cheek, and with Holly happily babbling between them, Remus exhaled, his shoulders slumping and his chin dropping to his chest. “I’m sorry,” he said, carefully sliding the safety on the gun before tossing it to spin on the floor, away from everyone.

“Thank you, love,” she said, smiling, and I wondered if the young-seeming but age-old woman was going to throw him to the mercy of the court, letting him take the blame for Glenn’s injuries while she hid behind the excuse of being a bystander. She was up to something. I could feel it.

Remus let go of the man’s wrist, and the FIB officer cried out in relief. Edden gestured, and the men behind Remus moved, jerking him off their fellow officer and cuffing him. From the other side of the food court, the I.S. officers buzzed, some of them swearing, most laughing. Ivy pulled herself together, trying to find her usual svelte elegance. Her eyes were black when they met mine. A pulse of fear went through me, then vanished. She looked away, and I resolved to keep my distance for a while. I should have brought my perfume…

“Be careful!” Mia demanded as the officers handled Remus roughly. A woman cop had closed in on her and Holly, and seeing it, Remus stopped, his arm muscles straining and a fearful look in his eyes.

“No,” Mia demanded in a high voice before Remus could react. “Don’t separate us. I can keep him calm. I never wanted to cause any trouble. We were just sitting there.”

Jenks snickered from my shoulder. “Didn’t want to cause trouble. Does she really think we’re buying that crap?”

“Yeah, but look at him,” I said, gesturing at the man. Under Ivy’s watchful attention, Mia had rejoined him, and he was again docile. Meek, almost. Creepy, definitely. It was easier this way, and less embarrassing, seeing that the I.S. was watching. Not to mention the news vans out front. If it hadn’t been for Ivy, this would’ve been a lot more difficult. As long as Mia didn’t want to cause trouble, Ivy could keep her in line, and with that, Remus would do the same.

Beside me, Edden huffed in satisfaction. “Got ’em both, when they were too afraid to even try,” he said to me, gesturing with his chin to the I.S. But I had my doubts that this was over. From Mia’s words, I guessed she thought all we wanted was Remus. When she found out we were after her as well, things might get ugly.

“I don’t like this,” I murmured to Edden, thinking this was too easy, and he gave me an insulted look. Okay, so we had her walking to the door, but she was not going to meekly let us take her baby. She lived with a serial killer, for crying out loud! That she was pushing him around should be a big warning to Edden. “This isn’t over,” I whispered.

Edden snorted. “What do you want me to do? Cuff the baby?” he said, then shouted, “Pack it up!”

People started to move. Remus was led to the front doors, his head bowed and looking beaten with his hands cuffed before him. Ivy and Mia were six steps back, and Jenks and I fell into place after them. The baby was still on Mia’s hip, and the little girl was watching me from around her mother with eyes so pale, they looked albino. Peeking from under her pink snow hat, her hair was a wispy blond that reminded me of Trent’s, and it looked nothing like the jet-black severity of her mother’s. Holly had her thumb in her mouth, and the child’s unblinking stare was getting to me. She started to fuss when I looked away, and Mia jiggled her. Tension tightened my gut. This was too easy.

“You’re losing her, pixy,” Mia said, shooting a glance at us over her shoulder.

Jenks let slip a burst of green dust. “What?” he said, and I wondered at his panic.

“You’ve lost her already,” Mia said, the banshee’s voice faint, as if she was seeing around corners to the future. “You see it in her eyes, and it’s killing you slowly.”

Ivy gave the woman a soft jerk to turn her back around. “Leave him alone,” she said, then glanced at Jenks, her eyes crinkled up in disgust. “She’s trying to feed off you,” she said. “Don’t listen. She’s a liar.”

Mia chuckled, and Jenks’s wings fluttered against my neck. “I don’t have to lie, and it doesn’t matter if he listens to me or not. She’s going to die. And you, silly vampire?” She looked askance at Ivy, and Ivy paled. “I told you that you were weak. What have you done in five years? Nothing. You think you’re happy, but you’re not. You could have had everything, but now she’s gone, even though she’s right next to you, because you were afraid. It’s over. You were passive, and you lost. You may as well be what everyone wants you to be, because you aren’t ever going to find the guts to be who you want.”

I felt the blood leave my face. Ivy’s jaw clenched, but she kept us moving forward at the same steady pace. Holly gurgled happily. Angry that Mia was hurting my friends, I snarled, “What about me, Ms. Harbor? Got anything in that bag of hate for me?”

She turned her cold blue eyes to me, and the corners of her mouth lifted. Her eyebrows arched slightly, making an expression of pure, delighted malice. Then Ivy pushed her through the double set of doors and they were gone.

It was snowing still, and I hesitated in the chill air lock. “Get in my bag, Jenks,” I said, standing between the doors while FIB personnel eddied past us. The pixy seemed to be in shock, unable to move, and I reached up for him.

“I’m going!” he snarled, wings clattering as he dropped into my waiting bag and I zipped it closed. I’d put a hand heater that deer hunters use in there, and I knew he’d be all right.

My knees felt funny as I left the mall and entered the snow, and I slowed to try to see if Marshal was anywhere. No Marshal, no Tom-just faces craning to get a look at something. My breath steamed, and I was reaching for my gloves when the child-protection van pulled in under the tape the FIB had strung up.

“Mia!” Remus called out as two men tried to force him in the back of a cruiser. His voice was panicked, and I watched the banshee stiffen in Ivy’s grip. Only now did she realize we were after her, too.

“Remus! Run!” she shrieked.

The baby started to cry, and Remus exploded into motion. His entire face changed. Gone was the panic, replaced by a delicious satisfaction. He moved, hooking a foot behind one of his captors and giving a yank. The man went down, slipping on the snow, and Remus went with him, slamming his fists on the man’s throat. From there, he rolled to take the other man down. Just that fast, he was gone, spinning under the car and shoving through the crowd.

“Get him!” I cried, seeing him up and running awkwardly, from the cuffs.

“Run, Remus!” Mia shouted, urging him on.

Ivy shoved her at the nearest FIB officer, then leapt for the cruiser. She landed on the hood, and the car’s shocks squeaked when she jumped off. I heard her booted steps in a fast cadence, then nothing.

In a belated rush, FIB officers started after them on foot or scrambled into their cars. It had been only three seconds, but Edden had lost him. The news crews were going nuts, and I looked for a place to hide. I hated news vans.

A soft thump pulled my attention from the cold parking lot. Someone gasped and pointed, and I followed a mittened finger to a blue lump on the snowy pavement.

“Edden?” I called, unheard over the noise. It was the FIB officer Ivy had shoved Mia at. The banshee was gone. Seeing several people trying to help him, I scanned the parking lot for Mia’s long blue coat and a pink snowsuit. Crap on toast, I’d known this was too easy.

“Edden!” I shouted, then I saw Mia almost thirty feet away, head down and walking fast. Holy cow, how had she done that?

Adrenaline pulsed through me, and I hesitated for a split second. It’s a banshee. I shouldn’t be doing this… But if I didn’t, who would?

“Hold on, Jenks,” I said loudly, then looked for Edden’s gray hair. “Edden!” I shouted again, and when he looked up, I threw my bag. “Take care of Jenks!” I exclaimed when he caught it, and then I ran after Mia. Why am I doing this? They don’t even trust me.

“Miss, oh, miss,” a news reporter said, getting in my face, and I elbowed her out of my way. Cries rose up behind me, and I couldn’t help my smile.

In three seconds, I was through the ring of watchers. Darkness replaced the glare. A muffling silence pushed out the noise. Action replaced a frustrating inaction. I was moving, and I had a clear and definite goal. Mia had a good head start, and probably a car, but she also had a baby, and Holly was not happy.

Following the sound of a frustrated toddler, I ran through the parked cars, the blur of gray and falling snow quickly becoming a background nothing. The puddles of overhead light were flashes of interruption. I ran, chasing a weak prey, gaining fast.

Holly’s whining grew faint when Mia’s awkwardly running form vanished behind a Dumpster next to a delivery entrance. In six seconds, I was there. I skidded to a stop at the mouth of the walled parking lot, not wanting to get beaned by anything. My eyes scanned the open bay, finding Mia with her back to a padlocked door and Holly clutched to her. The small overhead light showed her proud, scared determination, and I struggled for breath. She had no way out. Ivy would catch Remus, and I would bring Mia back. It was done.

God help me if it’s not that easy.

My pulse slowed, and I raised a placating hand. “Mia, think about it.”

The woman clutched her daughter so tightly the baby started to cry. “You’ll kill her,” the banshee said, the anger a stark fury. “You can’t care for her. If you take her from me, you’ll kill her as surely as if you drowned her in a well like a cat.”

“Holly will be fine.” I took a step forward. The tall walls hiding the delivery entrances surrounded me. It seemed warmer without the wind, and the snow fell peacefully between us. “The people at social services will take good care of her. You can’t raise a child on the streets. If you run, that’s all that’s left for you. I’ve seen your house, Mia, and you can’t live like that. You don’t want to force Holly to live like that. Give me the baby, and we’ll go back. Everything will be okay. There can be a peaceful end to this.”

Helpless as she looked, I couldn’t bring a banshee in alone by force, but if I had her baby, she wouldn’t run off again. I’d been moving forward all this time, and now only a few feet separated us.

“What do you know about peace?” Mia said bitterly, jiggling Holly in a vain attempt to get her to stop fussing. “You’ve never lived without running. It’s all you do, run, run, run. You know you can’t stop. If you do, it will kill you.”

I halted, surprised. “You don’t know anything about me.”

Her chin lifted, and she shifted Holly so they were both facing me. Finally the little girl stopped crying, staring. “I know everything about you,” she said. “I see inside you. It pours from you. You won’t let yourself love anyone. Like that vamp. But unlike Ivy, who’s merely afraid, you really can’t love anyone. You’re never going to have the happy ending. Never. No matter how you look for it, it’s out of reach. Everyone you love you will eventually kill. You are alone even now, you just don’t realize it.”

My jaw was clenched, and my hands were fisted. “It won’t work, Mia,” I said, thinking she was trying to upset me to make herself stronger. “Put the baby down and your hands behind your head. I’ll make sure Holly is okay.” Damn it, why hadn’t I brought my splat gun?

“You want my baby?” Mia mocked. “Fine. Take her.”

She was holding Holly out to me, and thinking she was starting to understand, I reached out. Holly gurgled happily. I felt the unfamiliar weight of an entirely new person fill my arms. Mia backed up a step, a harsh gleam in her eye as she glanced at the open lot behind me. A car was coming, and its lights shined into the dead end, making it bright.

“Thank you, Mia,” I said, reaching to take Holly’s hand before she hit my face. “I’ll do what I can to keep Holly with you.”

Holly’s cold, sticky little fingers met mine, and my hand closed reflexively around them.

Pain came from nowhere. My heart jumped, and I gasped, unable to cry out. Fire blazed across my skin, and I found my voice.

A harsh guttural scream ripped through the icy night, and I sank to my knees. My skin was on fire, and my soul was burning. It was burning from my chest outward.

I couldn’t take a new breath, it hurt that much. People were shouting, but they were too far away. My pulse was firing madly, and every beat pushed the fire through my pores. It was being stripped from me-my aura was being ripped away, and my fear was feeding it.

Holly gurgled happily, but I couldn’t think to move. She was killing me. Mia was letting Holly kill me, and I couldn’t stop it!

I managed a harsh gasp, and then, as suddenly as it had come, the pain vanished. I felt an icy wash of black flow through me, in time with my fading pulse. Holly cooed, and I felt her being lifted from me. Her lack of weight unbalanced me, and I slowly collapsed to the pavement. But still, the wash of black flowed through me, and it was as if I could feel the frightening nothing within me, growing larger. I couldn’t stop it. Couldn’t even think how.

Mia helped me down, and grateful for small favors, I stared at her exquisite boots. God, they must have cost more than my last three months of rent combined. I could feel the night air raw on my unprotected soul. And finally Holly stripped the last from me, the flood of black slowing to a trickle and stopping to leave only a fading, empty warmth.

I tried to breathe, but it wasn’t enough. The snow hurt where it hit my skin, and I whimpered.

“I will not let them take Holly,” Mia said as she stood over me. “You’re filthy animals, and you’d kill her, even if only by accident. I worked too hard for her. She’s mine.”

My fingers twitched, accidentally rolling a gray pebble between my cold skin and the pavement. Mia stepped away and vanished, her footsteps fading quickly. I heard the slamming of a car door and then the car’s idling away. All that was left was the falling snow, each flake making a soft tap as it landed on my eyelashes and cheeks.

I couldn’t close my eyes, but it didn’t seem to matter as my fingers quit moving and the heavy blackness finally smothered me.

Twelve

There was a faint scent of orange antiseptic, and the one-sided come and go of a distant, professional conversation. Closer, the sound of a TV murmured, only the low parts audible, as if through thick walls. I dozed in a pleasant muffled state, comfortable and somnolent. I’d been cold and in pain. Now I was warm and feeling pretty damn good, perfectly content to slip further into a dreamless state.

But the distinctive smell of the sheets tucked up to my chin tickled my memory, winding insidiously through my brain looking for a conscious thought. Then it found one.

“Shit!” I barked, adrenaline slamming through me. I bolted upright, eyes wide and an unreasonable fear jerking me from my drugged haze. I was in the hospital.

“Rache?”

Panicked, I turned to the sound of pixy wings, sweat beading up on me. Jenks was inches from my nose. His tiny features were pinched and afraid, scaring me. “Rache, it’s okay,” he said as an orange haze drifted from him to color my drawn-up knees. “You’re okay. Look at me! You’re okay!”

Lips parted, I focused on him and forced my breathing to slow. I was okay, and as soon as I realized that, I bobbed my head. Stringy, nasty curls shifted to block my eyes, and I pushed them back with a shaky hand. Just that effort seemed to tax me, and I let myself fall back into the slightly raised bed. “Sorry,” I said softly, and he landed on my blanket-covered knee. “I thought I was in the hospital.”

Jenks’s expression became concerned and his wings stopped. “Ah, you are.”

“No,” I said as I found the controls and raised the head of the bed farther. “I mean I thought I was-” I hesitated. “Never mind,” I amended, exhaling to get rid of the last of the adrenaline. I couldn’t tell him I thought I was in the children’s wing where I hadn’t been able to cross the room to turn on the TV without going breathless. It was that memory that had shocked me awake, and I arranged the sheets to cover as much of the ugly white-and-blue-diamond gown as possible. Jeez, Robbie visits for the first time in eight years, and I’m hospitalized?

Jenks buzzed to the long bed table, pushed to the side. His wings stilled, and the red haze that had been hovering about one wing turned into a bit of red medical tape. I sort of remembered the ambulance. There was an IV stuck in me, and I vaguely recalled the paramedic putting it in. He had given me something, and after that, nothing. I’d had IVs before, but they usually went with an amulet if the patient was a witch. Maybe I was in worse shape than I thought.

My gaze went to the clock, right where they always put it. Noon. It didn’t feel like I’d been unconscious for longer than a single night. From cold pavement to hospital. I had been there, and now I was here.

There was a stuffed giraffe on the narrow rolling table, probably from my mother. Stuffed animals were her thing. Beside it was a miniature rose sculpted of stone. From Bis, maybe? I took the stuffed animal in my hands, feeling the softness against my fingertips, in a state of melancholy. “Mia?” I asked Jenks.

The pixy’s wings drooped and went a faint blue. “Gone.”

I met his frown with my own. “Remus?”

“Him, too.” He made the short flight to the bars on the bed, slipping slightly. “He sideswiped Ivy with a pipe; otherwise, we’d have him.”

Alarmed, I stiffened, but his lack of reaction told me she was all right.

“She’s madder than a jilted troll,” he said with a wry expression, “but she’s okay. Nothing broken. By the time she got up, he was gone. She tracked them to a busy street, and then…poof. Hot-wired a car and somehow slipped past the FIB roadblocks. Edden’s pissed.”

And baby makes three, I thought as I set the giraffe down. Crap on toast, they could be long gone. I hoped Audrey was right that banshees never left their city, or we’d never find them.

Jenks reached back to fix the red bit of tape on his wing and I flushed, remembering having thrown him at Edden. “Hey, I’m sorry about your wing,” I said, and he brought his gaze to mine, his eyes green under the yellow shock of hair. “I did that, didn’t I?” I added, pointing with my gaze. “I’m sorry.”

“Nahhh, I’m fine,” he drawled as his hand came forward. “It gave Matalina something to do besides yell at the kids. This happened in Edden’s car, chasing Remus.”

I wasn’t sure I believed him.

“How about you?” Jenks asked, sitting cross-legged beside a mug of water bigger than his cat. “You feel okay? Your aura is…really thin.”

I held a hand in front of my face and wished I could see my own aura. The demon mark on my wrist looked ugly, and I let my hand drop. “Holly stripped it from me,” I said. “Took it along with my life’s energy. That’s why I passed out. I think. Has anyone looked at Glenn’s aura? That’s probably what happened to him, too.”

Jenks nodded. “Right after you came in mumbling about your aura being gone. He’s awake now. I saw him. His aura is patchy, but it will thicken. That freaky little baby can’t even talk yet, and she’s a born killer. She should’ve killed you. The doctors don’t know why she didn’t. They don’t know why you woke up three days earlier than Glenn either. They were here staring at you and asking each other all sorts of questions, looking at your demon scars…” His lips pressed tight as a feeling of angst slid through me. “I don’t like it, Rache.”

“Me neither.” Feeling violated, I tugged my blankets up a little. Had my demon marks saved me? Made my aura taste bad? I remembered a sensation of black coursing through me as Holly stripped everything, like she was sucking the last milk from a bottle, bubbles and all. I didn’t like that something evil had saved me. It was bad enough that I had demon scars, but that I had to be grateful for them for saving my life was…perverted.

Jenks’s wings hummed fitfully. Rising up, he said with forced cheerfulness, “You’ve got company. I can hear him in the hall.”

Edden? I wondered as I was making sure I was covered when a soft knock at the cracked door turned into a soft scuffing. “Marshman!” Jenks exclaimed, a sunbeam trailing behind him when he went to the door. “How you doing? Rachel’s happy to see you.”

Eyebrows raised, I gave Jenks a sidelong glance. I’m happy to see him?

Sitting straighter, I waved sloppily at the tall man as he entered. He had his coat open, showing a flannel shirt with a wisp of curling black peeping out at the neckline. The casual lumberjack cut of the shirt hung nicely on his broad swimmer’s shoulders, tucked into his jeans to show off his thin waist. There was a bouquet of flowers in each hand, and he looked awkward as he stopped before me. “Hi, Rachel,” he said, smiling uncertainly, as if not sure he should be here. “Ah, you get what you needed in the mall?”

I laughed and shifted more upright. I knew how I looked in blue diamonds, and it wasn’t attractive. “Thanks,” I said sourly. “Sorry about that. She ran. I chased her.” Dumb.

“And you got banshee-slapped,” he said, putting the two bouquets down and sitting on the edge of the bed beside me. “Are you okay? They wouldn’t let me ride with you to the hospital. You were delirious.” He hesitated. “Did you really steal Mr. Ray’s wishing fish?”

I blinked. “Uh, yeah, but I thought it belonged to the Howlers.” My gaze dropped from his concerned brown eyes to the flowers. One was an arrangement of summer daisies, the other a carnation and mum mix. “Thank you,” I said as I reached to touch them. “You didn’t need to bring me flowers. They are beautiful. Did they have a ‘buy one, get one free’ special downstairs?”

My voice was light, and Marshal smiled. “Don’t think anything because I brought you flowers. If I didn’t, my mom would skin me alive. Besides, only one is from me. The daisies were sitting downstairs with your name on them, so I brought them up.”

My eyes went to the florist’s card, in an envelope, and I nodded. Robbie, maybe? As in “pushing up daisies”? “Thanks,” I said, and he made a little jump, as if remembering something.

“I brought you this, too,” he said, reaching into a coat pocket to bring out a winter-pale tomato. It was an Inderland tradition, and I couldn’t help but grin. “For health,” he said, then glanced at the closed door. “You’re, uh, on a human floor, so watch where you put it.”

The fruit was cold in my fingers, and my smile faded. Why am I on a human floor?

The sound of Jenks’s wings rose in pitch, and he took flight. “Ah, I promised Ivy I’d tell her when you woke up,” he said as he rose up. “I gotta go.”

“Jenks, is she okay?” I asked, but he was gone. Rolling my eyes, I leaned to put the tomato on the table, and my knees knocked into Marshal. My eyes went to the flowers, and all my warning flags went up. He was sitting kind of close. “Um, it was awfully nice of you to come and see me,” I said, nervous. “I’m not going to be here long. I was just about ready to get up and go harass the nurses.”

I knew I was filling the silence with my babbling, and in a surge of motion, I flung the covers back and pulled my knees up to get my feet past him and to the floor. I froze, looking down at those stupid pink sock slippers they give out. Damn it, I had a catheter. Even worse, just that little exertion made me dizzy.

“Easy, Rachel,” Marshal said, already having stood and put his hands heavily on my shoulders. “I don’t think you’re ready to move yet. Your aura is really torn up.”

The heady aroma of redwood cascaded over me, seeming all the more potent for the sterile smells of the hospital. “I’m fine. Marshal, I’m fine,” I complained as the dizziness passed. It was almost as if I was leaving a part of myself behind when I moved, and until it caught up with me, I was naked. Exhausted, I sat with my feet dangling down and leaned my head against his chest while I tried to keep from blacking out. It felt nice when his hands rested on me. Not sexual nice-God, I was in a hospital bed with pillow hair and wearing a blue diamond pattern-it was as if I were gaining strength from his simple concern.

I settled back under his insistent, nervous hands, and he pulled the blanket up and around me. I lay there and let him do it, probably feeding his white-knight complex, but what choice did I have? If my aura was stripped, then I probably was gaining something from him. Genuine caring helped mend tears, just as the negative energy from someone who disliked me could do an equal amount of damage.

“Really,” I said as he handed me the oversize mug of iced water as if it would make everything better. “I’m okay. I just need to move slower.” But my hands were shaking and I was nauseous. The water seemed to help, and I took a big gulp, feeling it all the way down.

“Ivy will break my fingers if I let you hit the floor,” he grumbled, taking the water back as I extended it. “Just be good for the next twenty minutes and don’t get me in trouble, okay?”

I tried to smile, but I was trembling inside. Fatigue pulled at me, and memories of my early years in and out of hospitals came flooding back. “I don’t even know what happened,” I complained. “I mean, I remember up to blacking out, but after that? Pfft.”

Marshal sat on the edge of the bed again, as if I might try to get up. “No doubt. A banshee, Rachel? What were you thinking? You’re lucky to be alive.”

My right shoulder lifted and fell. Who else had a chance to catch her? Edden had probably checked me in. Maybe that was why I was on a human floor. I could lie in bed at home for a lot less money. David was going to be ticked when my insurance went up.

Remembering Marshal, I sighed. “Yep. A banshee. And her kid. And her homicidal husband. At the mall, no less.”

He smiled, one almost of pride. “You made the news knocking over that reporter.”

My eyes flicked to his and I winced. “They got it on tape?”

Leaning forward, he tucked a stray curl behind my ear, making me shiver when my thoughts went to Kisten’s boat. “Knocked her right on her can,” he said, oblivious. “It was good seeing you in action like that. Again.”

His smile faded, and I realized this was twice now he had seen me on the news; the first time, I’d been cuffed. “Um, thanks for coming to see me,” I said, sensing a growing awkwardness, as if he had stepped past our agreed-on boundaries.

Smile gone, he leaned back. He looked everywhere but at me. “Tried the pudding yet?”

“No, but I doubt it’s changed since I was here last.”

He chuckled, and I tried to decide if I was willing to risk taking the catheter out by myself. The one time I had, I’d hurt myself more than one would believe possible. I didn’t want to stay here, and if my vitals were normal, they wouldn’t keep me for simple fatigue.

The sound of Jenks returning drifted into the uncomfortable silence between Marshal and me, and we exchanged knowing smiles. Jenks was like a little kid you could hear long before you could see him. His voice was high as he talked to someone whose voice was a dull murmur, and they were moving slowly. Ivy maybe?

My pulse increased and Marshal stood when the thick oversize door creaked open. He looked nervous, and I didn’t wonder why. Ivy didn’t like him, and she took few pains to hide it.

“Hey!” Jenks shouted loudly as he circled the room three times. “Look who I found!”

I found myself smiling; not only was it Ivy, but Glenn, too, moving slowly and supported between Ivy and the IV stand. The black man looked awful, and it wasn’t just from the hospital gown. Still, I met him grin for grin when he looked up from the floor, clearly pleased to be functioning even on this reduced level. His face was an ugly purple in places, and his hand gripping Ivy’s arm was swollen, the cuts covered with stark-white bandages. “Hi, Rachel,” he breathed, then focused on the tile and moving forward.

Marshal nodded his hello to Ivy, and after nudging the tomato behind the flowers before Glenn spotted it, he moved to the distant couch, built into the wall under the window, so the ailing FIB agent could have the closer chair. Oddly enough, Ivy looked like she knew what she was doing, competently shifting him around and making sure his IV didn’t get tangled. She even knew to hold his gown shut while he angled to sit in the chair.

He eased into it with his arm muscles straining, and he exhaled long and loud when his weight left his feet. “Rachel,” he said before he got his breath back altogether. “Ivy told me you were here, and I had to see it for myself. You look as bad as I feel, girl.”

“Yeah?” I shot back. “Give me a few hours, and I’ll wipe the floor with you in a game of ‘round the nurses’ desk.’” As far as I was concerned, he was in way worse shape than I, but he looked a whole lot better than when I’d seen him last, unconscious and surrounded by white sheets. That I couldn’t stand up yet didn’t mean anything. I’d be walking before sunset even if I had to crawl to do it.

Ivy came closer, and a pang of emotion went through me. The chair Glenn was now in had been pulled to the bedside when I woke up. I’d be willing to bet she’d been sitting in it all night. She looked tired, and I wondered if she had slept at all this morning. “Hi, Ivy,” I said as I reached out-knowing she wouldn’t. “Jenks said Remus hit you. You okay?”

Jenks clattered his wings behind the flowers, and Ivy’s calm face scrunched up. “I’m fine, more mad at myself than anything.” Her fingers touched mine, and I heard everything she wasn’t going to say. “I’m glad you’re awake,” she said softly. “You had us worried.”

“My pride took a hit,” I said. “I’ll be fine soon as I can stand.” Jenks looked out around a plastic vase with a questioning expression, his hands full of pollen, and Marshal popped his knuckles. Realizing the men had become uncomfortable, I flushed. Our fingers parted.

“Marshal, you’ve met Glenn, haven’t you?” I said suddenly. “He’s the FIB’s Inderland specialist. Glenn, Marshal is the swim coach at the university.”

Marshal came forward. Leaning past the corner of the bed, he carefully shook Glenn’s bandaged hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said, and I couldn’t help but notice there hadn’t been a flicker of concern or reluctance in meeting an FIB officer. Not like with Nick. And I smiled.

“It’s a pleasure,” Glenn responded. “Have you and Rachel known each other long?”

“No,” he said quickly, but I felt he deserved more than that.

“Sort of.” I spoke up before Jenks, who had risen up above the flowers, could. “Marshal helped Jenks and me on that run up in Michigan. He’s been in Cincinnati since Halloween, pulling snakes from under my kitchen floor and teaching me how to rock climb.”

Ivy snickered at the reference to Tom, and Glenn’s head went up and down in slow consideration, his gaze becoming more accepting. I knew he believed Nick was still alive, which he was, the son of a bastard-and seeing that my ex-boyfriend and master thief had a record thicker than the phone book, I wouldn’t be surprised if the FIB detective grilled Marshal later over what he knew about Nick.

Ivy made a small sound of interest when she opened the card from the second batch of flowers. I wanted to ask her about her leg, but she wasn’t favoring it, and I knew she wouldn’t appreciate me bringing it up in front of other people.

“Slacker,” I said to Glenn, and when he gave me a tired, lopsided smile, I added, “How’s your aura?”

“Thin. I don’t know how it’s supposed to feel, but I feel…weird. Three witches looked at me after you came in. Every one of them said I was lucky to be alive.”

Jenks snorted. “They came in and poked Rachel, too,” he said. “Left grumbling.”

I exhaled slowly, bringing up my second sight without tapping a line so I didn’t run the risk of seeing the ever-after. Not in a hospital six floors up. Sure enough, Glenn’s aura was raggedy, leaking red around the broken edges and looking like a fluctuating aurora borealis instead of a continuous sheet. The gaps were not healthy, and until they healed, he’d be vulnerable to all sorts of metaphysical things. That I was in the same condition made my stomach turn. And I have a date with Al in the ever-after at sunrise tomorrow. I had to get out of it. Surely Al would give me a sick day for this. I should ask for a work excuse.

“Are you okay?” I asked Glenn, truly concerned. He looked so far out of character. The ex-military man in him peeked through when he forced himself to sit straighter, his face freshly shaved, the scent of shampoo coming faintly to me.

“I will be,” he said around a heavy breath. “You went after them?”

“You know it.”

“You touched the baby?” he asked, and I snorted. “Don’t touch the baby,” he intoned, and the corners of my mouth lifted.

“Don’t touch the baby,” I echoed, realizing that that was probably what had downed him.

“It’s the baby who’s got the witch doctors so messed up,” Glenn said, almost crossing his knees before remembering he was in a peekaboo gown. “They tell me that a banshee child has no control until she’s about five. But that man was holding her when I talked to him.”

Jenks’s wings clattered for attention. “We saw him holding Holly, too. His aura was fine. I saw it. So did Rachel.”

I nodded, not making any sense out of it. “Maybe she just wasn’t hungry.”

“Maybe,” Glenn said, “but she drained me fast enough. You, too.”

Ivy went to sit on the long bench under the window. “So what did happen in that house?” she said as she looked out, and I swear she was trying to change the subject. Her lips were parted, and her breathing was a shade too fast. Her eyes, too, held a hint of…guilt?

Glenn made an ugly face. “I went to talk to the suspect about the death of my friend.”

Suspect, I thought, hearing the ugliness of the word. She wasn’t “Ms. Harbor,” or “the lady,” or even “the woman,” but “the suspect.” Then again, Mia had probably killed his friend, put Glenn in the hospital, and allowed her daughter to almost kill me. “I’m sorry,” I said, and he grimaced, not wanting the sympathy.

“Her husband didn’t like some of my questions. Remus, is it?” Glenn asked, and when Ivy nodded, he continued. “Remus tried to bully me out the door. Took a swing at me, and we knocked about the house. I actually had him handcuffed, and then-”

“You touched the baby,” Jenks said from somewhere in the flowers.

Glenn looked at his knees, covered with that blue diamond print. “I touched the baby.”

“Don’t touch the baby,” I said, trying to ease the tension. No wonder Mia didn’t let anyone touch Holly. Not to mention her not wanting any more kids until Holly had grown and had some control. Right now, she was like the walking plague. But Remus could hold her. What made him special?

Glenn shifted his feet in those slipper socks they give you. His were blue. “The baby put me out, not Remus,” he said. “Once I fell down, I kept falling. I think he beat me slowly so they could suck it all up. If it hadn’t been for the badge, I think they would have killed me and tried to hide the body.” Seeing the horror in my eyes, he attempted to smile. “But you look great,” he said, gesturing. “Maybe witches have thicker auras.”

“Maybe,” I said, unable to look at anyone. Of course I looked better. I hadn’t had a psychopath maul me for the feeding pleasure of his family.

Standing awkwardly at the foot of the bed, Marshal seemed to gather himself. “Rachel, I have to go,” he said, not unexpectedly. “I’ve got some stuff to do this afternoon, and I just stopped by to make sure you were okay.” His feet shuffled, and he added, “I’ll, um, see you later.”

Glenn leaned back, cutting short his motion to cross his legs when he remembered the hospital gown. “Don’t leave because of me,” he said, his body language not matching his words. “I have to get back to my room before I’m missed. They don’t like it when us rough men go past the nurses’ desk and into the women’s area.”

Marshal shifted back and forth; then, as if making a decision, he leaned close and gave me an awkward hug. Uneasy, I returned it, hoping he wasn’t trying to shift our relationship simply because I was vulnerable and he had helped me with Tom. Tom was small potatoes to what could come crashing into my kitchen. But the scent of redwood was comforting, plucking a need to go back to my roots, and I breathed it in deep.

“I’ll see you later,” he said earnestly. “I’m still checking into your classes, but if there’s anything I can do, shopping, errands, just call me.”

I smiled, touched by his concern. My mom’s warning that he was a good diversion, not a good decision, echoed through me, but so did the entire comfortable evening spent with her, my brother, and Marshal. Marshal was a nice guy, and I didn’t often have the chance to do stuff with nice guys. I didn’t want to endanger him by close association, but what came out of my mouth was “I will. ’Bye, Marshal. Thanks for the flowers.”

He nodded, waving before going with his head lowered, leaving the door open a crack.

Glenn took in Ivy and Jenks eyeing me as if in disapproval. Clearing his throat, he said, “You’re taking classes? That’s great. Crime scene etiquette, perhaps?”

I rubbed my eyebrow, feeling a headache coming on. “Ley lines,” I said. “There was a mix-up at the registrar’s office. Marshal is trying to work it out.”

“That’s not all he’s trying to work out,” Jenks muttered, and I scowled at him when he shifted to the mums. The scent of a summer meadow grew heavy, and pollen streaked his green shirt. “He’s going to want to change things,” the pixy said, and Glenn leaned back, mouth shut, to listen. “You being in the hospital is going to jerk him into rescue mode. Just like on that boat of his. I saw it in him right after he yanked Tom out from under our kitchen. I’m a pixy, Rachel. I may look all tough and stuff, but I got wings, and I know infatuation when I see it.”

I sighed, not surprised he was warning me off Marshal. And what do wings have to do with it? “Well, he’s not helpless,” I said defensively. “Tagging a ley line witch is hard.”

Jenks crossed his arms and frowned. Ivy put the giraffe down and eyed me, too.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I muttered, but my thoughts went zinging to Mia standing in the dark with her wailing child clutched to her, telling me that I’d never love anyone without killing them. “He deserves someone better than me. I know the drill.”

Ivy moved uneasily, and shoving my unhappy feeling away, I turned to Glenn. The detective was very adept at reading people, and this was embarrassing. “So, how’s the pudding?” I asked, reaching out and tossing the tomato to him.

Humans normally abhor tomatoes, seeing as it was a tomato that killed a good slice of their population a mere forty years ago. Glenn, however, had been shown the joys of the red fruit at fang point, and was now hooked. After his first panicked juggling to keep the tomato from hitting the ground, he cradled the fruit like a baby, in the crook of his arm.

“The pudding is nasty,” he said, glad for the shift in conversation. “It’s sugar free. And thank you. I don’t get many of these.”

“Inderland tradition,” I said, wondering if I’d missed breakfast and would have to wait another six hours. I had yet to see a menu, but they’d still feed me.

Ivy sat on the foot of the bed, more comfortable now that there was one less person in here. “Flowers from Trent?” she said, her eyebrows high as she handed me the card.

Surprised, I looked at the daisies as I took it. “Ceri sent them,” I said when I saw her absolutely tiny handwriting. “Trent probably doesn’t even know she put his name on the card.”

Jenks landed on my knee. “I bet he does,” he said with a guffaw, and then we all looked up at the smart knock on the door and the woman in street clothes walking in. She had a stethoscope, and I knew she was my doctor before she opened her mouth.

She stopped short, as if surprised by the number of people, then recovered. “Ms. Morgan,” she said as she came forward briskly. “I’m Dr. Mape. How are you feeling today?”

It was always the same question, and I smiled neutrally. I could tell by the lack of a redwood smell that even the most stringent antiseptics couldn’t cover that she wasn’t a witch. It was unusual that they’d let a human treat a witch with human medicine, but if I’d been hit with the same thing as Glenn, I probably had his doctor. The thought seemed about right when Glenn shrank back in his chair with a guilty expression. The tomato, too, was in hiding somewhere. I didn’t want to know where. I truly didn’t.

“I’m feeling much better,” I said blandly. “What did they use to knock me out?”

Dr. Mape pulled the blood pressure cuff off the wall, and I obediently stuck my arm out. “I don’t know off the top of my head,” she said in a preoccupied voice as she squished my arm with air pressure. “I can look at your chart.”

I stared at the clock and tried to keep my pulse slow. “Don’t bother.” I knew amulets, not drugs. “Hey, can I get a work excuse?”

She didn’t answer, and Glenn jumped when she ripped the cuff from me. “Mr. Glenn,” she said pointedly, and I swear he held his breath. “You shouldn’t be walking this far yet.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said grumpily, and I hid a grin.

“Do I need to put a restriction on you?” she asked, and he shook his head.

“No, ma’am.”

“Wait for me outside,” the woman said severely. “I’ll walk you back.”

Ivy stirred from her corner. Cripes, I hadn’t even seen her move there. “I’ll help him to his room,” she offered, and the woman’s quick refusal died when she saw who it was.

“You’re Ivy Tamwood?” she asked, then wrote my blood pressure on my chart. “Thank you. I’d appreciate that. His aura isn’t thick enough to be mingling.”

Jenks rose up from the flowers, this time covered in pollen. “Aw, we’re all his friends,” the pixy said, shaking in midair to create a dust cloud.

Dr. Mape started. “What are you doing out of hibernation?” she asked, shocked.

I cleared my throat dryly. “He, uh, lives in my desk,” I offered, then shut my mouth when Dr. Mapes stuck a thermometer in it.

“I bet that’s fun,” the woman murmured as the instrument worked.

I shifted the probe to the other side of my mouth. “It’s his kids who drive me nuts,” I mumbled, and the thermometer beeped.

Again Dr. Mape made a note in my chart, then bent to look under the bed. “Your kidneys look fine,” she said. “I’m going to leave the IV in, but I’ll take the catheter out now.”

Glenn stiffened. “Uh, Rachel,” the man said uncomfortably. “I’ll see you around, okay? Give me a day before we go racing down the halls.”

Ivy got behind him, holding his gown shut as he reached for his IV and used it to haul himself up. “Jenks?” she said as they shuffled into motion. “Get your pixy ass in the hall.”

He gave me a lopsided grin, then buzzed out, making circles around Ivy and Glenn. The door eased shut, and his voice faded.

I started to scrunch down to make this as easy as possible, then stopped when Dr. Mape pulled Glenn’s chair back and sat, silently eyeing me. Suddenly I felt like a bug on a pin. She wasn’t saying anything, and finally I offered a hesitant “You’re going to take it out, right?”

The woman sighed and eased into a more comfortable position. “I wanted to talk to you, and this was the easiest way to get them to leave.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, and a ribbon of fear pulled through me, leaving prickles of unease. “I spent the first fifteen years of my life in hospitals, Dr. Mape,” I said boldly as I sat up. “I’ve been told I’m going to die more often than I have pairs of boots, and I have a lot of boots. There’s nothing you can say that’s going to throw me.” It was a lie, but it sounded good.

“You survived the Rosewood syndrome,” she said, flipping back in my chart. I stiffened when she reached for my wrist, turning it over and looking at the demon mark. “Maybe that’s why the banshee child didn’t kill you.”

Is she talking about my blood disease or my demon mark? Uneasy, I pulled my arm out of her grip. Either way, I was different, and not in a good way. “You think my aura tastes bad?”

Dr. Mape was looking at my hands, and I wanted to hide them. “I wouldn’t know,” she said. “From what I’ve been told, auras don’t have a taste. I do know a banshee child will take long past when she’s sated, and that’s more than enough to kill a person. You and Mr. Glenn are very lucky to be alive. Ms. Harbor keeps her child well fed.”

Well fed, my ass. She almost killed me.

Leaning back, Dr. Mape looked out my window and to the other wing. “She should be commended for raising a child to the age of reason, not hunted down like an animal when an accident occurs. Did you know that until a banshee reaches about the age of five, anyone who touches her aside from her mother is considered a food source? Even her own human father.”

“Is that so,” I said, thinking Remus had held her without a slip of his aura being taken, when everyone around was being slowly siphoned. “Forgive me if I’m not all flowers and hearts over her predicament. That woman handed Holly to me, knowing she would kill me. That child very nearly killed Glenn. Mia herself has killed people, they just haven’t tied them to her yet. I’m all for staying alive, but I don’t kill people to do it.”

Dr. Mape looked at me impassively. “Of course I sympathize with you and Mr. Glenn, but in most situations, banshees take only the dregs of society. I’ve seen much worse human-on-human predation, and what Mia did was for her survival.”

“In whose judgment?” I said snottily, then forced myself to relax. This was the woman who was going to give me my work excuse.

Again, Dr. Mape was untouched, and she leaned over to put an elbow on her knee so she could study me. “My question is why you suffered significantly less damage than Mr. Glenn. Humans and witches have the same aura strength.”

“Know all about us, huh?” I said, then bit my tongue. She’s not the enemy. She’s not the enemy.

“Actually, I do. That’s why I took you as a patient.” She hesitated, then added, “I’m sorry, Ms. Morgan. They won’t allow you on the witches’ floor anymore because of your demon scars. I’m all you’ve got.”

I stared at her. Excuse me? They wouldn’t treat me because of my demon scars? What did my scars have to do with it? It wasn’t like I was a black witch. “But you’ll treat me?” I said bitterly.

“I took a vow to protect life. The same belief that causes me to look upon that banshee mother with compassion is why I agreed to treat you. I’d rather judge a person on why they make the choices they do rather than the cold facts of what they choose.”

I settled back, wondering if it was wisdom or a cop-out. Dr. Mape stood, and my gaze followed her up. “I know Captain Edden from when his wife was attacked,” she said. “He told me how you got your demon marks. I’ve see what’s left of your aura. And now I’ve seen your friends. Pixies don’t give their loyalty lightly.”

I frowned as she turned to leave. Turning back, she asked, “Why do you think you came in semiconscious and Mr. Glenn remained unconscious for three days?”

“I don’t know.” I really didn’t think it was from the demon marks. If it had been, then black witches couldn’t be harmed by banshees, and I knew that wasn’t true. It had to be because I was a…a proto-demon, but I wasn’t going to tell her that.

“Your survival of the Rosewood syndrome?” she questioned. “That’s what my colleagues support.”

It was too close to what I suspected, and I forced myself to look at her and shrug.

She hesitated, to be sure I wasn’t going to say any more, then turned to leave.

“Hey, what about my catheter?” I shot after her, wanting some small part of myself back.

“I’ll have a nurse come in,” she said. “You’ll be staying with us for a few days, Ms. Morgan. I hope you feel comfortable enough to talk to me soon.”

My jaw dropped as she closed the door with a firm thump. So that was her game. She wouldn’t release me until I satisfied her curiosity. Well, to hell with that. I had stuff to do.

The faint, familiar clatter of dragonfly wings drew my attention to the top of the tall wardrobe. “Jenks!” I said, warming. “I thought you were gone.”

He flitted down, darting back and forth before landing on my knee. “I’ve never seen a catheter taken out,” he said smugly.

“And you never will. God! Get out before the nurse gets here.” But he only moved to the flowers and started to take the dead bits off.

“You’re stuck here until you talk, eh?” he said. “Mind if Matalina and I borrow your jewelry box? We have got to get away from the kids for a while.”

“Euwie, Jenks!” I didn’t want to know. “I’m out of here as soon as I can stand up,” I said as I tried to get the thought of Matalina with her feet among my earrings out of my head. “Six o’clock at the latest.”

I stretched experimentally, wincing. One way or another, I was leaving. Al expected me for my lesson, and if I didn’t show up in the ley line, he’d track me down. A demon in a hospital would do wonders for my reputation. ’Course that was one way to get out of here.

Jenks turned, his clever hands folding a daisy petal up to hold a handful of pollen. “Yeah? You think they’re going to just let you walk out of here? Dr. Frankenstein wants you for her science experiment.”

I smiled, feeling my pulse begin to quicken and anticipation warm my blood all the way to my toes. “Walk out of here is exactly what I’m going to do. I didn’t spend my formative years in the hospital and learn nothing about how to sneak out.”

Jenks just smiled.

Thirteen

My curls were nearly dry, and moving irritatingly slowly, I used the comb in the hospital care kit to try to smooth out the tangles. The shampoo and cream rinse had been from the kit as well, and I wasn’t eager to find out how much cracking the thumb-size bottles was going to cost me. I was betting five bucks a bottle. It was worse than the amenities fridge in a five-star hotel. But asking Ivy to run home and get my stuff wasn’t going to happen. The less I was carting out of here, the less likely someone would realize I was a fleeing patient.

Before the Turn, you could ask for an AMA, or Against Medical Advice discharge, and be done with it. But after the quickly spreading pandemic had ravaged the population, legislation gleefully took away a lot of patients’ rights. Unless you did the paperwork ahead of time, it took forever and a day to get an AMA. If I wanted to leave, I had to sneak out. I’d likely have cops after me as the hospital tried to protect themselves from a lawsuit, but they’d go away once the AMA came in.

My shower this evening had tragically turned from the expected forty-minute indulgence in someone else’s hot water into a five-minute rush; the force of the water beating into me had made me dizzy, giving me the sensation that I was washing my aura off with the soap. But I now sat reasonably comfortably on the hard couch by the night-dark window, dressed in the clothes Ivy had brought over: jeans and a black sweater she had complimented me on the first time I’d worn it.

I’d thought a hot shower would be just the thing, but the activity turned into an exercise in learning how fast I could move. Or couldn’t move, rather. My aura was uncomfortably thin, and every time I shifted quickly, I seemed to lose my equilibrium. I got cold, too. Oddly so. Almost an ache. Weird, Glenn had said. That was the word for it.

Giving up, I flicked the comb into the trash and wondered if anyone had bothered to tell Pierce what had happened and that I was all right. Probably not. It was drafty by the window, and when I peeked past the curtain, the gleam of the red and white car lights against the snow made it seem all the colder.

I reached to put on my coat and found a new scrape on the right sleeve. Crap. Frowning, I shrugged into it, carefully levered my boots onto the couch, and sat with my arms wrapped around my knees. My smiling giraffe was sitting across from me, and memories came creeping back, memories of me sitting like this waiting for my dad to get better or die, older memories of me waiting for my mom to come pick me up and take me home. Sighing, I dropped my chin onto my knees.

My mom and Robbie had visited earlier. Mom had been shocked when I told her it was a banshee attack, and Robbie predictably went off the deep end. His exact words involved hell and an ice storm, but he’d never approved of my career choice, so what he cared didn’t matter. I loved him, but he was a prick when it came to trying to make me fit into his ideas of what I should be. He’d left when I was thirteen, and I would always be thirteen in his mind.

At least when Marshal found out I’d be sneaking out tonight, he’d asked if he could help. After seeing him take down Tom, I was of a mind to accept his offer, but I was holding him in reserve in case I had to flee my “safe house” for a new one once the AMA police came after me.

The almost unheard squeak of the oversize door drew my attention across the dimly lit room and I lifted my head. It was Ivy and Jenks, and I smiled and put my feet on the floor. Jenks reached me first, the slight dust from him leaving a faint trail in the dark room.

“You ready?” he said, buzzing around my damp hair before shunning my shoulder. He was wearing Matalina’s latest attempt at pixy winter wear, and the poor guy had so much blue fabric wrapped around him he could hardly put his arms down.

“Just have to tie my boots,” I said as I shoved the giraffe into my bag next to Bis’s carved rose; I’d take it after all. “Are we set with Keasley?”

Ivy nodded as I sent my fingers among my laces. The cops would check the church. My mom’s house was out, too, even if I wanted to put up with Robbie’s pointed barbs, but Keasley could put us up for a few days. Ceri was spending much of her time in the Kalamack compound, and I knew he’d enjoy the company as well as the full pantry we’d leave him with.

Ivy was wearing her long leather coat over a pair of jeans and a brown sweater. I knew it was her attempt to try to blend in, but she could wear a discount special and still turn heads. She had put on some makeup, and her hair was pulled back. Apparently she was growing it out again, and the gold highlights had been colored over. Concern flickered in her dark eyes as she approached, her pupils dilated from the low light, not hunger. I’d be worried that she was vamping out from stress, but vampires treated the ill and wounded with an eerie gentleness. I think it was an instinct that evolved to help keep them from killing their chosen lovers by accident. The last place a vampire would sate themselves was a hospital.

She stood before me, evaluating my fatigue with her hand on her hip as I puffed over my boots. “Are you sure you don’t want any Brimstone?” she asked, and I shook my head. Brimstone would up my metabolism, but I’d probably hurt myself when I felt better than I really was. My metabolism wasn’t the problem. It was my damaged aura, and nothing could replace that but time.

“No,” I emphasized when she frowned. “You didn’t slip me any, did you?”

“No. God, Rachel, I do respect you.”

She was glaring, so I figured she was telling me the truth. Ivy’s subtle motions had a layer of hurt to them, and when Jenks clacked his wings at me I added, “Maybe later. Once I get out of here. Thanks.”

That seemed to satisfy her, and I stood up, jamming my hands into my coat pockets and unexpectedly finding Robbie’s plane tickets. Feeling sour after his scorn this afternoon concerning my chosen profession, I pulled the envelope out to stuff it in my bag. The banshee tear that had been in there as well came flying out, arcing through the air.

“Got it,” Jenks called, then, realizing what it was, he yelped and jerked back so the tear hit the floor and skittered under the bed. “Is that the banshee tear Edden gave you?” he squeaked, unusually shaken, and I nodded. Ivy beat me to the floor, giving Jenks a dry look before she peered under the bed and retrieved it.

“It’s clear again,” she said, eyes wide as she rose and dropped it into my palm.

“Oh, that is just freaky.” Uncomfortable, I held it in a shaft of incoming streetlight.

The small pixy hovered over my fingers, his wings a harsh blur. “That’s it, Rache,” he said, floating up to look me eye to eye. “The tear is why you survived, not your demon marks. The baby found the tear-”

“And took her bottle instead of me,” I said, my relief absolute that it hadn’t been my demon marks that had saved me. “It felt like something black was being pulled through me. I though it was the smut on my aura.” Shuddering, I dropped the tear in my bag, vowing to take it out when we got home. “Maybe that’s how Remus is staying alive,” I muttered.

Ivy’s face went almost terrifyingly blank. I looked at her in question, and feeling cold, I said, “Jenks, see if Glenn is ready.”

“You got it,” the oblivious pixy said, and he darted under the one-inch gap between the door and the floor.

I sank back to sit on the bed, arms crossed as I looked at Ivy, a shadow against the dark window. “You, ah, want to share something with me?” I asked.

Ivy took a slow breath. Exhaling, she sat in the corner of the long couch and looked at the ceiling, at nothing. “This is my fault,” she said, her eyes black as they came back to me. “Mia going on a killing rampage to engender a child, I mean.”

“You,” I said. “How?”

Her hair swung forward to hide her face. “I gave her my wish. The one you gave me.”

I uncrossed my arms and recrossed them the other way. “You mean from the leprechaun I let go to get out of the I.S.?” She nodded, head down, and I squinted, not understanding. “You gave your wish to a banshee? Why? You could have wished for anything!”

Ivy shifted her shoulders. It was a nervous reaction I didn’t see often. “It was sort of a thank-you. I owed her a lot. I met Mia before I met you. My boss, Art, he was jerking me around. I was on the fast track, but he wasn’t going to promote me out from under him until…” She hesitated, and in her silence, I heard her unsaid words. Her boss wanted a taste of her before letting her rise above him. I felt myself warm, and I was glad the room was dark.

“Office politics,” Ivy said, her shoulders rounding. “I didn’t want to play them. Thought I was too good to have to, and when I caught Art trying to cover up a banshee murder to help boost his bank account, I called Mia in to find out what was going on. At that point, she worked with the I.S. policing her species. Long story short, I put Art in jail to get out from under him. And I thought I had it bad in the I.S. At least I didn’t have to frame my supervisor to move ahead.”

“And got busted down to babysitting me,” I said, embarrassed, and Ivy shook her head, leaning forward into a shaft of light. There were no tears, but she looked unhappy.

“No. I mean yes, but, Rachel, the woman told me some things about myself I was too afraid to admit. You know how banshees are. They tell you hard truths just to get you angry so they can eat your emotions, and she pissed me off by telling me I was afraid to be the person I wanted to be, someone capable of loving someone else. She shamed me into going off blood.”

“God, Ivy,” I said, still not believing she had given her wish to a…banshee! “You thought going off blood was a good thing? It nearly drove you insane.”

Her eyes were black in the reduced light of midnight, and I stifled a shiver. “It wasn’t the lack of blood that was driving me insane,” she said. “And it was a good thing. The strength and confidence I gained from it was all I had to fight Piscary with. It gave me the will I use every day. Mia said-” Ivy hesitated, then softer, she said with an old anger, “Mia called me a coward, saying that she couldn’t love anyone without killing them and that I was a whining child for having the chance to love someone but not the courage to do so. And when I met you?” Ivy shrugged. “When I realized you might love me back…maybe? Make my life clean somehow?” Embarrassed, she rubbed her temples. “I gave her my wish so she could have the chance to love someone, too. It’s my fault she’s out there killing people.”

“Ivy,” I said softly, frozen where I sat. “I’m sorry. I do love you.”

“Stop,” she said, holding out a slim hand as if to halt my words. “I know you do.” She looked at me, jaw clenched and enough anger in her gaze to keep me from moving. “Piscary was right.” She laughed bitterly, and I felt cold. “The bastard was right all along. But I was right, too. If Mia hadn’t shamed me into it, I wouldn’t have found the courage to screw Art over and let myself love you.”

“Ivy.” Oh God, Ivy never opened up like this voluntarily. She must have been really scared about me last night.

“You’re like a master vampire, you know that?” Ivy pushed herself to the corner of the couch and stared at me, almost angry. “You scare the ever-loving crap out of me even as I want to wrap myself up in your soul and be safe. I’m sick, wanting what scares me.”

“I don’t want to hurt you,” I offered, not knowing where this conversation was going.

“You have hurt me,” she said, arms around her drawn-up knees and her chin high. “You will again. I don’t care. That’s the sick part. That’s why I don’t touch you anymore. I’m addicted to your little white lies. I want love, but I can’t live with myself if I make you hurt me again. I don’t want pain to feel like love. It’s not supposed to.”

The memory of Farcus playing on my scar lifted through me. Too close. He’d been too close. Used me like a match to light his own libido. Pain turned to pleasure-was it truly perverted if it really felt good? “I’m sorry, Ivy. I can’t give any more,” I whispered.

Ivy turned to the window, shifting the curtain to look outside. “I’m not asking you to, scaredy-cat,” she said mildly, and I saw the signs as she closed her emotions down again. “Don’t worry. I like things the way they are. I didn’t tell you this to guilt you into anything; I just thought you ought to know why Mia Harbor has a husband who is immune to a banshee’s attack. I gave her the wish because I owed her. She gave me the courage to fight for what I wanted. Whether I get it or not is immaterial. The only way I could thank her was to give her the chance to love. And I think she loves him. As much as a banshee can.”

My hands were clenched on my arms with enough strength to cramp them, and I let go. “She loves a freaking serial killer,” I said, glad the conversation had swung away from us.

Ivy smiled wanly in the streetlight. Her hand dropped from the curtain, and the shadow hid her face again. “That doesn’t make it any less. Holly isn’t special. Remus is. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have given it to her. I had no idea she’d use it to kill people. For all her strength, she’s a monster. I owe her, but I’m still going to bring her in.”

Standing, I reached out to draw her to her feet, wanting to hug her so she’d lose that awful stiffness. “Don’t worry about it. You didn’t know what she was going to do. No good deed and all.”

“It’s still my fault.”

My hand touched her shoulder, and I drew back when Jenks shot under the door in a glittering of silver sparkles that left a steady stream behind as he rose up to our height. “Glenn’s in the hall,” he said, unusually bright-eyed in the dim room.

“Good,” I said faintly, turning to get my bag. My face was warm, and I put a hand to it.

“Uh,” the pixy said, hovering uncertainly in the dark. “Did I miss something?”

Ivy took my bag from me, having to jerk it free. “No,” she said, then turned to me. “Stay here and I’ll get you a chair.”

“No you won’t.” She had confused me, and I didn’t know how to stop her from pushing me around right now. “A chair wasn’t in the plan,” I added. “I can walk it.”

“You’re wobbling on your feet,” Ivy said, and I shook my head. This was a decision I was going to stick with.

“I can’t sneak out in a wheelchair,” I said, eyes on the ground until I was sure it wasn’t tilting. “I have to walk. Really, really slowly.”

Jenks hovered before us, looking like Lawrence of Arabia with wings. “No way, Rache,” he started, his eyes crinkled in worry. “You’re as strong as a fairy’s hard-on.”

“I can make it,” I breathed, hesitated, then shook my head. Nice one, Jenks. My head was down as I started for the door, and my thoughts were on my laundry list: Bargain with Al for the time off; reconstruct the charm to give Pierce temporary substance; remind Marshal that we weren’t going to move our relationship along simply because one, I’d gotten hurt, two, he’d beaten Tom, and three, we’d had a nice dinner with my family. I also had to try making that locator charm again, not to mention, to get a lead on Kisten’s killer, look through the records to track down everyone Piscary had bled or bedded during his jail time. I could do it. I could do it all. How am I going to do this?

Jenks was flying backward in front of me as I moved from couch, to bed, to wardrobe, gauging my aura, no doubt. It was irritating to say the least. “Tell Glenn we’re on our way?” I asked, slapping at Ivy when she threatened to help me inch along.

“Already did.” Jenks landed on my shoulder, puffing from the constant weight of his clothes. “You owe him big, Rachel. He was scheduled to be released tomorrow.”

I clutched my bag and looked at Ivy, squashing my guilt. “Then let’s go.”

Ivy nodded. Touching my shoulder once, she headed out. “See you in the elevator, Rache,” Jenks said, then darted out before the oversize door swung shut behind her.

Alone, I let myself lean against the wall, exhausted. I was breathing heavy and moving slow. That wasn’t a problem. I could do this. I had done this lots of times, actually, with my mom when I wanted to go home and the AMA hadn’t come in yet.

Sneaking out of the hospital is like riding a bike, I thought as I listened to Ivy talking to the nurse at the desk. Then I remembered that I’d never learned to ride a bike either.

“Elevator,” I whispered, cementing it as my goal. I could rest there. Ride up and down until I felt like walking out. I waited by the almost-closed door, eavesdropping. It was about midnight, and since I was on a human floor, it was quiet. Perfect.

“Get a nurse!” someone shouted, and I heard a clang as something hit a wall. Jenks started shrieking, and I edged forward to peek through the crack in the door. There was a distant masculine groan, and a heavy orderly rushed past, his dreadlocks swinging.

I eased the door open with my weight, shivering when it felt like the varnished wood was stealing the heat from me right through my coat. I looked to the right, following the sound of the commotion, smiling at Glenn, on the floor at the end of the hall. Ivy was there with Jenks, two orderlies, and a nurse. The guy who delivered the food was there, too.

As I watched, Glenn groaned convincingly, cracking an eye to see me. I gave him a bunny-eared, kiss-kiss, and he flipped me off, turning his smile into a pained moan. Jenks was right; I owed him big.

Pulse racing, I hobbled to the elevator around the corner. I didn’t even have to go by the nurses’ desk. My pace slowly became more sure and my posture upright, while fighting the fatigue and mild sensation of walking in deep snow and trying to look as if I was sedate, not sedated.

I turned the corner, and the noise behind me grew faint. The hallway was empty, but I didn’t dare use the waist-high handrail. Besides, the elevator was just ahead. I pushed the button, then pushed it again until the light went on.

Almost immediately the doors opened, and my heart jumped when a couple stepped out. They gave me a cursory glance, then perked up at the noise Glenn was making. Curiosity was winning when I staggered to the back of the lift and propped myself up in the corner, my bag clutched to me. The more quickly I moved, the worse I felt. Which really stunk, seeing as I was in a turtle’s footrace for the door.

I took shallow breaths and stared at the couple’s backs as the doors slid shut. Jenks. Where are you? You said you’d be here.

The pixy darted in at the last moment, nearly crashing into the back of the elevator.

“Rache!” he said in excitement, and vertigo hit me when I flung my hands over my ears.

“Not so loud!” I exclaimed, and he dropped to hover at eye level.

“Sorry,” he said, looking anything but. He followed my weary gaze to the dark panel, then flew at it, hitting the button for the next level down feet first. I heard the whine of electronics click over, and we started to descend.

“Glenn is good,” he said as he returned to land on my shoulder. “I don’t think they’ll know you’re gone until they get someone to take him back to his room.”

“Excellent.” I closed my eyes against the vertigo. I’d been afraid the elevator might move too fast to stomach, but I couldn’t take the stairs even if my aura was dragging behind me as we descended.

“You doin’ okay?” he asked, worry thick in his tone.

“Yep,” I said, propped in the corner. “It’s just fatigue.” I squinted to get him into focus, and then the world snapped back when the elevator dinged and the rest of my aura caught up. I took a breath, letting it slip slowly from me. “I’ve got things to do today, and I can’t do them lazing around in a bed that moves up and down.”

He laughed, and I pushed from the wall when the doors opened. If all was going well, it would be Ivy, and I didn’t want her to think I was a wimp.

Ivy was standing right before the doors, and giving me a glance, she darted in and clicked the button to close the doors. “Everything okay?” she asked.

“Peachy.”

Ivy exchanged a look with Jenks and hit the “lobby” button with a series of taps so rapid that they were almost indistinguishable from each other. A little nervous, are we?

The descent was worse this time, and I closed my eyes and leaned back in the corner as the elevator picked up speed, going almost the full height of the building.

“Rache, you all right?” Jenks asked, and I wiggled my fingers, too afraid of what might happen if I nodded. My stomach hurt.

“Too fast,” I breathed, worried about the ride home. I was going to be blowing chunks if we had to drive faster than twenty miles an hour.

I started to shiver, and I clutched my bag to me, feeling every muscle I had clench when the lift lurched to a stop. The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. Relieved, I opened my eyes to find Jenks hovering at the sensor to keep the doors from shutting. The soft sounds of a nearly empty lobby filtered in, and Ivy took my arm. I would have protested, except I really needed it. Together we started out of the elevator. God, I felt a hundred and sixty years old, my heart pounding and my knees weak.

But the slow movement started to feel good, and the farther we went, the more sure I was that this was the right thing to do. I glanced around-trying not to look like I was-scopin’ casual, as Jenks would say. The lobby had a few people passing through it even at midnight, and the lights shining down on the entryway illuminated the snow-covered vegetation to make it into indistinguishable blobs. It was kind of pretty with the flashing amber lights of the tow truck.

Tow truck?

“Hey! That’s my car!” I exclaimed upon seeing it parked at the curb in the pickup and drop-off spot. But it wouldn’t be there long from the looks of it.

At the sound of my voice, two people turned from the big plate-glass windows. They’d been watching the guy work, and my eyes narrowed when I realized it was Dr. Mape and the cop on duty. A big vamp from the I.S. Great. Just freaking great.

“Plan B, Ivy,” Jenks said, then dove into the elevator.

“That’s my car!” I shouted again, then gasped when Ivy spun me around and yanked me back into the elevator. My back hit the wall and I put a hand to my stomach. “Who said”-I panted through the sudden vertigo-“you could drive my car?”

The doors snicked shut and cut off the doctor’s protest. I clutched at the walls when the elevator started to go up, then forced myself to let go. Damn it, I am not going to get sick. “Who said you could drive my car?” I said again, louder, as if I could hold off the dizziness with my voice.

Jenks’s wings hummed nervously, and Ivy flushed. “What was I supposed to pick you up with? My cycle?” she muttered. “I’m in a legal spot. I had thirty minutes left.”

“They’re towing my car!” I shouted again, pointing, and she shrugged.

“I’ll get it out of impound.”

“How are we going to get home now!” I yelled, not liking the feeling of helplessness, and Ivy pulled out her cell phone from a slim case at her belt. God, the thing was the size of a credit card. “I’ll call Kist-” Her voice broke, and I stared at her suddenly riven features. “I mean, Erica,” she amended softly. “She’ll come get us. She works near here.”

Turn it to hell. Ill and heartsick, I pressed into the corner of the elevator and tried to find my equilibrium.

Jenks landed on my shoulder. “Relax, Rache,” he said, his eyes darting to Ivy as she hunched in pain, her fingers tapping out a text message as fast as if she were at a conventional keyboard. “You saw the hag of a doctor. It’s not Ivy’s fault. They knew you were making a run for it.”

Hands splayed, I propped myself against the two walls surrounding me. It felt as if we were rising through thousands of pinpricks of ice as the world hit me raw, unprotected without my full aura. It wasn’t as if I was in a position to do anything. And Dr. Mape would have been a fool for not expecting this. Multiple escapes were in my record. My mom used to sneak me out all the time. “Where are we going?” I breathed, forcing myself to keep my eyes open even though they kept shifting on their own, like I had been on a merry-go-round for too long.

“The roof.”

I eyed Ivy, then carefully leaned to push the button for the third floor. “There’s a walkway to the children’s wing on the third floor. We can go out that way,” I muttered, and my eyes slid shut. Just for a moment. Ivy and Jenks’s silence pulled them back open. “What?” I said. “Why should I go through the laundry chute to the basement floor when I can roll out in a wheelchair?”

Ivy shifted her feet. “You’ll sit down?” she asked.

Before I fall down? Not likely. “Yes,” I said, then accepted Ivy’s arm when the elevator stopped and the world magically returned to normal.

The elevator doors slid open with a ding, and Jenks flew out, darting back before we had gone three steps. “There’s a chair over here,” he said, and I leaned against the wall beside the fake potted plant as Ivy used one hand to keep me upright, and the other to almost throw the chair open, the locks snapping in place from the sudden shock of being jerked to a stop.

“Sit,” she said, and I gratefully sat. I had to get home. Everything would be better if I could just get home.

Ivy pushed me into motion, taking advantage of the empty hall to race for the walkway. Dizziness roared from everywhere, slipping out of the corners where the walls and floor met, chasing after me as Ivy raced. “Slow down,” I whispered, but I think it was my lolling head that got her to stop. Either that or Jenks screaming at her.

“What the hell are you doing!” Jenks was shouting, and I gritted my teeth, struggling to keep from throwing up.

“Getting her out of here,” she snarled from somewhere far away and distant behind me.

“You can’t move her that fast!” he yelled, dusting me as if he could give me a false aura. “She’s not moving slowly because she’s hurt, she’s moving slowly to keep her aura with her. You just freaking left it back at the elevator!”

Ivy’s voice was a mere whisper of “Oh my God.” I felt a warm hand on me. “Rachel, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

It was getting better surprisingly fast, and the world stopped spinning. Looking up, I squinted until she came into focus. “Yeah.” I took a cautiously deep breath. “Just don’t go that fast.” Crap. How was I going to handle the car?

Ivy’s face was scared, and I reached up to touch her hand, still on my shoulder. “I’m okay,” I said, risking another deep breath. “Where are we?”

She pushed us back into motion, almost crawling. Jenks, flying a close flank, nodded. “The children’s wing,” she whispered.

Fourteen

Anxious, I pressed my knees together as Ivy wheeled me down the hall. We’d passed the long walkway over the service drive, and we were indeed in the children’s wing. An awful feeling of dread and familiarity settled in me, and my gut clenched.

The smell was different, holding the scent of baby powder and crayons. The walls were a warmer yellow now, and the railings…I eyed them as we rolled past. There was a second, lower set, which just about killed me. Pictures of puppies and kittens were on the walls at seated height. And rainbows. Kids shouldn’t be ill. But they were. They died here, and it wasn’t fair.

I felt the prick of tears, and Jenks landed on my shoulder. “You okay?”

It isn’t fair, damn it. “No,” I said, forcing myself to smile so he wouldn’t ask Ivy to stop. I could hear kids talking loudly with the intensity that children used when they knew they had only a short time to make their voices heard.

We were going by the playroom, the tall windows with the blinds open to show the snow, and the ceiling lights turned up to make it almost as bright as noon. It was just after midnight, and only the Inderlander kids would be up, most of them in their rooms with a parent or two, having their dinner. If they could swing it, most parents visited during meals to try to make their child’s hospital room into a piece of the familiar by eating with them, and the kids-without exception-were too kind to tell them it only made home look that much farther away.

We slowly rolled by the bright room with its night-black windows. I wasn’t surprised to see it empty but for the pack of kids whose parents were too far away to stop in for meals or had other responsibilities. They were an independent bunch, and they talked a lot. I smiled when they caught sight of us, but shock filled me when one of them shouted, “Ivy!”

Immediately the table in the far corner emptied out, and I sat in amazement as we were suddenly surrounded by kids in brightly colored pj’s. One was enthusiastically dragging her IV stand behind her, and three had lost their hair from chemotherapy, still legal after the Turn, when more effective biomedicines were not. The oldest of the three, a skinny girl with her jaw clenched, lagged behind with a tired determination. She wore a bright red bandanna that matched her pajamas, and it gave her an endearing bad-girl look.

“Ivy, Ivy, Ivy!” a red-cheeked boy about six shouted again, shocking the hell out of me when he flung himself at Ivy’s knees in an enthusiastic hug. Ivy flamed red, and Jenks laughed, spilling dust in a sheet of gold.

“Did you come to eat with us and throw peas at the parrot?” the girl with the IV asked, and I turned in my chair to see Ivy all the better.

“Pixy, pixy, pixy!” the boy on her legs shouted, and Jenks flew up out of his reach.

“Uh, I’m going to do a nurse check,” he said nervously, then zipped off at ceiling height. There was a chorus of disappointment, and Ivy disentangled herself, kneeling to put us all on the same level. “No, Daryl,” she said, “I’m sneaking my friend out for some ice cream, so lower your voices before they check up on you.”

Immediately the shouts diminished to giggling whispers. One of the bald kids, a boy by the cowboys on his pajamas, ran to the end of the hall and peeked around the corner. He gave us a distant thumbs-up, and everyone sighed. There were only five of them, but they all apparently knew Ivy, and they clustered around us like…kids.

“She’s a witch,” the red-cheeked boy, still attached to Ivy’s leg, said, pitching his tone imperialistically. His hand was on his hip, and he was clearly the floor’s self-proclaimed king. “She can’t be your friend. Vampires and witches don’t make friends.”

“She has a black aura,” the girl with the IV said, backing up. Her eyes were wide, but I could tell by her plump, healthy body that she was going to survive. She was one of the kids who come in, stay, then leave, never to return. She must be special to have been accepted into what was clearly the clique of children who…weren’t going to have an easy go of it.

“Are you a black witch?” the girl who had lagged behind asked. Her brown eyes were huge in her medicine-ravaged face. There was no fear in her, not because she was ignorant, but because she knew she was dying, and she knew I wasn’t going to be the cause of her death. My heart went out to her. She was seeing around corners, but not yet ready to go. One more thing possibly to see and do.

Ivy shifted uncomfortably at her question. “Rachel is my friend,” she said simply. “Would I be a friend to a black witch?”

“You might,” Daryl said haughtily, and someone stepped on his foot to make him yelp. “But her aura is black!” the king protested. “And she has a demon mark. See?”

Everyone drew back with fear except the tall girl in the red pajamas. She simply stood before me and looked at my wrist, and unlike most times when someone pointed it out and I tried to hide it, I turned my hand up for all of them to see.

“I got it when a demon tried to kill me,” I said, knowing most of them had to gain a lifetime of wisdom in just a few years and had no time for pretend, yet pretend was all they had. “I had to accept a very bad thing to survive.”

Small heads bobbed and eyes grew wide, but the king lifted his chin and took a stance that was utterly charming-a round, chubby Jenks with his hands on his hips. “That’s evil,” he said, certain of his belief. “You should never do anything evil. If you do, you are evil and go to hell. My mom says so.”

I felt ill when the smallest girl, with the IV, shrank back farther yet, tugging at her friend to leave with her.

“I’m sorry,” Ivy whispered as she stood up and took the handles of the wheelchair. “I didn’t think they would come over. They don’t understand.”

But the thing was, they did understand. They had the wisdom of the world in their eyes. They understood too well, and seeing their fear, I felt my heart gray.

Ivy made shooing motions with her hand, and they broke their circle. All except the skinny girl in the bright red pajamas. Seeing my misery, she reached out with her small, smooth, child hands and delicately took my wrist with her pinkie extended. Turning my hand palm up, she used a finger to slowly trace the circle and line. “Ivy’s friend isn’t evil for doing something to survive what hurt her,” she said, her voice soft but certain. “You take poison to kill the bad cells in you, Daryl, just like me. It hurts you, makes you tired, makes you sick, but if you didn’t you would die. Ivy’s friend took a demon mark to save her life. It’s the same thing.”

Ivy’s motion to push the chair stopped. The kids went silent, each thinking, assessing what they had been told with the harsh reality of what they lived with. Daryl’s sure look faltered, and he pushed forward, not wanting to look like a coward, or worse, cruel. He peered over the arm of the wheelchair at my scar, then up to my face. His small round face broke into a smile of acceptance. I was one of them, and he knew it. My jaw unclenched, and I smiled back.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl said, then scrambled up to sit in my lap. “You’re okay.”

My breath came fast, in surprise, but my hands naturally folded around him to keep him in place so he wouldn’t fall. Daryl gave a hop and settled in, snuggling his head under my chin and tracing the demon scar as if to memorize its lines. He smelled like soap, and under that, of a green meadow faraway and distant. I blinked fast to keep the tears from brimming over, and Ivy laid a hand on my shoulder.

The girl with the red pajamas smiled like Ceri, wise and fragile. “You’re not bad inside,” she said, petting my wrist. “Just hurt.” She put her hand on Daryl’s shoulder, and her gaze going distant, she murmured, “It will be okay. There’s always a chance.”

It was so close to what I was feeling, what I’d felt when I was growing up, that I leaned forward, and with Daryl between us, I gave her a hug. “Thank you,” I whispered, my eyes closed as I held her to me. “I needed to remember that. You’re very wise.”

Daryl slid down and away, squirming to get out from between us, darting to stand nearby, looking uncomfortable, yet pleased to have been included.

“That’s what my mom says,” the girl said, her eyes wide and serious. “She says the angels want me back so I can teach them about love.”

I closed my eyes, but it didn’t do any good, and a hot tear slipped down. “I’m sorry,” I said as I wiped it away. I’d just broken one of the secret rules. “I’ve been away too long.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “You’re allowed if there aren’t any parents around.”

My throat closed up, and I held her hand. It was all I could do. Jenks’s wings clattered a warning, and all the kids sighed and drew back when he landed on my upraised hand.

“They know where you are,” he said.

Ivy, almost forgotten, shifted the chair, rolling it back as she turned to look behind us. “We have to go,” she said to the kids.

Instead of the expected complaints, they dutifully dropped away, all looking toward a distant clacking of heels. The king straightened and said, “You want us to slow them down?”

I looked up at Ivy, whose grin transformed her face. “If we get away, I’ll tell you two stories next time,” she said, and delight showed on every young face.

“Go,” the girl in red pajamas said, pulling the king out of the way with the gentle hands of the mother she would never be.

“Let’s save the witch princess!” the boy cried, and he ran down the hall. The others fell into place the best they could, some moving fast, others slow, the bright colors of childhood scarred with bald heads and gaits too slow for their enthusiasm.

“I’m going to cry,” Jenks said, sniffing as he flew up to Ivy. “I’m going to freaking cry.”

Ivy’s face, as she watched them, showed a depth of emotion I’d never seen; then she turned away, divorcing herself from it. Lips tight together, she started into motion. I turned to face where we were going, and her brisk steps seemed to carry the desperation that there was nothing she could do to save them.

Jenks flew ahead to get the elevator, holding it by hovering at the sensor. Ivy wheeled me in and around. The doors shut, and the tragic wisdom of the children’s wing was gone. I took a breath, and my throat tightened.

“I didn’t think you would understand them,” Ivy said softly. “They really like you.”

“Understand them?” I said raggedly, my throat still holding that lump. “I am them.” I hesitated, then asked, “You come here a lot?”

The elevator opened to show a smaller, friendlier lobby with a Christmas tree and solstice decorations, and beyond, a big black Hummer burning gas at the snowy curb. “About once a week,” she said, pushing me forward.

Jenks was humming happily about a horse with no name. The lady at the desk was on the phone, eyeing us, but my worry vanished when she waved, telling whoever she was talking to that the lobby was empty. Just her and Dan.

Dan was a young man in an orderly’s smock, and he opened the door for us with a grin. “Hurry,” he said as Jenks dived into my jacket and I zipped it up. “They’re right behind you.”

Ivy smiled. “Thanks, Dan. I’ll bring you some ice cream.”

Dan grinned. “You do that. I’ll just tell them you hit me.”

She laughed, and with that pleasant sound in my ears, we left the hospital.

It was bitterly cold, but the doors to the Hummer swung open, and two living vamps jumped out. “Uh, Ivy, that’s not Erica,” I said when they made a beeline for us. They were in black jeans and matching black T-shirts that all but screamed security, and I tensed.

“Erica’s got people,” Ivy said when Erica slid down and out from the backseat. Ivy’s sister looked like a younger version of Ivy without all the emotional baggage: bright, happy, and active. Piscary had never looked her way due to Ivy intentionally distracting him, and the young living vamp was innocence where Ivy was jaded, loud where Ivy was reserved, and Ivy would do anything to keep it that way, even sacrificing herself.

“Oh my God!” the young woman squealed. “You’re really breaking out of the hospital? Ivy called, and I was like, oh my God! Of course I’ll pick you up. Then Rynn offered to drive, and it was a no-brainer. I mean, who wants to be picked up in their mom’s station wagon?”

“Rynn Cormel is here?” I murmured, suddenly on edge, then started when the two burly living vamps in black jeans and matching T-shirts made a chair of their arms around me and I was airborne. The cold didn’t seem to affect them, which seemed unfair. Old scars made an ugly mass on the neck of one man, but the other had only one, and it was relatively old.

“What happened to your mom’s sedan?” I asked Ivy, and Erica fidgeted with the collar of her coat, her narrow-tipped boots marking the snow.

“A tree hit it,” Erica said. “Totally totaled it. Not my fault. It was squirrel karma.”

Squirrel karma?

“I’ll tell you later,” Ivy said as she leaned close. The intoxicating mix of vampire incense and male warmth was thick around me, and it was almost a disappointment when the two guys eased me into the back and let go. I didn’t recognize them; they weren’t Piscary’s old crew.

“Are you okay?” I asked Erica as she slid in beside me with the scent of citrus.

“Oh, sure, but Mom almost died twice.”

Ivy had gotten into the front seat, and looking remarkably relaxed, she leaned over the back. “The only person who almost died twice was you,” she said to her sister, and Erica played with the thin strips of black leather dangling from her ears. She was still going Goth, complete with peekaboo lace at the neck and little tomatoes dangling among the skull and crossbones on her necklace. I wondered what she was doing with Rynn Cormel, as he was very much the sophisticate, but Ivy didn’t seem worried, and Erica was as bright as ever.

There was a folded newspaper on the seat, but my sigh at the picture of the mall turned into a frown when I read, WITCH FLEES CIRCLE MALL, CAUSE OF RIOT? Isn’t that nice…

“Are we all in?” came a rusty New York accent from my left, and I jumped, not having noticed Rynn Cormel in the corner. Holy crap, the attractively aged, former political leader was right next to me, and God, he smelled good. His power-colored tie was loosened and his hair was tousled, as if Erica had been in it. Smiling his world-famous, world-changing smile, which showed the barest hint of fang, he folded the newspaper and tucked it away. Shifting his eyes to the driver through the rearview mirror, he silently told her to go.

The door to my right slammed shut, and I was shoved closer to the undead vampire, making my pulse race. Ivy pushed to the middle in the front seat, and the other vamp got in beside her. With the thump of the closing door, alarm hit me. I was in a car with one dead vamp and five living ones. It was starting to smell really good in here. And if I liked what it smelled like, then they were liking what they were smelling, and ah…that would be me.

“Uh,” I stammered when we crept into motion, and Rynn Cormel laughed with the practiced art of diplomacy.

“You are the last person who needs to fear anything from me, Ms. Morgan,” he said, his eyes a safe brown in the streetlights. “I have other plans for you.”

It might have sounded like a threat, but I knew what his plans were, and it didn’t involve his teeth in my neck. Just the opposite, actually. “Yeah, but still,” I protested when Erica shoved me over even more, thinking it was great fun by the amount of giggling and jumping she was doing. She was in black tights and a miniskirt, and not showing even a hint of being cold.

“Drive slowly,” Ivy demanded. “She gets dizzy if you go too fast.”

My focus became distant, and I suddenly realized there was only the barest hint of vertigo running through me, and we were going a lot faster than an elevator. “I’m fine,” I said softly, and Ivy turned to look at me in surprise when we drove sedately under a streetlamp. I nodded, and she turned back around.

“Thanks, Ivy. Thank you, Jenks,” I said as we slowed, then pulled onto the road.

“That’s what we’re here for,” came Jenks’s muffled response. “Now how about a little air?” and I unzipped my coat until he yelled that it was enough.

Remembering the kids, I leaned over to look up at the tall building behind us, knowing exactly where to look. Clustered at the wide plate-glass windows three stories up were five faces pressed against the glass. I waved, and one waved back. Happy, I settled into the seat of Rynn Cormel’s car, promising myself I would come back and bring them my old tea set. Or maybe my stuffed animals. And ice cream.

“Thanks for picking us up, Mr. Cormel,” I said, and the vampire breathed deep. The almost inaudible sound seemed to dive to my middle and pluck a long-silent chord. Warmth flooded me, and I found myself gazing at nothing, completely relaxed, just existing in the hint of promise he was giving off. It wasn’t anything like the lame groping of the young undead vampire at the mall, and Ivy’s neck stiffened.

Rynn Cormel leaned over to touch her shoulder. “It was my pleasure,” he said to me, but his fingers were on Ivy. “I was on my way to visit you, actually. I have some information.”

Ivy’s eyes were pupil black when she turned to see us. “You know who killed Kisten?”

I held my breath, but the man shook his head. “I know who didn’t.”

Fifteen

The atmosphere in the Hummer shifted dramatically after Erica was dropped off at work. Relieved, I watched the happy vampire wave good-bye, then flounce into the computer-security firm, the armed doorman holding the door for her and giving us a short nod. She acted like an airhead, she talked like an airhead, she dressed like a wealthy airhead, but there was a brain attached to the elaborate Goth costume and bright outlook. And unlike Ivy, Erica’s outward demeanor wasn’t a mask for a deeper depression.

“Good God,” one of Cormel’s security guys muttered as we started off again. “That girl doesn’t shut up.”

I normally would have come back with something about women having to make up for men’s inabilities in that area, but he was right. If Erica was awake, she was flapping her lip.

Shoulders relaxing, I eased into the leather to enjoy the space Erica had left. It was warm, and the vampire pheromones were building. It’d been a while since I’d been exposed to this much. My association with vamps had fallen drastically after Kisten died.

A faint alarm took root, and my eyes opened. I didn’t want to get caught up with vampires again, as pleasant as that had been-as this was. It was a slow decline into passivity. It would kill me slowly or force me to react explosively. I knew it. Ivy knew it. Perhaps Kisten’s death had been a blessing, as hard it had been. I couldn’t say he was bad for me-he had strengthened me where I hadn’t known I was weak, taught me a culture one had to learn by experience. His death broke my heart, my ignorance, and saved me from myself…and I didn’t want it to be made meaningless by ignoring what he’d taught me.

Bittersweet memories swirled, and I sat up to put my bag firmly on my lap. Beside me, the elegant Rynn Cormel touched his mouth with the back of his hand. I think he was smiling. I warmed, guessing that he had seen me go on guard.

Rynn Cormel was not the stereotypical master vampire. He hadn’t been dead long enough yet to pass the tricky forty-year barrier, and he didn’t try to disguise the age at which he had died, maintaining an athletic forty-something appearance, his jet-black hair silvering slightly and his face having the first faint wrinkles that help men get higher-paying jobs and that women try to hide. He knew I had become suspicious, but he didn’t pretend he hadn’t noticed. He didn’t make any cryptic statements that “it would do no good,” making it part threat, part promise. He was just so damned…normal. Political.

I gave him the once-over, from his freshly arranged hair, down his black cashmere coat, to his shiny black shoes. The shoes were inappropriate for the weather, but it wasn’t as if he was going to get cold. It was all for show.

Seeing my attention, Cormel smiled. The man was tall, well dressed, and had a good body. His laugh was pleasant and his manner comfortable, but he wasn’t beautiful or otherwise remarkable, being too pale and wan to be attractive-until he smiled, and then he was breathtaking. His was the smile that had saved the world, literally holding it together as everything exploded and coalesced in a brand-new way after the Turn. It was the promise of gentle honesty, security, protection, freedom, and prosperity. Seeing it directed at me, I forced my eyes away and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear.

Ivy had stiffened, reading what was going on in the backseat by the signals I was unconsciously giving off. Hell, the entire car could. Her brow was pinched in concern when she turned to see us. “The hospital is going to have the cops looking for her until we can get the paperwork for an AMA,” she said. “They don’t want a lawsuit if she collapses.”

From my coat, Jenks laughed, and I jumped, having forgotten he was there. “What are the chances that won’t happen?” he quipped, then levered himself out to sit on my shoulder in the warmth of my scarf now that Erica was gone.

“We’ve made arrangements to stay with a friend, not too far from the church so Jenks can man the phones,” Ivy said, her gaze flicking nervously from Cormel to me. There was a helpless fear there, not the raw fear Piscary had evoked in her when he’d looked at me, but the fear that Cormel might become interested in me. It wasn’t jealousy-it was fear of abandonment. “If you head to the church, I can direct you when we get closer,” she finished.

Jenks snickered. “How many times have you passed out this year, Rache?”

Miffed, I tried to see him, but he was too close. “You wanna pass out right now, Jenks?”

“I’d enjoy it if you would stay with me,” Cormel said, his gloved hands folded quietly in his lap. “I have lots of room now that I’ve put the upper floors back into an apartment. There’s only one bed up there, but one of you can sleep on the couch.”

Couch? I thought dryly. He’d just as soon see Ivy and me sharing more than rent, but I couldn’t find a hint of suggestion in his tone. Besides, I couldn’t spend the night there. I had to get hold of my scrying mirror to call Al and get tomorrow off, and all before sunrise. This time of year put it at about eight, and I was starting to get anxious.

“The Chickering was delivered last week,” Rynn Cormel said, shifting so his entire attention landed on me. “Have you heard Ivy play the piano, Rachel? She has such a sensitive touch. She should have been encouraged to go professional.” Then he smiled. “Though she will have centuries to follow that path if she ever desires.”

“Yes,” I said, remembering the few times I’d walked in on Ivy lost at the keys. She quit every time; the piano left her more open and raw than she wanted me to see her.

“Wonderful.” Cormel leaned to touch the driver in direction. “Call ahead to get the heat turned up, if you would.”

My eyes closed briefly at the misunderstanding and I shook my head. “No, I mean I’ve heard her play, but we can’t stay.”

“Thank you anyway, Rynn,” Ivy said softly, as if she’d been waiting for me to say no first. “Jenks needs to get home to mind the firm. No one will arrest a pixy, but it’s likely there will be trouble, and I don’t want to be halfway across the Hollows when it hits our door.”

Cormel arched his dark eyebrows, his pale complexion making them appear stark in the dim light. “You’ll have dinner with me at least? I don’t have the chance since leaving office to entertain as often as I’m accustomed to. I find I miss it, surprisingly.” He smiled faintly, settling himself with the sound of sliding cashmere. “It’s impressive how many political understandings one can reach over a glass of good wine. Tasha is out, and I don’t think I can stand another evening listening to our security procedures and how to improve them.”

The driver chuckled, but when I took a breath to gracefully decline, Cormel inclined his head, stopping me. “I need a few hours to get your AMA pushed through. You can be sleeping in your own church this morning. Let me do this for you. I need to speak to Ivy as well about what I learned.”

Ivy’s eyes flicked to mine, asking me to say yes. She obviously liked the man, and knowing how Piscary had treated her, I found it hard to say no. Besides, I wanted to know who’d killed Kisten, too. Thinking I was vacillating, Jenks whispered, “Why the hell not?”

Dinner was a small price to pay for my AMA and information about Kisten, and I nodded, anticipation replacing my faint caution. Ivy smiled, and the driver made a slow U-bangy to head to the Hollows waterfront.

“Capital,” Cormel said as he gave us all a closed-lipped but sincere smile. “Jeff, would you call ahead to make sure there’s a bite to eat while dinner is being finished? And make sure we have two extra places, please, and something for Jenks.”

The living vamp beside Ivy took out his cell phone and hit a single number. Jeff was the one with only a single visible scar, but I was willing to bet there were more hidden under his T-shirt. His low voice was pleasant and hardly audible over the blowing of the heater, turned high for Jenks or possibly me. Cormel and Ivy talked about nothing as my gut wound tighter, until Cormel cracked a window to get rid of the tension I was giving off. I thought my anticipation was from finding out what Cormel had learned about Kisten’s death, but when we turned onto the waterfront, I realized where the adrenaline was really coming from.

The instant the wheels turned onto the less-used street, an old fear dripped through me, igniting memory. We were going to Piscary’s.

I looked down to find that my hands were clenched, and I forced them apart as we slowed to a crawl. The place looked about the same, the two-story tavern peaceful under six inches of undisturbed snow. The lights were on upstairs, and someone was closing the drapes. A section of the parking lot had been torn up and young trees now stood where rusty two-doors had once parked. The beginnings of a wall had been started to fence in a garden, perhaps, not done and so left until the spring and warmer temperatures. There was no boat at the quay.

“You okay, Rache?” Jenks asked, and I exhaled, forcing my hands to unclasp again.

“Yeah,” I said softly. “I haven’t been here since Kisten died.”

“Me neither,” he said, but he hadn’t ever been here to begin with. Except when I was here getting into trouble, that is.

I flicked a glance at Ivy as we crept to the side entrance where trucks had once delivered produce from all over the world. She looked fine, but she’d been here often enough that the pain had dulled. Everyone was silent as we stopped before the closed door to the loading dock. A vamp got out to open it, and Jenks’s wings brushed my neck as he snuggled in against the cold.

“Rachel,” Cormel asked solicitously as the roll-up door noisily raised. “Would you prefer a restaurant? I hadn’t considered that my home had bad memories for you. I’ve made changes,” he coaxed. “It’s not the same.”

Ivy was looking at me like I was a wimp, and I glanced at his eyes, almost black in the dim light. “Just memories,” I said.

“Good ones mixed with the bad, I hope?” he said as we drove into the cold, dry, and dark loading dock. I felt a faint tingle at my scar as the darkness took us. Affronted, I stared at him until the tingle vanished. Was he making a play for me? If he bound me, I’d do anything he wanted, thinking it was my idea. And when the vampire pulled the roll-up door shut to make the darkness absolute but for the headlamps, I realized how vulnerable I was. Shit.

“Let’s get inside, and you can see what I’ve done with the place,” Cormel said pleasantly, and as my pulse quickened, the doors to the Hummer started opening.

I slid across the long seat to the door with my bag in my hand, and as everyone milled around to make their slow way up the cement steps to the back door, I pretended to adjust my coat before I got out. This might be the last time I could have a private word with Jenks until we got home. “What’s my aura look like, Jenks?” I asked, and got a pixy-size sigh in return.

“It’s thin, but no holes. I think the emotion the kids stirred up in you helped boost it.”

“It comes from emotion?” I murmured, deciding at the last moment to leave my bag in the Hummer as I took the hand of the vamp holding the door and made the careful slide to the cement pad.

“Where did you think it came from?” he said, laughing, from my scarf. “Fairy farts?”

I sighed, shaking my head at Ivy’s inquiring look. I didn’t like being out with my aura so thin, but he said it was better, and I trusted that no one was going to bite me. I was clearly ill, and that was a turnoff in the vamp world, instilling an almost overboard, lavishing sense of caring in the undead and still living alike. Maybe that was what I was seeing.

One by one, the security vamps jostled for position until they were both ahead and behind us. I obediently headed for the stairway, seeing the tires of Ivy’s cycle peeking out from under a tarp. She’d parked it here for the winter after I’d nearly hit it trying to get into our carport. The snowplows had blocked me out, and I had to gun it to get through the chunky, man-made drift.

My pulse raced from the exertion, and I followed Cormel into the kitchen. At least, I was telling myself, it was from the exertion and not anticipation. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Kisten everywhere.

The warmth of the kitchen surprised me, and I looked up from the white tiles as we entered. Most of the ovens had been taken out and a great deal of the counter space. A large, comfortable table now took up the corner beside the stairway that led to the underground apartments. The new amber light hanging over it and the cotton throw rug beneath it made the spot a pleasant place to relax and eat among company, warm from the heat of the ovens and the possibility of conversation.

I breathed deep to find that it didn’t smell like a restaurant anymore with its many spices and the lingering scents of unfamiliar vampires. There was just Rynn Cormel’s increasingly familiar scent and the lingering aroma of half a dozen or so living vamps, Ivy’s among them.

I realized my boots were the only ones making any noise, and I nervously adjusted my collar until Jenks took to the air.

“We could eat here, but I think we will be more comfortable at the fireplace,” Cormel said, watching the pixy with a polite but wary expression. “Jeff, find out why Mai hasn’t started the appetizers, would you please?”

My concern eased when Ivy took off her coat, and leaving it at the table, strode directly through the old double doors. Jenks went with her and, curious, I followed. All my hesitancy vanished at the sight of the large room that had once entertained Cincy’s finest partiers with gourmet pizza and mixed drinks.

The shiny bar remained, taking up one wall, the low ceiling making the dark oak look even darker. All the illuminating lights over the bar were off, and the lit fireplace pulled the eye. The little high tables had been replaced with comfortable furniture, coffee tables, and the occasional sideboard for appetizers, flower arrangements, or possible discarded wineglasses.

Cormel tossed his coat to a chair, reminding me of my dad coming home and settling in. He all but collapsed into one of the self-indulgent chairs by the fire and gestured for us to join him. His pale skin and dark, silvering hair gave him the look of a comfortable businessman home from work. Yeah, right.

I took off my scarf and unzipped my coat, but the winter’s chill still hung in me and I kept it on. My eyes went everywhere as I followed Ivy to the hearth. To the right of the fireplace, one of the doors to what had once been a private dining room was open, and I could see a throw rug and part of a bed where a huge table once sat. One of the security vampires casually shut the door as he went by, and I guessed it was a guest room now. The floor was scratched in the old high-traffic areas and the light fixtures were still a table length apart, but it looked like a living room-a very large, low-ceilinged living room done up to look like a piece of up north with its round wooden timbers and dark paneling.

Cormel had chosen a chair, and Ivy had taken the couch before the fire. Thinking they were going to make judgments on where I sat, I carefully lowered myself onto the couch with Ivy between us, not too near her but not looking as if I was scrunched in the corner either.

The undead vampire smiled with half his mouth. Leaning forward, he rubbed his hands together and held them to the fire as if he was cold. Damn, he was good.

I felt silly in my coat, so I took it off to find it pleasantly warm. Rynn had beckoned one of his staff closer, and Ivy was giving the man my personal information so he could file for the AMA. I was just starting to get warm enough to pay attention when Jenks flew down the staircase, a content trail of gold dust spilling from him.

“You should be fine from AMA police for a while,” he said as he unwound his winter wear to show the skintight black outfit he had on underneath. “He’s got five vamps on security: the three who came with us plus two who were here. It wouldn’t surprise me if the woman in the kitchen is security, too, by the way she’s throwing the knives around.”

“Thanks, Jenks,” I said, knowing he was telling me this not because I was worried about the FIB or the I.S., but to tell our host we were not dumb about being here.

“Cormel has great security,” he continued as more blue fabric joined the pile on the arm of the couch. “Professional. All new stuff, and don’t mistake the smiles you’re seeing for leniency in a stress situation.”

“Gotcha,” I said, then looked up when Cormel’s aide nodded and left.

“I adore red tape,” Cormel said, settling back with a pleased expression, “tied in a Gordian knot.” I stared at him, and he added, “Any knot can be cut with a big enough sword. You’ll have what you need in ten minutes.”

Jenks rose an inch, then dropped when the guy with the savaged neck who had driven us here came in with an open bottle of white wine. I took my glass, vowing not to drink it, but when Cormel stood, gazing at the wine’s hue, I knew he was going to make a toast.

“To immortality,” he said, sounding almost forlorn. “For some, a burden; for others, a joy. Here’s to long lives and long loves.”

We went to drink, and Jenks muttered, “And longer lady-killers.”

I choked, and Jenks rose up on a glittering column of laughter.

Ivy had heard him, and she leaned back with a sour look on her face, but Cormel had stood, and I jumped when one of his hands touched my shoulder and the other took my glass as I hacked and coughed. “Would you like a milder wine?” he said solicitously as he set it down. “Forgive me. You’re still recovering. Jeff, bring out a sweeter white,” he said, and I waved my protest.

“’S okay,” I managed. “Went down the wrong pipe is all.”

Ivy uncrossed her knees and took another sip. “Do you need to wait in the car, Jenks?”

The pixy grinned. I could see it through my watering eyes. I was probably as red as the throw pillow I wanted to smack him with. Tracking his motion to the warm mantel and out of my reach, I took another sip to clear my throat. The wine was superb, and my vow to avoid it was tempered by the knowledge that I’d probably never be able to afford a bottle like this. Ah, one glass sipped slowly wouldn’t hurt…

Ivy unfolded herself and went to arrange the fire, leaving me and Rynn Cormel with a wide space between us. “Are you sure you won’t stay the morning?” he said across the empty couch. “I’ve plenty of everything but company.”

“Dinner, Rynn,” Ivy said. Her shape was a sharp silhouette against the fire, and when her hand came down very close to Jenks, he took to the air muttering curses. “You said you know who killed Kisten. Is he someone who will be missed?” she said.

What she was asking was if she could claim a life in return, and I stifled a shiver at the depth of her pain.

A sigh slipped from Cormel, though he didn’t need to breathe but to speak. “It’s not that I know who killed him, but I do know who didn’t.” Ivy went to protest, and the man put up a hand for her to wait. “There was no one Piscary owed a favor to,” Cormel said. “He hadn’t had contact with any vampire out of the city, so it was a Cincy native, and likely still here.”

Seeing his fatherly concern, something in me snapped. “There’s you,” I said bluntly, and Ivy stiffened. “Maybe you did it.”

Jenks’s wings clattered a nervous warning, but the undead vampire smiled with only the barest hint of an eye twitch giving away his annoyance. “I understand you’re starting to remember certain things,” he said flatly, and my bravado vanished. “Do I smell familiar to you? You wouldn’t forget me if I’d pinned you to the wall.” His eyes tightened. “I know it.”

I started to breathe again when he turned to Ivy, the shell of his humanity back in place. “You’ve been to the boat, Ivy,” he said in a soft voice. “Was I ever there?”

Ivy was tense, but she shook her head.

I would’ve pointed out that he could have had someone else do it, but that wasn’t how vampires worked. If Kisten had been a gift to Cormel, Cormel would have taken him without a second thought and would admit it freely. I was dining with a freaking animal, and I bowed my head with a false contriteness and muttered, “Sorry. I had to ask.”

“Of course you did. No insult taken.”

I felt sick. We were all pretending. Well, at least Cormel and I were. Ivy might still be living the lie. I smiled at him, and Cormel smiled back, the picture of grace and understanding as he leaned to top off my wine, and I leaned forward to accept it.

“Besides myself,” he said as he retreated and Ivy relaxed, “there have been no new major political powers entering the city, and none looking for upward mobility other than what one would expect when a master vampire dies his final death. No one has more power than he or she should, which wouldn’t be the case if Piscary showed favor to someone.” He took a sip, considering the flavor or his next words. “Many owed Piscary, but he owed no one.”

Her back to the fire, Ivy was silent. We’d learned nothing, and I was starting to wonder if Kisten’s death was another one of Ivy’s freaking life lessons. Seeing her fidgeting in motions so subtle only Jenks or I would recognize, I hoped not. If it was, I might just dig the bastard Piscary back up and stake him again for the hell of it. Make a necklace out of his teeth and bathtub duckies out of his dried-up balls…

“I’ve met him,” Ivy said, looking for a shred of hope to follow. “I just can’t place him.”

“Do you have a name?” Cormel asked.

I could hear faint activity in the kitchen, and Jenks flew to investigate.

“No. The scent is too old, and it’s not quite the same. It’s like he was alive when I knew him, and now he’s dead, or maybe a large shift of status changed his diet and therefore his scent.” Her head came up, showing that her eyes were red. “Maybe he tried to disguise his smell so I couldn’t recognize it.”

Cormel waved a hand in dismissal, his expression irate. “Then you really have nothing,” he said, holding out his hand to lure her into sitting back down. “I’m sure the answer is here, but I have exhausted my leads. I’m not asking the right person. You could, though.”

Ivy exhaled to try to find her composure. “And who is the right person?” she asked as she took his grip and sat.

“Skimmer,” Cormel said, and my head came up sharply. “She knows all Piscary’s political secrets. Lawyers…” The vampire sighed expressively.

“Skimmer is in jail,” Jenks said as he darted back to the fire. “She won’t see Ivy.”

Ivy lowered her head, her brow pinched. Skimmer’s refusal was tearing her up.

“She might see you if Rachel goes with you,” Rynn Cormel suggested, and the hope of a possibility smoothed Ivy’s expression. My mouth, though, went dry.

“You think it will make a difference?” I asked.

He shrugged as he sipped his wine. “She doesn’t want Ivy to see her in her failure. But I expect she has a few words to say to you.”

Jenks’s breath hissed in, but Rynn was right. Ivy’s face held the hope that Skimmer would talk to her, and I set my dislike for the petite, dangerous vampire aside. For Ivy. I would talk to her for Ivy. And to find out who killed Kisten. “It’s worth trying,” I said, thinking that going in there with a thin aura wasn’t the best idea in the world.

Cormel shifted his feet uneasily. It was subtle, and he probably didn’t even know he had done it, but I saw it, and so did Jenks. “Good,” he said, as if everything had been decided. “I do believe there is some sushi headed our way.”

His words were clearly a signal, since the doors to the kitchen promptly swung open and Jeff and another vamp, in an apron, came out with trays. Jenks’s wings were a shimmer of motion though he hadn’t moved from the arm of the couch. “I didn’t know you liked sushi,” I said.

“I don’t, but there’s honey in one of the dipping sauces.”

“Jenks,” I warned as Cormel and Ivy made a spot on the coffee table before the fire.

“Wha-a-a-a-at,” he complained, his wings slowing until I could almost see the red bit of tape. “I wasn’t going to eat any. I was going to take it home for Matalina. It helps her sleep better.” And seeing the flicker of concern in his eyes, I believed him.

The trays looked fabulous, and glad now I’d said yes to dinner, I took up my chopsticks, pleased I didn’t have to break them apart to use them. They looked expensive. All we had at home were the ones we saved from takeout.

I watched Ivy handle her sticks with the fluency of a native language, the extensions of her fingers taking three different sashimi and several rolls with cream cheese and what looked like tuna. Remembering our first disastrous dinner as roommates, I kept my eyes down and put a few bites on my plate followed by lots of ginger. Jenks hovered over an amber sauce, and I put some on my plate, making sure he knew it was for him by pointing at him with the sticks-though how he was going to get it home was beyond me.

Cormel was still fussing with the sauces by the time Ivy and I had retreated with full plates. “I’m so pleased you stayed,” he said as he moved with that eerie vampire speed and put all of three bites on his plate. “Sushi alone is not the same. You never get the variety.”

Ivy was smiling, but the display of vampiric speed had me on edge. I didn’t need the reminder that he was stronger than me. And he didn’t need to eat. Why he was sort of bothered me.

“I love sushi,” I said, not wanting him to guess he had unnerved me. “Since I was a kid.”

“Really.” Cormel put a bite into his mouth and chewed. “I’m surprised.”

“I was eight,” I said, taking a slice of ginger and enjoying the sweet zing. “I thought I was dying. Well, I was, but I didn’t know I was going to get better. My brother went on this big push for me to do everything. Made it his goal one summer.”

My fumbling for a roll slowed as I thought about the girl in the hospital and the look in her eyes. I should go back and tell her the chance was real. If I survived, then she had a chance. I didn’t even know her name.

“You still are, you know,” Cormel said, startling me.

“Dying?” I blurted, and he laughed. Ivy smiled thinly, not appreciating the joke.

“I suppose,” he said, eyes on his second roll. “I’m the only one here not performing that particular trick anymore, but what I meant was, you’re still pushing to try new things.”

My eyes flicked to Ivy. “No, I’m not.”

Ivy shifted uncomfortably between us. Determined to not back down, I took one of the more mundane crunchy pieces of fried shrimp and ate it with a great deal of noise.

Cormel smiled and set his plate aside, having eaten only one roll. “You’re in a tight spot, Rachel, and I’m curious as to what your plan is for getting out.”

Jenks clattered his wings in warning, and the tension went up. “I’ll get the AMA whether you help me or not-” I started, and he cut me off.

“I promised you your form, and you will have it,” he said, sounding insulted. “That’s short-term survival, and I’m talking progress. Moving forward. Establishing yourself in a safe, long-term situation.” He took his glass and sipped from it. “You have been seen consorting with demons. You were refused traditional treatment on the witch floors because of your demon scars. What do you think that means?”

“It means they’re idiots.” My chin rose, and I set the plate of sushi down. “Human medicine worked fine.”

“Humans don’t like demons any more than anyone else,” he said. “Less. If you continue dealing with them openly, you will be silenced. Probably by witches.”

I laughed at that. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, waving my sticks about. “I don’t know where you’re getting your info, but witches don’t do that to each other. They never have.”

“And you know that how?” he asked. “Even so, you’re acting out of character, and that will force them to do the same.”

I made a scoffing sound, and returned to eating. Why do they make these rolls so darn big? I look like a freaking squirrel.

“Be cautious, Rachel,” Cormel said, and I ignored him, continuing to try to chew a wad of rice and seaweed too big for my mouth. “Humans are vicious when cornered. That’s why they survive and we don’t. They came first, and they will probably persist long after we’re gone. Rats, cockroaches, and humans.”

Ivy rolled her eyes and ate a glob of the green stuff. Seeing her disbelief, Cormel smiled. “Ivy disagrees,” he said, “but I’ve had to speak favorably for you more than once.”

My motion to dip my last cucumber roll hesitated. “I never asked you to do that.”

“It wasn’t your place to give me permission,” he said. “I’m not telling you this so you feel you owe me a debt, but to let you know your situation. If the witches don’t react to you openly trafficking with demons, then the vampires will be pressed into it for another reason.”

I set my sticks down, feeling sick. I had no choice but to traffic with demons, having bought Trent’s freedom from them with a promise to be Al’s student. “If you’re not upset about the demons, then what’s bothering you?” I asked, feeling trapped and angry.

“What you’re doing to help the elves, of course.”

Ivy exhaled, and I suddenly got it. “Oh.” I took a steadying breath and pushed my plate away. I wasn’t hungry anymore. Piscary had killed my dad and Trent’s father for simply trying to help the elves. I had gone past trying and had actually saved them. Well, I’d gotten the sample that Trent used to do it.

“There have been three elf conceptions in the last three months,” Cormel said, and my thoughts flew to Ceri. “All healthy from what I understand. Their population is going to slowly rise. The Weres, too, are poised to explode under the right circumstances. You can understand why the vampires are slightly concerned.”

“David doesn’t want a pack,” I said, my jaw starting to clench.

Cormel crossed his knees and a grimace colored his expression. “Humans breed like flaming rabbits from hell, but we’ve been dealing with that for centuries. You, however, are responsible for the elves and Weres. Population wise,” he amended before I could protest. “From what I understand, the elves would just as soon see you dead for some reason I haven’t fathomed yet, which leaves the Weres to back you, and if they do, it will be with the power of the focus.” He paused. “Which will increase their numbers,” he finished.

I slumped back into the couch and sighed. No good deed and all…

Rynn Cormel mimicked my position, doing so with slow grace instead of dejected suddenness. “What can you do for us, Rachel?” he said, glancing at a very quiet Ivy. “We need something so that we may think more kindly of you.”

I knew what he was asking. He wanted me to find a way for vampires to keep their souls after death, and he thought I’d do it to save Ivy. “I’m working on it,” I muttered, arms crossed over my chest and staring at the fire.

“I don’t see any progress.”

My brow furrowed, and I gave him a look. “Ivy-”

“Ivy likes things the way they are,” he interrupted, as if she wasn’t sitting between us. “You need to be more aggressive.”

“Hey!” I exclaimed. “That is none of your business.”

Jenks took flight, hovering a careful three feet from him. “You need to keep your stick in your own flowers,” he said, hands on his hips.

“Rynn,” Ivy pleaded. “Please.”

But the man proved who he was-what he was-when his eyes flashed black and his aura slammed into me. “Tell me you don’t like this…,” he whispered.

I gasped, shoving away from him when his eyes touched my demon scar. I was against the back and arm of the couch, and I could go no farther. My exhalation turned into a moan as feeling shivered over my skin, delving deep where my clothes touched me. I couldn’t think-there had never been anything so shockingly intimate-and my blood pounded, telling me to submit, to give in, to take what he offered and revel in it.

“Stop!” Jenks shrilled. “Stop now, or I’ll jam this stick so far up your nose, you’ll be able to do calculus with it!”

“Please,” I panted, my knees at my chin as I nearly writhed on the couch, the leather feeling like skin against me. The sensation had come from nowhere…and God, it felt so good. How could I ignore this? He had flung it in my face, showing me what Ivy and I had shunned.

“Rynn, please,” Ivy whispered, and the sensation cut off with the suddenness of a slap.

My gasp was harsh, and I felt the dampness of tears. I realized my face was against the couch, and I was curled up, hiding from the passion, from the ecstasy. Panting, I slowly unkinked my arms and legs. I couldn’t focus well, but I found him easily enough, sitting comfortably on his chair. Jenks hovered between us with a chopstick. God, the vampire looked as unruffled as stone, and about as compassionate. He wore a superb mask, but he was an animal.

“If you touch my scar again…,” I threatened, but what could I do? He protected Ivy, protected me. Slowly my pulse eased, but the shaking of my legs didn’t. He knew my threats were nothing, and he ignored me.

I followed his gaze to Ivy, and I felt the blood drain from my face.

“Ivy,” I whispered in heartache. Her eyes were black and desperate. She was fighting every instinct she had. Her master had gone for me in front of her, then had drawn back, practically saying, “You finish.” We struggled with this, and for him to callously break everything we had worked for pissed me off. “You have no right,” I said, my voice shaking.

“I like you, Rachel,” he said, surprising me. “I have since I first heard Ivy’s impassioned description of you and then found it accurate. You’re inventive, intelligent, and dangerous. I can’t keep you alive if you continue to ignore the fact that your actions reach farther than next week.”

“Don’t do this to me and Ivy again,” I seethed. “Do you hear me?”

“Why?” he said, and his confusion was too real to be faked. “I did nothing you didn’t enjoy. Ivy’s good for you. You’re good for Ivy. I don’t understand why both of you are ignoring this…perfect match.”

I couldn’t edge away from Ivy. She was balanced. Ignoring her was the only armor I could give her. “Ivy knows there can’t be blood shared without dominance given. I won’t, and she can’t.”

He seemed to think about that. “Then one of you needs to learn to bend.” As if that was all there was to it. “To become second.”

I thought of his scion, sent away because it was easier to do this without her here. “Neither of us will,” I said. “That’s why we can live together. Leave. Ivy. Alone.”

A small noise came from him. “I was talking about Ivy bending, not you.”

I shook my head, disgusted. “That’s what I love about her,” I said. “If she bends, I walk away. If I bend, she gets nothing but a shell.”

His brow furrowed and the fire snapped as he thought. “Are you sure?” he asked, and I nodded, not sure if it would save or damn us. “Then maybe this won’t work,” he said distantly.

Jenks, silent until now, dropped the chopstick. “It will!” he protested as it clattered. “I mean, Rachel has found out so much already. She’s working with a wise demon. She’ll find a way for Ivy to keep her soul!”

“Jenks, don’t,” I said, but Cormel was thinking, even as I could see his unease that the wisdom to further his species would come from demons.

“Al might know a way for souls to be retained after death,” Jenks pleaded, his angular features scrunched up in fear for me.

“Shut up!” I shouted.

Ivy was breathing easier, and I risked a look at her. Her hands were unfisted, but she was still looking at the floor and breathing shallowly.

“Ask your demon,” Cormel said as Jeff cautiously came in with a fax. The man glanced at Ivy in alarm, then handed it to Cormel. Without even looking at it, the undead vampire coolly handed it past Ivy to me. “Your AMA.”

I shoved it in my pocket. “Thank you.”

“What good timing,” Cormel said lightly, but I could see everything now. All the pretty talk and clever smiles wouldn’t snare me again. “Now we can eat with relaxed stomachs.”

Yeah. Right.

I turned to Ivy, and when she met my eyes with a growing band of brown around her pupils, I stood. “Thank you, Rynn, but we’re leaving.”

Jenks dropped to the arm of the chair and hurriedly wound fabric around himself, his wings drooping and rising as he worked.

“Ivy…,” Rynn Cormel said, as if confused, and she backed away from him, closer to me.

“I’m happy,” she said softly as she handed me my coat. “Please leave me alone.”

We started for the kitchen, Jenks flying heavily behind us as a vanguard, trailing the last of his wrap along instead of sparkles. “There’s more here to think about than two people’s happiness,” Cormel said loudly, and Ivy stopped, her hand on the swinging doors.

“Rachel won’t be pushed,” she said.

“Then pull her, before someone else does.”

As one, we turned and left. Behind us was the sharp clatter of chopsticks and little ceramic dishes hitting the stone fireplace. The kitchen was empty, and I imagined everyone had gone somewhere else and out of Cormel’s angry path. Jenks dove for my scarf as I wrapped it about my neck, and I sighed as I recalled how erotic a covered neck was to a vampire. God, I was stupid.

Ivy hesitated at the door to the loading dock. “I’ll be right back,” she said, a dangerous slant to her eyes.

“Are you sure?” I asked, and she strode away. Uncomfortable, I hustled into the cold garage. We weren’t going to get home in the Hummer, so I got my bag out from the backseat, and with a grunt, shoved the door up, panting as the silent night met me. We’d be taking Ivy’s bike, and it was going to be a very slow, very cold ride.

But I had to get home. We had to. We both needed to get back to the church and the patterns of behavior that kept us apart and together-sane. I had to call Al before the sun came up and beg for the time off. And now I had to ask him if he knew of a way to save a vampire’s soul, because if I didn’t, I might find myself dead.

The sound of Ivy’s boots brought my attention up, and she strode down the stairs with her arms crossed. “You okay?” I asked as I pulled the tarp from Ivy’s bike, and she nodded.

From my scarf came Jenks’s snotty “I’m okay, you’re okay, Ivy’s freaking okay. We’re all okay. Can we get the hell out of here?”

Ivy stashed my bag, got on the bike, and turned to look at me, waiting. “Are you going to pull me?” I asked, heart pounding as I stood on the hard cement with my feet going cold in my boots.

Her eyes were like liquid brown in the dim light, and I could see her misery. “No.”

I had to trust her. Swinging my leg over, I got on the bike behind her and held on tight as Ivy idled the bike out of the sheltered warmth and into the cold snow of the last of the year.

Sixteen

The kitchen was warm, smelling of brown sugar, chocolate chips, and butter. I was making cookies with the excuse that they would soften Al up, but the reality was, I wanted Jenks to have the chance to get excessively warm. The ride home had been bitterly cold, and though he’d never admit it, Jenks was almost blue by the time Ivy parked her cycle in the garden shed and I hustled into the church with him. His kids had long since tired of playing in the oven’s updrafts, but he was still in here, his wings slowly moving back and forth.

As expected, a stone-faced I.S. agent had been waiting for us when we cycled in, silently taking his copy of the AMA and driving off. If not for that stupid piece of paper, I’d be back in the hospital under guard, but as it was, I was pulling the last tray of cookies out and feeling better. Tired, but better. Take that, Dr. Mape.

It was almost four in the morning, just about the time I usually crawled into bed. Ivy was at her computer, each key getting a harder tap than the one before it as she not so patiently waited for me to call Al and ask for the night off, but talking to demons was tricky. I wanted Jenks warm and mobile before I did it. And a little comfort food never did anyone any harm.

“It’s getting late,” Ivy muttered, the rim of brown around her pupils narrowing as she tracked something on her monitor. “You going to do this anytime soon?”

“I’ve got hours,” I said as I slid the last cookie onto the cooling rack. Propping the tray in the sink to sizzle, I leaned to look at the clock above me. “Relax.”

“You’ve got four hours, sixteen minutes.” Her eyes flicked to me, and she arranged her colored pens in the mug she used for a pencil cup. “I just pulled up the almanac.”

Putting five cookies on a plate, I set them next to her keyboard and took the topmost for myself. “I wanted to make cookies. Everyone likes cookies,” I said, and she smirked, delicately taking a cookie with her long, slim fingers.

Jenks rose up from the oven, warm at last. “Oh yeah. Cookies ought to do it.” He laughed, and a slip of dust fell from him. “Al had a fit the last time you asked for a night off. He said no, too.”

“That’s why the cookies. Duh. I wasn’t recovering from a banshee attack either. Tonight will be different.” I hope.

Hands on his hips, Jenks got an unusually bitter look on his face as he landed by my scrying mirror on the center island counter. “Maybe you should offer him a bite out of something else? Bet he’d give you the freaking year off.”

“Jenks!” Ivy snapped, and the pixy turned his back on us to look out the dark window.

“What’s the matter, Jenks?” I said tightly. “You don’t want me talking to the wise demon? Didn’t I hear you tell Rynn Cormel he was a wise demon?” Okay, maybe that had been a little nasty, but he had been picking on me all night, and I wanted to know why.

He stayed where he was, his wings moving fitfully, and tired of it, I sat in my spot at the table and leaned toward Ivy. “What’s with him?” I said, loud enough for him to hear. Ivy shrugged, and I wiped the cookie crumbs from my fingers. Rex was staring at me from the threshold, and on the off chance, I dropped my hand in invitation.

“Oh my God!” I whispered when the cat stood and, her tail crooked happily, came to me. “Look!” I said as the orange beast bumped her head under my palm as if we were great friends. Ivy leaned over to see, and feeling brave, I sent my hand under the cat’s middle. Not breathing, I lifted, and without even a squirm, the cat was on my lap.

“Oh my God!” I whispered again. She was purring. The freaking feline was purring.

“It’s the bloody apocalypse,” Jenks muttered, and I fondled the young cat’s ears. My wonder turned to contentment when Rex settled in with her paws tucked under herself. Ivy shook her head and went back to work. No way was I ruining this with calling Al. Al could wait. I was guessing that Pierce was in the kitchen, and he was happy.

Rex still on my lap, I ate another cookie as thoughts of Pierce sifted through me. It had been eight years, and though I’d changed-moved out, gone to school, been hired, fired, run for my life, saved a life, put my boyfriend to rest and learned to live again-he probably hadn’t changed at all. The last time I’d seen him, he had been an attractive mix of power and helplessness, not any older than I was now.

I felt a smile grow as I recalled him busting the doors to the I.S. building with a flung spell, knocking out their security, and then sealing them inside with a ward. All with an odd awkwardness that hit my little-boy-lost button. He’d taken down an undead vampire with power he had drawn through me so subtly that I hadn’t felt it, even when I’d known he was doing it.

Rex purred, and I kept my fingers moving to keep her with me. I was not stupid. I knew that Pierce, even as a ghost, had a mix of power and vulnerability that was a veritable Rachel magnet. And I wasn’t so blind that I wouldn’t admit I felt a twinge of attraction. But an unexpected sense of peace outweighed that. I wasn’t going to run willy-nilly into a relationship, even if one was possible. Kisten had taught me the dangers of letting my heart rule me. Call it gun shy, call it growing up, but I was happy as I was. I was in no hurry. And that felt good.

Ivy looked up at me, her typing stilling as she recognized that something had shifted in the air. Face placid, she glanced at Jenks. The pixy’s wings went red in agitation, and he flew to land on the cookie plate and demand my attention. “Marshal called,” he said, as if it was the most important thing in the world. “You were in the can. He says he’s bringing doughnuts over tomorrow for breakfast if you get out of your thing with Big Al.”

“Okay,” I said as I scratched Rex’s jawline, remembering that Pierce hadn’t been my first kiss. He’d been my first done-right kiss, though, and I smiled.

“Trent’s coming with him,” Jenks said, hands on his hips, “and Jonathan.”

“That’s nice.” I stroked Rex, then brought her to my nose so I could smell her sweet kitty fur. “Such a good kitty,” I crooned. “Such a clever kitty to know there is a ghost in the church.”

Jenks set his wings to blurring, not moving an inch. “See?” he said to Ivy, appalled. “She likes him. Rachel, he’s been spying on us! Start thinking with your head, huh?”

A flicker of annoyance went through me, but it was Ivy who said, “Jenks, get off it,” in an almost bored tone. “He’s not spying on us.”

“But she likes him!” Jenks yelped, wings so fast that the bit of red tape finally flew off.

Ivy sighed, looking up first at Jenks, then at me. “This is Rachel we’re talking about,” she said with a smile. “I’d give it three months, tops.”

“Yeah, but she can’t kill this one,” Jenks grumped.

That was in extremely bad taste, but I ignored him, just delighted to have the cat finally like me. “Don’t you listen to them, Rexy,” I cooed, and the cat sniffed my nose. “Rachel is a smart girl. She’s not going to go out with a ghost no matter how sexy he is. She knows better. Jenkskie wenskie can just get bent.” I beamed at Jenks, and he made an ugly face.

“Rache, put my cat down before you mess with her kitty brain.”

Smiling, I let Rex puddle out of my arms and onto the floor. She rubbed against me, then sedately walked out. There was a cheering from the pixies up in the sanctuary, and her shadow slunk past the door to hide under the couch in the back living room.

The more agitated Jenks got, the more content I became. Smiling, I washed my hands and dropped a dozen cookies in a bag for Al, tying it with a little blue twist tie before setting them beside the scrying mirror. Seeing me getting ready, Ivy shut down her computer. “I’ll get our coats,” she said, and Jenks clattered his wings, angry he was going to be left behind.

“I’m doing this by myself,” I said suddenly. “Thanks, though.”

“Your aura is thin. Put us in a circle and do it here,” Ivy said as she stood.

Putting them in a circle really didn’t make them any safer. All Al had to do was shove me into it and it would fall. Same thing with standing in a circle with him. And putting Al in a circle alone wasn’t going to happen-not since he’d started treating me like a person after I told him I wouldn’t circle him anymore. Second-class person, but a person nevertheless.

“Why chance it?” I said, thinking of Jenks’s kids. The demon might turn them into popcorn for all I knew. “You can watch from the windows.” Coat…in the foyer. “It’s not a big deal!” I shouted over my shoulder as I headed for the front door. My boots were there, too. It was four in the freaking morning, the coldest part of the day, and I was going to go sit in a graveyard and talk to Al. Ah-h-h, I love my life.

Ivy caught up with me as I shrugged into my coat. Grabbing my boots, I took a step, jerking back when I almost ran into her. “I’m coming with you,” she said, eyes going dark.

I listened for Jenks’s wings, and hearing nothing, I whispered, “Don’t you dare make Jenks sit in here alone.” She clenched her jaw, the brown rim of her eyes shrinking even more. I brushed past her and headed to the kitchen. “I’m just asking for a night off. It’s not a big deal!”

“Then why don’t you do it in here?” she yelled back, and I stopped at the head of the hall.

Ivy was standing by her piano. The soft glow lights on my desk made a spot of living green with pixies peeking from every nook. “Because I lost it the last time I thought you two were dead, and I’m not going to risk you if I don’t have to.” Ivy took a deep breath, and I turned away. “I’ll be right back,” I added as I paced into the kitchen.

Jenks was still atop Ivy’s monitor, his wings a blur and his increased circulation making them a bright red. “Jenks, don’t look at me like that,” I muttered when I dropped my boots to put them on, and as my heels thumped into them, he turned his back on me. “Jenks…,” I pleaded, stopping when his wings buzzed. “I’ll be okay,” I said, and he shifted his head at the harsh sound of my zipper going up.

“This is fairy crap!” he exclaimed, rising up and spinning around. “Green fairy crap-”

“With sprinkles on top,” I finished for him as I fumbled for my gloves, jammed in the pockets. “We go through this every week. Either I show up at sunrise or he comes and gets me. Hiding on hallowed ground will only tick him off and then he visits my mom. If I’m lucky, I get the night off. If I’m not, I’ll send Bis back in for my things. Okay?”

Jenks hovered before me with his hands on his hips. Ignoring him, I picked up the scrying mirror and my cookies. I knew he hated being trapped by the cold, but I wasn’t going to risk his family. He was so good at everything else, why this bothered him was beyond me.

“Bis will be with me,” I offered, and when he crossed his arms and turned his back on me, I shouted, “I’ll be freaking fine!” and stormed to the back door. What is his problem!

I flicked on the porch light, giving the door a tight pull to get it to latch behind me. Hesitating on the landing, I took a moment to calm myself, taking in how quiet it was out here while I put on my gloves. The moon was riding high above the horizon with an edge so sharp it looked like it could cut paper. My breath steamed, and by the second lungful, I felt the cold all the way to my bones. Even Cincinnati, across the river and distant, seemed frozen. If death had a feeling, this was it.

Still peeved, I crunched down the salted back steps and into the garden, following the same path I’d taken out here last week. There was a good chance that Al wouldn’t go for this and I’d find myself sending Bis back in for my overnight bag, giving Al a laugh and me ten additional charms to spell before sunrise tomorrow.

I looked behind me to see the kitchen window plastered with pixies, but Jenks wasn’t among them. Guilt slithered out from me for having gone where he couldn’t follow, but it wasn’t like I was going into a dangerous situation. It was like asking your recruiter if you could skip the run today and rest up. I might get smacked for it, but I wasn’t going to die.

“This is so not going to work,” I muttered, then stepped over the low wall that separated the witch’s garden from the graveyard. The cold seemed to turn to knives in my chest, and I slowed before I froze my nose from breathing too fast. Fatigue was nothing new, and I had all the tricks to stave it off. I could feel the ley line shimmering in my thoughts, but I angled to Pierce’s statue instead. I didn’t need to be in a line to talk to Al, and the patch of unsanctified ground surrounded by God’s grace would keep Al from wandering if he decided to come over.

Pierce’s monolith of a kneeling, battle-weary angel was creepy, looking not quite human with its arms too long and its features starting to run from pollution and the poor grade of stone. I’d used this red-colored patch of cement to summon demons three times now, and that I was treating this as almost routine was worrisome.

“Hey, Bis?” I called, then jumped when Bis landed suddenly on the angel’s shoulder in a wash of air that smelled like rock dust.

“Holy crap!” I yelped, looking back at the church to see if anyone had noticed my surprise. “How about some warning, dude?”

“Sorry,” the late-adolescent, foot-high gargoyle said, his red eyes whirling so fast in amusement that I knew he wasn’t sorry at all. His pebbly skin was black to absorb what heat he could from the night, but he could change it, even when he fell into a torporlike state as the sun came up. He’d have more control over his sleep when he got older, but right now, like most teenagers, he was like a rock when the sun came up. He paid rent to Jenks by watching the grounds for the four hours around midnight when pixies traditionally slept. He’d been doing more than that since the temperatures dropped below pixy tolerance. He and Jenks got along great, seeing as Bis had been kicked off the basilica for spitting on people, and Jenks thought that was just fine.

“Why is Jenks mad at you?” he asked as he pulled his wings close, and I winced.

“Because he thinks he has to protect me, and I’m going places he can’t,” I said. “You can hear us from out here?”

The gargoyle shrugged and looked at the church. “Only when you yell.”

Only when we yell. Brushing the snow off the base of the angel statue, I set the cookies down and brought out the mirror.

“Oh, that’s ultimate!” Bis said as the wine-and-crystal-colored scrying mirror threw back the moonlight. I looked down at it, feeling the cold right through my gloves. I agreed with him, even though I thought something that called demons should be ugly. This was my second mirror, made with a stick of yew, some salt, wine, a bit of magic, and a lot of help from Ceri. The first one I’d broken over Minias’s head when the demon had startled me. Ceri had helped me make that one, too. It was a contact glyph, not a summoning spell, and the double-circled pentagram with its symbols could open a path to the ever-after and any demon I wished to talk to. I didn’t need to know their summoning name, just their common one. That, and the word that tapped into the demon’s communal magic. Some days I really wished I didn’t know the magic word.

Nervous, I hunched down to sit on the edge of the monolith, beside the cookies, and balanced the mirror on my knees. I took my right glove off and set my palm in the cave of the large pentagram. The red-tinted glass was icy cold to my naked fingers as the spelled glass transferred the cold of the night into me. Glancing up at Bis lurking above me, I said, “If Al shows up, get to hallowed ground, okay?”

The cat-size gargoyle nervously rustled his wings. “’Kay.”

Satisfied, I pressed more firmly and reached to touch the nearby ley line.

Power that seemed to have picked up the chill of the night coursed in, finding a balance within me with an unusual flush of vertigo. Surprised, I leaned back until my shoulders hit the statue for balance. What in hell? The flow of energy was irregular, making me feel almost seasick. The odd sensation must be from my thin aura. Maybe auras functioned like filters, evening the highs and lows into a steady stream. The longer I held the line, the worse it got.

Bis dropped to stand uncertainly by my knee in concern, his clawed feet seeming to grow bigger when they hit the snow. “You okay, Ms. Morgan?” he asked, and I nodded slowly.

“Dizzy.” Mirror balanced on my knees, I tucked a strand of floating hair behind my ear.

“Your aura is still thin,” Bis said. “You sure you should be doing this?”

I blinked at him to get rid of the last of the vertigo. “You can see auras?” I asked, then rolled my eyes. Bis could see every ley line in Cincinnati in his mind, like I could see contrails in the daytime sky. When he touched me, I could see them, too. Of course he could see auras.

It was frigid out here, and since I was already connected to a line, all that was left was calling Al. Hands trembling faintly from light-headedness, I pressed my hand firmly and thought mater tintinnabulum to open a connection. The power of the ley line swelled in me, and my lips parted as I panted. God, this thin aura sucked-it felt like I was sick again-and I wondered how long until I was back to normal.

Shutting my eyes was worse, and I forced them open. It was as if I was in a huge space, but unlike before, when it seemed there were hundreds of whispering voices, there were only a few. Al, I thought again, making my goal specific, and I felt a part of me wing off in an unknown direction, a faint vibration seeming to echo through my mind.

I was contacting the demon, which was different from summoning. If I summoned Al into a circle, he’d be subject to my whims and a prisoner until the sun rose or he was able to make his escape through trickery or a lack of interaction with his summoner. He’d also be ticked, seeing as he would be taking on the payment for crossing the lines. No, I was calling him, which was cheaper, smut wise. He could ignore me, though he never refused a chance to flap his lip and show off. He could also use the connection to make the jump to our reality, which was why I was doing it out here. Us having an understanding or no, Algaliarept was a demon, and he would happily hurt Ivy or Jenks for the satisfaction of seeing me angry and impotent.

As expected, the demon picked up immediately, and the unusual vertigo from my thin aura vanished as my expanded experience narrowed to a single, tunnel-vision-like expression.

Itchy witch? his sharp thought echoed in mine. It was surprised and confused, and it was as if I could almost hear the elegant and precise British TV accent he used. I had no idea why. It’s early, he thought, giving me the impression he was scrambling to organize his thoughts. It is early, isn’t it? There was a hesitation, then, It’s bloody hell four in the morning! If this is about exchanging my summoning name for that old mark of Newt’s, the answer is no. I like you owing me two marks, and I’m enjoying not being yanked across the lines to answer stupid questions from stupid people. You included.

Worry that he might never make good on our agreement flitted through me, but he needed his name to make a living and would eventually want it back. He was in debt up to his eyebrows, and had the further indignity of not having a familiar to stir his spells and curses. Even better, he now lived in a dump of a two-hollow hellhole instead of the ten-room mansion deep underground that he kept bitching about. Everything but his kitchen and front room had been sold to bribe the demon muck-ety-mucks to let him out on parole.

Despite his numerous and loud complaints, he wasn’t too unhappy, because I was the only witch alive whose kids would technically be demons…and I belonged to him. Sort of. I was his student, not his familiar, and he had me only one night a week. Just my luck it was Saturday. Not that I was dating or anything, but a girl liked to keep her weekends free just in case.

That I still had his summoning name meant he couldn’t pursue his freelance job of luring stupid people into demon servitude and then selling them to the highest bidder. That I might get summoned out under his name didn’t bother me as much as I’d thought it would. I’d scare the crap out of them so good that they wouldn’t dare think to summon Al again, and they’d be safe. Soon as Al figured that out, he’d switch back. I hoped.

Curiosity got the better of him when I remained silent, and he finally added, What do you want? I’m not letting you go early tomorrow for starting early today.

My eyes met Bis’s. The gargoyle looked concerned, shifting his clawed feet and using a wing tip to scratch the middle of his back. “Uh,” I said aloud so the kid could hear at least half of the conversation. “Can I have the night off? I don’t feel very well.”

There was a slight background confusion in him, but Al was alone or I’d be able to pick up his thinking about whoever was with him. You don’t feel well? he thought, then hesitated as I got the impression he was unhappy with the way he looked. There was a surge of minor power through his mind, followed by a flush of satisfaction, and then he added, You want time off because you don’t feel well? No.

I could feel him ready to snap the connection, and I blurted, “But I made you cookies.” I moaned, knowing if I played ignorant, he might give in. He knew I wasn’t ignorant, but he liked it when I pretended, as if I could manipulate him. Which I could, so who was smarter after all?

The tingles of thought coming from him touched on crushed green velvet coattails and lace, and I guessed he was primping. And what the hell do I care about that? he thought, but there had been a flash of hidden interest, and I smiled at Bis’s worried expression.

I exhaled, not caring that Al could read my relief, because he hadn’t hung up on me. “Look, I was attacked by a banshee yesterday and she sucked most of my aura off. I don’t feel good, and tapping a line makes me dizzy, so I don’t think I can be of any use anyway.”

I can think of a lot of things to do, he thought. And none of them involve standing up.

“Very funny. I’m serious,” I said, wondering what I had interrupted. His thoughts were focused on…tidying up? Good grief, is he tidying up for me? “I would have gotten a work excuse, but I had to break out of the hospital just to get here to talk to you.”

I felt a surge of annoyance, and then, quite unexpectedly, it vanished. My gaze slid to Bis. Crap, was Al coming over? “Bis, take off!” I said in alarm, then gasped as a wave of vertigo slammed into me like a cresting wave.

“Ms. Morgan!” Bis shouted.

I pushed the mirror off my lap as I struggled not to spew. Pain followed the nausea. My skin felt like it was on fire, the pulsating energy hitting me hard without my aura to even out the surges. My legs wouldn’t work, and when I tried to stand, I fell over. I hit the snow-covered pavement on my side, managing to get my arms out so I didn’t crack my nose open.

“Ms. Morgan?” Bis tried again, and I clenched in agony when he touched me and I felt like I was going to explode. Damn it, I’d been okay until Al tapped into me to make his crossing cheaper. The cement slab under me was hard, and my cheek burned against the snow.

I smelled burnt amber, and suddenly there was a pair of shiny, buckled shoes before my pain-clenched eyes. “Run, Bis,” I panted, then sucked in air when the pain cut off with a blessed suddenness. The power of the line was gone, and it was just me lying in the snow.

“What, by my blood dame’s shadow, am I doing in the snow?” came Al’s refined British accent. “Morgan, get up. You look like a scullery girl down there.”

“Ow,” I said as his white-gloved hand grabbed my shoulder and hauled me up. I stumbled, my feet not quite finding the ground for the first second or two.

“Let go of Ms. Morgan,” came a deep, gravelly voice from behind me, and still in Al’s grip, I worked to look around me.

“Bis?” I stammered, and Al dropped me. Wobbling, I found my balance with a hand on Al’s chest, shocked. Bis had released his body’s warmth to melt a patch of snow, taking the water into him to increase his size. He was as tall as me now, a grainy black, and his wings spread to make himself look bigger. Water-filled muscles bunched and flexed, from his craggy feet to his gnarly hands. He was probably too heavy to fly, and when Al dropped back a step, the gargoyle hissed to show a long, forked tongue. Damn, there was steam coming off him.

I felt Al touch the small line running through the graveyard, and I jumped. “Al, no!” I shouted, feeling helpless as I stood between a red-eyed demon and a red-eyed, horned gargoyle, my hands outstretched to them both. When did Bis get horns?

“He’s just a kid!” I shouted at Al. “Al, don’t hurt him! He’s just a kid!”

Al hesitated, and I flicked a look behind me at Bis, surprised by the change. Bridge trolls were able to change their size with water, too. “Bis, it’s okay. He won’t hurt me. Ivy wouldn’t let me come out here alone if it wasn’t okay. Just…relax.”

The tension lessened as Bis stopped hissing. He slowly lost his crouch, shrinking only slightly as he closed his wings. Al’s hands stopped glowing, and there was a curious sensation in me as the demon pushed a wad of force back into the line.

Al sniffed loudly, tugging his coat about him and adjusting his lace. “When did you get your gargoyle?” he said sarcastically. “You’ve been holding out on me, itchy witch. Bring him with you tonight, and he can have mortar cakes and tea with mine. Poor little Treble hasn’t had anyone to play with in ages.”

“You have a gargoyle?” I said as Bis shifted awkwardly, unused to this much mass.

“How else would I be able to tap a line so far underground?” the demon said with forced pleasantness. “And how clever of you to have one already.” This last was said sourly, and I wondered what other nasty surprises he hadn’t told me about.

“Bis isn’t my familiar,” I said, working to stay upright as my fatigue hit me anew when the adrenaline crashed. “Al, I really need the night off.”

At that, the demon seemed to bring his wandering attention back from the cold night. “Stand up,” he said, jerking me upright. “Get the snow off you,” he added, smacking my coat to make the crusty stuff fall away. “What the devil is wrong with you, calling me out in the snow when you have that adorable little kitchen?”

“I don’t trust you with my friends,” I said. “Can we skip this week?”

His gloved hand lashed out and gripped my chin before I could think to move. I stifled a gasp, and Bis rumbled. “Your aura is nearly thin enough to tear…,” the demon said softly, turning my face back and forth as his goat-slitted eyes peered three inches outside my outline. “It is far too thin to work the lines, much less travel on them,” he said in disgust, and dropped my chin. “No wonder you were belly down on the pavement. Hurt, huh?”

I backed up, rubbing where it felt as if I could feel him still. “So I have the night off?”

He laughed. “God’s little green apples, no. I’ll just pop on home and bring back a little something to make my itchy witch al-l-l-l-l better.”

That didn’t sound good. I had looked in my books already, finding that there was no white charm to help replace a person’s aura. I didn’t know any black ones either. If there were any, vampires would know about them, seeing as that’s what the undead ones siphoned off their victims along with the blood.

“A curse?” I asked, backing up until I felt Bis behind me.

“It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t.” Al eyed me over his smoked glasses and smiled to show me his blocky teeth. “I may not have much, but I do have auras, all lined up in pretty jars, like some people collect wine. I specialize in the eighteenth century. It was a good century for souls.”

I stifled a shiver, telling myself it was from the cold. “I’d rather wait until mine replenishes itself, thanks.”

“Like I care what you’d rather?” Turning to make his coattails furl, Al looked across the graveyard to the nearby line. “I’ll be back in five minutes,” he said as he started to go misty. “Soon as I remember where Ceri hid the little things. Wait for me there,” he said, pointing at the nearby ley line like I was a dog. “I don’t want you passing out when I come back. And have your bag with you. You’re going to pay for this by starting early today. Chop-chop!”

“Al…,” I complained, irritated that he would try to disguise his cheapness with a supposed interest in my welfare. He didn’t care if I passed out or not. But it wouldn’t cost as much to cross into the ever-after if he were in a line, and though he wouldn’t admit it, Al was so far up credit creek that even this minuscule difference was important.

“There,” Al said, pointing at the ground. A shimmer cascaded over him, and he was gone. Only his footprints in the snow and the lingering scent of burnt amber remained.

I exhaled in annoyance and looked at the tall wall surrounding the property. It was going to be another full twenty-four hours before Ivy and I could go talk to Skimmer. Not to mention that the I.S. might find Mia during that time and get someone killed. Concerned at the sound of running water, I turned to Bis, surprised to find him spitting across the graveyard to coat individual grave markers in ice. He was getting smaller by the second, turning white as he warmed up by absorbing the warmth from the water before he let it go. Talk about weird.

“There is no way I’m taking anyone’s aura,” I muttered, imagining Al sitting on me and holding my nose to make me open my mouth. The truth was, I’d been over to his apartments enough times now that he probably had a strand of hair to target a spell to me. All he had to do was twist the curse and I’d be wearing someone else’s aura. Nice.

Bis spit tiny little ice cubes to get his balance perfect, then flew up to land on the angel’s shoulder. He looked a little ill. “You want me to come with you? To the ever-after?”

The kid looked scared to death, and my heart went out to him. “No. Absolutely not,” I said firmly, looking for my discarded mirror and my forgotten bag of cookies. “Al was just jerking you around. I wouldn’t take you even if you asked. It’s nasty over there.” His wings drooped in relief, and I added, “Look, I don’t want to go into the church. It would be just like Al to show up and cause trouble. Will you tell Ivy it didn’t work and bring my bag out here? It’s in my closet, already packed. Oh, and make sure she calls the correctional facility to set up something for Monday.”

Safety was a good reason for not going back in the church, but the truth of it was, I didn’t want to have to deal with Jenks. Crap, I didn’t have time to waste a day in the ever-after keeping Al at arm’s length and going to parties. It seemed that’s all we ever did. Al called it networking. No wonder the demon was broke.

“Sure, Ms. Morgan,” the gargoyle said, his eyes downcast as if he knew why I was sending him instead of going myself. Bis stretched his wings, going black as he drew all his warmth into his core to maintain his body heat while making the short flight to the church. His leathery wings beat once, and he was airborne, looking scary as he flew to the church.

Alone, I snatched up the scrying mirror and my bag of cookies. I wasn’t looking forward to wearing someone else’s aura. I’d rather just suffer the pain. Head down, I trudged through the snow, wincing when I felt the icy warmth of the line take me. Usually it was hard to feel them like this, but my aura was thin and this was my line, unused by anyone else, as it was rather small and surrounded by the dead. People were superstitious.

Finding my footprints from last week, I went a few steps beyond and set the cookies and mirror on a nearby tombstone. “Thanks, Beatrice,” I whispered, reading the stone marker. Wrapping my arms around myself, I stared at the night and tried to stay warm. It was sort of like waiting at the bus stop, and I found myself falling into blank-stare mode. With a wry smile, I carefully unfocused my attention-slowly, until I knew it wouldn’t hurt-to bring up my second sight, hoping to spot Al before he popped in to scare the crap out of me.

The red ribbon of power was suddenly around me, looking like an aurora borealis as it swelled and ebbed, always there, always fluctuating, running off to who knew where. Surrounding it was a broken landscape of stunted scrub and cold rock. Everything had a red sheen to it now except for the moon and the grave markers, and though the moon looked its normal silver now, when I crossed over to the ever-after, it would be an ugly shade of red. Not that we’d stay on the surface long.

I shivered, not liking it when my hair started to move in the wind from the ever-after. There was no snow, but I’d be willing to bet it was colder there. “Any time, Al,” I called, then leaned against Beatrice’s tombstone. He was going to make me wait. Son of a bastard.

“Ah, mistress witch,” a faintly familiar voice sighed. “You’re as smart as a steel trap, but I opine you won’t keep body and soul together much longer. Nohow can I fix it if you maintain your course.”

I spun around, going warm when I saw Al behind me, casually leaning against a tombstone with one booted foot cocked on a toe. He had made himself look like Pierce, and face hot, I gritted my teeth. But then I realized that Al didn’t know about Pierce, wouldn’t know to look for him in my thoughts, and wouldn’t know what the man called me, or the curious accent he had-a mix of rough street talk and pre-Turn English.

Shocked, I stared at the ghost, dressed in an old-style three-piece suit and the memory of the long coat that had once belonged to my brother. He was clean shaven this time, and had a funny-looking hat on his head. Realizing I was looking at him, he jerked himself upright, his eyes wide in the moonlight. “Pierce?” I said, unsure. “Is that you?”

The small man’s jaw dropped and he took his hat off as he stepped from the stone. There were no footprints behind him. “It must be the line,” he whispered in wonder. “We’re both in the line, and you’re communing with it…using your second sight, aren’t you?” His entire face brightened in the light from the back porch. “You don’t do that very often, stand in a line.”

I couldn’t move, not believing it. “My dad told me not to because you never know what you’ll see,” I said lightly. I felt unreal, dizzy.

He shrugged, and delight filled me on a quick intake of breath. I crossed the space between us only to jerk to a stop, smile fading. It had to be a joke. It had to be one of Al’s perverted jokes. “What’s the word to open my dad’s locket?” I asked cautiously.

Pierce leaned forward, and when his breath was cold, not warm, as Al’s would be, I felt a surge of hope. “Lily white,” he whispered, touching his nose, and elated, I reached out a gloved finger and jabbed his shoulder. It hit him, and he rocked back.

“Pierce!” I exclaimed, giving him a fierce hug that made him grunt in surprise. “My God, I can touch you.” Then I let him go to give his shoulder a smack. “Why didn’t you do this before? Stand in a line, I mean! I’m here every week. I was going to try to stir that spell again, but now I don’t have to! Damn, it’s good to see you!”

The small man searched my face, grinning as the scent of coal dust, shoe polish, and redwood seeped into me. “I’ve been in a line when you were,” he said. “I abide here most times you leave to fulfill your bargain with the demon, and I abide here when you return.”

“You’ve been spying on me?” I asked, blushing when I remembered I’d called Pierce sexy not five minutes ago in the kitchen. Jenks’s claim that he was going to sell our secrets was ridiculous, but there had been plenty going on in the church that I wouldn’t want my mom to know, much less an almost stranger from the nineteenth century.

“Spying?” Pierce said, looking affronted as he put his hat back on. “No. I’ve been in the belfry most times. Apart from when the TV was spelled. That’s a powerful fine magic there.” His expression shifted to one of a satisfied appreciation as he took me in, running his eyes from my hair to my feet. “You’ve grown into a damned fine young woman, mistress witch.”

“Well, it’s good to see you, too.” My eyebrows rose as I pulled my hand from his, sure now that he had been in the kitchen before I’d come out here. I went over in my mind what I’d said, deciding there’d been nothing I wouldn’t want him to hear and a lot he probably ought to know-apart from me telling Jenks to get bent, perhaps. Smiling deviously, I rocked back on my heels to intentionally catch my balance a few inches back, a subtle reminder that I wasn’t that eighteen-year-old-girl anymore. Trouble was, I think he was glad of it.

Sure enough, his own smile deepened as he recognized me distancing myself. Gaze intent, he inclined his head. The porch light caught his eyes, and they glinted, lingering on my face, making me wonder if I had chocolate chip cookie dough on my chin.

“Land sakes, how could you have gotten so deep so fast,” he said, his brow furrowing as he shook his head in dismay and changed the subject. “Beholden to a demon? You were so innocent when I left you.”

His cool fingers tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, and a shiver struck me when I took his hand out of my curls and he gripped my fingers. “Um…,” I murmured, then remembered what I was going to say. “I had to save Trent. I promised him I’d get him home safely. I still have my soul. Al doesn’t own me.”

The slamming of the back door jerked me around, but it was only Bis. His frightening, batlike silhouette lurched closer, moving heavily from the bag he was carrying. I took a breath to ask him to get Ivy, and Pierce touched my chin, turning me to him.

“Al will be back to fetch you soon,” he said, his expression taking on a sudden urgency. “I beg you to be of a mind to find me when your lesson is done. I’ll allow we can talk now, and that’s enough. Drawing upon a coven for power to give me a body for a night isn’t worth the agony until I find a way to be whole again. Just promise me you won’t tell your demon about me. Don’t ask for his help. I can fix this on my own hook.”

Bis landed heavily atop my canvas bag, his skin black and cold and his eyes widening as he saw Pierce. He doesn’t want me to ask Al about him? I thought. When there might be a charm or spell that could bring him back to life? Jenks saying he was spying for secrets rose in my mind, and my smile faded. People don’t ask you to do things unless they have a reason.

Seeing me hesitate, Pierce frowned, looking between me and the startled gargoyle. “It’s but a small thing, Rachel. I’m of a mind to tell you why, just not directly.”

“You can be of a mind to tell me now,” I said, starting to warm.

My ears popped, and I gasped as Al was suddenly behind Pierce, eyes glowing and white-gloved hand reaching out. Pierce dove for the far edge of the line, but it was too late.

“Rachel, look out!” Bis shouted, and I stumbled backward, falling over my bag, my elbow hitting the cookies. There was a whoosh of air as Bis became airborne, and I looked up at the hiss of the gargoyle, hovering between me and Al. Al’s elegantly coated arm was wrapped around Pierce’s neck, tightening until his feet dangled. His face went red as he struggled.

Bis landed between Al and me, his wings spread to look bigger since he was too cold to melt snow. “Al!” I shouted, moving forward until Bis hissed at me. “What are you doing?”

Al peered over his smoked glasses at us, his red, goat-slitted eyes delighted. “Getting a better apartment,” he drawled, sniffing at Bis in warning.

Oh shit. “Al, you’ve got to stop doing this,” I said, pulse hammering as I shot a glance at the church, but no one was at the windows. “Snatching people talking to me is not fair!”

Al smiled to show his thick, blocky teeth. “So?”

Pierce struggled, his hat falling from him, to vanish before it hit the snow. “Give this no mind, mistress witch,” he gasped, face red and feet trying to find the ground. “This seven-by-nine demon is of no circumstance. I’ll be-”

Al jerked his arm, cutting off Pierce’s words, and I winced. “Busy,” the demon said. “You’re going to be busy.” Eyes on mine, Al ran his hand suggestively under Pierce’s coat, and the small man jerked.

“Hey!” I shouted, but Bis wouldn’t let me get closer, pacing a line in the snow, his wings spread and placing his feet with an odd stiffness. “Let him go. This isn’t fair. We need to set up some rules about you popping in and snagging people. I mean it!”

“You mean it?” Al laughed, shifting his grip until Pierce grunted and went still. “Looks like I don’t need my name to find familiars after all,” he crooned.

The thought of Pierce on the demon auction block was like ice down my back, but that Al might start popping in whenever he felt like it and snag whoever was with me was absolutely terrifying. “No way,” I said, starting to get angry. “I am not going to be your bait. Let him go. If you want him, you catch him the old-fashioned way, but I won’t be used like this. Got it, goat eyes?”

I was so pissed I could have screamd. Pierce looked pained at my words, but Al simply laughed again. “Use you as bait? Capital idea!” the demon cooed, then grimaced at Bis, still stalking back and forth between us. “The thought never occurred to me. I simply saw something I wanted and took it.” His eyes narrowed. “It’s what I do.”

“He’s worthless!” I exclaimed, almost stomping my foot and not believing him. “Pierce is a ghost. He can’t tap a line. You’re doing this to irritate me. Let him go!”

A slow smile grew on Al’s face, and he fondled the hair about Pierce’s ear, making him stiffen. “You don’t know who this is, do you,” Al said, sending a chill of doubt through me; he was far too satisfied. “There are curses that can cure that tiny little problem of all spirit and no body, and this piece of witchcrap…” Al gave Pierce a shake. “This one here? He is worth a little extra time in the kitchen. It’s just a matter of finding the right curse. He’s the golden boy, the one who got away, and he’s going to pay my bills for the next thirty years.”

I clenched my hands, cold in their gloves. Pierce had a history with demons? Damn it! “You know him?” I said, my words a white mist. It would explain why Pierce was so good with ley lines. But he was so nice. He was so…normal!

“I do not practice demonology!” Pierce exclaimed. “Let me go directly, you maggot-ridden piece of sheep liver, or you will suffer a powerful defeat. You’re of no circumstance. A second-rate-”

Al flexed his arm, and Pierce choked. “I never managed to actually find this one before,” Al said, regaining his usual supercilious air though Pierce dug at his fingers around his throat. “But I’ve heard of him, itchy witch. Everyone has heard of Gordian Nathaniel Pierce. He almost killed Newt, which is why I’m going to make enough money off him that you can keep my summoning name for the next decade. Someone will pay big for him.” His voice lowered. “Even if they do nothing but poke at him.”

Not a demon practitioner, but a demon killer, I thought with a weird sense of tense relief. Even Bis looked relieved. I looked at the church, but still, no movement. “Al, you can’t take people talking to me,” I said, and when Al laughed, I blurted, “Then I’ll buy him!”

Bis turned to me with wide eyes, and even Pierce opened his mouth to protest, grunting when Al jerked him. “Not on your soul,” the demon crooned, pulling Pierce close until the man’s lips pressed together defiantly and his eyes gleamed in hate. “Well, maybe…,” Al mused, then shook his head. “No, not even on your soul,” he affirmed. “I won’t sell him to you. Despite that witch-class ceiling he has, he’s more dangerous than you right now. He’s at his peak. Besides, how many nasty little men do you need for your familiars?” he said lightly, looking at Bis. “He’s a bad man who likes to try to kill demons.”

“I’m not a demon,” I said, my voice trembling, and Al’s eyes narrowed.

“I am,” he intoned. “Consider your night off as a thank-you for luring him to me, itchy witch. Your lessons are canceled until further notice. I’m going to be busy for a while.”

“Al!” I shouted as they started to go misty. “Don’t you walk away from me!”

Smiling at me from over his glasses, Al shook his head. “You’re not in control, Rachel. I am. Of everything.”

Furious, I shouted, “You’re abusing your right to check on me, and you know it! Give him back and stop abducting people I’m with, or so help me I’m going to…to…”

Al hesitated, and I started to shake. “Do what?” he asked, and Pierce closed his eyes in misery. “You can’t draw on a line until your aura heals, and I’m not fixing it for you.” Glancing at Bis, he edged forward until the gargoyle hissed. “You’re helpless, Rachel Mariana Morgan.”

I dropped back, stymied. Damn it, using all three of my names was a warning, probably the only one I’d ever get. If I summoned him I might get my way, but I’d lose what little respect he’d given me and be back to being treated like a demon summoner. And I liked the respect he’d been granting me, little as it was. I enjoyed not having to fear every time the air pressure shifted. Though the parties in the ever-after were a pain in the ass, Al’s kitchen was peaceful. I didn’t want that to end. But his abducting of people was going to stop.

“This is not over,” I vowed, trembling from frustration. “We are going to settle this, and you’re going to let him go!”

“How, itchy witch?” he scoffed.

My expression twisted as I searched for an answer that wasn’t there.

Seeing me without words, Al jerked Pierce up, almost off his feet. “Don’t call me. I’ll call you,” he said, and he and Pierce vanished.

Heart pounding, I stared where he had been. “Damn it back to the Turn!” I shouted. Frustrated, I spun to the church, but there was nothing to help me there. The lights were bright, spilling out over the silent snow. Snatching up my bag and scrying mirror, I stomped to the back door, grabbing the cookies at the last moment. Al was going to be busy with Pierce for a while, but until I settled this, everyone with me was a potential target.

This was so not what I needed.

Seventeen

Ignore me, huh?” I muttered, trying for anger, not fear, as I dropped my scrying mirror and cookies on the counter, then kicked my overnight bag under the table, out of the way. The canvas sack scraped across a thin layer of salt, leaving a smear of muddy snow, and I turned to the cupboards. Salt. I didn’t know how to jump a line, but I was going to use my scrying mirror to connect to Al, and I wanted to be in a circle in case he jumped to me first. Either way, we were going to get together.

From atop the fridge, Bis shifted his wings nervously. I hadn’t even seen him come in with me. The sensitive kid knew I was scared, but if Al wouldn’t come to me, I’d go to him. He had thrown down the gauntlet, taunting me with my inexperience, telling me I was helpless. I’d been relying on him for three months, grown complacent. I had a good idea now of how to travel the lines. I couldn’t let him get away with this or he’d be walking all over me for the rest of my life. He’d crossed the line, and it was up to me to make him back up.

A whisper of presence touched my awareness, and I jerked, turning to see Ivy in the hall, hand on the archway and wonder in her eyes. “I thought you were leaving. You’re still here?”

“He took Pierce,” I said bitterly, and her lips parted. “Snatched him right out of the line. Damn it, I didn’t know that was possible.”

Her eyes flicked to the crushed cookies and back. “Pierce was in the ley line?” she asked, going to the fridge and coming out with the orange juice. “You saw him? As a ghost?”

I nodded, scanning the kitchen for my chalk. “He was solid. Al took him. I am so pissed.”

The clatter of dragonfly wings grew obvious, and Jenks darted in, following three of his kids in a merry chase. He saw me, and jerked to a stop as the youngsters hid behind Bis on top of the fridge, giggling. “Rache!” he cried, clearly surprised. “What are you doing back?”

“I never left,” I said sourly. “Where’s my magnetic chalk?” I pulled open a drawer and shuffled around. A salt circle was out. I had melted snow all over the floor. Salt, good. Saltwater, bad. “I have to go talk to Al,” I finished.

The pixy’s gaze dropped to the scrying mirror. “Go? Go where?”

I slammed the drawer shut, and Bis jumped. “The ever-after.”

Eyes wide, Ivy turned from pouring her juice. Jenks’s wings clattered, and he flew close enough to send the scent of ozone over me. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he exclaimed. “What, by Tink’s little red shoes, are you talking about? You don’t know how to jump the lines.”

Peeved, I took off my coat and threw it onto my chair. “Al took Pierce. I was talking to him, and he took him. Al won’t listen to me, so I’m going to go talk to him. End of story.”

“End of story is right! Have you been sniffing fairy farts?” Jenks yelled as Matalina flew in, gathering the wide-eyed kids and Bis and ushering them out in a swirl of silk and leathery wings. “You’re going to risk your life for this guy? Let him go, Rache! You can’t rescue everyone! Ivy, tell her she’s going to get herself killed!”

I slammed another drawer shut and pulled open the next. “I’m not doing this to rescue Pierce,” I said as I shifted through my silverware and blessed candles. “I’m doing this because Al is a jerk. He used the excuse of picking me up to snatch someone. If I don’t make him toe the line, then he will walk all over me. And where in hell is my magnetic chalk!”

Shocked, Jenks flew backward a few feet. Ivy pushed herself into motion, and, after pulling open the junk drawer, she placed a stick of magnetic chalk in my hand and retreated. Her fingers gripping her orange juice were white from pressure.

My anger abruptly fizzled as I watched her return to her corner of the kitchen. Her pace was slow and sultry, and her eyes were almost all black. I knew my being upset was hard on her instincts, and I exhaled, trying to calm myself. I wanted her here. I could talk to Al alone in the garden safely, but this had the potential to be dangerous-and I’d do it with them around.

“Why don’t you just call Dali and complain?” Jenks asked.

A flash of worry flared and was gone. “I could,” I said as I bent double to trace a thick layer of shiny chalk just inside the etched line on the kitchen floor. “But then I’d be whining to someone else to fix my problem. Al still wouldn’t take me seriously and I’d owe Dali a favor. If I don’t force Al to treat me with respect, then I’ll never get it. He’s been carting my ass back and forth for weeks. I can figure this out.” My hands were shaking as I set the chalk on the counter beside the scrying mirror. How am I going to do this?

Jenks’s wings blurred to nothing, but he didn’t move from the counter. Worried, I leaned against the sink and took my boots off. No one said a word as I kicked one, then the other boot under the table to slide to a stop beside my packed bag. The gritty salt was obvious through my socks, and I shivered at the feel of the linoleum. If I could figure this out, I would be free. And when I showed up in Al’s kitchen, he’d have to deal with me. I should be thanking him for making me do this.

If I could do this. Taking a breath, I stepped inside the circle.

Jenks rose up, red sparkles shifting from him. “Ivy, tell her this is a bad idea.”

Untouched orange juice beside her, Ivy shook her head. “If she could do this, she’d be safer. She wouldn’t have to rely on us as much, Jenks. I say let her try.”

The pixy made a burst of noise, and his kids, clustered at the door, vanished.

A quiver went through me, and I nervously pulled my scrying mirror close and set my hand in the cave of the pentagram. Instantly my fingers went cold, the icy chill rising from the red-tinted glass to nearly cramp them. “I can do this,” I said, making myself believe. “You said the lines are displaced time. I’ve seen Al do it a hundred times. QED.” Think happy thoughts. Al’s kitchen. The smell of ozone. The peace. Mr. Fish.

Jenks shifted to sift a red dust onto my calling circle. If he stayed where he was, he’d be in the circle with me. “Jenks, go sit with Ivy.”

He shook his head, crossing his arms over his chest. “No. Your aura isn’t thick enough. You might kill yourself. Wait until your aura is better.”

I blew his dust from the glass and pressed my hand more firmly to it. “I don’t have the time. I have to settle this now or he will be walking all over me for the rest of my life. Get back.” My knees were shaking, and I was glad the counter was between Ivy and myself.

“No. I’m not letting you do this. Ivy, tell her this is a bad idea!”

“Get out of the circle, Jenks,” I said tightly. “What if Al decides he wants a pixy, huh? Or someone he knows develops a taste for vampires? What’s to stop him from popping over during dinner and just taking you or one of your kids! I thought he had some scruples about this, but I was wrong. And by God I’m going to make him treat me with some respect. The only reason Al hasn’t done this before is because he hasn’t seen anyone with me worth his while. But now he’s broke! He’s going to start snatching. Get out of my circle!”

Jenks made a noise of frustration, and in a burst of dust that lit up the kitchen, he left. From the sanctuary came a brief uproar of pixy shouting, then nothing.

My blood pressure dropped, and Ivy opened her eyes as I looked at her. They were black with fear. “How long do you want me to wait before I have Keasley summon you back?”

I looked at the window, then the clock. “Right before sunrise.” My head hurt, and I forced my jaw to unclench. This was going to be the most difficult thing I’d ever done. And I didn’t even know if I could do it. I looked at the clock above the sink, and with a slow exhale of breath, I tapped the line out back.

I shuddered as it spilled into me with that new, raw coldness of jagged metal scraping back and forth along my nerves. The sensation seemed worse than before, the nauseating irregularity making me sick.

Jenks’s wings hummed as he came back in, hovering beside Ivy with black sparkles drifting from him. My circle wasn’t set yet, but he stayed with Ivy. I blinked and shuddered, waiting for my equilibrium to return. “Dizzy,” I said, remembering the sensation. “But I’m okay.” I can do this. How hard can it be? Tom can do it.

“It’s your thin aura,” the pixy said. “Rache. Please.”

Jaw clenched and vertigo rising, I shook my head, becoming even dizzier. I made myself stand straighter, and when Ivy nodded at me, I awkwardly pulled the sock off my right foot and put my big toe on the smooth tang of the magnetic chalk.

Rhombus, I thought firmly. The trigger word would spell the circle in an eyeblink.

Pain sliced through me. I jerked my hand from the mirror, doubling over as the energy from the line roared in, unfiltered and without the cushion of my aura. “Oh God…,” I moaned, then fell to the cold linoleum when a new wave hit me. It hurt. Holding the circle hurt, and hurt bad, the entire, dizzying, sharp pulses smacking into me with the force of a Mack truck. You could survive being hit by a Mack truck. In fact, I had. But not without the cushion of an air bag and an inertia charm. My aura had been that cushion. Now it was so thin as to be useless.

“Ivy!” Jenks was shouting as my cheek ground into the salt-gritty linoleum when another spasm hit me. “Do something! I can’t get to her!”

I didn’t let go of the line-I shoved it out of me. A silent wave of force exploded from my chi, and I gasped in relief as the pain vanished. The electricity went out, and an unexpected snap of power echoed through the church.

“Down!” Jenks shouted, and a sharp pop hurt my ears.

“Shit,” Ivy hissed, and my cheek scraped the salty floor when I blearily looked up at her quick steps into the pantry behind me. My attention, though, never left the fridge. It was on fire, the ghastly gold-and-black glow of my magic lighting the powerless kitchen as the door swung open, hanging from one bolt. I broke our fridge!

“Jenks?” I whispered, remembering the force of the line I’d shoved out of me. I think I just blew every fuse in the church.

I heard the hum of pixy wings over me as Ivy put the magically induced fire out with the fire extinguisher. Behind me, I could hear the pixies, but I closed my eyes, content to lie on the floor in a fetal position as the lights flickered back on. The choking hiss of the extinguisher ceased, and all that was left was my ragged breathing. No one moved.

“Damn it, Ivy, do something,” Jenks said, the draft from his wings hurting my skin. “Pick her up. I can’t help her. I’m too damned small.”

At the edge of my awareness, Ivy’s boots ground the salt in agitation. “I can’t,” she whispered. “Look at me, Jenks. I can’t touch her.”

I took another breath, grateful the pain was gone. Sitting up, I wrapped my arms around my shins and dropped my head to my knees, shaking from the lingering memory of the pain and shock. Damn it, I broke our fridge.

No wonder Al had been so confident. He had said I was helpless, and he was right. And as I sat there, beaten, I felt the first tear of frustration trickle down my face. If I couldn’t get Al to treat me with more respect, I would be alone. I couldn’t have a deeper relationship with Marshal because I’d make him a target. Pierce wasn’t even alive, and he was now going to live out eternity in the ever-after, plucked from my backyard. Eventually Al would turn to Ivy and Jenks. Unless I forced him to conform to common decency, everyone around me was living on a demon’s whim.

I couldn’t seem to catch a break.

Depressed, I sat on my kitchen floor and tried to keep from shaking. I needed someone to hold me, someone who would wrap me up in a blanket and take care of me while I figured it all out. And having no one, I held myself, holding my breath so another tear wouldn’t leak out. I was hurt and in pain, both in my body and heart. I could cry if I wanted to, damn it.

“Ivy,” Jenks said, panic in his small voice. “Pick her up. I’m too small. I can’t help her. She needs to be touched or she’s going to think she’s alone.”

I am alone.

“I can’t!” Ivy shouted, making me jump. “Look at me! If I touch her…”

Eyes wet, I looked up. A shiver ran through me as I saw her before the broken fridge, spent CO2 dripping from the shelves. Her eyes were full, vampire black. Her hands were clenched with repressed need. Instinct triggered by Rynn Cormel earlier tonight warred with her desire to comfort me. The instincts were winning. If she made one move to help me, she’d end up at my throat.

“I can’t touch you,” she said, tears slipping from her, making her look beautiful. “I’m so sorry, Rachel. I can’t…”

Jenks darted to the ceiling when she shifted into motion. She was fleeing, and in an eyeblink, the kitchen was empty. Wobbling, I got to my feet. She had fled, but I knew she wasn’t leaving the church. She just needed the time and space to find herself again.

“It’s okay,” I whispered, not looking at Jenks as I lurched to my feet. “It’s not her fault. Jenks, I’m going to take a shower. I’ll be better after a hot shower. Don’t let your kids near me until the sun comes up, okay? I couldn’t live with myself if Al snatched them.”

Jenks hovered where he was as I used the counter and then the wall for balance to stagger to the bathroom, my head down and my eyes unseeing. Behind me, I left the wreckage of the kitchen. A shower wouldn’t help, but I had to get out of the room.

I needed someone to hold me and tell me it was going to be okay. But I was alone. Jenks couldn’t help me. Ivy couldn’t touch me. Hell, even Bis couldn’t touch me. Everyone else I had come close to was dead or not strong enough to survive the crap my life dished out.

I was alone, just like Mia had said, and I always would be.

Eighteen

It had been hard staying asleep with Ivy’s crashing around this morning, coming in about ten, showering, by the sound of it, and leaving an hour later. Jenks’s kids hadn’t helped either, flying up and down the hall playing tag with Rex. Nevertheless, I buried my head in my pillow and stayed in bed as seven pounds of kitty fur slammed into walls and knocked over an end table. I was tired, aura sick, and depressed-and I was going to sleep in.

So several hours later, when Jenks locked Rex in my room to get his kids to shut up for their noon nap, I barely heard the front door open and the soft steps pass my door. Ivy, I assumed, and I sighed, snuggling deeper under my coverlet, glad that she’d found a shred of kindness and was going to let me sleep. But no. I was never that lucky.

“Rachel?” came a high-pitched whisper, and the sound of dragonfly wings susurrated into my dream of amber-tinted fields of grain. Pierce was stretched out in them, a stalk of wheat between his teeth, gazing up at red clouds. “You can’t kill me, mistress witch,” he said, smiling before he vanished with my conscious thought and I fully awoke.

“Go away, Jenks,” I mumbled and pulled the blanket over my head.

“Rache, wake up.” There was the scrape of my drapes being opened and the harsh clatter of Jenks’s wings. “Marshal is here.”

“Why?” Lifting my head, I squinted through my hair at the sudden light.

The memory of steps in the hall resurfaced, and I rolled to see my clock. Ten after one. Not much of a sleep-in. The sun was bright through my stained-glass window, and it was cold. Rex was a warm puddle at my feet, and as I watched, she stretched, ending it with an inquiring trill to Jenks, now standing beside the stuffed giraffe on my dresser.

“Marshal is here,” he repeated, his angular face looking concerned. “He brought breakfast. You know, doughnuts?”

I propped myself up on an elbow and tried to figure out what was going on. “Oh yeah. Where’s Ivy?”

“Out pricing new refrigerators.” His wings blurred into motion, and he rose, his reflection in the mirror making twice the glow. “She spent the morning at Cormel’s, but she came back to shower before she went out. She told me to tell you that since you’re not in the ever-after today, she got an appointment to see Skimmer at six.”

Six? After sunset. Nice. I had wanted to have lunch with my mom and Robbie today, but I could postpone it a little. “I heard her come in.” I sat up and blearily looked at the clock again. I didn’t like that Ivy had been with Rynn Cormel, the pretty monster, but what could I say? And why does my mouth taste like apples? Leaning over, I pulled Rex across the mounds of covers to me for a cuddle hello. I liked her a lot more now that she would let me touch her.

“Are you going to get up?” Jenks added, his wings hitting a pitch akin to nails on a chalkboard. “Marshal is in the kitchen.”

Doughnuts. I could smell coffee, too. “I’m not even dressed,” I complained as I let go of Rex and swung my feet to the cold floor. “I’m a mess.” Thank God it’s daylight, or Al might come over and decide to take him, too.

The pixy crossed his arms over his chest, giving me a superior look as he stood beside my giraffe. “He’s seen you look worse. Like the time you rolled your snowmobile into those fir trees. Or when he took you ice fishing and you got minnow guts in your hair?”

“Shut up!” I exclaimed as I stood. Rex jumped to the floor and went to stand under the doorknob, waiting. “And stop trying to fix me up with him,” I said, fully awake and irritated. “I know you asked him to come over.”

He shrugged with one shoulder, looking embarrassed. “I want you to be happy. You aren’t. You and Marshal have a good time when you do stuff together, and Pierce is dangerous.”

“I’m not interested in Pierce,” I said, glaring at Jenks as I shoved my arms into the sleeves of my blue terry-cloth robe and tied it closed.

“Then why are you hell-bent for pixy dust on trying to rescue him?” he asked, but the severe attitude he was trying for was ruined by the smiling stuffed animal beside him. “If it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t have hurt yourself last night.”

“Last night was me trying to keep Al from abusing his right to check on me to abduct other people,” I said in a huff. “That it might get Pierce back is no small thing, but do you really think I’m only going to rescue people I want to jump in the sack with? Not that I’m looking to jump in the sack with Pierce,” I amended as Jenks raised a pointed finger. “I rescued Trent, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, you did.” Jenks dropped his hand. “I never understood that either.”

Rex stretched on her hind feet to pat the doorknob, and I went to my dresser for a set of undies. “Hold on, Rex,” I crooned. I knew how she felt. I had to go, too.

“Rache, even if you do help him, I don’t trust the guy. I mean, he’s a ghost!”

My eyebrows rose. This is why he’s suddenly gung ho on Marshal, I thought. Jenks thought he was the safer of the two. Irritated, I slammed the drawer shut, and he rose up in a burst of light. “Will you get off it!” I exclaimed. “I am not attracted to Pierce.” At least, not enough to do anything about it. “If I don’t make Al treat me with respect, everyone around me is in jeopardy. Okay? That’s why I’m doing this, not because I need a date.”

Jenks’s wings hummed. “I know you,” he said in a hard voice. “You can’t get to a happy ending from here. You’re self-sabotaging by chasing something you can’t have.”

Self-sabotaging? Is he not even listening to me? Black socks in hand, I looked up at him, finding we were eye to eye. “You watch too many daytime talk shows,” I said, then shut the drawer. Hard.

Jenks said nothing, but his words kept pricking me as I yanked a pair of jeans off a hanger. Mia had said I was running, afraid to believe someone could survive being with me, that I’d be alone out of fear. She said that even though I lived with Ivy and Jenks, I was still alone. Upset, I looked at my sweaters, stacked up in the organizer Ivy had gotten me, not really seeing them. “I don’t want to be alone,” I breathed, and Jenks was suddenly at my shoulder.

“You aren’t,” he said, his voice heavy with concern. “But you need someone besides me and Ivy. Give Marshal a chance.”

“This isn’t between Marshal and Pierce,” I said as I pulled out a black sweater. But my thoughts kept returning to Jenks yelling at Ivy to pick me up because he was too small to do it. Ivy couldn’t touch me or show me she loved me without that damned blood lust kicking in. I had good friends who would risk their lives for me, but I was still alone. I’d been alone since Kisten died, even when Marshal and I did stuff together. Always alone, always separate. I was tired of it. I liked being with someone, the closeness two people could share, and I shouldn’t feel I was weak for wanting it. I wouldn’t let what Mia said become the truth.

Tucking my clothes under my arm, I smiled thinly at Jenks. “I hear what you’re saying.”

Jenks rose up and followed me. “So you’ll give Marshal a chance?”

I knew his being too small to help me had torn him up. “Jenks,” I said, and his wings went still. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’m okay. I’ve been picking myself up off the floor for twenty-six years. I’m good at it. If Marshal and I were to change things, I’d want it to be for a real reason, not because we were both lonely.”

Jenks’s wings drooped. “I just want you to be happy, Rache.”

I glanced at Rex, twining about herself under the knob. “I am,” I said, then added, “Your cat needs to go out.”

“I’ll get her,” he muttered, and when I opened the door, both he and the cat darted out.

“Marshal?” I peeked around the door frame to find that Jenks and Rex had already reached the back living room and that the hall was empty. “I’ll be right there.”

From the kitchen came the sound of a sliding chair, followed by Marshal’s familiar, resonant voice saying, “Take your time, Rachel. I’ve got coffee, so I’m happy.” There was a hesitation, and as I waited to see if he was going to look into the hall, he added in a preoccupied voice, “What’s in the potions? It smells like carbonic wax.”

“Uh,” I stammered, not wanting to tell him they didn’t work. “Locator charms for the FIB. I have to invoke them and put them in disks,” I added so he’d leave them alone.

“Cool,” he said softly. The squeak of Jenks opening the pixy/kitty door was obvious, and confident that Marshal wasn’t going to peek into the hall, I made the dash to my bathroom, easing the door closed when I heard Jenks and Marshal start to talk.

“Oh, that’s nice,” I whispered when I saw my reflection. Black rings made an obvious showing under my eyes, and I was as pale as Jenks’s ass. I’d showered before bed to try and warm up, and sleeping with damp hair had left it looking like snakes had been in it. Thank God Marshal hadn’t come out of the kitchen. My complexion amulet would take care of the circles, and I got the water going and slowly undressed while I waited for it to warm.

Carefully, until I knew how dizzy it would make me, I sent my awareness to my ley line out back. Vertigo eased in, and I let go of the line immediately. I wasn’t going to be setting a circle any time today, but it was better than last night, and I hoped I wasn’t putting myself in danger by walking around not able to set one.

“Nothing different from the first twenty-six years of your life,” I whispered, but then again, I hadn’t had vampires, demons, and freaked-out elves gunning for me then either.

Because I was mindful of Marshal waiting, my usual twenty-minute indulgence became a hasty five-minute splash-and-dash. My thoughts kept cycling between Marshal in my kitchen and Pierce in the ever-after. Complaining to Dali wasn’t a good option. Neither was trying to jump the lines until I could hold one without pain. Al wasn’t playing fair, and it was up to me to make him. There had to be a way to get him to respect me other than resorting to Dali.

But my mind stayed blissfully empty all the way through the shampoo, rinse, and repeat.

It was finally the low rumble of Marshal’s voice as I was toweling my hair that reminded me I had a more immediate problem sitting in my kitchen drinking coffee. I swung my hair around and wiped the mirror clear, wondering what I was going to do about this. Jenks had probably filled his head with nonsense. I couldn’t be Marshal’s girlfriend. He was too good a guy, and though he was able to react in a crisis, Marshal probably never had people trying to kill him.

I dressed quickly, then yanked a brush through my damp hair and left it to dry. Jenks’s voice was clear as I opened the door and padded stocking-footed to the kitchen. I entered the sun-drenched kitchen to see that the fridge was duct-taped shut, but otherwise normal looking. Jenks was at the table with Marshal, and the tall man looked like he belonged, sitting with the pixy and one of Jenks’s kids fighting his noon nap.

Marshal met my eyes, and my smile faded. “Hi, Marshal,” I said, remembering how he had helped Jenks and me in Mackinaw when we really needed it. I’d always be grateful for that.

“Morning, Rachel,” the witch said as he stood. “New diet plan?”

I followed his eyes to the fridge, reluctant to tell him I’d blown it up. “Yup.” I hesitated, then, recalling him visiting me in the hospital, I gave him a quick hug, hardly touching him. Jenks rose with his kid and moved to the sink and the slice of sun. “Any news on my classes?”

Marshal’s broad shoulders lifted and fell. “I haven’t checked my e-mail today, but I’m going in later. I’m sure it’s just a glitch.”

I hoped he was right. I’d never heard of a university refusing money. “Thanks for breakfast,” I said as I looked at the open box of doughnuts on the counter. “That’s really nice.”

Marshal ran a hand over his short black hair. “Just checking on you. I’ve never known anyone to sneak out of the hospital before. Jenks said you had a run-in with Al last night?”

“You made coffee?” I said, not wanting to talk about Al. “Thanks. Smells good.” I headed for the carafe beside the sink.

Marshal clasped his hands in front of himself and then let go, as if realizing how vulnerable it made him look. “Ivy made the coffee.”

“Before she left,” Jenks offered, sitting on the spigot with a kid sleeping on his lap.

I leaned against the sink and sipped my coffee, eyeing the two men at opposite ends of the kitchen. I didn’t like my mom playing matchmaker. I liked it even less when Jenks tried it.

Marshal sat back down. He looked uncomfortable. “So, your aura looks better.”

A sigh slipped from me, and I relented. It had been nice of him to visit me in the hospital. “It’s getting there,” I said sourly. “That’s why I was asking Al for today off, actually. Apparently my aura is too thin to travel the lines safely. I can’t even make a circle. Dizzy.” And it puts me in so much pain I can’t breathe, but why bring that up?

“I’m sorry.” Marshal took a doughnut and held the box out to me. “It will be okay.”

“So they tell me.” Coming forward, I leaned over the center counter to take a glazed. “I’m thinking next week it will be back to normal.”

Marshal glanced at Jenks before he said softly, “I meant about Pierce. Jenks told me you saw him in the line, and then Al took him. God, Rachel. I’m sorry. You must be really upset.”

I felt the blood drain from my head. Jenks had the decency to look discomfitted, and I set the doughnut on a napkin. “That’s an understatement. I didn’t know I had that particular hole to plug. Just one more thing for Ms. Rachel to fix.” Along with finding Kisten’s murderer. I am a freaking albatross.

The witch rubbed a hand over his short hair, only two months long. “I understand. When someone you care about is in danger, you’ll move the world for them.”

My blood pressure spiked, and frowning at Jenks, I put a hand on my hip. “Jenks, your cat is at the door.”

The pixy opened his mouth, looked at my grimace, then took the hint. He exchanged some male look with Marshal that I couldn’t interpret, and with the sleeping child on his hip, he flew out. He looked kinda nice with a sleeping child, and I wondered how Matalina was doing. Jenks had been very closed-lipped about her lately.

I waited until even the humming of his wings was gone, then sat across from Marshal. “I only knew Pierce one day,” I said, feeling like I owed him an explanation. “I was eighteen. Jenks thinks I’m looking for men I can’t have a real relationship with so I don’t have to feel guilty about not having one in my life, but really, there’s nothing between Pierce and me. He’s just a nice guy who needs some help.” Because he has the misfortune to know me.

“I’m not trying to be your boyfriend,” Marshal said to the floor. “I’m just trying to be your friend.”

That hit every single guilt button I had, and I closed my eyes to try to figure out what I could say to that. Marshal as a friend? Nice thought, but I’d never managed to have a male friend I didn’t end up in the sack with. Hell, I’d had thoughts about Ivy, for that matter. Marshal was the longest I’d ever seriously known a guy without letting it spill into the physical. But we weren’t really dating. Were we?

Confused, I exhaled slowly. Wondering how I was going to handle this, I looked at his hand. It was a nice hand, strong and tanned. “Marshal,” I started.

The phone rang in the living room, and the extension in the kitchen blinked, on mute from last night. Jenks shouted he’d get it, and I dropped back in my chair.

“Marshal,” I repeated when Rex padded in since her master wasn’t eavesdropping on us in the hall anymore. “I love what you’re trying to do, and it’s not that I don’t find you attractive,” I said, flushing and starting to babble. “But I study with demons, I’ve got their smut all over me, and my aura is so thin I can’t tap a line and do anything! You deserve better than my crap. You really do. I’m not worth it. Nothing is.”

My gaze jerked up when Marshal leaned over and took my hand.

“I never said you weren’t hard to be with,” he said softly, his brown eyes gazing earnestly at me. “I knew that the moment you walked into my shop with a six-foot pixy and bought a dive with a Vampiric Charms credit card. But you’re worth it. You’re a good person. And I like you. I want to help you when I can, and I’m getting better at staying out of the way and not feeling guilty when I can’t.”

His hand on mine was warm, and I gazed at it. “I needed to hear that,” I whispered so my voice wouldn’t break. “Thank you. But I’m not worth dying for, and it’s a distinct probability.”

The clatter of pixy wings intruded, and when Jenks flew in, Marshal drew back. Warming, I hid my hands under the table.

“Ah, Rache,” Jenks said, glancing between us. “It’s Edden.”

I hesitated, my first impulse to have him call me back. Maybe he had something on Mia.

“It’s about a banshee,” Jenks continued. “He says if you don’t pick up the phone, he’s going to send a car.”

I stood, and Marshal smiled and took a doughnut. “Is it about Mia?” I asked as I reached for the extension. My eyes flicked to the useless locator potions lined up on the counter, and I blinked. They were gone.

“Where’s my-” I started, and Marshal waved a hand for my attention.

“Hanging in your cupboard. I invoked them for you.” His eyes widened at my suddenly worried expression. “Sorry. I should’ve asked, but you said they were done. I thought I could help, you know…”

“No, it’s okay,” I said, distantly hearing Edden on the line talking to me. “Um, thanks,” I said, flushing. Great, now he knew I had messed up on them. He made his own charms and would know by the lack of redwood scent that they were duds.

Embarrassed, I turned to the phone. “Edden?” I said, mortified. “Did you find her?”

“No, but I want your help this afternoon with one of these banshee women,” Edden said without preamble, his gravelly voice a mix of preoccupied gratefulness, sounding odd with the original line still open in the living room. “This one’s name is Ms. Walker. She’s the iciest woman I’ve talked to since my mother-in-law, and that was just from our phone conversation.”

I glanced at Marshal, then turned my back on him. Jenks was sitting on his shoulder, his kid probably in the desk where he belonged.

“She called the department this morning,” Edden was saying, drawing my attention back. “And she’s flying in this afternoon from San Diego to help me find Ms. Harbor. Can you be here when I talk to her? Banshees police themselves, same as vampires, and she wants to help-seeing as the I.S. won’t do anything.”

The last was said rather sourly, and I nodded though he couldn’t see it. This was making sense, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet this woman if a freaking baby of her species had almost killed me. “Uh,” I hedged, uneasy, “I’d really like to help and all, but my aura is still thin. I don’t think talking to another banshee is a good idea.” Besides, I’ve got to come up with a way to make Al behave today.

Jenks buzzed his wings in approval, but Edden wasn’t happy.

“She wants to meet you,” he said. “Asked for you. Rachel, she made you being there a stipulation for talking to me. I need you.”

I sighed, wondering if Edden was above stretching the truth to reach an ending he wanted. Putting a hand to my head, I thought for a moment. “Jenks?” I asked, not sure about this, “can you tell if she starts sucking on me?”

The pixy’s wings brightened. “You bet, Rache,” he said, clearly glad he could help.

I bit my bottom lip and listened to the echo of the open line as I weighed the risks. I’d like to see Mia get her own for letting her kid try to kill me, and Ms. Walker could help. “Okay,” I said slowly, and Edden made a pleased rumble. “Where and when?”

“Her plane comes in at three, but she’s on West Coast time, so how about a late lunch,” Edden said confidently. “On the FIB.”

“You mean my lunch, or your lunch?” I asked, rolling my eyes.

“Uh, say four at Carew Tower?”

Carew Tower? This has to be some woman.

“I’ll send someone to pick you up,” Edden was saying. “Oh, and good job on the AMA. How did you get one so fast?”

I glanced at Jenks, sitting on Marshal’s shoulder. “Rynn Cormel,” I said, hoping Marshal was starting to understand how risky it was to be around me.

“Damn!” Edden exclaimed. “You do have pull. See you this afternoon.”

“Hey, how’s Glenn?” I asked, but the phone had clicked off. Four at Carew Tower, I thought, mentally going through my closet for something to wear as I hung up the phone. I can do that. How am I going to do that? I was exhausted, and I’d just gotten up.

My gaze darted to the island counter where I’d once kept my spell books. Ivy had moved them all back into the belfry when I’d been in the hospital, and the thought of bringing them all down again made me sigh. Al had said there wasn’t a spell to supplement a person’s aura, but maybe there was something to protect a person from a banshee.

I stood to go check, and from the living room came the beeping of the open line. Jenks buzzed out to take care of it, and I froze, remembering I had company. “Uh, I’m sorry,” I said, staring at Marshal’s amused expression as he sat comfortably in his chair and ate a doughnut. “I have to go up to the attic and get some books. To look for a, uh, spell.”

“Want some help bringing them down?” he asked, already stretching into a stand.

“It’s just a couple of books,” I hedged, thinking about the demon texts in with the others.

“Not a problem.” He headed to the sanctuary, pace casual and confident, and I scrambled to follow. Crap, how am I going to explain why I have demon texts?

The sanctuary was silent, warm from the space heater cranked up for the pixies. Jenks had hung up the phone, and he was sitting with his two eldest kids in the rafters on sentry duty. “I can do this by myself,” I said when I caught up with Marshal, and he gave me a sideways look.

“It’s just a couple of books,” he said, then took a bite of the doughnut he had brought with him. “I’ll bring them down, and then if you want me to leave, I will,” he added around his full mouth. “I know you’ve got work to do. I just wanted to check on you was all.”

His tone had held a measure of hurt in it, and I felt bad as I followed him through the cold foyer and into the unheated circular stairway that led into the belfry. I had spelled up there once before, when I’d been hiding from demons last Halloween. Marshal had just come into town and was looking for an apartment. Cripes, had it been two months that we’d been doing stuff? It seemed longer.

“Marshal,” I said as we found the top and I clenched my arms around me in the chill of the unheated belfry. Dang, it was cold up here, and my breath steamed. I searched the open rafters above the huge bell that made a false roof over the space, but Bis was elsewhere. He’d probably put himself on the eaves last night, where the sun would hit him all day. The adolescent gargoyle didn’t come in apart from inclement weather, and when he got older, he probably wouldn’t come in even then.

“Hey, this is nice!” Marshal said, and I dropped back, pleased as he looked the hexagonal room over. The rough floor was the color of dust, and the walls had never been finished, still showing the two-by-fours and the back of the siding. It was the same temperature as the outside, about fifty something, refreshing after the steamy warmth downstairs.

The slatted windows let in slices of light and sound, making it a nice hidey-hole where one could sit and watch the day happen. I wasn’t surprised when Marshal bent one of the slats to look out. Next to him was the folding chair I’d left up here for when I had to get away. The middle of the ten-by-ten space held an antique dresser with a green marble top and an age-spotted mirror. My library was on the mahogany shelf propped up in one of the spaces between the windows. Beside it, next to the door, was a faded fainting couch. Other than that, the space was empty of everything except the almost subliminal hum of the bell resonating faintly.

Tired, I sat on the couch and pulled one of the books onto my lap, content to sit while Marshal satisfied his curiosity. My thoughts sifted back downstairs to the useless charms in my cupboard. “Um, Marshal, about those locator charms,” I said softly.

Marshal turned, smiling. “My lips are sealed,” he said, crossing the room. “I know the stuff you do for the FIB is confidential. Don’t worry about it.”

Okay, that’s weird, I thought when Marshal sat beside me, taking the book out of my hand and opening it. How could he not know the charms were bad?

“What are we looking for?” he asked cheerfully, then looked at his hand when it probably started to tingle. Demon books were like that.

“A spell to protect my aura,” I offered. “Um, that’s a demon text you’ve got there.”

Marshal blinked, stiffening as he realized what he’d opened. “That’s why you keep them up here,” he said, looking at it, and I nodded.

Much to my surprise, he didn’t give the book back, but turned the page, curiosity getting the better of him. “You don’t need a charm to help your aura,” he said. “What you need to do is get a massage.”

My shoulders eased, and glad he wasn’t running screaming into the afternoon, I murmured, “A massage?”

“Full body, head to toe,” he said, starting when he turned the page and found a curse to destroy an army with a single note of music. “You really think this works?”

“If you do it right, sure.” Reaching, I picked up a university textbook and turned to the index. My fingers were cold, and I blew on them. “A massage will make it all better, huh?”

Marshal chuckled and turned a yellowed page. “If you do it right, sure,” he said, mimicking me, and I looked up to find him smiling. “Scout’s honor. Massage triggers the digestive and sleep rhythms. That’s when your aura replenishes itself. You get a massage, and your aura will be better.”

I eyed him, trying to figure out if he was joking or not. “Really?”

“Yup.” His confident assurance faltered when he saw the next curse to blow up a wind strong enough to topple buildings. He looked at me, then the curse. “Uh, Rachel?” he stammered.

“What?” I said as my warning flags started going up. I wasn’t a black witch, damn it.

“This is some creepy-ass shit,” he said, brow furrowed, and I laughed, sliding the demon book back onto my lap and the university text onto the floor.

“That’s why I don’t do it,” I said, grateful that he didn’t think I was bad just because I had a book that told me how to twist a curse to cause the black plague.

He made a small sound and scooted down to read over my shoulder. “So, running the risk of opening a wound, what did Robbie think about you being in the hospital?”

I turned a page and blanched. HOW TO CREATE WOLF PREGNANCY IN HUMANS. Damn, I didn’t know I had that one in my library. “Uh,” I stammered, quickly turning the page. “Robbie said it was par for the course and told me to stop doing dangerous things because it might upset Mom. He’s the one upset, though. Not her.”

“That’s about what I thought he’d say.” Marshal leaned into my space and turned the page for me. I breathed deep, enjoying both the extra body heat in the cold belfry and the rich scent of redwood. He’d been spelling recently, and I wondered if he had a modified warmth amulet keeping him from shivering.

“I like your brother,” he said, unaware that I was breathing him in. “It irks me, though, seeing him treat you like you’re the same kid you were when he left. My older brother does that to me. Makes me want to pound him.”

“Mmmm.” I let the weight of our bodies slide us together a little bit more, thinking it suspicious that he was saying all the right things. “Robbie moved out when I was thirteen. He hasn’t had the chance to see me as a grown-up.” Our arms touched as I turned the page, but he didn’t seem to notice. “And then I go and put myself in the hospital the week he comes for a visit. Really good, huh?”

Marshal laughed, then peered more closely at the text describing how to make bubbles last till sunrise, and I felt better as he saw that not all curses were bad. I suppose you could make them appear in someone’s lungs and suffocate them, but you could also entertain children.

“Thanks for coming with me to my mom’s,” I said softly, watching him, not the curses he was flipping through. “I don’t think I could have taken sitting there all night and listening to Cindy this, Cindy that, followed by the inevitable, ‘And when are you going to get a steady boyfriend, Rachel?’”

“Moms are like that,” he said in a preoccupied tone. “She just wants you to be happy.”

“I am happy,” I said sourly, and Marshal chuckled, probably trying to memorize the curse to turn water into wine. Good for parties, but he wouldn’t be able to invoke it, lacking the right enzymes in his blood. I could, though.

Sighing, I pushed the book entirely onto his lap and dragged a new one onto mine. It was cold up here, but I didn’t want to go downstairs and risk waking up four dozen pixies. Am I jealous that Robbie seems to have everything? Has it so easy?

“You know,” Marshal said, not looking up from the book he was searching for me, “we don’t have to keep things the way they are…with us, I mean.”

I stiffened. Marshal must have felt it, seeing as our shoulders were touching. I didn’t say anything, and emboldened by my lack of a negative response, he added, “I mean, last October, I wasn’t ready for anyone new in my life, but now-”

My breath caught, and Marshal cut his thought short. “Okay,” he said, sliding to put space between us. “Sorry. Forget I said anything. I’m lousy at body language. My bad.”

My bad? When did anyone ever say my bad anymore? But letting this go without saying anything was easier said than done, especially when I’d been thinking the same thing off and on in stupid-Rachel moments for weeks. So licking my lips, I said carefully to the book on my lap, “I’ve had fun with you, these last couple of months.”

“It’s okay, Rachel,” he interrupted, edging farther down the long fainting couch. “Forget I said anything. Hey, I’ll just go, okay?”

My pulse quickened. “I’m not asking you to leave. I’m saying I’ve had fun with you. I was hurting then. I still am, but I’ve laughed a lot, and I like you.” He looked up, slightly red-faced and with his brown eyes holding a new vulnerability. My mind went back to me sitting on the kitchen floor with no one to pick me up. I took a deep breath, scared. “I’ve been thinking, too.”

Marshal exhaled, as if a knot had untwisted in him. “When you were in the hospital,” he said quickly, “God help me, but I suddenly saw what we’d been doing the last couple of months, and something hurt me.”

“It didn’t feel that good to be there,” I quipped.

“And then Jenks told me you collapsed in your kitchen,” he added with a worried sincerity. “I know you can take care of yourself and that you’ve got Ivy and Jenks-”

“The line ripped through my aura,” I explained. “It hurt.” My mind jerked back to my jealousy when I sat all night beside Marshal and listened to Robbie go on about Cindy, almost glowing. Why couldn’t I have some stability like that?

Marshal shifted to take my hand, the space between us looking larger for it. “I like you, Rachel. I mean, I really like you,” he said, almost scaring me. “Not because you’ve got sexy legs and know how to laugh, or because you get excited in chase scenes, and take the time to help get a puppy out of a tree.”

“That was really weird, wasn’t it?”

His fingers tightened on mine, drawing my gaze down. “Jenks said you thought you were alone and you might do something stupid trying to rescue that ghost.”

At that, I gave up on all pretense of levity. “I’m not alone.” Maybe Mia was right, but I didn’t want her to be. Even if I was, I could still stand alone. I’d done it all my life and I could do it well. But I didn’t want to. I shivered, from the cold or the conversation, and Marshal frowned.

“I don’t want to ruin what we have,” Marshal said, his voice soft in the absolute stillness of a winter’s afternoon. He slowly slid closer, and I set the book on my lap on the floor to lean up against his side, testing the feeling though I was stiff and uncertain, trying it on. It felt like it fit, which worried me. “Maybe friends is enough,” he added, as if really considering it. “I’ve never had as good a relationship with a woman as I’ve got with you, and I’m just smart enough, and old enough, and tired enough to let it ride as it is.”

“Me, too,” I said, almost disappointed. I shouldn’t be resting against him, leading him on. I was a danger to everyone I liked, but the Weres had backed off, and the vamps. I’d get Al to see reason. I didn’t want Jenks to be right about me chasing the unattainable as an excuse to be alone. I had a great relationship with Marshal right now. Just because it wasn’t physical didn’t make it any less real. Or did it? I wanted to care about someone. I wanted to love someone, and I didn’t want to be afraid to. I didn’t want to let Mia win.

“Marshal, I still don’t know if I’m ready for a boyfriend.” Reaching out, I touched the short hair behind his ear, heart pounding. I’d spent so much effort trying to convince myself that he was off limits, that just that small motion seemed erotic. He didn’t move, and my hand drifted down until my fingers brushed his collar, a whisper from touching his skin. A small spot of feeling grew, and I drew my gaze back to his. “But I’d like to see if I am. If you do…”

His hand came up to pin mine against his shoulder, not binding but promising more. His free hand dropped lower, suggestively crossing the invisible boundary of my defenses and retreating to give me his answer. That we’d spent the last two months keeping our distance made that simple move surprisingly intense.

Marshal reached to tilt my head up to his, and I let my head move easily in his grip, turning to face him. His fingers were warm on my jawline as he searched my gaze, weighing my words against his own worries. I shivered in the chill. “You sure?” he said. “I mean, we can’t go back.”

He had already seen the crap of my life, and he hadn’t left. Did it matter if this didn’t last forever if it gave me peace right now? “No, I’m not sure,” I whispered, “but if we wait until we are, neither of us will find anyone.”

That seemed to give him a measure of assurance, and I closed my eyes as he gently turned my face to his and tentatively kissed me, tasting of sugar and doughnuts. Feeling raced through me, heat from wanting something I said I never would pursue. His hand pulled me closer, and the slip of a tongue sent a dart of desire to my middle. Oh God, it felt good, and my mind raced as fast as my heart.

I didn’t want this to be a mistake. I’d been with him for two months and proved neither of us was here for the physical stuff. So why not see if it worked?

Tension plinked through me, sharpening my thoughts and arraying an almost-forgotten possibility before me. Despite-or maybe because of-our platonic relationship, I wasn’t ready to sleep with him. That would be just too weird, and Jenks would tell me I was overcompensating for something. But he was a ley line witch-I wasn’t a slouch either-and though the age-old technique of drawing energy from one witch to another probably had its origins in our ancestral past to assure that strong witches procreated with strong witches to promote species strength, nowadays all that remained was insanely good foreplay. There was only one problem.

“Wait,” I said, breathless as our kiss broke and reason filtered back into me.

Marshal’s fingers slowed and dropped. “You’re right. I should go. Dumb idea. I’ll, uh, call you if you want. In about a year, maybe.”

He sounded embarrassed, and I put a hand on his arm. “Marshal.” Looking up, I shifted closer until our thighs touched. “Don’t go.” I swallowed hard. “I, uh, I haven’t been with a witch in ages,” I said in a small voice, unable to look up. “One who could pull on a line, I mean. I’d kind of like to…you know. But I don’t know if I remember how.”

His eyes widened as he understood, and his chagrin at my supposed rebuff was pushed out by something deeper, older: the question our DNA had written that begged to be answered. Who was the more proficient witch, and how much fun could we have finding that out?

“Rachel!” he said, his soft laugh turning me warm. “You don’t forget stuff like that.”

My mortification grew, but his gaze was one of understanding, and it gave me strength. “I didn’t practice ley lines much then. Now…” I shrugged, embarrassed. “I don’t know my limits. And with my aura being damaged…” I let my words trail off to nothing.

Marshal put his forehead against mine, his hands on my shoulders. “I’ll be careful,” he whispered. “Would you rather pull than push?” he said softly, hesitantly.

I flushed hot, but I nodded, still not looking at him. Pulling was more intimate, more soul stealing, more tender, more dangerous in terms of confusing it with love, but it was safer when the two people didn’t know each other’s ley line limits.

He leaned in slowly for an inquisitive kiss. My eyes closed as his lips met mine, and I exhaled into it, my grip on his shoulders tightening. I shifted to face him. Marshal responded, his hand going to the back of my head, possessive yet hesitant. His redwood scent sparked in me a rise of emotion, pure and untainted by the fear that had always lurked with Kisten. The kiss lacked the adrenaline push of fear, but it struck just as deep, hitting emotion born in our beginnings. There was danger in this not-so-innocent kiss. There was the potential for ecstasy or an equal amount of pain, and the dance would be very careful, as trust was only a promise between us.

My pulse leapt at the chance to see this through. A power pull didn’t have to include sex, but it was probably the reason female witches always came back after playing with invariably more well-endowed human males. Even if humans could work the lines, they couldn’t do a power pull. My only worry besides embarrassment was my compromised aura…It might hurt instead. It was basically the same thing Al used for punishment, forcing a line into me to cause pain, but it was like comparing a loving kiss to rape.

A trill of anticipation lit through me and was gone. Oh God. I hope I remember how to do this, ’cause I really want to.

I drew him to me even as I broke our kiss. My breath came fast, and eyes still shut, I leaned my head against his shoulder, lips open as I breathed in his scent. One of his hands held my waist, the other was lost in my hair. I tensed at the feel of his fingers. He knew I wasn’t going to hit him with a blast of ley line force to repel him and his advances, but several millennia of instinct were hard to best with only a lifetime of experience, and we’d go slow.

I shifted, straddling his legs, pinning him to the back of the couch. A spike of anticipation dove deep. It was followed by worry. What if I couldn’t loosen up enough to do this? My breath was fast, and with my hands laced behind his head, I opened my eyes to find his. Their deep brown was heady with a desire to match my own. I shifted, feeling him under me. “You ever done this with a friend before?” I asked.

“Nope, but there’s a first time for everything,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice as well as see it. “You need to be quiet.”

“I…,” I managed to get out before his hands edged under my shirt and he kissed me again. My pulse hammered, and as the rough-smoothness of his hands explored my midriff and rose higher, his mouth on mine grew intense. I met his aggression with my own, sending my hands to his waist, dipping a finger beneath his jeans to prove I might do more someday.

I pressed into his warmth, deciding not to think anymore, but just to be. My chi was utterly empty, so with the soft hesitancy of a virginal kiss, I reached out my awareness and found the simmering energy his chi held. Marshal felt it. His hands on me tightened and relaxed, telling me to draw it from him, to set his entire body alight with the rush of adrenaline and the ecstasy of endorphins when I forcibly took it.

I exhaled, willing it to come.

The warmth of his hands on me flashed into tingles. In a sudden rush that shocked us, the balances equalized. Adrenaline spiked out of control. Marshal groaned, and, frightened, I tightened my awareness. Barriers clamped down, and I warmed in embarrassment. But the energy had come in smooth and pure, lacking the sickening nausea that a ley line left me in. Coming from a person, it had lost its jagged edges.

“Marshal,” I gushed, totally miserable. “I’m sorry. I’m not good at this.”

Marshal shuddered, opening one eye to focus on me. He had gone utterly pliant under me, frighteningly so. “Who says?” he whispered, sitting up to pull me farther onto his lap.

I was ready to throw myself out the window. I could feel the energy from him in my chi, scintillating and tasting of masculinity in my thoughts. It wanted to go back to him, but I was afraid. I’d closed myself to him, and it was going to be harder, now.

“Rachel,” Marshal soothed, his hand running up and down my arm. “Relax. You’ve been carrying around chunks of ever-after with the intent of hurting people if they attack you, and because of that, you’ve built one hell of a wall.”

“Yeah, but-”

“Just shut up,” he said, giving me little kisses that distracted and sent tingles of desire building in me. “It’s okay.”

“Marshal-” This is so weird, kissing him, and I walled the thought off.

“Use your lips for something other than talking, will you? If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. No big deal.”

“Mmmmph,” I mumbled, surprised when he wrapped his arms around me and hiked me farther onto him, silencing my protests with his mouth. Giving up, I kissed him, feeling myself relax and tense up all at the same time.

My breath came faster as Marshal’s hands started exploring, running across my jeans to drag me up where I could feel him pressing into me. I took his mouth with my own, finding a kiss, slowly tasting him as his redwood scent filled me. His tongue slipped into my mouth, and I pushed back. It was my undoing.

I gasped, hands flying to his shoulders to shove away when he pulled on my chi. With an exquisite ping of adrenaline, I fought him, even as he gripped me harder, forcing me to stay. The shock was heady, and with a sound of desperation, I broke our kiss. Panting, I stared at him, breathless in the chill winter afternoon. Damn, that had felt good.

“Sorry, sorry,” I panted, sexual excitement pounding in me.

“For what?” Marshal asked, heat in his gaze.

“I pulled away,” I said, and he smiled.

“Take it back,” he whispered, teasing me. His fingers touched everything, running smoothly over me to make me shiver in the dusky light coming through the slats. Here, there, never long anywhere, to drive me almost mad. Oh God, I’ll make him beg for it.

Shivering from anticipation and desire, I leaned in. Marshal’s scent was everywhere. I breathed him in, shutting off my thoughts. His hands were on my waist, and as I grew comfortable with our new closeness, I exhaled in a soft sound of pleasure as he found my breasts, nuzzling one of them through my shirt, then the other, bringing me stiff with anticipation until I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to wait, to make him ask for it with his body if not his words, but instead I exhaled, pulling from him every last erg of power in his chi.

Marshal groaned as the exquisite fulfillment of it rolled into me, mixed with the wicked feeling of domination and possession. He opened his eyes; the hot need showing in them set my heart pounding. I had taken from him, and now he was going to take from me.

He didn’t wait. One hand behind my neck, he drew me down to kiss him. I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t help my whispered cry as he touched my chi with his awareness and pulled everything from me, running it through my body and into his to leave glittering trails of loss and heat to spiral through me like smoke from an extinguished candle.

I didn’t fight him. I was able to share this, and with our kiss holding, I steadied myself to wrestle it back. My knees pressed into his thighs, demanding it, taking it, making it mine.

Power pulled fast through him with the crack of a whip, and he gasped, his arms jumping up to imprison me. I breathed him in, feeling him inside me everywhere. I could taste him in my mind, in my soul. It was glorious. I could hardly stand it.

“Take it,” I whispered, wanting to feel him do the same, but he grunted no. My moan turned into a pant of want, and spurred on, he gripped me more intensely until he touched my chi again, taking all of it in a wash of scintillation to leave only a trail of sparkles in my mind and an aching emptiness.

It was my turn to steal it back, but he took control of everything. In a mind-numbing pulse of force, he pushed the energy into me. I sucked in my air in shocked surprise, clutching him. “Oh God, don’t stop,” I gasped. It was as if I could feel him inside me, outside me, all around me. And then he drew it back again, leaving me almost weeping for it. “Marshal,” I panted. “Marshal, please.”

“Not yet,” he groaned.

I gripped his shoulders, wanting everything. Wanting it all. Wanting it now.

“Now,” I demanded, out of my mind with the self-enforced deprivation. He had my line energy, he had my fulfillment. His mouth found mine, and I begged. Not with my words, but with my body. I writhed for it, I pressed into him for it, I did everything but take it, finding the exquisite ache of unfulfilled need chiming through me, driving me to a fevered pitch.

And then he groaned, unable to deny it anymore. I moaned in release as the energy from his chi filled mine as we both climaxed. A rush of endorphins cascaded through us, bringing me to a back-arched, gasping halt. Marshal’s grip on me shook, and I trembled as wave after wave smothered me, pulling me into a hyperalert state where nothing was real.

I heard a panting moan, then realized, embarrassed, that it was me. Slumping into him, I felt my senses return. Marshal was breathing hard, his chest rising and falling under me as his hand lay on my back, still at last. I exhaled, feeling the flow of energy between us sift back and forth without hindrance, leaving little tingles that faded to nothing as the forces balanced perfectly.

I lay against him with my head on his shoulder, listening to his heartbeat and deciding there were probably not too many more enjoyable ways to mess up your life than this. And fully clothed, too. Feeling the icy cold of the afternoon against me, I stirred. “You okay?” I asked, smiling as I felt him nod.

“How about you?” he asked, his voice more of a rumble than a real sound.

I listened for a moment, hearing nothing. No pixy wings, no roommate stomping around downstairs. “Never better,” I said, feeling more at peace than I had in a long time. Marshal’s chest began to bounce, and I pushed myself up when I realized he was laughing. “What?” I said, feeling like I was the butt of the joke.

“Marshal, I don’t know if I remember how,” he said in a falsetto. “It’s been so long.”

Relieved, I sat up and mock-punched his shoulder. “Shut up,” I said, not minding that he was laughing at me. “I didn’t.”

Marshal eased me off his lap, and I snuggled up to him, both of us slouched with our heads on the back of the couch and our feet intertwined on the floor.

“You sure your aura is okay?” Marshal asked, almost too soft to hear. He turned to look in my eyes, and I smiled.

“Yeah. That was…Yeah.” Marshal’s arms wrapped around me as I made a move to get up, and giggling, I fell back into him.

“Good,” he whispered in my ear, holding me all the closer.

I wasn’t going to worry about what happened next. It truly wasn’t worth it.

Nineteen

The sun was arching toward the horizon, painting the buildings at Cincinnati’s waterfront in red and gold as I headed for Carew Tower for a quick bite and that interview with Edden. If it had been a normal Sunday, I’d be just about ready to head home from the ever-after and Al’s and my weekly push-and-shove contest, and though I was glad to have gotten out of it, I was worried about Pierce. Pierce, Al, Ivy, Skimmer, Kisten’s killer, and Mia. They all swirled in the back of my head, problems demanding to be solved. Most days, the overload would have had me tense and snappish, but right now? Smiling, I gazed at the sun reflecting on the buildings and fiddled with the radio as I followed the guy ahead of me over the bridge. All in due course, I thought, wondering if my calm was from Marshal, or Marshal’s massage therapist.

Edden’s meeting was in about half an hour, then the I.S. lockup was at six, followed by an early dinner with Robbie and my mom at ten-I’d heard Robbie complaining in the background when I’d called to say I’d have to miss lunch, and he could just suck dishwater. Eventually Mia would surface, and then I’d nail her ass, but until then, I could enjoy a snack at Carew Tower. The massage I’d indulged in earlier had been fantastic, and I felt twinges of guilt all afternoon that I’d been enjoying myself under the excuse that it might help my aura. The feeling of relaxation was still with me, making it easy to tell Marshal that he’d been right, yada, yada, yada…He was going to call later. It felt good, and I wasn’t going to think any more about it than that.

I was feeling dressy in the silk-lined pants and shiny top I had put on for Ms. Walker. I hadn’t gotten a chance before to wear the long felt coat my mom had given me last winter, and I felt elegant, driving over the bridge into Cincinnati, aiming for Carew Tower and a business meeting at the top of the city. Jenks, too, had dressed up, wearing a black top and pants that flowed, hiding the insulating layers of fabric under it. Matalina was improving at making winter wear he could fly in, and the pixy was perched comfortably on the rearview mirror, fussing with the black fisherman cap she’d concocted out of a scrap of felt from the inside lining of my coat. His blond hair was peeking out rather charmingly, and I wondered why he didn’t wear a hat all the time.

“Rache,” he said, looking suddenly nervous.

“What?” I fiddled again with the radio as we came off the bridge, cutting in front of a semi to get onto the exit ramp at a fast forty-five miles an hour. There was a guy on my tail in a black Firebird, and he followed, riding my bumper. Really safe in the snow, bud-dy.

“Rache,” he repeated, wings fanning.

“I see him.” We were both headed for the exit ramp, and giving me the one-fingered salute, the guy accelerated, trying to get ahead of me before the lane disappeared.

“Rachel, just let him in.”

But he ticked me off, so I maintained my speed. The semi behind us blew his horn as the off-ramp approached. The guy wasn’t going to make it, and the weenie shoved me into the curb.

Gravel and rock salt hit the undercarriage of my car. The wall slid close, and I caught my breath, hands clenching as the lane narrowed to one. I thunked the brakes, jerking the wheel at the last moment to slip in behind him. The guy roared ahead and ran the yellow light at the end of the exit ramp. Face flaming, I waved to the irate semi driver behind me who had seen the whole thing from a sort-of-safe distance. Jenks was shedding a sickly yellow dust as he stood on the rearview mirror and held the stem as if it were his life. I slowed to a halt at the red light and glared at the Firebird, a block ahead of me, stopped at the next light. Ass.

“You okay, Rache?” Jenks asked, and I turned down the heater.

“Fine. Why?”

“’Cause you don’t usually careen into other cars unless you’re going more than sixty,” he said, dropping to land on my arm and walk up it to sniff me. “You on some human medicine? Did that massage therapist slip you an aspirin or something?”

Not as upset as I thought I’d be, I glanced at him and then back to the street. “No.” Marshal was right. I should get a massage more often. It was really relaxing.

Jenks made a face and sat down in the crook of my elbow, wings fanning to keep his balance. The massage had been wonderful, and I hadn’t realized how tense I’d been until the stress was gone. God, I felt good.

“Green light, Rache.”

I pushed the accelerator, noticing that the Firebird was still at the red light. A smile curved over my face. I checked my speed, the sign, and the street. I was legal.

“It’s red,” Jenks said as I barreled down the street to the next light.

“I see it.” Glancing behind me, I shifted lanes so Mr. Ass was parked in the lane next to me. No one was in front of me, and I maintained my speed.

“It’s red!” Jenks exclaimed as I didn’t slow down.

My fingers gripped the wheel casually, and I watched the crossing light start to blink. “It’ll be green when I get there.”

“Rachel!” Jenks shouted, and as smooth as white icing, I blew past Mr. Firebird two seconds after the light changed, going a nice forty miles per hour. I made the next light while he raced his engine and tried to catch up. Making a sedate left on an early yellow, I turned to go downtown. Mr. Firebird had to stop, and I couldn’t help my feeling of satisfaction. Dumb ass.

“Holy crap, Rachel,” Jenks muttered. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing,” I said as I turned up the radio. I felt really good. Everything was A-OK.

“Maybe Ivy could pick us up at the restaurant,” Jenks muttered, and I took my eyes from the road, mystified.

“Why?”

Jenks looked at me like I was crazy. “Never mind.”

I zipped around a bus, changing lanes halfway down the block. “Hey, how does my aura look?” I asked, slowing as I tapped the nearby university line. It flowed in with an uncomfortable pinch, but at least I wasn’t dizzy from the ebb and flow of energy. There was a car ahead of me, and I checked both ways before I shifted lanes and took a yellow light. Plenty of time.

“Stop playing with the line and drive!” Jenks exclaimed. “Your aura’s a lot more even than before, and thicker, but only because it’s been compacted down to a bare inch off your skin.”

“Huh. It’s good, though?”

He nodded, his tiny features looking irate. “Good enough if no one takes any more. You just missed the turn for the parking garage.”

“Did I?” I mused, seeing a black Firebird roaring up a block behind me. “Look, there’s a space right out front,” I said, eyeing an open spot on the other side of the street.

“Yeah, but by the time you circle around, it will be gone.”

I looked behind me, then smiled. “If I circle around,” I said, then cut a sharp U-bangy. The road was slick, and the car spun just as I thought it would, turning to face the opposite direction as it drifted into the spot with a soft jiggle when the wheels met the curb. Perfect.

“Good God, Rachel!” Jenks shouted. “What the hell is wrong with you? I can’t believe you did that! Who do you think you are? Lucas Black?”

Grabbing my bag, I turned off the engine and adjusted my scarf. I didn’t know where the confidence for that had come from, but it had felt damn good. “Coming?” I said sweetly.

He stared at me, then pried his fingers off the rearview mirror. “Sure.”

Jenks’s wings were cold as he snuggled in between my neck and scarf, and after a last look, I got out. Chill air smelling of wet pavement and exhaust hit the bottom of my lungs as I took a deep breath, scenting the coming night and calling it good. It was freezing out here, and feeling confident in my best coat and boots, I waved at Mr. Firebird before I headed for Carew Tower.

My boots squishing in the melting slush, I squinted at the light as I adjusted my sunglasses. The bright storefront of an independent charm shop caught my eye, and I wondered how early we were. “Jenks?” I questioned as my steps slowed. “What time is it?”

“Three thirty,” he said, muffled from the yarn he was hiding in. “You’re early.”

Jenks was better than a watch, and my thoughts shifted to the coming meeting with the banshee. Marshal and I hadn’t found anything in my books to supplement my aura after we got ourselves together and actually looked at them. But maybe the owner of a spell shop had something to increase “digestive and sleep rhythms.” There was that failed locator amulet I wanted to check on, too. Maybe I’d just used the wrong kind of carbonic wax.

“You want to stop at a spell shop?” I asked Jenks. “See if they have any fern seed?”

“Oh, hell yes!” Jenks said so enthusiastically that I felt a twinge of guilt. He was so damned independent that it probably never occurred to him to ask us to take him shopping. “If they don’t have fern seed, I’ll get some tansy,” he added as his wings brushed my neck. “Matalina likes tansy tea. It keeps her wings moving well.”

I angled to the small front door, the memory of his ailing wife rising in me. The man was hurting, and there was nothing I could do about it. Not even hold his hand. Taking him to a charm shop was the best I could do? It wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot. “Almost there,” I said, and when he swore at me for my concern, I pulled open the single glass door and entered.

Immediately I relaxed at the tinkling of the bell and the scent of cinnamon coffee. The soft buzz of the charm-detection spell was a mild alarm reacting to my bad-mojo amulet. I took my hat off, and Jenks flew from my scarf to land on a nearby rack and stretch his wings.

“It’s nice in here,” he said, and I smiled as he ruined his tough-guy image by standing on top of dried rose petals and using the word “nice.”

I undid my scarf and took off my shades, scanning the shelves. I liked earth-charm shops, and this was one of the better ones, right downtown, in the middle of Cincy. I’d been here a few times and had found the clerk to be helpful and the selection more than adequate, with a few surprises and the odd pricey item I didn’t have in my garden. I’d rather buy local than use mail order. If I was lucky, they might have that red-and-white stone crucible. Worry pinched my brow at the thought of Pierce with Al, but it wasn’t as if I could do the spell if he was trapped in the ever-after.

Or could I? I thought suddenly, my fingers, running over a stand of planting seeds, going still. I’d be willing to bet Al hadn’t given Pierce a body yet, in effect preventing him from tapping a line and becoming more dangerous than he already was. If he was still a ghost, maybe the charm could pull him back from the ever-after the same way it did from the hereafter. Ever-after, hereafter. What’s the difference? And if I did that-Al would come to me.

A smile overcame me, and excitement zinged down to my toes. That was how I was going to get Al to grant me some respect. If I snatched Pierce from him, Al would come to me. I’d be in a position of power, whether real or pretend. New Year’s Eve was tomorrow night. All I needed was the recipe to make sure I did it right! I didn’t even need to tap a freaking line!

Excited, I turned to the door. I needed that book. Robbie. Suddenly wanting to be somewhere else, I jiggled on my feet, settling back into an anxious bother. I’d see Robbie tonight, and I wouldn’t leave until I had that book and everything that went with it.

Jenks zipped around a display, almost running into me. He was spilling a bright copper glow and I figured he had found something. Behind him, the woman next to the register looked up from her newspaper, tucking her straight purple-dyed hair back behind an ear as she eyed Jenks’s sparkles. “Let me know if you need any help,” she said, and I wondered if her hair was really that enviably straight or if it was a charm.

“Thanks, I will,” I said, then held out my hand for Jenks to land on. He was darting back and forth like an excited kid. He must have found something he thought would help Matalina.

“Over here,” he said, zipping off the way he had come.

Smiling at the woman behind the counter, I followed Jenks’s trail of slowly sifting gold sparkles. My boots clunked on the dark hardwood as I passed the racks of herbs to find him at a nasty-looking weed hanging in the corner beside the gnarly lengths of witch hazel.

“This one,” he said, hovering over the sparsely leafed, mangy-looking sprig of gray.

I eyed him, then the tansy. Right next to it was a much nicer sheaf. “Why don’t you want this one?” I asked, touching it.

Jenks buzzed harshly. “It’s hothouse grown. The wild one is more potent.”

“Gotcha.” Being careful not to break anything off, I set it gently into one of the woven baskets stacked at an end cap. Satisfied, Jenks finally parked on my shoulder. I slowly headed to the front, lingering over a pouch of dandelion seed and smiling. We had a little time yet. I should ask her about the carbonic wax.

The hushed sound of the clerk on the phone drew my attention. She was arguing with someone, and Jenks buzzed his wings nervously.

“What’s going on?” I asked softly as I pretended to look at a display of rare-earth muds. Holy crap, they were expensive, but they were certified and everything.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “Something doesn’t feel right all of a sudden.”

Much as I hated to admit it, I agreed. But the question of what I’d done wrong with the locator amulet still remained, and I headed to the register.

“Hi,” I said brightly. “I’ve been having some trouble getting a locator potion to work. Do you know how fresh the carbonic wax has to be? I’ve got some, but it’s like three years old. You don’t think a salt dip would ruin it, do you?” She stared at me, like a deer caught in the headlights, and I added, “I’m working a run. Do you need to see my runner’s license?”

“You’re Rachel Morgan, aren’t you,” she said. “No one else has a pixy with them.”

A faint feeling of apprehension slid under my skin at how she’d said it, but I smiled. “Yup. This is Jenks.” Jenks buzzed a wary greeting, and she said nothing. Uncomfortable, I added, “You really have a great store.”

I set the tansy on the counter, and she backed away, looking almost embarrassed. “I-I’m sorry,” she stammered. “Will you please leave?”

My eyebrows rose, and I went hot. “Excuse me?”

“What the hell?” Jenks whispered.

The young woman, eighteen at the most, fumbled for the phone, holding it like a threat. “I’m asking you to leave,” she said, voice firm. “I’m calling the I.S. if you don’t.”

Sparkles dripping, Jenks got between us. “What for? We didn’t do nothing!”

“Look,” I said, not wanting an incident, “can we pay for this first?” I nudged the basket, and she took it. My blood pressure eased. It lasted all of three seconds-until she set the basket out of my reach, behind her.

“I’m not selling you anything,” she said, eyes darting to tell me she was uncomfortable. “I have the right to refuse anyone service, and you need to leave.”

I stared at her, not understanding. Jenks was at a loss. But then my eyes fell on the newspaper with yesterday’s story of the riot at the mall. There was a new headline. BLACK MAGIC AT CIRCLE MALL-THREE IN HOSPITAL. And suddenly I got it.

I reeled, putting a hand to the counter for balance. The university returning my check. The hospital refusing to treat me on the witch floor. Cormel telling me he had to speak on my behalf. Tom saying he’d be around if I wanted to talk. They were blaming me for the riot. They were publicly blaming me, and calling it black magic!

“You’re shunning me?” I exclaimed, and the woman went red. My eyes flicked to the paper, then back to her. “Who? Why?” But the why was kind of obvious.

Her chin lifted, the embarrassment gone now that I’d figured it out. “Everyone.”

“Everyone?” I yelped.

“Everyone,” she echoed. “You can’t buy anything here. You might as well leave.”

I retreated from the counter, my arms slack at my side. I’ve been shunned? Someone must have seen me with Al in the garden, seen him abduct Pierce. Had it been Tom? The freaking bastard! Had he gotten me shunned so he’d have a better shot at Mia?

“Rache,” Jenks said, close to my ear but sounding faraway and distant. “What does she mean? Leave? Why do we have to leave?”

Shocked, I licked my lips and tried to figure it out. “I’ve been shunned,” I said, then looked at the tansy. It might as well have been on the moon. I wasn’t going to get it, or anything else in the store. Or the next. Or the next. I felt sick.

I shook my head in disbelief. “This isn’t right,” I said to the clerk. “I’ve never hurt anyone. I’ve only helped people. The only one who gets hurt is me.” Oh my God, what am I going to tell Marshal? If he talks to me again, he might be shunned, too. Lose his job.

My demon mark seemed heavy on my foot and wrist, and I tugged my sleeves down. Red-faced, the clerk dropped the tansy in the trash because I’d touched it. “Get out,” she said.

I couldn’t seem to find enough air. Jenks wasn’t much better, but he at least found his voice. “Look, you lunker,” he said, pointing at her and dripping red sparkles that puddled on the counter. “Rachel isn’t a black witch. The paper is printing trash. It was the banshee that started the riot, and Rachel needs this stuff to help the FIB catch her!”

The woman said nothing. I put a hand to my stomach. Oh God. I didn’t want to spew in here. I’d been shunned. It wasn’t a death sentence, like it had been two hundred years ago, but it was a statement that what I was doing was not approved of. That no one would help me if I needed it. That I was a bad person.

Numb, my grip tightened on the counter. “Let’s go,” I whispered, turning to the door.

Jenks’s wings were a harsh clatter. “You need this stuff, Rache!”

I shook my head. “She won’t let us buy it.” I swallowed. “No one will.”

“What about Matalina?” he said, panic icing his voice.

My air slipped from me, and I turned back to the counter. “Please,” I said, Jenks’s wings making my hair tickle my neck. “His wife is ill. The tansy will help. Just let us buy this one thing, and I’ll never come back. It’s not for me.”

Her head shook no. All her fear was gone, washed away by the confidence she found when she realized I wasn’t going to give her trouble. “There are places for witches like you,” she said tartly. “I suggest you find them.”

She meant the black market. It wasn’t to be trusted, and I wouldn’t seek it out. Damn it, I had been shunned! No witch would sell to me. No witch would trade with me. I was alone. Absolutely alone. Shunning was a tradition that stretched back before the days of the pilgrims, and it was 100 percent effective; one witch couldn’t grow, find, or make everything. And once shunned, it was seldom revoked.

Her chin lifted. “Get out or I’ll call the I.S., for harassment.”

I stared at her, believing she’d do it. Denon would love that. Slowly I pulled my hand off the counter.

“Come on, Rachel,” Jenks said. “I probably have some tansy under the snow somewhere. If you don’t mind getting it for me.”

“It’s wet,” I said, bewildered. “It might be moldy.”

“It will be better than the crap they sell here,” he shot back, flipping the woman off as he flew backward to the door.

Feeling unreal, I followed him. I wouldn’t be able to check anything out of the library either. This was so not fair!

I didn’t feel Jenks snuggle in between my scarf and my neck. I didn’t remember opening the door or the cheerful tingling of the bells. I didn’t remember walking to my car. I didn’t remember waiting for traffic before I edged into the street. Suddenly, though, I was standing at the door to my car with my keys in my hand, the bright sun gleaming on the red paint, making me squint.

I blinked, going still. My motions slow and deliberate, I stuck the key in the lock and opened it. I stood there a moment with my arm on the fabric roof, trying to figure it out. The sun was just as bright, the wind just as crisp, but everything was different. Inside, something was broken. Trust in my fellow witches, maybe? The belief that I was a good person, even if there was black on my soul?

I had an appointment in twenty minutes, but I had to sit for a while, and I didn’t know if the coffee shop on the tower’s first floor would serve me. Word of a shunning traveled fast. Slowly I got in and shut the door. Outside, a truck rumbled past where I’d been moments before.

I was shunned. I wasn’t a black witch, but I might as well have been.

Twenty

It was with a new feeling of vulnerability that I stood before the double glass doors of the Carew Tower and adjusted my hat in the murky reflection, and I jumped when the doorman leaned forward and opened it for me. A warm gust of air blew my hair back, and he smiled, tipping his hat in salute when I came in with small steps and whispered, “Thank you.”

He answered me cheerfully, and I forced myself to straighten up. So I had been shunned. Edden wouldn’t know. Neither would Ms. Walker unless I told her. If I walked up there looking like prey, she would chew me up and spit me out.

My jaw clenched. “Stupid department of moral and ethical standards has their head up their ass,” I muttered, determined to fight this all the way to the Supreme Court-but the reality was, no one would care.

The restaurant at the top of the tower had its own dedicated elevator, and I could feel the doorman’s eyes on me as I clicked and clacked my way to it, forcing myself to find a confident posture. The elevator, too, had a doorman of sorts, and I told him who I was and gave Edden’s name as he checked his computer for reservations.

I hiked my bag up higher on my shoulder and read the restaurant’s events sign as I waited. Apparently someone had reserved the entire restaurant for a party tomorrow.

My flagging confidence took another hit as I remembered Pierce. I was shunned, my ex-boyfriend’s killer was roaming free, I was doubting my ability to stir something as complex as a locator amulet, Al was abusing our relationship…I had to start fixing things.

Jenks moved, startling me as he wiggled out and sat on my shoulder. “Your pulse just dropped,” he said warily. “Is your blood sugar low?”

I shook my head, smiling thinly at the doorman when he got off the phone and pushed the button to open the elevator. “I’ve got a lot to do today,” I said as I got in the small, opulent lift.

“And we’re late,” Jenks grumbled as he took off his cap and tried to arrange his hair in the reflection of the shiny walls. He had flitted to the wide banister circling the inside of the elevator, and twin pixies made an impressive display of winged physique.

I forced myself to straighten as I checked that my complexion charm was in place. Shun me, would you? “It’s called arriving fashionably late, Jenks,” I murmured as I took my own hat off and tucked a curl behind an ear.

“I hate being late,” he complained, making faces to pop his ears as the pressure shifted.

“It’s a five-star restaurant,” I came back with. “They won’t have a problem waiting.”

The lift chimed and the doors slid open. Jenks moved to my shoulder with a huff, and together we looked out onto the revolving restaurant.

My posture relaxed in pleasure, and I stepped out, smiling, as my worries seemed to pale. Below me the river wound a slush gray ribbon through the white hills of Cincinnati. The Hollows lay beyond, peaceful in the coming dusk. The sun was nearing the horizon, painting everything with a red-and-gold sheen, and clouds reflected it all. Beautiful.

“Ma’am?” a masculine voice prompted, and I brought my gaze inside. He looked like the twin of the guy downstairs, right down to the black suit and blue eyes. “If you’ll follow me?”

I’d been up here only once before, with Kisten for breakfast, and I silently walked behind the host, taking in again the rich fabrics; the Tiffany lights; and the mahogany, pre-Turn tables with carved feet. Rosemary and pink rosebuds were on every table. The sight of the booth where Kisten and I had shared morning conversation over French toast made a surprisingly soft ache in me, more fond remembrance than hurt, and I found I could smile, glad that I could think of him without heartache.

The place was empty but for the staff setting up for tonight, and after passing a small stage and dance floor, I spotted Edden at a window table with an attractive older woman. She was Ceri’s size, dark where the elf was light, with very thick black hair, falling straight on her back. Her nose was small, and she had thick lips and luscious eyelashes. It wasn’t a young face, but her few wrinkles made her look wise and venerable. Graceful, aged hands moved when she talked, and she wore no rings. She sat across from Edden, slim and upright in her stark white, full-length dress, not resting against the back of her chair. Ms. Walker had the view-as well as the poised presence that said she was in charge.

Jenks’s wings brushed my neck, and he said, “She looks like Piscary.”

“You think she’s Egyptian?” I whispered, confused.

Jenks snorted. “How the Turn should I know? I meant she is in control. Look at her.”

I nodded, disliking the banshee already. Edden hadn’t noticed us, fixated on what she was saying. He looked good in his suit, having worked hard to keep his shape through the late-thirties meltdown and into his midfifties. Actually…he seemed captivated by the woman, and a warning flag went up. Anyone as self-possessed and beautiful as she was was dangerous.

As if hearing my unspoken thoughts, the woman turned. Her heavy lips closed and she stared. Evaluating me, are you? I thought, sending my eyebrows high in challenge.

Edden followed her gaze, and his demeanor brightened. Getting to his feet, I heard him say, “Here she is,” and he came to greet me.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said as he took my elbow to hustle me to the table. “Marshal made me get a massage to help with my aura.” Yes. Blame it on Marshal, not me needing to recoup after finding out I’m shunned.

“Really?” the squat man said. “Does it help? How do you feel?”

I knew he was thinking about his son, and I set my hand atop his. “Wonderful. Jenks said my aura looks tons better, and I feel great. Don’t let me leave without giving you the woman’s phone number. She makes hospital calls. I asked. No extra charge for the FIB.”

Jenks made a scoffing sound. “She says she feels great?” he said. “More like stinking drunk. The damned woman nearly smashed her car drifting it into a parking spot.”

“How’s Glenn?” I asked, ignoring Jenks as Edden helped me out of my coat.

“Ready to go home.” Edden gave me a look up and down. “You look good, Rachel. I never would have guessed that you had to get an AMA.”

I beamed as Jenks rolled his eyes. “Thanks.”

The waiter holding out his hand for my coat was eyeing Jenks. Edden saw his gaze and moved his chin to make his mustache bunch up. “Can we get a honey pot?” he asked, trying to put Jenks at ease.

“I appreciate the offer, Edden,” Jenks said. “But I’m working. Peanut butter would be good, though.” His gaze went to the table in its white-and-gold perfection, and his expression became panicked, as if he’d asked for grits and pig’s feet instead of the source high in protein he needed because of the cold.

The waiter, of course, picked right up on his unease. “Pe-e-e-eanut butter-r-r-r-r?” he said in a patronizing tone, and Jenks let a wisp of red dust slip.

My eyes narrowed as the man implied with those two words that Jenks was a bumpkin, or worse, not even a person. “You ha-a-ave peanut butter, don’t you?” I drawled in my best Al impression. “Freshly ground, absolutely nothing out of a jar will do! Low salt. I’ll have a raspberry water.” I had sampled Kisten’s raspberry water after finding my French toast not to my taste. It had some fancy glaze on it. Okay, maybe I was a bumpkin, but making Jenks feel like one was rude.

The man’s face went blank. “Yes, ma’am.” Gesturing for a second waiter to get my water and Jenks’s peanut butter, he helped me with my chair, and then a menu-which I ignored since he’d given it to me. I had a view, too. Jenks hovered by my place setting as if reluctant to set down on something so fine. His flowing black outfit looked great among the china and crystal, and after I turned an empty water glass over for him, he gratefully sat on the elevated foot. Edden was to my right, the banshee to my left, and my back was presently to the door. But that would change as the hour advanced and the restaurant turned.

“Ms. Walker, this is Rachel Morgan,” Edden said as he settled back in his chair. “Rachel, Ms. Walker has been adamant about meeting you. She’s the administrative coordinator of banshee internal affairs west of the Mississippi.”

Edden seemed unusually flustered, and another flag went up. Jenks, too, didn’t seem to like that the usually levelheaded man looked almost twitterpated. But she was a banshee, beautiful and alluring in her sophistication and exotic beauty.

Shoving my increasing dislike away, I extended my hand across the corner of the table. “It’s a pleasure, Ms. Walker. I’m sure you know we can use all the help we can get. Mia Harbor turning rogue has us in a tight spot.” Jenks smirked, and I flushed. I was trying to be nice. So sue me. I hadn’t said anything that wasn’t true. It was obvious I couldn’t bring Mia in if she resisted.

The older woman took my hand, and I tensed, searching for any sensation of her siphoning off my aura or emotions. Her eyes were a rich brown, and with the bone structure of a supermodel and her wrinkled but clear complexion, she was classically alluring.

“You can call me Cleo,” she said, and I drew my hand away before I shuddered. Her voice was as exotic as the rest of her, a low slurry of warmth insinuating a promise of naughty but nice. God, the woman was like a vampire. Maybe that was what was putting me on edge.

That I had pulled away was not missed by Edden or Ms. Walker, and a faint, knowing smile curved the edges of her mouth up. “It’s good to meet you,” she said, shifting to lean forward. “I’ll help find little Mia, but I’m here for you. Your reputation is worth investigating.”

My fake smile faded, and Edden, hunched over and guilty, started to play with his drinking glass. Slowly I turned to him, calming my anger before the banshee noticed it. But she did anyway.

The cool woman put her elbows charmingly on the table and eyed him almost coyly. “You lied to get her here?”

Edden glanced at me, then back down to the river. “Not at all,” he grumped, his neck going red. “I stressed certain things is all.”

Stressed certain things, my ass. But I smiled at the woman, keeping my hands below the table, as if she’d soiled them with her touch. “Is this because I survived Holly’s attack?” I asked.

“In large part, yes,” she said, lacing her fingers together and propping her chin on them. “Would you mind if I felt your aura?”

I stiffened. “No. I mean yes, I would mind,” I amended. “I don’t trust you.”

Edden winced, but Ms. Walker laughed. The comfortable sound of it made the waiters just out of earshot look up, and my stomach clenched. She was too perfect, too assured. And her eyes were dilating like a vampire’s.

“Is that why you brought your pixy?” she said, the first hint of distaste wrinkling her nose as she grimaced at Jenks. “I won’t be sampling your aura, Ms. Morgan. I simply want to run my fingers through it. Find out why you survived an attack from a child banshee. Most don’t.”

“Most don’t have a black banshee tear in their pocket,” I said stiffly, and the woman made a small sound of interest.

“That’s why…,” she said, and it was as if an until-now hidden tension slipped out of her. “The emotion went sour as she killed you, and finding a sweet source, one familiar-”

“Holly took that instead,” I finished for her. Jenks’s heels were tapping out a distress signal, and I twitched my fingers to acknowledge it. He had seen the woman lose her tension, too. She’d been afraid of me, and now she wasn’t. Good. It would make taking her down easier if it came to that. Stop it, Rachel. You can’t tag a banshee.

The woman sat upright in her chair and sipped her tea with a thousand years of grace. She and Ceri would get along famously. “Even so, your aura is extremely tight,” she said as she set it down. “If I hadn’t known you were recovering from an attack, I’d say you were insane.”

That was just rude, and when Jenks shifted uncomfortably, Ms. Walker’s eyes went from him to me, squinting softly in the bright light. “Your pixy didn’t tell you a tight aura is a sign of instability?”

Knowing she was goading me, I let my anger dissipate before I smiled back. “He’s my business partner, not my pixy,” I said, and Edden miserably shrank into his chair while we had our polite, sophisticated catfight.

Jenks, though, couldn’t help himself, and he rose with his hands on his hips. “Why should I tell Rachel what a tight aura means? She’s not insane. She had a massage today and it condensed it down. Lighten up-you hag of a washerwoman.”

“Jenks!” I exclaimed, but Ms. Walker took it in stride. What is up with him?

Ignoring Jenks but for a warning twitch of her fingers, she focused on me, her brown eyes going black. I clamped down on my sudden fear. This woman could probably kill me as we sat, and she would get away with it though Edden sat two feet away. “I don’t care what they say you are,” she said, her low voice entirely devoid of anything but scorn. “We are more powerful than you. That you survived was a fluke.”

She stood amid Edden’s protests, but I sat, frozen in fear. Who I am? She knew. She knew I was a proto-demon.

Standing above me, Ms. Walker closed her eyes and breathed deep, sucking in my fear like a drug. Jenks rose up in a clattering of wings.

“Stop,” he intoned as he hovered between us, and the woman’s eyes flashed open. “Leave Rachel’s aura alone or I will kill you.”

Ms. Walker’s eyes went even blacker, and my fear slid deeper and twisted. She had Ivy’s eyes, full of an unsated hunger. She was a predator chained by her own will, and she didn’t mind letting herself off the leash once in a while. But not me. She wouldn’t have me. I wasn’t prey. I was a hunter.

While Edden winced, the woman gathered up her small handbag. Today’s paper was folded up next to it, and my gut clenched. Great, she knew I’d been shunned, too. As she looked at Jenks, her disgust poured forth. “Bug,” she said simply, hiding her eyes behind a pair of dark glasses. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping in a hole in the ground?”

“Shouldn’t you be extinct, like the rest of the dinosaurs?” he snarled back. “Want some help getting there?” he added, and I cleared my throat even as I bristled at her racial slur.

“Ms. Walker,” Edden was saying, having stood up and moved to her side of the table. “Please. The FIB could really use your help, and we would be most grateful. Ms. Morgan and her associate’s opinions aside, one of your own is accused of murder.”

The elegant woman stopped two steps from the edge of the revolving ring, her eyes hidden. “I’ve seen what I’ve come to see, but I’ll look for little Mia tonight. It’s unlikely she’s left her city, and I’ll inform you when I’ve dealt with her.”

Dealt with her? I didn’t like the sound of that. By his expression neither did Jenks.

“In return, any assistance you can give me in streamlining the adoption process will be appreciated,” she finished, turning away and accepting the hand of a nearby waiter to make the step to the unmoving core of the building.

Adoption? Alarmed, I stood up. “Whoa, wait up,” I said caustically, and the woman turned back with cheeks flushed in anger. “Adoption? You mean Holly? Holly has a mother.”

Edden’s hands went loose at his sides, his posture becoming threatening without his making one overt move. “Ms. Walker, we never discussed you taking the child.”

The woman sighed before she stepped back down to our level, moving with crisp, precise motions. “The child can’t be held by anyone other than another banshee until she gains control,” she said with a wave of her hand, as if we were simpletons. “Almost five years. What are you going to do, put her in a bubble?”

“You are underestimating the child’s control,” Edden said. “Her father holds her.”

Interest arched her eyebrows, and she took her sunglasses off. “Does he really?”

Great. Now she really wanted Holly. It was almost impossible to engender a child under the laws of humanity, and now Ms. Walker thought Holly was special. Mia wasn’t going to live out the week, and Remus would probably die defending them if we didn’t find them first.

“It’s not Holly,” I said quickly. “It’s her dad. There’s a wish involved.”

Edden turned to me with accusation in his expression, and I shrugged. “I found out yesterday. I was going to tell you.”

Ms. Walker’s eyes squinted in the glare, making wrinkles at the corners, and Jenks smiled wickedly as a flash of worry crossed the banshee’s face before she hid it away. “Your own son hospitalized, Captain Edden,” she said, as if it might make us want to give the child to her. “You yourself, Ms. Morgan, attacked and nearly killed. How many lives will you sacrifice before you accept it? I can control her. You can’t. In return, I will give the child a home.”

“Temporarily,” I said, and Ms. Walker’s smile twitched.

“If Mia is cooperative.”

Like I believe that would happen?

“Ms. Walker,” Edden said, his earlier fluster washed away, leaving his usual hard-assed self. “We all want what’s best for Holly, but neither Mia nor Remus has had due process yet.”

The woman made a huff, clearly thinking that due process wasn’t going to enter into it if she found Mia alone. “Of course,” she said, her voice and posture regaining their earlier grace and self-assurance. “Good afternoon, Ms. Morgan, Captain Edden. I’ll send word when I have Mia contained.” Giving us an icy smile, she turned and walked sedately to the elevator, two waiters trailing behind her.

Jenks’s wings clattered as he exhaled and flew back to the table. Red sparkles sifted from him as he stomped from where he’d landed to a small dish of peanut butter that had magically appeared while we argued. Sitting cross-legged on the rim of the plate, he reached over and helped himself with the pair of pixy-size chopsticks he had somewhere on his person. “Damned banshees,” he muttered. “Worse than fairies in your out-house.”

Edden put a hand to the small of my back and directed me back to my chair. “Why do I have the feeling we need to find Mia before Ms. Walker does?” he said worriedly.

Someone had set a glass of rose-tinted water by my plate, and I sat down. Slouching, I took a sip, almost getting a lap of water when the ice shifted. “Because banshee babies are rare and precious,” I said, then wondered if they’d laugh at me if I asked for a straw. “Giving Holly to that woman would be a mistake, banshee or not. I don’t trust her.”

Edden snorted. “I think the feeling was mutual.”

“Yeah, but according to her, I don’t matter.” Maybe it was better to not matter to a banshee. “We have to find Mia before that woman does. She’s going to kill her to get Holly.”

Edden looked at me sharply. “That’s a strong accusation.”

I reached for the bread basket, hoping we still got to eat even if our Most Important Guest had left. “You can wait until Mia is dead, or you can believe me now. But ask yourself who you’d rather have Holly grow up with.” I pointed at him with my pinkie, and he frowned.

“You think so?

Tearing a bit of bread from the loaf, I ate it, thinking it was too dry. “I know so.”

Edden’s eyes shifted to the elevator, then back to me. “It would be easier if we had a locator amulet. Any progress on them?”

I nearly choked, and as I scrambled for words, Jenks chimed up with a cheerful “Yeah-”

My knee smacked the underside of the table, and his wings burst into motion. “I just have to finish them up,” I said. Edden looked from my hot cheeks to the pixy, now silently staring at me. Grunting, the man pushed away from the table, his thick fingers looking out of place on the white linen.

“I’ll send a car to pick them up as soon as you have them done,” he said as he stood. “I know you don’t have the license to sell them, but let me know how much it cost you, and I’ll add it to your check. We’re having a devil of a time finding her. They keep slipping past us.” He rocked back, looking at the elevator again. “I’ll be right back.”

“Okay,” I said, helping the dry bread down with a sip of raspberry water, but my thoughts were elsewhere as the squat man tried to catch up with Ms. Walker.

Jenks snickered, settling in and looking more relaxed. “Want me to tell you what he says to her?” he asked, and I shook my head. “Then you want to tell me why you don’t want him to find Mia?” he added.

I brought my gaze back from the elevator. “Excuse me?”

“The amulets?” Jenks licked his fingers free of the peanut butter. “Duh? Marshal invoked them.”

Grimacing, I started brushing the crumbs I had made into a pile. “They’re duds. I screwed up. They don’t work.”

Jenks’s eyes went wide, and his heels swung back and forth. “Uh, yes, they do.”

I didn’t look up from brushing the crumbs off in my napkin. “Uh, no, they don’t,” I mimicked him. “I tried one at the mall, and it was just a hunk of wood.”

But Jenks was shaking his head, dipping for another clump of peanut butter with his chopsticks. “I was there when Marshal invoked them. They smelled okay to me.”

Exhaling, I leaned back in my chair and shook my napkin out under the table. Either the tear Edden had given me was from another banshee, or the amulet I put the potion into was bad. “It smelled like redwood?”

“Absolutely. The amulets even turned green for a second.”

The elevator dinged, and I pulled myself closer to the table. “Maybe the one I invoked was a bad amulet,” I said softly as Edden said good-bye to Ms. Walker, and Jenks nodded, satisfied.

But a faint sense of unease wouldn’t let go as we waited for Edden to rejoin us. There was a third possibility I didn’t even want to think about. My blood wasn’t entirely witch blood, but proto-demon. It was possible that there were some earth charms I couldn’t invoke. And if that was true, then that was one more mark that said I wasn’t a witch, but a demon.

Better and better.

Twenty-one

I pulled my car into one of the open, back spots at the correctional facility, right under a light, and making a best guess as to where the lines were since they hadn’t plowed the last few inches of snow. The heater was going full blast since Ivy had the window cracked for air, and turning it and the car lights off, I killed the engine and dropped the keys into my bag. Ready to face Skimmer, I sighed, hands in my lap and not moving as I looked at the low building before us.

Ivy sat rigidly still, staring at nothing. “Thank you for doing this,” she said, her eyes black in the dim light.

I shrugged and opened my car door. “I want to know who killed Kisten, too,” I said, not wanting to talk about it. “I haven’t been much help, but I can do this.”

She got out as I did, and the thump of our doors was muffled by the mounds of snow that turned the world black and white under the puddles of security lights in the thickly populated lot-employees, probably, though I supposed they could be visitors; it was a low-security facility. Sure, Skimmer had killed someone, but it had been a crime of passion. That, and being a lawyer, had gotten her here instead of the high-security prison outside Cincinnati.

About a quarter mile back, the hospital was hazy with dusk and falling snow. Seeing the peaceful buildings, I had the sudden idea to take my old stuffed animals to the kids. They’d know how precious they were and would take good care of them. I could pick the toys up tonight when I was looking for that spell book. It would be a good excuse for me to get up there, too.

Ivy was still standing beside her closed door, gazing at the building as if it held her salvation or her damnation. She looked sleek and lanky in her working leathers, all in black, with a biker cap to add some spice. Feeling my questioning gaze on her, she pushed into motion, and we met at the front of my convertible. Together we angled through the parked cars toward the shoveled sidewalk. “I’m sorry to make you do this,” she said, hunched from more than the cold. “Skimmer…she’s going to be ugly.”

I choked back my laughter. Ugly? She was going to be positively poisonous. “You want to talk to her,” I said stiffly, shoving my fear down where I hoped it wouldn’t show.

I had way too much to do tonight to be visiting Skimmer, if not for the information we might get from her, but at least I wouldn’t have to restir the locator charms. The relief that the problem was likely with my blood-not my skills-was starting to outweigh the worry of why the problem was with my blood. Jenks was the only one who knew that the charm I invoked had failed, and he thought it was a bum amulet. By now, the locator charms Marshal had invoked were in the hands of six FIB guys cruising the city. I doubted they’d come within the needed hundred feet to engage the amulet, but it had improved my standing with them immeasurably.

Dinner with my mom and Robbie later tonight would hopefully give me the book and equipment and I could move forward on stamping out that fire. I’d been concerned that Al might show up and snag whoever was with me now that it was again dark, but he hadn’t done so before finding Pierce, and it was unlikely he would now.

I so wanted to be at my mom’s looking for that book, not here talking to an angry vampire, but I resolutely walked beside Ivy to the low-security Inderland correctional facility. All the safeguards must be on the inside, because the outside looked like a research building, its stucco walls and accent lights shining on low, snow-covered evergreens. It probably made for better neighbor relations, but not being able to see the fences gave me the creeps.

We walked in silence but for our boots on the crushed ice and salt. The pavement gave way to gray sidewalk, and then the glass double doors with visiting hours and rules about what could be brought into the building. My lethal-amulet detector was going to be a problem.

The woman behind the desk looked up from her phone conversation as we entered. Mild alarms were already going off, reacting to my amulets, and I smiled to try to defuse the situation. Redwood, and a faint smell of unhappy vampire, drifted to me. Ivy grimaced, and I swung my bag around to drop it on the desk while we signed in. There was a TV on in the corner, set to the weather map and talking to itself. More snow tonight.

“Rachel Morgan and Ivy Tamwood to visit Dorothy Claymor,” I said, handing her my ID as I noticed the sign asking for it behind her. No wonder the blond vampire wanted everyone to call her Skimmer. “We have an appointment.”

Ivy handed me the pen, and I signed in under her. My thoughts went back to the last time I’d put my name in a register book, and I added a solid period after my signature to symbolically end any psychic connection it might have to me. Crossing it off would be better, but I wouldn’t be able to get away with that here.

“Right through there,” the woman said as she ran our IDs through a scanner and handed them back. “Keep your ID out,” she added, gesturing to a pair of thick plastic doors, clearly anxious to get back to her phone conversation.

I’d rather have gone to the right, where the floor was covered in carpet and there were fake potted plants, but Ivy, who clearly knew the drill, was already headed for the sterile, ugly hallway to the left with its white tile and milky-plastic doors. They were magnetically sealed, and when I caught up to Ivy, the woman buzzed us through.

My jaw clenched when the doors opened and the scent of unhappy vampire and angry Were worsened. I shuddered as I passed the threshold and the prison’s safeguards started to take hold. The magnetic door snicked shut behind us, and the air pressure shifted. We were probably in prison air now. Swell. There could be anything in it up to and including airborne potions.

At the end of the room was another set of those doors and a guy behind a desk. The old woman with him started our way, clearly in charge of the standard-looking spell checker before us-which was probably anything but standard. I couldn’t help but notice that the woman really stank of redwood, and that, if the gun on her hip wasn’t enough, would keep me minding my p’s and q’s. She might look like an old woman, but I bet she could give Al a run for his money.

“Anything to declare?” the woman asked as she looked over our IDs then gave them back.

“No.” Ivy’s mood was tight as she handed her coat and purse to her, ignoring the little claim check and walking unhesitatingly through the spell checker and to the desk at the end of the room. More paperwork, I thought as I saw her take a clipboard and start filling in a form.

“Anything to declare?” the guard asked me, and I brought my attention back. God, the woman looked a hundred and sixty, with nasty black hair that matched the color of her too-tight uniform. Her complexion was a pasty white, and I would’ve wondered why she didn’t invest in a cheap complexion spell except I didn’t think they allowed them anything while on the job.

“Just a lethal-amulet detector,” I said, handing her my bag and taking the little slip of paper and jamming it in a jeans pocket.

“I’ll bet,” she said under her breath, and I hesitated, eyeing her. I didn’t like my stuff in her care. She’d probably go through it as soon as I was out of sight. I sighed, trying not to get upset. If this was the crap you had to go through to see a low-security inmate, I didn’t want to know what was needed to see someone in the high-security prison.

Smiling, making herself look almost ugly, she nodded to the spell checker, and I reluctantly approached it. I couldn’t see the cameras, but I knew they were here-and I didn’t like the casual carelessness she used to bag my stuff up and drop it in a bin.

The wave of synthetic aura cascading over me from the spell checker gave me a start, and I jumped. Maybe it was because I didn’t have much of an aura right now, but I hadn’t been able to stifle my shudder, and the guy at the desk smirked.

Ivy was waiting impatiently, and I took the form the guy shoved across the desk at me. “And who are we visiting today?” he snarkily asked me as he handed Ivy her visitor’s pass.

My attention jerked up from the release form. I was not the one in jail here. Then I saw where he was looking and went cold. My visible scars were less than a year old, clear enough, and I stiffened when I decided he thought I was a vampire junkie on my way to get a fix. “Dorothy Claymor, same as her,” I said as if he didn’t know, signing the paper with stiff fingers.

The young man’s smirk grew nasty. “Not at the same time you aren’t.”

Ivy took a stance, and I set the clipboard down with a tap. Peeved, I looked at him. Why is this becoming so difficult? “Look,” I said, using one finger to slide the form back to him. “I’m just trying to help a friend, and this is the only way Dorothy will see her, okay?”

“She likes threesomes, eh?” the guy said, and seeing me drumming my fingers on my crossed arm, he added in a more businesslike voice, “We can’t let two people visit an inmate at once. Accidents happen.”

Much to my surprise, it was the woman who came to my rescue, clearing her throat like she was trying to get a cat out of it. “They can go in, Miltast.”

Officer Miltast, apparently, turned. “I’m not losing my job over her.”

The woman grinned and tapped her paperwork. “We got a call. She can go in.”

What in hell is going on? Concern wound tighter in my gut when the man looked from me to my scrawl and back again. Face scrunching up, he turned to Ivy, then handed me the visitor’s badge the tabletop machine spit out.

“I’ll escort you to the visiting rooms,” he said as he rose and patted his shirt front for his key card. “You got this okay?” he asked the woman, and she laughed.

“Thank you,” I muttered as I peeled the backing off my badge and stuck it to my upper shoulder. Maybe me being an independent runner just got me in, but I doubted it. My man Miltast opened the door, and hoisting his belt up, waited for us to pass through. God, he was only thirty-something, but he was swaggering around like he was fifty, with a gut.

Again the vampire incense hit me, with a hint of unhappy Were and decayed redwood. It was not a good mix. There was anger, and desperation, and hunger. Everyone was under mental stress so thick I could almost taste it. Ivy and I going in together suddenly didn’t seem like a good idea. The vamp pheromones were probably hitting her hard.

The door shut behind me, and I stifled a shudder. Ivy was silent and stoic as we paced down the corridor, jittery under her facade of confidence. Her black jeans looked out of place in the white corridor, and her dark hair caught the light, looking almost silver. I wondered what she was hearing that I wasn’t.

We passed through another Plexiglas door and the corridor got twice as wide. Blue lines blocked the floor into sections, and I realized that the clear doors we were passing led to cells. I couldn’t see anyone, but it all looked clean and sterile, like a hospital. And somewhere down here was Skimmer.

“The solid doors cut down on the pheromones,” Ivy said, noticing me eyeing them.

“Oh.” I missed Jenks, and I wished he was here watching my back. There were cameras in the corners, and I bet they weren’t fake. “So how come they’ve got witches working as guards?” I said, realizing that the only vamp I’d seen outside a cell so far had been Ivy.

“A vampire might be tempted to do something stupid for blood,” Ivy said, her gaze distant and not paying me much attention. “A Were can be overpowered.”

“So can a witch,” I said, watching our escort take an interest in our conversation.

Ivy looked sideways at me. “Not if they tap a line.”

“Yeah,” I protested, not liking that I couldn’t right now, “but even the I.S. doesn’t send a witch after an undead. There’s no way I could even come near besting Piscary.”

The man walking behind us made a small noise. “This is an aboveground, low-security facility. We don’t house dead vampires here. Just witches, Weres, and living vampires.”

“And the guards are more experienced than you, Rachel,” Ivy said, her gaze lighting on the cell numbers, counting them down probably. “Officer Milktoast here probably has clearance to use charms that aren’t street legal.” She smiled at him, chilling me. “Isn’t that right?”

“It’s Miltast,” he said sharply. “And if you ever get bitten,” he added, looking at my neck, “you lose your job.”

I wanted to jerk my scarf up, but knew that to a hungry vampire, dead or alive, that was like wearing a negligee. “That is so unfair,” I said. “I get labeled a black witch for getting a smutty aura saving people’s lives, but you can use a black charm with impunity?”

At that, Miltast smiled. “Yep. And I get paid for it.”

I didn’t like what he was saying, but at least he was talking to me. Maybe he had a smutty aura, too, and my own greasy coating didn’t scare him. That he was even talking to me was odd. He had to know I was shunned. That’s probably why they’d let me in with Ivy. They simply didn’t care what happened to me. God help me. What am I going to tell my mom?

We passed through another set of doors, and my claustrophobic feeling doubled. Ivy, too, was starting to show the strain and was beginning to sweat. “You okay?” I asked, thinking she smelled great. Evolution. You’ve gotta love it.

“Fine,” she said, but her nervous smile said different. “Thank you for doing this.”

“Wait to thank me until we both get back in the car in one piece, okay?”

Our escort slowed to check the numbers painted on the outside of the doors, and leaning to the side, he used a two-way radio to check something. Satisfied, he looked through the glass, pointed his finger at someone in warning, then ran his card to open the door.

There was a soft hiss of equalizing pressure, and Ivy immediately went in. I moved to follow Ivy, and Miltast stopped me. “Excuse me?” I said snottily, letting him grip my arm like that because he was the only one armed with magic.

“I’m watching you,” he threatened, and I started. Me? He was watching me? Why?

“Good,” I said, confirming that he knew I’d been shunned. Maybe they let us in together hoping we would all kill each other. “Tell them that I’m a white witch and to get of