Magic slays, p.9

Magic Slays, страница 9

 часть  #5 серии  Kate Daniels

 

Magic Slays
 

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Chapter 8

 

  THE TWO TRACKERS REPORTED IN EARLY THE NEXT morning. They had picked up Julie's scent, hit wolfsbane, lost her, and found her trail again at the crumbling Highway 23, except it was two hours old and mixed with horse scents. She was hitchhiking. Great. Awesome. At least she always carried a knife with her.

  When I relayed this to Curran, he shrugged and said, "If she kills anybody, we'll make it go away. "

  Shapeshifter parenting motto--if your kid slits somebody's throat, always have a backup plan to make the body disappear.

  I put on my clothes, grabbed my sword, kissed Curran good-bye, and headed to the lower floor. Barabas waited for me by the desk, slim, dapper, and wearing an ironic smile. The first thing you noticed about Barabas was his hair. Cut short on the sides and the back, it was about an inch and a half long on top of his head, and he brushed it and rubbed gel in it until the entire inch and a half stood on end, like hackles on a pissed-off dog. It was also bright, fiery red. He looked like his head was on fire.

  Technically, Barabas wasn't a bouda. His mother shifted into a hyena, but his father was a weremongoose from Clan Nimble. As was customary in the interclan unions with the Pack, his parents had an option of belonging to either clan, and they chose the loving embrace of Aunt B and the protection of her razor-sharp claws. Faced with the same choice on his eighteenth birthday, Barabas chose to remain with Clan Bouda and pretty soon ran into some personal problems. When Aunt B gave him to me, it was for his benefit as much as mine.

  "Good morning, Consort. " Barabas handed me a package wrapped in shimmering red foil. A big red bow was set on top of the foil.

  "Why the wrapping?"

  "It's a gift. Why not make it special?"

  "Thank you. " I untied the bow. "This render Curran is supposed to hunt today. Leslie Wren. How good is she?"

  "Pack's top twenty. I wouldn't fight her," Barabas said. "I know some alphas who wouldn't either. "

  Great. I unwrapped the paper, revealing an old edition of Osvintsev. "Where did you find it?"

  "In the Keep library. "

  "The Keep has a library?" "Both paper and digital. "

  I flipped through the pages. Runes, runes, runes . . . Runes. An inverted Algiz rune. The caption next to it said "Chernobog. " The Black God.

  Right. Of course, it wouldn't be Chernobog, God of Morning Dew on the Rose Petals, but a woman could always hope.

  I riffed through the pages looking for the gods and goddesses. The Slavic pantheon broke into two opposing factions, benevolent and malevolent. I skipped the "good" faction.

  The moment I turned the pages to the dark faction, an inverted Algiz rune stared at me. Next to it was a sketch of a man with a black mustache frosted with silver. His black armor bristled with spikes. His hand clenched a bloody spear. He stood on a heap of dismembered corpses covered in black ants while black crows circled over his head. Fury warped his face into an ugly grimace. The caption read: Chernobog. The Black Serpent. Koshei. Lord of Darkness and Death. Ruler of Freezing Cold. Master of Destruction. God of Insanity. Embodiment of everything bad. Evil.

  Barabas glanced over my shoulder. "This doesn't look good. "

  Understatement of the year. De Harven was sacrificed to Chernobog, probably by a volhv, a Slavic pagan priest. Volhvs had broad powers, like druids, but unlike the druids, who were very self-conscious about their human-sacrificing past, the volhvs had no aversion to violence. And Atlanta volhvs really didn't like me.

  I tapped the book, thinking. The Slavic pagan community was self-regulating: light gods were counterbalanced by dark, and volhvs of both factions were equally respected. Sacrificing de Harven took a huge load of magic. A volhv packing that much magic would be well known and rooted in the community. I wouldn't get anywhere by talking with them. I had to find a Plan B.

  The volhvs were all male. If you were female and practicing Slavic pagan magic, you were likely a witch, and the most powerful Slavic witch in the city was Evdokia. She was a part of the Witch Oracle and the last time we'd met, Evdokia told me she knew my stepfather. I had no idea if she would even talk to me, but it was worth a try.

  The magic was still up, but I tried the phone anyway. Dial tone. I punched in Ksenia's number. Ksenia owned a small herbal shop on the north side. I'd stopped there a few times when my supplies had run low, and the last time I was there Ksenia boasted that Evdokia had bought some herbs from her. Maybe she could arrange for an audience.

  OUTSIDE, THE MARCH WIND BIT AT ME WITH ICY fangs. Two people stood by my vehicle. The first was taller, his dark hair cropped short. He wore a dark gray hoodie and faded jeans. His posture was deceptively relaxed, but he watched me as I walked. Derek. The second person was shorter, dressed in an inconspicuous ensemble of black jeans, black turtleneck, and a leather jacket, of all things. Black hair, angelic face, and devil eyes. Ascanio Ferara. The kid was so handsome, he almost looked unreal. Combine that with an agile face that went from innocence to remorse to admiration in a blink, and you had a pure chick magnet. Ascanio knew the effect he had, and he used every drop of it to his advantage.

  "What are you doing here?"

  Ascanio offered me a dazzling smile, broadcasting "I could never do anything wrong" with all his might. "Obeying the Beast Lord, Consort. "

  "Elaborate. "

  "I've been assigned to bodyguard you. "

  You've got to be kidding me.

  Derek snorted.

  Ascanio pretended not to hear it. "The Beast Lord spoke to me this morning. I'm responsible for your well-being, and if you get injured, I'll answer to him personally. "

  Oh, that bastard. Found the kid an impossible job, did he?

  Derek laughed quietly.

  Ascanio finally deemed it necessary to acknowledge Derek's existence. "Is something funny?"

  "I don't even know you, and I feel sorry for you. "

  Ascanio turned a shade paler. "Are you saying I'm not capable of protecting the Consort, wolf?"

  Derek let out a derisive chortle. "You got arrested by two human cops while getting your freak on at a morgue. You're not capable of protecting yourself, let alone her. "

  "They were female cops," Ascanio said. "And I had a fun time. When was the last time you got laid? Let me know if you need some pointers. "

  Derek bared his teeth.

  I hit him with my hard stare. "I'll be right back. Stay here. Don't touch each other. "

  "You don't have to worry about me," Ascanio said. "I can't speak for the wolf, but I prefer women. "

  "Zip it. "

  I turned around, marched back into the Keep, picked up the first phone I saw, and punched 0011 into it. The phone rang once and Curran's voice answered. "Yes?" "What is wrong with you?"

  "Many, many things. "

  "I'm not taking him with me. He's a kid. "

  "He is a fifteen-year-old male bouda. He maxes out his bench press at three sixty and his alpha tells me he has a decent half-form. "

  "Curran!"

  "I love it when you say my name. It sounds so sexy. "

  "I'm investigating people who sacrifice trained killers to dark gods. "

  "Perfect. It will keep him occupied. "

  Aaargh. "No. "

  "He needs an outlet for all that energy, and you could use him. "

  "In what capacity?"

  "Bait. "

  Why me, why? "I hate you. "

  "If you don't take him, the ball is back in my court and I have to give him hard labor. The last time I sentenced him to the Keep building, he was bench-pressing rocks to bulk up `for the girls. ' He has a brain, and hard labor accomplishes nothing in his case. This way he can waste his energy trying to bodyguard you and might accidentally learn something in the process. It might be what not to do, but that's also useful. When Raphael comes to liberate him, he'll be kissing his boots. "

  "Curran, I'm not running a nursery here. This shit is going to turn hairy. You
know it and I know it. The kid might get hurt. "

  "I have to bloody him sometime, Kate. He came to the Pack late. Most kids his age have already had their first fight with real consequences. He hasn't. B has a soft spot for him, because he is male and he had a rough childhood. She won't take him in hand, and even if she did, there are seventeen males in the bouda clan right now, all of whom are under the age of ten or over twenty. He has no peers and he's isolated. "

  "So put him with other kids his age. "

  "No. He can't be challenged, because he's a minor, but adolescents fight for dominance among themselves. He doesn't get the pecking order, and he thinks it's all a big game. He'll run his mouth, and they will beat him, which will accomplish one of two things: either they will break his spirit or he'll snap and kill somebody, and then neither B, nor you, nor anybody else in this Pack can protect him. He needs to learn how to be a Pack male. "

  "And you think that I can teach him that?"

  "You--no. But Derek can. "

  Ah. Now it all became clear. He'd arranged this whole thing, like moving chess pieces on a board. I unclenched my teeth. "I'm really pissed off at you right now. You could've told me all this last night and asked me to take him. Instead you manipulated me into a corner. I don't like feeling manipulated, Curran. I don't appreciate being put into this position, and in case you've forgotten, I'm not one of your flunkies. I don't need to be managed and led by the hand. "

  His voice dropped into a measured patient tone that made me want to rip his head off. "You're blowing this out of proportion. You're trying to make a fight out of nothing. "

  I hung up.

  The phone rang. I picked it up.

  "Kate," he snarled.

  "Guess what? I don't have to listen to you. " I hung up again and marched outside. Derek and Ascanio stood on opposite sides of the vehicle. I pointed at Ascanio. "Into the car. Now. "

  Ascanio climbed into the Jeep. I turned to Derek. "What are you doing here?"

  "I quit. "

  "Quit what?"

  He smiled. "My job. "

  What in the name of all that was holy . . . "Why?"

  Derek shrugged. "Just felt like it. "

  Like pulling teeth. I tried to speak slowly and form coherent sentences. "What precipitated you quitting your job?"

  He looked up at the night sky above us. "Curran and I had a conversation. "

  I wondered if kicking him in the head would make the whole explanation pop out of his mouth in one chunk. "What did he say?"

  "He said that I was doing a good job. He asked what would be the highest a bodyguard could go in the Pack. And I said, protecting the Beast Lord and his mate. " "Aha. "

  "He nodded and asked how old I was. "

  Curran knew perfectly well how old he was. "You said, `Nineteen,' and?"

  "He said, `Okay, what's next?' "

  Now it made sense. Derek was wasted on bodyguard duty, and Curran knew it. Derek had talent and a will to make something out of it. He couldn't climb any higher up the bodyguard ladder, and he was comfortable where he was. Apparently my sugar woogums decided it was time to make him uncomfortable. That still didn't explain what the boy wonder was doing here.

  "So what is next?"

  Derek looked at me, his dark eyes luminescent with telltale shapeshifter glow. "I said, `Next I fight Jim for his job. '"

  I felt an urge to hit my head against something hard. "Brilliant move, boy wonder. What did Curran say?"

  "He said, `In about thirty years, maybe. ' "

  "Put fighting Jim out of your mind. You're not there yet. "

  Derek rolled his eyes. "Yes, His Majesty explained to me in detail how if Jim sneezes in my direction, I'd have a weeklong stay in the hospital. "

  "Jim is deadly. It's not an exaggeration, it's a fact. Also, he's been at this game for a lot longer than you. No fighting Jim. Yes?"

  "Yes," Derek agreed.

  Maybe he had some sense after all.

  "So . . . " Derek shifted from foot to foot. "Can I have a job?"

  I closed my eyes and counted from ten backward.

  "Kate?"

  "The last two times you and I crossed paths, you got your leg ripped up and had molten metal poured on your face. "

  "The metal was my fault, not yours. " All humor fled from his eyes. A wolf looked at me, a vicious wolf with a scarred face. "I've worked for Jim for three years as a `face. ' I went in undercover, I obtained information, and I brought it back, safe. After that, I ran Curran's personal security for six months. I know the security protocols, I know procedures, and I've proven I can effectively use resources at my disposal. If you hire me, I would be a valuable asset. "

  "Very nice. How many times did you rehearse this speech?"

  "I'm serious, Kate. I can be useful to you. Besides, you need somebody to ride shotgun. You gave Grendel to Andrea, so you don't have a wingman. I can vomit better than a shaved poodle, I promise. And honestly, you could use a driver. "

  "What are you implying?"

  "I'm not implying, I'm saying it. You're the opposite of Dali. She drives like a maniac, you drive like an old lady . . . "

  Bloody hell. I closed my eyes. I couldn't tell him no and he knew it.

  "Are you okay?"

  "I need you to go to the garage and get another Jeep, because mine only seats two. Then I need you to follow me in that Jeep. And if I hear as much as a whisper about my driving abilities, I'll fire you on the spot. "

  "Thanks, Kate. " He grinned and took off running.

  Curran got rid of Ascanio and saddled me with not one, but two bodyguards. God help anyone who dared to look at me funny. They would rip him to pieces, just to outdo each other.

  NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES I VISITED THE CASINO, it always took me by surprise. After the hard freezes of a freakishly cold winter, the early spring painted Atlanta in black, brown, and gray. Grim ruins thrust here and there, like dark husks stained with cold spring rain. Bleak houses glared at the streets with barred windows. Mud stained the streets, churned by the current of horses, mules, oxen, and an occasional camel. Wagons creaked, engines growled, drivers barked curses at each other, animals brayed . . . And then you turned the corner and ran into a castle straight out of the Arabian Nights. Pure white and almost delicate, it all but floated in the middle of a huge lot, flanked by elegant minarets and wrapped by a wall with a textured parapet. Long fountains stretched toward its ornate doors, and Hindu gods, cast in bronze and copper, posed frozen in time above the water.

  For a moment it took your breath away. And then you saw the vampires, smeared in purple and lime-green sunblock, patrolling those snow-white walls and the reality came back real fast. There was something so alien and foreign about the undead crawling over all that beauty. I wanted to pluck them off like fleas from a white cat.

  I parked in the far lot and shut off the engine. A moment later Derek pulled his vehicle next to mine, parked, and stepped out. "Are we going in?" "We are. "

  "With him?" He nodded at Ascanio.

  The kid bared his teeth. "What exactly do you mean by that?"

  I turned to him. "Who is the primary enemy of the Pack?"

  Ascanio hesitated. "The People?"

  I nodded. "We have a very uneasy truce going. I have to go into the Casino to talk to Ghastek. He's a Master of the Dead. Because I'm the Consort, I can't go in there without a proper escort. " Now I was calling myself the Consort. Kill me, somebody.

  "If Kate goes in by herself, the People could claim that she did something to break the truce," Derek said. "Or something could happen to her. This way we'll act as witnesses. "

  "You have a choice: you can stay with the vehicles or you can come with us," I said. "But if you decide to come, you follow Derek and you keep your mouth shut. You don't flirt, you don't crack jokes, you give the People absolutely no excuse to take any kind of offense. One wrong word, and we're at war. Do I make myself clear?"

>   Ascanio nodded. "Yes, Consort. "

  "Good. " I took a manila folder from the front seat of my Jeep and locked the car. "Put your badass faces on and follow me. "

  We crossed the parking lot, with me leading the way and Derek and Ascanio behind, stone-faced and emanating a willingness to kill, in case any stray People got out of line. Two solemn sentries with curved yatagan swords guarded the Casino doors. We walked right past them, across the floor filled with slot machines jerry-rigged to work during magic and card tables to the back, to a small service room. A young woman in the Casino uniform of black pants and dark purple vest looked up at me from behind the desk.

  "Kate Daniels," I told her. "To see Ghastek. "

  She nodded. "Please have a seat. "

  I sat. The two boys remained standing, one on either side of my chair. The noise of the crowd floated through the door, a steady hum interrupted by periodic outbursts of laughter and shouts.

  The side door opened and a blond man stepped out. "Good morning. I'm so sorry, but your escort will have to remain here. "

  "That's fine. " I rose.

  "Please follow me. " I followed him up the stairs and through the hallways, to a stairway. We went down, lower and lower, one floor, two, three. The air smelled of undead, a dry, revolting scent, laced with a tinge of foul magic.

  We turned on the landing and another flight of stairs rolled down, ending in stone floor and a metal door. A vampire clung to the wall above it, like a steel-muscled gecko, its dull red eyes tracking our movement. Before the Shift, corporations installed cameras. Now the People installed vampires.

  The blond man opened the door and led me into a narrow concrete tunnel, its ceiling punctuated by glowing warts of electric lights. The underbelly of the Casino was a maze of claustrophobic tunnels. Loose vampires weren't great with direction. In the event the locks on their cells malfunctioned, the personnel of the stables would evacuate, and the loose vampires would wander through the tunnels, confused and contained, until the navigators secured them one by one.

  The tunnels ended, opening into a huge chamber filled with cells, set back to back in twin rows angling toward the center of the room like spokes of a wheel. The side walls and the backs of the cells were stone and concrete, but the fronts consisted of thick metal grates, designed to slide upward. The stench of undeath hit me full force and I almost gagged. Vampires filled the cells, chained to the walls, pacing behind the metal bars, crouching in corners, their mad eyes glowing with insane hunger.

  We reached the empty center of the room and turned down another row of cells. In front of us, a glass-covered balcony protruded from the wall. The tinted glass panels looked opaque from this angle, but I'd been in Ghastek's office before. From the inside, the glass was crystal clear.

  We walked through another door, up an access tunnel, and to a wooden door marked with Ghastek's symbol: an arrow tipped with a circle. My guide stepped aside. I knocked.

  "Enter," Ghastek's voice called out.

  Oh goody. I pushed the door and it swung open soundlessly under the pressure of my fingertips.

  A large room greeted me, looking more like a living room than the lair of a Master of the Dead. Shelves lined the back wall, filled to the bursting point with books of all colors and sizes. At the far wall a pair of medieval shackles hung on hooks, displayed like a priceless work of art. A crescent red sofa sat in the middle of the dark floor, facing the glass balcony that offered a floor-to-ceiling view of the stables. At the far end of the sofa sat Ghastek, dressed in tailored black trousers and a turtleneck. He was already thin, and the severe clothes made him seem almost gaunt. He was drinking a frothy espresso from a small brown cup. Two vampires sat on the floor by him, one on each side. The vampires clutched knitting needles, moving them with dizzying speed. A long swatch of knitted cloth, one blue, the other green, stretched from each of them.

  Alrighty then. If this wasn't a heartwarming Norman Rockwell painting, I didn't know what was.

  The needles clicked, chewing up the yarn. I could control several vampires at a time, but I couldn't make even one knit, even if the needles were as thick as its fingers and I were moving them in slow motion. Ghastek had two running at once. I fought a shiver. He could send one of those bloodsuckers forward and stab me in the eye, and I wasn't sure I'd be fast enough to stop it.

  "Is this a bad time?" I asked. "I can come back if you and the twins are having a private moment. "

  Ghastek's gaze fastened on me. "Don't be crude, Kate. Would you like a drink?"

  To drink was stupid; not to drink would be an insult. But then I doubted Ghastek would go through the trouble of poisoning me. It wasn't his style. "Water would be nice. "

  The left vampire dropped its needles and scuttled into another room.

  I shrugged off my cloak, folded it over the sofa's armrest, and took a seat. "You can't blame me for thinking you might get kinky. You have shackles on the wall. "

  Ghastek's eyes lit up. "Ah. Those are interesting, aren't they? They're from Nordlingen in Germany, late sixteenth century. "

  "The Witch Trials?"

  Ghastek nodded.

  "Do you think you would have been burned at the stake in the sixteenth century?"

  "No. "

  "Because you're not a woman?"

  "Being a woman made little difference. Most witches burned in Iceland and Finland were men, for example. No, I wouldn't have been burned, because I'm not poor. "

  The undead returned and crouched by me, holding a glass of water with ice in its long claws. A narrow slice of lemon floated on the water. The vampire's mouth hung open, the narrow sickles of its fangs stark white against the darkness of its maw. Service with a smile.

  I took the water and sipped. "Thank you. So why the cuffs then?"

  The undead returned to its knitting.

  "People view us and our vampires as abominations," Ghastek said. "They call the undead inhuman, not realizing the irony: only humans are capable of inhumanity. Four thousand years of technology, with magic shrinking to a mere trickle before the Shift, yet the world was just as evil then as it is now. It's not vampires or werewolves who committed the worst atrocities, but average people. They are the serial killers, the child rapists, the inquisitors, the witch hunters, the perpetrators of monstrous deeds. The shackles on my wall are the symbol of humanity's capacity for cruelty. I keep them to remind myself that I must fear those who fear me. Given your present affiliation, I would suggest you do the same. " That hit close to home. If my bloodline became known, people would be lining up around the block to either kill me or banish me as far as they could to keep themselves safe from Roland's wrath when he and I had our happy family reunion.

  Ghastek took a sip of his espresso. "Strictly out of curiosity, what was the deciding factor in selecting the Beast Lord? You had options, and life with him must be regimented. He seems like the type to assert his dominance, and you always seemed like a person who dislikes being dominated. "

  "I love him. "

  Ghastek mulled it over for a second and nodded. "Ah. That explains it. "

  The vampires continued their crafting marathon. "Why knitting?"

  "It's intricate. I could've had them thread beads or set up dominoes. It's an exercise. "

  Fainting had rattled him. He was trying to reassure himself that he still had it all under control. Maybe I could put in a request for a pair of handmade socks.

  "How is Emily?"

  Ghastek's stare gained an icy edge. "Her leg had to be amputated. She will have the best prosthetics we can provide. The city owes her a debt. I intend to pursue this matter with all the resources at my disposal. "

  Technically the law was on the PAD's side. When faced with a loose bloodsucker, they were obligated to do everything within their power to wipe it off the face of the planet, no matter the casualties. But the People wouldn't forget it. They held grudges forever, and then some.

  I reached
into my pocket. "I've brought you an invoice for the capture of the vampire. "

  Ghastek sighed. "Of course. "

  The vampire on the right scuttled over, took the paper from my hand, and delivered it to Ghastek. He scanned it. His eyes widened. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a leather wallet, extracted a dollar, and passed it to the vamp. The undead brought it to me and I placed it into the folder. "Paid in full. Would you like a receipt?"

  "Please. "

  A receipt for a dollar. Why didn't that surprise me? I wrote out the receipt, leaned over, and handed it to him. "When you called me Wednesday morning, how did you do it?"

  "I wasted a few valuable seconds at a pay phone. "

  That was what I thought. "I did some thinking. "

  "That is a very dangerous pastime," Ghastek said. He'd made a joke. Surely the apocalypse wasn't far behind. "The vampire was loose. You had no way of knowing it would run toward my office. Loose vampires are attracted to blood. In the absence of blood they tend to blunder about aimlessly. However, vampires have scent glands near the base of their digits. They mark the ground as they run. The scent is very weak, but when a vampire follows the same route over and over, they create a tangible scent trail. "

  Ghastek nodded. "That's one of the reasons we prefer to run them along the rooftops. "

  "That and it makes killing people easier by leaping on your unsuspecting victims from above. "

  "Indeed. "

  "A loose vampire will naturally follow a vampiric scent trail if it stumbles on it, because there might be food on the other end. " I took a map out of my folder and pointed to the red line veering its way through the streets. "This is a section of your patrol line. At least three vampires pass along this route every day. I'd say this is as strong a scent trail as you could get. Was the journeywoman patrolling that route when she fainted and dropped the vampire?"

  "Correct. " Ghastek was watching me with acute interest. "Since the vampire was already following the scent trail, I felt it was unlikely she would deviate from its course. Your office sits right under our outer patrol line. The building itself is in the Pack territory, but the parking lot is in ours. I'm sure it was by design. "

  It was. The location of my office had put me into a perfect position to watch the border with the People. Curran and I had discussed it at some length. That was part of the reason why my door could withstand concentrated bombardment from a tank. In case the shapeshifters got in trouble in their midnight adventures in vampire land, they could hightail it to my office and hide behind my sturdy door.

  "It was a smart move on the Pack's part," Ghastek said. "The cooperation agreement forbids any fortified Pack or People structures within one mile of the border, but it doesn't forbid a business licensed by either party. "

  "And I'm sure you license several businesses near the border. "

  "It wouldn't be in my best interests to confirm or deny. " Ghastek permitted himself a small half smile.

  Here came the hard part. I had to say enough to hold his interest but not too much to betray the Red Guard's confidentiality. "I'm working a case in Sibley. During my investigation, I encountered a ward that disappeared. "

  Ghastek leaned forward. "What do you mean, disappeared?"

  "It vanished, as if it'd never been there. " I turned the map and pointed to Johnson Ferry. "This bridge is one of the two primary ways out of Sibley and into the city. Yesterday the wards guarding the Bridge Troll also disappeared. " I trailed Johnson Ferry until it crossed the red line of the vampire patrol. "I'm guessing this is the point where your girl dropped the vampire. " Ghastek said nothing.

  "Something passed this way out of Sibley, over the bridge, and along this street. Something that ate the wards and tainted your vampire. Your own journeywomen told me that they couldn't grab its mind. I think that it took all of your power to hold it. " That was why he made it curtsy and put on a show. It was a huge, shocking bluff.

  Ghastek laughed softly.

  "The thing that ate the ward left Sibley on a cart or a car, and your girl probably saw it just before she fainted. I need to know what that vehicle looked like. "

  Ghastek considered it. "I'll think about it. "

  I'd saved his life. Apparently it wasn't worth a tiny crumb of information. Thrashing Ghastek in his own office was out of the question. First, he had two vampires with him, and second, I would cause an interfaction incident. I rose. "Do that. "

  I was almost to the door, when he spoke. "Kate?"

  "Yes?"

  "I liked you better as a merc. "

  "I did, too. " I could kick people and say what I actually thought without causing a diplomatic disaster. "But we all have to grow up sometime. "

  WHEN OUR TWO-JEEP PARADE ARRIVED AT THE office, Andrea was already there. I knew this because there was a new pile of steaming dog puke three feet outside our side door.

  The two teenage shapeshifters pondered the puke.

  I pointed to the spot in front of the door. "Ascanio, stand right here. "

  He moved to the spot. "Why?"

  I stepped to the side and opened the door. One hundred pounds of Grendel caught in intense canine joy burst through the door. The attack poodle launched himself into the air. Ascanio grabbed him and clamped Grendel tight.

  Good reaction time.

  Ascanio stared at the poodle. "What is this?"

  "A faithful canine companion. "

  "He stinks like a sewer. " The mutant poodle squirmed and licked Ascanio's chin.

  "Ugh. What do I do with him?"

  "Bring him inside. "

  I stepped into the office. Behind me Derek said, "I'd sterilize my face if I were you. "

  "Mind your own business, wolf. "

  The office smelled like coffee. Inside, Andrea raised her head from a small laptop sitting on top of paperwork spread on her desk. "What took you so long?"

  "Good morning to you too, sunshine. " I dropped my bag by my chair.

  Andrea tossed an envelope at me. I glanced at it. The Order's shield logo marked the top left corner. Uh-oh.

  "What is this?"

  "It's Shane," she growled. "He wants me to `cease my efforts' to get my weapons, because they are currently being used to apprehend real criminals. "

  Ha, I thought it was something dire. "He's just jerking your chain. If you want, I'll get Barabas to draw up a letter with his lawyer credentials on it. We'll send it to the Order and you'll get your weapons back. Shane can't hold your property. "

  "I know that. I'm still pissed off. It's your duty as my best friend to be outraged with me. "

  "I'm outraged!" I snarled. "That bastard!"

  "Thank you," Andrea said.

  Ascanio cleared his throat. "Consort? May I put him down now?"

  I turned. He was still holding Grendel, who seemed to be enjoying it, judging by the way he kept licking Ascanio's shoulder. Behind him, Derek was trying to choke off a laugh.

  "Yes. "

  Ascanio set Grendel on the floor.

  Andrea peered at Derek. "What are you doing here?"

  "I hired him," I told her.

  Andrea's blond eyebrows crawled up a fraction of an inch. "And him?"

  "Him, too. " Andrea pointed at Ascanio with her pen. "How old are you?"

  "Fifteen. "

  "He can't work here. He's too young. "

  I shrugged. "The legal age for employment is fourteen. "

  "Yes, with the exception of hazardous jobs. "

  "He will be an office helper. How is that hazardous?"

  "Kate! Would you like to go outside and look at the bullet holes in the pavement?"

  "He isn't a full-time employee. He's an intern. "

  Andrea looked at me for a long moment. "I don't think you understand this whole business thing. Clients produce money. Employees cost money. We want fewer employees and more clients, not the other way around. We don't need teenage bouda sex fiends as i
nterns. "

  "How do you know he is a sex fiend?"

  Andrea looked at me like I was mentally challenged. "He is fifteen and he is a bouda. Hello?"

  Good point. I nodded to the boy wonder and the sex fiend. "Pull up some chairs. "

  When I came back from the kitchen with a carafe of coffee and four mugs to pour it into, everyone had gathered around Andrea's desk.

  I opened the file with the case and ran through it. By the time I finished, Derek was frowning. A crazy glow lit up Ascanio's eyes. "Do you think people will try to kill us?"

  "Yes. "

  "Cool. "

  Cool. Right. "There is a freezer in the back room with de Harven's body in it. Go and examine it. Look at his face and memorize the scents. After you do that, walk through the office so you know the layout. "

  They took off.

  "What's eating you?" Andrea asked.

  "I had a fight with Curran. "

  "What about?"

  "He's managing me. " Andrea raised her eyebrows.

  "He maneuvers events, taking away my choices until there is only one possible solution to a problem. It pisses me off. "

  "That's what alphas do. " Andrea grimaced. "I got a note from Aunt B last night. "

  Warning, warning, spiked traps ahead. "And?"

  "She wants to meet. For a `nice chat. '"

  I knew exactly what this chat would be about. Andrea was a shapeshifter, and no shapeshifter could exist within Atlanta without becoming a member of the Pack's furry horde. Before, Andrea was a member of the Order, and the boudas kept her secret. Now she was unattached. Andrea would have to make a choice: enter the Pack and become one of Aunt B's boudas or move. After her childhood, Andrea would rather cut her arm off than become a bouda.

  "I'm not going," Andrea said suddenly.

  Aunt B wouldn't just let it go. Of all the alphas in the Pack, two gave me pause: Mahon, the Pack's executioner and the head of Clan Heavy, and Aunt B. Screwing with Aunt B was like sticking your hands into a meat grinder. She was all sweetness and cookies, and then giant claws came out and people's guts ended up as garlands on the chandelier.

  "It's a courtesy," I told her. "She's letting you come to her on your terms. You blow her off too many times, and she'll have you brought to her. "

  "I know. " Andrea locked her teeth. Right. No intelligent life there. Arguing about it would just make things worse.

  The two shapeshifters trotted back and took their seats at the table.

  I explained about Chernobog, Adam's last name, and the fact that he likely had ties to a Russian community.

  Andrea frowned. "A sacrifice gives the priest a magic boost. "

  I nodded. "It only lasts a couple seconds, but yes. "

  "Could he grab Adam and his doohickey, and teleport out?"

  Now there was a thought. "If he was a really, really powerful volhv, probably. But why would the volhvs need Adam?"

  "I don't get it," Derek said. "Why can't we just go to talk to them directly?"

  "When I was a merc, I took a job to guard a man. He had stolen something from the volhvs, and I kept them from killing him. They won't talk to me or anyone associated with me. " I paused to make sure I had their attention. "Volhvs throw around heavy-duty magic. Once we start asking questions, they will be on us like white on rice. We need a security protocol in place. "

  I looked at Derek. Start earning your keep, boy wonder.

  He pushed away from the edge of the desk. "From this point on, we're on high alert. We leave together, we arrive together. This office is a small fortress. " Derek pointed at the door and looked at Ascanio. "While in the office, that door stays locked. The back door is reinforced with a metal grate. That door stays locked and barred at all times as well. We do not open the doors unless we know the person on the other side and they smell right. If you have to leave, let someone know where you're going and when you will be back, unless it's an emergency. "

  The phone rang. I picked it up.

  "Kate?" Ksenia's voice said. "Evdokia says meet her at John White Park. I'd run, not walk, if I were you. "

  "Thanks. " I hung up. "I have an audience with the witches. "

  "We pide and conquer. " Andrea rose. "Derek, you and I need to dig into de Harven's background. His house, his neighbors, history, everything we can get. "

  "What about me?" Ascanio asked.

  "You hold the fort," I told him.

  "But . . . "

  "This is the point where you say, `Yes, Alpha,' " Derek said.

  Ascanio shot him a look that was pure murder. "Yes, Alpha. "

  This wasn't going to end well, I just knew it.

 
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