ONE FOR THE MONEY by Jeaniene Frost
ONE FOR THE MONEY by Jeaniene Frost
I squinted in the morning sunlight. At this hour, I should have been in bed, but thanks to my uncle Don, I was traipsing across the NCSU campus instead. I strode up to Harrelson Hall, then climbed to the third floor to the class I was looking for. When I walked in, most of the students ignored me, either chatting with each other or rifling through their bags as they waited for class to start. The room had stadium-style seating, with the entrance down by the professor's podium. My lower vantage point gave me the same sweeping view of the students the professor would have. I scanned every face, seeking the one that matched the jpeg I'd been sent.
A pretty blonde stared back at me with barely concealed suspicion. I smiled in a friendly way and threaded up the aisle toward her. My smile didn't soothe her; she flicked her gaze around the room as if debating whether to make a run for it.
The air felt charged with invisible current moments before a ghost burst into the room. Of course, I was the only one who could see him.
"Trouble," the ghost said.
Sounds of heavy footsteps came down the hall while the air thickened with greater supernatural energy.
So much for doing this the quiet way.
"Get Bones," I told the ghost. "Tell him to be ready at the window."
That turned a few heads, but I didn't care about my college student ruse anymore. I had to get those people out of here.
"I've got a bomb," I called out loudly. "If you don't want to die, get out now."
Several kids gasped. A few snickered, not sure if I was kidding, but no one ran for the door. The footsteps coming down the hall got closer.
No one waited to see if I was kidding anymore. Scrambling ensued as the students ran for the door. I held onto my gun, shouting at everyone to stay away from me, relieved to see the room emptying. But when Tammy tried to dart away, I grabbed her.
A man barreled through the door, knocking the panicked deluge of students aside as if they were weightless. I shoved Tammy away and whipped out three of the silver knives that I had strapped to my legs under my skirt, waiting until no one was in front of him before flinging them at the charging figure.
He didn't try to dodge my blades and nothing happened when they landed in his chest.
I didn't bother with more knives, but launched myself at the ghoul, bear-hugging him. He pounded at my sides, smashing my ribs as he tried to shake me off. Pain flared in me, but I didn't let go. If I were human, the punishment from his fists would have killed me, but I was a full vampire now, so my broken bones healed almost instantly.
I managed to put the gun's muzzle to the ghoul's temple and pulled the trigger.
Screams erupted from the few kids still left in the room. I ignored them and kept pumping bullets into the ghoul's head. The bullets wouldn't kill him, but they did a lot of damage. His head was in oozing pieces when I let go.
Tammy tried to run past me, but I was faster, knocking over desks in my way as I grabbed her. Scraping sounds let me know the ghoul was crawling toward us, his head healing with every second. I hopped over the desks, yanking Tammy along with me, and pulled out my largest knife from under my sleeve. With a hard swipe, I skewered the ghoul's neck.
The ghost appeared in the window, followed by another surge of energy coming from the same direction. Time to go.
Tammy screamed as she fought me, trying to break my hold on her. "I'm not going to hurt you," I said. "Fabian." I glanced at the ghost. "Hold on."
He wrapped his spectral hands around my shoulders. Tammy wasn't as trusting. She kept screaming and kicking.
I ignored that and ran right at the window. Tammy shrieked as we smashed through it with a hail of glass. Since her classroom had been on the third floor, we didn't have a long hang time before something collided with us, propelling us straight upward. Tammy's screams rose to a terrified crescendo as we rocketed up at an incredible speed.
"Somebody help me!" she shrieked.
The vampire who'd caught us adjusted his grip, flying me, Tammy, and the hitchhiking ghost toward our destination at the far edge of campus.
"Somebody has," he replied, English accent discernible even above Tammy's screams.
The Hummer was equipped with bulletproof windows, a reinforced frame, and a backseat that couldn't be opened from the inside. Tammy found that out when she tried to escape as soon as we'd thrown her in and sped off. Then she'd shrieked for another ten minutes, ignoring my repeated statements that we weren't going to hurt her. Finally, she calmed down enough to ask questions.
"You shot that guy in the head." Her eyes were wide. "But that didn't kill him. How is that possible?"
I could lie. Or, I could use the power in my gaze to make her believe she hadn't seen anything unusual, but it was her life on the line, so she deserved the truth.
"He wasn't human."
Even after what she'd seen, her first reaction was denial. "What kind of bullshit is that? Did my cousin send you?"
"If he'd sent us, you'd be dead now," Bones said, not taking his attention off the road. "We're your protection."
I knew the exact moment Tammy got a good look at the vampire who'd snatched us out of thin air, because she stared. Her scent changed, too. That former reek of terror became a more perfumed fragrance as she checked out his high cheekbones, dark hair, ripped physique, and sinfully gorgeous profile.
But Tammy had just been through a very traumatic experience, so I ignored the vampire territorialism that made me want to grab Bones and snap, "Mine!" Instead, I handed her a pack of wet wipes.
She looked at them with an incredulous expression. "What do you expect me to do with these?"
"Noting works better to wipe off blood, believe me," I said, showing her my newly-cleaned arms.
Tammy looked at them, at me, and at Bones. "
"She already told you," Bones said, pulling over on the side of the road and putting the vehicle in park. "But you need more proof before you believe us, right?" He held up his hand. "Watch."
Bones dragged a knife across his hand, cutting open a line of flesh. Tammy stared as it closed moments later as if it had an invisible zipper. Fabian didn't even blink. The ghost was used to the healing abilities of the undead.
"I'm a vampire, that's why I can do this. Name's Bones, by the way."
"And I'm Cat," I added. "I'd introduce you to Fabian, but you can't see him anyway. We're your guardians until my uncle tracks down your cousin and arrests him."
Tammy's face was almost comical in its incredulity. "But it's daylight," she said at last. "Vampires can't go out in the sun, everyone knows that!"
Bones chuckled. "Right. And we shrink back from crosses, can't travel over water, can't enter a home unless invited, and always get staked in the end by the righteous slayer. Really, who'd be afraid of a creature like that? All you'd need is a Bible, a tanning bed, and some holy water to send us shivering to our dooms."
Tammy shook her head slowly. I watched with sympathy. Denial was how I'd reacted at sixteen when I found out my absentee father had been a vampire, and that it wasn't puberty causing my strangeness, but the growth of my inhuman traits.
"I know it's hard to believe since vampires and ghouls look human most of the time," I tried again, "but -"
"Let me get this straight," Tammy interrupted. "I asked some of my father's old government friends for help when "accidents" kept happening to me, and someone sent a
Fabian began to laugh. I gave the ghost a censuring look that silenced his chuckles, but even though he was partially transparent, it was clear his lips were still twitching.
"Actually, two vampires," I corrected. "The ghost was a bonus."
"I'm a dead woman," Tammy muttered.
Bones snorted. "Told you this job wouldn't be easy, luv."
He was right, but I owed Don a favor. Even if I hadn't, I would still be here. Last month, Tammy had almost been killed by a "freak" electrical surge. Two weeks ago, a drive-by shooting nearly took her life. Could've been unfortunate coincidences, except the fact that if Tammy died before her twenty-first birthday, all her father's millions would go to her cousin, Gables. Tammy's late father had been an old friend of my uncle's, and Don didn't believe in coincidences. Then Don did some digging and heard that the next attempt on Tammy would involve an 'exotic' kind of hitman that never failed.
Don knew what that meant. He ran a special Homeland Security division that dealt with the supernatural – not that taxpayers knew part of their money went toward policing things that supposedly didn't exist. I was retired from the unit, but that made it even better for my uncle. Don didn't need to use an active team member to look after his old friend's daughter. No, he could call me, knowing I wouldn't turn away a girl who had her head on a preternatural chopping block.
Tammy seemed to have gotten over her initial shock. She tossed her blonde hair. "I offered to pay for protection and if you're the one protecting me, that means you work for me. So I'm going to lay some ground rules, got it?"
My brows rose. Fabian whistled, but of course, Tammy couldn't hear the ghost.
Bones gave me a knowing look. "Told you not to answer your mobile whilst we were on vacation, Kitten."
I sighed. Tammy began ordering us to take her back to her house. Bones ignored her, pulling onto the road and continuing in the opposite direction of where she lived.
"It's only for a few days," I said.
Or so I hoped, anyway.
Most people who'd had three brushes with death – one involving a ghoul – would be scared into a very cooperative state. Tammy appeared to be channeling her inner Paris Hilton instead. Evidently she'd never heard the word
"You've got to be kidding." Tammy gave a disparaging glance at the rustic countryside and overgrown cherry orchard bordering the property where I'd grown up.
"It's in the middle of nowhere," Tammy went on. "You probably have psychotic inbreds living in the woods!"
We'd rounded the last turn and were heading down the long gravel road that led to my old house when Bones abruptly stopped.
"What's wrong?" I asked, feeling his tenseness like invisible ants marching across my skin.
"Your house isn't empty," he stated low. "And the occupant isn't human."
"Let's get out of here," Tammy said, her voice rising. "Now!"
I had my hand over her mouth even as Bones slid soundlessly out of the car. All we needed was for Tammy to start screaming to really alert whoever the undead intruder was. How the hell had someone beaten us here? We'd told no one we were coming! Instinct made me want to follow Bones, but that would leave Tammy unprotected. I glared at Tammy and ordered her in a low tone to be silent. The power from my gaze rendered Tammy mute at once. Then I let go of her mouth and pulled out a few weapons, all my senses directed toward the house half a mile up the road.
Relief rolled across my subconscious moments later, causing me to lessen my grip on my knives. Bones must have killed the intruder. Being connected to Bones this way was like hitchhiking on his emotions. In situations like this, it also came in handy.
I began to drive up the road again, ignoring Tammy's frantic pokes on my shoulders. I'd compelled her to be quiet, but not to be still, more's the pity.
When I was halfway up the road, Bones appeared, a bemused expression on his face.
"Your mum's here," he said.
I'd slowed on seeing him, but at that, I slammed on the brakes. "She is?"
Bones nodded and got into the passenger sear. "In the undead flesh."
"Catherine?" I heard my mother say, sounding as surprised as I felt. Of course. Even a hundred yards away, with her new hearing, she'd pick up my conversation with Bones as easily as if she'd been in the car.
A lump made its way into my throat. "Yeah, Mom. It's me."
I hadn't seen my mother in months. Not since the night I killed the man who kidnapped and forcibly changed her into a vampire. He'd done it just to hurt me, the bastard. It was a shame I couldn't kill him twice.
My mother was framed in the front door, watching me as I pulled up. The highlights had grown out of her hair and her skin was already paler than it had been the last time I'd seen her. Feeling the aura of supernatural energy coming from her was something I didn't think I'd ever get used to.
"Hi," I said as I got out. I wanted to hug her, but I was afraid she might push me away. My mother had always loathed vampires. Now she was stuck as one, and it was all because of me. To say that strained our relationship was putting it mildly.
Her hands fluttered, like she wasn't sure what to do with them. "Catherine." A small smile creased her face. "What are you doing here?"
"We were going to use the house to hide out, but since you're here -"
"Someone's after you again?" she cut me off, green tingeing her blue gaze.
"Not me," I hastened to assure her. "Tammy, the girl in the backseat. Bones and I are, uh, guarding her for a few days until Don squares things away."
"Hallo, Justina," Bones said, getting out of the car. "Certainly didn't expect to see you here."
"I wanted somewhere quiet to go for a vacation," she muttered.
He let out a sardonic laugh. "Seems we're not the only ones to have our vacation interrupted, then."
Bones took it for granted that we'd still be staying here. We'd decided this place was perfect to hide Tammy and I'm the one who owned it, so to him it was settled. But after all my mother had been through, I didn't want to subject her to my current predicament.
"We'll go somewhere else," I said with an apologetic shrug.
"Is something wrong with the girl?" my mother asked, pointing.
I glanced at the backseat. Tammy was smacking at the door while her eyes bugged and her mouth opened and closed like a fish.
"Oh shit, I forgot about muting her!"
I let Tammy out and returned her voice with a flash of my gaze. The first thing she did was howl loud enough to make me wince.
"Then don't give away our position if we think there's danger, and we won't have a reason to," Bones replied with an arched brow.
"Mom, this is Tammy," I said, waving the blonde forward.
My mother smiled with less tension. "Hello, Tammy. Nice to meet you."
Tammy grabbed my mother's arms. "Finally, someone normal! Do you know what it's
Bones snorted. "We were a bit busy keeping you alive, if you recall."
My mother glanced at Tammy and then back at me. "Poor girl, you must be starving. I'll make you something for dinner. You don't want Catherine to cook, believe me."
Under normal circumstances, I might have bristled at the implication. But that statement, plus the look she'd given me, said we would be staying here after all. Safety concerns for Tammy aside, I was happy. I'd missed my mother. Maybe our mutually interrupted vacations were a blessing in disguise for our relationship.
"After you, Mom."
My warm and fuzzy feeling evaporated after dinner, however. The house only had two bedrooms. My mother kindly offered to share hers with Tammy, but just as I was about to thank her for it, Tammy spoke.
"Shouldn't I sleep with
My mother gasped. I opened my mouth to deliver a scathing retort, but Bones laughed. "I'm a married man, but even if I weren't, you wouldn't stand a chance. Rotten manners you have."
"Your loss," Tammy said, with another toss of her hair. Then she looked around in frustration. "You can't expect me to stay here more than a couple days. I'll go crazy."
"But you'll be alive," I pointed out, which should have been her top priority, in my opinion.
"You killed that thing, didn't you?" Tammy asked. "Doesn't that mean the danger's over?"
Bones shrugged. "I doubt the ghoul was the person contracted to kill you. Sounds like outsourced, cheap local talent to me."
Tammy gaped at him. "She had to cut his head off before he stayed down.
"No self-respecting undead hitman would take a contract on a human," Bones said dismissively. "Humans are too easy. Like getting paid to stomp on a goldfish. But in your case, probably a human hitman who knows about the undead got frustrated that his last two attempts didn't work, and gave some quid to a young ghoul to finish you. It's a practical solution; the ghoul gets money and a meal, the hitter still keeps the bulk of the contract payment, and the client's happy that you're dead."
"You would know, wouldn't you?" my mother muttered.
"How's that?" Tammy asked.
Bones smiled at her, beautiful and cold at the same time. "Because I was a hitman for over two hundred years."
Tammy gulped. I didn't add what I knew; that Bones had been very particular about his contracts. He killed other killers, not innocent people, and most of those people were his own kind. That hadn't won Bones any popularity contests in undead circles, but if Bones thought someone deserved to die, he took the contract, no matter the danger.
"In a few days, Don should have your greedy toad of a cousin arrested and then it will be safe for you to go home," Bones went on.
"If you're a hitman, why can't I just pay you to kill Gables?" she asked, recovering. "My birthday isn't for another two months. Who knows if my cousin might try to kill me again, even if he is in jail?"
My eyes widened at how causally Tammy broached the subject.
Bones shrugged. "He might, but you'll have to look elsewhere for a hitter. I'm too busy for that now."
Tammy glanced at my mother, me, and then Bones before her face tightened up. "This sucks," she said, and ran up the stairs.
Considering I could have been spending the next two weeks on vacation with my husband instead of looking after a spoiled rich girl who was being targeted by killers, I agreed.
"It'll be all right, Tammy," I called out.
An expletive was her response. Bones arched a brow and tapped the side of his eye.
"Say the word, luv. I'll glare a whole new attitude into her."
Vampire mind control would be the easy way out, but when did I ever take the easy way?
"She'll come around," I muttered.
"I'll go talk to her," my mother said.
Both my brows went up. "You think you can make her see reason?"
My mother gave me a jaded look as she ascended the stairs. "You forget, Catherine – I've had a
Bones laughed, with a knowing glance at me that made my mouth twitch despite myself. Okay. My mother had a point.
I'd been in life and death situations since I was a sixteen, but those could be handled with some bravery – or recklessness, depending on who you asked – and my knives. A cranky, demanding heiress required a different set of skills. Ones I didn't seem to have.
Day two during a conversation with Tammy: "So you're married to Bones, huh? How'd you manage to snag him? You know, with your red hair and white skin, you look like a big candy cane."
Day three: "Boy, is Bones
Day four: "Let me out of this room! I'll call the police, the FBI. Let me
By day five, when Don still hadn't located Gables, Bones and I were ready to take matters in our own hands. If my uncle, with all the resources of the military and the government behind him, couldn't find Gables, then he wasn't going to be found any time soon. Putting our lives on hold for a few days was one thing, but Bones was Master of a large vampire line. We couldn't hide with Tammy for much longer. Soon we'd have to get back to our usual routine; dealing with the intricacies and dangers of life in undead society.
Not to mention, staying in a tiny house with my mother had ground my sex life to a halt. These walls were paper thin anyway, and with my mother being a vampire, anything we did would be as clear to her as if she were in the same room. The idea of her overhearing every last detail of me getting it on with Bones wasn't romantic, to say the least. Yeah, it was past time to be proactive about finding Gables.
We drove down a barely used road that dead ended at a large, industrial warehouse. Judging from its exterior, you'd never guess this was a night club filled with creatures the average person didn't believe existed. It was called Bite. Bones had taken me here on our first date, but we weren't taking a trip down memory lane. We were here for information.
Parking was around the back, surrounded by a thick line of trees that concealed the number of cars from anyone who happened to stumble across the lonely single road. For a secluded spot where immortals could let their hair down, Bite was perfect.
Of course, the heartbeats coming from many of the people waiting to get in proved that Bite didn't only cater to undead partiers.
My mother declined to come with us, stating that she didn't want to be around more vampires than necessary. Fabian stayed to keep her company, which seemed to make her happy. How far she'd come. I remembered when my mother would have run screaming away from a ghost, not looked forward to spending an evening with one.
So it was just Bones, Tammy and I who walked past the people in line. Humans and new vampires might have to wait their turn, but a Master vampire – and anyone with him – could go straight to the door. As we approached, I felt Bones draw in his aura of power, suppressing it to a level far below the mega-Master that he was. It was a trick Bones had gotten better at during the past several months. Immediately, the connection I had with him was barely discernible. The last time he'd closed himself off like this, it was right before he'd almost died. Feeling that blank wall when I was used to tapping into his mood brought back bad memories.
"I hate it when you do that," I whispered.
He squeezed my hand. "Sorry, luv. I don't want to announce myself to anyone who doesn't already know me."
I understood. Muting his power level was a better disguise for Bones than dying his hair or other changes to his appearance.
The entrance was guarded by a brawny, blond vampire who had to be six feet tall. She barely looked at Tammy, smiled when she saw Bones, and then laughed when her gaze flicked to me.
"I knew it. Wait until I see Logan. I told him Bones brought the Red Reaper with him years ago, but Logan didn't believe me."
I'd recognized the bouncer from that night, but I was surprised she remembered me.
"Trixie, luv, been a long time," Bones said, giving her a kiss on the cheek. She returned it before shaking my hand.
"Reaper. A pleasure."
"Call me Cat." The Red Reaper might be my nickname among the undead, but I preferred to be called by the abbreviation of my real name.
Tammy gave Trixie a frank stare. "Is she dead, too?"
Trixie grinned, showing off the gold plating on her fangs. "Does that answer your question?"
"Ew," Tammy said.
I rolled my eyes and mouthed "sorry" to Trixie, but she didn't seem to care about Tammy's comment.
"No fireworks inside," Trixie said, giving my hand a last, friendly squeeze.
I glanced at my hands and suppressed a shudder. One of my new tricks as a vampire was that when I got really pissed, flames shot from my hands. Guess word of that had spread. It shouldn't surprise me. Nobody loved gossip as much as people who'd had centuries of experience spreading it.
"We're not here for trouble," Bones said.
Trixie laughed. "That'll be the day when you don't leave trouble in your wake, Bones. Just keep it away from here."
"She knows you pretty well, huh?" I asked once we came inside.
Bones's mouth quirked. "Not as well as you're implying, Kitten."
It was a valid guess. Bones looked like temptation incarnate, and he'd been around the block for hundreds of years before he met me. If I assumed he slept with every female vampire he introduced me to, I'd be right more than I was wrong.
I pushed that thought away with all the other things I didn't like to dwell on. "Come on. I can smell the gin and tonic up ahead."
It was true. I smelled the different alcohols as the bartenders poured them, the myriad of other people's scents mixed with different perfumes, after shaves, and the tang of blood. Add that to the pulsating music, muted strobe lights, crush of people, and the energy wafting from everyone without a heartbeat, and I felt almost drunk from sensory overload.
"You couldn't feel it the last time, but you can now, can't you?" Bones whispered. "How thin the line is here between the normal and the paranormal. I told you Ohio was a supernatural hotspot. This club was built on an even bigger one. Feels like a charge in your blood, doesn't it?"
It did. No wonder the undead flocked to hotspots. Alcohol and drugs couldn't affect me anymore, but surrounded by all the inhuman occupants, where magic seemed to throb just below the surface, was sensual and exhilarating.
"Forget the drink. Let's dance."
My voice came out lower than I intended. Green appeared in the dark depths of Bones's eyes.
"Are you guys going to let me dance and have a little fun for once?" Tammy grumbled.
Bones swept out his hand. "By all means. Only don't leave the dance floor for any reason, or I'll lock you in your closet for a week."
Even if Tammy didn't know from experience that Bones never bluffed, his expression must have convinced her, because she gulped.
"Stay on the dance floor. Got it."
"Right, then. Off you go."
Bones was pressed to my back, his hips swaying against mine while his hands slid down my sides with a slow caress. Our recent celibacy combined with the brush of his lips on my neck, the coiled power pushing at his aura, plus all the mystic energy swirling around us, made me want to find the nearest corner and commit unspeakable acts on him.
But even the headiness of the atmosphere or the sensuality of dancing with Bones couldn't make me endanger Tammy – or have sex in public, like some people did at these clubs.
"After this is over with Tammy, we're coming back here," I murmured. "I bet you know where the private spots are in this place, and I intend to molest you in every one of them."
He laughed, sending tingles down my neck where his breath landed. "What a scandalous notion. I vow I'm blushing."
I doubted Bones had blushed since the Declaration of Independence was signed.
"Ready for that drink, luv?" Bones asked, turning me around to face him.
Yeah, I was ready for a drink, but not gin and tonic. I wanted to bury my fangs in Bones's throat and drain him until there was only enough blood left in him to keep him hard.
Hunger swelled in me at the thought. Changing from a half breed into a vampire had had unexpected side effects. I was only
Of course, Bones always looked good enough to eat. Whoever said
Bones inhaled, his eyes changing to emerald green. I knew mine would have changed also, and I felt my fangs push at my lips.
"Stay here. Keep an eye on Tammy," Bones growled, surprising me by shouldering his way through the other dancers. Had he spotted a threat? I glanced around, looking for Tammy's familiar blond head amongst the mass of living and undead gyrators. There. Dancing with
I made my way through until I reached Tammy, getting between her and one of the dancers. His scowl turned into a smile as his gaze swept over me.
"Hello, redhead," he drawled.
"I'm just getting my friend," I said.
Tammy didn't budge. "Hell no. I'm just starting to have fun!"
"Tammy," I gritted out, "don't make me carry you." If there was danger, I wanted our backs to a wall with me in front of her. Not where trouble could come from any angle.
Tammy glared at me, but didn't object again. I led her to the closest corner, as if we were having an intimate conversation, but I was braced for action. No one looked as if they were stalking us. Still, appearances were deceiving.
I felt a stab of relief when I saw Bones striding toward us. A large ghoul with black bushy hair and a blindingly white smile followed him.
"Verses, this is my wife, Cat," Bones introduced me.
"Nice to meet you," I said, shaking his hand. I was surprised when Bones tugged me away a moment later.
"Follow me," he said, leading me past the D.J.'s booth and to a door behind it. It opened to reveal a staircase, and it was a good thing I could see in the dark, because there were no lights once Bones shut the door.
I expected to see a weapons cache, but we were in a room cluttered with old speakers, musical equipment, boxes, and tables. I was about to ask what we were supposed to do with this stuff when Bones yanked me to him. He kissed me, pushing me back against the table and reaching under my dress.
Clearly we weren't here to armor up against danger. "Bones," I managed, pushing him back. "Tammy -"
"Is fine with Verses," he cut me off. "Don't fret about her. Think about me."
He propped me up on the table as he spoke, pulling my underwear down past my knees. I gasped when he kissed me again, because he unleashed his aura at the same time. The waves of power suddenly flooding over me, combined with the rub of his desire on my subconscious, felt just as tangible as his tongue raking inside my mouth.
My objection vanished. Music boomed all around us, its throbbing beat mimicking the pulse I no longer had. I kissed him back, pulling him closer. A last tug on my underwear had them off, and Bones spread my legs, positioning himself to stand between them. I opened his shirt, tonguing his flesh from his neck to his chest, awash in the heightened sensations of supernatural energy, lust, and power that came from Bones and the club above us.
He squeezed my breasts, his fingers teasing my nipples rigid even through my bra and dress. Hard, bare skin rubbed me below as he tugged down his pants. I arched against him, moaning into his mouth. Need throbbed within me. The table and walls vibrated from music pumping above us. To me, it seemed like everything was shuddering with passion.
"Now," I gasped.
He pushed deeply into me, the merging of our flesh sending waves of pleasure through my nerve endings. The invisible currents of his power seemed to sink into me with each new stroke.
I sank my fangs into his neck, feeling him shudder with a different kind of enjoyment. Blood filled my mouth, bringing a rush of ecstasy that his strong, smooth thrusts only heightened. I sucked harder, feeling his pace increase as the tension inside me built. I bit him again, crying out when his grasp tightened and he ground himself against me.
A flood of emotions seared my subconscious. I could feel Bones's control crumbling under the jagged slices of pleasure assaulting it. Felt the rapture shooting up his body when he abandoned that control and let lust have reign. Felt passion blasting through me as he yanked me even closer, thrusting with a sensual frenzy that would have hurt me if I was human, but only felt incredible now. Then I felt his fangs pierce my neck and my blood being pulled out. The music swallowed up our cries as we rocked together, faster and harder, drinking each other's blood, until both of us trembled from orgasm.
Bones laughed, low and sinful. "After being denied a week, I haven't begun to get inappropriate with you, Kitten, but I will."
"I'm serious." I might have an excuse, since decreased control over urges, food or otherwise, was a side effect of being a new vampire, but Bones had been dead a long time. "We're supposed to be guarding Tammy, not sneaking off for a quickie."
"Who knows how many more days we'll be holed up with your mum and Tammy? I wasn't wasting this opportunity. Besides, Verses is the owner of this club and he's a friend. Tammy's safe. He's probably twirling her around the dance floor as we speak."
That made me feel less guilty. We
I brought my attention back to business. "Time to mingle with the local lowlifes and see if anyone's heard about a hitter after a human?"
Bones grinned. "People do talk about all sorts of things when they're out having a bit of fun. Let's see if we can find out anything useful."
True to Bones's prediction, we found Tammy on the dance floor with Verses. The ghoul could dance like nobody's business, too. Tammy looked happier than I'd seen her all week.
"Not yet," Bones replied. "Verses, mate, point out one of your most gossipy regulars, but someone who can still be taken seriously."
With his height, it was easy for Verses to see over the other people. After a few seconds, he gestured at a bar manned by a beautiful vampire covered only in dark blue body glitter.
"See the gray-haired vampire sitting on the end? Name's Poppy. He tells too many stories to be trusted with a secret, but he doesn't make up what he hasn't heard."
"Smashing. I'd appreciate it if you kept your staff from mentioning that I was here tonight – or my wife. Trixie recognized us. Maybe a few more of them, too."
Verses gave Bones a look. "Bite is a haven for our kind. You're not intending to break my rules, are you?"
Bones clapped him on the back. "I won't do anything on your premises. After all, I intend to come back here with my wife. We still have some areas left to explore."
If it were possible, I'd have blushed at the blatant innuendo. Verses just laughed. Tammy looked bored.
"Why don't you do whatever it is you're going to do while I stay with Verses and dance?" Tammy suggested.
I was glad to change the subject. "Verses might have other things to do, Tammy."
"Keeping a pretty lady happy always takes priority," Verses said, winking at her.
Bones tugged my hand. "This shouldn't take too long, Kitten."
We left Tammy on the dance floor with the ghoul to head toward the glittering blue bartender and the gray-haired undead gossip.
I sat a few seats away from Bones at the bar, dividing my attention between eavesdropping on him and keeping an eye on Tammy. So far, she seemed to be fine, and Verses had been right; the wrinkled vampire next to Bones didn't need much prodding to start chattering. Bones let him pick the topics for the first half hour or so, then he turned the conversation.
"Bloody economy's got us all buggered," Bones declared, draining his whisky in one gulp. "Take me. Three years ago, I'm living the posh life off my investments. Today, I'm guarding a human to scrape by. Like to stake myself and save the embarrassment, I would."
Poppy snickered. "What're you guarding a human against? Tax evasion?"
They both laughed, and then Bones lowered his voice conspiratorially. "No, mate, against her relative. In truth, I wonder if I shouldn't be on the other side of this coin."
Even across the bar, I could see the gleam of interest in Poppy's eyes. "What other side?"
Bones leaned in, lowering his voice even further until I could barely hear him. "The side that gets paid more if the whiny brat dies. Faith, if I knew how to contact the chit's smarmy cousin, I'd take that job instead of the one I've got. Then I'd get a meal out of it to boot."
Poppy chewed on his drink straw. "Can't ya find out from the girl where this relative is?"
"She doesn't know. Believe me, I asked with the brights on." Bones tapped under his eye for emphasis. "I can't take another month of this. I'll eat her and then get no bloody money from anyone."
Poppy glanced around. I looked away, pretending to study my drink. When I strained, I caught his reply.
"Had a fellow here last night. He's in the population reduction business, if you know what I mean, and he was laughin' about this job where hired meat tried to use a bone muncher to tidy things up on a contract that was runnin' long. You'll never guess what happened. Somehow, the bone muncher ends up dead. Dead! Then the mark disappears. The way I heard it, now the meat's worried about his contract gettin' cancelled."
"You hear the name of this meat?" Bones asked casually. "I might be interested in helping him out once I'm finished with this job."
"Think I heard the fellow call him Serpentine. Isn't that funny? The meat renamed himself just like he's a vampire."
"Ah, mate, I owe you. Next round's on me."
Bones stayed another twenty minutes, letting Poppy ramble more until I fantasized about wrapping duct tape around the vampire's mouth. Finally, Bones feigned regret over needing to leave, but told Poppy he'd be back next weekend. And complained about how he'd have the bratty heiress with him.
My brows rose.
I pulled the clothes out of the dryer and stifled a curse. Bleach stains everywhere. Tammy was twenty; how could she
Still, at least Tammy was doing her own laundry now. Or trying to. That was the result of my mother's influence. Twenty years of spoiled rich bitch didn't stand a chance against forty-six years of farm-reared discipline. Even though I was much closer to Tammy's age and my mother made Tammy do things that caused the blonde to wail, to my surprise, my mother was the person Tammy seemed to have bonded with.
Perhaps that was my fault. Maybe I was so used to being in a search-and-destroy mode that I couldn't tackle being in a nurturing one instead. The thought was oddly depressing.
After dinner – which my mother still insisted on cooking, not that I complained – we sat by the fireplace. It was time to fill Tammy in on what we'd found out.
"Tammy, here's what's going on: Don still hasn't found your cousin, but Bones found out that the original hitman who took your contract is dead."
Tammy bolted out of her chair. "That's great! Does it mean I can go home now?"
"Not so fast. The hitter died under unusual circumstances."
Tammy sat back down, her enthusiasm fading. "How?"
"His throat was ripped out," Bones said bluntly. "And his computer and other effects were rummaged through, so someone else might have taken an interest in his unfinished jobs."
Bones's connections from his bounty hunter days turned out to be faster than Don's computers, because he discovered Serpentine was dead before my uncle even found out his real name. Don did send a team over to examine the apartment where Serpentine – or James Daily, as the autopsy certificate read – was found. Even though the person was clever at covering their tracks, Don could tell someone had hacked into Serpentine's computer. Maybe it was a coincidence that some of the files that were accessed were about Tammy, or that Serpentine had been killed by a vampire. We knew Serpentine had undead connections since he sent a ghoul after Tammy. But maybe it was more than coincidence.
"I told you vampires normally don't bother with contracts on humans, but life never fails to surprise," Bones said in a dry tone. "When we were at Bite, I told the gossipy bloke I spoke with that we'd be back tomorrow night. If we still go, it would allow me to dig for more information, but there's a chance it could prove dangerous to you."
Tammy scoffed. "How dangerous? I've almost been electrocuted, shot, and eaten by a ghoul, remember?"
"If another vampire did decide to get involved with the contract on you, he or she could follow us back here and try to take you out," I said quietly.
Tammy gave us a shrewd look. "And then you could catch them. Find out where my cousin is, I'd bet. I saw you in action against that ghoul, Cat. How about you, Bones? You're a tough guy, right? Because I want this over. I want my life back."
Fabian floated in the room. "I could be the lookout. No other vampire or ghoul would notice me. I'd help keep Tammy safe."
Poor Fabian, he was right. Vampires and ghouls were notoriously disrespectful of ghosts. They ignored them more than most humans ignored homeless people.
"Thanks, Fabian," I said. "We could really use your help."
"It's so weird when you do that," Tammy muttered.
I hid a smile. Some part of me thought Tammy didn't believe Fabian existed and that we just pretended to speak with him to mess with her.
"I'll help protect her," my mother said. Her face was closed off, as if she were fighting back memories. Once again, I hated what had been done to her because of me.
Bones rose from his chair. "All right. If we're going to Bite tomorrow, it's time you learn to defend yourself, Tammy."
She gave him a startled look. "Isn't that what I'm paying you two for?"
I didn't correct Tammy by saying my uncle and his department were getting her money, not Bones or me. I hoped Don wasn't taking Tammy to the cleaners, but he
"You should still know basic skills. After all, you're a pretty girl, and predators can have heartbeats, too."
Tammy brightened at the compliment. I hid a smile. Flattery would make her much more accommodating, as he would know.
Bones went into the kitchen and came out with a steak knife. He dangled it in front of Tammy, who looked at it doubtfully.
"What do you expect me to do with this?"
"Stab me with it," Bones replied. "In the heart."
Her mouth hung open. It was the first time I'd seen her speechless. "You're kidding?" she finally got out.
"You need to lean how to protect yourself against a vampire. Granted, your odds would be dismal, but your advantage is that no vampire would see you as a threat."
"That's how I managed to kill so many of them when I was your age," I chimed in. "The element of surprise can save your life."
Tammy looked at the knife again. "I don't know…"
Bones let out an exasperated noise. "Justina, come here and show her how it's done."
My mother looked more surprised than Tammy had when the whole conversation began. I was taken aback, too.
"You want me to stab you?" my mother asked in disbelief.
Bones gave her an impish grin. "Come on, Mum. How many times have you dreamed about that?"
My mother got up, took the knife, and then stuck it right in the middle of Bones's chest. He never flinched or moved to block her.
"See, Tammy, this is how most people would think to do it," Bones said calmly. "But Justina knows the blade isn't in deep enough, nor is it in the right place. The heart's a bit to the left, not exactly in the center. And she didn't twist the knife, which is what you must always,
Bones took the knife out and handed it back to my mother. "Now, Justina, show her how it's really done."
My mother looked even more startled, but she took the blade, aimed more carefully this time, and shoved it in with a small shudder.
"Twist," Bones said, as if this didn't hurt him, which it would, even if steel through the heart wasn't fatal. Only silver was.
My mother gave the blade a turn to the right. Bones caught her hand and jerked it, hard, in a ragged circle. Tammy gasped at the blood that stained his shirt.
"That's how you do it," he said, voice as neutral as if pain wasn't searing through him. I felt it, though, and it was all I could do not to yelp and demand he stop. "Rough, quick, and thorough, else you won't get a second chance."
He let go of my mother's hand and pulled out the knife, wiping it on his ruined shirt. "Let's show Tammy how it's done from the back now."
Tears pricked my eyes. Not because of the pain from Bones's wound; that was already healed. It was because I finally understood what he was doing. Bones wasn't trying to train Tammy. He was showing my mother how to defend herself, something she never would have allowed him to do under normal circumstances. But thinking it was for Tammy's benefit made her follow his instructions, learning how to jab a knife in the right place front and back, then how to deflect some standard defensive maneuvers.
Fabian caught my eye and winked. The ghost knew what Bones was doing, too.
By the time Bones announced it was Tammy's turn, I'd fallen in love with him all over again. Flowers and jewelry worked for most girls as a romantic gesture, but here I was, misty-eyed at watching him show my mother how to stab the shit out of him.
Tammy was human, so it took her longer to get the gist of things. Still, after an hour, she was sweaty, bloody, and very proud of herself for successfully stabbing Bones several times in the heart.
"Just call me Buffy," she said with a smirk.
"I'm tired," I said, faking a yawn. "I'm heading to bed."
Bones's eyes lit up. Fabian disappeared out the door, saying he wanted to double-check the grounds. My mother gave me a look. Only Tammy didn't seem to realize that no vampire ever yawned for real.
"See you tomorrow," Tammy said. "I've got to shower anyway."
I went up the stairs. Bones stayed below, waiting. By the time I heard Tammy's shower turn on, I also heard light, quick footsteps coming up the stairs.
When Bones entered the bedroom, I'd convinced myself that the noise from Tammy's shower would be sufficient to muffle my mother's hearing. Or that my mom had suddenly gone deaf. And when Bones took me in his arms, I stopped thinking about anything else.
If a rogue undead hitman was after Tammy, we were hoping he took the bait and followed us home, because we had a hell of a surprise waiting for him. And here was also hoping that Poppy, the vampire Bones chatted up last weekend, had repeated Bones's tale about the snotty rich human he was guarding. And how he'd be back tonight with her.
My mother refused to dance. She sat at the bar, shutting down every man who approached her, human or otherwise.
We went through the motions of having a good time, dancing, drinking – no alcohol for Tammy, even though she begged – and then dancing again while Bones renewed his acquaintance with Poppy. It didn't escape my notice that Verses stared at us. From his expression, he sensed something was up and didn't want it at his club. Well, neither did we. That's why we had booby traps waiting back at our house.
After two a.m., we headed out to the parking lot. Out of habit, I had my hand near my sleeves, where several throwing knives lined my arms. We were three rows away from our Hummer when the air became electrified. Bones and I whirled at the same time, each of us pulling out a knife. My mother grabbed Tammy. Several vampires dropped from the sky to land in a wide circle around us.
Bones knew it, too. He gave an almost languid look around, but I could feel his tenseness grating across my subconscious. "X, what an unpleasant surprise. This clearly isn't coincidence, so tell me, who betrayed me?"
The black haired vampire addressed as X stepped forward. "A human hires a hitman to kill his cousin for money, boring. That same hitman botches the job twice, funny. Then the desperate hitman sends a ghoul after the girl to finish things up, my curiosity's piqued. That same ghoul ends up with his head cut off by a mysterious redhead…ah.
"Who's your friend, honey?" I asked Bones, not taking my eyes off of X.
"Former coworker, you could say. An overly competitive one who got brassed off when I killed several of his best clients."
"Could my old friend Bones be involved, I wondered?" X went on. "The young heiress has government connections, it turns out, and so does the Reaper. And the Reaper's supposed to be such a bleeding heart when it comes to humans. When another rumor spread that the human heiress would be here tonight, I took precautions in case I was right about who was protecting her. And lucky me, I was."
Precautions? That was one way to describe the dozen vampires surrounding us, all of whom were armed to the teeth. I glanced back at the nightclub. Would anyone come to our aid? Or would they stick to the whole "no violence on the premises thing" and stay the hell away?
"You're here for me, leave her out of it," Bones said, with a barely perceptible nod at Tammy. "Let her go back inside, and we'll settle this ourselves."
"She may not be why I'm here, but I'll be sure to kill her, too, so I don't risk war."
Tammy began to whimper. X gave her a genial smile. "If it makes you feel better, your cousin's dead. I killed him after I learned what I needed to know about you."
So that's why Don couldn't find Gables, not that it did us any good now.
Bones glanced at me. "Kitten, are you getting angry yet?"
I knew what he meant. Since I found out I'd absorbed fire-starting power from the pyrokinetic vampire I drank from, I'd fought to keep that borrowed ability under control. But now, I let all the repressed anger, determination, fear, and sadness from the past few months roar to the surface. My hands became engulfed in blue flames, sparks shooting onto the ground.
"Kill her!" X shouted.
Knives flew at me in a blur. I rolled to avoid them, concentrating on X. Two months ago, I'd burned an entire property and explode a Master vampire's head right off his shoulders.
Except…he didn't catch fire. Sparks still shot from my flame-covered hands, but nothing more lethal came out of them. I shook my hands in frustration.
But the previous, deadly streams of fire that had scared me with their ferocity seemed to have vanished. The most dangerous thing I could do with my hands now was light someone's cigarette.
"Oh, shit," my mother whispered.
I couldn't agree more.
"Protect Tammy," I yelled, then grabbed for my knives, cursing as I tried to dodge another hail of blades aimed at me. Some of them found their mark, but none in my chest, thank God. Still, that silver burned where it landed, making me fight the urge to yank it out now. I flung some of my weapons instead, adding more silver to the barrage Bones had just sent. Then I rolled behind one of the cars for cover, finally getting the chance to snatch out the silver embedded in my shoulders and legs.
Tammy screamed as some of the vampires took to the air. I took two of the knives I'd pulled from my body and sent them winging at the vampire closest to where she was crouched. The blades found their mark, and he crashed into a car instead of Tammy and my mother, who was crouched over her.
The rest of the vampires seemed more concerned with taking on Bones than dealing with Tammy or my mother. I rolled under a truck to get to Bones – and then screamed as my shirt went up in flames.
Goddamnit! There must have been oil drops pooled underneath the truck I'd rolled under, and the useless sparks from my hands ignited it.
"Kitten, you all right?" Bones called out.
"Fine!" I yelled back, afraid he'd get killed rushing to check on me.
I'd just ripped my burning shirt off when a car slammed into me, pinning me to the vehicle behind me. I gasped at the unbelievable pain, paralyzing in its intensity. Tammy screamed. Over that, I heard Bones hoarsely call my name.
Something thudded on the mangled car pinning me. The redheaded vampire. He smiled as he pulled out a silver blade, knowing as I did that I couldn't shove the car off in time to save myself.
But there was something I could do.
After a few more blinks, the parking lot was in a double outline, but I could see.
"I'm okay," I called out, my voice almost unrecognizable. I hated giving away my position, but I was more worried about Bones losing it if he was too distracted to feel our connection and thought I'd been blown to bits.
"Christ almighty, Kitten," I heard him mutter, and smiled even though it felt like it cracked my face. I was afraid to look at my skin. Burnt bacon could pass for my twin right now.
I flexed my fingers, relieved that the horrible splitting sensation was gone. Now I could grasp my knives with purpose, and my vision was clearing by the moment. Through the dirty car window in front of me, I saw Bones fighting off four vampires. He whirled and struck in a dizzying display of violence, slicing and hacking whenever they came too close
I'd snuck around a few dead vampires – one of them crispy – I noticed with satisfaction – and was tiptoeing around a Benz when X sprang out of nowhere. He shoved me, slamming me into yet another car – God, I was so sick of feeling my bones crunch against metal! – but instead of springing forward, I let myself slump as if dazed. X was on me in the next second, knees pinning my torso to the concrete, glowing green gaze victorious as he raised his knife.
My hand shot out, the silver knife clenched in it going straight into his chest. I smiled as I gave it a hard twist.
But he didn't slump forward like he should have. Instead, the knife he'd raised slammed into my chest without an instant's hesitation.
Pain erupted in me, so hot and fierce it rivaled what I'd felt when the car exploded on me. That pain grew until I wanted to scream, but I didn't have the energy. Everything seemed to fade out of view except his bright emerald gaze.
"How?" I managed, barely able to croak out the word.
X leaned forward. "Situs inversus," he whispered. His hand tightened on the blade, twisting -
Blue filled my vision. I didn't understand why, and for a second, I wondered if it was even real. Then the blue tilted to the side, X's severed arm still holding the knife in my chest, but the rest of him elsewhere.
X was on his back, the stump from his right arm slowly extending out into a new limb as he fought Bones. I wanted to help, but I couldn't get up. The pain had me pinned, gasping and twitching as I tried to escape from it.
"Don't move, Kitten!" Bones shouted. A brutal rip from his knife sliced open X's chest, oddly to the right of X's sternum. Bones twisted the blade so hard it broke off, and then he was next to me, his hand pinning my wrists above my head.
As soon as I saw his face, I knew how bad it was. That should've occurred to me before, considering I had a silver knife with shriveling hand still attached to it in my chest, but somehow, the pain had blinded me to reality. Now, however, I realized these were my last moments on earth.
I tried to smile. "Love you," I whispered.
A single pink tear rolled down Bones's cheek, but his voice was steady. "Don't move," he repeated, and slowly began to tug on the knife.
My chest felt like it was on fire. I tried not to look at the knife. Tried to focus on Bones's face, but my own gaze was blurred pink, too.
The blade shivered a fraction and a spasm of pain ripped through me. Bones compressed his lips, letting my wrists go to press on my chest with his free hand.
I couldn't stand it. That burning from my chest felt like it had spread all through me. A scream built in my throat, but I choked it back.
The agony stopped just as abruptly as it started. Bones let out a harsh sound that was followed by a clatter of metal on the ground. I looked down, seeing a slash in my chest that began to close, the skin seaming back together as it healed.
And then Bones spun around. A vampire stood behind him, holding a big knife and wearing the weirdest expression on his face. He dropped to his knees and pitched forward, a silver handle sticking out of his back. My mother was behind the vampire. Her hands were bloody.
"Rough, quick, and thorough, or you won't get a second chance," she mumbled, almost to herself.
Bones stared. "That's right, Justina." Then he began to laugh. "Well done."
I was stunned. Bones swept me up, kissing me so hard I tasted blood when his fangs pierced my lips.
"He didn't die," I said, still stunned by the recent events. "I twisted a blade in his heart, but he didn't
"Like he said, situs inversus." At my confused expression, Bones went on. "Means he was born with his organs backward, so his heart was on the right. That's what saved his life before, but he shouldn't have admitted it while I could hear him."
I hadn't known such a condition existed.
Bones scanned the parking lot, but the only vampires out here were the ones gathered around the side of the nightclub.
Fear leapt in me. "Where's Tammy?"
"I ran her inside after the car blew up," my mother said. "She'd be safe in there, you said."
And then she'd come back outside to face a pack of hit men. Tears pricked my eyes even as Bones smiled at her.
"You saved my life, Justina."
She looked embarrassed, and then scowled. "I didn't know if you were finished getting that knife out of Catherine. I couldn't let him sneak up on you and stab you until my daughter was okay."
Bones laughed. "Of course."
I shook my head. She'd never change, but that was okay. I loved her anyway.
Verses walked out of Bite with Tammy at his side. From her red-rimmed eyes, she'd been crying.
"It's over," I told her.
Tammy ran and hugged me. I wanted to say something profound and comforting, but all I could do was repeat, "It's over."
At least Tammy wouldn't remember any of this. No, her memories would be replaced with one where she'd been sequestered by boring bodyguards provided by her father's former friends. Tammy would go into adulthood without the burden of knowing there were things in the night no average human could stand against. She'd be normal. It was the best birthday present I could give her.
"You fought on the premises," Verses stated.
Bones let out a snort. "You noticed that, did you, mate?"
"Maybe if you wouldn't have stood there and done
Verses raised his brows at her withering tone, then cast a glance around at the parking lot. Vampire bodies littered the area, one of the cars was still on fire, and various others were smashed, ripped, or dented.
"I am his friend," Verses replied. "Which is why I'll let all of you leave without paying for the damages."
"He doesn't sound like we'll be welcomed back," I murmured to Bones. "So much for coming here during the rest of our vacation to explore all those private areas."
Bones's lips brushed my forehead. "Don't fret, luv. I know another club in Brooklyn I think you'll
About the Author
About the Author
Jeaniene Frost is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of the Night Huntress series and the Night Huntress World novels. To date, foreign rights for her novels have sold to seventeen different countries. Jeaniene lives in North Carolina with her husband Matthew, who long ago accepted that she swears like a sailor, rarely cooks, and always sleeps in on the weekends.
A QUESTIONABLE CLIENT by Ilona Andrews
A QUESTIONABLE CLIENT by Ilona Andrews
The problem with leucrocotta blood is that it stinks to high heaven. It's also impossible to get off your boots, particularly if the leucrocotta condescended to void its anal glands on you right before you chopped its head off.
I sat on the bench in the Mercenary Guild locker room and pondered my noxious footwear. The boots were less than a year old. And I didn't have money to buy a new pair.
"Tomato juice, Kate," one of the mercs offered. "Will take it right out."
Now he'd done it. I braced myself.
A woman in the corner shook her head. "That's for skunks. Try baking soda."
"You have to go scientific about it. Two parts hydrogen peroxide to four parts water."
"A quart of water and a tablespoon of ammonia."
"What you need to do is piss on it…"
Every person in the locker room knew my boots were shot. Unfortunately, stain removal methods was one of those troublesome subjects somewhere between relationship issues and mysterious car noises. Everybody was an expert, everybody had a cure, and they all fell over themselves to offer their advice.
The electric bulbs blinked and faded. Magic flooded the world in a silent rush, smothering technology. Twisted tubes of feylanterns ignited with pale blue on the walls as the charged air inside them interacted with magic. A nauseating stench, reminiscent of a couple of pounds of shrimp left in the sun for a week, erupted from my boots. There were collective grunts of "Ugh" and "Oh God," and then everybody decided to give me lots of personal space.
We lived in a post-Shift world. One moment magic dominated, fueling spells and giving power to monsters and the next it vanished as abruptly as it appeared. Cars started, electricity flowed, and mages became easy prey to a punk with a gun. Nobody could predict when magic waves would come or how long they would last. That's why I carried a sword. It always worked.
Mark appeared in the doorway. Mark was the Guild's equivalent of middle management, and he looked the part – his suit was perfectly clean and cost more than I made in three months, his dark hair was professionally trimmed, and his hands showed no calluses. In the crowd of working-class thugs, he stood out like a sore thumb and was proud of it, which earned him the rank and file's undying hatred.
Mark's expressionless stare fastened on me. "Daniels, the clerk has a gig ticket for you."
Usually the words "gig ticket" made my eyes light up. I needed money. I always needed money. The Guild zoned the jobs, meaning that each merc had his own territory. If a job fell in your territory, it was legitimately yours. My territory was near Savannah, basically in the sparsely populated middle of nowhere, and good gigs didn't come my way too often. The only reason I ended up in Atlanta this time was that my part-time partner in crime, Jim, needed help clearing a pack of grave-digging leucrocottas from Westview Cemetery. He'd cut me in on his gig.
Under normal circumstances I would've jumped on the chance to earn extra cash, but I had spent most of the last twenty four hours awake and chasing hyena-sized creatures armed with badgerlike jaws full of extremely sharp teeth. And Jim bailed on me midway through it. Some sort of Pack business.
That's what I get for pairing with a werejaguar.
I was tired, dirty, and hungry, and my boots stank.
"I just finished a job."
"It's a blue gig."
Blue gig meant double rate.
Mac, a huge hulk of a man, shook his head, presenting me with a view of his mangled left ear. "Hell, if she doesn't want it, I'll take it."
"No, you won't. She's licensed for bodyguard detail and you aren't."
I bloody hated bodyguard detail. On regular jobs, I had to depend only on myself. But bodyguard detail was a couple's kind of dance. You had to work with the body you guarded, and in my experience, bodies proved uncooperative.
Mark shrugged. "Because I have no choice. I have Rodriguez and Castor there now, but they just canceled on me. If you don't take the gig, I'll have to track down someone who will. My pain, your gain."
Canceled wasn't good. Rodriguez was a decent mage and Castor was tough in a fight. They wouldn't bail from a well-paying job unless it went sour.
"I need someone there right now. Go there, babysit the client through the night, and in the morning I'll have a replacement lined up. In or out, Daniels? It's a high-profile client, and I don't like to keep him waiting."
The gig smelled bad. "How much?"
Someone whistled. Three grand for a night of work. I'd be insane to pass on it. "In."
I started to throw my stink-bomb boots into the locker but stopped myself. I had paid a lot for them and they should have lasted for another year at least, but if I put them into my locker, it would smell forever. Sadly the boots were ruined. I tossed them into the trash, pulled on my old spare pair, grabbed my sword, and headed out of the locker room to get the gig ticket from the clerk.
When I rode into Atlanta, the magic was down, so I had taken Betsi, my old dented Subaru. With magic wave in full swing, my gasoline-guzzling car was about as mobile as a car-size rock, but since I was technically doing the Guild a favor, the clerk provided me with a spare mount. Her name was Peggy, and judging by the wear on her incisors, she'd started her third decade some years ago. Her muzzle had gone grey, her tail and mane had thinned to stringy tendrils, and she moved with ponderous slowness. I'd ridden her for the first fifteen minutes, listening to her sigh, and then guilt got the better of me, and I decided to walk the rest of the way. I didn't have to go far. According to the directions, Champion Heights was only a couple miles away. An extra ten minutes wouldn't make that much difference.
Around me a broken city struggled to shrug off winter, fighting the assault of another cold February night. Husks of once mighty skyscrapers stabbed through the melting snowdrifts encrusted with dark ice. Magic loved to feed on anything technologically complex, but tall office towers proved particularly susceptible to magic-induced erosion. Within a couple of years of the first magic wave they shuddered, crumbled, and fell one by one, like giants on sand legs, spilling mountains of broken glass and twisted guts of metal framework onto the streets.
The city grew around the high-tech corpses. Stalls and small shops took the place of swanky coffee joints and boutiques. Wood and brick houses, built by hand and no taller than four floors high, replaced the high rises. Busy streets, once filled with cars and busses, now channeled a flood of horses, mules, and camels. During rush hour the stench alone put hair on your chest. But now, with the last of the sunset dying slowly above the horizon, the city lay empty. Anyone with a crumb of sense hurried home. The night belonged to monsters, and monsters were always hungry.
The wind picked up, driving dark clouds across the sky and turning my bones into icicles. It would storm soon. Here's hoping Champion Heights, my client's humble abode, had some place I could hide Peggy from the sleet.
We picked our way through Buckhead, Peggy's hooves making loud clopping noises in the twilight silence of the deserted streets. The night worried me little. I looked too poor and too mean to provide easy pickings and nobody in their right mind would try to steal Peggy. Unless a gang of soap-making bandits lurked about, we were safe enough. I checked the address again. Smack in the middle of Buckhead. The clerk said I couldn't miss it. Pretty much a guarantee I'd get lost.
I turned the corner and stopped.
A high rise towered over the ruins. It shouldn't have existed but there it was, a brick-and-concrete tower silhouetted against the purple sky. At least fifteen floors, maybe more. Pale tendrils of haze clung to it. It was so tall that the top floor of it still reflected the sunset, while the rest of the city lay steeped in shadow.
"Pinch me, Peggy."
Peggy sighed, mourning the fact that she was paired with me.
I petted her grey muzzle. "Ten to one, that's Champion Heights. Why isn't it laying in shambles?"
"You're right. We need a closer look."
We wound through the labyrinth of streets, closing in on the tower. My paper said the client's name was Saiman. No indication if it was his last or first name. Perhaps he was like Batman, one of a kind. Of course, Batman wouldn't have to hire bodyguards.
"You have to ask yourself, Peggy, who would pay three grand for a night of work and why. I bet living in that tower isn't cheap, so Saiman has money. Contrary to popular opinion, people who have money refuse to part with it, unless they absolutely have to do it. Three grand means he's in big trouble and we're walking into something nasty."
Finally we landed in a vast parking lot, empty, save for a row of cars near the front. Grey Volvo, black Cadillac, even a sleek gunmetal Lamborghini. Most vehicles sported a bloated hood – built to accommodate a charged water engine. The water-engine cars functioned during magic waves by using magic-infused water instead of gasoline. Unfortunately, they took a good fifteen minutes of hard chanting to start and when they did spring into action, they attained a maximum speed of forty-five miles per hour while growling, snarling, and thundering loud enough to force a deaf man to file a noise complaint.
A large white sign waited past the cars. A black arrow pointed to the right. Above the arrow in black letters was written "Please stable your mounts." I looked to the right and saw a large stable, and a small guardhouse next to it.
It took me a full five minutes to convince the guards I wasn't a serial killer in disguise, but finally Peggy relaxed in a comfortable stall, and I climbed the stone stairs to Champion Heights. As I looked, the brick wall of the highrise swam out of focus, shimmered, and turned into a granite crag.
I squinted at the wall and saw the faint outline of bricks within the granite. Interesting.
The stairs brought me to the glass-and-steel front of the building. The same haze that cloaked the building clouded the glass, but not enough to obscure a thick metal grate barring the vestibule. Beyond the grate, a guard sat behind a round counter, between an Uzi and a crossbow. The Uzi looked well maintained. The crossbow bore the Hawkeye logo on its stock – a round bird-of-prey eye with a golden iris – which meant its prong was steel and not cheap aluminum. Probably upward of two hundred pounds of draw weight. At this distance, it would take out a rhino, let alone me.
The guard gave me an evil eye. I leaned to the narrow metal grille and tried to broadcast "trustworthy."
"I'm here for one fifty-eight." I pulled out my merc card and held it to the glass.
Code? What code? "Nobody said anything about a code."
The guard leveled a crossbow at me.
"Very scary," I told him. "One small problem. You shoot me and the tenant in one fifty-eight won't live through the night. I'm not a threat to you. I'm a bodyguard on the job from the Mercenary Guild. If you call to one fifty eight and check, they'll tell you they're expecting me."
The guard rose and disappeared into a hallway to the right. A long minute passed. Finally he emerged, looking sour, and pushed a button. The metal grate slid aside.
I walked in. The floor and walls were polished red granite. The air smelled of expensive perfume.
"Fifteenth floor," the guard said, nodding at the elevator in the back of the room.
"The magic is up." The elevator was likely dead.
Oy. I walked up to the elevator and pushed the Up button. The metal doors slid open. I got in and selected the fifteenth floor, the elevator closed and a moment later faint purring announced the cabin rising. It's good to be rich.
The elevator spat me out into a hallway lined with a luxurious green carpet. I plodded through it past the door marked 158 to the end of the hallway to the door under the EXIT sign and opened it. Stairs. Unfortunately in good repair. The door opened from the inside of the hallway, but it didn't lock. No way to jam it.
The hallway was T shaped with only one exit, which meant that potential attackers could come either through the elevator shaft or up the stairs.
I went up to 158 and knocked.
The door shot open. Gina Castor's dark eyes glared at me. An AK-47 hung off her shoulder. She held a black duffel in one hand and her sword in the other. "What took you so long?"
"Hello to you, too."
She pushed past me, the thin slightly stooped Rodriguez following her. "He's all yours."
I caught the door before it clicked shut. "Where is the client?"
"Chained to the bed." They headed to the elevator.
Castor flashed her teeth at me. "You'll figure it out."
The elevator's door slid open, they ducked in, and a moment later I was alone in the hallway, holding the door open like an idiot. Peachy.
I stepped inside and shut the door. A faint spark of magic shot through the metal box of the card-reader lock. I touched it. The lock was a sham. The door was protected by a ward. I pushed harder. My magic crashed against the invisible wall of the spell and ground to a halt. An expensive ward, too. Good. Made my job a hair easier.
I slid the dead bolt shut and turned. I stood in a huge living room, big enough to contain most of my house. A marble counter ran along the wall on my left, sheltering a bar with glass shelves offering everything from Bombay Sapphire to French wines. A large steel fridge sat behind the bar. White, criminally plush carpet, black walls, steel and glass furniture, and beyond it all an enormous floor to ceiling window, presenting the vista of the ruined city, a deep darkness, lit here and there by the pale blue of fey lanterns.
I stayed away from the window and trailed the wall, punctuated by three doors. The first opened into a laboratory: flame-retardant table and counters supporting row upon row of equipment. I recognized a magic scanner, a computer, and a spectrograph, but the rest was beyond me. No client.
I tried the second door and found a large room. Gloom pooled in the corners. A huge platform bed occupied most of the hardwood floor. Something lay on the bed, hidden under black sheets.
The wall to the left of the bed was all glass, and beyond the glass, very far below, stretched a very hard parking lot, bathed in the glow of feylanterns.
God, fifteen floors was high.
I pulled my saber from the back sheath and padded across the floor to the bed.
The body under the sheets didn't move.
In my head, the creature hiding under the sheets lunged at me, knocking me through the window in an explosion of glass shards to plunge far below… Fatigue was messing with my head.
I nudged the sheet with my sword, peeling it back gently.
A man rested on the black pillow. He was bald. His head was lightly tanned, his face neither handsome nor ugly, his features well-shaped and pleasant. Perfectly average. His shoulders were nude – he was probably down to his underwear or naked under the sheet.
"Saiman?" I asked softly.
The man's eyelids trembled. Dark eyes stared at me, luminescent with harsh predatory intelligence. A warning siren went off in my head. I took a small step back and saw the outline of several chains under the sheet. You've got to be kidding me. They didn't just chain him to the bed, they wrapped him up like a Christmas present. He couldn't even twitch.
"Good evening," the man said, his voice quiet and cultured.
"You're my new bodyguard, I presume."
I nodded. "Call me Kate."
"Kate. What a lovely name. Please forgive me. Normally I would rise to greet a beautiful woman, but I'm afraid I'm indisposed at the moment."
I pulled back a little more of the sheet revealing an industrial-size steel chain. "I can see that."
"Perhaps I could impose on you to do me the great favor of removing my bonds?"
"Why did Rodriguez and Castor chain you?" And where the hell did they find a chain of this size?
A slight smile touched his lips. "I'd prefer not to answer that question."
"Then we're in trouble. Clients get restrained when they interfere with the bodyguards' ability to keep them safe. Since you won't tell me why the previous team decided to chain you, I can't let you go."
The smile grew wider. "I see your point."
"Does this mean you're ready to enlighten me?"
"I'm afraid not."
I nodded. "I see. Well then, I'll clear the rest of the apartment, and then I'll come back and we'll talk some more."
"Do you prefer brunets or blonds?"
The sheet shivered.
"Quickly, Kate. Brunettes or blonds? Pick one."
Odd bulges strained the sheet. I grabbed the covers and jerked them back.
Saiman lay naked, his body pinned to the bed by the chain. His stomach distended between two loops, huge and bloated. Flesh bulged and crawled under his skin, as if his body were full of writhing worms.
"Blond, I'd say," Saiman said.
He groaned, his back digging into the sheets. The muscles under his skin boiled. Bones stretched. Ligaments twisted, contorting his limbs. Acid squirted into my throat. I gagged, trying not to vomit.
His body stretched, twisted, and snapped into a new shape: lean, with crisp definition. His jaw widened, his eyes grew larger, his nose gained a sharp cut. Cornsilk blond hair sprouted on his head and reached down to his shoulders. Indigo flooded his irises. A new man looked at me, younger by about five years, taller, leaner, with a face that was heartbreakingly perfect. Above his waist, he was Adonis. Below his ribs, his body degenerated into a bloated stomach. He looked pregnant.
"You wouldn't tell me what you preferred," he said mournfully, his pitch low and husky. "I had to improvise."
"What are you?" I kept my sword between me and him.
"Does it really matter?"
"Yes, it does." When people said shapeshifter, they usually meant a person afflicted with Lyc-V, the virus that gave its victim the ability to shift into an animal. I'd never seen one who could freely change its human form.
Saiman made a valiant effort to shrug. Hard to shrug with several pounds of chains on your shoulders, but he managed to look nonchalant doing it.
"I am me."
Oh boy. "Stay here."
"Where would I go?"
I left the bedroom and checked the rest of the apartment. The only remaining room contained a large shower stall and a giant bathtub. No kitchen. Perhaps he had food delivered.
Fifteenth floor. At least one guard downstairs, bullet-resistant glass, metal grates. The place was a fortress. Yet he hired bodyguards at exorbitant prices. He expected his castle to be breached.
I headed to the bar grabbed a glass from under the counter, filled it with water, and took it to Saiman. Changing shape took energy. If he was anything like other shapeshifters, he was dying of thirst and hunger right about now.
Saiman's gaze fastened on the glass. "Delightful."
I let him drink. He drained the glass in long, thirsty swallows.
"How many guards are on duty downstairs?"
"Are they employed by the building owners directly?"
Saiman smiled. "Yes. They're experienced and well paid and they won't hesitate to kill."
So far so good. "When you change shape, do you reproduce internal organs as well?"
"Only if I plan to have intercourse."
Oh goodie. "Are you pregnant?"
Saiman laughed softly.
"I need to know if you're going to go into labor." Because that would just be a cherry on the cake of this job.
"You're a most peculiar woman. No, I'm most definitely not pregnant. I'm male, and while I may construct a vaginal canal and a uterus on occasion, I've never had cause to recreate ovaries. And If I did, I suspect they would be sterile. Unlike the male of the species, women produce all of their gametes during gestation, meaning that when a female infant is born, she will have in her ovaries all of the partially developed eggs she will ever have. The ovaries cannot facilitate production of new eggs, only the maturation of existing ones. The magic is simply not deep enough for me to overcome this hurdle. Not yet."
Thank Universe for small favors. "Who am I protecting you from and why?"
"I'm afraid I have to keep that information to myself as well."
Why did I take this job again? Ah yes, a pile of money. "Withholding this information diminishes my ability to guard you."
He tilted his head, looking me over. "I'm willing to take that chance."
"I'm not. It also puts my life at a greater risk."
"You're well compensated for that risk."
I repressed the urge to brain him with something heavy. Too bad there was no kitchen – a cast-iron frying pan would do the job.
"I see why the first team bailed."
"Oh, it was the woman," Saiman said helpfully. "She had difficulty with my metamorphosis. I believe she referred to me as 'abomination'."
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. "Let's try simple questions. Do you expect us to be attacked tonight?"
I figured as much. "With magic or brute force?"
"Is it a hit for hire?"
Saiman shook his head. "No."
Well, at least something went my way: amateurs were easier to deal with than contract killers.
"It's personal. I can tell you this much: the attackers are part of a religious sect. They will do everything in their power to kill me, including sacrificing their own lives."
And we just drove off a cliff in a runaway buggy. "Are they magically adept?"
I leaned back. "So let me summarize: You're a target of magical kamikaze fanatics, you won't tell me who they are, why they're after you, or why you have been restrained?"
"Precisely. Could I trouble you for a sandwich? I'm famished."
Dear God, I had a crackpot for a client. "A sandwich?"
"Prosciutto and Gouda on sourdough bread, please. A tomato and red onion would be quite lovely as well."
"Feel free to have one."
"I tell you what, since you refuse to reveal anything that might make my job even a smidgeon easier, how about I make a delicious prosciutto sandwich and taunt you with it until you tell me what I want to know?"
An eerie sound came from the living room – a light click, as if something with long sharp claws crawled across metal.
I put my finger to my lips, freed my saber, and padded out into the living room.
The room lay empty. No intruders.
I stood very still, trying to fade into the black walls.
Moments dripped by.
A small noise came from the left. It was a hesitant, slow clicking, as if some creature slunk in the distance, slowly putting one foot before the other.
Definitely a claw.
I scrutinized the left side of the room. Nothing moved.
Closer this time. Fear skittered down my spine. Fear was good. It would keep me sharp. I kept still. Where are you, you sonovabitch…
An odd scent nipped at my nostrils, a thick, slightly bitter herbal odor. I'd smelled it once before but I had no clue where or when.
Claws scraped to the right and to the left of me now. More than two. A quiet snort to the right. Another in the corner. Come out to play. Come on, beastie.
Claws raked metal directly in front of me. There was nothing there but that huge window and sloping ceiling above it. I looked up. Glowing green eyes peered at me through the grate of the air duct in the ceiling.
Shivers sparked down my back.
The eyes stared at me, heated with madness.
The screws in the air duct cover turned to the left. Righty tighty, lefty loosey. Smart critter.
The grate fell onto the soft carpet. The creature leaned forward slowly, showing me a long conical head. The herbal scent grew stronger now, as if I'd taken a handful of absinthe wormwood and stuck it up my nose.
Long black claws clutched the edge of the air duct. The beast rocked, revealing its shoulders sheathed in shaggy, hunter green fur.
Bingo. An endar. Six legs, each armed with wicked black claws; preternaturally fast; equipped with an outstanding sense of smell and a big mouth, which hid a tongue lined with hundreds of serrated teeth. One lick, and it would scrape the flesh off my bones in a very literal way.
The endars were peaceful creatures. The green fur wasn't fur at all; it was moss that grew from their skin. They lived underneath old oaks, rooted to the big trees in a state of quiet hibernation, absorbing their nutrients and making rare excursions to the surface to lick the bark and feed on lichens. They stirred from their rest so rarely, that pagan slavs thought they fed on air.
Someone had poured blood under this endar's oak. The creature had absorbed it and the blood had driven it crazy. It had burrowed to the surface, where it swarmed with its fellows. Then the same someone, armed with a hell of a lot of magic, had herded this endar and its buddies to this highrise and released them into the ventilation system so they would find Saiman and rip him apart. They couldn't be frightened off. They couldn't be stopped. They would kill anything with a pulse to get to their target and when the target was dead, they would have to be eliminated. There was no coming back from endar madness.
Only a handful of people knew how to control endars.
Saiman had managed to piss off the Russians. It's never good to piss off the Russians. That was just basic common sense. My father was Russian, but I doubted they would cut me any slack just because I could understand their curses.
The endar gaped at me with its glowing eyes. Yep, mad as a hatter. I'd have to kill every last one of them.
"Well, come on. Bring it."
The endar's mouth gaped. It let out a piercing screech, like a circular saw biting into the wood, and charged.
I swung Slayer. The saber's blade sliced into flesh and the beast crashed to the floor. Thick green blood stained Saiman's white carpet.
The three other duct covers fell one by one. A stream of green bodies charged toward me. I swung my sword, cleaving the first body in two. It was going to be a long night.
The last of the endars was on the smaller side. Little bigger than a cat. I grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and took it back into the bedroom.
Saiman smiled at my approach. "I take it everything went well?"
He arched his eyebrow again. Definitely mimicking me. "Oh?"
"Your new carpet is a lovely emerald color."
"I can assure you that carpet is the least of my worries."
"You're right." I brought the endar closer. The creature saw Saiman and jerked spasmodically. Six legs whipped the air, claws out, ready to rend and tear. The beast's mouth gaped, releasing a wide tongue studded with rows and rows of conical teeth.
"You provoked the volhvs." It was that or the Russian witches. I bet on the volhvs. The witches would've cursed us by now.
"The volhvs are bad news for a number of reasons. They serve pagan Slavic gods, and they have thousands of years of magic tradition to draw on. They're at least as powerful as Druids, but unlike Druids, who are afraid to sneeze the wrong way or someone might accuse them of bringing back human sacrifices, the volhvs don't give a damn. They won't stop either. They don't like using the endars, because the endars nourish the forest with their magic. Whatever you did really pissed them off."
Saiman pondered me as if I were some curious bug. "I wasn't aware that the Guild employed anyone with an education."
"I'll hear it. All of it."
"No." He shook his head. "I do admire your diligence and expertise. I don't want you to think it's gone unnoticed."
I dropped the endar onto his stomach. The beast clawed at the sheet. Saiman screamed. I grabbed the creature and jerked it up. The beast dragged the sheet with it, tearing it to shreds. Small red scratches marked Saiman's blob of a stomach.
"I'll ask again. What did you do to infuriate the Russians? Consider your answer carefully, because the next time I drop this guy, I'll be slower picking him back up."
Saiman's face quivered with rage. "You're my bodyguard."
"You can file a complaint, if you survive. You're putting both of us in danger by withholding information. See, if I walk, I just miss out on some money; you lose your life. I have no problem with leaving you here and the Guild can stick its thumb up its ass and twirl for all I care. The only thing that keeps me protecting you is professional pride. I hate bodyguard detail, but I'm good at it, and I don't like to lose a body. It's in your best interests to help me do my job. Now, I'll count to three. On three I drop Fluffy here and let it go to town on your gut. He really wants whatever you're hiding in there."
Saiman stared at me.
"One. Two. Th-"
I reached into my backpack and pulled out a piece of wire. Normally I used it for trip traps, but it would make a decent leash. Two minutes later the endar was secured to the dresser and I perched on the corner of Saiman's bed.
"Are you familiar with the legend of Booyan Island?"
I nodded. "It's a mythical island far in the Ocean, behind the Hvalynskii Sea. It's a place of deep magic where a number of legendary creatures and items are located: Alatyr, the father of all stones; the fiery pillar; the Drevo-Doob, the World Oak; the cave where the legendary sword Kladenets is hidden; the Raven prophet, and so on. It's the discount warehouse of Russian legends. Any time the folkloric heroes needed a magic object, they made a trip to it."
"Let's concentrate on the tree," Saiman said.
I knew Slavic mythology well enough, but I hadn't had to use it for a while and I was a bit rusty. "It's a symbol of nature. Creature of the earth at its roots, the serpent, the frog and so on. There is a raven with a prophet gift in the branches. Some myths say that there are iron chains wrapped around the tree's trunk. A black cat walks the chain, telling stories and fables…"
Oh crap. "It's that damn cat, isn't it?"
"The oak produces an acorn once every seven years. Seven months, seven days, and seven hours after the acorn falls from the tree, it will crack and grow into the World Oak. In effect, the tree manifests at the location of the acorn for the period of seven minutes."
I frowned. "Let me guess, you stole the acorn from the Russians and swallowed it."
"Why? Are you eager to hear a bedtime story?"
"The cat possesses infinite knowledge. Seven minutes is time enough to ask and hear an answer to one question. Only the owner of the acorn can ask the question."
I shook my head. "Saiman, nothing is free. You have to pay for everything, knowledge included. What will it cost you to ask a question?"
"The price is irrelevant if I get an answer." Saiman smiled.
I sighed. "Answer my question: Why do smart people tend to be stupid?"
"Because we think we know better. We think that our intellect affords us special privileges and lets us beat the odds. That's why talented mathematicians try to defraud casinos and young brilliant mages make bargains with forces beyond their control."
Well, he answered the question.
"When is the acorn due for its big kaboom?"
"In four hours and forty seven minutes."
"The volhvs will tear this highrise apart stone by stone to get it back, and I'm your last line of defense?"
"That's an accurate assessment. I did ask for the best person available."
I sighed. "Still want that sandwich?"
I headed to the door.
I turned to him. "Why were you chained?"
Saiman grimaced. "The acorn makes it difficult to control my magic. It forces me to continuously change shape. Most of the time I'm able to keep the changes subtle, but once in a while the acorn causes contortions. Gina Castor walked in on me during such a moment. I'm afraid I was convulsing, so my recollection may be somewhat murky, but I do believe I had at least one partially formed breast and three arms. She overreacted. Odd, considering her profile."
"I studied my bodyguards very carefully," Saiman said. "I handpicked three teams. The first refused to take the job, the second was out due to injuries. Castor and Rodriguez were my third choice."
I went back to the bed and ducked under it. They'd chained him with a small padlock. Lock-picking wasn't my strong suit. I looked around and saw the small key on the dresser. It took me a good five minutes to unwrap him.
"Thank you." He rose, rubbing his chest, marked by red pressure lines. "May I ask why?"
"Nobody should die chained to the bed."
Saiman stretched. His body swelled, twisted, growing larger, gaining breadth and muscle. I made a valiant effort to not vomit.
Saiman's body snapped. A large, perfectly sculpted male looked at me. Soft brown hair framed a masculine face. He would make any bodybuilder gym proud. Except for the bloated gut.
"Is he preferable to the previous attempt?" Saiman asked.
"There is more of you to guard now. Other than that, it makes no difference to me."
I headed into the living room. He followed me, swiping a luxurious robe off a chair.
We stepped into the living room. Saiman stopped.
The corpses of endars had melted into puddles of green. Thin stalks of emerald-green moss sprouted from the puddles, next to curly green shoots of ferns and tiny young herbs.
"The endars nourish the forest," I told him.
He indicated the completely green carpet with his hand. "How many were there?"
"A few. I lost count."
Saiman's sharp eyes regarded my face. "You're lying. You know the exact number."
I zeroed in on the fridge. No telling when the next attack would come and I was starving. You can do without sleep or without food, but not without both and sleep wasn't an option.
Saiman trailed me, taking the seat on the outer side of the counter. "Do you prefer women?"
He frowned, belting the robe. "It's the stomach, isn't it?"
I raided the fridge. He had enough deli meat to feed an army. I spread it out on the bar's counter. "What do you do for a living, Saimain?"
"I collect information and use it to further my interests."
"It seems to pay well." I nodded to indicate the apartment.
"It does. I also possess an exhaustive knowledge of various magic phenomena. I consult various parties. My fee varies between thirty-six and thirty-nine hundred dollars, depending on the job and the client."
"Thirty six hundred per job?" I bit into my sandwich. Mmm, salami.
I choked on my food. He looked at me with obvious amusement.
"The term 'highway robbery' comes to mind," I managed finally.
"Oh, but I'm exceptionally good at what I do. Besides, the victims of highway robbery have no choice in the matter. I assure you, I don't coerce my clients, Kate."
"I'm sure. How did we even get to this point? The stratospheric fee ruined my train of thought."
"You stated that you prefer men to women."
I nodded. "Suppose you get a particularly sensitive piece of information. Let's say a business tip. If you act on the tip, you could make some money. If you sell it, you could make more money. If both you and your buyer act on the tip, you both would make money, but the return for each of you would be significantly diminished. Your move?"
"Either sell the information or act on it. Not both."
Saiman shrugged. "The value of the information increases with its exclusivity. A client buying such knowledge has an expectation of such exclusivity. It would be unethical to undermine it."
"It would be unethical for me to respond to your sexual overtures. For the duration of the job, you're a collection of arms and legs which I have to keep safe. I'm most effective if I'm not emotionally involved with you on any level. To be blunt, I'm doing my best to regard you as a precious piece of porcelain I have to keep out of harm's way."
"But you do find this shape sexually attractive?"
"I'm not going to answer this question. If you pester me, I will chain you back to the bed."
Saiman raised his arm, flexing a spectacular biceps. "This shape has a lot of muscle mass."
I nodded. "In a bench pressing contest you would probably win. But we're not bench pressing. You might be stronger, but I'm well trained. If you do want to try me, you're welcome to it. Just as long as we agree that once your battered body is chained safely in your bed, I get to say, 'I told you so.'"
Saiman arched his eyebrows. "Try it?"
"And stop that."
"Stop mimicking my gestures."
He laughed. "You're a most peculiar person, Kate. I find myself oddly fascinated. You have obvious skill." He indicated the budding forest in his living room. "And knowledge to back it up. Why aren't you among the Guild's top performers?"
Because being in top anything means greater risk of discovery. I was hiding in plain sight and doing a fairly good job of it. But he didn't need to know that. "I don't spend much time in Atlanta. My territory is in the Lowcountry. Nothing much happens there, except for an occasional sea serpent eating shrimp out of the fishing nets."
Saiman's sharp eyes narrowed. "So why not move up to the city? Better jobs, better money, more recognition?"
"I like my house where it is."
Something bumped behind the front door. I swiped Slayer off the counter. "Bedroom. Now."
"Can I watch?"
I pointed with the sword to the bedroom.
Saiman gave an exaggerated sigh. "Very well."
He went to the bedroom. I padded to the door and leaned against it, listening.
I waited, sword raised. Something waited out there in the hallway. I couldn't hear it, but I sensed it. It was there.
A quiet whimper filtered through the steel of the door. A sad, lost, feminine whimper, like an old woman crying quietly in mourning.
I held very still. The apartment felt stifling and crowded in. I would've given anything for a gulp of fresh air right about now.
Something scratched at the door. A low mutter floated through, whispered words unintelligible.
God, what was it with the air in this place? The place was stale and musty, like a tomb.
A feeling of dread flooded me. Something bad was in the apartment. It hid in the shadows under the furniture, in the cabinets, in the fridge. Fear squirmed through me. I pressed my back against the door, holding Slayer in front of me.
The creature behind the door scratched again, claws against the steel.
The walls closed in. I had to get away from this air. Somewhere out in the open. Somewhere where the wind blew under an open sky. Someplace with nothing to crowd me in.
I had to get out.
If I left, I risked Saiman's life. Outside the volhvs were waiting. I'd be walking right into their arms.
The shadows under the furniture grew longer, stretching toward me.
Get out. Get out now!
I bit my lip. A quick drop of blood burned on my tongue, the magic in it nipping at me. Clarity returned for a second and light dawned in my head. Badzula. Of course. The endars failed to rip us apart, so the volhvs went for plan B. If Muhammad won't go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Muhammad.
Saiman walked out of the bedroom. His eyes were glazed over.
"I must go," he said. "Must get out."
"No, you really must not." I sprinted to him.
He headed to the giant window.
I kicked the back of his right knee. He folded. I caught him on the way down and spun him so he landed on his stomach. He sprawled among the ankle-tall ferns. I locked his left wrist and leaned on him, grinding all of my weight into his left shoulder.
"Badzula," I told him. "Belorussian creature. Looks like a middle-aged woman with droopy breasts, swaddled in a filthy blanket."
"I must get out." He tried to roll over, but I had him pinned.
"Focus, Saiman. Badzula – what's her power?"
"She incites people to vagrancy."
"That's right. And we can't be vagrants, because if we walk out of this building, both of us will be killed. We have to stay put."
"I don't think I can do it."
"Yes, you can. I'm not planning on getting up."
"I believe you're right." A small measure of rational thought crept into his voice. "I suppose the furniture isn't really trying to devour us."
"If it is, I'll chop it with my sword when it gets close."
"You can let me up now," he said.
"I don't think so."
We sat still. The air grew viscous like glue. I had to bite it to get any into my lungs.
Muscles crawled under me. Saiman couldn't get out of my hold so he decided to shift himself out.
"Do you stock herbs?"
"Yes," he said.
"Do you have water lily?"
"Laboratory, third cabinet."
"Good." I rolled off of him. I'd have only a second to do this and I had to do it precisely.
Saiman got up to his knees. As he rose, I threw a fast right hook. He never saw it coming and didn't brace himself. My fist landed on his jaw. His head snapped back. His eyes rolled over and he sagged down.
Lucky. I ran to the lab.
It took a hell of a lot of practice to knock someone out. You needed both speed and power to jolt the head enough to rattle the brain inside the skull but not cause permanent damage. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't even try it, but these weren't normal circumstances. Walls were curving in to eat me.
If I did cause too much damage, he would fix it. Considering what he had done to his body so far, his regeneration would make normal shapeshifters jealous.
Third cabinet. I threw it open and scanned the glass jars. Dread mugged me like a sodden blanket.
I dashed to the door, twisting the lid off the jar. A grey powder filled it – ground lily petals, the most potent part of the flower. I slid open the lock. The ward drained down, and I jerked the door ajar.
Empty hallway greeted me. I hurled the jar and the powder into the hall. A woman wailed, smoke rose from thin air, and Badzula materialized in the middle of the carpet. Skinny, flabby, filthy, with breasts dangling to her waist like two empty bags, she tossed back grimy tangled hair and hissed at me, baring stumps of rotten teeth.
"That's nice. Fuck you, too."
I swung. It was textbook saber slash, diagonal, from left to right. I drew the entirety of the blade through the wound. Badzula's body toppled one way, her head rolled the other.
The weight dropped off my shoulders. Suddenly I could breathe and the building no longer seemed in imminent danger of collapsing and burying me alive.
I grabbed the head, tossed it into the elevator, dragged the body in there, sent the whole thing to the ground floor, sprinted back inside, and locked the door, reactivating the ward. The whole thing took five seconds.
On the floor, Saiman lay unmoving. I checked his pulse. Breathing. Good. I went back to the island. I deserved some coffee after this and I bet Saiman stocked the good stuff.
I sat by the counter, sipping the best coffee I'd ever tasted, when the big screen TV on the wall lit up with fuzzy glow. Which was more than a smidgeon odd, considering that the magic was still up and the TV shouldn't have worked.
I took my coffee and my saber and went to sit on the couch, facing the TV. Saiman still sprawled unconscious on the floor.
The glow flared brighter, faded, flared brighter… In ancient times people used mirrors, but really any somewhat reflective surface would do. The dark TV screen was glossy enough.
The glow blazed and materialized into a blurry male. In his early twenties, dark hair, dark eyes.
The man looked at me. "You're the bodyguard." His voice carried a trace of Russian accent.
I nodded and slipped into Russian. "
The man shook his head.
The screen faded.
And the plot thickens. I sighed and nudged Saiman with my boot. It took a couple of nudges, but finally he groaned and sat up.
"Really? What did I fall into?"
"That explains the headache." Saiman looked at me. "This will never happen again. I want to be absolutely clear. Attempt this again and you're fired."
I wondered what would happen if I knocked him out again right there, just for kicks.
"Is that my arabica coffee?" he asked.
I nodded. "I will even let you have a cup if you answer my question."
Saiman arched an eyebrow. "Let? It's my coffee."
I saluted him with the mug. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law."
He stared at me incredulously. "Ask."
"Are you holding a woman called Yulya hostage?"
"Her husband is very upset and is offering to let us both go if we can produce Yulya for him. Unfortunately, he's lying and most likely we both would be killed once said Yulya is found. But if you're holding a woman hostage, you must tell me now."
"And if I was?" Saiman rubbed his jaw and sat in the chair opposite me.
"Then you'd have to release her immediately or I would walk. I don't protect kidnappers and I take a very dim view of violence toward civilians, men or women."
"You're a bewildering woman."
"Saiman, focus. Yulya?"
Saiman leaned back. "I can't produce Yulya. I am Yulya."
I suppose I should've seen that coming. "The man was under the impression he's married to her. What happened to the real Yulya?"
"There was never a real Yulya. I will tell you the whole story, but I must have coffee. And nutrients."
I poured him a cup of coffee. Saiman reached into the fridge and came up with a gallon of milk, a solid block of chocolate, and several bananas.
Chocolate was expensive as hell. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had some. If I survived this job, I'd buy a couple of truffles.
I watched Saiman load bananas and milk into a manual blender and crank the handle, cutting the whole thing into a coarse mess. Not the chocolate, not the chocolate… Yep, threw it in there too. What a waste.
He poured the concoction into a two quart jug and began chugging it. Shapeshifters did burn a ton of calories. I sighed, mourning the loss of the chocolate, and sipped my coffee. "Give."
"The man in question is the son of Pavel Semyonov. He's the premier volhv in the Russian community here. The boy's name is Evgenii and he's completely right, I did marry him, as Yulya, of course. The acorn was very well guarded and I needed a way in."
Saiman smiled. Apparently he thought I'd paid him a compliment. "Are you familiar with the ritual of firing the arrow?"
"It's an archaic folkloric ritual. The shooter is blindfolded and spun around, so he blindly fires. The flight of the arrow foretells the correct direction of the object the person seeks. If a woman picks up the arrow, she and the shooter are fated to be together."
Saiman wiped his mouth. "I picked up the arrow. It took me five months from the arrow to the acorn."
"How long did it take you to con that poor guy into marriage?"
"Three months. The combination of open lust but withholding of actual sex really works wonders."
I shook my head. "Evgenii is in love with you. He thinks his wife is in danger. He's trying to rescue her."
Saiman shrugged. "I had to obtain the acorn. I could say that he's young and resilient, but really his state of mind is the least of my concerns."
"You're a terrible human being."
"I beg to differ. All people are driven by their primary selfishness. I'm simply more honest than most. Furthermore, he had the use of a beautiful woman, created to his precise specifications, for two months. I did my research into his sexual practices quite thoroughly, to the point of sleeping with him twice as a prostitute to make sure I knew his preferences."
"If we get out of this, I need to remember never to work for you again."
Saiman smiled. "But you will. If the price is right."
"Anyone will work for anyone and anyone will sleep with anyone, if the price is right and the partnership is attractive enough. Suppose I invited you to spend a week here with me. Luxurious clothes. Beautiful shoes." He looked at my old boots, which were in danger of falling apart. "Magnificent meals. All the chocolate you could ever want."
So he'd caught me.
"All that for the price of having sex with me. I would even sweeten the deal by assuming a shape preferable to you. Anyone you want. Any shape, any size, any color, any gender. All in total confidentiality. Nobody ever has to know you were here. The offer is on the table." He placed his hand on the counter, palm down. "Right now. I promise you a week of total bliss – assuming we survive. You'll never get another chance to be this pampered. All I need from you is one word."
He blinked. "Don't you want to think about it?"
He clamped his mouth shut. Muscles played along his jaw. "Why?"
The TV screen ignited. Evgenii appeared in the glow. Saiman strode to the screen with a scowl on his face. "I'll make it short." His body boiled, twisted, stretched. I shut my eyes. It was that or lose my precious coffee. When I opened them, a petite red haired woman stood in Saiman's place.
"Does this explain things enough?" Saiman asked. "Or do I need to spell it out, Evgenii?"
"I don't believe it."
Saiman sighed. "Would you like me to list your preferred positions, in the order you typically enjoy them? Shall we speak of intimate things? I could recite most of our conversation word for word, I do have a very precise memory."
They stared at each other.
"It was all a lie," Evgenii said finally.
"I call it subterfuge, but yes, in essence, the marriage was a sham. You were set up from the beginning. I was Yulya. I was also Siren and Alyssa, so if you decide to visit that particular house of ill repute again, don't look for either."
The glow vanished. Saiman turned to me. "Back to our question. Why?"
"That man loved you enough to risk his own neck to negotiate your release. You just destroyed him, in passing, because you were in a hurry. And you want to know why. If you did that to him, there's no telling what you'd do to me. Sex is about physical attraction, yes, but it's also about trust. I don't trust you. You're completely self-absorbed and egoistic. You offer nothing I want."
"Sex is driven by physical attraction. Given the right stimulus, you will sleep with me. I simply have to present you with a shape you can't resist."
Saiman jerked, as if struck by a whip, and crashed to the floor. His feet drummed the carpet, breaking the herbs and fledgling ferns. Wild convulsions tore at his body. A blink and he was a mess of arms and legs and bodies. My stomach gave up and I vomited into the sink.
Ordinarily I'd be on top of him, jamming something in his mouth to keep him from biting himself, but given that he changed shapes like there was no tomorrow, finding his mouth was a bit problematic.
"Saiman? Talk to me."
"The acorn… It's coming. Must… Get… Roof."
Roof? No roof. We were in the apartment, shielded by a ward. On the roof we'd be sitting ducks. "We can't do that."
"Oak… Large… Cave-in."
Oh hell. Would it have killed him to mention that earlier? "I need you to walk. You're too heavy and I can't carry you while you convulse."
Little by little, the shudders died. Saiman staggered to his feet. He was back to the unremarkable man I'd first found in the bedroom. His stomach had grown to ridiculous proportions. If he were pregnant, he'd be twelve months along.
"We'll make a run for it," I told him.
A faint scratch made me spin. An old man hung outside the window, suspended on a rope. Gaunt, his white beard flapping in the wind, he peered through the glass straight at me. In the split second we looked at each other, twelve narrow stalks unfurled from his neck, spreading into a corona around his head, like a nimbus around the face of a Russian icon. A bulb tipped each stock. A hovala. Shit.
I grabbed Saiman and threw him at the door.
The bulbs opened.
Blinding light flooded the apartment, hiding the world in a white haze. The window behind me exploded. I could barely see. "Stay behind me."
Shapes dashed through the haze.
I slashed. Slayer connected, encountering resistance. Sharp ice stabbed my left side. I reversed the strike and slashed again. The shape before me crumpled. The second attacker struck. I dodged left, on instinct and stabbed my blade at his side. Bone and muscle. Got him between the lower ribs. A hoarse scream lashed my ears. I twisted the blade, ripping the organs, and withdrew.
The hovala hissed at the window. I was still blind.
Behind me the lock clicked. "No!"
I groped for Saiman and hit my forearm on the open door. He ran. Into the hallway, where he was an easy target. I lost my body. God damn it.
I sprinted into the hallway, trying to blink the haze from eyes. The stairs were to the left. I ran, half blind, grabbed the door, and dashed up the stairs.
The blinding flare finally cleared. I hit the door, burst onto the roof, and took a kick to the ribs. Bones crunched. I fell left and rolled to my feet. A woman stood by the door, arms held in a trademark tae kwon do cat stance.
To the right, an older man grappled with Saiman. Six others watched.
The woman sprang into a kick. It was a lovely kick, strong with good liftoff. I sidestepped and struck. By the time she landed, I'd cut her twice. She fell in a crumpled heap.
I flicked the blood off my saber and headed for Saiman.
"You're Voron's kid," one of the men said. "We have no problem with you. Pavel's entitled. His son just threw himself off the roof."
Ten to a million, the son's name was Evgenii.
I kept coming. The two men ripped at each other, grappling and snarling like two wild animals. I was five feet away, when Pavel head-butted Saiman, jerking his right arm free. A knife flashed, I lunged, and saw Pavel slice across Saiman's distended gut. A bloody clump fell and I caught it with my left hand purely on instinct.
Magic punched my arm. Pale glow erupted from my fist.
Saiman twisted and stabbed something at Pavel's right eye. The volhv stumbled back, a bloody pencil protruding from his eye socket. For a long moment he stood, huge mouth gaping, and then toppled like a log. Saiman spun about. The muscles of his stomach collapsed, folding, knitting together, turning into a flat washboard wall.
The whole thing took less than three seconds.
I opened my fist. A small gold acorn lay on my palm.
The golden shell cracked. A sliver of green thrust its way up. The acorn rolled off my hand. The green shoot thickened, twisted, surging higher and higher. The air roared like a tornado. Saiman howled, a sound of pure rage. I grabbed him and dragged him with me to the stairs. On the other side, volhvs ran for the edge of the roof.
The shoot grew, turning dark, sprouting branches, leaves, and bark. Magic roiled.
"It was supposed to be mine," Saiman snarled. "Mine!"
Light flashed. The roaring ceased.
A colossal oak stood in the middle of the roof, as tall as the building itself, its roots spilling on both sided of the high rise. Tiny lights fluttered between its branches – each wavy leaf as big as my head. Birds sang in the foliage. A huge metal chain bound the enormous trunk, its links so thick, I could've laid down on it. A feeling of complete peace came over me. All my troubles melted into distance. My pain dissolved. The air tasted sweet and I drank it in.
At the other side of the roof, the volhvs knelt.
Metal clinked. A black creature came walking down the bottom loop. As big as a horse, its fur long and black, it walked softly, gripping the links with razor-sharp claws. Its head was that of lynx. Tall tufts of black fur decorated its ears and a long black beard stretched from its chin. Its eyes glowed, lit from within.
The cat paused and looked at me. The big maw opened, showing me a forest of white teeth, long and sharp like knives.
"You were the last to hold the acorn," Saiman whispered. "You must ask the question or it will kill all of us."
The cat showed me its teeth again.
For anything I asked, there would be a price.
"Ask," the cat said, its voice laced with an unearthly snarl.
"Ask, Kate," Saiman prompted.
"Ask!" one of the volhvs called out.
I took a deep breath.
The cat leaned forward in anticipation.
"Would you like some milk?"
The cat smiled wider. "Yes."
"I'll be right back."
I dashed down the stairs. Three minutes later the cat lapped milk from Saiman's crystal punch bowl.
"You could've asked anything," the creature said between laps.
"But you would've taken everything," I told it. "This way all it cost me is a little bit of milk."
In the morning Peters came to relieve me. Not that he had a particularly difficult job. After the oak disappeared, the volhvs decided that since both Pavel and Evgenii were dead, all accounts were settled and it was time to call it quits. As soon as we returned to the apartment, Saiman locked himself in the bedroom and refused to come out. The loss of the acorn hit him pretty hard. Just as well. I handed my fussy client off to Peters, retrieved Peggy, and headed back to the Guild.
All in all I'd done spectacularly well, I decided. I lost the client for at least two minutes, let him get his stomach ripped open, watched him stab his attacker in the eye, which was definitely something he shouldn't have had to do, and cost him his special acorn and roughly five months of work. The fact that my client turned out to be a scumbag and a sexual deviant really had no bearing on the matter.
Some bodyguard I made. Yay. Whoopee.
I grabbed my crap and headed for the doors.
"Kate," the clerk called from the counter.
I turned. Nobody remembered the clerk's name. He was just "the clerk."
He waved an envelope at me. "Money."
I turned on my foot. "Money?"
"For the job. Client called. He says he'd like to work exclusively with you from now on. What did the two of you do all night?"
"We argued philosophy." I swiped the envelope and counted the bills. Three grand. What do you know?
I stepped out the doors into an overcast morning. I had been awake for over thirty six hours. I just wanted to find a quiet spot, curl up, and shut the world out.
A tall lean man strode to me, tossing waist long black hair out of the way. He walked like a dancer and his face would stop traffic. I looked into his blue eyes and saw a familiar smugness in their depths. "Hello, Saiman."
"How did you know?"
I shrugged and headed on my way.
"Perhaps we can work out a deal," he said, matching my steps. "I have no intentions of losing that bet. I will find a form you can't resist."
"I'm guessing you'll try to avoid me, which would make my victory a bit difficult."
"That's why I decided to give you an incentive you can't refuse. I'm giving you a sixty percent discount on my services. It's an unbelievable deal."
I laughed. If he thought I'd pay him twenty-six dollars a minute for his time, he was out of luck.
"Laugh now." Saiman smiled. "But sooner or later you'll require my expertise."
He stopped. I kept on walking, into the dreary sunrise. I had three thousand dollars and some chocolate to buy.
About the Author
About the Author
Ilona Andrews is the pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team. “Ilona is a native-born Russian and Gordon is a former communications sergeant in the U.S. Army. Contrary to popular belief, Gordon was never an intelligence officer with a license to kill, and Ilona was never the mysterious Russian spy who seduced him. They met in college, in English Composition 101, where Ilona got a better grade. (Gordon is still sore about that.)
Gordon and Ilona currently reside in Texas with their two children, three dogs and a cat. They have co-authored two series, the bestselling urban fantasy of