Authors: Rob Thurman
It had been barely two and a half minutes since the fight had begun. Still, it didn't surprise me in the slightest when Niko came through the door, a dark-clad missile of destruction. I was wearing a wire for a reason, and my brother wasn't one to let the grass grow under his feet. The wood of the door was sturdy enough; it didn't matter. It disintegrated under Niko's kick. Boaz didn't turn; he didn't have a chance. The gape-jawed wolf was the recipient of Niko's sword through his broad brown chest. "Let's go," Niko ordered tersely. "This isn't what we're here for." Gee, a little death and dismemberment wasn't on the schedule? What a pity. I dodged a big gray wolf—all of them by now had turned—and booted it in the ass hard enough to send it flying into a still-thrashing Boaz. Goddamn, that was one tough wolf.
Promise flowed past me with, if you could believe it, her cloak retrieved and folded neatly over her arm. She paused for the briefest of moments to murmur in Niko's ear and then passed through the door to the outer room. Niko turned his attention to the convulsing Boaz with calculating consideration. I saw his hand tighten slightly on the hilt of his sword before he came to a decision. Killing Boaz wasn't the job we'd taken. It wasn't one we
taken. Boaz was Cerberus's problem, not that that changed the fact there were three more wolves rushing forward to take us out. Niko looked at me sharply and repeated, "
It was a tone I'd learned not to argue with when I was in diapers. With one arm virtually out of commission I had to leave the Glock. It was stolen and untraceable, with the numbers destroyed by acid, though no one in this crowd was going to be calling the police. It didn't change the fact I was going to miss the hunk of plastic and metal. It had gotten me out of a jam or two in its day. Knife still in hand, I made to follow Promise. "They're going to smell your blood," he added grimly. "So use some speed, little brother."
That Promise, what a tattletale. Cradling my arm against my chest, I went with one parting shot. "Nothing but my dust, Grandpa." Ignoring his snort, I headed out. Speed was a relative term, but I liked to think I set a land-speed record for an injured man in gigolo wear. Throughout the club heads were turning in my direction, some lupine, but not all. I saluted them with my knife hand and drawled, "Good game, great company. Thanks for the hospitality."
Some wanted those thanks personally. Two lamias drifted up and away from their table. The round and blazing gold eyes of owls peered through strands of floor-length inky black hair. Flashes of their pale skin could be seen through the black veils as they moved toward me, their lipless mouths showing round rings of transparent baby teeth in hungry smiles. There was a flutter of silk at my elbow and Promise said firmly, "No. Go back to your muck, leeches. This one is mine." They hesitated for a moment, and taking my good arm, she goaded me into a faster pace. As the relatively fresh night air hit my nose I heard the scrape of more chairs and tables behind me. Everyone smelled the blood all right, and there was plenty of it. The cold sweat of adrenaline and pain was probably a savory olfactory side dish. I wasn't too worried, though. They might be behind me, but Niko was behind them. And that wasn't a fair fight in anyone's book.
Outside, the van was only inches from the door, pulled up on the curb with reckless disregard for the life and limb of your average pedestrian. Robin waved an impatient hand from behind the wheel. "The meter's running, kid. Get your disco ass in here."
Hissing as the movement jostled my arm, I climbed into the back of the van after Promise. "Your evil twin in there isn't nearly the pain you are, but damn if his carbon-copy ass isn't dead-on you."
Dark brows winged upward. "There's another puck in there?" There was definite ambivalence in his voice. "Which one?"
Yeah, that wasn't an unrealistic expectation to dump on me. I doubted they could tell one another apart, supernatural clones that they were. I knew I sure as hell couldn't. "The annoying, smart-ass one," I growled. The van was made for deliveries, and there were no seats in the back. Instead, I took one on the floor and wedged myself into the corner in preparation for a fast getaway. "That narrow it down for you any?" Ignoring his caustic humph, I told Promise, who crouched gracefully by the door, "Better get back. Nik is going to be moving."
That was an understatement if ever I made one. Niko came through the opening so fast I was halfway expecting a sonic boom to follow him. He slid the door into place with a metal-rattling slam a split second before something hit it hard enough to dent the metal. "Drive," he rapped. "Now."
Goodfellow obeyed with alacrity. The wheels of the van squealed as we bumped over the curb's edge, and the smell of burning rubber followed us down the street. I'd already shoved my knife back in its sheath and used my hand to grab on to the driver's seat. Leaning my head back, I closed my eyes. "Well, that was fun."
"Anyone for a late supper?" came Promise's voice. "My treat. I came out nearly five hundred ahead in the game."
"Two hundred and fifty of that is mine," Goodfellow reminded over the struggling engine. "And I'm not treating anyone."
"Of course not. Your next perm should cost at least that much. I wouldn't dream of depriving your fashion budget."
The squabbling went on and I let it wash over me like a fractious lullaby. Job number two and it hadn't turned out any better than the first. Mission accomplished, if you call fucked-up and blown out of the water an accomplishment. Bad luck or bad karma, things just weren't working out for us lately. A touch on my shoulder had me opening my eyes. "You're dripping," Niko said quietly.
In the dark it was difficult to see the color of the puddle that was forming on the floor beside me. But there wasn't much chance of it being purple, now, was there? "The true tragedy is I'm ruining Loman's shirt," I said with a halfhearted grin. My arm was propped carefully on my knees and the blood was briskly wending its way to the tips of my fingers, then trickling to the floor. It didn't make a difference. I could be gushing a river; a hospital wasn't a choice for me. Or Goodfellow or Promise for that matter. Of the four of us, only Niko had that option. If my arm were broken, maybe I could've risked it. But with a very obvious dog bite, there would be rabies shots and blood tests. I had no idea what a blood test would say about me, but I doubted it would be anything normal.
We had had a local healer, the one who had once knit together the Niko-inflicted hole in my stomach and then later had stopped my heart to drive out Darkling, but Rafferty had left several months ago. I couldn't much blame him. He was on a hunt for something,
, that would cure his twin of a particularly nasty and wolfish illness. Luck to the poor bastard, but with him gone, this healing was going to be a do-it-yourself job. Joy.
"Tylenol or something stronger?"
The voice was muffled by the pillow over my head. That same pillow was soaked with sweat and the victim of one or two vicious bite marks. Hey, I had a bite of my own and I didn't mind sharing the wealth. Blindly, I raised my good hand into the air and held up four fingers.
"Something stronger it is." In less than a minute Niko was pulling the pillow away and depositing two bright pink pills into my hand. Illegal prescription drugs we had, numbing lidocaine for the stitches… nope. We'd run out a few months back and with Rafferty missing in action, we hadn't been able to replace the anesthetic solution. It wasn't exactly in high demand on the street. Sitting up, I chased the pills down with the bottle of water Niko brought me. If my hand shook a little, he didn't comment. I imagined that after cleaning the multiple slashes, checking the bone to see if it was broken, then putting in over fifty stitches, he'd had better days himself. Inflicting true pain—and a helluva lot of it, thanks for asking—on his only family was not in his nature. After another swallow I said tiredly, "I hope Caleb's boss appreciates the loss of life and limb." Their lives, my limb.
"I hope he does as well, considering someone in his organization sold him out." He placed the pillow at the top of the bed with precise, economical motions that revealed exactly how pissed he was. "Sold us out."
"Not very professional for crooks… are they? Naughty, naughty." The bottle slid from my fingers to bounce off the carpet. The pills hadn't gotten to me that fast. It was more a combination of weariness and the last jangle of adrenaline running its course.
"Naughty indeed." Niko's face was expressionless, but the thread of steel in his voice was anything but. He pulled the blankets back, then bent down to pick up the bottle before my fumbling fingers reached it. "Go to bed, Cal. You've lost blood; your arm was nearly broken. You've perhaps even ingested a hair ball or two. You need the rest."
When it came to that particular command, you didn't have to tell me twice. Usually not even once. Guarding my arm, I lay down. Yanking the blanket up, I said, "Humor, Cyrano, doesn't cure all ills. Don't believe the fortune cookies."
The light was switched off and he added blandly, "By the way, Promise apologizes for not babysitting you better."
Oh, I liked that. If I could stick to a wall like human flypaper, maybe I would've come out better off myself. "Asshole," I muttered, rolling over onto my side.
"Good night to you too," Niko said dryly, and then there was the click of the door being pulled shut. When the drowsiness came I welcomed it. My arm had been gnawed on by a garbage disposal on legs, and not only that, Goodfellow was charging me for his ruined shirt. Right now sleep was my last refuge and I plunged into it wholeheartedly. It didn't last. Damned if the good things ever do. It was all right.
What woke me up was a good thing too. As good as they came.
It was a soft touch on the back of my hand that woke me. Even mired in a haze of heavy sleep, painkillers, and morning grumpiness, I instantly recognized her presence. Sliding my hand slowly but not as casually as I would've liked from beneath hers, I opened my eyes. "George, you shouldn't be here."
She overlooked my rudeness. George spent a lot of time doing that. With a muted smile, she said, "I brought you ice cream. Cherry chocolate, your favorite."
I was pretty sure ice cream was for tonsillectomies, not wolf bites, but I accepted the small pint container and spoon nonetheless. It probably wasn't the smartest thing to do, but, hell, it was cherry chocolate. Feeling the iciness of the cardboard beneath my hand, I tried not to notice George was a vision in cherry chocolate herself. The flowing dress that draped her slim form was a swirling pattern of deep browns and warm reds, the copper of her bracelets trie same color as her hair. The same damn color exactly. Sitting up, I pried the lid off the ice cream, winced at the movement, and wedged the container between my sheet-covered legs to scoop out a small spoonful. "So, why the ice cream? The mystical friggin' universe tell you I was chomped last night?"
"Actually it was Promise, and her cellphone, but who's to say her call wasn't the work of the infinite universe? It does work in mysterious ways." Her legs were tucked beneath her and I noticed that her brown feet were bare. The toenails were painted the same deep red as the dress. Funny how such a minor detail could make me glad that I had the next best thing to an ice pack cradled near my crotch.
"Yeah, mysterious," I snorted. "A gossipy vampire and cellular technology. The universe at work, that's not, George. Sorry."
"You'd be surprised." She tilted her head and said with mock innocence, "I wonder what Promise would think of being called gossipy."
"Threats, Georgie Porgie? Is that any way for a beloved prophet to behave?" My arm throbbed, the ice cream was cold and silky against my tongue, and the scent of George was in the air, nutmeg and warm sugar. It was a lot of sensations to take in all at once. I concentrated on just the one… the ice cream. It was comfortable, painless, and safe. And safe was good for me, good for us both, although I was feeling more and more like a wounded gazelle being cut out of the herd. Worse yet, I didn't want to run.
"Beloved of whom?" she asked with a wistful curve to her wide mouth. A spiral ringlet hung to her collarbone, fallen from the casual upswept mass of her hair. Just one strand, one curl perfect in its wildness and exuberance.
Everyone whose path she crossed. Shrugging, I silently licked the spoon clean and replaced the lid on the container. "All the ones you help with what you see. That cranky old ice-cream pusher who lives off you. Little old ladies you help across the street. You know, people." And at that moment you didn't have to be a psychic to know that I was lying.
She studied me, then sighed and took the ice cream from my hand. "To have faced the monsters you have, you are the biggest coward." Standing, she shook the smooth fall of her dress out, slid her feet into sandals, and said without pity, "We're going to talk, Caliban, you and I. If I have to lock the door and have Niko tie you to a chair, we're going to talk. So get prepared." Before I could move, she bent and brushed a kiss on the corner of my mouth. "It's going to be a very long conversation, cherry chocolate boy." And then in a swirl of sheer cotton and copper hair she was gone. Gone from the room. Gone from the apartment. Gone from my life.
"Gone?" I said hollowly, the numbness spreading through me with firestorm speed. I didn't ask if he was sure. Niko was always sure. "How?"
"I don't know. I don't know much of anything." He pushed me toward the kitchen chair and put a cup of tea in front of me. Niko… he'd come away from martial arts training with the unshakable belief that there was a tea for every occasion. If the herbs didn't help, then the warmth of the liquid and the very act of drinking would give you something to focus on… other than the shit that was bringing down your world as efficiently as Samson at the Temple. I didn't know what kind this was; it smelled like licorice. I'd never liked licorice, even as a kid. I wasn't in the mood, to say the least. I pushed the cup away.
"Tell me," I demanded with frozen lips.
He exhaled and sat opposite me at the table. Taking the tea for himself, he turned it one way and then the other with his long fingers. "She didn't make it to the ice-cream shop. As far as I've managed to piece together, she left here and simply vanished. She didn't show up at the shop and Mr. Geever became concerned and called her mother. That was seven hours ago and no one has seen her. Her mother just now became desperate enough to call us."
George's mother had never been our number one fan. Her daughter hadn't told her I was behind the wolf assassins sent to her apartment to kill George. I was possessed at the time, but still. And although she was grateful, if confused, that Niko and Robin had saved the family from some peculiarly hairy burglars, she still had questions as to the lucky coincidence of their lurking in the vicinity, armed and ready. She knew George was a friend… goddamn it, a
… of ours, but for her to break down and call us, she must be terrified.
She wasn't alone.
Friend. The plastic of the table bit into my palm as I gripped the edge with locked, aching fingers. It was amazing the catastrophes that had to occur to get you to stop lying to yourself. Yeah, fucking amazing. Pushing my chair back with a violent motion, I stood. Niko didn't need to ask where I was going. He only stood with me. "We'll find her, Cal," he said firmly. "Don't doubt it."
We'd find her all right. We'd find George, and then we'd make someone very, very sorry. The kind of sorry that involved spilled blood and a suddenly silent heart. As for the search… I knew George. She would've headed straight for the soda shop. Duty, responsibility, she took all that as seriously as my brother did. People would've been waiting for her, just as they did every day. We followed the path she would've taken. It was something of a walk to the shop, thirty to forty minutes, but George didn't like to take the bus or the subway if she could avoid it. Too many people in too confined a space, that sort of thing was rough on a psychic, even one with the power and control that she possessed. So she walked.
But not a single soul had seen her.
In this city I didn't expect any differently. But what was telling was that not even the hot dog guy on the corner had seen her go. Both George and I were on a first-name basis with him. God forbid I should bring mystery meat into the sanctity of Nik's kitchen. It might taint his karma, his tofu aura, his whatever. When the urge for a chili cheese dog hit me, I went to the corner and saved myself a lecture. Body. Temple. Yeah, you know the rest. Marvin the hot dog guy knew me all right and he especially knew George. He had a thing for her. It wasn't sexual, not in sixty-six-year-old Marvin's case, but it was a definite thing regardless. Her hot dogs always came with a free soda or bag of chips, and she wouldn't have walked by his wagon without stopping to say hello. But she hadn't.
That meant she hadn't even made it a block. Between our building and the corner she'd vanished. Bright and warm in her cherry chocolate dress, she'd melted away as quickly as the ice cream she had carried to me.
We were going to talk, she'd said. No way out of it for me. No way at all. I guess I'd proved her wrong there.
"Cal," more insistent this time.
The taste of supper, chicken burrito, lingered in the back of my throat. The salty tomato salsa was so similar to another darker flavor that I wanted to gag. George was strong-willed, independent, quick-witted, and fierce, but she wasn't like us. Not like me or Niko or Robin or Promise. She wasn't a killer. And sometimes… sometimes you had to be.
." The hand pinched a nerve in my shoulder, generating an electric tingle.
On autopilot my hand rubbed at the spot. It hurt, but it hurt in a place that wasn't here… wasn't now. Or maybe it was me that wasn't here, wasn't now. "We're screwed, aren't we?" I asked colorlessly.
"No," Niko said instantly. "We're not. You were gone much longer and I found you."
"Actually, I found you." Then I'd fired a bullet right at his heart. And I was a good shot. Helluva one, really. I hadn't missed. Closing my eyes, I felt a slow acid burn pass through to the back of my brain. "Not the best example you could've come up with."
"Perhaps not." His hand pushed mine aside and efficiently rubbed out the ache of the twisted-nerve attention getter. "But it doesn't change the fact that we'll find her. And then we'll clean our swords." The promise, deadly and gray as a hurricane sea, wasn't for me. "But for now you'll stay with me, and I'll call Caleb."
By staying with him he wasn't referring to being glued at the hip holster. He was talking mentally, not physically. Big order. Making with the superglue would've been easier, proved by the fact it took a few moments before I caught on to the mention of Caleb's name. "What the hell are you calling him for?"
"Goodfellow and Promise are already contacting everyone they know. But Caleb works for Cerberus and is in a unique position for gathering information."
It was true. Not only were the Kin involved in 99.9 percent of supernatural crime, but they also kept a greedy eye on that tiny fraction that they
own. All well and good except for two things. "Why would Caleb or Cerberus help us?"
"We waive our fee for last night's job."
We hadn't exactly found out the info Cerberus had wanted, but we had discovered there was a spy in his organization. We also might have sent Boaz to the pet cemetery. I know I was keeping my fingers crossed. As for earning Cerberus's goodwill, it might be enough. That and a fifty-thousand freebie. It was a hope, not much of one, but something. That left only the second problem.
"What if…" I grimaced in self-disgust as the words stuck in my throat. Yeah, this was the way to get her back. This was the way to be her salvation. Being afraid to look at the entire picture, being too cowardly to even say the words. "What if it's just a guy?" I said bleakly.
"Just… what do you mean?" It wasn't often Niko was puzzled. And it was far more rare that my mind moved faster than his razor-sharp one. We'd lived this life so long, even he had trouble seeing beyond it.
"What if it's just a nut? Your average human psycho," I said bluntly. A rapist, a murderer, a monster of strictly human origin. What the hell would Cerberus know about your average Gein or Dahmer holed up in Mommy's basement? "What do we do then?"
"A demon is a demon, Cal. If he's human, he'll simply be easier to kill. Finding him won't be any more difficult," he said with absolute conviction.
As lies went, I wasn't sure if it was solely for me or if he was lying to himself too. The really good lies are flexible that way. Two days later we made a deal with the devil and all lies went out the window. And so did the comfort that went with them.