We strolled like that until we reached the school. We even let go at the same time, just before we walked inside. I'd spent the rest of the day quietly smiling to myself. It had progressed slowly from there, with him always patient, deferring to my reticence, but hinting at better things to come.
Until yesterday. I blushed just thinking about it, wondering what would happen next.
What would Caleb do if he found out?
The thought dragged at me. The others in the school had eventually figured it out. But no one had said much. We were all preoccupied with loss. Grief had drawn a boundary of silence between us. Except for me and Lazar.
Lazar still hadn't given any outward sign we were together, but Caleb was no fool. He might already suspect. I tried to keep my responses to Lazar's chatter as innocuous as possible as we drove. If Caleb left because of me being with Lazar, then it would really be my fault that the group of friends, the team, had disintegrated.
And I couldn't imagine never seeing Caleb again.
We reached Livermore late in the afternoon, stopped off for some fast food, and coasted slowly down Cherry Drive after dusk.
It reminded me a bit of the neighborhood where I'd grown up in Burbank. The trees here were smaller, the houses newer, and thus even more cookie-cutter than I was used to. So 1491 only differed from 1493 and 1495 because it had been painted a lighter beige and had a familiar white pickup truck parked in the driveway.
“That's one of the trucks we saw last night,” I said.
“Then we're going in,” London said, shooting Arnaldo a look.
“Reconnaissance is ready,” Arnaldo said, pulling his sweatshirt over his head.
“Yeah, yeah, me, too.” November rolled up the bag of candy she'd been dipping into for the last hour and stashed it.
We parked around a bend in the road, waited till an SUV filled with kids in soccer uniforms drove by, and let Arnaldo and November slip out. Arnaldo's eagle form was too large for him to shift completely inside the car, so Lazar slid the moonroof back. Arnaldo stood up on his seat, bare chest poking out of the roof, and, with a tremble of air, shifted.
I could just see a gnarled yellow talon holding the edge of the open moonroof. Then his fierce head, covered in snow-white feathers, poked down, and he fixed us with one shining golden eye.
“Okay, okay,” November said. She kept talking, but after a brief pause, the words became squeaks. What had been a girl in the back seat in a fatigue jacket and skinny jeans became a pile of clothing and crumbs. A lump under the jacket moved, chittering, and November's little pink nose peeked out, her gray-and-white whiskers bristling. London opened the door for her, and November leapt onto the strip of grass next to the sidewalk.
Arnaldo lifted his head and with a flap of his huge brown wings, rose from the roof of the SUV, shoving it away with his powerful feet.
“He's awfully big for the suburbs,” London said, craning her neck to watch the eagle fly toward number 1491 Cherry Drive.
“But federally protected,” I said. “The worst thing that happens is someone sights him and they think, âCool! The bald eagle is really coming back.' ”
“Unless Ximon has infrared cameras on his roof,” Caleb said, his voice bland.
“Unlikely,” Lazar said, even more neutral. “They aren't cheap or easy to install discreetly, and it's not like he had time to take any with him when he ran off.”
“And if they set off an alarm, they set off an alarm,” I said.
London stepped out of the car. “Time for us to go.”
We followed her out of the SUV and split up. Caleb and London strolled back around the corner toward the front of 1491, while Lazar and I headed in the opposite direction to go around the back. There was no alley behind the houses here. They sat back to back with another row of houses just like them, separated by a tall wooden fence. So we would have to move a little faster and do more climbing than our friends.
Lazar took my hand. Nervous, I glanced over my shoulder before we rounded the corner to see the long dark line of Caleb walking next to the loping, lanky form of London, the blond top half of her head faintly green under the streetlights. Caleb turned at the last moment to look back our way. I yanked my hand out of Lazar's; then we turned the corner.
Lazar was staring at me. “I need my hand,” I mouthed to him. But his face was blank. Did he realize I'd pulled away because of Caleb?
“Testing,” I said, a finger to the receiver in my ear. Lazar had fashioned headsets for us a few weeks back, and we'd practiced using them in a few classes. Now that I could channel excess energy into the ground, I could keep it from shorting out. Probably. Caleb had refused to wear one, as if the fact that it came from Lazar and the Tribunal tainted it.
“I hear you.” London's voice was tinny in my ear. “We'll wait for your signal.”
“Thanks.” I turned to Lazar. “Let's get ahead of them. Count down.”
We picked up the pace to a slow jog. “One,” Lazar said under his breath as we passed the first house on the street parallel to Cherry. Fourteen ninety-one was the fifth house from the corner, and with the lots all the same size, we knew we could enter its backyard with confidence, as long as we counted the houses on this parallel street properly.
We counted down silently. “Five.” We slowed down in front of the fifth house. The lights were off upstairs, but the opaque glass near the front door was glowing. Dinnertime in house five.
The coast looked clear. We walked normally onto the lawn toward the fence protecting the backyard, and then stooped low as we moved in front of the opaque glass by the front door. The dark, weathered wooden planks of the fence only came up to my cheekbones, so I stood on my toes and glanced over it. A black four-legged form lying nearby looked up from the bone it was gnawing and barked.
“Oh, crap,” I said to Lazar, who was right behind me. A thump from the other side of the fence announced that the dog was on its hind legs, paws up on the fence.
“Then we go through that yard.” Even taller than I was, Lazar looked over the fence easily and pointed at the sixth house next door.
“Frances! Quiet!” a man shouted from the fifth house.
The dog, a lion-maned creature with jet black eyes, fur, and tongue, kept barking. Frances was no fool.
“Let's be quick.” I moved over a few feet to the fence guarding the sixth house's backyard. There were no lights on in this house, not even a porch light. My pupils were adjusting as I reached up and put a foot against the fence to leap over.
“Here.” Lazar bent down and put both his hands under my foot, like someone helping a jockey into a saddle.
“Okay.” Caleb rarely helped me that way, knowing I could handle myself, but a little extra push couldn't hurt. I put my sneakered foot on Lazar's hands and pushed off.
Lazar used his hands like a springboard and I vaulted clear over the fence in almost a standing position.
His help threw off my balance a little, though. I had to roll when I landed. I got to my feet just as I saw, right in front of me, the black water of an unlit swimming pool, unreflective beneath the overcast night sky. I teetered on the edge, and then pulled back, silently thanking my cat-shifter reflexes.
Frances was still barking, aiming her displeasure first at me, then at Lazar.
“Maybe you should go out and see what she's barking at, honey,” a woman inside Frances's house said.
Behind me, Lazar had his own hands on the top of the fence, about to hoist himself over.
“Oh, hey,” I said, keeping my voice low. “Look out for the . . .”
Lazar, unable to hear me over the sharp woofs, pushed himself up and over the fence in one smooth move. Frances sprang toward the top of her own fence, snapping at him, her teeth the only white thing about her.
Startled by her leap, Lazar jerked away, mid-jump, in time to avoid a bite. But he caught his knee on the top of the fence and tumbled to the hard cement. He twisted as he fell, curling to cushion the blow, and rolled, as I had. Right toward the swimming pool.
I grabbed for him, getting hold of the sleeve of his brown jacket. But his momentum was too great. He rolled faster than I had and teetered on the edge of the pool as I scrabbled to catch his wrist. Instead, the whole jacket slid off in my hand. Lazar splashed into the pool with a startled cry, abruptly cut off by a gurgle.
I watched the ripples in the water, ready to jump in if he didn't come up for some reason. But he bobbed to the surface, spluttering quietly, and then stood up in the shallow water, dark golden hair in whorls on his forehead, his T-shirt clinging to his shoulders and abs.
I held up his last piece of dry clothing. “It was you or the jacket.”
A stray ray of starlight caught a glint in his eye; then he burst into laughter.
I convulsed, too, hand over my mouth to keep the sound low, not that anyone would have heard us over the renewed frenzy of barking.
Lazar's white teeth flashed. He held a finger to his lips. “Ssh! Frances might hear you!”
I giggled as he hoisted himself, dripping, out of the pool.
“What the hell is happening over there?”
I jumped, hand to my heart. Lazar let loose another laugh as I realized it was London talking through the receiver in our ears.
“Can you hear us from all the way over there?” I asked, making sure my voice was low. Lazar and I rounded the edge of the dark pool, moving toward the back corner of the fence, where we could jump kitty-corner into the yard of 1491. No lights had come on in any of the houses around us. In the fifth house, the back door squeaked open and Frances's owner shushed her, announcing to his wife there was no one in the backyard.
“No,” said London. “I heard you gurgling or something through the receiver. I thought someone was choking you.”
Lazar and I exchanged a grin. “We're fine.”
We stopped at the back fence as Lazar did a quick check of the gun in his shoulder holster, and the other toolsâlock pick, flashlight, silver and brass knucklesâat his belt. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, all Tribunal guns can fire if they get wet. Thanks.” He took the jacket from me and shrugged it on so the gun was covered. Then he held out his cupped hands. “Another boost?”
“Thanks.” I put my foot in his hand, eyeing the landscape behind usâFrances's owner had taken her insideâand then scanned ahead. “No swimming pool,” I told him.
He breathed a laugh. “Hallelujah.”
We made it over that fence without a problem. “We're in position,” I said quietly into my headset.
“No movement,” London said.
“Waiting for lights to go out.” Going first because I had the best night vision, I led Lazar across the dying grass of the back lawn, scanning the big curtained windows for any sign of Ximon. Rats could get in just about anywhere, so we'd sent November in first to chew through the phone lines and disable any kind of alarm system she found. When the lights went out, we'd know she'd succeeded.
Lazar and I flattened ourselves against the outer wall of the house, close to the back door. I looked up, but didn't see Arnaldo. He was probably perched on the roof, keeping his sharp eyes peeled for anything suspicious.
Something rustled in the grass. Lazar drew his pistol out in one smooth move, but I'd heard a familiar chitter and said, “Wait!”
It was November, her fur damp from sprinkler-wet grass. She stood up on her hind legs, her brown, pod-shaped body almost a foot tall and prattled at me in a rush of squeaks and hisses.
I squatted down. “You know I can't understand anything you're saying.” I kept my voice low.
She exhaled in frustration, then made a sort of firework motion with one paw, then sliced another claw across her throat in a cutting motion. “Lights, cut?” I asked. “No, the lights are still on. Oh!” As she danced with aggravation, I realized what she was trying to convey. “You can't cut off the lights?”
She nodded furiously.
“What about the phones?”
She shook her head.
“So you probably have no idea if there's a burglar alarm.”
She nodded, and then shook her head, and I realized my question had no easy yes or no answer. Her whiskers curled and she squealed, shaking her paws at me. I reached over to pet her reassuringly on the top of her head. Disgusted, she gave me a warning bite that didn't break the skin.
“They've rat-proofed the house,” I said into my headset, glancing up at Lazar. “Which means we definitely have the right place. But we can't cut off phone or lights.”
“I vote we go in anyway,” London said.
I heard a distant male voice through the microphone. Caleb. “This is a bad idea.”
I ignored him and turned to November. “I agree, London.” I turned to November. “Can you climb up and tell Arnaldo we're going in?”
The rat put her pink paws on her round hips and shook her head at me.
“I know. He doesn't speak rat either. Just mime something, like kicking a door in.”
With a chirp that sounded a lot like an angry “Fine!” November scurried to the wall and zoomed up its vertical surface.
“Just pick the lock, Caleb,” London said tersely over the headset.
“Let us know when you're ready,” I said to her and reached for the scabbard hidden under my coat to pull out the Shadow Blade. As always, it felt cool and calming in my hand. Its blade was so black it seemed to absorb the light around it, and the wavering edge wasn't sharp, but evanesced into smoke. “Be ready to move in fast.”
“Yeah, they'll probably hear us coming.” Lazar reached into a pocket and started screwing a silencer onto his pistol. “And to keep this from creaking . . .” He reached into a pocket, pulled out a tiny bottle and sprayed the hinges of the screen door.