Authors: Annie Bellet
Tags: #Supernaturals, #UF
“They won’t have a choice. Jade will come for you. She always comes for those she loves.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“It’s going to get her killed.” Samir lifted one shoulder in a half shrug.
“Hasn’t yet,” Harper said.
He pressed his lips into a tight line, and she knew that she’d found at least one crack in his disgustingly competent armor.
“You like games such as chess, yeah?” Harper continued.
“I do,” Samir answered.
“Then you should kill me now,” Harper said.
“I don’t follow.”
“Zugzwang,” Harper said.
“Zugzwang? That’s what I am doing. Forcing Jade to come straight to me.” His eyes were slits again and his lips curled back from his teeth. Perhaps he thought was smiling but there was too much annoyance and frustration in his expression to fool her.
Harper forced another pained chuckle. “Maybe. But in game theory, it’s a forced move that turns a win into a loss. That’s what is happening. That’s what you are doing. Drawing the one person I know can kill you right to you.”
“Jade is no threat to me,” he said.
“Yet she’s out there, alive and kicking.”
Please let her be alive and kicking
, Harper added silently.
Samir sighed again. “Not for long. She’ll come for you. Or she won’t. Perhaps she will run again. It won’t matter soon anyway.”
It won’t matter soon?
So it does matter now? Why?
Harper’s desperate mind raced along a million paths.
Got to keep him talking like a Bond villain
, she decided.
“Soon? I thought you said it doesn’t matter at all.”
“It doesn’t. She doesn’t. She’s just a loose end I should have tied up years ago.” Samir rose to his feet.
“What happens soon?” Harper blurted, desperate to keep him talking. She bit the inside of her cheek and craned her head to keep him in sight.
“I become a god,” he said, rubbing his thumb along the ruby vial hanging from his neck.
Harper let her head drop. Then Samir’s boots moved away and she heard a door open and close as he left her alone in the room.
Noah led me down a hallway and then a set of short stairs and into a part of the warehouse that looked like a loading dock. There was a huge metal door slowly rolling down and a small group of people waiting for us. The space looked too big to fit with the footprint of the warehouse and not for the first time I wondered what exactly was going on with this place. The vampire had a lot of secrets to protect; I supposed it only made sense that his place of business, and probably his home, was protected by magical as well as material means.
Around me were corrugated metal walls stretching up about twenty feet to a beamed ceiling in shadow overhead. The floor was concrete, clean and gray. Parked just inside the doors, its engine still ticking as it cooled and rain water condensed on its windshield and hood, was a giant RV. Beside it, a black motorcycle leaned on a kickstand. Arrayed in front of the vehicles were three people. No, four people. I did a double take and felt my cheeks heat up at how obvious I’d just been.
There were two women sharing a wide wheelchair, their bodies joined at the hips, with four arms but only two visible legs. They looked back at me with nearly identical half-smiles, amusement in their dark brown eyes. They looked to be in their mid-twenties, and probably Hispanic in ancestry. One had long black hair twisted up in a bun and held with rainbow hair sticks. The other had short hair cut angularly to chin length and dyed a deep green.
Beside the twins were two other people. One was a tall blonde woman who was glaring at Noah. By tall, I mean well over six feet. She could have given Alek a runoff for tallest blonde in the room. On the other side of the wheelchair, hanging back almost in the shadow of the RV was a slender man with olive skin and light brown hair cut shaggy around his face. I picked male by default, because I couldn’t tell, honestly. Something about the face said masculine, the angle of his jaw and the thickness of his brows, but I just wasn’t sure.
“Archivist,” the blonde giant said.
“This is Jade Crow, your client,” Noah said, motioning to me. “I am sure you are hungry after your long drive. We can discuss details at dinner. It should be ready now.”
“Introductions first, then dinner.” The woman looked me over, a real obvious head-to-toe kind of look, and pressed her lips together. I supposed I didn’t look like much right now.
“Very well. Jade Crow, this is Kira Kirovna, who will be helping you get to your father,” Noah said.
“Jones,” Kira said. “Kira Jones.” She glared at the vampire but she was wasting it on his wall-like exterior.
Kirovna was the female surname form of Kirov. Kira. I actually staggered back a single step.
Ice blue eyes. Check. White-blonde hair, check. Giant height, check. Overwhelming attitude of superiority and confidence? Check, check, check.
“You’re Alek’s sister,” I blurted.
She snarled, full on lips back from teeth wild animal kind of snarling. Next to Kira the green-haired twin reached out a hand as though to restrain her.
“How do you know my brother?” Her eyes went to icy slits, another facial expression I knew so well. Even if Noah hadn’t “slipped” and said her last name, I was pretty sure I’d have figured out quickly who she was.
I hesitated for a moment, staring at her, calculating my answer. Then I mentally said fuck it and told the truth. I was too damn tired to play games and I wasn’t going to let the vampire suck me into this weird social situation, whatever this was.
. Yeah, I was tired.
“I’m his mate,” I said.
She laughed. Not a nice laugh, either, though it was full-bellied and loud. She walked toward me and I held my ground. Running away from a tiger seemed like a stupid idea even though without magic watching one stalk toward me, even in human form, was unnerving.
“You are telling the truth,” she said as she towered over me. “Alek. And a human.”
“I’m not a human,” I muttered.
Kira leaned toward me almost as if she was going to kiss me and took a deep breath. “No, you certainly aren’t,” she said, twisting a bit of her hair around one gloved finger. “What are you?”
“We can discuss this over dinner,” Noah said. His tone was steel and even Kira, after glancing at him, didn’t argue, instead nodding curtly.
Turning my back on her and following Noah out of that room was nerve-racking. I figured this was going to be the best dinner party ever.
Dinner was laid out in yet another room I hadn’t seen. There was a huge table that looked like something out of a medieval war room, its dark wood scarred and shined from years of use. I don’t know what kind of food I expected, maybe a seven-course meal with complex French names, but instead we had fried chicken piled on platters, a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, and a plate of biscuits. There was enough chicken to feed an army.
Or, as it turned out, a small group of hungry shifters and one sort of ex-sorceress.
The conjoined twins wheeled up next to me at the table. The slender man took the seat across from us. Noah took the head of the table at the end away from the food, leaving the other end seat or a side seat across from the twins to Kira. She took the end of the table and pulled off her leather jacket, draping it over the chair. She was wearing a black tee-shirt underneath that said “Evil Dead” on it with a hand reaching up.
“You a fan of horror movies?” I asked her. I was going to be super amused if Alek’s sister was a nerd.
She raised an eyebrow, and went back to ignoring me in favor of stuffing her face with chicken.
The twins introduced themselves as Cora, the dark-haired one, and Alma, the green-haired one. They both had slight accents, that, plus their names, reaffirmed my assumption of Hispanic heritage.
“We’re jaguar shifters,” Cora added. “If you were curious.”
I was. I opened and then closed my mouth on a lot of questions that really were none of my business. Like, how did they shift when they were joined together? Were they two jaguars when shifted?
“I’m Jaq, with a Q,” the man across from me said. He inclined his head slightly.
In the brighter light of the dining room, I still couldn’t quite make up my mind about his gender, but I reached for chicken and decided it didn’t matter. I’d ask him later, if we had a chance to talk, what pronoun he preferred. I had a suspicion that it wouldn’t be the first time someone was unsure. I figured it was best to just approach things directly.
We ate in near silence under the watchful and, if I was reading his mostly flat expression correctly, amused eye of the vampire. If the circumstances hadn’t been so strange, my own situation so dire, and my brain so exhausted, I might have found it funny. Here I was, eating dinner with a six-foot-six giant blonde tiger and a set of twins. It was like bizarro world version of my life.
Only in this world I had no guardian, no magic, and still had a psycho ex who wanted to kill me. I felt a deep pang for all I had lost and quickly threw it into a mental black box.
Most of the food vanquished, Noah finally got down to details.
“I have brought Kira and her team here,” he said, addressing me, “to help you get to your father. I believe they are uniquely equipped for this.”
“He means insane enough to do jobs for a vampire,” Kira said. She had no trace of Alek’s Russian accent. “And I’m guessing the only people he could find on short notice.”
“Alek said you were a bounty hunter or something?” I said.
Her lip curled. She really hated hearing his name. I wondered what their falling out had been. Alek hadn’t said much, but nothing in his words about her had led me to believe it was something super serious. Of course, when you don’t talk to a sibling for a decade, I should have guessed it
“Sometimes.” Alma jumped in. “Mostly, we solve problems.”
“Jade has a problem,” Noah said. “She needs to get into a very secure facility to talk to her father.”
“Wait, we’re not breaking him out?” I asked.
“No,” the Archivist said. His toothy smile was back. “We’re breaking you in.”
“That’s what she said,” Cora stage-whispered with a giggle.
Kira shot the twins a suppressing glare. “What prison? Where?”
“It doesn’t have a name, but some call it Custer due to the location. It is in South Dakota, Harding County.”
“A prison without a name? This sounds peachy as fuck.” Kira wiped her fingers on an already greasy napkin and then folded her arms over her chest.
“It’s a secure facility for supernatural beings, run by a shadow organization inside the government. Jade’s father is in there. Not,” he said, holding up a palm in the universal shut-up-and-wait gesture, “because he did anything. But because he chose to be. He is, my source tells me, asleep, and has been for over forty years.”
“He’s been… asleep?” I looked at Noah, wondering why he hadn’t told me this earlier. “For practically my whole life?” The chicken and potatoes I’d eaten turned to lumps in my stomach.
“That is why you must go,” Noah said. “I believe he will awaken for you.”
“You believe? But you don’t know?” I pressed. Visions did a jig in my head of going through whatever mad scheme we’d have to go through to even get into this place and then ending up sitting there as humans in riot suits stormed after me while my father slept on, oblivious.