Authors: Mark Henwick,Lauren Sweet
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Urban, #Paranormal & Urban, #Urban Fantasy
That my friend’s Dad had been posted to another state and I wouldn’t see her again.
And then, Dad lying in the bed, surrounded by all the medical equipment that wasn’t keeping him alive, telling me that I would have to move on, that I would have to pack this up in the strongbox in my mind and be there for Mom and Kath.
I had done it. It had worked for a couple of years…
And a last image. The ground at the bottom of the clock tower at South High, calling to me, promising sweet oblivion as I struggled to close the strongbox.
I slammed the strongbox shut.
Bian was still watching.
“I just need to be sure that I haven’t hurt Jen.”
“You’re going to have to wait for Diana to come back. Or maybe ask Skylur.” She sighed and moved away from me. “You have an absolute talent for complicating things, Round-eye. Even when it’s not your fault and you’re right, like Vega Martine.”
I’d almost forgotten Vega Martine, which was dangerously stupid. From everything that happened at the Assembly, I was convinced that she was the real driving force behind Basilikos, not Matlal. He had been nothing but a front for her. A good one, to get away with it so long. Even now, days later, my skin still prickled with the slithery sensation I’d felt when she’d tried to talk me out of allying with Altau.
I shivered. Another thing to worry about.
“What’s happened about her?”
“Nothing much, but it’s sure got everyone’s panties in a twist.” Bian turned abruptly, taking my hand and pulling me back toward the door.
“She simply walked out, right through the Lyssae. That shouldn’t be possible. They should have known she wasn’t Altau and torn her apart.”
“Are you sure they didn’t?” I remembered Anubis’ bloody jackal snout and wondered what evidence he would leave behind when he finished with someone.
Bian snorted. “Yes. The good news is that it’s got Basilikos as worried as us. She’s definitely not some scheme they were running.” She reached for the door handle and stopped. “I keep forgetting how much you don’t know. At the Assembly, everyone in Panethus, me included, was spooked by the thought that Basilikos had found a way of compelling people that we couldn’t detect. Scary, but not the end of the world.”
“Adepts sense beyond the depths Athanate can. If we’d known we had a traitor, we’d have got Adepts in. They don’t like working with us, but some will.” She licked her lips. “There are benefits.”
“Emerson and her partner worked with the Warders. Like that?”
Bian nodded, a little smile rippling across her face. More secrets for me to dig out of her.
“But what Vega Martine pulled off, that’s got everyone worried. The one thing we can’t fake is the marque. That mental presence, and that scent, they’re essential components of who we are—it’s how we identify ourselves and each other. An Athanate who can change her marque at will is the stuff of real nightmares.”
I could think of at least one other way of getting out of Haven besides walking out past the Lyssae, but I’d let Bian puzzle a bit, and swap some of my secrets for hers.
We were interrupted again. An assistant came in and handed Bian an odd-looking cellphone.
“Ah. Yours.” Bian gave it to me. “New secure comms if you need to talk to me or anyone here. Replaces the cell Skylur gave you last week.”
“Is it a burn phone?”
“No. An encrypting phone, with a dummy conversation in clear transmitted over the top.”
“How smart’s that dummy conversation?”
“Oh, y’know, sorta like really full of random things people say. Almost indistinguishable from the real thing.” She grinned. “Not perfect, and the encryption’s not unbreakable, but it cycles through different methods. Basilikos might have their claws into the federal apparatus, but not to the extent they’d spot this, let alone have time to crack it.”
“Maybe. They’ll still be looking for me, I guess.”
“As soon as they get themselves organized again. Unless, of course, we find a way to persuade them otherwise. Now,” she said, turning back to the door, “if I’ve timed it right, I’ll get to catch Jen in the shower.”
“Over my dead body, Pussycat.”
Freshly scrubbed of any evidence from the fight at the factory, and wearing new borrowed sweats and running shoes, we all crowded into my Audi. I still didn’t feel clean. Maybe something in the soap they’d given us didn’t agree with me.
Alex wrestled the keys off me. Even though I wasn’t driving, I still insisted that Jen take the front passenger seat. There was more room and I could tilt the seat back to let her rest. She didn’t spontaneously explode at being put next to Alex—not quite.
David and Pia squeezed together happily in the back. Julie and I less so, but I knew I would need her on the phone once we were well clear of Haven.
I left the blindfolds off. This was my House.
Yes, and problems will be your responsibility
, said Tara. My dead twin sister, comforting as always.
I called FBI Agent Ingram on my standard cell as soon as we got onto I-70.
“Ms. Farrell,” he drawled. “You’re ahead of schedule if you’ve got news for me.” I could almost see him leaning back and putting his feet up on the desk. “You comin’ in to talk?” he asked.
“Better than that, Ingram. You got a recorder on this?”
“Yeah, stupid question,” I said. I handed the cell to Julie. “Say your piece.”
She looked tense for a second, her tongue touching her dry upper lip, before she spoke. “Message for Keith Alverson. I’m with Amber. I’m safe at the moment, but I have Nagas trying to track me.” She paused, her eyes gleaming while she stared right through me. “You were right. Ops 4-10 command is completely gone. Petersen can’t be trusted. I know I said we shouldn’t do it this way…that we should try other things, but I was wrong, I’m sorry. It’s too late. Talk to Agent Ingram. Amber vouches for him. Codes: Treble. Usable. Tango. Thunder. Island… Endit.” Her eyes closed and she sighed. “I love you, hon. Be safe.”
I took the cell back.
“You there, Ingram?”
“I am, and I have to say, I’m more ears than a barnfull of donkeys, here.”
I managed a smile. “Play that to Sergeant Alverson,” I said. “He’ll give you the full detail on Ops 4-10, the unit we were in. We were a covert Special Forces battalion tasked to carry out operations where the US had to have plausible deniability. I swear we were legitimate. But you were right about the lack of oversight. Something’s gone seriously wrong in the command structure. No one seems to know about it.”
“You don’t say. But interesting timing, your call.”
“Well, y’see, someone just stuck their head up and claimed these boys.”
I felt a chill creep up my spine. Julie’s eyes widened and we bent our heads around the cell.
“Some woo-woo folks called the…hold it…” I heard papers shuffling. “The Joint Forces Committee for Strategic Planning Research and Operational Evaluation. Jeez, what a name, JF-CoStPROE. Anyway, these guys, well, the Director of National Intelligence knows about them. I’ve got a request to release my prisoners to them, and the DNI’s office has given the nod. A van’s on its way.”
Julie shook her head urgently.
“Ingram,” I said. “I’m working on gut reaction here, but this committee may be where the problem is. Can you hold Alverson? Just for a while. Please?”
“Ms. Farrell, I have my orders, so that wouldn’t be possible.” He coughed. “Outside of a medical emergency, say. But come to think on it, I do believe he had a rash this morning.”
“It’s highly contagious. Life-threatening.”
“I’ll seek medical confirmation of that.” He hesitated. “We are talking here about the guy who was running that team? The one with the Ruger?”
“Yes,” I said quietly. “Hard choices, Agent Ingram, hard choices.”
“Lordy, when you guys play hardball, you mean it.”
“And who was that speaking earlier?”
I looked at Julie, and she nodded.
“Julie Alverson, also Sergeant, also formerly of Ops 4-10,” I said.
“Huh. I’ll have to meet your Sergeant Alverson, after I’ve spoken to my Sergeant Alverson, assuming the doctor says he’s okay to talk.”
“We’ll meet in good time. And as a thanks, I’ll throw in the former Ops 4-10 commanding officer, Colonel Laine.”
“Now you’re spoiling me, Ms. Farrell. But then, I think we have lots to talk about besides this here covert battalion.”
“That in good time too. One impossible thing at a time.”
I closed the call.
“Will he do it? He sounded as if he was hedging.”
“That’s just the way he talks.” I wiped my hands on my sweats. I didn’t want to think about the alternatives. Time to change the subject. “What was that about not agreeing with Keith? You didn’t want him to come?”
“No, I didn’t.” Julie refused to drop her eyes. “I argued that we should get a group together and make a formal complaint up the chain. I was wrong.”
My Athanate senses or my human instincts said she was telling the truth.
“Keith said we’d all let you down, after you’d been bitten,” she went on. “He said we owed you.”
I huffed, uncomfortable at the thought. “Any debts are paid.”
Did I let them down? Why had I just blindly followed the rules I’d been given? If I hadn’t been bitten, would Colonel Laine still be in command of Ops 4-10?
We’d arrived at Alex’s house. There would be police still at Manassah. Alex and I didn’t have time to talk to them now. We were going to split up here, with Alex driving me to the meeting with Larimer and David driving the rest back to Manassah in my car.
I handed my guns over to Julie for the time being. I didn’t want to go to Larimer’s armed, and Julie would need weapons to provide Jen’s protection. I added getting more weapons to my to-do list.
Jen got out and gave Alex’s house a casual once over, before turning away. Of course, it wasn’t a patch on Manassah. I could feel Alex’s fur ruffle. He made a big thing out of calling Larimer to update him.
Jen pulled me aside.
“I didn’t say thank you,” she said.
She pressed a finger to my lips, stopping me. “Don’t you dare say that.”
Her lips twitched, but her face went serious again. “Amber, when you healed me, you did something to my head,” she said, uncertainly. “To my memory?”
“Ah. Yeah. I tried something. Didn’t work the way I thought.”
“It doesn’t feel right. Crazy, huh?” She shook her head. “Like I would want that shit back? But I can remember you kneeling there, all that paint on your face.” Her fingers traced the contours of the war paint I’d worn. Her eyes held mine and her voice dropped to a whisper. “You came for me. And I can remember what it must have felt like, but I can’t feel it any more. I have to have that feeling back. I have to.”
I bit my lip. Light as a breeze, I sensed the tentative touches of our bond through the eukori. “I don’t know how. We’ll need an expert. And I don’t know if you can pick and choose pieces of it.”
“I’ll take all the rest for that one moment.” She shook her head again, leaned into me. “I know we have some issues.” Her eyes flicked over to Alex. “But I don’t give up that easy.”
Alex ended his call. “Got to go,” he said, thumbing his car keys. His garage door started to rattle up.
“Will I see you later?” asked Jen, not moving an inch.
The world didn’t owe me time to fix my personal problems. At some stage, some wonderful stage when I knew what was going on in the paranormal community, and could judge the importance of what I did and didn’t do; at that stage, I’d pull a timeout. But I couldn’t yet.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll try. It’ll depend on what comes up.” I pulled away reluctantly, and she let me go.
Alex had a Ford.
Ford. The ’69 Boss in Black Jade. The king of muscle cars.
We could have gone in his SUV, which was parked on the street, but I guess he was making a statement.
I wasn’t going to argue. The rising thunder of the V-8 tickled me all the way down to my toes as we swung out onto I-75 and headed south. I put everything else aside for a moment and wriggled happily in the contours of the Corbeau racing seat.
Alex smiled a little for the first time that day. My heart skipped a beat. I wished we could just have a simple, uncomplicated few minutes where I could watch his face, his hands on the steering wheel, and think about where else I’d rather be with him.
Shame to spoil it, but…
“How deep is the shit I’m in?” I said. I left it open who I was in trouble with: Alex, for binding him, or Larimer and the pack, for getting him to help rescue Jen from Hoben. And for binding him.
Alex grunted and sighed. “
My stomach did a happy flip.
He went on. “You need to be in the pack, for the sake of the part of you that’s Were. It’s not that there are no werewolves that run solo, but think about it. Your Athanate side’s still in crusis and you need to stay in Denver for Altau to keep an eye on you. That means in the Denver pack’s territory. Even without the Athanate issues, it’d be hard for a werewolf to live in another pack’s territory. A werewolf who’s just becoming a werewolf? No way.”
“Okay, I get that.”
He frowned, as if he felt I hadn’t really understood.
“You can’t be half in the pack. If you’re in, you can’t ignore Felix’s orders. He can’t let the pack structure crumble just because of you. The pack wouldn’t let you do that either.”
“Well, like I said to him, why can’t he deal with it like Altau? Make me a sort of associated pack.”
“It’s not that easy. That’s an Athanate thing. It’d make Felix look weak.” Alex hesitated over saying something else, then just finished off: “He can’t afford that.”
It wasn’t the time to make the point, given he was driving, but we’d need to be clear on every aspect of this, however difficult it was to put it all in words. We couldn’t have things unsaid between us.