"I couldn't if you were already dead. Maybe Camille could manage to zombify you, but-"
"It was a joke, damn it!" I struggled to pull myself out from under the tree. So far, nothing seemed to be broken. "Help me get out of this mess."
Menolly lifted the tree, while Camille pulled me up and dusted me off. Covered with sap and scratches, I gingerly-moved each leg and arm, then rolled my neck and shrugged my shoulders.
"Nothing broken," I said.
"Maybe we should have thought this out better," Camille said, looking woefully at the downed tree.
"Didn't Mother used to attach the tree to the top of the ceiling when we were girls?" Menolly asked.
I blushed, both embarrassed and yet defiant. I couldn't help it if bright, shiny toys were so tempting. When I'd been a little girl, it had been a lot worse. "Gee, I guess I'd better avoid shopping too much during the holiday season, or things could get really ugly, really fast."
The thought of passing by dozens of decked-out trees was a little more than I could handle. At least this had happened at home, where I could slink off to my room without having the good citizens of Seattle pointing at me and yelling, "Grinch!"
As we surveyed the mess-Iris with a few tears in her eyes-the phone rang. She went to get it, and I sighed as Menolly righted the tree. Camille found a sturdy length of wire and a large screw hook and handed them to Menolly, who floated up to the ceiling and began anchoring the fir-which wasn't terribly worse for the wear-against any further mishap. I was about to fetch the broom and dustpan when Iris peeked around the corner.
"Phone for you, Delilah. I'll clean up. And tomorrow I'll buy new ornaments," she said. I could tell she was pissed. She'd worked her butt off on decorating the living room, and I'd just destroyed her winter wonderland in under five minutes. My track record was getting better. Or worse, depending on how you looked at it.
"I'll take the call in the kitchen," I said, hurrying past her with a gentle, "I'm sorry." As I picked up the phone and peered out the kitchen window at the still-falling snow, I was surprised to hear Zachary's voice on the other end.
"Delilah?" He sounded out of breath, unusual for a Were who was as fit as he'd looked.
"Yep, it's me. What's up?" His voice sent chills up my spine, and they weren't unpleasant. The thought that maybe he was calling to ask for a date flickered through my mind, but I quickly pushed it aside.
"You'll still be coming out here tomorrow, won't you?"
"Yeah," I said, and the urgency in his voice told me something was wrong. "What's wrong? What happened?"
"There's been another murder," he said. "One of our guards patrolling the compound's been killed. He was found near the arrastra, just like the others. Delilah, we have to find out who's doing this before everybody's dead."
As I stared at the phone, I spied a spider crawling up the wall and, without missing a beat, slammed my hand against it, squashing it flat.
"We'll be there," I said, staring at the blood and guts on my skin before wiping them on a paper towel. "Zachary, don't let anybody go out alone. In fact, I'd call everybody in for the night."
"Yeah," he said, sounding frustrated. "I just hate leaving our borders unprotected. But we'll just leave the guards at the main gate and up the ante to four instead of two." He paused, then added, "I'll see you tomorrow night then."
"Until then," I said and hung up. We had to find out more about the Hunters Moon Clan. And I knew one sure way, though the thought scared the hell out of me.
We could pay a visit to the Autumn Lord, who ruled over the season of sacrifice. The lord of spiders and bats, of crisp autumn leaves and mists that rose in the night, he was Jack Frost's master. The Autumn Lord lived in a palace of frost and flame high in the Northlands, only reachable by traveling on the north wind. But if anybody could tell us about the werespider clan, it would be him. And there would most likely be a steep price to pay for his help.
* * *
I peeked back into the living room, my stomach twisted in knots. The thought of traipsing off to visit one of the Elemental Lords scared the crap out of me, and I already knew what Camille and Menolly would have to say about the idea. The Autumn Lord was bound to this world, but he also lived in the world of the Elementals. He was related to the Lord of Flames, who ruled a large city in the realm of the dead, though I wasn't clear on their connection.
Then again, when I thought about it, tripping into the arms of somebody bound to the underworld was a lot more appetizing than coping with the denizens of the Subterranean Realms. At least the underworld could be a beautiful and peaceful place, depending on where you were hanging out. The Sub Realms were just nasty.
Iris was sweeping up the mess in the living room. Or rather, the broom was doing the work while she supervised. Menolly had anchored the tree to the ceiling, and they were all debating on what kind of ornaments to redecorate with.
"What do you think will have the least chance of setting you off, Delilah?" Camille asked, turning as I entered the room.
I blinked. Now there was a thought I hadn't even entertained. Anxious to forestall the inevitable fireworks when I told them about Zachary's phone call and my idea, I gave it some thought.
"I tend to go for dangly, shiny things. How about those satin balls? They aren't that sparkly, and they don't break. At least not unless you step on them."
Iris piped up. "Good idea! I also am thinking resin ornaments might work. Of course, I could just erect a barrier to keep animals out, and that might do the trick."
"You can do that?" I asked.
She nodded. "It was a spell my family originally used to keep household dogs and cats out of the larders, but I could easily adapt it to just surround the tree. It won't hurt you. I promise. Consider it a mild deterrent."
"What about when I'm not in cat form?"
"I doubt that it will affect you out of your Were-form," she said, frowning. "I can't promise, but I'm fairly certain."
The broom finished its work and fell to the floor, the dustpan landing beside it after emptying debris into the trash can one last time. I stared at the remains of the blown glass baubles and balls and sighed.
"I really mucked it up this time, didn't I? Iris, why don't you put the delicate ornaments up top, get some satin and resin ones for the lower branches, and then go ahead and use your spell. I'll try to keep myself under control." I didn't want to destroy the holidays, and when I thought about our childhood, this was pretty much the way our mother had taken care of the issue.
Iris relented. "Okay. Just be good, please? I'll go put the kettle on for tea. We've had quite enough excitement for one evening," she said, bustling out of the room, taking the trash, can with her
I motioned for Menolly and Camille to join me on the sofa. "If only Iris was right, and the excitement is over, but it's not." I glared at the tree.
"What's going on?" Camille turned down the music-Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker-and curled up on my left side. Menolly snuggled up on my right, and we held hands like we had when we were little.
I told them about Zachary's call and my visit to Siobhan. "So, the Hunters Moon Clan is a nest of unnatural werespiders. Hobo werespiders."
Camille looked ready to swallow her tongue. "I'm not afraid of spiders, but this isn't exactly Charlotte hanging out in the barn, is it? Spiders don't think. Werespiders have all the natural cunning of regular spiders plus intelligence. And if they're an abomination, who knows what other abilities they have? Yuck." She shuddered.
"Tell me about it." I was about to bring up my idea about visiting the Autumn Lord when the phone rang again. I grabbed the cordless phone in the living room. It was Chase.
"Hey, Puss, got the info you wanted. Or what I could dredge up," he said.
"Let me get a pen," I said.
"If you want, but I didn't find out that much."
"I'm putting you on speakerphone," I said, motioning to Camille and Menolly to listen in. I punched the button and picked up a notebook and pen. "Can you hear me? Go ahead."
Chase's voice sounded tinny coming over the speaker. "Okay, here it is. I got a hit on Zachary Lyonnesse. He was arrested two years ago for a bar brawl. He blamed the other guy for starting it, but when neither one would press charges, the case was dropped and they were both let go with a warning."
"Who was he fighting with?" I asked, writing down the information so I didn't forget it. It was better to err on the side of caution; I didn't want us making any mistakes we couldn't undo.
"Geph von Spynne."
"Spell it, please?"
Chase spelled it out and then continued. "He's a tall, gangly dude with short, spiked brown hair. He and Lyonnesse were really going at it. Zachary took a nasty knife wound to the shoulder. Doc counted thirty stitches to sew him up, but apparently Lyonnesse refused anesthesia. Didn't want any pain pills afterward, either. The witnesses in the bar say the two were out for blood."
Geph von Spynne. I didn't recognize the name, but it sounded oddly familiar, like I should know it but had just forgotten. "Your informants have anything on the Hunters Moon Clan or this von Spynne character?"
Chase cleared his throat. "Uh, no. The minute I mentioned his name-and the Hunters Moon Clan-all three of them clammed up and wouldn't say a word, even for the promise of a twenty-dollar bill. And these are guys that would rat out their mother for a shot of whiskey. My bet is that they know something, all right, but are too afraid to say anything. If you can find out anything more, I suggest you do. We should probably add this information to our database."
I blinked. "We'll do what we can. Did anybody talk to Siobhan?"
"On that score," his voice lightened, "we have better news. Jacinth set up an appointment to give her a thorough examination. With a little luck, we may be able to solve your friend's problem."
With a little luck… "Thanks, sugar," I said. "I'll talk to you tomorrow." As I hung up, I realized I'd developed a lump the size of a baseball in my stomach.
"Well, not much to go on," Camille said, frowning. "Where do we start?"
"I can comb the dregs at the Wayfarer for information," Menolly offered. "Somebody there might know something."
"Hold on." I raised my hand. "Something crossed my mind earlier this afternoon. The Hunters Moon Clan are spiderlings. They could have spies hiding out anywhere. In the corners of the bar. Or the house," I said softly, eying the ceiling.
"We aren't even certain they have anything to do with the . murders out at the Puma Pride enclave. Why would they have spies in the Wayfarer?" Menolly floated up to the ceiling and tinkered with the guy wire holding the tree in place. "There, that should do it," she said and returned to the floor.
"I have a hunch about this," I said. "Trust me; they're involved. And I know who we can talk to in order to dig deeper into their secrets, but I don't think you're going to like it. It's risky, but I think we have to chance it."
"Who are you talking about?" Camille said. "What risk?"
Menolly gazed at me, her eyes a pale frost that burrowed into my heart. "I know who you're talking about, and you're out of your mind."
I stared back at her, straightening my shoulders. "I know perfectly well what risks we'd run, but, Menolly, there's a lot more going on here than just a serial killer out to knock off the Puma Weres. I know it. I wish you'd believe me and show a little trust in my instincts."
"Kitten," she said softly, her gaze piercing right through me. The fact that Menolly seldom blinked still freaked me out. I turned my head to shake off her stare. It was a vampire thing; she'd never had that effect on me before. "It's not that we don't trust you, it's just that-"
"That's enough! I've had it." I stood, hands on hips, and faced down the both of them. "You both think I'm just a naive blonde bimbo, right? That I'm the baby of the family who can't think for-or take care of-herself?"
Camille sputtered, trying to backtrack. "Delilah, please. We never said anything like that. Neither one of us thinks you're stupid-"
"Just shut up and listen to me for once. Okay?" Fretting, I could feel the edges blurring. I closed my eyes and tried to keep control. The last thing I needed was to shift twice in one night. I took three deep breaths while they waited.
"Okay. Here's the thing," I said. "Both of you act like I'm full of bubbles, all happy-happy joy-joy. But that's not true. Not anymore, at least. Make no mistake about it; I liked believing in the good in people. I love sunshine and flowers and chasing mice. But all that's been cut short, thanks to Bad Ass Luke. Wisteria didn't help nurture my delusions, either. And I am so fucking pissed about it."
I still had a scar from where the renegade floraed had bitten my neck, trying to sever the artery. She was securely locked up back in Otherworld in the Elfin Queen's dungeon, however, so I tried to put her out of my mind.
Camille broke in. "Heard and noted, Delilah." She turned to Menolly. "I trust her hunches. She has cat magic. If her instincts are telling her this is the way to go, then I say let's do it. I wish I had half as much gut reaction as she gets. I have prescience thanks to my magical training, but it's not inborn. And you…" She stopped, then closed her mouth. Menolly had never had a sixth sense, unlike Camille and me.