Frost Burned (Mercy Thompson #7)

Chapter 4

chapter
Chapter

Gabriel was still arguing when we drove into the apartment complex in east Kennewick where his mother and sisters lived.

"Look," I said, not for the first time, "if they know all of the pack, then they know about you and Jesse, and they can guess I've stashed you with her. They'll also know that you and your mother haven't spoken a word since before last Christmas. They will know her feelings on the werewolves."

Sylvia Sandoval had been interviewed by the local paper when Adam and I had gotten married a few months ago because her son worked for me, and Adam was a local celebrity. She had been quite clear on how she felt about the werewolves.

"They'd never believe that she'd give the Alpha's daughter shelter," I told him.

"She won't," he said.

I smiled at him. "If I'm right, you get to clean the bathroom at the shop next. If you are, I'll do it."

He closed his eyes, shook his head.

"She loves you," I told him, getting out of the car. "Or she wouldn't be so stubborn about being mad."

I didn't need to tell him about the conversation Sylvia and I had had right before he finished high school. This was different – this time it wasn't Sylvia versus the werewolves. This time I would be more diplomatic and wouldn't leave yelling, "Fine. If you're too proud to say you're sorry – I'll keep him!" at the top of my lungs.

I had sent her graduation announcements. She'd been there, in the back. She'd waited until she was sure he'd seen her – then she left. She hadn't, her eldest daughter told me, wanted Gabriel to graduate without his mother in the audience. That was why I knew she'd take the kids in now.

"I don't want to cause trouble," Jesse said. "Why don't you leave me with Kyle or … I could stay with Carla."

Jesse didn't have a lot of close friends once the werewolves came out, and everyone learned whose daughter she was. There were rumors that some kids' parents had pulled them out of the local high school and were trucking them all the way to Richland because of Jesse. There were other teens who followed her around just to talk about the werewolves. Carla belonged to that group, and Jesse generally tried to avoid her even though they'd known each other since grade school.

"Kyle's house is the first place they'd look," I told her. And I was going to have to make sure Kyle was okay, too. "We don't have anyone strong enough to protect you from the government here – the best thing is to stay somewhere no one will look for you." I didn't even mention Carla.

"Let's get this over with," Gabriel said. He got out of the car and started for his mother's apartment with all the enthusiasm of a sailor walking a plank. Jesse forgot all about herself and the discomfort of staying where she wasn't wanted. She scrambled out of the car and hurried over to Gabriel and caught his hand.

I glanced at Ben. He lay down on the back seat with a sigh. He was right. Having a werewolf in her apartment wouldn't make Sylvia more cooperative. I shut him in before following the kids.

Gabriel stood at the door for a moment before knocking quietly. Nothing happened – it was still dark out, so presumably everyone was asleep. He knocked again, a little louder.

A light turned on, the door cracked open, and a teenage girl's head peeked out. It had been a year since I'd seen any of the girls except for Tia, the oldest, who snuck out once in a while to visit. Tia looked like her mother, but this one was a female version of Gabriel, which told me that it was Rosalinda, even if she'd gotten taller and sharper featured since I'd last seen her. She froze a moment, then the door was thrown open, and she launched herself at him. He hugged her, hard, until she squeaked.

Sylvia's apartment was clean and well cared for beneath the clutter that accumulates in a household that has children living in it. The furniture was mismatched and worn – Sylvia was supporting her family by herself as a police dispatcher. Her salary didn't leave a lot of room for luxuries, but her children grew up rich in love. They'd been a happy family until she and Gabriel had come to a place where neither could compromise.

"Who is knocking on the door at this hour?" Sylvia's voice emerged from somewhere in the depths of the apartment.

"It's mi hermano," the girl said, her voice muffled by her brother's shoulder. "Oh Mami, it's Gabriel." She pulled back, but latched onto his hand and hauled him into the living room. "Come in, come in. Don't be stupid. Hi, Jesse. Hi, Mercy. I didn't see you lurking behind Gabriel, come on in." Then she muttered something low in Spanish. I think she was talking to herself.

I didn't understand what she said, but Gabriel scowled fiercely at her. "Mind your tongue. Don't talk about Mama like that. She deserves your respect, chica."

"Does she?" asked Sylvia. I don't think I've ever seen her with a hair out of place, and even at this unholy hour of the morning, her hair was smooth and shining. Her only concession to the time was a dark blue bathrobe. She folded her arms, her face was grim, and she ignored Jesse and me.

"Of course, Mama," Gabriel said softly.

Her chin was raised and her mouth tight as she stared at her son. Rosa bounced a little and looked back and forth at the two of them before grabbing Gabriel's hand.

"You chose strangers over your family," Sylvia said at last. "I said, you pick. You stay here and work for Mercedes Thompson, or you come home right now. You chose her. Where is the respect in that?"

He snorted, a bitter half laugh. "I told you this wouldn't work, Mercy."

Rosa made a soft sound as Gabriel turned and took two quick strides away from Sylvia. At the door, he turned back around, and said, "Mama, everything is black-and-white for you, but the world is gray. You asked me to abandon my friends because you thought they were dangerous. Life is dangerous, Mama. I won't run away from my friends, who are good people, because I am afraid. Because you are afraid."

"She put my children in danger," Sylvia said, jerking her chin in my direction. She lost the cool anger she'd come into the room with and replaced it with heat. "She lied to me. And you chose her."

"Mercy can't tell other people's secrets, Mama. And that wolf was more likely to dive off a cliff into the ocean than he was to hurt one of the girls. She was raised with him, she knows him." Gabriel's voice was soft, but his chin looked a lot like his mother's – which didn't make a reconciliation look likely, not if they kept talking about the incident that left Gabriel living in my house not talking to his mother, anyway.

"You were right," I broke in blandly. "Hanging around us is dangerous. Someone is after Jesse." I don't know why I said it that way, I had no real reason to believe they would go after Jesse – they already had their hands full, but my instincts were certain, and I always listened to my instincts. "They have already kidnapped her father and killed one of his werewolves."

"See, hijo? That's what happens when you associate with the werewolves," Sylvia said – but I saw her eyes linger on Jesse. Sylvia talked tough, but she had a heart as big as the Columbia. She also had four daughters, the oldest of whom was only a little younger than Jesse.

"Her father is a werewolf," Gabriel snapped, not seeing Sylvia's softening. "She can hardly avoid them."

I put a hand on his arm to get him to stop antagonizing her, but it was a mistake. Sylvia looked at my hand, and her face hardened again.

"The people after Jesse are human," I told her before she could say something she couldn't take back. "Not werewolves, fae, or anything other. They are human – and they will hurt her. And you raised a man who cannot leave someone he cares about to face that danger alone, any more than he could desert his friends just because it was the safer, smarter thing to do. Not even if his mother asked him to – because it was she who taught him how to love other people in the first place. So he is in danger, too. Won't you hide them for a couple of days so that they will be safe?"

Sylvia looked at me, straight in the eyes. Then she shook her head and gave a little laugh as her expression softened. "A compliment slipped inside a reprimand inside a request I cannot possibly turn down. Leave a child in danger? Leave my child …" And when Gabriel made a protesting noise, "You'll be my child when you are fifty and I am seventy, hijo, so it is better that you accept it early. I am not going to leave my son, whom I love, to face danger alone for pride's sake. Even I am not such a fool. Oof."

The "oof" was because Gabriel was hugging her hard, tears in his eyes that he wouldn't shed because he was not a man who cried in front of others if he could help it. About that time there was a squeal from one of the other bedrooms. My ears had told me that the girls were all awake and listening. They had apparently just been awaiting their mother's decision before exploding into action because the room filled with Sandovals.

I told them the whole story. If they were going to protect Jesse, they deserved to know everything.

When we were done, Sylvia shook her head. "What is this country coming to?" she asked. "Mi papa, your abuelo, is rolling in his grave. He died for this country, for good and right and freedom. He would be so sad."

"If it's the government," said Tia, Gabriel's oldest sister, "then you'd better get rid of your phones. They can trace those, you know."

"Done," said Gabriel. "Mine's back at my home, but we trashed Jesse's and Mercy's before we came here."

"Adam didn't think they were government agents," I explained again. "Even though they had proper ID."

Rosalinda got up off the floor and ran into one of the bedrooms, emerging with a cell phone encased in pink sparkly things. "Here, Mercy. You'll need a phone. No one will think to trace mine."

"Thank you, Rosa," I said.

"Thank you for taking care of my brother and giving him a place to live," she said solemnly.

"You only say that because when I moved out, the little girls moved into my room," said Gabriel. "So you don't want me to move back in."

"Well, yes," she agreed. "That was very thoughtful of Mercy."

He ruffled her hair and looked at me. "Ben's going to be getting restless."

"I need to go," I agreed.

"Be careful," Jesse said.

"I will," I said.

I got in the Mercedes and headed out to West Richland and Kyle's house. Ben stayed in the back seat, where the leather was covered. The car was an awkward fit for him. The seat was too narrow, and the floor was not big enough, either. His wound had quit bleeding, but he couldn't brace with that leg.

Warren should have been home with Kyle. Adam had smelled Warren on the men who had taken the pack. So they had taken Warren, but Kyle hadn't called Adam or me. That meant that either something was wrong with Kyle, or they had taken Warren in some way that had not alarmed his lover. Unhappily, the first was more likely.

I turned on the radio to listen for the news. It was pretty late – or rather, early in the morning – to get real news, but Mary Jo had been taken while on duty as a firefighter. If the enemy had done something to the people she worked with, doubtless we'd hear about it. It would be stupid of them, but people who attack a full pack of werewolves are either very stupid or very strong. I was betting that if someone had kidnapped a firefighter – or killed a bunch of them – there would be some sort of special report on the radio even at this hour.

While I was driving, I used Rosa's bling-covered phone and tried Elizaveta the witch's number to no avail. Then I tried Stefan's.

It said something about how ambivalent I was feeling about Stefan that I'd tried the witch, who didn't like me, first. If Stefan had still been part of the local seethe, I'd have had a good excuse to hesitate. But Marsilia had screwed him over to save her position as Mistress of the seethe. Vampire politics make the very complicated dance of manners that is werewolf protocol look like the Hokey Pokey.

She'd tortured him and his menagerie on trumped-up charges so that the rebels would approach him and reveal themselves. He'd served her for centuries, so she knew he wouldn't join the cuckoos who'd been foisted upon her by a vampire whose name had never been given to me – I called him Gauntlet Boy. Gauntlet, because the only time I'd seen him, he'd been wearing gauntlets. Boy – because vampires scared me spitless.

She'd been partially successful. He hadn't joined the rebellion – which Marsilia quashed with his help. But he also hadn't looked upon the deaths of the people he protected as justifiable. Vampires vary a lot in how much they care for the humans who they feed from. Stefan's menagerie were his friends, or at least dear pets he cared for.

So he wasn't part of the seethe, and, vampire or not, Stefan had been my friend since I'd come to the Tri-Cities. However, thanks to Marsilia's ungentle machinations, I'd been seeing more of the vampire and less of my friend in him lately, and I didn't like it. I didn't like it enough that I seriously considered not contacting him for help.

The enemy was powerful, and we needed our allies. I was getting tired, and the weariness tamped down the anger and left me scared and alone, even with Ben stretched out in the seat behind me.

So I called Stefan.

It rang three times, and a voice (not Stefan's) said, "Leave a message." There was a beep.

I almost just hung up. But it was unlikely anyone had Stefan's phone under surveillance, and I wasn't calling from a number he would know. So I said, "Could you call me at this number? My phone is dead."

A police car had someone pulled over on the side of the road. My speed had crept up, and I slowed. The coast was not clear to speed just because one police car was occupied.

My phone rang as I passed the cop car, but the Mercedes's windows were very dark. It was unlikely that anyone could see into the interior even if Rosa's phone was so encrusted with plastic gems it ought to emit its own light. Risking a ticket, I answered the phone. "Yes?"

"Mercy?" said Stefan. "What do you need? And why are you calling me on someone else's phone?"

By the time I finished verbally reliving Peter's death, I was shaking with anger and … terror. So much rode on my playing the game right, and I didn't even know the rules.

At least with that much adrenaline flowing, I wasn't tired anymore – but I also wasn't paying attention to driving. Part of me, the part that remembered I'd totaled the Rabbit a few hours and a lifetime ago, tried to remind me that wrecking Marsilia's car would only make a bad situation worse. But the rest of me was focused on more immediate matters.

"Peter was a good man," said Stefan when I was finished. "I will meet you at Kyle's house."

I glanced at the sky. It was still dark, but the clock in Marsilia's car said it was five thirty in the morning. "You'll be cutting the daylight thing pretty close."

"There is time," he said, his voice as gentle as I'd ever heard it. "I can get home in very short order should I need to. Do not worry about me. We will worry about the others, yes? Hang up now and drive."

I hung up and hoped I'd done the right thing. Exposing the pack's vulnerability to the local vampires wasn't a smart thing to do. Marsilia would happily dance on our graves if the pack and I, especially I, were utterly destroyed. I trusted Stefan. I did. But Stefan was a vampire and I could never forget that.

Kyle's house in West Richland was a generous half-hour drive from Sylvia's apartment in Kennewick. I'd spent a lot of time this night traveling back and forth along the same stretch of highway. To my right, the Columbia was a murky presence as the houses of Kennewick passed by the window to mark my progress.

Had I done the right thing leaving Gabriel and Jesse? It had felt like I was getting them out of harm's way when I'd done it. But what if whoever had taken Adam did think of Sylvia? Gabriel was strong and smart, but he was also an unarmed teenage human. Had I just given our enemies more victims? I thought of the bullet that hit Peter and was pretty sure that the person who had fired it at a helpless man could shoot one of Gabriel's little sisters, too.

Somewhere nearby, Adam was being held. I had no real reason to think that they would be hunting Jesse. Not one. But I was uneasy leaving them without protection.

I called Zee. He hadn't said good-bye when he'd retreated to the fae reservation, just left a note telling me to be patient and not contact him. But he liked Gabriel and Jesse – and adored, though he'd never have admitted it out loud, the little hellions who were Gabriel's sisters.

His cell phone rang and rang as the interstate carried me past Richland. My finger was on the button to end the call when Zee said, grumpily, "Liebling, this is not a good idea."

"Zee," I told him, "I am completely out of good ideas and am doing my best with the bad ones I have left." I explained the whole thing again. When I finished, I said, "The fae owe us, Adam and me, they owe us for the otterkin and for the fairy queen. Is there some way you could keep a watch over Gabriel's mom's house? You probably won't have to do anything at all. I'm probably being paranoid – it's that kind of night. But all they have keeping them safe is my hope that no one would think to look there – and that reasoning gets weaker and weaker the farther away I get."

"I agree that you are owed a debt," Zee said heavily, at last. "There might be some who would argue that the otterkin's deaths were a tragedy. I am not one of those people. No one can argue that you were sent on an errand for us that put you in danger, and where you took much harm. And no one, not even the most anti-human of us" – the way he said it made me think that he had a specific fae in mind – "can argue you are owed for the downfall of the fairy queen, who caught so many of us in her web and might have taken us all, unaware as we were."

He made a clicking noise with his tongue that I recognized as the sound he made when confronted with a particularly difficult fix on a car. "It brings me sorrow, but at this time it would wipe the slate clean of favors owed to you if they knew that I had even answered this phone – which phone I am not supposed to have at all because it is corrupt human technology." He bit out the last part of the sentence as if he found it annoying. "If I left the reservation to help you, I would bring trouble down upon both of us." His laugh was distinctly unamused. "And if I left the reservation at this point, it might be disastrous on a much larger scale because I am trying to bring reason to chaos, which I cannot do from a distance and may not be able to do even with a sword to someone's throat. I cannot even give you advice without creating issues." He sighed but didn't hang up, so I kept the phone to my ear.

After a long pause, he said, carefully, "I could not tell you to call my house and speak to the one there. I could not tell you to think about the kinds of places that could be fortified to hold a pack of werewolves, which would not be easy. A place where people in pseudo-military garb might not be remarked upon or where they could get in and out unnoticed carrying bodies. There are not many places like that around here, Mercy. There are no peasants who are too afraid of the powers that be to speak out when men carrying guns walk where they should not be."

"You think they're being held somewhere out in the Area?" I asked. The Area was the secured section of land surrounding the Hanford nuclear power plant.

"I am sorry, Liebling. I cannot help you at this time. Perhaps if the talks between the Gray Lords and Bran Cornick go well, we can discuss this again. Until that time, we are forbidden to give aid to anyone associated with the werewolf packs." Another slight pause. "This was very clearly expressed to me. Very clearly." His voice held an edge that was sharper than his knife – and his knife was legendarily sharp.

"If you know anyone who is talking to Bran right now," I said, "would you please have them tell him what's going on here? This information might not help the fae's cause with the Marrok, but you might let someone understand that not passing on this information will be a statement the Marrok will take very seriously. And I will make sure that Bran knows the fae were given this information."

"You phrase your suggestion very well," Zee said, sounding pleased. "I will let the ones who are talking to Bran know all that you have told me." He paused. "I will have to be creative to do it in such a way that they do not know that we have been talking on the phone." He hung up without another word.

I had missed the turn off at Queensgate and had to drive all the way to Benton City, adding more time onto the trip. Rather than travel back down the interstate, I took the back highway, where there should be fewer police, hoping I could make up some time.

As soon as I was on the right road, I called Zee's house. The phone rang and rang. After a few minutes I hung up and tried it again. Zee wouldn't have given me that number for nothing. Maybe he'd rented the house out to someone he thought could help me. Maybe there was another fae who, like Ariana, was powerful enough to defy the Gray Lords. Or maybe the fae had left designated spies outside to keep track of things they couldn't monitor from their barricaded reservations, someone who owed Zee a favor. I was still coming up with fantasy scenarios when someone picked up the phone.

"What?" he snapped impatiently.

"Who is this?" I asked, because, gruff and sharp as that answer had been, he sounded like Tad. Zee's half-human son would not have come back here without letting me know.

"Mercy?" Some of the grumpiness left his voice and I was certain.

"Tad? What are you doing home? How long have you been there, and why didn't you tell me you were home?"

Tad had been his father's right-hand man in the VW shop when he was nine, and I first met him. He'd kept on as my right hand and chief tool wrangler when his father had retired and let me buy the shop. Tad had left to go to an Ivy League school back East giving out scholarships to fae as a way to show how liberal and enlightened they were.

We'd e-mailed once a week since he left, and I called him once a month to keep up. Tad was the little brother I'd never had, and in some ways we were closer than I was to my half sisters. We had more in common: neither of us quite fitting in to either the world of the humans or the world of the supernatural. He because he was only half-fae and I because I was the only shapeshifting coyote in a world full of werewolves and vampires.

When the fae had pulled their disappearing act, I'd called him, both on his cell and on his dorm-room phone, to no avail. I'd decided he'd gone to the reservations with all the rest of the fae.

Apparently not.

"Tad?" I asked, because he hadn't answered any of my questions.

He hung up on me. Evidently, he didn't want to talk about it. Fair enough. I was a little short for time, too.

I dialed again.

"Go away, Mercy," he said.

"Your dad told me I should call his house for help," I said, speaking quickly. "Bad guys are after Jesse and Gabriel. I have them staying with Gabriel's mom in the hopes that no one will think to look for them there. But if they do, if the bad guys come, there isn't anyone there who can protect them."

I could almost feel Tad's reluctance to listen to me instead of hanging up again. Something must have changed in him while he was at college. I'd seen no sign of it in our correspondence or during his infrequent visits home. Maybe it had something to do with the reason that he was out here instead of in the reservation with the rest of the fae.

"You think I could protect them, huh?" he said, finally.

It was a fair question. Tad was half-fae, but I had no idea what that meant. From a few things that Zee had let slip over the years, I knew Tad wasn't one of the half fae who were as powerless as most humans. But that was all I knew.

"Your father does." I gave him the only answer I had.

He didn't say anything.

"I have to see if Kyle is okay," I told him. "Adam and the whole pack have been taken tonight, and one of the pack was killed. I'm trying to – " Do what? Rescue them? Stop the bad guys? "Check on Kyle because I think that they might have done something to him when they snatched Warren. I need Jesse and Gabriel to be safe, and I'm a little short of allies. It won't be for long. I'll come get them after I see that Kyle is okay." I recited Sylvia's address and hung up without waiting for him to say anything else.

I knew Tad. No matter how grumpy he was, he wouldn't be able to sit around while someone was in danger. He'd flirted lightly with Jesse when he'd been home last – then spent two hours under the hood of Gabriel's car helping him fix an electrical problem.

And the sooner I made sure that Kyle was safe, the sooner I could let Tad off the hook. I put my foot down and hoped the cops were out watching Walmart, the mall, and the interstate routes. The big Mercedes engine gave a satisfied purr and ate up the miles through the desert back to West Richland. The speedometer said 110, but it felt more like 60. I patted the dash, and said, "Good girl."

The eastern sky was still dark when I neared Kyle's house at a more lawful speed. Kyle and Warren lived in an upscale neighborhood where every house had ample garage space and driveways to catch the overflow. Usually, there were no cars on the street unless someone was having a party.

I passed a modest, dark, American-built car parked half a block from Kyle's house and, as I drove sedately by, I saw that there was an unfamiliar black SUV in the driveway. There were no lights on at the house. Not even the one by the door that Kyle left on all night. The SUV and the car had California plates.

I drove right past and turned the corner, parking Marsilia's dark, not-American-built car in front of a house twice the size of Kyle's, where it looked much more at home than the cars I'd just passed. I got out and opened the back.

"It doesn't look good for Kyle," I whispered to Ben. "Did you see those cars?"

His ears flattened, and he stood up in the back seat, his sharp claws digging into the leather, even through the blanket, in a way that might have caused me to wince on any other day.

"No," said Stefan, scaring me out of what was left of my wits.

If he hadn't covered my mouth with a cool hand, I would have awoken the neighborhood. He made soothing sounds until I quit struggling – which was an embarrassingly long time. I was tired and my head had just blanked out for a little bit and it took a while to realize what had happened.

"There now," Stefan said, his voice pitched low enough that a human standing next to him might have had trouble hearing. "Better? I am sorry. I didn't want to alert anyone."

Sorry for sneaking up on me or sorry for holding my mouth shut? I couldn't tell and didn't care. He was here, and I didn't feel so alone. Stefan was smart, dangerous, and competent. I hoped that I was the first two, but it was the third I really needed for this.

"Kyle's in trouble," I whispered back. Keeping our voices down made sense. People ignore the sounds of cars, but most of them will wake up to the sound of a strange voice. I didn't want to wake the neighborhood watch and try to explain to them what we were doing. "There is a car and an SUV parked by his house that shouldn't be there and no outside light. Kyle always turns on the porch light."

Stefan released me and took a couple of steps back, leaving me to grip the open car door for balance when Ben bumped against me as he got out.

Stefan was wearing a dark polo and slacks and I missed the Scooby-Doo shirts and jeans. I hadn't seen him wear them for a while, not since he'd left the seethe. He wasn't emaciated, but he had never regained the healthy look that he'd had before Marsilia had laid waste to the menagerie of humans he fed from. Marsilia's betrayal and the destruction of his menagerie had nearly destroyed him.

"I had a few minutes to check out the house while I was waiting for you," he said. "There are two strangers in the living room opposite the kitchen. There may be more on the upper floor because the lights are on."

Now that we were not touching, I could see the awkwardness the older vampires I'd met exhibited – as if he knew how he should act but couldn't quite feel it anymore. As if by giving up his Scooby-Doo shirts and his beloved Mystery Machine, Stefan had given up his last firm anchor to his humanity. Still, the Mystery Machine, Stefan's old VW bus with the cool paint job, remained parked in his driveway, so I had hope.

"You didn't see Kyle?" I asked.

"I didn't see him. I don't have your nose to follow a scent, and I didn't want them to know I was watching. They were just a little too alert for my comfort. I could smell blood, though. I don't know whose it was."

I would. He waited, and I considered.

"Let's go around back," I said. "I can slip in through the back porch; there's a dog door Kyle put in for Warren. I can check out the house and call you in when I find him."

"I think that sending you into the house alone is the stupidest of our many options," said Stefan repressively. "Ben should be at the front door, you should go to the back – and wait in the yard, Mercy – and I will go in."

The oldest and most powerful vampires acquire names that define their most prominent characteristic. Stefan's name among his kind was the Soldier. This was the sort of situation in which he excelled. I felt the relief of having an expert make the calls.

"They are only human," Stefan said, and there was a familiar look in his face, though I was more used to seeing it on the wolves: hunger. "I will kill them, and Ben will kill any who get past me. You can let us know if anyone tries to get away out the back, and we will kill them, too."

Stefan had always liked people. I hadn't noticed before that he also enjoyed killing them. Maybe that was part of the new, more vampiric Stefan.

So much for letting someone else make the calls.

"We don't need to kill them," I pointed out reasonably. "As you said, they are only human, and there are only two."

"That we know of," he said.

"We don't know anything about them," I told him. "We aren't even certain that the two men in Kyle's living room have anything to do with the people who took the pack."

Stefan raised an eyebrow – he was right. Who else would they be?

"We don't know who is backing them or what their endgame is," I continued doggedly. "We don't even know if Kyle is there. What I do know is that we can't go in to kill."

Stefan frowned at me. "I forget that you are too young to remember the lessons of Vietnam. Go in to win, Mercy, or do not go in at all. How many people are out here who could help Adam?"

"Us," I said wretchedly, then added, "Maybe Ariana, though she was pretty freaked-out when we left." I knew what he was saying. I did.

By that logic, we should leave Kyle to his fate. But I wasn't just Adam's wife, I was his mate. That made me second in rank – and that meant I had to protect the pack. It meant that I especially had to protect the weakest members first. We had already lost Peter. Kyle needed to be protected – and we could do it without killing everyone.

"These people have taken down an entire pack of werewolves, Mercy," Stefan said coolly. "We cannot afford to take risks, or we might throw away the game trying to find out what they have done with Kyle." He lost the distant-vampire thing when he said Kyle's name. Stefan liked Kyle, who was snarky and happy to argue tactics in Scooby-Doo episodes as if defending a doctoral thesis. "If they are waiting at Kyle's, whom do you think they want? The only people important to Adam they don't have are you, Ben, and Jesse. And there is this: if they see me, if they understand what I am and do not die before they can tell their superiors over their communication devices, then we will lose more than just Kyle this night."

People don't know about the vampires. Oh, they know the stories – Bram Stoker and all his ilk made good use of the old legends. But they think they are just stories. The problem, for the vampire, is that now that the fae and the werewolves have admitted what they are, people are ready to believe that the old stories might be true. If Stefan was the vampire who gave those legends new life, Marsilia would kill him. I understood why he thought killing the enemy was the best way.

Part of me even agreed with him about killing them all. These people had killed Peter and taken Adam and put my world into danger.

"Kyle is human, and they were not worried about leaving Peter dead," Stefan said, saying what I didn't want to hear. "Kyle is less valuable than Peter was. He only matters to you and Warren. Adam would not kill someone, risk the werewolves' standing in the human world, for Kyle. A hostage is a lot more work than a dead body, Mercy. There is a real chance Kyle is already dead. If you aren't willing to kill – you need to leave them alone."

"If Kyle is dead" – and didn't that suck to say – "we still need to know it. I don't think he is; I think I'd feel it through the pack bonds because Warren is as mated to him as Honey was to Peter." That thought steadied me. I'd felt Honey's grief – still did, for that matter.

"We are going in after Kyle – and, Stefan, we can't leave a pile of bodies behind. We can hide your part in this. I'll tell everyone that you are a weird kind of werewolf if I have to. But people know about Kyle and Warren. Warren doesn't advertise what he is, but it will come out because he doesn't hide it, either. The bad guys – whoever they are – want Adam to kill an important man in a public way, so that the werewolves are blamed. I have the distinct impression that the last part is as important as the first. If we leave piles of dead bodies in our wake, we'll be accomplishing at least half of what the people who started this want." I sucked in a breath. "I do not enjoy helping my enemies."

Stefan frowned at me. He could just go in and kill them all, regardless of what I said. But his name was the Soldier – not the Killer or the Commander. (Yes, those are real vampires. I'm told that we're lucky they don't live anywhere near here.) Stefan had ceded me leadership because this was my problem.

So I was in charge, but I wasn't dumb enough to think that made me competent – I needed Stefan for that. Fine. I wouldn't authorize killing them all, but there should be other options.

"Could we go in quietly to check and see if we can find Kyle?" I asked. "I might be able to scent him from outside. If he's not here, we can leave them waiting for no one. If he is there, maybe we can get him out without killing people."

He shook his head. "Mercy. They have already proved themselves capable of taking a werewolf pack. Kill them or leave."

I glanced down at Ben; he was in no shape for battle. The danger wasn't just that his wound would slow him, and they could hurt him more easily, though that was part of it. If Ben killed tonight, wounded and shaken by Peter's death, he could lose control of his wolf and never regain it.

"We might be under attack by the government," I told Stefan. "We can't afford to lose the moral high ground. As long as we don't do any harm, the public will support us and force the government to back down. We're not going in to kill everyone in sight.

"You are welcome to leave, if you'd like," I said grimly, stripping my shirt off with my bra. He wouldn't abandon Kyle, I knew it. I was mad at him because I wanted to let him dictate our plan of attack, but I couldn't because I knew I was right. I kicked off my shoes. We were talking too much, and it was time to move. "I'm not leaving Kyle to rot when I might be able to do something for him. I'm going to look for Kyle. When I find him, I'll do whatever it takes to get him out. I will try to leave as few bodies behind as I can manage."

"If we fail, Adam is the one who loses," Stefan said.

"Kyle is pack," I explained. "He is vulnerable. Adam is Alpha and strong. So we need to make sure Kyle is safe first because that's what pack does, Stefan. The strong protect the weak."

Stefan's face froze. He hadn't been able to protect his menagerie, hadn't realized that he needed to protect them from Marsilia, the woman he'd given his loyalty.

I hadn't meant to hurt him.

I jerked down my jeans and underwear so I was naked on the dark sidewalk. Anyone looking out their window or driving by would get a show. I didn't care. Being a shapeshifter had gotten me over modesty by the time I was old enough to know what the word meant.

That didn't mean I was comfortable running around naked in front of everyone I knew. Once upon a time, Stefan had kind of had a thing for me. Not so much in love, but interested in that direction. I usually avoided being naked in front of him just like you don't hold out a slab of meat in front of a lion while planning on keeping the food to yourself.

"We have an opportunity to save Kyle. A chance you did not have when Marsilia took your people." I told him. "Will you help me?"

I changed to coyote without waiting for a reply and shook the change off my fur. Stefan gave an odd laugh, not happy or humorous – but it sounded like him this time and not the vampire Stefan, so it was all right. Then he picked up my clothes and tossed them into the car, his motion smooth and almost human. He hesitated with his head in the car.

My gun was under the front seat. I almost changed back to let him know, but decided not to. I couldn't carry it, and I was the only one who would be more dangerous with a gun in my hand tonight.

"Blood and humans and sweat and …" Stefan stood up and shut the back door. "Mercy, you let me talk to Marsilia about this before you return her car."

I gave him a brief nod and trotted toward Kyle's house. Ben was on three legs, but he had no trouble keeping up. Stefan brought up the rear.

The guy next door to Kyle had died a while ago and the house was still empty with a FOR SALE sign in the tidy front yard. The gate to the backyard was open, so I led my posse in that way.

There was an eight-foot stone fence between the yards, but someone had left a ladder next to it. Had old Mr. What's His Name been sneaking into Kyle's swimming pool before he died, or – and this was more troublesome – had someone been spying on them? In any case, it was not much effort to get over the fence. Even on three good legs, Ben didn't have to use the ladder; nor did Stefan. As a coyote, I'm outclassed by the werewolves and the vampires in everything except blending in.

Like the empty house, someone kept Kyle's yard neat and tidy so that we ghosted over grass rather than rustling through the leaves of fall. We kept to the shadows, though I don't think that anyone would have seen Stefan if he'd walked through the middle of the backyard. He was doing something, some vampire magic, that made him really hard to focus on.

I kept a sharp eye out, but I didn't see anyone keeping watch. That didn't mean they weren't there, but between Stefan's mojo and the concealing pack magic that Ben and I were pulling around ourselves, only truly bad luck would allow a human to see us anyway.

I could smell it before we hit the house. There was blood on the lawn. I abandoned the shadows to cast out until I found where the dark wet stuff splattered the grass, because it was Warren's blood I smelled.

Ben sniffed beside me and snarled soundlessly, exposing his fangs as he turned his eyes to the house. From the back, it was as dark as the front, but this near the house, we could both hear the murmuring of voices from inside. They were being quiet, and had we been human, we would not have heard them at all. As it was, I couldn't hear what they were saying, just a rumble of men's voices.

They'd taken Warren here, in the backyard. He'd been in human shape – a werewolf's scent changes when they are in human form, becomes diluted. That they took him in the yard was good. That I smelled only his blood was also good. That meant that all of Kyle and Warren's friends who'd come over for Thanksgiving probably weren't in the middle of a firefight. That was good news, and not just for Kyle and Warren's friends. Once these people began killing innocent humans, there was no way back. Their only survival path would then be to kill everyone who knew about them – including Adam and the whole pack.

As long as the dead were werewolves, it was unlikely that they had to worry much about the consequences as far as the human justice system was concerned. With the fae, the courts had already demonstrated that when put to the test, fear beat out justice.

For us, right now, that was a good thing. As long as we could keep the villains off the defensive, Adam should be okay.

What Stefan had said was true. They were obviously waiting for someone, and Jesse, Ben, and I were the logical targets. I had to assume that they were prepared to deal with Ben and me. Stefan would throw a wrench in their plans, but I didn't know if it was a big enough wrench.

While I was debating, someone started speaking. The voices were coming from Kyle and Warren's bedroom on the second floor. I looked up and saw that the blinds weren't drawn – unusual for Warren, who was quite aware that there were things that could look in your window in the dark.

"They aren't coming," someone said. "We can't afford to wait until daylight. We need to find them. Orders are to get the information."

"Yessir," a second man said. "How far can I go?" The second man gave us a total of at least four. I could still hear the rumble of the other two down in Kyle's living room.

"Get the information," the first man said, and I heard the bedroom door shut and the footsteps of someone leaving.

"You hear that, Johnny?" There was a sick eagerness in his voice. "He said I could go as far as I want."

Another man, presumably Johnny – giving me a count of five bad guys – said, softly, "Only until we get the information, Sal. You hear that? Give us what we want, and I'll stop him. Sal was captured by the Afghanis a while back and didn't come back quite right. He likes torture. Tell us where they are likely to have gone to ground and everything stops."

Silence.

"So where would they go?" someone asked, and there was the sound of flesh on flesh.

Someone made a noise, and the hair on the back of my neck rose as my lips pulled back from my teeth. Kyle. They were hitting Kyle.

"Staying quiet isn't helping, son," said the soft voice. "I don't want to do this. Boss don't want to hold your lover any longer than we have to. Takes a lot of people to hold a werewolf pack – and some of them are going to get dead. If we can get Hauptman's daughter and wife, we can let the rest of you the fuck go."

I wonder if Kyle heard the lie.

"Fuck you," he said.

Maybe he had. A divorce attorney, I expect, would have a lot of practice telling when someone was lying.

They hit him again. Beside me, Ben was vibrating.

Stefan said, sounding hungry, "Mercy, there are only two of them in that room."

I shifted back to human so we could talk.

Ben nudged my knee, hard.

"I know," I told him. "Can we take them without alerting the others?" I shivered. The Tri-Cities wasn't Montana, but it was still too cold to stand around naked in November. Or maybe I was shivering with my coyote's desire to go kill someone.

The first man said something ugly, and Kyle made a noise.

Yep. It was the go-kill-someone shiver.

"We can," Stefan said. "And if not – I can kill them all."

That didn't sound like a bad plan, standing out here listening to them hurt Kyle. I knew it would be stupid to leave bodies, but his pain was putting paid to my good sense.

"Throw me up," I told him, and turned back into a coyote.

I looked at Stefan, and when he met my eyes, I jerked my chin to the balcony that came off the bedroom. He frowned at me doubtfully. I rose up on my hind legs and bounced once. Then lifted my muzzle toward the balcony again.

His eyebrows rose, but he picked me up and threw me. I cleared the railing but had to twist hard, so I landed in the middle of a planter instead of on top of the lawn furniture that might squeak under me.

Ben jumped to the top of the railing, and Stefan followed. Stefan hopped off and landed on the balcony with bent knees and no sound. Ben's ears flattened at me, so I moved off the planter and let the heavier werewolf use it as a stair so that he didn't have to land so heavily. Hard to land quietly on a hard surface with werewolf-sized claws.


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