Frost Burned (Mercy Thompson #7)

Chapter 6

chapter
Chapter

I stared at the floor – and Kyle did the same. Ben jumped off the bed and put his nose near the mess. He backed away quickly, his ears came up, and he looked at me. The expression on the wolf's face quite clearly said, "What the hell?" even if I hadn't been familiar with reading expressions on monster-sized wolf faces.

Kyle's floor was covered with silver. I licked my hand and looked at the result. My palm was gray where the saliva touched it. "I think," I told them, torn between triumph – because all that silver on the floor meant it wasn't in Adam – and terror. Having that place where Adam and I touched be something that I could drag something as physical as silver through was terrifying in its implications. "I think I'd better wash this off."

There was a bath attached to the guest room, and I staggered into it, washing out my mouth and scrubbing wherever the silver had touched. Kyle opened the sink cabinet and handed me a new toothbrush and one of those little travel toothpastes. I used it, twice. My lips were still black, like one of those thirteen-year-old goth girls who wore black lipstick.

"I used to know a couple of guys who painted their lips with silver nitrate to turn them that color," Kyle said. "I thought it was pretty stupid. Your lips weren't black when you went to sleep. What happened?"

"I'm afraid to guess," I said. Silver nitrate sounded familiar. I was pretty sure that was what Gerry Wallace had used in his tranquilizer concoction. "Give me a few minutes, and I might have something worked up that sounds vaguely coherent, okay?"

He looked worried but nodded. I looked in the mirror again and touched my lips. They felt just like they usually did. I grabbed a towel and went out to clean up the mess, but stopped when I got to it. The silver sludge was thickening. What if the towel stuck to it and made a bigger mess? And there was a lot of the stuff, more than I'd thought. If all of this had come from Adam, he should have been dead.

"Well," I said. "What do I do with this?"

"What? Never vomit on a floor before?" Kyle asked conversationally as he perched on the side of the bed. "Or never vomit silver?"

Ben, sitting far enough away from the mess that there was no chance he'd touch it, stared at me. He leaned toward me and sniffed before settling back, his eyes intent.

I lifted my arm and smelled it, smelled Adam on it. I suppose if I could suck silver through the mate bond, it made sense that Adam's scent could follow me, too.

"It's magic," I told them, and Kyle rolled his eyes.

"Look." I was speaking as much to myself as to him and Ben. "This shouldn't have worked. You can't do this." I waved at the mess. "I shouldn't have been able to do this. Pack magic, mating magic means that I can talk to Adam sometimes when we aren't near each other. It doesn't mean that I can suck the silver out of his body and bring it back with me." I looked at the mess again. "And if there had been this much silver in his body, he'd be dead – and look like the Tin Man."

Kyle blinked. I don't think I've ever seen him quite so … neutral.

"You can talk to Adam when he's not in the room, and you don't have a phone?" he asked.

I nodded.

He closed his eyes, and I could read his expression when he opened them again. "Thank you, dear Lord," he said with relief. "I thought I was going crazy."

In spite of everything, I couldn't help but grin.

"Warren's a little nervous about how much werewolf stuff you can absorb without running for the hills," I said half-apologetically.

He narrowed his eyes. "Warren doesn't get to keep me in the dark." Then the temper faded out of his face. "I'd put up with all sorts of werewolf shit if it meant he was back here and safe." His words were raw, and I felt them on my skin because I knew exactly what he meant.

"Yeah," I agreed with feeling. "But the silver? I think that was more about what I am than any weird werewolf magic."

"Being Native American made you toss up silver?" asked Kyle skeptically, but Ben gave me a look of sudden comprehension. The pack knew about Coyote.

The mess on the floor was definitely becoming solid. I was pretty sure it wasn't going to come off with a little soap and elbow grease – and heard Coyote laugh in my ear. A silver dollar, when they were still silver, was a troy ounce of .90 pure silver. I have a host of trivia in my head.

"How many troy ounces in a pound?" I asked because that wasn't some of the trivia I knew.

"I don't know," said Kyle soberly. "That looks like a lot of troy ounces to me."

Coyote magic, I thought, breaks rules. I looked at Kyle and decided that he could be trusted, just like the rest of the pack. "It's not Indian magic – or not just Indian magic anyway. It's Coyote magic."

"Coyote?" asked Kyle. "Are you talking about your other form or the Coyote?"

Ben just narrowed his gaze.

"My father was a Blackfeet bull rider from Browning, Montana, named Joe Old Coyote," I told Kyle. "But before he was Joe Old Coyote, he was the Coyote of song and story. After Joe Old Coyote died in a car wreck, he was Coyote again."

I understand from people who have seen him in court that Kyle is mostly unflappable until he chooses to be otherwise. Being in love with a werewolf had raised his ability to nearly supernatural levels.

He didn't blink, didn't pause, just said, "So the silver slime is because you are Coyote's daughter?"

"I'm not Coyote's daughter," I said firmly. I glanced at the floor. "And it's not slime, anymore. Joe Old Coyote wasn't Coyote." Because if he had been, my father hadn't just died, he had abandoned me, abandoned my mother, and I would have to hunt him down and hurt him.

"Okay," Kyle said. "You're rambling." He reached out and touched me. "Are you okay? You look flushed, but you're cold."

As he spoke, a shiver rolled up my spine. I crouched down and held my hand over the silver slab that covered a couple of squares of stone tile.

"That is the freakiest thing that ever happened to me." I nodded toward the mess. "And if you knew my life, you'd realize just how freaky that is. While I was sleeping, I drank the silver out of Adam, woke up, and threw it up on your floor – sorry for that, by the way – and now my lips are black."

Kyle took in a breath. "While you were doing freaky stuff with Adam – as fine as he is – did you figure out where he is?"

I shook my head, and he sighed. "That's good."

I raised my eyebrow. He grinned, tiredly. "That would have been useful, Mercy. And having something freaky and useful would have been too good and sent the spirits of evil gods on our tail."

I stared at him.

His grin grew less tired. "You might have been raised by werewolves, Mercy, but I was raised by a Scottish granny while my parents were out earning their millions. When the fae came out, she just harrumpfed, and said, 'There'll be trouble now.' And she was right about it, just as every doom-filled prediction she ever made was right."

I let myself fall down onto my butt because my knee was remembering I'd been in a car accident, and it had had enough of my kneeling. Ben steadied me briefly, then jerked away.

"Thanks," I told Kyle. "I'll keep the wrath of the dark gods in mind. Any more cheery thoughts?"

"Not until Warren is standing right here chipping up the mess you made," he said soberly.

I reached over and wrapped my hand around his ankle to comfort him just as the doorbell rang.

"What time is it?" I asked.

Kyle glanced at the watch on his wrist. "Too early for company. Four thirty in the morning."

His cell rang, and he picked it up.

"Mr. Brooks. There are two men on your doorstep. A white male, mid-forties, about six feet tall, in better than average shape who looks very comfortable in the suit he's wearing and extremely uncomfortable about his companion. The second man is shorter, younger, mixed-race, and in very good shape. Might mean he likes to work out – might mean he's a werewolf. Do you want us to intercept and send them away?"

"No," said Kyle. "We have backup in the house, right?"

"That's right, sir. And someone watching the porch."

"Then let me go see if these are allies or enemies. I'll give you a peace sign if they're okay."

Kyle hung up and changed his clothes to slacks and a polo he had folded up on the lone chest of drawers in the room. I had the choice of wearing his clothes that I wore all yesterday, or mine that I had worn the day and night before. Since the latter were still bloodstained, I pulled on his sweats, their pleasant teal color doing a fine job of emphasizing the bruises on my skin, and followed him down the stairs, Ben at our heels like a well-behaved guard wolf. He wasn't limping – which made one of us – so he must finally have started healing.

As soon as we were on the stairs, the doorbell quit ringing. Either they had given up, or they could hear us on the carpeted stairs through the door.

Ben and I hung back as Kyle opened the door to a pair of men, one of them unsurprisingly around six feet tall wearing a black wool coat that emphasized rather than concealed the expensive fit of the dark gray suit he wore. His face was slightly homely in the likeable way of a good character actor.

Next to him was a smaller man who looked vaguely Middle Eastern but darker-skinned. He wore jeans, scuffed hiking boots, and a long-sleeved gray silk button-up shirt. It was cold enough to bite, but he had no coat or jacket.

"What brings you to my door at this time of the morning?" Kyle asked shortly.

"Kyle Brooks?" said the taller man. "My name is Lin Armstrong. Agent Armstrong. I work for CNTRP – Cantrip, if you prefer – and I was wondering if you would mind if I and my associate come in to ask you a few questions about the men who broke into your house yesterday."

I sucked in my breath – Cantrip was the agency I suspected our villains belonged to. I don't know what I would have said except that when I inhaled, I caught their scents. I could smell dry cleaning fluid, wool, and some dog breed that clung to the complex scent of Agent Armstrong. I also smelled an unfamiliar werewolf.

Ben's posture changed. His ears flattened, and he crouched a little, but slid between me and the door anyway.

"What pack are you from?" I asked, stepping around Ben, so I stood next to Kyle. "Excuse me?" said Agent Armstrong.

But the other man, he smiled, a wicked white smile in his dark face. "What pack do you think I belong to, Ms. Thompson?" He had an accent: Spanish, but not the same Spanish as most of the people I knew who spoke Spanish as a first language in the Tri-Cities.

I frowned at him. "Hauptman. It's Ms. Hauptman. Who are you?"

"Charles Smith asked if I would come up here and find out why he couldn't contact anyone here when he tried," the werewolf said, emphasizing the name because he lied when he said it. I knew who he meant anyway. The Marrok's son Charles had recently worked with the FBI under the last name of Smith.

This wolf had just told us a number of things. First, he had been sent here by the Marrok – Ariana must have reached him. Second, he and Armstrong were not closely associated – otherwise, he would not have lied to him. He had not, however, answered my question, which made me think that it might be important to know.

"I asked," Armstrong said, "through channels if I might be able to grab a werewolf to work as a … liaison. Since I believe that it is a group of rebel Cantrip agents who are responsible for your recent – " He looked stuck for the proper word.

"Problems," supplied the strange wolf. I knew most of the Marrok's pack – having grown up in it. I had no idea who he was.

I didn't say anything because I didn't know what to say. Packs changed over the years – people move. The Marrok's pack tended to gain problematic wolves who couldn't function in a normal pack. This wolf's body language told me that he was dangerous, that he spent a lot of time on the edge of violence, that his wolf was very close to the surface.

The wolf in human-seeming spoke into my silence. "When word came to Charles to see if there was someone who could … play ambassador with you and Mr. Brooks, I was already on my way, sent here by the whispers of the fairies." He paused, and … preened a little, as if he enjoyed being the center of attention, then looked at Kyle. "Mr. Brooks, it is rather cold out here. Would you mind calling off the gentleman who is aiming at us from your neighbor's roof and letting us in?"

"Who are you?" I asked the werewolf, again.

He smiled again, though his eyes were cool. "Asil, Ms. Hauptman. You might also know me as the Moor, though I find the title overly dramatic and wouldn't have mentioned it, but that you would find it, perhaps, a little more recognizable."

I gripped Kyle's arm a little more tightly. I knew who the Moor was. The Moor was a scary, scary wolf who I'd thought was merely a story, like the Beast of Gevaudan.

"It's okay, Kyle," I said, hoping I was right. "Asil is one of Charles's wolves." Kyle would understand I meant the Marrok.

Asil smiled because he heard the lie in my first sentence. Maybe Kyle did, too, because he gave me a sharp look before he waved at the security team with the two-finger salute immortalized by President Nixon before either of us was born.

"I am not at liberty to tell you anything," Armstrong half apologized as he sipped his coffee. He glanced from my face to Kyle's, taking in the spectacular bruising Kyle was sporting and my own, more modest bruise – which started at my jaw and hit the top of my hairline. Kyle looked like he'd gone into a boxing match with his hands tied behind his back – which is sort of what he'd done.

Armstrong grimaced. "I know it's not fair. But I have to operate by my superior's orders."

We were sitting in a room I'd actually never been in before. It was decorated in cool tones and was in the basement, with only a small window. Presumably it was one of the rooms that Adam's security team had deemed safe – or else Kyle had some other reason to drag us down to a room that smelled of carpet shampoo and the lady who cleaned his house, with no hint of either Kyle or Warren.

"Don't tell me," Kyle said sourly. "A group of Cantrip agents who were unhappy with the limited power given them to combat the scary werewolves and suddenly scarier fae decided to go off on their own. Someone decided that they needed a really big event to turn the tide of public opinion in their favor – and they decided the murder of a popular anti-fae senator would be the torch they could use to inflame the public and get, at last, the right to shoot werewolves and fae on sight. They failed when Mercy, Ben, and I managed to call the police on them, and you've been sent to fix the situation however you can while also finding out where they got the money to hire a private army. How am I doing?"

For a moment, Armstrong's friendly face wasn't so friendly. The Moor smiled and lifted his own cup to his lips. If I wasn't looking at his eyes, he appeared too young, too urbane to be responsible for the violence he was famous for. He caught me looking, and I looked away – but not before I saw his pleased smile.

"Don't patronize us," Kyle said softly, his attention on Armstrong. "You need us to find your people before they do something even stupider. I'm not sure we need you at all."

"Your cooperation will be noted," Armstrong said. "That might become important for you if Bennet succeeds in making a bloodbath here that he can blame the werewolves for."

"Who is Bennet?" I asked, and Armstrong pursed his lips.

"Ah, excuse me," he said. "Let us instead say, 'our rogue agent' who is apparently responsible for recruiting other dissatisfied agents." The slip of his tongue that gave away Bennet's name seemed purposeful because he wasn't very upset. "It is imperative that we stop him, and you can help by telling me anything you know about how Hauptman and his pack were taken. Anything about the men who held you here. Anything might be useful. In return, I assure you that we will turn our resources to locating and rescuing your people."

He was sincere and truthful, which surprised me somehow. I'd expected him to lie his head off.

"We are on the same side," Armstrong said earnestly, and he believed that, too – I could hear it in his voice.

"Those men who broke into your house are all dead, Mr. Brooks," Asil said quietly – and Armstrong jerked his head around so fast it was a wonder he didn't kink his neck. He wasn't so much surprised about the dead men, I thought, but that Asil knew about their deaths.

I wondered if Asil had killed them himself.

The werewolf caught my expression and smiled, showing his teeth. "Not me. I was not sent here merely as a liaison, Ms. Hauptman, but as a useful tool in your arsenal. They were released on bail last night. Because they were scheduled to fly to Seattle, then off to South America by private charter, I thought it would be expeditious to talk to them before they left. But they were dead when I went to the hotel they had checked into, and I nearly interrupted a federal cleanup of the site." He smiled toothily, and I understood that the cleanup was of the sort meant to keep the men's deaths from the local police as well as the public.

If he knew all that, Charles had been busy, because he was more current than Ariana had been when she left. Armstrong was watching him with sudden wariness. Apparently he hadn't known how much Asil knew.

"Did you kill them, Agent Armstrong?" I asked. Most people didn't know that werewolves could hear lies, and those who did thought I was human.

"No, ma'am. But my people were responsible for the cleanup. There was an anonymous call to my superiors." He grimaced. "I've spent most of the last twenty-four hours playing cleanup, catch-up – and all sorts of other things that end in -up when things go to hell."

Asil nodded at me. Like me, he'd heard the truth in the agent's voice. Armstrong had not killed them and "unhappy" was a very small word for what he was feeling about their deaths and the involvement of Cantrip agents in the whole thing. My nose could sense more than just lies. Emotions, especially strong emotions, have scents, too.

"You told the police that they wanted your husband to go after Senator Campbell, Ms. Hauptman," Armstrong said.

I lifted my chin. "That's right."

He shook his head. "Doesn't scan. These guys were the real deal, Ms. Hauptman. They make a lot of money by not shooting their mouths off. There is no way that they told you that."

Asil met my eyes. He knew how I got my information. He tilted his head a little and gave a shrug.

He was the dominant wolf in the room. If he didn't care what I told a federal agent about how werewolf magic works, maybe I shouldn't, either.

I opened my mouth, then closed it again, visions of being locked up in a white room somewhere with someone asking, "What is Adam looking at, Ms. Hauptman? Is it a triangle or a square?" in my head. It was probably the result of too much Mystery Science Theater 3000 at a young age, but there was also a real danger in telling people too much.

"You know how you told us that there were things you couldn't tell us?" I said. "It's like that. There are things I cannot reveal to you at this time. Need-to-know things."

Armstrong grunted, but he could hardly complain. "On a scale of one to ten, how sure are you that the threat was aimed at Campbell?"

"Zero," I told him, because I'd thought long and hard about this. "The threat was aimed at the werewolves. Campbell might be a secondary target – or maybe he was scheduled to be miraculously saved at the last moment. It's easy to thwart an assassination when you know the who, where, and when. I don't know why they picked Adam."

"He's become a public figure," murmured Asil. "People like him, and they trust him. When newspapers and magazines want to talk to a werewolf, they try for Adam because he's pretty and well-spoken. Three-quarters of the people interviewed on the streets of New York for a recent morning news story could pick Hauptman out of a lineup. Better than either of the last presidential candidates or the mayor of New York did."

"You think this was aimed at Adam specifically?" I asked.

Asil frowned at me. Maybe we weren't supposed to be talking in front of Agent Armstrong. "I think," he said slowly, "that we don't know enough."

"And our enemies know too much," I said. "They knew all of the pack – and there are a number of our members who aren't out. They came looking for Jesse and me. Where did they get their information?"

"Jesse?" Armstrong asked.

"Adam's daughter," I said. "She's not a werewolf. We'd gone out shopping, had a car wreck, and ended up at my garage, where Ben had come to tell us that the pack had been taken."

"Ben?"

I tipped my empty cup toward the werewolf stretched out on the floor near me, but not touching. Ben was pointedly not looking at Asil – though he was still keeping his body between us. "This is Ben. He was upstairs when the rent-an-army broke into our house and took out most of the pack in one fell swoop. He managed to get away and warn me."

There was a funny pause, and I looked up.

"I thought." Armstrong swallowed. "I thought that he was just a big dog. I like dogs."

I looked at Asil, then back at Armstrong. "You do know that Asil is a werewolf, too?"

The fed rubbed his face. "I'm too old for this. I've been up for twenty-four hours."

"Ben won't hurt you," I told him, just as Asil got up to put his empty cup on the low table between the chairs. Ben surged to his feet, growling – but with his head tilted so he didn't meet the more dominant wolf's eyes. Armstrong spilled his coffee, jerking away. The sudden move attracted Ben's attention, and he showed his fangs to the Cantrip agent.

"Armstrong, drop your eyes." Kyle's voice was calm and easy.

I reached for Ben's ruff, but as soon as my fingers got close, he slid away from my hand.

"It's my fault. We need to get this over with before someone gets hurt." Asil finished setting his cup down and looked at Ben, though he spoke to the rest of the room. "You will have to excuse us while this wolf and I have a talk." He reached down and snapped his fingers in front of Ben's face. "Come with me."

I stepped between them. Ben couldn't put himself between us again without knocking me over – so he nipped me on the back of my knee. A very quick nip, not enough to hurt, just a protest.

Asil tilted his head and smiled. "I do like you, Ms. Hauptman. You are not exactly what I expected, but I like you. By all means, come with us."

"What exactly are you going to settle?" asked Kyle, sounding a little hostile.

Asil examined him for a moment. "I won't hurt him, Mr. Brooks, but Ben is trying to protect Ms. Hauptman from me. There is no need, but he has to decide that himself. It will be a lot easier on him if we do this without an audience."

"It's okay," I told Kyle. "It's a good idea if we are likely to spend much time in each other's company." And I could question Asil without Agent Armstrong listening in – and he could question me.

"Guest room," suggested Kyle. "The one we were sleeping in. Apparently this house is low in rooms that are really possible to secure. Otherwise, you'll have to make do with a bathroom. Agent Armstrong and I can wait here."

I waved and took the lead out the door and up the stairs. Ben followed me as close as he could get without touching me, leaving Asil trailing behind us.

"Kyle Brooks is mated to your third," Asil said, as we hiked up the stairs, his voice thoughtful. "He is a lawyer. He was tied up and being tortured by a pair of professionals, and he managed to get himself loose and break one man's neck and knock out the other without killing him. Such an enterprising and ambitious thing for a human lawyer to do to a pair of men who make their livelihood from killing people. How wonderful that he managed it."

"Kyle Brooks has a black belt," I said very quietly. "He's in good shape and was rescued by a vampire friend of mine who killed the man who hurt Kyle and let the other live because I asked him not to kill everyone in sight."

There was silence on the stairs behind Ben and me.

"I believe I misheard," said Asil, who'd stopped on the stairs. "English is not my first, nor even my fifth, language. Did you say 'a vampire friend'"

"I did." I half turned to look at him as I stopped, too.

"The world," he said, "is a very strange place, and just when I thought I'd witnessed all the wonders it had to teach – here is another one. This 'vampire friend' of yours did it for a price?"

"He did it because he is my friend and Kyle's friend," I said.

"Impossible."

There was something in his voice that sent Ben surging up against my legs, which wasn't so bad – but then he bounced away like a ping-pong ball, and I almost lost my balance because I'd braced for his impact. I did lose my temper.

"Maybe for you," I snapped at Asil, turning to finish the last four-or-five-stair climb to the second floor. "Me? I have friends."

There was another of those speaking silences, then he laughed. "Please tell me I won't end up with eggs in my pillowcase or peanut butter on my car seat."

I threw up my hands involuntarily and turned to him to face him again. Walking backward, I said, "I was twelve. Don't you wolves have anything better to gossip about than things that happened twenty years ago?"

"Mi princesa," he told me, his voice deep and flirty, "I was in Spain and I heard about the peanut butter. Two decades are nothing, I assure you – we will speak of it a hundred years from now in hushed voices. There are big bad wolves all over the world who tremble at the sound of his name, yet a little puny coyote girl peanut-buttered the seat of Bran Cornick's car because he told her that she should wear a dress to perform for the pack."

"No," I said, getting hot about it again. I turned and stalked down the hall. "He said Evelyn – my foster mother – should know better, that she should have made sure I had a dress to wear. He made her cry." And that was the last time I consented to play the piano.

I opened the guest room door, and Asil paused until I looked at his face. "Yes," he said sincerely. "Such a one deserves peanut butter on the seat of his pants."

And that sincerity was the last straw. I put my hand over my mouth and leaned against the door and laughed. I was worried, tired, and it felt like every muscle in my body ached – and all I could see was the peanut butter on the back of the Marrok's elegant beige slacks and the expression on his face when he realized what had happened. I'd been hiding under bushes in my coyote shape downwind and everything – but he'd seen me anyway. Bran could always find me wherever I was hiding. He'd raised an eyebrow at me, and I'd run all the way home.

"He always knew when it was me," I said when I could speak.

Asil smiled; it was a warm and friendly smile. "He told me that gave you sorrow. You would scheme and plan so no one would know – and never realized that he didn't even have to investigate such an incident. 'Who else could it be?' he told me when I called him to … discuss the incident. 'Can you imagine any of the pack putting peanut butter on the seat of my car to teach me a lesson?'"

"Huh." Such simple logic had been beyond me – and it just seemed right and proper that the Marrok would know everything, like Santa Claus with big sharp teeth. "He made me clean the whole car. It was worth it, though. He apologized to Evelyn, brought her flowers, too."

"He apologized," Asil said slowly, and I laughed, again, because Asil said it like he was storing up information to use to torment Bran.

"I needed that." I waved him into the room. "Thank you."

He glanced around the bedroom and took in the unmade bed and, his eyebrow rising ever higher, the puddle of now-solid silver on the floor. Then he said, "One thing I have always wondered is how Bran did not notice the smell of peanut butter on his so-expensive car's lovely brown leather upholstery."

"I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I put it on a paper plate with a little note that said, 'For the Marrok,' and set that on the dash of the passenger seat," I told him. "He was so busy looking at it that he didn't notice the seat until it was too late." I looked at the silver on Kyle's floor, too. They were probably going to have to replace the stone tile under it. "The eggs, though," I continued absently. "The eggs were a failure. They don't break when you want them to – the pillow cushions them too much, and they leave your victim with ammunition to use against you."

"Mercedes, tell me – " Asil walked around the end of the bed, which brought him closer to me, and Ben growled.

Asil stopped where he was. "Very well. Let's release your wolf from his predicament before we say those things that cannot be said in front of the government man." He looked at me and pointed back at the door. "Go stand in the hall so we avoid the situation where he is torn between what his instincts say and his need to protect you."

It sounded okay, so I did it, standing in the doorway so I could keep my eyes on them. That left Ben and about ten feet between me and Asil. Had he meant me any harm, the distance wasn't enough, but because he did not, it was enough to assuage Ben's need to see me safe.

Asil put his hand on Ben's nose and pushed down until the red werewolf's head was all the way on the floor. Ben gave a half groan, half growl.

"I pledge to you," Asil said, meeting Ben's eyes, "that I mean you and yours no harm. I recognize that you belong to Adam Hauptman, and I have no need for you to belong to me. I am an ally while Adam cannot be here, standing in for the Marrok, who has sent me to serve in his stead as lord over all the wolves as we are all his vassals. Do you accept me as such?"

Ben pulled his nose out from under Asil's hand and stood up without crouching for the first time since he'd laid eyes on the other wolf. His tail and ears were up for a moment until he deliberately ducked his head and dropped his tail to a more neutral position.

Asil smiled at him. "Good. We understand each other. Now Mercedes Thompson de Hauptman, I need you to tell me exactly what has happened and what you know. Quickly, please, we haven't much time."

So I told him everything I knew.

When I was done, he got up off the bed where he'd been sitting and looked at the metal on the floor again. It had lost its bright color while we were talking, and now had a faint patina of black.

"How is your stomach feeling now?" he asked after a moment.

"Raw," I admitted. "But it's been that way since I wrecked my car and Adam and our pack were taken. I have no idea if it is from the silver or not."

Asil crouched on his heels in silence of thought, and I considered reminding him that he'd been in a hurry. At last he said, "You are certain that Peter is the only fatality?"

"So far," I said.

"I find that very interesting in light of the murders of your attackers." His eyes were bright and merry as he looked at me. Apparently, murders were good fun. "The one who killed the hired men would not bother keeping all of the pack alive. Such a man would say, 'One werewolf is enough to keep Adam on the hook, and this many hostages are expensive and dangerous to keep.' Which would be right. They were bloody stupid to take down a whole pack – any commander who ever had charge of a host of enemy soldiers would have been happy to explain it to them." He lost himself for a moment, presumably in happy contemplation of the troubles our enemies had gotten themselves into.

"Two different people?" I said.

Asil nodded. "So it seems to me. Moreover, a man who knew to hire these men, a man they would work for, would not have killed these mercenaries out of fear of what they know. These are very well-trained, sought-after mercenaries often hired by governments friendly to the US, Charles tells me. The kind of men who stay bought and don't take kindly to being betrayed."

"The Cantrip agents had the contacts but not the money to hire them," I said slowly. "Federal agents are well paid – but not that well paid."

"Can you contact Adam right now?"

"I can try."

"Please do so. We need to let him know what we know – and see if there is any new information he can offer us about his location or the people who have taken him."

I sat down on the floor and closed my eyes – reached down the rough golden rope that tied my mate and I together and – "Ow, ow, ow," I said, my eyes watering. "Owie, owie, owie. Damn. Damn."

Asil looked from me to the silver on the floor. "That will teach you not to use your bonds for things they were never intended," he told me. "Especially not silver. Werewolves and silver do not mix."

"Shut up," I said fiercely and very quietly because the sound of his voice sent sharp, arcing lightning rods of pain from my eyes all the way through my skull.

"That is quite a lot of silver," he observed. Then, sounding intrigued, he said, "And it is pure silver, though the substance that the tranquilizer dart uses is silver nitrate – which is a white powder."

Asil got up and moved around. Ben came close – I could smell him – but he didn't get close enough to touch. Werewolves are different when they are in their wolf shape, less human and less caught up in human manners. It would be wrong. But wolves are gregarious, far more so than humans or coyotes, for that matter. Normally, Ben would be pressing against me if I was in distress. Asil must still have been worrying him.

When my head quit feeling quite so breakable, I looked up – and Asil handed me a glass of water from the bathroom. I drank the whole thing and felt better.

"Don't worry," he told me when I handed him the empty glass. "I expect the effect is temporary. It'll probably go away once the silver is out of your system entirely." He touched my lips, a light, quick touch that didn't allow me time to react.

He showed me his fingertips – which were red, as if he'd put his fingers in a flame. I touched my lips, too, remembering how black they were.

"They used to use colloidal silver in nose drops for people with asthma or bad allergies," he told me. "People who used them regularly sometimes had their skin turn blue – there is a man who ran for the Montana Senate who is blue-skinned. I thought your lips were from lipstick – though you are a little older than most of the young ladies wearing black makeup."

I stared at him in horror. "It won't go away," I told him. "I'm not a werewolf, my body won't reject silver the same way yours does." Gabriel's little sister, Rosa, had done a report in school about a girl whose skin had turned gray when she was a teenager back in the fifties and nothing anyone had tried had made any improvement. I'd proofread it for her.

I scrambled to my feet and went into the bathroom to look at the mirror again. I took a washcloth and scrubbed at my lips, but they stayed black.

Asil didn't follow me into the bathroom, but he stood at the door.

"You told Armstrong that you think this was aimed at the werewolves."

"Don't you?" I asked.

Asil shook his head. "It doesn't matter what I think. Let's look at the world through their eyes a moment. If Adam did exactly as they asked him to, what would be the result?"

"They kill the pack anyway – can't have witnesses. They'd kill Adam, so he doesn't kill them. The senator's dead or wounded by werewolves. The people who think the only good werewolf is a dead werewolf would have more power." I ticked them off on my fingers, then said, "Kyle and I, Adam and I, and just I have gone through this a hundred times."

"Okay," Asil said. "The rogue Cantrip agents like the last part, the one that lets them go hunting werewolves. Maybe they like the dead senator part, too. Campbell has been standing between them and their kill-'em-all hunting license for a long time. But who is after Adam or the pack? You think they are the ones this is aimed at – so who benefits?"

"Shouldn't we do this part downstairs?" I asked, my throat tight. I didn't want to go over and over how much danger Adam and the pack were in – I knew. "We were discussing this with Armstrong."

Asil shook his head. "What happens if Adam and the pack are gone?"

I bared my teeth at him. "I go out for revenge – I don't do peanut butter much anymore. But if they aren't afraid of the pack, they aren't going to be afraid of me. Bran is scarier – but they probably don't know about Bran."

"Maybe they do," said Asil. "Maybe they're after Bran."

"They knew about Gerry Wallace's silver/DMSO/ketamine cocktail," I conceded. "They knew every wolf in the pack. Maybe they do know about Bran."

"Mercy?" Kyle called up from the floor below. "Are you through telling the werewolf all the things we mere mortals shouldn't know, yet? I'm making breakfast, and the sun's coming up."

"What were you planning on doing next before Agent Armstrong and I arrived?" asked Asil.

"I was going to go to get Adam's people, the ones who work for his company, to see if they can figure out where the money is coming from. See if they can tell if it is government money or private. I was going to the vampires to see if they knew anything about where someone might be holding a pack of werewolves – they run this town's supernaturals like the mob ran Chicago back in the day." There was something else. Something I was supposed to be remembering. "Damn it," I said, diving for my dirty, bloody jeans. "Tad. Damn it."

I pulled out Gabriel's sister's phone and saw that I'd missed calls – and had twenty new text messages. There were fifteen calls exactly one half hour apart from a number I didn't know. I didn't bother to read the text messages, just dialed the strange number. Tad answered.

"So," he said grumpily without waiting for me to say anything. "I take it you're dead? Because, otherwise, there is no excuse for guilting me into sitting outside in winter watching the most boring family on earth for more than a whole day. They started sending out the kids with cocoa yesterday about two in the afternoon. Dinner was homemade burritos with Spanish rice and refried beans – and almost good enough to forgive you for making me think you might be dead."

"How did they know you were there?" I asked.

"I knocked on the door to use the bathroom. Figured it was safer than leaving them to be slaughtered by enemy government agents while I went out to find the nearest gas station." There was a pause. "You all right?"

"No," I told him honestly, closing my eyes. "Not at all. Adam's still gone. They had a few men here at Kyle's – "

"That's Warren's boyfriend, right?"

"Right. Anyway Ben, I, and Stefan – mostly Stefan – got Kyle out of their clutches but spent the day at the police department answering questions."

"Good for Stefan."

I rubbed my eyes and thought. "I think the best thing to do might be to grab Gabriel and Jesse and bring them back here. There are police keeping an eye out on Kyle's house, and Adam's team is running security." I looked at Asil, and asked – "Are you planning on staying here with us?"

He nodded. "Until Adam is found, yes."

"Okay, did you hear that, Tad? I have one of Bran's wolves here to help out, too."

"I don't have a car," Tad told me. "I hiked over. You'll have to come get them yourself."

"No worries. I'll be over in about fifteen minutes." I opened my mouth to ask if he would consider helping us further but closed it again because he'd been standing guard all day.

"If Kyle has an extra bed in his mansion," Tad said, "I'll catch a few winks of sleep there, and I'll help you until this is finished." He paused, too. "I'm sorry I've been a jerk. Life hasn't been a bed of roses lately, but I don't have to take it out on you."

"Sure you do," I told him. "Who else would listen to it? I'll be over as soon as I can."

I clicked the phone off.

"I'll come with you," Asil said. "They know where you are – which makes you the shiniest target."

"Fine," I said. "If we leave Ben here, there will be room in Marsilia's car."

Asil looked at me. "Your vampire friend is Marsilia? Mistress of the Tri-Cities' seethe?"

I snorted. "Don't be silly. Marsilia hates me and would love to see me rot in Hell. I stole her car so that the bad guys couldn't find me – and because I wrecked my car. Ben's already bled all over her Mercedes, though, so a few more miles on the odometer won't make her any madder." I caught sight of Ben. He was watching me intently and told me as clearly as he could without words that he didn't intend to be left behind.

"You need to change back," I told him. "You've been shot and dragged all over the place, and you've been wolf for nearly two days. Time to change back and rest up. All I'm doing is picking up Jesse and Gabriel and coming back here. Bran sent Asil over to be useful, so he will be and, unless I'm much mistaken, we'll also have an escort of Adam's finest trained professionals to make sure I make it back safely."

"I'll keep her safe," Asil told Ben solemnly.

"Besides," I said, "I'd like to leave Kyle with some real backup in case something happens."

It was the truth – and that one worked. Ben liked Kyle – and Ben didn't like very many people.


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