Frost Burned (Mercy Thompson #7)

Chapter 7

chapter
Chapter

ADAM

Fear was a familiar friend. Adam sometimes thought that he'd been afraid since he'd stepped on the bus that took him to basic training all those years ago. And the older he got, the more he had to fear. Right now, he was afraid for Mercy, who didn't have the sense to be afraid for herself.

When he'd been a boy, he'd thought that if you were just strong enough, tough enough there wouldn't be anything to be afraid of – except for God, of course. His parents had been small farmers, patriots, and devout Baptist God-fearing Christians and raised him to be the same. But their best efforts had met the world, and, mostly, the world had won.

He'd left the farm first, and Vietnam had done its best to scour him of his patriotism. It hadn't succeeded entirely, though he reserved the right to think most elected officials could do with a little jail time to mend their ways. Vietnam had also taught him that the tougher and smarter you got, the more afraid you learned to be. It had also taught him that there were monsters in the world – and he had become one of them.

Then he'd come back home and found out that war didn't cause fear – love did. He loved Mercy with a fierceness that still surprised him.

Adam took a deep breath, and it didn't hurt. Silver didn't burn in his joints and dull his senses anymore. He tested his body, just to be sure. Someone watching would only see that he continued to sit with his back to the wall of the cold stone room where the pack had been imprisoned. He tightened and released muscle groups that responded with their usual quickness and force.

He didn't understand what Mercy had done. No, that wasn't quite true – she'd taken the silver poisoning his body into herself. He understood that was how the pack bonds worked for her, that she saw things in symbols and pictures while he smelled things. Samuel had once told him that he and Bran both heard music. What he didn't understand was how she'd used the pack bonds and magic to do the impossible.

And what really scared him was that he was fairly certain that Mercy hadn't known what she was doing, either. She could have killed herself. Silver wasn't poisonous to her. However, if someone had injected an average Joe human with the amount of silver that had been in his body, it wouldn't have been good for the human, either. He wasn't a doctor, but he was pretty sure it would have been fatal.

He could feel her, so she wasn't dead, but the link felt … off – and that really scared him. He had to control the urge to run, to bull through anything that stood between them so he could protect her. But he wouldn't waste her efforts, he would wait until the proper time, then he would go hunting.

Something changed in the room, and Adam pulled his head into the here and now. He listened. The almost constant soft clink-clink was the sound of his bound wolves moving restlessly, even drugged into almost unconsciousness because the pain of the silver in their bodies and in the chains that held them made it impossible for them to lie still. He could smell them, smell silver and sickness in spite of all that he could do for them.

Judging from their condition, the sacrifice he'd intended would not have helped the pack enough. Jones was afraid, and he'd pumped them all too full of silver. Adam, though, was now free of the effects of all those darts. He could do more for the pack, but he didn't want Mercy to deplete herself keeping him healthy. So he would wait until it was necessary.

Perhaps the soldier who moved like water through the densely populated room would give him other opportunities. The human stepped over Warren's still body and crouched, finally, in front of Adam. He settled in close, because Adam could feel the disturbance the man's breath made in the air.

"Alpha," said the man who'd reprimanded Mr. Jones after he'd shot Peter, the one who seemed to be in charge of the military or pseudo-military rank and file.

Adam opened his eyes. The other man was crouched so his head was level with Adam's, close enough to see the whites of his eyes. He was wearing the familiar black armor, and his face was blackened and mottled with a fresh application of greasepaint.

Warren was lying just behind him, and Adam saw the gleam of his eyes in the darkness. Darryl slid closer, his chains silent as the big man moved. Adam made a move with the hand away from his enemy observer, and Warren, then Darryl subsided.

Adam was in no danger. Free of the silver and drugs, Adam could have crushed his throat before the man took his next breath. It was tempting. Very.

But this one wasn't the man who'd killed Peter, so Adam waited to see why he was here. Killing was easy. It could be done at any time.

"We are going," the other man said in a conversational voice. "Leaving our employment here."

Adam lifted his head and met the other man's gaze. After a brief count, his opponent turned his head.

"You aren't as foggy as my employers think, secret knock 'em out darts that work on werewolves or not," said the enemy soldier. "They don't affect you the way they are supposed to, I saw that right off, even if Jones chooses not to. So you might have picked up that I had some men waiting at Kyle Brooks's house with orders to capture your wife, your daughter, and Ben Shaw because our intelligence said that was where they would probably go. Early this morning, the police broke up the party – " He quit speaking for a moment and stared at Adam's face. "And how do you know that?" He shook his head and spoke to himself. "Freaking supernatural bullshit. I told them we should stay out of it, but the money was too good, and we always like to keep the government happy with us. Keeps us employed."

He sat there in front of Adam and thought some more. Patience, Adam counseled himself, there was more information here, and it would be easier if the man chose to tell him about it himself.

"So we ended up with one of ours dead and three in custody – and your wife is talking to the police about how someone kidnapped your pack and wants you to go kill the good Senator Campbell. I thought maybe one of my boys talked out of turn – which they wouldn't. But maybe she knew about it the same way you know what went down this morning, huh?"

He waited a moment, but both he and Adam knew that Adam wasn't going to respond.

"Now my outfit is pretty big news, and we make good money. With no civilians dead, it didn't take our lawyers long to get the rest out – and once out, they're all the way out. Too many eyes on them to make them useful for this operation. No worries, we have the resources to replace them with operatives with clean slates and redeploy the hot ones somewhere less worrisome – out of the country until certain people forget the ones who work for a paycheck and keep after the people who pay the money, you know what I mean?"

Adam didn't say anything, just waited for the man to get to the point.

"I'll tell you the truth," he said slowly, as if he had all the time in the world. Maybe he did. "I asked to be in on this. You are demon spawn, you werewolves and the fae and the witches. All of you need to die, and someday I hope to be one of the people called upon to rid your scourge from the earth."

And Adam smelled the fear on him for the first time, fear and eagerness for blood. Adam was sympathetic; he was afraid for his people, for Mercy – and hungry for blood, too.

"But I didn't get where I am by working against the rules," the mercenary said. "Rules keep people alive and keep the money flowing. Rules say that the people who hire us don't get to kill us when we've served our part or because we know things they don't want to get out. We don't talk – and we police our own if someone thinks about singing inconveniently." He met Adam's eyes briefly again. "You know about rules, you wolves. I've heard that."

The mercenary paused, waiting for a response that didn't come. When it was clear his invitation to talk had been turned down, he continued. "So these guys had a flight out of here for the morning, but Slick – one of the ones who got away – he went over to the hotel where everyone should be and surprised a government cleanup crew and the bodies of my men who should have been alive. He managed to get away and contact me. All casualties, no survivors but Slick. He's taking a roundabout way to a rendezvous, and I'm taking my boys out. The word to eliminate the men who were arrested didn't come from our company – no one who works for our company is that stupid. We're leaving; and then we'll deal with the betrayal."

Adam asked, "Why are you telling me this?"

"I don't like your kind," said the mercenary. He looked around and spat on the dirt floor. "But that's personal. Someone screws us over? That's business. They killed my boys because they didn't want them to talk. Don't know what we know that is so valuable, but I'm telling you what I know in hopes that it torpedoes their plans." He paused. "Those men took my orders, and that makes their deaths personal."

"I understand," said Adam.

The other man frowned at him. "I'd heard that about you, that you wore the uniform."

"Ranger," said Adam.

The man examined him, taken aback.

"Doesn't mean I'm not a monster," Adam continued. "But I do understand how a soldier works. You follow orders, and in return, you expect the men above you to have your back while you risk your life. When they don't …" Adam shrugged. "Something needs to be done."

The other man nodded, took a deep breath. "That's right. Okay. Folks pay us – we work for them all the way. We don't take better money, we don't talk. But our employers broke the rules. If they're afraid of something getting out – well, maybe I think that might be a start on teaching them not to betray the soldiers who work for them. The folks giving us the orders – they're regular government – Cantrip Agency. You know, the ones who are running around screaming that the fae and werewolves and all the rest are dangerous and need to be exterminated when their job was supposed to be learning about the supernatural world and acting as intermediaries between you and the government. The rhetoric they're spouting is that they want the power to go wolf hunting before some other agency gets it. They're tired of having to call the cavalry because they can't have their own army."

The mercenary frowned at Adam. "But you probably guessed that."

"Most of the competent people end up elsewhere," agreed Adam. "FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, National Security Administration, Secret Service, or one of a few other agencies. Cantrip has been a dumping ground for the screwups for years, and this has the same sort of FUBAR painted all over it that I've seen whenever desks try to run real operations."

The other man grinned at him. "What you said. I'm going to repeat that to my superiors."

"Okay," Adam said. "But where is the money coming from? I know what Cantrip's budget is; they don't have enough of a black-ops slush fund to work this. Maybe if they all gave up their salaries, they'd be able to hire something like your operation without alerting someone. You guys are more likely to be out protecting some drug lord in South America or fighting the war when the Geneva Convention is too restrictive for the home troops."

The other man put a finger along his nose and pointed it at Adam. "I could like you if you weren't a hell spawn, you know? No. Cantrip doesn't have that kind of money, though they would if a werewolf killed the Billionaire Senator, right? If his party didn't see to it, his very rich and very, very powerful family would. Word is that the head of this operation is cooperating with some money man, a rich son of a bitch anonymous puppet master who seems to have it in for you, Hauptman. He funded this operation, and the only stipulation was that it was your pack that got elected for assassination duty. Don't know who he is, but people are afraid of him."

And that was very interesting. Adam found himself settling in, ready to hunt. That it was personal made his enemy specific. Not people who hate werewolves, which was a very large group, but a man who hated him.

"Your intelligence was very good," Adam said. He needed to know where the information came from. "Traced cell phones for where the pack members who weren't at my house for Thanksgiving would be – that would have been Cantrip. But how did you find all the pack members?"

The other man nodded. "Right track. It's where I would have looked first. The list of pack members was provided to us – came from a different source. Same folks who provided the tranq. If I were to guess, I'd say it was someone high up in the military who doesn't like werewolves. But he wasn't the man funding this – just an interested bystander."

The tranq and information both could have come from Gerry Wallace before he'd been killed. Adam's pack hadn't changed since Gerry's death. Gerry's job had been to keep track of the lone wolves – and to do that he had a pretty extensive list of who was in which pack as well. Adam would have to warn Bran that someone had that information and was making it available.

"Did you ever see him?"

"Which him?"

"The money man or the information man."

The other man tilted his head. "Just the money man, once, I think. Said he was a flunky, guys with lots of money always have flunkies. He was soft-looking, looked like a civilian through and through. Dressed in a suit and looked like butter wouldn't melt. But he made the hair on the back of my neck crawl – and I always trust my gut. He looked soft, but he didn't move like a civilian, get me? Moved on the balls of his feet, and when he pulled a chair up, it didn't take him as much effort as it would have taken a civilian. He was stronger than a man who looked that soft should have been."

"You don't think he was a flunky."

"You read people, too," the mercenary said. It didn't sound like it bothered him. "No. I think he was the money man himself. I've trained a lot of men. Some of them are better at giving orders than taking them. He was one of those. But subtle about it."

"When and where?"

The other man shook his head. "Now, that is too much. More my company's secret than my ex-employers'." He pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Crouching for that long wasn't easy, especially if the one doing it was a human over thirty. But the mercenary didn't seem to find it uncomfortable.

"My doctor tells me if I don't quit smoking, I'll die of cancer someday," he said.

"If it ruins your endurance, it'll kill you sooner than that," said Adam. "Smokers don't run as fast or as long."

The man laughed. "Tell you what. A couple of days ago word came to me that these folk aren't Cantrip. Oh, they work for the agency all right. But they've gone rogue, and Cantrip has a group out looking for them." He looked at his cigarette, then put it back in his mouth and inhaled. "Cantrip's problem-solver got into town last night – just in time to do the cleanup on my boys."

A small red light flashed on his wristwatch. He tapped the watch and ground the cigarette out on the sole of his boot. "Son," he said. "If I have to depend upon running fast to stay alive, I'm already dead. Got to go now." He pulled out a key and frowned at it. "It's a strange old world, you know? Never know who you're going to find yourself in bed with."

He stood up and tossed the key toward Adam, who let it fall to the ground next to him.

"Good luck, now." The mercenary stepped over Darryl on the way to the door. "You aren't a bad sort for an abomination."

"I could say the same to you."

The mercenary glanced back and laughed. "Yeah. There is that." He opened the door, and said, quietly, "I heard one of them say that there's another assassin on the senator's security detail."

"Aimed at whom?" asked Adam.

The mercenary nodded. "I do like you. That is the right question. For you if you succeeded, for the senator if you didn't." He left without another glance.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Darryl and Warren both looked up at Adam. Darryl inhaled and gave a soft growl, too drugged from the ketamine to bring out words.

"Yes," said Adam. "I'm better." He didn't say why or how. They'd think it was Bran, and his legend would help them get up and on their feet.

He used the key to free himself and opened the shackles that held Darryl first, then Warren. When Warren sat up, Adam dropped the key into the old cowboy's hand. Warren was in the best shape next to Adam.

"Free everyone, but stay here until I get back or summon you," he told Warren. "Free Honey last, and be ready in case she really loses it."

Then he stood up and stripped out of his clothes. The final thing that he had learned in Vietnam, even before he'd been turned into a werewolf, was that he was good at killing.

Naked, he walked to the door and turned the knob – his mercenary visitor had left the door unlocked and unbarred. It opened into the small antechamber where Mr. Jones's desk was still in place. The room was dark, but they were underground – or so his nose told him, though the ceilings were higher than usual for a basement.

The steel bar that kept them imprisoned was lying on the floor. Adam bent down, picked up the bar, and set it on the ground next to Darryl, who closed his hand on it and tried to get to his hands and knees. Adam's second was functioning on instincts.

"Shh," Adam told him, and put a hand on his shoulder until he subsided. "Wait and protect. I'll be back. See if you can get them to change."

Warren's yellow eyes met his.

"I'll save Mr. Jones for Honey," he told Warren, then let the wolf take him.

By the time he rose on all four feet, most of the pack had been freed of their chains, but they were still unable to stand. Honey looked up into his face.

"Are you going to kill them all?" she asked him.

Murder, his father had taught him, was a sin.

Honey had been in his pack for nearly thirty years, she knew better than to ask if he could kill them all. He nodded once and loped out of the open door with an eagerness he made no attempt to check.

Adam had long ago accepted that he was not going to make it to Heaven.

He'd thought that they'd been stowed in some sort of government facility – there were a lot of places out in the Hanford Site near the nuclear facilities that were all but deserted. But as he paced through the long hall, he realized that this was some sort of commercial building rather than a government building. There was a sign leaning back-out against the wall. He pulled it away from the wall until he could see the front. TASTING ROOM, it said. He was in the unfinished basement of a winery.

That would explain the high ceilings and large, empty rooms. Their jail cell had been meant to hold racks of barrels of aging wine, as were the rooms on either side of the hallway he now paced down.

The winery had not been put to use for its intended purpose – he couldn't smell any grapes or wine. The half-dirt, half-tile floors and the hallway drywall sans tape and texture meant that someone had stopped while the building was still in the construction phase.

The basement was empty, though it was obvious that there had been people here fairly recently. They left behind the smell of body armor, gunpowder, and greasepaint as well as trails of footprints and marks where things had been dragged. Two of the rooms, identical to where they had been held, had been used as living quarters. The only difference was that the heavy wooden door that had been barred to keep wolves in was removed and set inside the rooms that had housed the mercenaries. Presumably so that no one could keep them in.

The mercenary commander who had talked to him had been right, Adam decided. Under other circumstances, Adam would have liked him, too.

In the distance, Adam heard diesel engines start up, the same engines, he was pretty sure, that had hauled the pack out to whatever distant proto-winery Cantrip had found to use as werewolf storage. The mercenaries had either parked a fair distance away from their temporary HQ, or – and he thought it more likely, given the dismantled doors – they had pushed the vehicles away from the building until someone deemed it safe to start them. The noise was faint to Adam's ears. He doubted a human would hear it even if he'd been listening for it instead of asleep.

He found the stairs and climbed them silently. They brought him to an empty room, designed to be open and airy. The walls were unpainted, but the floors were tiled in sandstone that was difficult to walk across without allowing his claws to click. A double door designed to open easily at a push led to the outside. He pushed one of the doors, and it opened. He went outside to take a recon of the layout and was unsurprised to find that they were out in the boonies somewhere. There were dead grapes everywhere – he'd been right about the winery. The building was surrounded by maybe a couple of hundred acres' worth of gray vines that had been dead well before winter hit. He could see the sad-looking dried-up starts of grape bunches.

He padded out onto what had been meant to be a grand wraparound porch, but it was missing the railing and several sections of flooring. A parking lot had been laid out, one big enough for ten cars or maybe a bus or two, but it hadn't been paved. There were four black SUVs and a Nissan with a plate frame advertising a national chain of rental cars in the lot.

The house/winery was about halfway up a hill from a two-lane highway that stretched in either direction and vanished around the wrinkled, hilly country. An orchard of apple trees bordered the would-be vineyard to the west and a rather better tended vineyard on the east.

Neither of the nearest properties looked to have a house on it. The closest neighbor was out of sight – doubtless it was the reason this place had been chosen by … whoever had chosen it. He'd find out who that was.

He considered crippling the cars, but decided against it. He turned back into the house. It was time to show these people why they should be afraid of werewolves.

He followed the sound of breathing to a hallway with rooms on either side, as if the original designs for the winery had also provided for a bed-and-breakfast.

The first room had the same unfinished walls as the public rooms did, but here the floor was also unfinished. The plywood squeaked just a little under his weight, but the man sleeping on the temporary cot didn't wake up. He was in his thirties, from the look of his face, which was … ordinary. He snored a little.

It had been nearly half a century since Adam's first kill. He'd like to have said that he remembered them all – a man should take notice when he killed another man. But there had been too many. Some of them had been sleeping peacefully.

He crushed the man's throat with his jaws and tried not to pay attention to the taste of his blood. Since he'd become a werewolf, he'd eaten a few people, but that was harder to live with than just killing them. So he tried to avoid it when he could.

The second man was older, in his fifties, but in decent shape. He had the good haircut of a bureaucrat planning on rising in the ranks of his profession. His hair was dyed, but it was a good dye job, leaving him with just a touch of gray.

Adam didn't remember seeing him – but he'd be the first to admit that he hadn't been at his best since his kidnapping. This one woke up before Adam killed him, but he didn't have a chance to cry out.

He continued down the hall. The next two who died were also easy kills.

He came to a room empty of people, but he opened the door anyway. He should have just kept going, but when he glimpsed a photo of Mercy, he shouldered the door further open and went in. One wall was filled with photos of his pack and their families, including Mercy and Jesse. Each labeled with a name so that people could come in and study the wall, get so they would recognize their targets.

It was a kill list.

Every single one of the pack was on it – and their immediate families, human and wolf alike, young and old. Sylvia Sandoval was there and so were her girls.

They were planning on killing the children.

Adam's next three kills weren't so clean after that, nor so silent. He let the fourth one scream because he was sleeping with a smile on his face.

They were planning on killing children, and this one was smiling.

When Adam got through with him, the man's corpse reeked of terror and pain. Adam needed to control himself better; he couldn't afford to lose control of the wolf because he might never regain it. He had a job that no one else could do to his satisfaction, a duty. The thought settled him; he knew about duty, both man and wolf.

The next bedroom was empty, though it smelled of a woman. He memorized the scent because if she'd taken flight, he'd have to hunt her through the dead vineyard. Part of him, the human part, knew he would have to give that hunt to someone less … eager than he was. Warren. Darryl, Adam's second, was still too much a gentleman to kill a woman without suffering for it. Warren was more practical.

The modern doorknobs designed for handicapped access were so much easier for a wolf to open than the traditional round ones were. The whole ground floor was designed especially for handicapped access, so he made no sound as he opened the next room to discover that there would be no need for him to hunt anyone yet. He'd found the woman from next door, and she and Mr. Jones had evidently found themselves too involved in each other to notice his last victim's cries.

He'd promised Jones to Honey.

It was harder than it should have been to leave them alone, but he closed the door as quietly as he could. There were three more people to kill – he could hear them. He was getting hungry.

He broke the next man's neck with a swat of his paw – like a grizzly. It was quick and clean. The second one was a woman, crouched behind her cot, which she'd knocked over to provide cover. He had a momentary thought that someone had been watching too much TV, because a cot is no kind of protection at all – and then the woman pulled out one of the dart guns and started firing.

The first dart hit badly and bounced off his shoulder. Warned, he dodged the second two and jumped the cot to crush her skull between his jaws. He shook her once to break her neck and make sure of the kill, then dropped the body. He didn't enjoy killing women.

He stopped where he was, the corpse on the ground halfway between his front paws, and fought off the urge to eat her. Woman or not, his wolf was hungry, and dead, she was just meat. He didn't have time for it – and the strength of the urge meant the wolf was gaining the upper hand. When he was certain he had himself under control he headed off to hunt down the next one.

That one had barricaded himself in one of the rooms Adam had visited earlier. The door was ironbound and thick, meant to look like the old colonial Spanish doors. It stopped the bullets that the man shot into the door as soon as Adam touched the doorknob – it must not have been a large-caliber handgun.

But the gunfire did one thing. Mr. Jones opened his door, a gun in his hand. Adam dropped his head and roared at him. It was a sound the lesser wolves could not make, more like a lion than a wolf. The woman behind Jones screamed and screamed. Jones shot twice before Adam hit him, but he hadn't stopped to aim, hadn't been able to control his fear. One bullet skimmed Adam's side, but the other missed him altogether – hitting a moving target isn't easy.

Adam deliberately bumped Jones with his shoulder and knocked him off his feet. The woman's screams intensified, and he pinned his ears at her. His father had taught him only a cowardly man would hurt a woman. But this woman had agreed to kill people because they were associated with his pack, to kill the children.

Still, Adam killed her quickly and as painlessly as he could. And when the silence of her death filled the room, his father's admonitions rang in his ears.

Jones made an incoherent noise and scrabbled with his gun, trying to get his shaking hands to work. Adam left the woman's body and grabbed the gun out of the human's hands and crushed it. He dropped it, now unusable, to the floor.

His jaws ached to finish Jones … but he'd promised Peter's killer to Honey, even if she hadn't been in a state to know it. Revenge was a dangerous thing, but a quick clean act sometimes allowed the victim closure. So he left Jones for Honey and went to deal with the only other Cantrip agent he'd left alive.

The door was solid wood and locked against him. Adam hit it with his shoulder and cracked the wood, breaking it free of its hinges. It hurt, and he stopped to tear it to bits. Only when the door lay in broken shards did he come back to himself.

The man was on the floor, blood pouring from a bullet wound – either Jones's gun had been a bigger caliber and gone through the door, or it had gone through the wall. His gun lay on the floor beside him, and his hand couldn't get a grip on it.

"Tiger, tiger burning bright," he stuttered, looking at Adam as he choked on his own blood. "In the forest … in the forest." He drew in a breath, looked Adam in the eye, and said again, quite clearly, "Forest." His body convulsed once more, then he lay still.

Did He who made the lamb make thee? Adam responded silently with the appropriate line. It was a question that he held dearly: Had God made werewolves? How could He have done so and still be benevolent?

Adam stared at the man until a stray sound reminded him that, William Blake's poetry aside, all of the Cantrip agents weren't dead yet.

He called out to his pack, summoning them to the last of the hunt. They came, stumbling and slow, and mostly in wolf form now. The change would help them fight off the effects of the drugs. Warren, Darryl, and a couple of others held on to their humanity. They stopped when they saw him waiting at the top of the stairs.

Warren's nostril's flared, and Darryl ran a hand over his mouth. Adam looked at Honey, and the golden wolf swayed a little. He caught her eye, then glanced behind him to send her hunting.

Only when her impassioned snarl behind him signaled that she'd found what he'd sent her after, did he step aside and motion the rest of the pack on by. When the last of them had passed him, he started his change back to human. There had been a landline in the planning office. His change was faster than usual – whether due to Mercy's meddling or the killing field he'd made of the ground floor of the winery, he didn't care to speculate.

The phone worked, which was nice, because otherwise he'd have had to use one of the Cantrip agents' phones, and with the taste of the hunt on his tongue, that would have been unwise.

He called Mercy first. He needed to hear her voice to remind him that he was not entirely a killer, not entirely a monster. But her cell rang three times. And then a recorded voice informed him that her line was unavailable. He fought down instinctive panic.

She was smart, she would have destroyed her phone to keep them from tracking her. If she were dead, he would know.

Human form or not, he was still too close to the monster who had ripped a door apart for being a door, and that monster needed to hear his mate. He took a deep breath and thought human thoughts for a few minutes.

Adam called Elizaveta and got one of her grandsons, though he could hear her cranky voice in the background.

"Who is calling at such an hour?"

As soon as her grandson told her, she took the phone from him. "Adamya," the old witch said. "We have been so worried."

"I need a cleanup," he told her abruptly, so weary he leaned against the wall. "This is a landline, can you trace it?"

"Da, this is not a problem. How many bodies?"

He couldn't remember. Hadn't kept count. He looked at his hands and realized that they were black with blood.

"That many," she said into his silence. "We will come and do what is necessary."

"It has to be done before dawn," he told her. "They are sending a helicopter at dawn."

"Then they will find nothing," she told him.

"We need transport, too," he said. "For thirty wolves."

"This we can also do," she promised him.

"And I need to know where Mercy is," he said.

"She is at Kyle and Warren's house," Elizaveta told him. "I thought you would ask, so I sent one of my grandsons to follow her."

"Good," he said. "Come as soon as you can."

"Yes," she told him – and hung up.

Elizaveta was nearly seventy; she was powerful, but her body was beginning to fail her. In the last two years, she'd lost both of the people she'd been training to take her place, the people who should have been helping her carry the burden of her work. Both of them were killed in incidents involving his wolves.

She might have taken it wrong, might have blamed his pack, except that she liked Adam. His mother had been Russian; her parents had fled Moscow when she was a child. She had spoken Russian as her first language, and Adam had learned it at her knee. When he'd first spoken to Elizaveta in Russian, she'd recognized the accent of Moscow, her hometown, and it had created a bond that he deliberately used. He was always very careful not to tell her that his mother had left fleeing the tide of revolution that had immolated Russia just after WWI.

He was at least as old as Elizaveta. She didn't know it, would never know it because Adam understood people. Oh, she knew in abstract, unlike the public, that werewolves could live a good long time, but she'd never made the connection to him. He knew that because if she ever processed what she knew, she would hunt him down and try to make him turn her.

He would kill her before he did that.

The vampires had a taboo about attempting to turn anyone who was not a normal human. It had happened. The local seethe had a witchblood – and a woman who had been brain-damaged while still human.

Adam knew of three werewolves who had been witchborn. They were the three most dangerous and powerful werewolves in the world, and he didn't think it was an accident. The idea of that much power in a woman so morally … ambivalent was disturbing.

The thought made him laugh. Here he stood dripping blood on Spanish tile, his naked body drenched with the blood of strangers, and he was judging other people's morality.

He could have let them all live, turned them over to the courts. But the courts had let a serial killer walk because his victims had been fae and werewolf.

Cantrip was a government agency – these people were not serial killers, and if he turned them over to the courts, only Peter's body and a kill list would stand as witness against them. Additionally, it would come out that they had a drug that worked on the wolves, a vulnerability that Bran had been trying to keep secret – and Adam agreed it was best not to advertise to everyone who might decide it was a good idea to rid the world of werewolves.

Probably the justice system would only slap the wrists of whoever was in command. He might even lose his job – to be hired immediately at ten times his salary by someone who supported his vision. Cantrip would hire another person with the same attitudes. The end result would be that the enemy prospered, and the wolves would lose a few more weapons in their struggle to survive.

But Adam could have done it anyway. Could have captured the enemy without killing anyone. He chose not to. And it wasn't because he was sure that the courts would not grant them justice; that was just an excuse, really. He clenched his bloody fist, then brought it up to his mouth and licked it.

They had attacked his people, and they had killed the one he most needed to protect. They threatened those under his protection, and for that, they could only die. The world needed to remember that it was a bad idea to attack a werewolf pack.

He picked up the phone again and dialed Hauptman Security.

"Gutstein." There were the sounds of a busy office behind him. It was very early in the morning, an odd time for busy.

"Jim." Adam closed his eyes.

"Adam. Sir. Good to hear from you." Behind him, the office noises ceased – and then someone cheered, followed by a whole lot of noise.

Jim Gutstein covered the speaker of the phone, but his whistle still made Adam jerk the phone away from his ear until it was over. When he put the phone back to his ear, Jim's voice was still muffled. "Can't hear a word he's saying. Shut up until we know what's going on."

Silence fell, and Jim said, "Sorry, sir. Brooks told us what he knew, and we've been worried."

It took Adam a half a second to connect "Brooks" to Warren's Kyle. He still wasn't at the top of his game. He needed food – and he refused to consider all the meat that was nearby.

"And shorthanded," said a whiny voice over Jim's line.

"Tell Evan – " Adam started, grateful for the routine that helped keep him human.

"There goes that promotion, Evan," said Jim. It was an old joke, and everyone laughed. In the noise, Jim said, "Are you okay, sir?"

"Never better," Adam said wryly, "considering the scope of the SNAFU. However, I have this situation under control. I need you to find out who is in charge of security for Senator Campbell and tell him that a group from Cantrip, at least one person in the military, and a money man in the private sector have it in for the senator and tried to arrange an assassination."

"The word is that they already know," Jim told him. "Mercy was pretty clear to the police."

"I'd rather know that they have that information for certain. You tell them that the people behind the attempt tried to blackmail me into doing it – and though that situation is under control, it is not certain that the senator is safe. I have taken a bite out of the Cantrip faction." He smiled – with teeth. "The military gentleman was probably aimed more at us than him – and that might be true of the money man as well, but they are still in play. They had alternate plans if they couldn't force me to act." The kill list hadn't been the only thing in their Ops room. Mostly just notes and scraps of paper, but he was good at connecting the dots. "Someone in their security team is prepared to assassinate him should I fail. I failed, and, hopefully, the money is gone, but I don't know if he or she has any way to know that."

"I'll find out who the senator's security detail is and tell them. I know someone who can talk to the senator directly. That will make the feds send someone official to talk to you."

"Tell them I won't talk officially." Jim had been with him nearly fifteen years. "There are bodies I won't claim, Jim, or lie about. My official story is that I woke up and the place they were holding us was on fire, so we escaped. Officially, I don't know anything except that they seemed to want me to assassinate the senator."

"Is it on fire?"

"Not yet," said Adam. The witch could do a lot with a body, but she wouldn't be able to erase the marks his claws had made in the tile or the doors he'd splintered. Fix the bodies and burn the house.

The blood was drying on his skin, and it itched. The smell was making his hunger worse. Time to finish this talk.

"Good," Jim said. "I want you to know that we are behind you, you and your wolves. We've got your back. And right now I've got all sorts of our most expensive equipment keeping watch on Kyle Brooks's house, and we have people following Mercy. We haven't been able to locate Jesse. Brooks told us Jesse was safe."

"Yes. Good. I'll stop in tomorrow, and we'll call a meeting to discuss how we should proceed."

"Do you want us to tell your wife that you're okay?" Jim asked.

Adam looked down at the dark stains on his hands. "No. I'll tell her when we're really out of here."

"All right. We'll keep her safe."

The pack had left the last kill finally and crowded into the previously adequately sized room as he hung up the phone.

Honey, nearly as blood-splattered as he was because her fur held on to it better than his skin did, came forward with her head and tail low. The closer she came, the faster she moved. When she reached him, she dropped to the ground and leaned against him hard enough that if he had not been braced for it, he would have staggered.

No, he thought as he bent down to rest his hand on the top of her head, and looking over his battered pack, he did not regret killing these people.

"Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forests of the night," he told them in a burst of exhaustion-driven fancifulness. "What immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"

Warren leaned against the doorway, and said, "We're not tigers, we're werewolves, boss. God didn't make us, nohow. Just ask the dead guys where we come from." Despite the drawl and deliberately poor grammar, the exhaustion and pain turning his skin haggard, his eyes were sharp.

Darryl made a noise that might have been a growl if Adam hadn't heard his second's real growls. Darryl reached over and gave Warren's hair a rough caress, an unusual sign of affection from the pack's second.

"Dead guys don't get an opinion," Darryl told everyone. "We're the good guys. That we're scary doesn't mean we're the villains."


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