Frost Burned (Mercy Thompson #7)

Chapter 8

chapter
Chapter

Dominant werewolves are control freaks and do not enjoy being passengers in cars. Asil was no exception. He put on his seat belt, closed his eyes, and sat tense and unhappy as I drove toward Kennewick.

We'd had a brief discussion about who would be driving, and he clearly felt my argument that I knew where I was going and he didn't was insufficient. He reluctantly agreed, however, that since Marsilia would hold me responsible for anything (more) that happened to her car, it was only fair that I drove. We couldn't take his rental because they came lo-jacked to the max, and I didn't want to lead anyone to Sylvia's home if I could help it.

"Don't worry," I told Asil cheerfully. "I already wrecked one car this week. I have no intention of wrecking another. Really."

He glowered at me – which was impressive since he didn't open his eyes.

The morning sky was dark and overcast, which actually doesn't happen all that often here. It wasn't much lighter than it had been last night. Rain started to splatter the windshield as I pulled onto the highway back to Kennewick. The car informed me that it was thirty-four degrees F outside.

About once a winter, we get a spate of freezing rain that is unholy scary to drive in. Rain turns to ice as it hits the road, and that turns the highways into frictionless surfaces that look no different than wet pavement – until suddenly steering and brakes quit working. I've seen semitrucks stopped at red lights start sliding without any impetus other than the weight of their load pushing eighteen wheels sideways across the road. Freezing rain makes auto-body men happy campers as they count the wrecks using all of their fingers and toes.

But at thirty-four degrees, we were safe enough, so I didn't have to worry about the rain.

"After you retrieve Adam's daughter, you really still intend to contact the vampires?" Asil asked when we were nearly at our destination.

"Can't do that until it gets dark," I told him, then took a good look at the sky. "Nighttime dark, not daybreak dark. I don't know what new delights this day will bring; however, if we all make it to this evening, then, yes, I do. Marsilia owes the pack. Much as she'd like to see me roast on a good hot fire for a long time, that's personal. Business is more important. Business means that she doesn't want to get on the bad side of the werewolves, especially right now. She's down four of her five most powerful vampires. Two of them betrayed her to a vampire trying to take over her seethe and were kicked out. Stefan left the seethe about the same time. The one powerful vampire left to her is mostly crazy as far as I can tell. She can't afford to offend us."

"What if the pack isn't a factor?" asked Asil, soft-voiced. "What if they're all dead? Does she hate you enough to go after them? She cut her teeth in Italy during the Renaissance; a little sleight of hand is not beyond her now."

"She knows about Bran, knows I was raised in his pack and that he is fond of me. If it turns out that she was involved, he'd wipe her seethe from the face of the earth, and she knows it. No." I thought about it. "No, it isn't her. There are too many downsides and no profit in it for her. She actually likes Adam, I think, and he's pretty easy for her to deal with. Straightforward. Another Alpha might not be so accommodating."

Though without Adam, would there be a pack here in the Tri-Cities? He'd been brought in to deal with a lone wolf who had decided to build a pack, then started killing humans. Adam had stayed because the backbone of his business was security contracts with government contractors, and the Tri-Cities was full of them.

That wouldn't benefit Marsilia either, though, because weakened as she was, she counted on Adam to keep the nastier unallied supernatural creatures under control and keep others from settling here at all.

"Ah," Asil said, as I pulled into the apartment complex. He opened his eyes as we slowed. "Disappointing. I had hoped the responsible party would be the vampires. I could kill vampires, I think, without losing control. If it is humans who are our enemies, I shall have to find another means of stopping them." He showed his teeth. "Age catches up with us all, and I enjoy the kill too much to be allowed it. If we are to be allies in truth, Mercedes, you should know my weaknesses before they become an issue."

Most of the werewolves who belong to the Marrok's pack are there because they can't function in a normal pack. Asil, it seemed, wasn't an exception.

"Okay," I said after discarding several versions of comments that mostly boiled down to "please, please don't kill anyone, then."

I drove past Sylvia's apartment, still thinking about the likelihood that Asil would be put in a position of killing someone. There were no empty spaces to park anywhere. I guess most people were still home at seven thirty in the morning on a Saturday with rain coming down in sheets more common on the other side of the state. Go figure.

I finally found a place next to the Dumpsters a few apartment blocks down. The little Corolla that had followed us from Kyle's house, presumably full of Hauptman Security personnel, had to keep going. I gave them a little wave as they went by.

I opened my door and got out – and something hit me in the back.

The weight dropped me flat on my face on the pavement. The suddenness of it held me still more than any hurt – though pain came right on the heels of the realization that someone had landed on me. I'd hit the ground limp, raising my head just a little to protect my face – years of karate benefiting me yet again. It set my knee and cheekbone off again. "Don't fight me," said the woman perched on my lower back. "I don't want to hurt you." She put something narrow and hard around my right wrist and reached for my left, braced for me to pull at the trapped hand.

Instead, I rolled sideways toward the hand she'd already gotten, one knee under me to add additional force. The move knocked her against Marsilia's new car with a thump that wasn't hard enough to do real damage. At least not to her. Even as the sound of her head on the oh-so-sleek side of the car chimed my if-I-live-through-this-I'm-dead meter and raised it a few notches, I changed. The odd little cuff that had been tight on my wrist dropped off my coyote paw, and I slid out from under the woman completely.

I also acquired an additional opponent – clothes. I slid out of Kyle's sweatpants when I slid out from under the woman. I leaped with my back feet and rolled in midair, pulling my head and front paws out of the sweatshirt and left it behind. My panties clung to my left foot and my tail, but the real trouble was my stupid bra.

I landed, took two more running leaps, and tumbled head over teakettle when my bra fouled my front legs – which meant that her first shot slid along my fur instead of wherever she'd meant the bullet to go.

I focused on her as I rolled on the ground maybe fifteen feet out, fighting the too-stretchy-to-break straps. Leaping away had been the wrong thing if she was shooting. At least if I was rolling around tangled in clothes on top of her, she couldn't aim.

I had a blink of time to see her rise to a shooter's crouch, a dark-skinned woman with white hair in a waist-length braid and a young face. She would have looked more at home in an anime convention than holding a big gun made bigger by the silencer on the barrel. "I didn't want to do it this way." She took aim at my wiggling body. "Dead doesn't pay as much."

And then something dark, shadow-quick, passed over the roof of the car and landed on her. I heard the snap of bone before my eyes registered that Asil crouched on top of her, his face eerily calm with eyes the color of citrines.

"Half-breed fae," he grunted, examining her face as I changed back to human. It wasn't an epithet, just an observation. "That gun has too much metal for a full-blooded fae to handle even with leather gloves."

I opened my mouth to argue with him instinctively – Zee had no trouble with metal – but the dead woman kept the words in my mouth. My head caught up with events and I realized that, although he seemed to be calm enough, his bright eyes said differently. I'd been raised among werewolves and I'd never seen anyone, not even Adam, who was pretty damn fast, move that quickly. Just a feeling of motion, then she was dead, and Asil was there.

I pulled the bra all the way off to give myself time to think – and the scary werewolf time to calm down. Realizing I was standing naked next to a very full parking lot that might soon be filling with people, I put the bra on correctly and pulled up the panties. The sweatshirt lay between Asil and me and I had to force myself to walk toward him and pick it up.

"She is also truly gone," he said impersonally. "Full-blooded fae are usually harder to kill than this." He patted down her body with a speed that indicated long familiarity with the process. His voice was a little darker than it had been before, a little more strongly accented.

"She didn't see you in the passenger seat," I said, glancing at the Mercedes. The windows were darkened beyond strictly legal limits, especially the glass on the back and side of the car. For Marsilia it was a safety measure – if she happened to be out too long, the sun would be kept at bay. For me it meant that the fae woman hadn't noticed that there were two of us in the car. The passenger door was opened where Asil had exited.

"Careless," Asil agreed, standing up and looking at me. I pulled the sweatshirt over my head and carefully didn't look up to his eye level as I pulled the shirt down.

There was subtle tension in his body to match the predator's gaze, and I thought of his warning not two minutes earlier. I wondered if killing a half-blood fae was close enough to human to be an issue. He seemed to be handling it okay so far – but with the wolves, that could change awfully fast. And that calm of his was ringing all sorts of bells in my hindbrain.

"We need to hide her before someone walks out to dump their garbage," I told him, approaching him and kneeling. It was a submissive posture – even if I did it to grab the sweatpants that lay at his feet.

He didn't say anything, just watched me. I didn't look up to see him doing it, but the back of my neck felt his eyes. The ground was really cold on my butt, and I pulled the pants on with more energy than usual. I'd kept one sock on – I try not to think about how ridiculous I must look in coyote form when I have to change without losing my clothes first, but I couldn't help but wince as I looked about for the other sock.

I didn't find the sock, but my shoes were next to the driver's side door of the Mercedes. The sight of the door put the search for my sock, the dead woman, and the werewolf who'd just killed her, momentarily right out of my mind.

"Damn, damn, damn," I said, putting my hand on the dented metal. When I'd knocked her into the car, the would-be assassin/kidnapper's head had left an impression in the driver's side door – cars aren't as tough as they used to be. My old Rabbit could have taken a blow twice that hard without even noticing it. I took another step closer, and my cold bare toes bumped into warm flesh.

I looked down and met a pair of eyes that had been dark before death fogged them over. The half-fae woman had been stunning, but now, her magic gone, she looked merely ordinary. I glanced at the werewolf who had taken himself away from the body and now stood with his back toward me, facing the nearest apartment building, an apartment building with lots and lots of windows.

"We've got to get the body out of sight," I said.

I had to pull the body out of the way to open the driver's side door and pop the trunk. Asil didn't move, and I didn't ask him to. He wasn't in the way of the door – and he was still scaring me.

She jerked a little when I moved her. I was a coyote, a predator – I've killed before. I knew it was only the air left in her lungs, knew that her floppy head meant a broken neck. But her abrupt motion made me jump and drop her anyway. At least I'd moved her far enough so that I could get into the car – and I hadn't squeaked.

Only when the door was open did it cross my mind that there was a button for the trunk on the key fob in the hip pocket of the sweats. Guys' sweatpants have neat things like pockets in them.

Asil hadn't helped me move the body the first time, but as soon as the trunk was open, he picked her up without my saying anything, grabbing the gun and the cuffs she'd used on me when he bent down. Body, gun, and cuffs gave him no trouble. She was locked safely out of sight in the trunk nearly as quickly as he'd taken her from alive to dead. He stared at the trunk for a moment and flexed his hands while I stared at him, hoping he wouldn't look back at me.

I've seen a lot of wolves in human form with those bright wolf eyes. A lot of them. And none of those eyes scared me as thoroughly as Asil's had. There was something else at home in Asil's head and it had enjoyed killing the woman and would have been happy to continue the little spree. Bran's son and chief assassin, Charles, scared me, but I was confident that if Charles wanted me dead, it would be quick and painless. Asil's beast enjoyed playing with his victims.

Oh, yes, it would not be a good thing if Asil had to kill again, but I was pretty sure it would take something bigger than me to keep it from happening. After Asil's little speech in the car, I would have thought he would have tried harder not to kill anyone all by himself.

I opened my mouth to say something, and the bland little Corolla rolled past us again; the driver waved and shrugged. No parking for Hauptman Security. If I waved and shouted, would they come running or just keep looking for an empty parking space?

Empty parking space.

She'd been waiting right here for us, I thought. Right next to the only parking place, which, conveniently, had a garbage container for her to lie on top of – she'd jumped on me from above. I wondered if she'd glamoured the spot so no one tried to park in it. I wondered if she'd known Tad was here. I wondered …

"What if she had a partner?" I asked, and started not quite running, but moving rather more briskly than a walk toward Sylvia's apartment without bothering to put on shoes. A case of frostbite I could deal with – not so much dead Sandoval girls. She'd been looking to take me alive, but hadn't hesitated to pull the gun. How did that play into our villains' plan? And if they were willing to kill me, what about Jesse? Had she already visited the Sandovals?

The only reason that I didn't flat-out sprint was Asil. If his wolf was that close to the surface, there was a chance he'd decide I was prey if I started running away.

"Why do you think there might be another one?" he asked, sounding entirely normal.

"Because so far these guys have worked in teams of more than one." But that wasn't it, not really. My instincts were chattering unhelpfully – conclusions without evidence.

He caught my not-quite lie. "The group that took Adam were human, yes? Fae and human do not work well together. Yet, you are sure she is involved."

I glanced at him. His eyes were dark again, and I was relieved.

"Mercedes? Why do you think she is part of the kidnapping plot and not of some other thing? Adam is Alpha, and you are his mate – that makes you targets for all sorts of people."

It struck me that Asil was perfectly okay with the fact that there might be two separate groups out to kill us. "I think," I said, "that adding another" – and remembered that he already thought there was more than one gun aimed at my pack even if they were all, mostly, working together – "adding yet another enemy who wants to kidnap or kill me to this soup pushes my belief in the ultimate fairness of the universe too far to one side. I just wish I knew how she knew we were coming here."

I looked up at the back windows of Sylvia's apartment. She was a smart woman who worked at a police station: her apartment was on the third floor. There was nothing to hint at a problem within. No bodies flying through the air, no broken glass, no little pink-clad Sandoval girl screaming as she ran from scary people with guns.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe my dead assailant had been on her own.

"Add to that," I continued almost absently because my instincts were screaming at me. Asil's eyes were still dark, so I risked breaking into a jog. "I haven't ticked off any of the fae lately. It's not the vampires in a separate attack. If Marsilia had decided to put me out of my misery today, she would have succeeded. I wish I knew how our dead fae knew to come here. Either they overheard Tad and me talking or they somehow knew to look here – " My voice trailed off because I realized how stupid I'd been.

Someone who didn't know the soap opera of my life from close up might not realize that Gabriel's mother and he were estranged. Sylvia's apartment would be the last place I'd have looked for the kids. But someone from the outside, someone who only knew that Gabriel had gone missing with Ben and Jesse and me, someone like that might very well check out his nearest relatives. I'd overestimated our enemies, and they'd found Jesse. That's what my instincts had been telling me.

"Mercy?" asked Asil, who had sped up to keep pace with me. His beautiful accent made him sound like someone's lover instead of a man who had killed a woman with as little thought as I gave to opening a jar of mayonnaise. Maybe less thought.

Not that he scared me anymore. Not now when I was pretty sure we were going to need him soon. "I – "

The back wall of Sylvia's apartment blew out, spitting stucco, plaster, glass, insulation, and a man's body down on the sidewalk below. Some of the debris must have bounced because nearby car alarms went off. The body rolled when it hit the ground, got up, ran back at the apartment building, and did a Jackie Chan up the side. I was really happy to see him moving because I'd recognized him on the way down.

"Tad!" I hadn't intended to yell or run, but I was doing both.

Asil paced me, but we split up as we reached the apartment building. He went in the same way Tad had and I, not blessed with supernatural strength, had to run up the stairs instead.

I ran up those steps as fast as I've ever run. The door opened, and Jesse and Gabriel spilled onto the stairs with various Sandovals clinging, pushing, and sobbing. I counted and came up one short – no Sylvia – even as I slid over the guardrail to stand on the outside of the bars on the edge of the stairs to let the youngsters by.

"Your mom?" I said, as they passed.

"At work," Gabriel said.

I tossed him the keys to Marsilia's car. "Take the car, it's over by the garbage bins three buildings that way." I pointed appropriately. "Get to Kyle's house but don't speed. You have a body in the trunk and no child car seats."

"Body?" said the oldest of Gabriel's sisters. If I weren't clinging to the stairway while there was a lot of noise coming from above where someone who might as well have been my little brother had gotten tossed through a wall just a few seconds ago, I could have remembered her name. Right now I could barely remember my own.

They were tough, those Sandoval kids. They'd be okay with a body in the trunk of the car.

"Bad guy," I said. "Tried to kill me and got taken out by my backup."

"Cool," said one of the littler ones – Sissy.

They hadn't paused in their downward trek, and once on solid ground, Gabriel rearranged everyone so the littles were carried. Jesse took advantage of the lull to mouth, "Dad?" at me.

"He's alive," I told her. "But that's all I know. Get out of here."

And then I rolled back over the railing and up the last set of stairs and headed into the apartment – only then remembering that I'd left my gun in Marsilia's car. I stripped out of my clothes and let my coyote out.

In the distance, I could hear sirens. The police department wasn't too far from here, and there was no way anyone could have ignored the noise coming from Sylvia's apartment.

As human, I stood no chance against something that could throw Tad through a wall. As a coyote, I was definitely outmatched – but I could be distracting, and I was just that much faster on four legs than on two. Fast enough to outrun most werewolves, anyway.

I skulked into the living room – the only room I'd been in before. On top of the scent of the Sandoval family I could smell werewolf, Tad, and … something fae. The fae smell mostly like the old philosopher's division of the world to me – earth, air, fire, water – with the addition of green growing things. Ariana smelled like forest, and so did this fae.

The noise was coming from a room farther into the apartment. Someone screamed, and I couldn't tell who it was. I set caution aside and bolted down the narrow hallway and into the master bedroom at the end.

The dead woman's partner was nightmare hideous. His head was misshapen and too large for his body. One large eye, emerald green and liquid, stared off to the side, while the other was only half as large and solid black. Two odd lumps that looked like nascent antlers emerged from his temples. His nose was two slits above a mouth too large for his face and filled with uneven, spade-shaped, yellow teeth. A black tongue flicked out and across his nose slits as he fought.

For all his horribleness, he wasn't more than four feet tall. His body was slender, almost delicate-looking, with wrists smaller than mine, in human shape. His outsized, four-fingered hands gripped a sword made of some sort of black metal that was nearly as tall as he.

Asil had a baseball bat and was using it like a katana – turn and turn and never let the bastard get a good hard strike on your weapon. The Japanese had had lousy steel and had learned to compensate. Tad had a pair of kitchen knives and was keeping the fae from getting into a good rhythm with them – unhappily, it was interfering with Asil, too.

The fae fought well. Like someone who had learned the sword when it was the weapon of choice.

Not all fae were long-lived. Some had lives comparable to insects' – a few seasons, then gone. Most of those, Zee had told me once when he was a little drunk, were gone in truth. Their more fragile lives incapable of dealing with the steel and concrete that was conquering the earth.

Others lived nearly human long – twenty years for some, a hundred and fifty for others. Originally only a small percentage of fae were nearly immortal. The rise of humans and technology had selected for those tougher fae, and they now accounted for a far higher percentage of the fae than they ever had before.

A human lifetime was long enough to become an expert swordsman – my own karate sensei was accounted quite good in various weapon forms, including the sword. But Asil was a famous swordsman with centuries of practice, and this fae was more than holding his own. He was old.

Tad wasn't doing badly – his father had taught him, he'd told me once. If Tad had had something bigger than kitchen knives, if he and Asil had fought together before, they could have worked together. As it was, they had difficulty staying out of each other's way.

I slunk down low and, keeping to the outside edge of the room, slowly moved closer to the fight. I slid under the bed. Under my bed, dust bunnies, underwear, and a random shoe or two were common residents, but Sylvia was more organized than I and all she had under her bed was one of those thin plastic containers full of wrapping paper. I crawled from the head to the foot of the bed and, with my nose under the bedspread, watched for a chance to be of use.

The fae, leaping back to avoid Asil's baseball bat, hit Sylvia's desk and rolled over it, sending monitor and keyboard crashing off the top, along with a small clay jar filled with writing implements. Several neat stacks of rubber-banded papers escaped the hit. The fae hissed and damn near levitated off the desk like a cat thrown in a swimming pool and all but crashed into Asil to get away.

In the Tri-Cities, whose population has largely been employed by the government in one way or another for more than half a century, there is an abundance of those old, clunky steel desks straight out of the 1950s. I've seen them at rummage sales and every other kind of sale – and once, memorably, a good friend went to a government sale and thought she was bidding on a pallet with two desks and a dozen broken chairs, but ended up with a row of pallets – nearly fifty desks, three hundred and fifteen broken office chairs, a nonfunctional electric pencil sharpener, and four boxes of pink erasers. My office chair at the garage was actually four of those chairs, all Frankensteined into one that worked.

These industrial-strength desks were painted various shades of gray and institutional green or yellow. Sylvia's desk was of the yellow variety and, like all of them, made of steel.

Which meant that unlike the dead woman, and despite the big sword he was waving around so skillfully, this fae could not bear the touch of cold iron – or steel.

Tad dropped his knives and lunged – but Asil had just pushed the fae directly in front of me, so I didn't wait to see why. I sprang out from my hiding place and buried my teeth in the fae's left calf.

I don't have jaws like a bulldog, but I locked my jaws as best I could anyway. Asil swore at me in Spanish – I knew it was me because he ended it with "Mercedes." I knew it was swearing because, even in lyrical – if to me mostly unfathomable – Spanish, swearing sounds like swearing.

Asil also struck the sword on an upswing to keep the fae from hitting me with the pommel. The sword, edge against the wood of Asil's weapon, sliced the bat in two, leaving Asil with eighteen inches of wood to fight the fae's magicked blade. It hadn't felt any different to my senses than any other sword until the edge touched wood – and then it tasted like Zee's magic.

The fae laughed as my weight caused him to stumble. He said something in Welsh that in less dire circumstances I might have been able to translate or at least guess at. He aimed the sharp end of his sword toward me as he caught his balance.

"Let go," yelled Tad – and the steel desk hit the fae with a boom that would have done credit to a cannon. Papers, bills, bits and pieces of computer parts, and office detritus flew out the previously made hole in the wall, along with the fae and me. Landing jolted me enough that I lost hold of his calf, only then realizing that Tad's "let go" had been aimed at me.

The desk landed right next to my head before rolling onto the fae, leaving me half-stunned on the grass.

The fae shrieked, a pain-filled, rage-filled sound that hit my ears like a blow. If I'd heard it from a mile away, I'd have known it didn't come from a human throat. I smelled burning flesh, and he lifted the desk off and tossed it into the road, where it bounced once and cartwheeled into a battered truck.

He started to reach past me for his sword, which lay a dozen feet from us where it had fallen, but someone else got there first. The fae hesitated for a bare moment, his eyes on the sword, but the sound of sirens up close and personal – or maybe it was the face of the man holding his sword – made him turn on his heels and run. Tad called insults from the open hole in the wall of Sylvia's bedroom.

The man who stood over me tossed the fae sword aside and dropped down to sit beside me. Gentle hands moved over me, but I couldn't focus, couldn't breathe – hoped so hard that it took longer to regain my ability to pump air into my lungs. As soon as I did, I shifted back to human and squirmed into his lap.

"Adam," I said, clutching him like a ninny while something tight in the middle of my chest softened. Tears slid down my cheeks. It would have been humiliating if he hadn't been clutching me back just as hard.

I wiped my eyes and pulled away to look at him. He was a little the worse for wear, his beard at the scratchy stage, and his eyes were … It had been bad. However he'd escaped, it had cost him.

He kissed me, and it was a hard, possessive kiss. He pulled back, and said, "So I went hunting you and got here just in time to see you flying out of a hole in the third story of an apartment attached to a man's leg."

There were burns on his lips, and I reached up to touch them.

"Silver," I said. It was important, because I didn't want to hurt Adam, but I lost track of what I was saying.

"Hey, you two lovebirds," said Tad dryly. "I couldn't help but notice that Mercy is buck naked and we have police arriving. So I fetched her clothes."

Adam looked up and smiled at Tad, but he spoke to me. "Better get dressed, Mercy. Tad's right."

I bounced out of his lap and grabbed the clothes from Tad and pulled them on with more speed than grace. Everything hurt and – I looked at Adam, who was rising to his feet – nothing hurt at all.

Tad strode over to the blade on the grass and looked at it assessingly. "Come here, then," he told it, and held his hand up. The sword flew into his grip, then … disappeared. He closed his hand over a small bit of metal and shoved it into his pocket.

"That will make it a little hard to explain the bat it cut into two, but it's too dangerous to allow it to get put into police custody," he told me. "Dangerous for the police."

My head felt fuzzy, but then I'd just been tossed out of a third-story window and discovered Adam was safe. And here. And that meant I didn't have to be in charge anymore.

With Adam here, I had no worries left at all. None. Something happened, some magic that smelled like fae had just been waiting for that moment, but I was too happy to worry about that, either.

I tied the drawstring at my waist, and asked Tad, "Your father made that sword, didn't he? Out of something that isn't iron or steel so that the fae could use it."

Tad nodded, looking at me closely. "I think there were five of these swords, each a little bit different from the other. Dad has one. All of them are bad news. If someone's not using them to slaughter a crowd of people, then some damned Gray Lord is blathering about how such a fae treasure needs to be protected. The Gray Lords are amassing fae artifacts like dragons amassing gold. And if this is too dangerous for the police, it's way too dangerous to be putting it into the hands of the Gray Lords. I'll give this one to my dad, and he can worry about dealing with it." He looked at me carefully and tilted his head. "Touch your nose, Mercy."

I put my hand on my nose, but it felt like my nose. If there was some smudge or something, I couldn't tell.

He looked at Adam and started to say something, but a police car stopped next to the desk in the road, lights flashing but siren thankfully silent. As if it was the signal everyone was waiting for, people started boiling out of their apartments. Two more police cars followed, and the middle one disgorged Sylvia. Tony got out of the driver's seat and followed her.

"Gabriel and the kids are okay," I yelled over the sounds of people talking and exclaiming over the damaged building. "I sent them to Kyle's."

Sylvia stopped and closed her eyes, crossed herself sincerely if briefly. She strode over to us, Tony in her wake. She looked up at the hole in the wall of her apartment.

"Tad stopped them," I told her. "And Gabriel made sure all the kids got out safely."

"Who did this?" asked Tony carefully; he was looking at the hole in the wall, too.

Tad made a noise, and Adam moved behind me and wrapped his arms around my shoulders. I leaned my chin on his forearms, content in his hold. "They were professionals. Mercenaries." There had been no fire in the woman who attacked me. No anger. No sorrow. This had been a job and nothing more.

"I know who this one was," said Tad unexpectedly. "Not that it'll help us any. Hey, Tony. Long time no see."

"Good to see you, chico," Tony told him. "What happened?"

"Mercy stowed Jesse and Gabriel – you know Gabriel, right?"

Tony looked at Sylvia and nodded. "I introduced Gabriel to Mercy in the first place."

"Don't think I haven't forgotten that," said Sylvia, and he winced a little, looked at me, and winced again.

Sylvia gave me a look that would have sent vampires running for cover – she was rather pointedly ignoring Adam. "You are sure that the children are safe?"

"I sent them to Kyle's house," I told her. But she didn't know Kyle. "He's the boyfriend of one of the wolves, a lawyer. He's got security people guarding his house, so the kids will be safe there. I'm sorry, Sylvia. If I had thought that they would know to look here, I never would have brought Jesse."

"You also sent this one." She tipped her head toward Tad. "Though he looked like a boy no older than Gabriel."

"I'm tough," Tad said soulfully, looking more puppylike and not very tough at all.

I couldn't tell what Sylvia was thinking, but she bent down and started collecting the paper that littered the ground.

"Right," said Tad breezily, to Tony. "So Mercy left Jesse and Gabriel with Sylvia, thinking they would be safe here from whoever was trying to grab them. But she was worried about them, and asked me to keep an eye out."

I saw comprehension dawn on Tony's face. "You're Zee's son," he said. "I keep forgetting that makes you half-fae." It was easy to forget. Tad looked human, just like the purebloods do most of the time. I never have known whether Tad's appearance is a glamour like the one his father wears or if he really does just look human. Half fae, I am told, can go either way – and some of the half fae who don't look human also don't have enough magic to hide what they are. A lot of those don't make it to adulthood. The fae are a very, very practical race as a whole.

Tad nodded at Tony. "Mercy knew I have enough oomph to cause a big ruckus if someone came calling. And someone did." He looked up at the apartment ruefully. "If we can't catch the bastards who did this, I suppose I'll have to pay to get it fixed."

"Not your debt," said Adam. His voice was different, darker and harsher than usual, but he was so warm against my back. "We will take care of the expense of fixing your apartment, Sylvia."

I waited for her to explode, and I couldn't blame her. No one looking at the wall that lay mostly on the postage-stamp lawn next to the apartment would think that her children had been safe.

"It was my fault," I told her. "These guys knew the identities of all the pack members, even the ones they shouldn't have. I assumed that they would also know that you and Gabriel hadn't been talking. But I think they just hunted down Gabriel's nearest relative."

Sylvia stood up, tapped the handful of bills she'd gathered on her leg, and looked at the hole in her apartment. Then she looked at me. "No," she said slowly. "It isn't your fault. It is the fault of the people who came into my home intending to harm innocents."

"You are right," Adam told her, but then added with Alpha firmness, "But the pack will still pay for the damages. They were hunting my daughter."

She frowned at him but couldn't look at his face for too long. "All right," she said, her voice a little softer than it had been.

She looked at Tad. "You are a good young man – and, it seems, just as tough as you told me you were. Thank you for the care you took of my children."

"Hey, Sylvia," a young man wearing a WSU shirt called out. "You need some help? Me and Tom can get your desk back up to your apartment and maybe some of these looky-loos can pick up the mess." He tugged the braid of a cute girl a few years his junior, who was standing next to him.

"Stop it," she said, batting his hand away. "Yeah, sure, Ms. Sandoval. We can do cleanup."

An anxious middle-aged woman with a clipboard ran out to join the festivities.

"I'm Sally Osterberg," she said to one of the officers who was taking down notes. "I'm the apartment manager. Can you tell me what happened?"

"We're just getting to that, Sally," said Sylvia, still unnaturally calm – maybe it was that she had all that training for working dispatch, or maybe it was just being a single parent to a herd of kids whose ages spanned the school system.

"Do you prefer to do the repairs yourself and submit a bill, or would you rather we hire contractors to fix it?" asked Adam.

Sally turned to him and paused before her face lit up. "Adam Hauptman? You are Adam Hauptman? Oh my goodness. I thought … I saw in the news that you had been kidnapped by some kind of paramilitary group? Did you have to fight your way out? Are they – " She stopped, and not because she'd run out of words.

I tipped my head so that I could see Adam's smile as he told her, "I am. I did – and this seems to be connected to whoever has it in for my pack and me."

"This is so exciting," she said. "Wait until I tell my sister we had a werewolf crash through a wall – and not just any werewolf, either." She caught herself and blushed bright red. "I sound like a dork."

"No," Adam said, not bothering to correct her misapprehension about who had done most of the destruction. "You don't. You sound like anyone would when caught up in Twilight Zone events. Can you get someone to board that hole up so Ms. Sandoval's possessions don't suffer from the weather?"

"Oh yes," she promised, "right away."

"Thank you."

He gave her another smile, which she returned until her eyes met mine. She cleared her throat. "I'll just go do that."

Tony looked at her trotting off, then looked at Adam. "Next time we have a domestic disturbance, I am taking you with me."

Adam smiled, and I could see how tired he was. "That only works sometimes – on violent men I often have the opposite effect. Unless you want bodies on the ground, you'll want to leave me home."

"So," said an officer standing beside Tony, "is there someone here who wants to tell us what happened? Without bodies or injured, we're not in emergency status, but the lieutenant does like us to get enough for an accurate report."

I opened my mouth, but Tad gave me another of those sharp looks he'd been sending me. He turned to face the policeman who'd asked, and at the same time put his body between me and the officer as his best "aw shucks" smile lit his face. "I'd spent most of the last day sitting on that fence." He nodded toward the eight-foot concrete block fence that encircled the apartment complex. Then he saw the cop's face. "I know, right? You're wondering why I pulled guard duty when I look like the before picture on a gym advertisement. My dad is fae, though, and I'm stronger than I look. Anyway, Jesse was making – "

"Jesse?"

"Adam's daughter, the one we were trying to keep safe from the bad guys," said Tad, moving behind the officer so he could see his notes. "She spells it J-E?S-S?E. And I'm Tad – like 'tadpole' – short for Thaddeus, but don't go there, and my last name is Adelbertsmiter." He spelled that for him, too. Twice.

The officer turned to force Tad to give him some space, but Tad just followed him around.

"Thank you," the officer said firmly. "What happened to the wall?" He looked at me, but Tad answered that, too.

"I was eating Jesse's brownies when someone rang the doorbell. I sent Jesse, Gabriel, and the kids into one of the bedrooms and went to answer the door."

"So you let him in?"

"Do I look like I'm five?" asked Tad indignantly. "No. I asked who it was and he said he was UPS and had a package for us. I told him to leave it on the porch 'cause I was naked, just out of the shower."

"I thought you were eating brownies," said the officer, who seemed to have resigned himself to having Tad hanging over his shoulder.

"I was." Tad shook his head. "I lied to the guy. I was there to keep the kids safe, no way was I opening the door to some stranger. There are things out there who can take it for an invitation – and you don't invite evil into your home."

"No," said the officer faintly, "I can see that you wouldn't."

Tony rubbed his mouth to hide a smile. Tony had seen Tad in full-blown Look-At-Me mode before. It wasn't that Tad was lying to the police officer, but, like a good stage magician, he'd keep the police looking where he wanted them to look. I didn't know what Tad was trying to cover up, but with Adam here and safe, I didn't really care.

"I thought you fae couldn't lie?" said one of the kids who was supposed to be cleaning Sylvia's stuff off the ground.

Tad nodded at him. "Yeah, that's only the true fae and some of the halfies. All that kind of stuff doesn't apply to me. 'Cause I lie and" – he spread his arms to invite everyone to admire – "I'm still here."

Behind me, Adam laughed quietly.

"Anyway," continued Tad, now talking to the crowd instead of the police, "the supposed UPS guy, he said he needed a signature. I told him to leave a form and we'd pick the package up at the UPS office – and that's when he unlocked the door with some kind of picklock or magic, I wasn't paying attention because he tried to hit me with a stun gun. When that didn't work, he drew a freaking sword and tried to take off my head."

"A sword?" said the officer, who was starting to look as though he was having trouble keeping up.

Tad nodded. "I know, right? Weirded me out, too. I guess he was pretty old, 'cause he knew what he was doing with that thing. I took two years of aikido at school, and he made a monkey out of me." I wondered if anyone would notice that although Tad was pretty banged up, there were no sword cuts. "I drew him back farther into the apartment to give the kids a chance to escape. Sometime in there, he tossed me through the wall."

All the people who were cleaning up the mess near him and the policemen and policewoman who were listening to his story looked at Tad – because he didn't look like he'd been tossed through a wall. Tad wasn't good-looking, his ears were too big and they stuck out and his nose was flattened as if he'd gone three rounds with George Foreman, but when he wanted people to watch him, they did. It wasn't magic; it was force of personality.

"Half fae," he told them again. "Sometimes it helps." He looked up at the hole, too, and shook his head and winced. "Doesn't mean it didn't hurt. I ran back up and kept him occupied while the kids escaped. I tossed the desk at him, knocked him out the same hole he'd knocked me through, and by then you guys were pretty close. He picked himself up and ran."

Apparently we weren't going to talk about Asil. I glanced around, but didn't see Bran's wolf anywhere. Maybe Asil was responsible for Tad's look-at-me-not-at-what-I'm-hiding performance.

"Adam, what can you tell me about your kidnapping?" Tony wasn't as caught up in Tad's performance as the other cops were.

Adam gave him a tired smile. "I'm going to get some rest. I'll have my lawyer get in touch with you, and I'll give a full statement tomorrow. Okay?"

Tony gave him a reluctant nod. "Fine. Get in touch before ten tomorrow or I'll give you a call. Mercy, your turn."

I thought about the body in the back of Marsilia's car and tried to decide where to start.

"She didn't see much," Tad said, and this time I could feel his magic push past me, focusing Tony's attention on him. "How about she takes Adam home, and they both talk to you tomorrow. I know who this guy was because he's a spriggand – that's a kind of fae and fairly rare, thankfully, because they are nasty, bitter mischief-makers one and all. This one is a pureblood, and that makes him a renegade because he's not holed up in the reservations with the rest of the fae. There's only one renegade spriggand. He goes by the name of Sliver and usually hangs out with a half-fae woman called Spice. They hire out as muscle or assassins. I didn't see any woman, but she might have been keeping watch."

Spice must be the dead woman in the trunk of Marsilia's car. It would have been a good time for me to tell the police about her – her death was self-defense. If I told them right now, it would look better than if they found out about it later. But I was content just resting against Adam and couldn't find the impetus to say anything.

Tony frowned at Tad. "And why do you know the names of assassins for hire?"

Tad's brilliant facade soured. "Because even though they don't care a fig for the half-bloods, the pure-blooded fae send us lists of fae who did not answer the Gray Lords' call. We, the rejected, are to watch out for these fae and turn in any purebloods we see."

Tony nodded slowly. "I see. And if you don't turn them in?"

Tad's smile left entirely, and he looked very adult. "Nothing good. The Gray Lords don't have much use for half-bloods."

Tony blinked a couple of times and bit back whatever homily had come to him. Finally, he looked around at the destruction that was getting cleaned up. It was a crime scene, so probably no one should be cleaning yet – but it was also Sylvia's private papers flying in the wind.

"No bodies on the ground," said the officer Tad had cornered. "No one bleeding. No lawsuit because Mr. Hauptman is paying the damages – though we'll need to do a report just in case. We can let them clean up, Tony." He looked at Adam. "Mr. Hauptman is coming in tomorrow to make a statement about his kidnapping. That works for me – Tony?"

Tony frowned at me, and Tad's magic lit up again. Finally, Tony said, "Okay." He looked at Sylvia, and his face softened. "Why don't you give your keys to one of your neighbors so they can lock up after they're done cleaning the mess? I'll take you to Kyle's house, so you can look in on the kids."


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