I reached into the glove compartment and got out a Sharpie. Taking advantage of the situation didn’t sound bad at all.
An hour later Raphael stretched and opened his eyes. His lips stretched in an easy smile. “Hey. Now that’s a beautiful sight to wake up to.”
I leveled my SIG-Sauer at him. “Tell me why the nice puppy was chasing you.”
He wrinkled his nose and touched his mouth. “Is there something on my lips?”
Yes, there is. “Raphael, concentrate! I know it’s hard for you but do try to stay on target. Explain the dog.”
He licked his lips and my thoughts went south. Andrea, concentrate! Try to stay on target.
Raphael remembered to look cool and leaned back, presenting me with the view of a spectacular chest. “It’s complicated.”
“Try me. First, what are you even doing here? Aren’t you supposed to dragging around giant rocks right now?” About six weeks ago, the lot of us had entered the Midnight Games, an illegal, to-the-death fighting tournament. We did it to prevent a war against the Pack. Both the Order and Curran, the Beast Lord, took a rather dim view of this occurrence. As a result, Kate was on medical leave, and the Beast Lord, who had actually ended up participating in the tournament with us, had sentenced himself and the rest of the involved shapeshifters to several weeks of hard labor building an addition to the Pack’s citadel.
“Curran released me due to family hardship,” Raphael said.
Not good. “What happened?”
“My mother’s mate died.”
My heart jumped. Aunt B was . . . she was kind. She saved my life once and she kept my secret to herself. I owed her everything. And even if I hadn’t, I felt nothing but respect for her. Among boudas, as in nature among hyenas, the females ruled. They were more aggressive, more cruel, and more alpha. Aunt B was all that, but she was also fair and smart and she didn’t tolerate any nonsense. When you’re the alpha of a bouda clan, you have a lot of nonsense thrown at you.
Had I grown up under Aunt B instead of the bitches who ruled my childhood, perhaps I wouldn’t be so messed up.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you,” Raphael said and looked away.
“How is she holding up?”
“Not that well. He was a very nice man. I liked him.”
“Heart attack. It was quick.”
Shapeshifters almost never died of heart complications. “He was a human?”
Raphael nodded. “They’ve been together for almost ten years. She met him shortly after my father died. The service was set for Friday. Someone stole his body from the funeral home.” A low growl laced his words. “My mother didn’t get to say good-bye. She didn’t get to bury him.”
Oh God. I gritted my teeth. “Who took the body?”
Raphael’s face turned grim. “I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”
“I want in on it. I owe your mother.” Aunt B had a right to bury her mate. Or bury the thing that took her mate’s body. Either way worked for me.
He grimaced. “Did you smell matches?”
I nodded. “It’s the dog.”
“Yeah. I picked up this scent at the funeral home and trailed it here. There was something else under it, but the dog stink is so damn acrid, it drowns everything else.” Raphael gave me a hard look.
I motioned with my fingers. “Give.”
“I thought I smelled a vampire.”
A giant three-headed dog was bad news. A vampire was much, much worse. The Immortuus pathogen, the bacterial disease responsible for vampirism, killed its victim. Vampires had no ego, no self-awareness, no ability to reason. They had the mental capacity of a cockroach. Ruled by insatiable bloodlust, they killed anything that bled. If left to their own devices, they’d wipe out life on Earth and then cannibalize themselves. But their empty minds made a perfect vehicle for the will of a navigator, a necromancer, who piloted a vampire like a marionette, seeing through its eyes and hearing through its ears. Necromancers came in several varieties, the most adept of which were called Masters of the Dead. A vampire piloted by a Master of the Dead could destroy a platoon of trained military personnel in seconds.
And 99 percent of the Masters of the Dead were members of the People. The People were bad, bad news. Set up as a corporation, they were organized, wealthy, and expert in all things necromantic. And very powerful.
“Do you think the People stole the body?”
“I don’t know.” Raphael shrugged. “I thought I’d throw it out there, before you jump in with both feet.”
“I don’t care. Do you care?”
“Fuck no.” Raphael’s eyes glinted, making him look a bit deranged.
“Then we’re in agreement.”
We nodded to each other.
“So you tracked the sulfur scent here, then what?” I asked.
“I ran into Fido. He chased me into a crevice. I sat there for about an hour or so, and then he wandered off and I ran the other way. Apparently, he didn’t wander off far enough. What kind of creature is Fido, incidentally?”
“I have no idea.”
All of my training had been in contemporary applications of magic. I could recite the vampiric biocycle off the top of my head, I could diagnose loupism in early stages, I could correctly identify the type of pyromagic used from burn pattern, but give me an odd creature and I drew a complete blank.
“Who would know?” Raphael asked.
We looked at each other and said in unison, “Kate.”
Kate had a mind like a steel trap, and she pulled absurdly obscure mythological trivia out of her hair. If she didn’t know something, she would know who would.
I pulled a cell phone out of the glove compartment. There was only one functioning cellular network. It belonged to the military and as a knight of the Order and an officer of peace, I had access.
I stared at the phone.
“Forgot the number?” Raphael asked.
“No. Thinking how to phrase this. If I say the wrong thing, she’ll be dashing down to the ley line in minutes.” Kate had never met a person she didn’t want to protect, preferably by hacking at the hostile parties with her sword. But Kate was also human and needed the rest.
Raphael gave me a dazzling smile. My heart skipped a beat. “Could it be that you want some alone time with me?”
I dropped the safety off my gun.
He raised his hands palms out, still grinning like an idiot.
I put the safety back on and dialed the number.
“Kate Daniels.” My best friend’s voice filled my ear.
“Hey, it’s me. How’s your stomach?”
“Stopped hurting. What’s up?”
“I need to ID a twenty-foot-tall three-headed dog with blood-red fur and burning spit.” That’s right, routine, casual, business as usual, I encounter giant three-headed dogs every day . . .
A small silence filled the phone.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Everything is fine,” I assured her, smiling brightly at the phone, as if she could see me. “Just need an ID.”
“Does the tail look like a snake?”
I considered the long, whip-thin tail with a barb on the end. “Sort of.”
“Are you in the office?”
“No, I’m in our Jeep, out in the field.”
“Look under the passenger seat in a black plastic bin. There should be a book.”
Raphael hopped out, dug under the seat, and pulled out a dog-eared copy of The Almanac of Mystical Creatures.
“Got it,” I said into the phone.
Raphael flipped the book open and held it up. On the left page a lithograph showed a three-headed dog with a serpent for a tail. The caption under the picture said CERBERUS.
“Is that your dog?” Kate asked.
“Could be. How the heck did you know the exact page?”
“I have perfect memory!”
She sighed into the phone. “I spilled coffee on that page and had to leave the book open to dry it out. It always opens to that entry now.”
I examined the dog. “It definitely looks similar. Ours was bigger.”
“Ours? Who is there with you?”
Kate’s voice snapped. “I’ll be in Atlanta in three hours. Where are you?”
“I said it’s nothing major.”
“Bullshit. You wouldn’t work with Raphael unless the Apocalypse was imminent and that was the only way to prevent it.”
Raphael put his hands over his face and shook, making choking sounds that suspiciously resembled laughter.
“Hardy har har,” I growled. “We’re completely fine on our own, thank you very much. If you want to help, tell me more about Cerberus.”
“He belongs to Hades, god of the Greek underworld, where souls spend their afterlife. His primary function is to guard the front entrance. Also Hades occasionally sends him on an errand, according to myths. He’s supposed to hate sunlight.”
“This one had no trouble with the sun. Can you think of any possible reason he would manifest?”
“Well, a defilement of Hades’ shrine might do it. But Hades didn’t exactly have shrines. The ancient Greeks were scared to death of him. They averted their faces when sacrificing to Hades. They refused to even say his name. So I’m not sure.”
“You sure you don’t need me to come?”
“Call me if anything.”
I hung up and looked at Raphael. “Your mother’s mate, what was his name?”
“Was he a Greek pagan?”
A frown twisted Raphael’s face. “I have no idea. It didn’t come up. We had a careful relationship. He didn’t try to be my dad and I didn’t try to be his son. We met at holiday dinners and talked about sports mostly. It was a safe topic. What are you thinking?”READ MORE >>