POV for Panties part 1
It took a moment to realize that I was awake and that the phone ringing was not just in my dream. It was a good dream. Kate and I were moving to the bed after the naked dinner. The phone kept ringing. Okay, this better be good. Since tech was up, I figured it could not be anything too dire.
I rolled over, picked it up and growled into the receiver. “What?”
“You up?” Jim asked.
“I’m talking to you.”
“Don’t mean you’re up. Means you’re awake, maybe.”
“Jim, if you don’t tell me what you want, I’ll find you and shake it out of you.”
“No time for games, grumpy. You got a brunch with B.”
“You tell me this now?” Nothing good ever came from meeting with the head of the Hyenas. She seemed to take great delight in making my life difficult.
“I’m telling you now, like I told you before.”
“I don’t remember, do I have to go?”
“You only remember what you want to remember, and yes, you do.”
“Why and what does she want? I have plans for today.”
“Because you said you would and I wouldn’t know why she wants to see you.”
Bullshit. “Yes, you do. You’ve got your fingers in everybody’s pies.”
“Thanks, I think. Anyway, Bea is, as usual, playing things close to the chest, so your guess is as good as mine.”
Usually Jim knew about things before they had a chance to happen. But B was a special case. She didn’t like or trust cats. Really, the boudas didn’t much like anybody.
“Whatever the hell it is, it better not involve bribing law enforcement, or public orgies, or requests for additional funds. It’s like the Warren Zevon song: every time she wants to see me, it ends up being ‘send lawyers, guns, and money’.”
“How is it you can remember old song lyrics, but I gotta remind you of significant shit all the time?”
“It gives you something to do and makes you feel important. How long and where?”
“One hour, Dillard house. I let you sleep in but you won’t have much time to do your hair.”
“Shut up, Jim. You wanna lift weights and spar a little later?”
“Maybe, but do you really want to be tired and beat up for your big panty party?”
“At least I get to see panties. How are you doing in the romance department?”
He didn’t say anything.
“You know if you keep blowing Dali off, she’s going put some sort of Asian voodoo love spell on you.”
Jim’s tone changed abruptly. “My lord, a car will be ready in half an hour.”
The disconnect signal beeped in my ear.
So Dali must be a sore subject or maybe he just did not like me knowing one of his secrets. Served him right. He was far too keen on my love life and needed one of his own. I knew he liked her. I could tell from the way he spoke to her, looked at her when he thought know one was watching, and most of all covered for her after the upteenith expensive car crash. Any other cat, male or female, would have had their arms and legs broken the next time they disobeyed him. Jim did not enjoy violence, though as Alpha of Clan Cat, he was willing to use it as a tool. Pain is an excellent teacher. Besides, we heal fast. What took humans weeks, we could heal in days or even hours.
A quick shower, shave and brushing of the fangs and I was ready and headed downstairs. Derek, my werewolf bodyguard and driver, was waiting behind the wheel of a Pack jeep.
“My Lord,” he intoned with a nod.
“Knock it off. ” He was a good kid but often went overboard with the formality.
“As you wish.” Again the almost bow.
“Derek…” I began. He grinned and held up his hands as if to ward off imaginary blows.
“Ok, Curran. Can I ask about why you’re meeting with the boudas?”
He managed to put a little disdain into the word. Like most wolves, Derek considered the hyenas to be little more than dangerous degenerates. Emphasis on the dangerous. While their sexual appetites were legend, they were also ruthless and deadly fighters. Their numbers compared to other clans were small, but if you fought one bouda, you better be ready to fight them all. To the death, that’s how they rolled.
“Are you worried that there will be trouble?”
He smiled a little, “With them it’s always trouble, but I was wondering if we’re going to have to fight.”
He was right to be uneasy. . Jim had trained him to be cautious.
“Maybe but don’t do anything until I say.”
“Of course, but, if they start shit and there were more than four or five of them, including Ms. Bea, I might not be able to protect you.”
Derek worked in my personal guard now and took his job seriously. It was good for him. It would teach him to be observant and to anticipate possible threats. “I appreciate the honesty, but as good as you are, Bea is better. If that shoe drops, you leave her to me and try fight your way out and get help. It’s unlikely, but just in case Bea’s teeth and ambitions are bared, be prepared.” He missed the reference and I sighed. Kids. “Derek, stick with me and you’ll never go hungry again.”
He didn’t get that one either.
In less than twenty minutes we were pulling up to the long winding blacktop drive leading to a large stone building at the top of the hill. It was one story and predated the Shift by several decades at least. It was family style dining and while not fancy, the food was good, they served meat, and you got a lot of it. That’s five stars for shapeshifters.
B and her party, three females and her son, Raphael, were waiting outside. Nobody sat or ate before the king, thus far they had offered no insults. So far so good.
B gave me a big sweet smile. She would smile just like that before stabbing someone in the back with her claws. Raphael nodded at me. B ran the clan, but her son was the male alpha. We didn’t exactly see eye to eye. Usually Raphael avoided meetings. Why was he here?
“Clan Bouda greets the Beast Lord and thanks him for joining us for a meal.” B and her son inclined their heads briefly. The others held their heads down, eyes fixed on the ground.
Yeah, right. “Please B, it’s too early for such formality. Good to see you, Raphael. I didn’t think you liked this place, not quite your style.”
B’s little prince favored fancier fair, with more flash and beautiful people making sure they were seen. The scion of clan bouda was five inches taller than me and fifty pounds lighter. Where I went for bulk and explosive power, he was lithe and quick, built for speed and deadly with a blade. If it got ugly, he would go through Derek in mere moments and I would then be hard pressed to handle him and his mother. If there are enough hyenas, they can take down a lion. Well, maybe not this lion but most others.
Raphael kept his face neutral. “Mother likes it and it does have a certain rustic charm.”
“Indeed, Bea, it’s such a lovely day, why don’t we dine on the patio?” It would give me room to move if they were planning on starting anything.
B gave me another sweet smile. “An excellent suggestion. It’s been reserved for us.”
We went inside and were led through to the rear and a large covered porch. A long picnic type table had already been set, complete with a red and white checkered table cloth. Two buffet tables sat a short distance away, one with large stainless steel pans loaded with bacon, scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes and my favorite, French toast, the other with an assortment of sliced and chilled fruit. Umm, maybe later, after I had a few passes at the meat.
I didn’t know what they were up to but they had laid out a great spread and I was never one to turn down a free meal. Of course with Bea, nothing was free. They wanted something and they were very careful to feed me before they asked for it. Whatever it was, I wouldn’t like it.
Everybody got plates and sat down to eat. That’s one of the things that make us different from humans – when we sit down to eat, we eat. There is not a lot of small talk or playful banter. We focus almost entirely on the food. From the outside it probably seems strange, but we all take it for granted. It’s actually considered rude to try and carry on a conversation with one of us while we’re eating.
After everyone had consumed several large platefuls, it was time to get down to business.
“Thanks for the food, B, now what can I do for you and your son?”
“You’re quite welcome, and what I would like is a favor, an indulgence if you will, not just as fellow alpha but as a mother.”
Uh oh. I turned to look at Raphael. What had the little prince stuck his dick into this time?
“You know of course of Andrea Nash, the beastkin knight.”
Damn it all to hell. I knew that was going to bite me in the ass. No good deed goes unpunished. Nash was a knight in the Order of Merciful Aid, a group of pro-human zealots with whom we had an uneasy truce at best. They were not officially law enforcement but they were well trained and funded. They saw themselves as humanity’s last great hope against monsters, against us. So far we had coexisted in a state of mutual distrust but some day push would come to shove and they would come to the Keep with swords and burning torches.
As if that were not enough, Andrea was also beastkin, the extremely rare result of a successful mating between a human who turns into an animal and an animal who turns into a human. Most animal-weres possessed below human intelligence. Few are capable of speech. Some packs kept them as pets, some murdered them.
Normally any child resulting from such a pairing is considered an abomination. Pack law demands they be killed at birth. Somehow Andrea had survived and as teen had passed herself off as human enough to enroll in and then graduate with honors from the Order’s Academy. Not sure how she had managed it, but it couldn’t have been easy. What I did know of her came from Kate and she’d hinted that there was a lot of abuse in Andrea’s past. I didn’t doubt it. We had a saying: a pack’s only as good as the alpha and the alpha is only as good as the pack. Some of the smaller packs outside our territory let themselves be run by sadistic assholes.
I had to give it to the Order – they trained their people well. Andrea had fought with us in the Midnight Games and she was damn good with ranged weapons; maybe as good as Kate was with her sword. Andrea was also a potential problem. She was an unaffiliated shapeshifter in my territory, which was against the Pack law. She had to report to the Pack and asked to be admitted in the ranks, leave, or ask for a special dispensation, none of which she had done. Her only saving grace was that her shapeshifter status was secret.
I leaned back. “Andrea Nash is a knight of the Order. How does she concern us, or you?”
“I love her,” Raphael responded before B could say anything.
“Really?” I could not hide my surprise. He’s had a string of lovers but I’d never heard him say that about any of them.
“Does she know?”
“Yes. She and I are dating.”
That’s just great. My life had been far too easy lately, and they decided to complicate it. “Good for you. I’m still not hearing an answer to my question, so I will ask again. What do you want from me?”
B folded her hands on her lap. “We understand that Andrea presents a problem. What we would like, what we humbly request, my Lord, is that you do nothing. We simply ask that you overlook this matter and allow us time to resolve it in a manner that will be mutually beneficial.”
“I have been very patient up to this point. I have allowed an unaffiliated shapeshifter, a beastkin even, to live within the Pack’s territory. Do you know why?”
I paused in case they wanted to say something. They didn’t.
“It’s because she has no connection to or dealings with us. She’s living as a human knight within the Order. She has rejected her shapeshifter heritage. I know her history and have no wish to expose or banish her as long as she remains apart from us. Now, however, you force my hand. If you intend to date her, and, or, eventually mate with her, the fact that she’s a shapeshifter will come out. She will have to be brought in. Moynohan is an asshole of epic proportions. If he finds out she’s dating you, he’ll make her life hell. If he finds out she’s a shapeshifter, he’ll expel her.”
“I know that,” Raphael said.
“Then you know that she’ll have to choose, and soon, because it can’t be both. When she’s discovered, the Pack will want to know what I knew and when. If I didn’t know about her, I’m stupid. If I knew and did nothing, I am weak. Why should I allow this?”
“I will fight for her if I have to.” He held my gaze. Wow, he had it bad. Was this a challenge or just mating crazy?
“Who are you willing to fight? Think a moment before you speak,” I warned.
“There will be no need for that,” Aunt B said. “We are making arrangements for Andrea to be brought into the clan. I’ve been an alpha longer than you’ve been alive and I am not getting any younger. I am starting to think of slowing down, retiring and watching my grandchildren grow.”
Sure, the only thing she cherished almost as much she treasured Raphael was power, and maybe fucking with me.
“Nash is strong and my son loves her. He has since the night Kate brought her to us. He didn’t know it yet but I did, a mother knows. I realize that things have not always been straightforward between us. I have perhaps on occasion even been the proverbial thorn in your paw…”
I held up a hand and interrupted her. “B, you oppose me, even when it is not in your best interest to do so, you undermine my authority, albeit subtly, and you have done so since I first became Beast Lord. Now you want a favor from me because your little boy likes a girl from the other side?”
“You’re not going to make this easy are you?”
“No, ‘What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value’.” I quoted.
Derek moved behind me and disappeared into the restaurant. Hmmm.
“Bea, the meal was delicious, additionally I am myself on the hunt, and so I am in a generous and mellow mood. I will grant you this boon but not without certain concessions on your part.
I had her. Time to find out how much was she willing to concede to indulge her son. I decided to go for broke.
“It’s actually quite simple, I want only one thing. Honesty.”
B leaned forward. “Can you be more specific?”
“When I make a decision and you have genuine concerns or reservations, you tell me. If you have doubts we will discuss them privately, but afterward publicly, once a decision is made and announced, you will support me, unconditionally. No more games, no more snide comment, no more clever jokes. I know your job is tough. So is mine. Being the boss sucks, and sparing with me is fun, but I need you and Mahon both. I need your council and wisdom.”
I took a swallow of my drink, letting the words sink in. “You want the best for your clan. So do I. I want it for all of us. I know that I can be a bit of a tyrant, and I’m not always right. When you think I’m wrong tell me, when I’m right, back me. Agree to this and Nash is yours to do with what you will. That’s the offer, take it or leave it.”
She was silent a moment. Thinking it over…
Light steps told me Derek was coming back. A moment later he emerged. His face was paler than it used to be. Either his food didn’t agree with him or something happened.
Aunt B smiled. “You finally grew up, dear.”
“I’ve been grown for a long time now,” I told her. “You just haven’t bothered to notice.”
“Very well. You shall have honesty and respect as well. All you ever had to do was ask.” She smiled again. “Nicely, without all the roaring.”
“Thank you, B. I’ll try to remember that. Now if you will excuse us.”
“Of course, my lord. I understand you have quite an evening planned with the delightful Ms. Daniels.”
And how the hell did she know that?
Aunt B’s smiled got wider. “Don’t do anything we wouldn’t.”
I wondered briefly what exactly that might be but was unable to imagine something that dangerous or deprived.
I waited until we got to the car and well out of the boudas’ earshot.
“Well?” I prompted, when we were inside.
“Jim called to the restaurant, while you were negotiating with Aunt B. Boris is dead.”
“Big Boris? Boris the Boar?”
Whoa. “Did a building fall on him?” Boris the boar was a tough old bastard. If I ever had to fight him, I would be bringing Mahon.
“Murdered. He didn’t die easy. Jim says there was a lot of blood at the scene, too much for all of it to be his.”
No doubt, there would have had to be a lot of them and I’d bet some hadn’t walked out on their own.
Two hours later I was in Boris’ cabin in the woods north west of the Keep. Two of Jim’s people were posted by the door. Others were walking around outside carefully and looking closely at things on the ground. It wasn’t a crime scene as much as a nightmare. Blood was everywhere. Walls, ceiling, most if it on the floor. Busted furniture littered the cabin. Almost everything was broken or knocked over. Looked like a barroom after a brawl you see in one of the old cowboy movies. Except this wasn’t some “shady dive,” this was the home of someone I knew. I’d visited Boris after he’d moved in. His home had been neat and clean. I remember him telling me, that he “never could abide a messy domicile.” He’d hate it now, if he was alive. Which he wasn’t, not by a long shot.
I looked at the body in front of me. Or rather what remained of one.
I’d once read a line in a book. It said “The guy was dead as hell.” It seemed to fit. Boris hadn’t just been killed; he’s been ripped apart by someone or something strong. Smart too. The killer, or killers, had damn near painted the place with wolf’s bane. Covered their tracks. Still, if you knew what you were looking for, there were clues. Deep gouges in the log walls and cabin floor testified to the power of the attackers. Somebody big. Clan Nimble and the Rats were right out. The place wasn’t big enough to hold the numbers they would have needed to bring Boris down. The Wolves could be a possibility. They had an issue with Boris before. I could only think of one wolf pair that might have had a chance, but it wasn’t Daniel and Jennifer. They were concentrating on smoothing out their family life. Besides, if those two were making a comeback, Derek would’ve heard something and told me or Jim.
Last time I saw him he’d been working on a huge oak table, the top at least two inches thick. Now his battered body lay in the ruins of it. Who was powerful enough to knock him back into the damn thing or slam him through it? Somebody from Clan Heavy, maybe, Eduardo would be strong enough, but some of the marks on the floor said claws not hoofs. Besides, it wasn’t his style. He had a short fuse and didn’t mind fighting but if he lost his temper, he attacked right away, he wouldn’t brood about it, planning and waiting for the right time. Bison don’t have to sneak around or stab you in the back. Still, I’d put my money on someone from Heavy, but who was strong and stupid enough kill their alpha’s oldest friend?
“So, what do you think?” A familiar voice from over my shoulder asked.
“He’s dead, Jim.”
“You’re not as funny as you think you are.” Jim grimaced. “I know you didn’t do it, because you cause I saw you yesterday and you weren’t all fucked up.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. So when do we think it went down?”
Jim shrugged. “Not long ago, couple days at most, judging from the blood and body temp. Whoever did this is still going look like they been in one hell of a fight. How many people do you know who could have done this?”
“Not too many.” It wasn’t a loup. They stank and didn’t use wolfsbane.
“Lots of bites but no signs of feeding,” Jim said. “Wolfsbane indicates forethought and planning. They knew they might have to kill him and they knew we’d come sniffing around.”
“Derek, look around and tell us what you think.” Let’s see how much he’d learned.
“Good idea, impress us,” Jim said. “Start from outside and walk us through it.
Derek nodded, stepped out for a moment then entered again. He shook his head, “No scent, no footprints. It’s wolfsbane and then tire tracks and car smell. They drove up, parked maybe fifty yards away and walked up. Carefully, left no trace. Loups don’t drive, don’t plan. On top of that, the cabin doesn’t have their stink.”
He sank a little venom into it. While the wolfsbane would mask the scent of a human or shapeshifter, loups had an unmistakable stench, equal parts hunger and madness. The boy had been a victim and witness to both, as I had but in a different fashion. I’d seen my father cut down by them. Derek’s dad had turned loup, raping, killing, and cannibalizing his mother and sisters.
Derek pointed at the door. “No signs of forced entry. He let them in or maybe they snuck in while he was out and waited for him. Unlikely though, when he came up, he would have picked up there scent and not gone in. Maybe somebody he knew.”
“Don’t tell us maybe,” Jim said. “Read the signs, tell us what the scene and the body say happened.”
Derek nodded, paused and started again.
“There was an altercation in this area. Outside the trees are damaged where Boris marked them as his territory but those grooves are not fresh like the ones in here. Claws.” He crouched and spread his hand on the deep gouges in the wood floor. “This isn’t a wolf. Three deep gouges here.” He dug his fingers in the indentations. “Lighter gouges on the sides. Something was on all fours and got pushed back. Hard.”
He took two large steps back toward the wall on the side of the door and pointed up at a spot about eight feet up. “Here, blood and hair. Somebody had the back of their head slammed into the wall. With a tremendous amount of force.”
He placed his hand on his own head, stood up on his toes and raised his arm. His fingertips barely brushed the edge of the bloodstain. “I’m six feet. The stain is at least two feet higher. Someone tall.”
Stepping away from the wall, he indicated another set of marks on the floor, near the center of the floor. “These tracks are different. Deep ruts in the pine floor, made by a blunt rounded toes, consistent with our victim. Boris charged his opponent and was then pushed or pulled back, possibly both, which would indicate multiple assailants. Let’s see, my Lord, if you will stand here.” He indicated a spot against the wall, under the stain.
I moved to stand there.
He placed his feet in the marks believed to be made by Boris, and went into a sort of martial arts stance. I looked sideways at Jim, he shrugged slightly. It was the kid’s show.
Derek looked over his shoulder. “Jim, could you please stand behind me at the other wall.”
Jim moved to the other wall. Now we stood in a line: Derek faced me, with Jim behind him.
“OK, so I’m Boris.” Derek shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s go through this in slow motion.”
He looked at me. “If you’re ready, I will charge toward you. Can you go into a half-squat?”
I did so. He came at me in an exaggerated slow motion rush.
“We collide, bounce off each other, you stand up, I come at you again and bash you into that wall.” He pushed against me and I pretended to bounce against the wall.
“You hit your head there. We grapple a bit. Now, Jim, you grab me from behind and pull while Curran pushes.”
Jim lumbered over with exaggerated slowness and stood behind Derek, holding his hands put like two large paws. Yeah, he was thinking what I was thinking. He hooked his arms under Derek’s and pulled him into a full Nelson hold.
“Drag me back.”
Jim pulled and I pushed and we half carried him straight back to the remnants of the table and let him go.
“Somehow, mainly brute force, the two of you lift me and smash me through the table. I’m stunned by the force of the impact, so I just lay there for a second or two. You, both of you, start to bite my head and neck. I’m fighting but I’m on my back and the two of you are on top, ripping into me and clawing. Note the defensive wounds still visible on the hands and arms of the victim. He tried to protect his face. Blood splatter on the wall adjacent to the table is in the classic teardrop shape. The power of blows forced it away from the body. Here on a shard of the table is bloody handprint, presumably the victims, as his body started to revert as a result of shock and blood loss. They battered him down and bled him to death, until he couldn’t fight anymore and they finished him.”
He was good. I couldn’t really find fault with his analysis.
“Jim, is this how you think it happened? It’d be easier if it was vamps,” I asked.
“Yeah it would, but he’s right.” Jim looked at Derek. “All right, now that we know the how, tell us who?”
He looked at us both, perhaps afraid to say what we all were thinking.
Yeah, it almost had to be. The moment I saw that stain on the wall, I knew it had to be a bear on his hind legs. Nobody else got that large.
“Does Mahon know?” I asked.
“Only if he did it or had it done. Boris’s daughter came to check on him, found him like this, and called us,” Jim said. “I told her don’t touch nothing and wait there for us, she said she had to get home.”
“You like her for it?”
“Meaning she did it and then called us so she wouldn’t seem like suspect?” Jim frowned. “Naw, she seemed pretty upset. Husband says she’s in shock. Besides, she’s not a fighter, strictly civilian. Husband too, but he could be strong. He has a lot of control, as much as any of my people. I think he’s got a half form but he denies it, says nobody taught him and he’s too old to learn. That was the deal Boris made with Mahon – he fights, they don’t. They are allowed to live their lives pretty much as they want. They’re members of the Pack but they aren’t really active.”
“And if he died? What happens to them?”
“I don’t know,” Jim said. “Maybe the old bastard never thought he’d die. We’d have to ask Mahon.”
Nobody ever does expect to die. He put up a damn good fight though. Maybe it’s the best any of us can hope for. “Alright. I’ll go talk to his daughter and I need to do it now, before the Old Bear hears about this.” Mahon and Boris had been friends for a long time. Mahon wouldn’t be exactly rational. “Talk to Mahon and buy me some time. We need to see if anyone in Heavy’s missing or severely wounded.”
“He won’t be happy. Boris was his friend and he’ll be looking for some payback.”
“That’s why I said buy me some time. Keep asking questions. He doesn’t have to like it, he just has to answer. You’re in charge of this investigation. Pull rank if you have to but keep him contained as long as you can. We don’t need him roaring around and crushing people’s skulls into blood and bone. He gets a hold of somebody he even thinks did it and they’ll disappear. Whoever did this will face Pack justice, not Mahon’s fury. While you’re having a nice little chat with him, I’ll go see the daughter. She may know something.”
Buttercup Creek was a quiet upper middle class suburb in North Cobb. Most of the houses were two story and brick. Younger couples with money and kids, older couples who had bought the houses back in the day and stayed. Well manicured lawns, nice cars in the driveways, solid bars on the windows, and reinforced doors. Safe, comfortable houses for people who worked well paying jobs and folks who had retired from them.
Derek pulled up to the curb in front of the house slow, and after stopping we waited a few moments. Give everybody a chance to recognize us. I knew Jim had at least five people out of sight but keeping an eye on the house. Who or whatever it was that went after Boris might decide to take out his family as well. Maybe they attackers had been looking for something at his house, maybe they didn’t find it, maybe they did, or maybe they just wanted him dead. Too many maybes. I needed answers. Here was a good a place to start as any.
Paul and Joan Parker’s residence was no different from the others on the street, except that it sat next to a fenced off wooded lot. Still too many neighbors for my taste. The house stood in stark contrast to Boris’s simple isolated cabin. I guess it depended on how you saw people, whether you were a bee or a bear. Some felt safer having others around and felt vulnerable on their own. Bees gathering in a hive. That’s what the neighborhood reminded me of, a honeycomb. All the houses were similar. If I knew the layout of one, my own for instance, I was pretty sure I could navigate any of the others in the dark, no problem. Perfect for bees. Bears, on the other hand, were territorial and enjoyed the solitude their caves. One does not simply walk into a bear’s cave. Boris was like a bear, which was why he got along with Mahon so well. Was his daughter a bee or had she simply married one?
We walked up to the door, Derek a pace behind and scanning the street. Two doors, a screen one and sturdy wooden one with colored glass in its center. I knocked on the screen door.
I tried the screen door. Unlocked. I opened it and knocked a bit harder on the wooden front door. I knew they were home. If they’d left, I would have been told about it. Part of me wished they had snuck out and I wouldn’t have to interrogate a woman who lost her father. And hell, it might have even been a clue.
No such luck. I sensed movement and a tall sandy haired man opened the door. Eyes very blue behind his wire rim glasses. He stared at me a moment without recognition, and then it hit him.
“My Lord.” He bowed his head. “Please come in.”
I did and shut the door behind me.
“Isn’t your friend coming in?” he asked.
“Naw, he’s going to stay outside and watch the car, says in a shady neighborhood like this somebody might steal it.” Not sure why I was messing with the guy. Something about him bugged me.
He chose to ignore my joke. “Are we in danger?”
“That’s what I’m here to try and figure out, but no, not at the moment. We have people watching the house to keep you safe.” And to keep you from sneaking out the back, I wisely did not add.
“Mr. Parker, what was your relationship with your father-in- law like? Did the two of you get along?” No need to be subtle, hit him with a hard question and gage his reaction.
Parker made a face, like he tasted something sour, “He was a hard man to like. Always told me that he ‘had no use for most people,’ I guess that included me. He had very specific ideas about what men should know and do, like know how to work with their hands and fight.”
“You don’t?” I didn’t specify whether I meant the knowing or doing.
“No, I’ve never been a very physically person, but I’m smart. I got an education, I use my brain to feed my family and put a roof over our heads. I need the roof fixed or a patio built, I pay a professional to do it. He never understood that, said I should do it myself instead of having strangers in my house. Other men shouldn’t be around my family. His thinking was medieval like that. Doesn’t matter that those people have to make a living too or that I wouldn’t know what to do with a circular saw if my life depended on it. That shack of his, he built it himself, did all the work on it. So proud of it.”
Wow, it guess I’d touched a nerve. “You’ve been out there to see him?”
“A few times, always with Joanie and the kids. He was a mean son of a bitch but he loved his grandchildren, I’ll give him that. Spoiled them.”
He waved his hand, “Oh, you know, toys & games. Gave them money. Let the boys run around in the woods like wild animals, hunting, fishing and sleeping outside even. They loved it.”
“They’re how old?”
“David is fifteen, Daniel’s thirteen, both born in June like me. Weird huh?”
Paul, David and Daniel? I was sensing a trend here. Maybe they were religious.
“We haven’t told them yet, I’m afraid they won’t take it well. He’s the only grandfather they’ve ever known. My father died when I was just a little older than they are now. Worked himself to death, Mom used to say, but it wasn’t the work, it was the play.”
That was interesting, “How do you mean?” Everybody has a story if you listen.
“Dad was a mason down in Florida. After the magic came back, a good stoneworker could make a damn fine living. Problem was he spent it faster than he could make it, sometimes before my mom could pay the bills even. He was what is now commonly called a ‘highly functioning’ alcoholic. Everybody liked him, said he was a funny guy, a great friend. I don’t remember that, I remember my mother crying because he’d spent his paycheck at the bar.” He took a deep breath, exhaled. He was looking off into space, reliving painful memories. “I don’t think Mamma liked him much and I feel like I didn’t really know him. When I was sixteen, they found his body in the Corkscrew.”
“Is that a bar down there?”
He looked at me and actually smiled a little, “No, it’s a swamp, like a preserve, south of Fort Myers. Daddy went there hunting at least once a month. You know.” He let it hang there. “He was proud of being a panther, went to see his people, he called them, a small pack in the everglades. Never took us with him. Mama told me once she thought he had a woman there. Gave her money, our money. So I’ll be honest with you, I never liked my dad. I never liked Boris either.”
“Sounds like you had it rough.” I pointed around to indicate the house. “But you’re doing well enough now.”
The place was nice, spotless and tastefully furnished. High quality furniture and expensive paintings on the wall. Nothing to indicate that two teenage boys lived there. It was almost sterile. As a young man, I would have preferred the cabin.
“Yes, we do ok. Like I said, I got my degree and work as a liaison between insurance companies and contractors. Make sure they don’t overcharge for the work. Joanie works for lawyers in Buckhead. Her father hated that, said I should make enough for her to stay home. Said a real man acts as head of the household, provides for his family and wife should stay home and take care of the kids. He thought we should homeschool the kids. Not sure why, they’re in an excellent private school.”
He really had it in for the old boar. I decided to ask more questions. Maybe he’d tell me something I could use. “What about Boris? Did he go to good schools?”
“No, I don’t know much about his upbringing. Like I said, we weren’t close. Joanie could tell you but she’s still pretty upset. Do we really have to do this now?”
I smelled sweat and fear. There is something about fear. It must be the lion in me. I feel it, I smell it, I taste it. It’s almost tangible for me and when I do catch a whiff of it, the world goes crystal clear.
I stared directly into his eyes. I knew my eyes went gold and he knew what that gold meant.
He looked to the floor. That’s better.
I stepped closer until mere inches separated us and continued in a low voice, “Yes, Mr. Parker we do have to talk about it. Someone murdered your wife’s father. It wasn’t a quick or easy kill. He suffered before he died. The two people who killed him wanted something and we don’t know what it was or if they found it. I’m here asking questions because I mean to catch whoever was responsible and bring them to justice. I rule the pack, I make laws, and I punish those who break them. That’s what I do. I appreciate that this is a rough time for you family and you’re grieving, but you will answer my questions and you will not hinder this investigation.”
His expression changed, his shoulders slumped, and in a quaking voice he said quietly, “She’s not here. They have her.”
And there it was.
“Please, the boys don’t know. They said they’d hurt her if any of you people came around.”
“I guess you or men like the ones hiding outside and the boy by the car.”
I took a deep breath. I needed him alive and talking. Roaring at him would just make him clam up. “Who has your wife and when did they get her?”
“A little while ago. She went to see him, came home and she was crying, then she got mad. As angry as I’ve ever seen her. She asked me if I did it or had it done. I told her she was crazy, she said it was my fault that I owed them money and they killed her father to get it. It’s not true, I tried, I asked him for the money, just a loan. He laughed at me. Called me weak.”
“Who took your wife?”
The words kept spilling out of him like marbles out of a torn bag. “Yeah, I told them he had a stash hidden away, but I swear I didn’t know they’d murder him. I sort of hoped maybe he’d kill them. After we fought, she went to see them, said she wasn’t afraid of their kind. Later they called and said if I wanted to see her again to bring them what I owed. Why would she do that? Why would she go and confront them? Now they have her and I don’t have they want.”
Enough was enough, “Mr. Parker, if you don’t give me a name in the next five seconds I promise I will personally beat one out of you.”
“The Irving boys?” Mahon frowned. “Yeah, I know them. Mick and John, came down from Michigan with their dad after their parents split up. Must be almost twenty years now. They were just kids, teenagers but they were strong and they started working. Now they each have their own business. Mick does floors and John does pretty much everything else, or has a guy who can. They do a lot of flood restoration, total renovations. They did some really nice work on Raphael’s house, took the carpet off the stairs, put down wood everywhere. You should see his kitchen. Why, are you thinking about hiring them for some work?
“No, I was going to ask them to release Joanie Parker and answer for killing her father.” I gave him a moment to process that.
Mahon stood perfectly still. Beside me I could sense Jim tensing up, unsure of how the big man would react.
“They killed Boris?”
“Where are they now?” he grumbled. His voice was low and menacing.
“Funny you ask. I was wondering the same thing. When was the last time you saw them?”
Mahon squared his shoulders. “I’ll handle this, it’s my clan and my friend that got killed. I’ll bring you their heads, good enough?”
“Not this time. They have Boris’s daughter and they will probably kill her if you go barging in there. Plus we don’t know where ‘there’ is. We’re going to do this my way. Jim’s people are with the son-in-law at his house. When the Irving ‘boys’ call, he’ll tell them that he has the money but that he doesn’t feel safe. He wants the exchange to go down somewhere he’ll be protected with many people. They’ll come to the Keep, to the southern construction site, and we’ll be waiting for them. They’re going to stand trial for this, Mahon.”
I could tell by his face he didn’t like it. “Why air the dirty laundry?”
“Because that’s how we do things,” I said.
“You think they’re stupid, that they won’t smell a trap?”
“No, I think they’re desperate and need the money to get out of our territory. Look, if they’re found guilty, you still get to kill them. Any way you want. Will that work?”
“It will have to. And you’re sure it’s them?”
“You keep asking that,” Jim said.
“I know their father,” Mahon grimaced. “Yeah, I mean they’ve had some troubles. They can be a handful, but murder?”
I nodded to Jim, who stepped forward with a sheet of paper. “Troubles? That’s one way to put it. They’re out of control. I have no less than nine documented incidents of assault and property damage involving them. There’s a pattern: they drink, they get mean, and people get hurt. Not too picky about who they fight either – they got into three fights with the teamsters just this year. If they can’t find other people dumb enough to brawl with, they will get into it with each other. Last year, Mick stole one of John’s guys to work on his crew. Next family gathering Mick goes after John and they both wind up hospitalized. And then Doolittle kicked their asses out of his medward because they started shit with other patients. He won’t treat them anymore. They’re grown ass men. You need to stop covering for them.”
”Or what?” Mahon moved toward Jim. This was getting out of hand so I stepped between them.
“Or nothing. You know that there’s only one way this ends, and you’re not really mad at Jim. He didn’t kill your friend or abduct his daughter. You want to fix this, help us bring them in. Let them tell their side of it. That or we can hunt them down like animals.”
Not everyone lives in the Keep. There’s always a certain amount of personnel and some living quarters, but it’s more of a place to run things, gather for special occasions, and hole up if the shit hits the fan. When that day comes, and it will, I want to be able to fit everybody inside so as the Pack continues to grow, I am also perpetually expanding the Keep. I want the walls higher and thicker, another tower here, cut the trees back there, enlarge the killing zone, anything that will make it harder to take. Because I never can stop playing with it, an area south of the Keep is designated as a construction zone and staging area for supplies, stone, timber, and tools I need to make the place bigger and better. It was here that we arranged for Paul to meet the men who took his wife.
Paul told them that he borrowed the cash from the Pack and would meet them there near the Keep so that he felt protected in case things went sour. The idea was that if they attacked him he could shout out and the noise would bring the guards.
I crouched in the bushes. Mahon sat next to me. The rest of the Pack Council had arranged themselves around us, out sight but within earshot of Paul Parker. We were downwind, but since it was our construction site it would smell like shapeshifters anyway.
In front of us Paul paced between the stacks of mortar bags and loads of stone blocks. Pale and haggard, he looked like a man who’d just come out of the tail of end of a weekend drunken binge: not sure where he was or why he was here and panicking because nothing seemed familiar.
I had invited alphas and betas, because I wanted everything to be above board. The due process works best when there are witness to the proceedings and no appearance of impropriety. All of which was a moot point, if the Irving boys didn’t show. I figured they would. What choice did they have really? Jim’s people had searched the house they still shared and looked like the Irvings packed up some things and split. If they planned to run, they would need money. If they planned to stay, they would need money. And there was only one place they could get it. They’d have to bring Joan and trade her to Paul for the ransom.
If they didn’t have a hostage, I would be inclined to let them go, hunt them down at our leisure, but we owed it to Joan to do everything we could to get her back safely. If they showed up soon and things went smoothly, I could still make dinner with Kate. Sure I might be a little late, but I intended to make it worth her while.
We didn’t have to wait long. After less than an hour the rumble of a powerful engine alerted us to the approach of the Irving brothers. Just as I thought. They took the access road to the construction site. I hoped that they had Joan with them. If they arrived without her, things would get considerably more complicated. We would have to try and subdue the pair and beat her location out of them. Dead or alive, we needed to know where she was.
Paul faced us and peered into the woods. Don’t look at us, you dumbass.
In a few minutes lights shone through the trees, then they went out, but the noise told me the vehicle continued towards us. Idiots. Their engine sounded like a small tornado. I wondered how that thinking went. “Hey Mick, how can we be inconspicuous?” “Well, John, we will turn the lights off. Nobody will ever know we’re coming.”
Next to me Mahon rolled his eyes. We were not dealing with criminal masterminds. The Irving brothers didn’t plan. They saw only a few hours ahead, if that. For once, it played into our favor. They probably didn’t even consider the possibility of a double-cross. In their minds, this was a straight line: show up, get the money.
Paul squared his shoulders and hefted the duffel bag. We stuffed it with coffee packets. When put inside the bag, they looked just like stacks of cash.
The Irvings parked about a hundred yards short of the site and got out. Even in the light of the quarter moon I could make out two large shapes with a smaller one between them. Oh good. They had brought her alive. She seemed to be walking, but they were keeping her between them and I couldn’t see her face.
Maybe Mahon was right and they were just good guys who got caught up in a bad situation.
“Parker, we brought your sow,” one of them called out. “You better have the money or we’ll gut her in front of you before you die.”
“Ok.” Paul raised the bag. “I have it, let her go, please.”
I could sense his fear and tension but was it for himself or for his wife?
“Throw the money,” the other Irving brother said. “If it’s all there, you can have her. She ain’t hurt. Much. We could’ve done worse for all the shit you put us through.”
“Me?” Paul’s voice shook. “You took my wife! For what, money you think I owed you?”
Ah, here it was. If we waited it would all come out.
“Bullshit,” the larger brother said. “You told us they would pay. We did the work, you fucking bastard. Did the insurance company pay? No! We built them folks a brand new goddamned house, tile fucking floors, granite counter tops, custom cabinets, bathrooms, we had to buy all that shit and then nothing. We’re out of pocket for eighty grand, goddamn it.”
“Homeowners can’t pay,” the smaller brother growled. “We got barely five out of them. We missed a payroll, Dom quit, plumbing guy quit, and our rep is fucked now. Nobody will hire us now. You owe us, for all of it.”
“It’s not my fault!” Paul dropped the bag. “The payment was approved and then they went out of business. How was I supposed to know the owner was going to disappear with all the cash and his secretary?”
“You’re supposed to know, that’s what we paid you for,” the larger brother snarled. “It was a good gig, all you had to do was go back and forth with the rep, get the payment approved. You sit in your nice little office, running the numbers while we do the real work. We always gave you your cut. You think you’re better than us, you never get your hands dirty, you think you can just fuck us and nothing’s gonna happen?”
“I said I was sorry. I tried to get the money. I even told you where to get it but you couldn’t even do that right, could you? You were supposed to get the money from the old man, not kill him.”
“Well, how the hell did you think we’d get the money, you stupid bastard?” the larger Irving asked. “Did you think we would have tea and then he’d give us the dough?”
I nodded to Derek. The kid moved forward, struck a match, and dropped it into the metal brazier. The fuel inside ignited and flames shot up, illuminating the site, Paul, the Irving brothers, and Joan with a piece of duct tape over her mouth. To the right and left three more fires surged into life.
I stepped out and in a loud voice asked, “That’s what we all want to know. Did you plan to kill Boris?”
The big men froze for a moment. Little drama never hurt.
Joan took the chance and broke from them, ripping the tape from her mouth. She had a split lip and mouse under one eye. They had roughed her up and they did it on the way over here, probably just before they got out of the car, because Lyc-V would’ve healed the injuries otherwise.
Joan ran toward her husband. He opened his arms to embrace her and she slapped him. Hard, right across the face. He staggered back and looked stunned. She was breathing hard and between breaths managed to squeeze out four words.
“I want a divorce.”
“Granted,” I said. It seemed fair under the circumstances.
Around me members of Clan Heavy moved from the woods, heading for the Irving brothers.
“Good,” she ground out between clenched teeth. A terrifying grin spread on her face as she advanced on her, now former, husband.
“You did this,” she hissed. “You sent them to kill my father. He was right about you, you’re just a coward. You knew what they did and you let me go see them by myself. What kind of man does that?”
“I provided for you!” Paul barked. “I made a life for you and the boys. You liked it, the nice house the good neighborhood. What are you going to do, get a little apartment, put the boys in public school? You’ll come crawling back, or is one of those lawyers you ‘work for’ going take care of you?”
“Aaaargh! I make as much as you do, asshole. I have money put away. You think you’re so much better than me and the people I work with, but I don’t have to cheat people and deal with stupid, violent thugs like those two.”
“Hey,” one of the Irvings started to protest. They had been surrounded by several members of Clan Heavy, under the direction of Mahon. They weren’t going anywhere.
“Shut up,” I suggested. “You’ll get your turn.”
The happy couple needed to work this out. Years of bitterness and resentment were being dragged out and it felt a bit voyeuristic to be watching their life together unravel.
“Hell, I did you a favor!” Paul screamed. “Now you’ll get his place and his money. Did you think he’d live forever?”
For a moment, Joan said nothing. She just stood perfectly still. Uh oh.
“Petition for full custody of the children,” she finally asked in a loud voice.
“Granted,” I said.
He turned toward me, “What, why? They’re my kids too. Are you’re just going let this slut have them? Let them decide who they want to live with.”
Joan’s laugh was bitter. “What do you think they’ll say Paul, when they find out that you had their grandfather killed? The man who loved them and took care of them and taught things. The man who took them camping and fishing. And why did you do it? For a little bit of money. They’ll know what kind of man you are, and they’ll hate you for it.”
“You whore!” Paul Parker’s skin split. Fur spilled out, fast, twisting to cover the new bone and muscle. Three of Jim’s people were on him. They grabbed him, but suddenly he was in half form, hissing and spitting, and they were struggling to hold him back. This was getting out of hand.
Joan just watched him for a moment and then shrugged. “Fine. If that’s how you want it, fine. Let him go.”
Jim’s people looked at me. I nodded. We waited until she changed then just stood back to give them room.
Where once had stood a petite blond woman in her late thirties, there was now a huge female razorback. All of us were larger in our beast form than normal animals, but Clan Heavy were giants. She had to be over five hundred pounds of hard bone and powerful muscle. Dark grayish fur bristled along the broad back. Her eyes were small and full of malice. She was mad as hell.
Paul took a step forward.
Joan outweighed him by nearly two hundred pounds, but Paul in warrior form was still a three hundred pound monster, a mass of tightly coiled muscle, sinew and spotted fur. With enormous fangs and claws. And she didn’t have her father’s tusks.
The werepanther crouched low. His lips trembled and a half-snarl, half-growl rippled from his mouth. I had a feeling this fight was a long time coming.
The boar answered the challenge with a deep grunt. She pawed the ground with one enormous hoof and charged. Five hundred pounds of pissed wild boar shot past me like a run-away train. Her head was up. She tried to ram him, but the leopard leapt up on liquid joints and landed on her back. He buried his front claws in the sow’s shoulders and bit down hard on the snout. Blood poured.
Joan squealed in rage and dove forward into a roll. All her weight crashed down on the cat man, and she rolled over him like a bulldozer flattening the pavement. The werepanther let go of the boar’s snout and leapt away. The sow spun to face him. She was breathing hard. Deep gouges carved her snout, her face a wet mask of crimson. They stood for a moment, unmoving. Then suddenly she charged again.
This time instead of meeting her head on, the big werecat dodged to side and jumped onto the boar’s back, teeth latched down savagely on her neck. Joan dashed around the clearing, sprinting like her life depended on it. It wouldn’t help her. He would bleed her dry. Paul clung to her back, ripping into her.
Joan banked sharply, turning, and hurled herself at the stack of huge stone blocks waiting to become a wall. The werepanther screamed as five hundred pounds of boar moving at thirty miles per hour slammed into stone, with him cushioning her fall. Bone crunched. The boar rolled to her side again and again until finally she rose up, legs shaking, back gushing blood but now unburdened by the panther. Paul sprawled on the ground, his breathing shallow. His ribs looked wrong. He was all busted up inside. Rather than allowing him to recover, the boar ran at him, hoofs trampling muscle and bone into wet mush. She dropped down to her knees and brought her large head down onto his chest. His breast bone cracked, and his neck rolled to the side. He was finished. She started to use her huge canine teeth to tear out his throat.
Enough was enough. I let out a roar to get her attention.
“Joan, stop. He’s gone.”
She eyed me, bloody but unbeaten, and I thought she might charge me. Instead the huge boar bowed her head. Flesh flowed as she changed back, and once again a small blond woman stood on the grass, but now she was naked, filthy and bleeding from a dozen deep cuts and serious scratches. A deep gash on her neck was closing.
“Get her to Doolittle and get the body out of here.”
Bea stepped out of the ring that had formed around the combatants and put a blanket around Joan. “Come with me, dear. We’ll get you all fixed up.” Her voice was soft and soothing, but she took an iron grip of Joan’s shoulders and started to lead her away.
The widow stopped and turned to me. “What about them?” She gestured to the Irvings, still held tight by Mahon’s people. “They killed my father.”
“I know and I’m sorry for your loss. We will hear them out and then they will be judged by the Council and punished. Good enough?”
“I want to see.”
Bea turned Joan to face her and said in a quiet voice that would move rocks out of her path. “No, dear, you really don’t.”
For a second they were eye to eye and then Joan ducked her head. Tears formed in her eyes and slid down her cheeks.
Bea pulled her in close. “You’re a right mess. Let’s get you cleaned up, why don’t we?”
Joan nodded and started to weep. I made eye contact with Bea and nodded toward the Keep. Bea gently led her away, petting her back.
It was smaller of the Irving Brothers. Mahon smacked him upside the head and he went down. Hard. The other struggled against his captors, to no avail.
“Let me go you, fuckers, we didn’t do nothing. This ain’t fair.”
I turned to him. “Was it ‘fair’ when the two you killed Boris? We’re still waiting to hear what happened with that. Please tell us why you should not be held accountable for murdering the old man?”
“It wasn’t like that. We just went to talk to him, to ask him for the money. We might have mentioned something about him not wanting anything bad to happen to his pretty daughter and her kids. He went fucking nuts. I swear we never touched him till he turned and pushed me back. He knocked me back into a wall and then Mick grabbed him from behind, you know just to drag him off of me and he turned on him. Nobody hits my brother. He started it. We didn’t mean to kill him, but he gave us no choice. It was self-defense.”
Self-defense. Now I’ve heard everything. “It doesn’t work like that. You can’t go to an old man’s house to rob him and then claim self-defense when he fights back. You threatened the only people he cared about in the world. What did you expect he would do?”
The larger Irving brother shook his head. “He should’ve just gave us the money. This is all his fault. Now all ya’ll are going to gang up on us and it ain’t fair, none of it.”
He was overly fond of that word.
“All right, John,” Mahon said. “What do you think would be fair? Do you think we should just let you go?”
“One on one.” John’s eyes lit up. “I’ll fight any one of you. If I win, you let us go. I’ll fight anybody, even you, I’m not afraid of any of you.”
Really, he should be, but then again they had killed Boris.
I smiled at him. “Is that a challenge?”
John glared at me. “Yes, it is.”
He bared his teeth at me. “Come on, just you and me. Promise that if I start winning, these bastards won’t jump in.”
“No one will interfere,” I told him. “This is a fight to the death. If you kill me, I give my word that you and your brother will be given free passage out of the Pack’s territory. If I win though, Mahon gets your brother. Are you sure you want to do this? Old men and women seem more your speed.”
John shrugged his shoulder. “You still yapping? Are you planning to talk me to death or are we going to fight?”
I nodded to Mahon, who gestured for John Irving to be let loose. The moment they let him go, he burst into his full bear form. For a second, it looked like he exploded, as his mass double, then quadrupled. A moment and an adult male grizzly rose up on his hind legs and let out a deafening roar. His paws were the size of basketballs. Derek was spot on. John was a full eight feet of rage and power. Not quite as large as Mahon but still massive.
People who thought bears were slow and clumsy hadn’t fought one before. I had and I knew that if I let him connect with those big paws, he’d take my head off. My best bet was to dart in and bleed him out. Shapeshifters are hard to bleed to death, but I only needed enough of an edge to break him. My warrior form would be best, a good mix of speed and strength. Here’s hoping skill would make up for the size difference.
John dropped heavily to all fours and started to shuffle toward me. We circled each other, each of us wary and neither wanting to make the first move. John lunged and took a big swing. I dodged the huge paw and threw a quick flurry of my own, overhand left, straight right, left again, and out.
John growled. I’d connected with his nose. Getting hit on the nose hurt like hell and my claws left nice deep gouges in his.
The bear backpedaled and began to circle me, looking for an opening. I circled with him. You want to dance, we can dance. He’d rear. They always did.
He charged me. At the last second he reared up and tried to wrap his big arms around shoulders to crush my bones. That’s right, give me that soft gut. I dove forward into the hug before he had a chance to close it, dug my claws into his chest and dropped down, carving a path through his fur all the way to his groin. Not that it did me much good. His fur and fat were too thick.
He bore down on me and I rolled out from under him and to the side before he could bring all his weight down. Almost had me there. If he pinned me down, I was screwed.
I nipped his ass, before darting back out of range. Just a little screw you. He was way too controlled for my taste. I needed him mad.
John spun about, snarling and chased me. It was an odd sort of shamble, one paw, then the other. As he got closer, he lowered his head and started swinging it back and forth, lumbering toward me. His head was like a wrecking ball. He was hoping to batter me with it while protecting his vulnerable eyes and nose. It didn’t leave me with any good targets except for the scruff of his neck, and I could claw that old day and not get anywhere.
I waited until he got within striking range, sidestepped – bear speed is no match for the cat – grabbed his left foreleg and bit down hard on his ear. The claws of my right hand sunk into the fur and fat of his hump.
Josh screamed. Hurts, doesn’t it?
A hung on to the ear, chewing it up. Hot salty blood washed over my tongue. He tried to shake me, but I had good grip on his back and my jaws had locked on his ear. He flailed, swinging his head back and forth, trying to shake me off, but I held on. John jerked his head up. I swung my legs up and around his neck and squeezed it in a scissor move. Oops, one of us has been studying his jiu-jitsu. How about that?
He bucked like a bronco trying to throw a cowboy, but I had a good position and I was using all my weight as well as my leg muscles to constrict his throat. He clawed my back, the claws tearing through the muscle. Felt like someone set my ribs on fire. I held on. If I let go, he’d finish me. He clawed me again and dashed around the clearing. The world spun and disappeared. I heard nothing, I saw nothing. I no longer knew which was up or down, I just knew I had to squeeze.
He slowed, stumbled… That’s right big boy, just go to sleep. It’s almost over.
He sagged down. Well, that wasn’t so bad.
Something crashed into me, like a runaway train.
What the fuck?
It hit me again and John and I fell together. Eight hundred pounds of bear landed on top of me. Damn it. I caught his dead weight up with my legs. Hurts. Heavy bastard. I didn’t know how long I could keep it up.
John moved. Just what I needed. He started to come around and in few moments he would be awake and clawing at my face. Suddenly the weight on my legs seemed to double.
Son of a bitch.
Mick must have jumped on top of his brother bringing the combined weight of the two bears down on my legs. Too much. Too much. Argh. My bones snapped like twigs. The pain lashed me, hot and excruciating. I roared.
John’s eyes snapped open. His maw gaped and he bit down at me. As John came down on me I latched onto this throat with my jaws. My only hope was to crush his windpipe. I held on with everything I had and bit down. My teeth cut like scissors and the satisfying sound of the thyroid cartilage and hyoid bone crunching was like a sweet melody. Blood drenched me. John convulsed on top of me then went limp and I knew he was gone.
Someone was pulling John off of me, thank God. He slid aside and I saw Mick, enraged, his eyes blazing, huge teeth bared.
Well. This wasn’t good.
He pummeled at me with his huge paws. I covered my head and took most of the impact on my arms. My legs were useless, I wouldn’t be getting up. He was slicing my arms to ribbons. I had to end this before he beat me to death.
I dropped my block, let one of the blows land, locked my arms on his, and pulled him down to me. When he landed on me, I let go of the arm, grabbed the sides of his head, willed my jaws to expand and clamped down on his nose. It was a good bite and part of his nose came off in my mouth. I spat it at him.
The bear screamed in shock and pain. He jerked up, blood pouring from his mutilated face, and ran.
I rolled over to my side. Somebody had to catch the damn bastard, because I couldn’t do it.
Mick was almost to the trees, running blindly for the forest. Mahon stepped into his path and turned. The two huge bodies crashed into each other. Almost instantly they were standing, grappling at each other with massive arms. Mahon, a huge, shaggy mountain of fur and muscle, twisted and tossed his opponent over his hip and onto the ground. Mick had barely hit, before Mahon came down onto him. Mahon planted his left paw on Mick’s chest and pinned him to the ground. He reached way back with his right arm and then the enormous paw came down hard on the smaller bear’s head and smashed it like a ripe melon. It was Mahon’s signature move. I’d seen it before, but it was still damn impressive. I didn’t think I’d ever have to fight him, but if I did I was going to stay away from that big claw cannon he was carrying.
My people stared at me.
“Anytime somebody wants to help me up that would be great.”
Suddenly everybody was running.
Jim and Derek hauled me up between them.
“That was awesome,” Derek said.
“Yeah, about that. Who wants to explain why the fuck the other one was able to jump me?”
“Well,” Jim said, “While we were watching you, he managed to get free, broke Eduardo’s nose and clawed up George to get loose. Desperate I guess. I knew you’d be ok.”
“Yeah, how about that doesn’t happen again. Damn it, get me to Doolittle. I need him to get me fixed up. I’m late for my date.” Kate would be pissed off. But if I get there in the next couple of hours, I could still salvage the situation. I could be very persuasive.
They carried me up to the Keep and then into the med ward. Doolittle saw me. His eyes got really large and then he made a noise that should not have come from a human.
“What sort of foolishness you been up to? Looks like you fought a landslide.”
“Bears actually. Two of them.”
“Put him on the table!” Doolittle pointed to the examination table. Jim and Derek lowered me on it. Doolittle grabbed a glass poured some iced tea into it, added sugar, and stuck at me. “Drink, my lord. You are dehydrated. Look at your legs. A smart man might ask himself if fighting two bears together at the same time is wise.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” I drank the tea. Damn, it was sweet.
“Seems damn foolish to me. Don’t you have a lot of big strong killers, like these two?” He nodded his head to indicate Jim and Derek. “Why you feel like you have to fight every damn soul in Atlanta is beyond me.”
“If I say you’re right, will you just heal me?”
“If you drink that whole glass, I can start.”
I drained the glass. Odd aftertaste. “I got places to be.”
Doolittle raised an eyebrow. “Tonight? You just fought two bears and you got some place to be? You do know that both of your legs are broken, don’t you?”
“Oh, that’s what that sound was. I figured my legs fell asleep.”
“Don’t get smart with me, I’ve always patched you up and I’ll do it again, but you are not going anywhere.”
The world was getting kind of fuzzy. “How about you stop bossing me around and just fix me, damn it.”
“What’s the hurry?” Doolittle began examining my legs. His voice was coming from far away, as if he was speaking from a bottom of a deep stairwell. “What’s so important?”
Words came slowly. “I have to meet a girl.”
“Is she special?”
“Than she will understand.”
The world spun, blinked, and then darkness took me into its mouth and bit down.
She would understand. I would explain it.
It would be okay.