Vampires Are Like Boars. And Like Kits

An hour into the meeting, my phone vibrated in my jeans pocket. I stood to slip out of the room. So did Bruiser, holding his own cell. We met in the hallway and both of us took the calls.

"Jane. Derek here. I just got word that Sabina is sick. The crazy nutso priestess, the one with loose marbles, that Bethany chick, wants to go to her, but I'm not risking one of my men to take her."

"Wait, wait. Sick? How sick?"

"She woke up this evening and she was bleeding. She called in, but my men are not driving Bethany. And Leo's cars all got torched along with the house."

"Bleeding," I whispered. Sabina had healed the once-sick vamp Callan. Now she was sick. "I'll make sure that Bethany is taken to Sabina. Thanks."

"Copy." The call-ended light appeared on my cell.

Bruiser was hanging up too. "Bethany wants a ride to the Mithran graveyard," he said.

"Yeah. Sabina is sick." My mouth turned down. "She probably has the illness she healed Callan from, and if Bethany sips from her while trying to heal her, Bethany will be sick too."

"Understood," Bruiser said. "I'll handle it." But he didn't hurry away, instead, standing apart from me in the narrow hall, watching me, giving me space. Giving me time.

I remembered the way Bethany had healed Bruiser from the dead. She had been more than half naked, sitting on top of him in Katie's office, giving him her blood, her essence, to bring him back from the dead. I wanted to be angry at him for his subsequent betrayal - okay, I wanted to hit him so hard my fist would pop out his back - but I knew what vamp blood, especially large amounts of vamp blood, could do to a human. "You know, if the vamps and their pals would tell me what was going on and I didn't have to fly by the seat of my pants all the time, I'd make fewer mistakes. Like maybe I'd have carried the Enforcer I shot into Gregoire's room and made him heal him. Instead, he's dead."

"Had Gregoire's blood-servants known the man you shot was going to die, and had we known he was a valuable blood-servant, and had we known his master was going to attack so many other masters, the man would still be alive." Bruiser's face softened and something odd sifted through me. He was being kind. "You did the best you could with the information you had, Jane. So did we. No one knew that you had hit an artery with your second shot. No one knew he would bleed internally. None of us could read the future or delve into the heart of an enemy. Don't carry guilt that isn't yours."

I stared up into his eyes as he spoke, trying to remember to be angry at him, unsettled by his kindness. But after all the events and memories of my own, that was hard. Instead I just felt . . . more empty, if that was possible. Bruiser cocked his head at me, as if trying to read my thoughts. He looked younger, leaner than only a few days past, and his skin glowed with health. The amount of vamp blood he had ingested had given him back ten years. I wanted to smooth my hand along his cheek, just to see if his skin really was as velvety as it looked. I also still wanted to belt him a good one. I curled my fingers around my cell and shook my head. "None of you ever leads a normal life, do you?"

"I bloody well hope not," Bruiser chuckled, his British tones leaking through. "Normal is short, painful, and boring."

"But if you were normal - " I stopped, having almost said, If you were normal you wouldn't have had to watch me being forcefully fed on. But I had been normal once, and I'd watched my father killed and my mother raped. Being normal was no proof against horror.

Bruiser reached out a hand and touched my face. "If I were normal, I'd be dead by now, love. I'd likely have never lived to see a moon landing or an intercontinental flight, never had the chance to see the Russian ballet, or hear Pavarotti in his prime, never lived to see the advent of the electronic age. I'd trade normal for that any day." His smile widened. "And even if I'd lived as a normal man, I'd have been very, very old by now, and you'd have thought I was cheeky at best, not charming and debonair." I raised my brows as if challenging his self-description. "You might have seen an old photograph of me and thought, 'He was a good-looking chap when he was young.' But you'd never have let me kiss you, which I full well intend to do again, just as soon as we get past this.

"But for now, I have work to do." He kissed the tips of his fingers and pressed them to my cheek. "Later, love." Bruiser turned and moved away from me, tapping on his cell as he moved. I watched him go, my eyes moving down his body. He had a very nice body and a perfect butt. It was one of his best attributes. And he was right: he wouldn't have been even slightly attractive to me if he was wearing dentures, a lifetime of wrinkled skin, adult diapers, and was perched on an adjustable bed. He'd have been a horny old man at best.

Love. He'd called me love. Twice. And then there was Eli, perfectly human and perfectly delightful, with a nature that matched mine, and a set of abs that would make the Madonna - the original Madonna - lust. And Rick. My heart twisted at that thought. Yeah. Rick. I was so screwed up.

* * *

Leaving the guys to work and the vamps to worry, I climbed on Bitsa and headed across the river and into the woods and wetlands. I pulled the bike off the road and hid her in the brush. Bending over the front tire, I raked the gold nugget necklace across the sidewall in lieu of a rock, and hoped it would work as well as a homing beacon in case I got lost. I stripped, folded my clothes on the bike seat, grabbed my large winter go-bag, my emergency mountain lion tooth, which I used to make shifting easier and less painful, and walked into the woods a short ways, the soles of my feet protesting.

Shifting in the sudden cool spell meant more clothes to leave with the bike and more clothes to carry with me, but I needed to get into my Beast. I was feeling uncertain and edgy and Beast, well, Beast never had those feelings. She was all about hunting and eating and sleeping. As long as there was food, she was happy. I needed some of that simplicity, even if it was a bloody simplicity.

I sat on a log at the edge of a bayou, with my go-bag on my neck, adjusted to allow for Beast's neck girth. I was shivering, my skin pebbled, and my breath was blowing white clouds. The waning moon was reflected in the black water.

I gripped the fetish tooth with both hands, and tried to find some sort of peaceful mind-set. I usually needed to meditate to have a less painful shift, though lately I wasn't as picky. In fact, I'd shifted in some really unusual places and emotional states.

Holding the tooth, I closed my eyes. Listened to the plink of water moving across the earth, the susurration of the wind, the beat of my own heart. Beast panted inside me, ready, eager to hunt, more eager than she had been since she came into contact with an angel. I still didn't know the outcome of that encounter and from her reticence about the subject, might never know. Beast wasn't talkative at the best of times, and had become downright closemouthed about Hayyel and what changes the angel had wrought in her.

I slowed my heart rate and let my muscles relax. I stretched out on the log, shivering. I sank deep inside, my consciousness falling away, remembering only the fetish tooth. The notes of a wood flute, soothing and mellow, like the one on the CD player in Aggie's sweathouse, filled my memory. I smelled the cleansing herbs of a smudge stick, and I dropped deeper, into the dark within. The place of the change within me seemed bigger inside than I remembered, more hollow, a large cavern branching off into other dark places. It had a sense of far-flung echoes and the resonant plink of distant water.

As I had been taught so long ago, I sought the inner snake lying inside the tooth's root, the coiled, curled snake deep in the cells, in the remains of the marrow, the DNA peculiar to all animals on earth. For my people, for skinwalkers, it had always simply been the inner snake.

I dropped down into it, like water flowing through the bayou, like gators swimming in long, swirling water-glides. Grayness enveloped me, sparkling and cold; the world fell away.

My breathing deepened. My bones slid. Skin rippled. Pain, like a scalpel, slid between muscle and bone. My spine bowed hard.

* * *

My nostrils widened, drawing deep. I gathered paws under me, ear tabs flicking, listening, scenting. World was bright with greens and grays and silvers, the colors of night to big-cat eyes. Clear and sharp. I yawned widely and chuffed. Jane had left steaks back at dead, not-dead Bitsa. Jane was tricky. Wanted me to take tooth back.

I stood and stretched through belly and spine, back legs and front legs, paws flexing into old wood of log. I shook, pelt moving over body, loose. Predators had sunk claws into pelt, and found no vital organs beneath, pelt sliding across instead. Beast had killed other predators who thought they would win. Foolish predators. Pack hunters.

I lifted tooth in teeth and trotted back through pine trees to road and bushes where Jane had hidden Bitsa from any thieves of Bitsa. Did not know why thieves would steal Bitsa. Could not eat Bitsa. No blood, no bone. I did not understand. I dropped Jane's tooth on top of the pile of clothes and sank to ground beside cow meat. Sniffed. Meat smelled old and watery, not hot with blood and fresh with chase. I ate anyway. Cleaned up all blood with tongue and lay, belly to ground. Groomed mouth and paws, satisfied, listening to night. I heard something.

Tilted ears. Felt through ground on belly, heard through air. Stampstampstamp. Knew that sound. Stood slowly. Opened mouth and pulled in air over scent sacs in mouth, with long, soft screeeee of sound. Smell came on wind, strong. Big prey. Much good meat.

Beast? Jane said, waking in mind.

I didn't answer. I padded into wind, testing, tasting, feeling vibrations with paw pads on ground. Big prey. I found good place to watch and leaped to tree limb hanging over narrow path to water. Good place to hunt. Ambush.

Stampstampstamp, fastfastfast. Running, trotting, big prey. Only one. But big.

Waited for prey to come, paws tight under belly. Eyes on path. Small hooves got closer.

What is that thing? Jane thought.

Huge black creature trotted into view. Boar. Big boar. Big teeth curling up from mouth. It raced under limb. Ambush!

Oh, crap, Jane thought. That thing has tusks. It has to weigh nearly a hundred pounds. You are not going t -

I leaped. Landed on boar's back, claws gripping through coarse hair of stubby mane. Killing teeth biting down at base of skull. Found only hard fat and muscle. Boar stumbled with force of Beast, but did not fall. Screamed, pig scream. Started running. Raced through scrub, Beast on back. Branches hit Beast.

Beast bit down again and again, shaking hard, tearing flesh. Spurt of blood. Hot. Tasty. Boar bucked like horse, jumped high and twisted body. Beast held tight with claws in boar haunches and shoulders. Bit down again. Boar ran, fastfastfast through woods, screaming.

Boar ran under downed tree, resting across path. Log hit Beast in head. Ripped Beast off boar. I fell. Boar spun. Squeal changed to sound of anger. Boar attacked. Shaking head, Beast raced back along path and leaped high to stump of broken tree. Boar jumped. Teeth and tusks ripped at Beast's paws and legs. Boar was too close. Beast was not able to leap or fall onto boar.

Boar stood up on hind legs and jumped high, tusks stabbing. Beast spun in midair, long stubby tail spinning. Killing teeth caught boar under chin. Deep in blood-rich flesh. Blood spurted over Beast. Hothothot. Good. Beast clamped down with jaws. Shook prey. Boar stopped squealing. Beast had boar's air pipe in killing teeth. Crushed down. Crushing. Crushing. Boar could not breathe. Fell to knees. Hard. Pulled Beast off stump to ground. Beast stood over boar, could see tusks near face. Smell of old blood and old vegetable. Rotting human food from waste pile, grubs, and fungus. Pig food. Boar fell back, belly to sky. Beast followed, holding, killing teeth clamped tight. Claws hooked in boar belly. Time passed. Beast shook boar many times. Boar died.

Son of a . . . Jane breathed hard in back of mind, thoughts full of fear. You do know that if it ate you, there would be no way of coming back. I mean, it would have killed both of us.

Beast did not reply. Beast tore into boar stomach and ate. Good tasty bloody hot meat. Good pig-boar. Beast is good hunter.

* * *

Later, Beast cleaned boar blood off pelt and out of claws with rough tongue. Vampires are like boars. And like kits, I thought.

Yeah? How's that? Jane thought, her fear gone, her thinking calm.

Bad vampires need to be killed. Have much blood. But vampires who are good are like kits. Need Jane.

Jane said nothing.

I stood and walked back to water, full belly heavy with meat. I drank at water's edge and stared at water, holding night sky in surface. I thought about Jane. Thought about Leo. I see leash in den in mind. I see chain. Leash put onto Jane by Leo. Leash is not on Beast. I can break it.

Can you? Jane sounded happy.

I walked to dark thing that was Leo's cage inside Jane. Extended claws. And swiped at chain of binding.

* * *

I found myself awake near the water, the sun's rays just peeking over the horizon. I felt . . . incredible. Leo's compulsion was nearly gone. I could still feel it, like a hard nut cocooned with spiderwebs in the back of my brain, but it was smaller, more compact, less diffuse. A couple more shifts, and it would be totally gone.

I reached up a hand to touch my neck, finding the gold nugget necklace I never took off. Unfortunately, the go-bag was gone. My clothes, my shoes, and my throwaway cell phone were no longer attached to me. The fight with the boar had ripped the go-bag off my neck. It was lost in the brush somewhere. I was a long way from Bitsa and my clothes, which meant I needed to find the gear.

I spent nearly an hour looking for the go-bag, and when I finally found it, it was covered in boar blood. I rinsed the flip-flops off in a nearby bayou, hoping that the morning was too cool to attract alligators, wiped off the throwaway cell, and tossed the rest of clothes into the water. Naked and cold, I walked back to the bike, dressed, and kick-started Bitsa, riding into the city. I stopped at a tiny French Quarter restaurant and had a huge breakfast starting with a stack of pancakes, six eggs over easy, and a rasher of bacon. I'd eaten here before and the waiters knew I was a big eater. I'd overheard them making bets on me. It might be bets about when I'd balloon up with the pounds, or bets about whether I'd order blueberry pancakes or harvest grain. Whatever they were betting on, I always got great service, my teacup was always full, and my syrup was always warm. I tossed three tens on the table when I was done and went home. I needed sleep.

Just before I dozed off, my other throwaway rang. I reached off the mattress and opened my cell. It was Reach. I pursed my lips and said, "How did you get this number?"

"You're kidding, right?"

I sighed and said, "Yeah, I guess that was a stupid question. What do you want?"

"The Kid is okay. He's good and he's capable, and in about two hours, he's gonna knock on your door and tell you who your mole is."

"You want to tell me now?"

"Nah. Why spoil the Kid's fun?" The phone call ended.

"Well, crap." So much for sleep.

* * *

But I did sleep, a hard, deep nap. Two hours after the phone call from Reach, I heard a knock at my door. "Coming." I got up and shook out a pair of sweats that had been lying in the bottom of the closet. They didn't smell too bad, so I pulled them on and padded to the door. Opened it. Stinky, who smelled of herbal shampoo, was on the other side, his knee doing that shaking thing he did when he had too much nervous energy. He was holding a cup of very strong tea. "Yeah?" I said. I'm not my best on little sleep.

He handed me the tea, which was a nice surprise. I could get used to this. "I know who the traitor is. You are looking for a traitor, right? That's why the deep background on people you already work with? So I found him. I think. I'm pretty sure. I've checked it about a dozen times. So, yeah, I'm sure."

The Kid was smart. Way too smart for my own good. I sipped the tea, which was so strong it was bitter, the sharp taste only slightly masked by a lot of sugar. I'd have to teach him how to brew tea. I crossed my arms, sipped again, and waited.

"It's the intel guy. Corporal Joran Stevens. The ex-marine."

He was talking about Angel Tit. All the pleasure drained out of me, leaving my limbs feeling heavy as lead. "Former. Former marine," I murmured, thinking, trying to take it in. "There are no ex-marines." I'd had that "no ex-marines" thing made clear to me early on. Except this former marine had turned against his unit. Stupid, disconnected thoughts. Shock.

Angel Tit? I'd thought it would be one of the vamps. I'd hoped it would be a vamp. "Crap," I whispered. "Let me see what you have."

Alex had hacked Angel's e-mail and the evidence was clear, if cryptic. A few months back, Angel Tit had been approached in a Special Forces chat room. Angel had needed money fast. One of his sisters was in trouble with the law and he needed to hire a better lawyer for her than the wet-behind-the-ears public defender the court had assigned. In return for some much-needed cash, he had been asked to provide a bit of seemingly innocuous information about the blood-servants in Leo Pellissier's household. The information hadn't been secret, so he had complied. Later, the anonymous person from the chat room needed something else. Then something else. And suddenly Angel Tit was in so deep he couldn't get out.

The money he had earned hadn't been that great, but any money gathered by a traitor was enough to get him . . . what? Killed? Kicked out of Derek's unit? "Print it out," I said softly.

I turned away and called Derek on my official phone. "Whatchu want, Injun Princess?"

"We need to talk," I said. "Privately. Can you come to my place?"

"Sure. I'm at Katie's, watching your boy work on her safe room. Not bad skills for the army. I'll be there in ten."

"Fine." I closed the cell and turned back to Alex. "You did good work. Can you find out the ID of the person who contacted the corporal?"

Alex looked at the screen, pouching out his lips, and back to me. "Maybe. I'll try. You want everything on him?"

"Yes. I want to know name, banking, family, habits, hobbies, who his pals are, and where he eats breakfast." Which meant a very deep search indeed. "But for now, go upstairs and shut your door. I need some privacy." I went to my room and dressed in cleaner clothes. Put on some lipstick. Strapped on a Walther PK380 shoulder harness on top of my T-shirt. The weapon was snug under my arm, but not hidden. I didn't want Derek to think I was unarmed. I French-braided my hair and tied it with a scrunchy, which was so much better than a string torn from a pocket. I met Derek at the door and held out a hand. "Phone."


I didn't answer, my hand outstretched. He put his cell in my hand and I tossed it into my room onto the bed, next to mine, and shut the bedroom door. "We've been compromised," I said. "I want to make sure no one can listen in."

* * *

Derek stood at my table studying the printouts. His face was expressionless, his eyes scanning page after page. At one point, he leaned over the table, bracing himself on one hand. His breathing didn't alter, but his heart rate went up, the pulse in his neck starting to jump. When he reached the last page, he swiveled his head on his neck and looked at me. Took in the Walther and my stance, which was far too relaxed. "You thought I'd need to be shot, Legs?" I didn't reply. "I've seen you fight Gregoire's half-human goons. I know what you can do."

I still didn't reply, and Derek stood upright, his body at an angle to mine, perfect for drawing a weapon if he was wearing a shoulder holster. But he was wearing a low back holster. He'd have to reach behind and pull forward. I'd noticed his weapon was snapped in. Mine wasn't. I'd have plenty of time if needed. Beast rose in me, staring out through my eyes.

"You can take a lot of abuse," Derek said. His cheek started a tic and his pulse increased again. He looked at the gun under my arm, taking in the unsnapped safety strap. "You think you can take me?"

"Are you asking me to hurt you because your boy is a spy?"

"Angel's no boy. He's a man. He's faced combat. He's - " Derek stopped, his breath fast. Betrayal hurt. This betrayal more than most, because Angel had been in Iraq with him. They had been together for a long time.

"He's your friend," I said. "He's in trouble. He should have come to you for help. He didn't. He's not happy to be in the position he's in. He's hurting." That was me being compassionate. The next bit was me being me. "And he also has an in with the enemy."

Derek thought about that. "You want me to use my friend to get to the enemy vamp."

"If he's willing."

"And if he's not?"

"Then he gets put on ice until this is over with," I said. "And his sister's fancy new lawyer drops her case for nonpayment. He'll deal. He has amends to make and trust to rebuild."

"You think I'll keep him around after this?"

I smiled, but it wasn't a pretty smile. "I hope you kick his ass and turn him over to the cops. People died on your watch, because of him. But I'll agree that it's your call."

Derek dropped his head, then looked up at me under his brows. "I was hoping you'd say something stupid so I could hit you."

I chuckled. "Sorry to disoblige. But I need you healthy and not laid up in the hospital."

An unwilling smiled pulled at his mouth. "Someday we're gonna fight, Princess. For real."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Big words from the tough guy. So, how do you want to play this?"

"Straight up," Derek said. "Him and me. We'll talk. Then I'll kick the crap outta him. And then we'll use his contacts to draw out our fanghead."

"Works for me. Do all the talking where there isn't any electronic surveillance that could be compromised. Let me know when you want me."

* * *

Later that afternoon, Derek called. "We're coming over, Injun Princess."

I was waiting in the kitchen when their car pulled up and they knocked on the front door. "Come in," I called. Angel and Derek walked in, Angel in front. He had a puffy lip and the beginnings of a black eye. Angel stood in front of me, not meeting my eyes. "Teeth?" I asked.

Angel touched his lip. "A few a little loose."

"You deserve that and more. People died because of you. But now you've got something we want. A connection. If you work with us, I'm happy to tell no one, even Leo, even your buddies, about your little indiscretion. You want to start on the road to recovery or be locked up?"

Angel glanced back at Derek, who looked none the worse for wear. Apparently Angel hadn't put up much of a fight. "Recovery." He shook his head, but not in disagreement, more like resignation, and drew to attention. "Hi. I'm Joran Stevens and I'm a fuckup."

Kid yelled from upstairs, "Watch your language. There's a lady present." Derek and Angel both laughed, whether at the timing or idea that I might be called a lady, I didn't know.

* * *

Alex and Angel were working out the basics of a scheme to draw out the unknown subject who had turned him. The condition of his face was the ace in the hole of the plan. Angel typed in a text on his phone, showed the text to us, and hit SEND. I took his cell back to my bedroom. There was no way to detect if someone was listening in through the phones, so we had to keep the cells we were known to use in one room together. Derek had purchased a dozen throwaways and some other low-tech electronics for us to use until this was all over. Luckily, I had five thousand in cash on hand - my runaway money, I hadn't used, so if someone was keeping tabs on credit usage, they couldn't see what we had bought or done.

"Now what?" Angel asked.

"Now we wait," Alex said.

"And eat," I said. "I've ordered pizza." Alex grinned like the teenaged boy he was.

Halfway through the pizza, we heard the tone Angel had assigned for the mystery man. The tone came over the baby monitor we had set up on the phones in my bedroom.

Derek raced in and grabbed the cell, showing Angel's text to the small group. The text said "Moonwalk bench 2pm."

Which made no sense to me whatsoever, but the others seemed to understand.

When he came back to the kitchen, after putting the phone back in my room, Derek said, "We're on." At my obvious confusion, he said, "The Moonwalk is the scenic boardwalk along the Mississippi." When my confusion didn't abate, he said, "It's called that after Moon Landrieu, a former mayor."

It was perhaps telling that my first thought was the Moonwalk was the place where I'd taken Rick down on our first sort-of date. "Ducky," I said. I hadn't been in New Orleans long, but it already had its share of painful memories. "Okay. Let's do this."

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