Death's Rival CHAPTER NINE

If I Lose, the Kid Eats Like a Soldier

Eli Younger was my height, give or take an inch, solid as an oak, fast on his feet, maybe mid-thirties, and not what I expected at all. All Derek's men were black and former marines. The Ranger was probably at least half white, and . . . Different was too ordinary a word. He had dark gray eyes that might have a blue haze to them in direct sunlight, dark hair cut military short, skin as brown as mine, and a still-healing, jagged scar that started at his left jaw and ran down his neck to disappear into his shirt collar. It didn't look like a knife wound. Shrapnel, maybe. No tattoos that I could see.

I took a beer from the fridge and passed it across to him. Eli grinned at the fridge, twisted off the top, and drank. I was pretty sure he was smiling because the inside light no longer functioned. Security. Or maybe it was the stack of steaks inside. He seemed like a man who'd like steak.

I prepared tea for me, boiling water, pouring dried leaves into a strainer. Setting an antique pot in the sink and filling it with hot tap water to temper the old ceramic. We studied each other as we worked - him on his beer, me on my tea. I was tired, so I chose a strong Irish breakfast blend and got out the sugar. I worked in silence. It didn't seem to bother him, which was nice. I never knew what to say to men who needed chitchat. While the water heated, I sat and said, "Tell me about your brother."

His eyes shifted for a moment, and I figured I was about to get a portion of the truth. "Alex is my height, just turned eighteen, a graduate from MIT. He's on juvie probation, but if you hire me, you hire him. We're a team." I thought about that for a moment, then nodded, waiting for more. "He got caught hacking into the Pentagon." A smile pulled at my lips and about a hundred emotions flitted across Eli's face before he settled on wry. "Yeah. He wants to know what happened." Eli touched his scar. "He hates secrets. I wouldn't talk, so he tried hacking in, looking for my records. He's good. Arguably one of the top ten hackers in the country, not that they call it hacking anymore. But he made a rookie mistake, probably because he's worried."

I raised my brows. Eli went on. "Alex says I'm different since it happened. He doesn't like it."

"So different you can't do the job?"

"So different I wanted out. I was a career soldier. Then I wasn't."

Cub, Beast thought at me. It seemed like a good guess. I went with it. "Your parents are deceased." Eli's eyes dilated a bit in surprise. Bingo. "You nearly died, and Alex would have been alone. You quit for him, and if he knew that he'd be ticked off." Surprise and irritation leaked from Eli's skin. He'd not be happy to know he was giving away the good parts of his personal story by his olfactory tells, but I wasn't sharing that. Let him think I was just that smart, or that Derek had told me all. "So, with your injury, whatever the service gives you to retire early, good contacts, and a pocketful of medals, you hope to start a business - one where you can keep an eye on your brother - with your hard-won skills and your brother's genius IQ and computer flair." I nodded slowly at what I was reading in the tension of his jaw. Yeah. I was betting I had it all straight. "But you have to stay in Louisiana until his probation is over, and I'm the fastest job possibility you have. I have a big house at my disposal and you think you can bunk in here for a month or two, make good cash, and look around for better things. Anything I get wrong? Anything I need to know different?"

"No. And?"

"I'll think about it." I took the simmering kettle off the fire. Emptied the pot and set the strainer inside. Poured the steaming water over the leaves and set the top on with a little clink. I swathed the teapot in a towel and left it to steep. I walked into my bedroom and right back out with the sheaf of papers and the Apple I had taken from Seattle. "Small test to see if you are what you say you are. Get your brother to see what's on this computer. I want a list and summary of all files. I want the e-mail address book. I want to read every e-mail sent in the last month. I'm looking - "

Eli held up a hand, pulled out a cell, and hit a button. We both heard it ring. Right outside. "I told you to stay put. Get your sorry ass in here." He closed the cell. I laughed. Eli shook his head and sighed. "Crazy kid. He was supposed to stay in the truck."

A knock sounded at the front door. Eli got up and stood to the side of the door, checking out the window before opening it. A kid came in, looking much younger than eighteen, gangly, gawky, and carrying a slim electronic device about the size of two hands, and at least three electronic devices under one arm - an e-reader, a tablet, whatever. Eli pointed to a chair at the table. The kid seemed to melt into it, the electronics in his lap. He wouldn't meet my eyes.

Thief, Beast whispered to me.

What did he take of mine? He didn't have time to steal. I turned my back on the pair. Not a dominance action this time, but a chance to think. I got out two mugs and spoons and poured tea. Added sugar to both and stirred, putting two and two together.

I walked around the table and put one cup in front of the kid. Beast-fast, I yanked the electronic tablets off his lap and put the table between us again. I set the fancy electronics on the table just out of his reach. Eli started to react and stopped himself with a jerk, only his eyes showing a reaction to my speed and my thievery. "Are my financials okay, kid? My background check out? Did Reach burn your little butt for going deep into my life?"

The kid looked up at that. He was going to be a lot prettier than his brother, if he ever got over the sullen glint in his eyes and the stubborn grinding of his teeth. Then his mouth dropped slowly open. "That was Reach? The Reach? Like Reacher Reach?" He looked at the small e-tablet and cussed softly.

His brother slapped the back of his head. "Lady here."

Alex rubbed his head, looking at me under too-long bangs. "Bugger's not a bad word, and she's no lady. She's a rogue-vampire killer. She's got more kills under her belt than any other licensed hunter in the business. She's also the Enforcer for Leo Pellissier, and no one knows how she got the position. Half of the fanghead hunters think she's his blood-servant. The other half think she's got a legal writ on him and is getting into position to take him out. She's got more money than Midas."

Eli rumpled his brow, and I knew he was thinking about the muffler company rather than the mythical king. I laughed, half wondering how I could read the man so well. It had to be more than his musky undertone. He was like a pheromone factory, every emotion immediately available to my nose, but even that shouldn't make him so transparent. "And Reach burned a hole in your system for looking?"

"Fried my ass. Fried my Teckton."

I didn't know what a Teckton was, but it sounded expensive. After checking to make sure his devices were all off, I pulled my cell and hit Reach's speed dial. "Evening, Money Honey," he said.

I snorted. "The kid you just burned getting into my records. Is he dangerous? And can he be trusted as an employee?"

"Yes and yes. Him and his Ranger brother. And for that and for taking care of you when you weren't looking, I just earned a crisp five hundred of your money."

I didn't bother to reply. I ended the call. Looked between Eli and Alex, and left my gaze on the kid. "I'm thinking about hiring your bother. I understand you come as part of the package deal. So, a test. You have one hour to get everything off that laptop." I pointed to the Seattle Apple. "I want a list and summary of all files. I want the e-mail address book. I want to read every nonpersonal, business-type e-mail sent in the last month. I'm looking for a challenge from one vamp to another. Travel discussions. Anything about doctors and research, about vamps getting sick." I tossed the Blood-Call business card on the desk too. "It's probably nothing, but that was at a . . ." I hesitated, trying to decide how to describe the Seattle Clan Home. "A crime scene. I want everything you can find on it. One hour."

"Are you nuts? One hour?" I raised my brows at his tone and he said, "I haven't had any sleep. I'll need coffee."

"You'll drink tea and like it. Your brother can cook you some dinner. If I like your work and his cooking, you're hired."

"You're hiring us on his work? Not what I can do?" Eli asked.

"You're the brawn. You can supplement my own skills and maybe teach me a thing or two. The kid, if he's any good, can take me and my business all kids of places. He's valuable." I looked Eli over, smelling his shock, and I grinned, knowing I had just verbally socked him in the gut. Men are so easy. After a moment I tossed him a bone. "I need a secure room in this house, one with egress in case of fire. I was nearly burned out not that long ago. Updated windows and doors. My vampire landlady and employer" - I pointed out the back of the house - "needs a safe room too. I started one. Got as far as installing a sprinkler system and dedicated communication devices. You can take that over too. Assuming your brother is as good as he thinks he is." The kid snorted and said something my house mother in the children's home would have washed out my mouth for saying.

"Alex?" He looked up from the screen to me. "You ever say that in my house again, or any other curse or swearword or phrase, in English or any other language, and I'll wash out your mouth with soap, something antibacterial, with a real slimy degreaser." His eyes sparked sullen again. "My house, my rules. Are we clear?" He looked at his bother and nodded, lank hair falling forward. "And if you get the job, you'll shower every day, and you'll do your own laundry and pick up after yourself. Your brother cooks, so you'll wash dishes and keep the entire house swept. I am not your mother. And if I was, I'd be twice as hard on you for showing disrespect to me and to your brother. Nod if you understand and agree." A long moment later, the kid nodded, but I could see the anger and a blue screen, both reflected in his eyes.

My cell rang and I opened it without taking my eyes off my current guests and potential employees. "Yeah."

Derek said, "We got a route for Leo. According to the crispy vamp, he was drained in what sounds like a gang-feeding, and then whisked away by two vamps and two blood-servants. Angel hacked the GPS of the car they were in and Chi-Chi, Lime Rickey, and Hi-Fi are heading to observe and gather intel. I assume you want to be there, so I've sent the coordinates to your cell."

I inhaled slowly, letting the shock settle. I could think later about what the gang-feeding analogy might mean to Leo, and moved to my bedroom to weapon up as I checked Derek's GPS info, merging it into a map and then taking a look at it on webcam pics. The car was on the far side of Highway 10, parked at a one-story house on Ursulines Ave. According to Google, there was a high school nearby, but not much else. Of course, Google was not something I wanted to depend on when planning an op.

"Trap for us?" I asked, sliding into my M4 harness and the holsters for the nine-mils.

"Could be."

"Okay. I'll meet them there." Behind me, I heard the familiar clicks and metal-against-metal of guns being checked and glanced back to see Eli Younger weaponing up as well. I watched to see what he carried and it was pretty much standard, the kind of stuff I had utilized when I first started out.

"If it looks reliable," Derek said, "we'll send Leo's blood-servants to be available."

Leo was drained. Drained vamps are dangerous. Very. "Okay. I'll get back to you."

From my closet floor I lifted the boot box I use for a jewelry box and set it on the bed. Inside were the few pieces I owned, each stuffed inside athletic socks to keep them from rattling around. And to keep my socks all in one place. I placed the black velvet gift box on the bed and lifted out my silver and titanium vamp-hunting collar. Underneath it was the coyote earring that had appeared in the box following a particularly horrible nightmare one night. I paused at the sight. I didn't have nightmares often, but this one had stuck with me. So had the earring, which was weird, but no weirder than the fact that the pocket watch had somehow gotten into the black velvet box with it. I distinctly remembered dropping the watch-amulet into the box, on top of the socks. The amulet's magic still smelled like meat. Like blood. Good thing Beast wasn't hanging around too much. She would want to taste it. Along with the watch, I stuffed the earring in a sock, wondering if they would both reappear, in a different spot in the box the next time I opened it. I removed the collar and put the box back on the floor of the closet.

"You going somewhere?" I asked Eli, questioning his weapons with lifted brows.

He shrugged. "Consider it a job interview for the brawn half of the Younger team."

"Suit yourself," I said. "We're going to rescue a starving master vamp from some kidnappers and torturers. Try not to get your throat torn out." That made Eli pause half a second in his prep work. He looked over my necklace collar, considering the implications. "No. I don't have another one," I said. "If I keep you around - "

"Yeah, yeah. You'll spring for one."

"Heck no. These suckers are expensive. I'll send you to a supplier and you can buy your own."

"Sweet lady."

"Your brother had it right. I'm no lady. We'll take your vehicle."

Eli shrugged and we were out the door and heading toward Highway 10, Eli driving, me reading out directions on my cell.

* * *

The house was in need of a paint job, but it had a newish, post-Katrina roof. It was deep but narrow on the front, with steps up to a porch and working shutters closed over all the windows. In the Deep South, shutters are for hurricane protection, not just looks. Unlike most of the duplexes around it, this was a single-family house, up on seven-foot stilts, with the lower area used for low-head parking and storage. We pulled down the block, behind the SUV, and parked, trees between us and the house.

Chi-Chi climbed into the backseat and closed the door softly, handing us com units. "Lime Rickey and Hi-Fi have reconnoitered and are in position," he said as we slid into the units and tested functionality. "The front door is six, and Lime is at two, Hi is at seven. We have a single-family dwelling with six-foot alleys to either side and a small backyard, fenced, with a couple of pit bulls, unchained. We have tranks and Lime can take out both dogs safely. What we don't know is if Leo is inside."

"Give me a minute," I said, and slipped out. Eli had rigged his vehicle to be able to turn off all the interior lights, which made it easy to come and go without being seen by neighbors, not that many were up at this hour. I moved through the night, my nose to the wind.

And I smelled blood. A lot of it, which made sense of this whole kidnapping. Leo's enemy had kidnapped him, drained him, and placed dinner before him. If what I was guessing about the transmission of the vampire plague was correct, it was probably someone who had the vamp disease. If Leo had drunk, it was likely that he was sick now, just like his old lover Rosanne Romanello. Crap. "Boys, I'm circling the house," I said. "Don't trank or shoot me, okay?"

"Copy." "Copy that." And a snort of laughter from Chi-Chi.

Listening, sniffing, I moved around the house, drawing on my Beast senses. At one window I heard voices. Panting. It was the sound of pain, when one has been so damaged that one can no longer even scream. Crap. Leo.

I tapped my mic. "Leo is in a room at nine o'clock. He's hurt. Where are the blood-servants?"

"Pulling up now," Chi-Chi said.

"When we go in, have them slit their wrists and follow close."

"Say again?" Chi-Chi said, startled.

I chuckled, no humor in the sound at all. "Leo will attack any human who gets near. If he scents blood, he'll likely go for that site rather than rip out their throats. I'm guessing that they know all this, but just in case, remind them. The wound doesn't have to be deep, but it has to be actively bleeding. It might save their lives. "

"Son of a -  Copy," Chi-Chi said. "Why don't you take point?"

In this case, point wasn't a position of honor for the best warrior in the bunch, but the most dangerous position for the one they liked least. "Gee thanks, Chi-Chi."

"Anytime, Legs."

At least there was amusement in his tone. I heard a car brake out front and I pulled my shotgun from its spine sheath. Chi-Chi said, "Takeout is here. Trank the dogs." From the backyard I heard spats of sound and yelps as an air gun fired. The dogs went quickly silent.

"Dogs out," Lime whispered. "Moving to the back door."

A moment later Chi-Chi said, "Blood meals are appropriately bleeding."

I raced around the house to the front door and up the steps, hearing the sound of untrained feet running noisily behind me. The door was steel. Fortunately, when I turned the knob, it clicked open. It wasn't locked. Which meant very sloppy vamps or a trap. I said a small prayer and pulled on Beast-speed as I pushed open the door and raced inside. The place was unlit and unfurnished, all the rooms I could see were empty, but the smell of blood was everywhere

Eli moved to my left and just behind: Chi-Chi and Hi-Fi were behind him. We checked each room, though the scents told me everyone was in the room with Leo. From the back of the house, I heard Lime Rickey enter.

I lifted my nose and followed the scent to the room on the left in the middle of the house. A light was on inside. Beast pounded her strength and speed into my bloodstream. I caught a breath and whispered, "On three." I turned the knob. "One, two, three." And slammed open the door.

In the space of a single heartbeat, light stabbed my eyes, and the smell of sickness assaulted my nose as I took in the room. It was a bloodbath. There were two bleeding blood-servants standing beside the back wall, and two bleeding vamps, sitting on a blood-drenched sofa. The strangers were sick, all of them.

Shackled to the far wall was what had once been Leo. Silver cuffs burned into his flesh at wrists and ankles. He was vamped out, his jaw dropped and thrust forward, looking as if it was unhinged - three-inch fangs out and glistening. His hair clung to his gore-smeared, sweaty skin in wild, bloody strands. His clothes were mostly torn off. Or bitten off. Fang marks were all over him, at knees, crotch, and elbows mostly, all places away from the defensive weapons of his own fangs and claws. His skin was palepalepale, ashen, dead-looking. His eyes were wild. Insane. His fangs were pearl white, no blood was smeared at his mouth. He hadn't fed from the infected offerings.

Before the vamps could move, I fired the M4, taking down the vamp on the left, then the one on the right as he stood. Nonlethal, standard ammo, midcenter, abdominal shot placement. Eli and Chi-Chi were standing over the humans, weapons aimed down at them. I hadn't seen or heard them taken down, but I had felt the thuds under my feet as they hit the floor, forcefully. I couldn't hear myself ready the shotgun for another round, nor my voice over the concussion in my ears, but I knew the vamps heard when I shouted. "You move, you die true-dead." One sank back on the sofa, clutching at her belly. The other one rushed me.

I reacted without thinking, dropped to one knee, and fired again, this time a head shot. The vamp dropped like a thrown rock - with momentum. I dodged left, out of the way of the falling body and bloody bits. So much for keeping them all alive.

Leo threw himself against the shackles at the smell of more fresh blood. It was the final proof that he hadn't fed off the infected blood offerings; he'd not still be this ravenously hungry. A weight fell from my shoulders at the thought. His blood-servants entered, hesitating a moment before converging on Leo. I didn't watch as the first one lifted his wrist to his master.

* * *

Sixty minutes after we had left, Eli and I were back at my house. Half an hour later, we were each eating a very good, very rare steak and sharing the events with Alex. When we were sated and the adrenaline had been burned off with several beers, Eli said, "So. Are we hired?"

He looked cocky and amused, and I tilted my head. "Ehhhh." I looked at his brother. "Your brother can follow orders and take down a house. How about you? You got info for me?"

"Yeah," Alex said. "I sent you some stuff."

I opened my own laptop, which felt increasingly out of date after seeing the kid's electronics. The folders he sent were neat and orderly, the files organized under headings that were easy to follow, easy to read, and comprehend. I hit PRINT and added paper to the printer. I e-mailed the entire batch to Reach and dialed his number. When the line opened, he said, "Nice work. Leo is saved by the famed vampire-killer." I heard the sarcasm and him clapping in the background.

I didn't reply or rise to the bait. Instead, I said, "This one is for our old fees, not the exorbitant prices you've been charging me."

"And if I disagree?" When I didn't reply, he sighed and said, "Fine. What?"

"I just sent you a file. I want to know how it's organized. I want you to run a search through it for anything with the name of the Enforcer in Asheville. See who it ties into. See what you can dig up." I hung up and turned to Alex. "The name of the Enforcer in Asheville was Ramondo Pitri. You do the same assignment. We'll see how your skills stand up to Reach's."

The kid's eyes glowed. "Sweeeet." He went to work, fingers clacking on the Seattle vamps' Apple, his own laptop, and the two electronic tablets that still functioned, all four devices at once. Eli stared at his brother, then at me, and shook his head. Despite my demand that Alex had kitchen duty, he started cleaning up my kitchen. I liked that in a man.

Fifty-two minutes later my cell rang. At the same moment, Alex hit SEND. "Done," he said.

I opened my cell and said, "Thanks, Reach."

"I'll e-mail the info to you," he said.

I opened Alex's new file and smiled. I had a new name to work with, a vamp named Hieronymus, which I couldn't even pronounce. It seemed that Big H was mentioned in dozens of the files, as the next vamp-master to be challenged and attacked by the mystery vamp. At last I had a name and place to start. I compared and the same name popped up on Reach's search too. I looked at the two men sitting in my kitchen. "You're hired. Dawn is close. You start at noon. There are four bedrooms upstairs. Don't take the one over my bedroom. Don't play loud music. Get some sleep."

"I've got some ordnance in the truck," Eli said.

"As long as it isn't combustible or fragmentary explosives, you can bring it inside."

From his expression I could tell he was trying to figure out what to do with the explosives. I shook my head. Soldiers and their toys. With a full stomach and as much security in place as I could manage, I went to my room, stripped, and fell into bed next to my own ordnance.

My official phone informed me that I had a text from Adelaide. "Mom is dying. They all are. Maybe three more days, if we bleed the blood-servants dry. Please help."

I texted back "OK. Two days. I'll find something for her in two days."

I hoped. I pulled a pillow over my head and was asleep instantly.

* * *

I woke with my hands pulling a weapon from a shoulder holster tangled on the bed. There were people in my house and it sounded like they were tearing down the walls. Then I remembered the two men I had let into my home the night before. Derek had vouched for them, but . . . Really, could I get any more stupid?

I rose, brushed my teeth, swiped a hand along my braided hair in lieu of combing it out and rebraiding it, and dressed in a pair of wrinkled cotton pants and a T-shirt. I stuck three stakes in my hair and strapped a holstered .32 on my ankle - hopefully overkill, but making up for possible stupidity earlier. I unlocked my bedroom door, glad that I had at least turned the small thumb latch.

There were boiled eggs in a pot on the stove and I cracked and ate three for breakfast, watching the current changes in my world. Alex had taken over my kitchen table with his laptop and e-whatchamathingy tablets, the Seattle laptop, and my laptop. Cheeky kid. I sniffed him as I passed and said, "Take a shower. You stink." He grunted, which was no surprise.

On a scratch piece of paper, I wrote out the names I wanted researched, starting with Hieronymus, and ending with all of Derek Lee's men, including the ten New Guys. "These guys? Their names are on my laptop under a file named Derek Lee. Reach and I did deep background on Derek's Vodka Boys prior to the Asheville gig, and the new Tequila Boys just last month. Maybe you can come up with something new."

"Sure. Okay. Do I have to be legal?"

"Yes." I slapped the back of his head. "Totally legal. You're on parole, remember? But you can be creative." At which the kid grinned like I had offered him an "all you can eat" dinner at a pizza joint. "Main thing I need first," I said, "is for you to find out where this Big H vamp is located and anything you can about his organization. You can use the Internet, access my own files, and the files from the NOPD's woo-woo room." I added a request for him to look over all building renovation permits requested within fifty miles of New Orleans. After the events of yesterday, it was clear the mystery master vamp was bringing his fight to Leo's home turf. If a vamp was moving in, he'd need real estate with vamp-requirements: steel-protected windows and reinforced doors, a room with easy exit via a hidden passageway, and updated electronics. There wasn't time to build from the ground up, but I added a request for an expanded search, starting over the last six months, for new buildings that might work for a vamp. I tapped the table. "No huge hurry. Tomorrow would be nice."

"Tomorrow?" His voice squeaked, that teenaged thing they do when their voices change at puberty. He blushed, half in anger.

"Kidding. Just kidding. Start on Big H info and the backgrounds on Derek's men first. I need them by sunset. Two days will be fine for the permit stuff." He shook his head at me with something like a horrified exasperation. "Hey, I'm used to Reach's timeliness," I said. "If you can't cut it - "

"I can do it," he said, sounding surly.

I turned away before he could see my amusement and went on into the living room. I stopped in the middle of the room, bare feet on the cool hardwood floor, chewing egg, and stared. There was a hole in the wall. It opened up under the stairs to reveal a little room with a slanted ceiling and another hole in the floor. The room's walls were lined in stone - slate, maybe - and there was a bed with a lumpy mattress and tousled sheets under the most sloped part of the ceiling. Across from the bed was a small stand with a pitcher and bowl, a ewer, I guessed. There was very little dust and no mold, which I thought was interesting, except for wallboard dust, which now was everywhere, including on the man kneeling in the corner, holding a measuring tape. He was making the safe room I'd asked for, but it looked like I had a hidden one already, one I hadn't known about.

Eli didn't look around before he said, "You didn't know this room was here?"

"I noticed the space my first night here, when I tore up the digital video equipment." I toed the broken electronics he had left in a pile. I thought about the lack of dust and walked over to the sheets. Fingered them. Fancy sheets were something I had learned about since coming to work for Leo. These weren't rotten, limp, or even old; they were new linens, 600 or better thread count, in a hidden room in my freebie house. I sniffed, several short inhalations, and recognized Leo and Katie. Well, crap. Most vamps had several lairs, which explained why this hidey-hole room was so dust free. One or the other - or both - had been sleeping here. Recently.

"There's another hidden space in a closet upstairs," I said. "But it isn't my house and I wasn't into vandalism. At the time." I didn't feel so bad about it now, however, knowing that I'd shared my house with the MOC and/or his heir when it was convenient for him.

"You need a safe room, you got a safe room," Eli said, looking around, following the geometry of the small space, "one supported by cypress timbers and lined with stone and poured cement, in case of fire. All I have to do is repair the wall and hide the opening with that steel door." He pointed out into the main room, and I saw a steel door in cardboard and shrink-wrap leaning against the wall. I hadn't even noticed it until he pointed it out - there was too much other destruction. "Then I cover it with a hinged bookcase. It'll do in a pinch, especially as it has an escape hatch." He peered into the hole in the floor. It was framed with wood and was wide enough to admit a skinny person. Me. Or a vamp. They were always skinny.

I evaluated the Ranger. He would have a harder time fitting through unless he could knock a shoulder out of joint. Some people could, but it hurt for a long time after. His clothes were tighter today, revealing broad shoulders and a tapering waist, narrow hips and sleek butt in jeans and army-beige tee. Likely six-pack abs if he took off his shirt. I shook my head and then chuckled at the thought of Leo's face if I barged into his lair in the middle of the day. Or if I had survived his aborted attempt to burn me out by hiding in his own lair. The MOC would not have been amused.

Eli asked, "Something funny?" I shook my head but let my grin stay in place as I moved farther into the safe room to peer over his shoulder, licking egg off my fingers. Below the opening in the floor was damp earth covered with water-beaded plastic. "The passageway comes out in two places," he said, "under the side porch, and at the back of the house. I've already been to Katie's to check out the hidden room under her stairs and start renovating, but Tom suggested that I not work on it today. It might be inhabited."

I nodded. Inhabited. Right. Multiple vamps had been at Katie's and they would need a safe place to sleep by day.

"I'll check it out tonight," he said. "For now, I'll finish off the wall repairs and buy a hinged bookcase. We can store the ordnance here. You got any books to put on the shelves?" I figured he meant something other than Tactical Weapons Magazine and Gun Digest, and shook my head again. "You don't talk much, do you?" He was turned away, but I could hear the laughter in his voice when he added, "I like that in a woman." Before I could think of a snarky reply he added, "I'll pick up some books at a secondhand bookstore today."

Since I had been identified as a woman of few words, I just shrugged and went back to the eggs. They were pretty good with salt. I put on tea, and was cracking and salting my fourth when Stinky-Boy said, "I got something." He looked up, and when I didn't look impressed, he grinned. "I got you a history, and I found it before Reach did."

I dropped the shell into the garbage and leaned over his shoulder, reading the file as I chewed and swallowed the egg. "What is Greyson Labs?"

The kid grinned up at me. "It's the company that paid the salary of Ramondo Pitri, the man you killed in Asheville."

I stopped chewing, and said, "And you figured this out how?"

"I tracked down Pitri's bank records and got a look at his pay stubs. Greyson designs cancer-fighting drugs." He was grinning ear to ear and it was an amazing piece of detective work, but it wasn't much on its own.

"So, is this laboratory tied in to the mob?" Pitri had known New York mob affiliations, with one of the major families there. "Or into the vamps in some way? And how did you . . . You didn't hack into a bank, did you?"

Eli went nearly as still as a vamp. The kid just grinned, and I felt a rubbery dismay waggle down my neck. When he saw our reactions, he laughed. "No. I didn't hack a bank. I could if I wanted to, but it was a lot easier than that." Eli remembered to breathe and I shook my head. "Pitri had a few contacts on social media," Alex said, "and I tracked him through them. I'm tracking Greyson on the international financial markets now, but it's a little slippery. If we can find the top shareholder or owner of the company, we might have your big, bad disease-producing vamp."

"I'll need more than a possibility and a name to take to Leo, and way more than a possibility to act," I said.

"I'll get more and put all current info into a report for you. It'll be ready by lunch and I'll update it as I find new intel." He looked at his brother. "There will be lunch, right? Not just eggs?"

"Protein," Eli grunted. When he did, the iron-hard six-pack abs flexed, visible behind the sweaty tee. Wall dust filtered off him. I considered whether he'd end up with a nickname. Most people of my acquaintance got nicknames, but nothing fit yet. Alex was still in contention for Stinky-Boy, but Kid was slowly migrating to the top of the list.

"I'll pick up steak," I said.

Eli grunted approval, and I figured that grunts made up about seventy percent of the brothers' communication skills. The Kid shook his head. "Pizza? Pasta? A can of Chef Boyardee ravioli?" he asked. When neither of us bit, he sighed and went back to his electronic search. Moments later the printer started. I left the house on my bastard Harley, Bitsa, and picked up groceries. Steak, salad stuff, oatmeal, beer, milk, picked out a national brand of coffee, and a couple of cans of ravioli for the Kid. If he took a shower without me asking again, he got a treat. I figured it might be a lot like training a dog, but I knew next to nothing about raising boys, and what scant knowledge I did have was gleaned from children's home kids who thrived on rebellion, so maybe I was oversimplifying. I tucked the food into the saddlebags and bungee-corded the beer to the seat for the ride back to the house.

Riding slowly, I rested my bones and my mind, feeling the stress of the last few days in the tightness of my muscles and knowing the next few days might get worse. We had a company name that might - might - be connected to the attacks.

Which made me think of Bruiser. No one had called to tell me how he was. Worried about him, about his humanity, I dialed his number, and was shunted to voice mail. "Hey, uh, you know. Um. If you're alive, uh, call me." I looked at the screen and said, "It's Jane." I closed the phone, thinking, Lame. I am so lame.

It was four p.m. when I got back to the house, and upper-eighties, but it's always hot in New Orleans. It was November and it still felt like summer. Though locals had assured me that it gets cold in the winter, I'd yet to see any season but hot, so I didn't really believe it. Muggy, damp, and miserable, yes; cold, no. I kicked off my shoes and unpacked the groceries, to the happy sound of shower water running upstairs. When the water went off, I nuked a bowl of ravioli and met the Kid at the bottom of the stairs with the food and an ice-cold Coke. His hair was dripping, he smelled like fruity shampoo, and his clothes were clean. From the crushed-in wrinkles, I was sure they had been balled up in the bottom of a rucksack, not folded. Not ever. He took the bowl of tomatoey pasta with the kind of awe and half fear boys usually reserve for the latest video game or smuggled-in porn. He held the warm bowl in both hands, looking around for his brother, pure guilt on his face.

"Here's the deal," I said softly. "You take a shower every day, you get treats. I'll deal with your bother on the fallout. But if you stink, I'll call you Stinky-Boy to your face and let your brother feed you."

"His welfare is my responsibility," a voice said from upstairs.

I pulled a spoon from my pocket, shoved it into the ravioli, and jerked my head to the kitchen. The Kid took off like he'd been spanked and I looked up the stairs to the man at the top. Eli had showered too, and he was bare-chested. His scar went from his jaw, down his neck, across his collarbone in a starburst pattern that looked like it had shattered the bone, and down to his pec. He was wearing five-button jeans so worn that I could see the sheen of skin through the faded cloth. No shirt. He was ripped, arms like steel cables and a stomach I could have danced on. I managed to swallow, hid my appreciation, and leaned a hip against the banister to watch him. He watched back. But he didn't like it that I didn't talk much, so I let the silence build. When his jaw gave a frustrated twitch I said, "He's eighteen."

"He's on probation. Under my supervision."

I thought about that for a moment while he watched me. "My sensei's dojo is a few streets over," I said. "Let's go. We'll spar. Winner decides if the Kid gets ravioli and other treats for keeping clean."

Eli laughed, an amused-at-the-little-woman, self-satisfied huff that said volumes. I let a smile lift one corner of my lips. He disappeared and was back in half a breath, pulling on a T-shirt and flip-flops. My clothes were loose enough, so I just grabbed sandals and led the way out into the heat while braiding my hair fighting tight, twisting it into a queue that would be hard to grab. Eli watched my motions from the corner of his eye as I removed a handle he might have levered to bring me down.

My sensei was a hapkido black belt, second dan, with a black belt in tae kwon do and a third black belt in combat tai chi, though he hadn't competed in years. He thought competition was for sissies and martial arts were for fighting and killing. His style was perfect for me, because I studied mixed disciplines and had never gone for any belt. I trained to stay alive, an aggressive amalgam of styles, geared to the fast and total annihilation of an attacker, and my style had best been described as dirty.

The dojo was in the back room of a jewelry store on St. Louis, open to the public only after store hours, but I was one of a select few students Daniel would see during the day. I had my own key. The dojo wasn't far and the jog got us both warmed up. I could smell the clean sweat on Eli as we turned down a narrow service alley, thirty inches wide, damp, and dim.

I keyed us in through the small door of the dojo and locked it, watching Eli check the place out. He scanned it like a combat veteran with close-quarters, urban training. The long room had hardwood floors, two white-painted walls, one mirrored wall, and one wall of French doors that looked out over a lush, enclosed garden planted with tropical and semitropical plants. Eli moved to the doors and scoped out the garden. The cats who usually sunned themselves there were gone today, their bowls empty, the large fountain shaped like a mountain stream splashing in one corner, the small pool at the bottom filled with plants. The garden was surrounded by two  -  and three-storied buildings and was overlooked by porches dripping with vines and flowering potted plants. Sensei lived upstairs in one of the apartments.

I punched the button that told Sensei he had a student, unrolled the practice mats, and started stretching. Five minutes later, he showed up, dropping into the garden from his apartment above. Most of his students weren't able to tell when the man literally dropped in, but with Beast's acute hearing and sense of smell, I always knew. The smell of Korean cabbage he loved so much was a dead giveaway. Eli knew too, which was impressive.

Daniel walked in, limbs loose and ready. He often leaped through the open doors and engaged me instantly, but today he seemed to sense something different. Silent, he walked around the room, bare feet solid, body balanced as a walking tree, looking Eli and me over, considering. Daniel was average height, had muscles like rolls of barbed wire, and a face no one would remember for two seconds. Mr. Average Man. To irritate him, I called him Danny Boy, but not today. Not taking my eyes off him, I gave a half bow. "Daniel, this man is a guest in my house. We have a disagreement and have agreed to settle it on the mats."

"And you want me to referee?"

"No, Sensei." I studied their reactions as I finished with "I want you to keep me from hurting him too much." Daniel laughed, surprised. Eli's brows went up. Even with Daniel, and all his training and speed, I held back a lot. If I let go with Beast-strength and speed, I could do some damage. But even I knew that the sparring over ravioli was just an excuse to prove who was the big dog in Eli's and my relationship. He was . . . aware, maybe. Aware that I was something other than a tall, skinny girl with guns. When I didn't laugh with my sensei, the room went silent. I could hear the fountain tinkling in the enclosed courtyard. I could hear the air through the air-conditioner vents. And I heard the slight hitch when Eli took a preparatory breath.

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