And Then He Changed His Pants

I analyzed the sound patterns as I checked the Walthers, stuck one in my waistband against my spine, and shoved extra magazines in pockets. The gunfire was coming from downstairs, and I hadn't seen a shooting gallery. It was still daylight out, which meant no vamps, and I was betting there were no weres or witches living openly here; therefore it was a good guess that we were under attack by humans. De Allyon's people had heard we were here, and decided on a preemptive attack. "Dang small-town gossip factory," I whispered.

I opened the door and slid into the hallway, trying to get my sleep-clogged brain up to speed and remember the layout of the house. I shut the door behind me and quickly checked the other rooms. I didn't smell anyone, but it would be stupid to risk leaving an enemy behind me in case the external security had already been breached. Each room was empty and I closed the doors, leaving myself in shadow.

Beast moved up through me, padding softly, her head low and shoulder blades high, stalking. My vision sharpened as she slid into the forefront of my brain. I moved right, to the stairs, and down, my back against the wall, my bare feet silent, listening to the number and placement of shots, and wishing I had grabbed up my nine-mils. The weapons had better stopping power.

The gunfire was coming from the front and the back, which told me that they hadn't gotten inside yet. By the level of gunfire, I could tell that there were three bogeys at the front entrance, but only one defensive shooter inside. There were at least five bad guys in the backyard. So much for only pole-vaulters getting in over the back wall. A shotgun sounded from the back, a double-barreled boom-boom. We hadn't brought any shotguns. Had someone gotten inside?

A .380 held at my thigh in a two-hand grip, I stuck my head around the back entry opening, looked around, and stepped back, assimilating what I had seen. Eli and Wrassler were on either side of the back entrance. In the mudroom, the back window was busted out, and Esmee stood there, an old pump shotgun at her shoulder. Her scarlet hair was in disarray, and she had a fierce grin in place as she reloaded. Three pistols were on a tall stool by her hip. Oookaaay. An eighty-year-old Annie Oakley. I peeked back again. A small black low-riding SUV was parked in the yard; it hadn't been there before. Wrassler was taking aim at the wall of the garage, and when a head peeked out, he fired, a fast three-tap. He killed some brick, but the man jerked back.

"How many?" I called out between shots.

Eli swiveled his head over his shoulder as he ejected one magazine and slammed in another. "Five that I can count." His face was set in the emotionless lines of the soldier under fire, but his eyes were fierce. "Alex is in the garage. He went back out to get one of his electronic things. I don't think they know he's there."

I dialed Alex's phone, hoping it was on vibrate or that the sound of his ring tone was hidden under the gunfire. When he answered, I said, "Are you safe?"

"Are you freaking kidding me?" he whispered. "There are people with guns everywhere!"

"Are. You. Safe?"

"Yeah. For now."


"I locked myself in the limo."

I chuckled. "Good move. Stay there."

I ended the call and said, "Kid's good. He's locked in the limo."

Eli fired off three shots. Wrassler fired off three shots and ejected his magazine. In the mudroom, Esmee fired off two rounds and I nearly went deaf.

"I'll reload," Wrassler said, starting on the empty magazines.

"I really need to teach the Kid how to shoot," Eli grumbled. But some of the fierceness had left his eyes.

"I'll check on the front," I said. "It's gone quiet." Placing my bare feet carefully, I stepped through the house, from room to room, checking each one as I moved. When I reached the front of the house, I spotted Bruiser on one knee behind a sofa, which would provide zero protection from bullets, but did hide him from sight. Three empty magazines and a semiautomatic were at his knee. He was out of ammo or his nine-mil had jammed. In a two-hand grip was an old, long-barreled pistol, one I hadn't seen before. He was waiting for a frontal assault to come through the door. Idiot.

A shadow moved near the entrance. Then another. Two forms rushed through, moving with the speed of freshly fed blood-servants. I started to lift my weapon.

Bruiser moved and everything happened out of order. Faster than I could process. He straightened his back, raising above the sofa. Fired four shots, so close atop one another that they seemed to overlap, with the barest hint of a pause between shots two and three as he readjusted his aim. The two blood-servants fell, the one in front sliding sideways, hitting an easel holding an ugly painting, sending both spinning. Bruiser practically flew across the sofa and caught the painting. The other blood-servant fell with a hollow thump. Bruiser set the painting on the sofa. The easel landed with a crash on the floor. He checked the two he had dropped.

I whipped back behind the wall. What the heck? I had never seen anyone except a vamp move so fast. I remembered Katie saying to him, "You will live. And still mostly human . . ." What was Bruiser now? How close to being a blood-sucker was he?

I made a faint sound and stepped out. Bruiser was at the front entrance, scanning the yard. "We're clear here," he said, without turning around. He closed the front door with a snap, and the dead bolt settled into its slot.

"Good," I said, sounding almost normal. "I'll go help with the back, then."

Bruiser turned to me, his brown eyes taking me in. His roaming gaze paused at the sight of my bare feet, lifted, and stopped at my chest. Oh yeah. No bra. White T-shirt. A warm smile lit his face and he met my eyes. Beast's claws dug in hard as she stared back. Heat hit me. That deep, limb-numbing heat of unexpected, pure lust. Electric shocks sizzled through me, settling in the palms of my hands, soles of my feet. My breasts tightened. Heaviness weighted my lower belly with need.

I should be mad at Bruiser. I am mad at him, I thought. He betrayed me.

Mine, Beast thought. Which explained a lot.

Gunfire sounded from the rear of the house. A scream echoed in the backyard. I should have been moving that way. Instead, I was standing, gun gripped in both hands, as Bruiser crossed the room, slowly this time. He moved like a dancer, all lithe grace, the soles of his shoes making no sound beneath the concussive damage to my ears. Beast held me down and unmoving.

The gunfire at the back of the house fell silent. Our side had won, I guessed.

Bruiser holstered the long-barreled weapon in a shoulder holster and took my Walther out of my hand. His other slid around my nape, under my braid. He leaned into me, his body so heated it radiated through my clothes. Burning. His mouth landed on mine. Crushing, his teeth hitting, clacking against mine. I dropped my head back into his palm, and some feral sound came from my mouth, part moan, part purr, all need. His tongue slid between my lips. He smelled like caramel, like heated brown sugar, with a hint of something spicy. He cupped my backside, the gun hard and cold, his hand, holding it and me, felt like heated velvet.

I melded to him, his taller body fitting over mine as if we were made for it. He shoved me to the wall at my back. The cold gun vanished. His hot hand lifted me, his fingers so close - so close - to where I wanted them. He lifted me, and my legs went around him, my ankles locking at his spine. I pressed my center against his hard, long length. Wanting . . .

His other hand slid down the side of my neck and across my collarbone, floated over my breast, slowing, tightening, fingers pulling at my nipple through my T. My hands were inside his shirt, sliding across his shoulders. Buttons flew.

A bark of pain sounded above renewed gunfire at the back. We jerked apart, our eyes holding, our breathing fast, oxygen starved. "This is nuts," I whispered.

"Bad timing. A bed. Later." He dropped me and handed me my Walther. Drew his long-barrel. In sync, we moved down the hall, Bruiser at point. I tried to remember how to breathe.

Wrassler should have been down, as a wound bled at his left side near his waist, soaking his dark blue pants black, but he was on one knee, firing single shots out the back, clearly low on ammo. Esmee was at the window, sighting down a target pistol. Eli was outside; he sprinted across the yard, zigzagging. Esmee took three steady shots, cover fire. A form behind the pool fell forward and then rolled back into the foliage. Eli tore for the garage. Someone rose from the garage roof, aiming down. I started to shout, but Bruiser raced through the short hallway and into the yard, into the sunlight, raising his weapon. Moving. Faster than I had ever seen a human move. Or almost human.

He leaped, his body going horizontal over the hood of the car. In midair, he fired. Up. Three shots. He landed on the other side, somehow on his feet. Wrassler cursed at the speed and the perfect landing. The man on the roof fell forward and slid down the roof tiles. Dead.

That was seven shots. Bruiser had to be almost out of ammo. "How many bad guys left?" I called out.

Esmee shouted from the mudroom, "One in the yard, three o'clock. I got him in my sights."

"One in the garage," Wrassler said.

"Esmee, hold fire," I shouted. I dove into the yard. Esmee did not hold fire. Instead she laid down cover fire, each shot behind me but so close I wondered if they were tearing through my clothes. I reached the side of the garage, stepping over the dead human on the ground. He was staring at the sky, his mouth open, eyes already drying. I smelled feces on the cool air.

Bruiser whirled at my movement, checking himself before he fired. "There's one in the garage with Eli," I said. "Blood-servant." Which meant faster than human, better eyesight than human, better reflexes than human. Eli was good, no doubt, but none of us knew how good yet. "Kid's supposed to be in the limo," I reminded him.

Bruiser nodded once. "I'm faster."

Yeah. He was. I checked the yard. Safety'd, tossed him my Walther, and drew the one at my spine, surprised it had survived the romp in the hallway. "Go," I said.

Bruiser leaped straight off the ground in a move so catlike that Beast hacked with delight. Still in the air, he soared through the open garage door. I heard him land, a faint scuff of sound. Two shots sounded, echoing in the garage. Behind me, Esmee fired two shots. The last bogey in the yard fell into the bushes. I ran from cover and checked each of the downed. One was still alive, gut-shot, in agony. He'd probably live if he got to a hospital in time.

A barrage of shots sounded in the garage, then silence. Eli and Bruiser carried a woman from the garage and tossed her to the dirt. Dead. The Kid peeked around the garage door, his face white and eyes wide, an armful of electronic devices clutched to his chest.

It was only then that I realized I hadn't fired a single shot. I started laughing.

* * *

This wasn't something that we could cover up. Sirens sounded in the distance, closing fast. Neighbors, or maybe Esmee, had called 911. To avoid questions, I took my unfired gun upstairs and secured it. In minutes the house was surrounded by cops. Esmee trotted out to them, a big smile on her face. She had taken the time to smooth her hair and put on lipstick, and she looked the perfect hostess in her bright floral scarf and her pearls. Bruiser, still in his dress slacks with an unbuttoned shirt, the tails billowing out behind him, followed her, his cell phone to his ear. He looked like a fashion shoot from GQ - one titled "The Morning After." Around and in the house were dead humans, their blood soaking into the parquet flooring and the sculpted garden loam.

Only in the South.

* * *

An ambulance pulled up, the EMTs treating Wrassler's wound and the wounded bad guy before leaving with the injured man and two cops riding shotgun. More cops arrived - more than half the cops in the county and the town gathering, with plenty of plainclothed guys all trying to be the big dog. Alex and I were the only ones who hadn't fired a shot. To prove that assertion, neither of us had any GSR on us. The others of our group were herded into different parts of the house and questioned, the cops relentless and suspicious. Alex and I sat on the couch, Alex intent on his electronic searches, shaking from time to time, his body odor sour with hormones, fresh panic, and old fear.

At one point, however, the OIC - officer in charge of the shooting scene - made a call. Then, newly elected Adams County sheriff Sylvia Turpin, who was the many-times great-granddaughter of the county's first sheriff, drove up in her marked car. Turpin took her job very seriously, especially when she discovered that Leo Pellissier's primo was on-site. Seemed that Leo had contributed a hefty sum to her election campaign. After that discovery, Turpin made a series of phone calls, several of the plainclothes cops took calls, and things began to move along.

Within half an hour, the state crime lab had arrived, bringing a medical examiner, and we were free to go, though not free to leave town. I wondered who had called in the big guns. Remembering the cell phone at his ear, I was guessing Bruiser. As the MOC's primo and point man, he might be the most powerful human - part human - in the South, governors and senators included, and when he called in favors, things would naturally go his way. A New Orleans blood-servant pulled up in an SUV and consulted with Bruiser, the cops, and the petite, pretty, redheaded little sheriff. While the powers-that-be conferred, the rest of us retired to the dining room.

The unflappable chef had laid out a feast. Or I'd thought him unflappable until I heard him telling the cops he'd hidden under a small table in the butler's pantry during the shooting. And then he'd changed his pants. It was his vehicle out back. He had been grocery-shopping when we arrived, which was why I hadn't seen the SUV.

We gathered for snacks in the dining room, which had a carved mahogany table and chairs, and a wall-long hand-carved and painted china cabinet. The room would seat twenty easily, and the chandelier over our heads was the real thing - twenty-four-karat gilt and hundreds of lead crystals. The snack, thrown together in minutes, was brie, fresh fruit, sliced homemade rye bread, and ten pounds of rare roast beef with sandwich makings dished up in cut-crystal bowls. There was also red beans and rice and barbecued Andouille sausage. Finger-licking, to-die-for sausage. The fighters were starving, adrenaline breakdown needing fuel. I hadn't been involved in the fighting, but with my skinwalker metabolism, I was always hungry. Which likely had something to do with the little clinch in the hallway. But still . . .

I ate two sandwiches, mostly meat and brie, remembering Bruiser's hands on me, his mouth on me, while the guys discussed what we had to do.

"We can't stay here and wait until nightfall when our full backup arrives," Wrassler said.

"We can't storm the three-story building without them," Eli said. "It would be stupid."

"We're down to two healthy shooters," Bruiser said.

"Three," I said through a mouthful of food. "What am I? Chopped liver?"

"A woman," he said.

My eyes went cold and narrow. The table went silent, all the eyes on me. Bruiser stopped, a sandwich halfway to his mouth. He held it there, his mouth open, thinking. He turned his eyes to me, his head not moving. I didn't smile. He blinked once, took a bite, and chewed, still thinking, letting his eyes roam the room and out into the hallway where we had recently had that very unsatisfying clinch. When he swallowed, he said, "Four shooters, one injured. Forgive the automatic, ingrained stupidities of an old man."

Alex snickered into the silence. I finished chewing my bite and swallowed. "Don't let it happen again." Eli looked at Bruiser, at me, and to the hallway, his eyes considering. I reached for an apple and bit down, the crunch seeming to break the tension.

"So we have four shooters and they're down seven. And they won't be expecting us," Wrassler said.

"It's daylight. The fangheads will be asleep, right?" Alex said.

"Fiction. They can stay awake if they have to, and they can stand a little sunlight, especially the old ones." Wrassler emptied a Coke down his throat and popped the top on another. "From the intel - "

"What intel?" I asked.

"One of Leo's blood-servants is related to one of Hieronymus' servants. He asked some questions and provided us some answers. We've got maybe ten old ones in there, plus their blood-meals. No way we can take them."

"Most Mithrans travel with two blood-servants apiece," Bruiser said, "so if they hold true, then we would be facing ten masters and the remainder of their servants, thirteen humans."

Alex asked, "Do we have access to a helicopter?" Every head in the room turned to him. He spun the laptop around so we could see a schematic of the roof of the three-story building the vamps had taken over. There was a large, new air-conditioning unit and plenty of room for a helo to land, providing the structure could handle it, or for soldiers to drop down if not. And the AC vent was a specific weakness to the entire building.

Bruiser started to smile.

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