I Started to Squeeze the Trigger

Holding his eyes, I slid the tote strap around my shoulders, shoved it back out of the way, and walked straight toward him. Keeping loose. Letting Beast bleed into my bloodstream and into my eyes. My heart rate sped as her adrenaline pumped into my body. His blue eyes widened. Beast-fast, I swerved right, forcing him to move cross-hand. And back left, into his personal space. I body-slammed him. Hard. Hooked his ankle as he shifted and shoved.

The gun went off. Wild shot. Toward the ceiling. I caught his gun hand, flipped him, and landed one knee in the middle of his spine with all my weight. Took his gun away while he tried to remember how to breathe. Banged his head on the floor so hard he had to see stars.

Fun, Beast thought. More!

The shadow over me shifted. I lifted my eyes. Nikki-Babe was standing over me, still vamped out, blocking the light. Fangs latched down, claws out, waiting. If I really tried to hurt the stranger, he'd kill me, and I didn't know why. Ignoring the looming shadow, I leaned in and sniffed. Blue Eyes smelled of witchy-power, not his own, but something he had obtained from a powerful witch or coven - probably an amulet of some sort. The witchy stench nearly overrode the blood-signature scent of his master, but not quite. It was a vamp-scent I recognized. The undertang made me hesitate, but only for a moment. For now the amulet was more important. Whatever spell he had was underneath him, inactivated, and I had better keep it that way. I pulled his arms back and secured them with a zip strip. Then added three more strips. He was a blood-servant to someone very powerful, with a witchy charm on his person. I wasn't taking chances.

I flipped him over, slamming his head against the marble floor. He grunted.

"Have a care with our guest," Nikki said, his mouth near my ear. The last word was nearly spitting, as if he would have used another, less kind and less hospitable term. Curiouser and curiouser.

"I'm taking care," I said, my voice flat. I fished in Blue Eyes' pocket and pulled out a pocket watch. It was neither old nor new, cheap nor expensive. It was something no one would ever notice twice, but it was charmed. I sniffed the amulet, and the magics smelled like blood. Like meat. Weird. I tucked it into my lead-lined pocket with the silver cross while Blue Eyes was still disoriented, and patted him down. I searched for wallet, ID, or a cell, but he was clean. Figures.

I leaned in again. Now he smelled only of his master. A close perusal of the blood-signature proved that the master wasn't someone I knew, not someone I had ever met, but I had killed a blood-servant belonging to the vamp recently. In Asheville, when I'd been attacked in my hotel room. Once again, everything went back to Asheville and I didn't know why. Beast didn't have the olfactory memory of a bloodhound, but she was no slouch either. She remembered this scent, though it was much stronger than the last time she had scented it. It was peaty and spicy and, oddly, a little beery. The servant also had a funky chemical top-note, acrid and clear as a desert sky, in Beast's synesthesia. A nonguest in the house of a deposed master . . .

I put it all together and looked over at Rosanne. She was leaning her weight on her elbows on her desk, as if it took all her strength to hold herself upright. "This is your treatment, isn't it? You suck on him and his blood fights the disease in you. Kill him and you die." When no one disputed my claim, I looked up. "Back off, Nikki-Babe. I'm not gonna kill your mistress' antibiotic."

Nik took a single step back but didn't let his eyes bleed back to human. I grabbed Blue Eyes' head and banged it against the floor again. Leaped to my feet before Nik could react. Shrugged. "Didn't say I wasn't gonna hurt him a little. I want him out until I'm ready to go. Is he the only one for Ro to feed on?"

"Yes," she whispered. "And he is not enough."

"And he's to call his master at prearranged times," I said, "to let his boss know everything is okay here, right?" When she nodded again, moving as if her neck and head hurt, I asked, "Are you going to be able to handle this - my being here and knocking your new boy around - or do you need backup?"

"We will be fine," she whispered. She sounded certain, unwavering, and maybe it was just her trying to get rid of me, but I nodded.

"Okay. I'm gone. If you change your mind and need help - "

"We need nothing from you," Nik said through his fangs.

I looked him over, thinking, You let your mistress get defeated in a Blood Challenge. And now someone else has to fix your screwup. Seems to me you needed something, Nikki-Babe. But I didn't say it. If I had given in to temptation, I'd have had another fight on my hands and I'd done enough for one night.

I walked between the score of blood-servants and clan-vamps and out the front door. The night smelled wonderful here. Huge and free and heated. Beast wanted to hunt, but even she wanted to get down off this cliff first. I got in the car and fished out the key, drove down the drive and out through the soundless gate. Following the GPS directions, I made it back to Sedona proper without incident and pulled in next to a FedEx drop box. I labeled the blood tubes and bottles, wrapped them in bubble wrap, taped them up, boxed them, added more tape, and affixed Leo's mailing label to the front. There were laws about putting biohazardous materials through the mail, and I was breaking all of them, which is why I used Leo's address as both return and sender. If my plane crashed, at least the blood wouldn't go down with me. I dropped the blood into the drop box and heard it hit other packages with a soft, slithering thump.

I texted my ETA to the pilot, with the question "Can we use current plane?" at the bottom. With the police involved, Leo's personal jet might be grounded. Unless Leo pulled strings, I might be getting on a charter. Satisfied, I whirled the steering wheel and pulled back onto the road. Following the directions of the GPS voice, I headed back to the airport. The pilot texted back a succinct "Yes," which I read before tossing the phone into the passenger seat.

My primary mission was accomplished, which meant a nice fee would be electronically deposited into my account as soon as Leo got the package. Mentally, I calculated my payment for the travel part of this gig. I was getting a base fee for each visit, travel pay, hazard pay, and I was getting a bonus for each sick vamp who let me bleed him or her. A very nice bonus, because vamps didn't give up their blood to anyone who wasn't family, scion, servant, master, or slave. Never. Now if it was just as easy to get a sample from the Seattle MOC, I'd be set.

Behind me down the road, headlights pulled onto my street. I took note of their shape and the outline of the car they were attached to. GMC sedan. Another car moved parallel to mine one street over, which could be a standard tailing procedure, but when I turned right at the next intersection, the cars didn't follow. They pulled on past and disappeared. I didn't know Sedona at all, but maybe they were just leaving a club. Or getting off work somewhere on the night shift.

It was long after midnight when I dialed Leo's number, but it's never too late to call a vamp. Bruiser answered, his voice like a long, low caress. "Jane."

I couldn't help my smile. Or Beast's inner purr. Beast likes Bruiser - George Dumas - and though my cat had been oddly quiescent, she always paid attention to Bruiser. He was Leo Pellissier's right-hand blood-meal, and arguably the most powerful nonvamp in New Orleans. He probably had more political clout than the governor and he definitely had better looks and charisma than any purely human politician.

I opened my mouth to say, "I have a report." What came out was "Hi." And a soft, sexy-sounding "Hi," at that. I clamped my mouth shut. Bruiser chuckled at my tone, that secure, masculine laugh men get when they know a woman is interested. Which ticked me off.

Two months ago, I had lost my first boyfriend since my early twenties and I was not in the market for another. Especially one who was bound to a vamp for his very existence. Blood-servants like Bruiser must have drops and sips of vamp blood on a regular basis to keep their vamp-blood-induced extended-youth thing going. I was not taking second place behind Leo. So even though Bruiser was sex on a stick, he was not going to be mine.

Mine, Beast murmured.

I firmed my tone and said, "I have a report."

I could hear the smile in his voice when he said, "Go ahead."

I talked for twenty minutes as I drove out of the city, toward the stark country of red hills, cliffs, bluffs, and buttes, detailing everything that had happened. The sky was black overhead as I drove, too big, too dark, with too many stars. Beast liked it. Sedona was a pale glow, like a halo on the horizon. I finished with "Ro wouldn't name her new master. She looks and smells sick. She's covered in pustules. She's bleeding from her nose, and when I took her blood - "

"You obtained her blood?"

"I got it. It's in the FedEx box. But when I stuck her she didn't stop bleeding on her own. Nik had to spit on her arm to stop it. Which, by the way, was gross."

"Spit? Not lick?"

A familiar pair of headlights pulled behind my car. GMC sedan. Behind it was another car, about a quarter mile back; it had the same configuration as the car riding parallel to me earlier. Beast is not prey, she whispered into my mind. "Right," I said to them both. "I'm being followed. If I'm not back at the airport in an hour, tell the pilot to - " I stopped. The substitute pilot who had been one of the few people who knew exactly where I was going and when I'd get there. Before I could say all that to Bruiser, the sedan launched at me. I tossed the cell. Took the wheel in two hands. And floored the car.

I wasn't fast enough. The sedan roared up. I gripped the wheel hard enough to make the leather groan. The car rammed me. My spine whiplashed. The seat belt cut into my chest and abdomen before slamming me back into the seat.

"Jane?" Bruiser's voice, tinny. Far away. From the floor.

The sedan raced closer. Rammed me again. The tail of my car spun into the oncoming lane. I hit the brakes. The antilock braking system kicked in. The car danced across the road. That shouldn't have happened, was my last thought as my car hit something slick on the road and its slight spin turned into a twisting spiral. Off the road and down.

The car bucked over the rough terrain. Up into the air, the headlights illuminating the red stone of a low cliff wall and the night sky, and down, into a ditch. The car's frame shrieked, contorting as its own momentum forced it at an angle up the other side. My window flexed and shattered, raining me with rounded nodules of safety glass. Down the car went again, at a sharp angle, a long, fast slide. A bouncing, jouncing ride that ended suddenly. Too hard. Whiplash took me again, from my toes to the top of my head. The air bags released with explosions of sound. Socked me in the face. I saw stars and then nothing.

I roused to the sound of an engine hissing. My headlights picked out a spiny cactuslike plant through the bashed windshield. Bruiser's voice called me from somewhere, insistent. Frantic. My ears were ringing and I couldn't focus to locate the cell. But my brain was starting to work again.

Footsteps were approaching the car. One pair, booted. Skidding downhill over the rock and dirt. In the far distance, maybe near the road, I heard a voice talking, the words lost in the buzzing aftermath of being hit in the face. The breeze shifted, blowing into the car. I smelled gun oil and cheap aftershave. Over it all, I smelled the scent of a blood-servant. But not Rosanne's. Another vamp. Not quite a stranger, yet not entirely familiar. But exactly like the blue-eyed man I had left bound on Rosanne's floor.

I fumbled with the seat belt, but the car was at an angle and I was bound by the flex and gravity, leaning into the car's console. I pushed against it, and when I took a breath, something stabbed me in the chest; I was pretty sure I'd busted a rib. I tasted blood, salty. I'd bitten through my tongue.

Beast flooded my system with strength, claws sinking into my mind, more here than she had been in weeks. The pain in my side faded beneath her claws. My night vision sharpened into silvery blues and crisp greens, the night a thousand shades of black. My heart, beating erratically, smoothed out, fast and strong. I fumbled under my jacket and managed to pull my nine-mil. Focused on the night sky through the broken window. Stars. Millions and billions of them.

The footsteps stopped. To see inside the car, my attacker would have to lean over and in. I steadied my aim at the window opening.

Shuffling of booted feet. He leaned in. I started to squeeze the trigger. He slipped and nearly fell. I didn't fire, didn't move. He reappeared in the corner of the open space. Anglo. Light-colored hair. Big-assed gun. Though humans don't have good night vision, he seemed to see me and adjusted his aim at the same time I fired. Three shots.

He ducked and fired twice, our reports overlaying one another. The muzzle flash blinded me, but I fired again, through the door. He rose into my window, moving freaky fast, and fired two more shots. A punching pain hit me, like a hard strike delivered by a black belt with something to prove. Burning and icy. Chest shot. He'd hit me.

I fired back, emptying my gun before I harnessed my fear. Stupid. Crap! Dumb, dumb, dumb. But I smelled blood, his as well as mine. Blinded by the flashes, deaf from the concussive explosions, I felt along my boot for my backup. My chest stabbed with pain and I couldn't reach the holster.

Frantic, I pulled a throwing knife. But he didn't reappear to shoot me again. Long moments later, I saw headlights start to move, bouncing off the red-rock walls as two cars drove away. I dropped my head back. Pain flooded through me, a tsunami of agony. I was tired. So tired. But I had to stay awake. Had to get out of here. I pushed at the seat belt, trying to remember how they worked.

Something wet and warm pooled in my palm holding the hilt of the knife. Blood. I was bleeding out. I needed to shift. Fast. I struggled to get the mountain lion tooth out of my pocket, but my fingers didn't seem to work. I tried to drop into a meditative trance, but the earth spun when I closed my eyes, a sickening lurch. My gorge rose, tasting of blood, and I gagged. The night sky twirled and tightened down, becoming a pinpoint of velvet black sprinkled with white light. I could hear my heartbeat. Thump-thump, thump-thump, fastfastfast. Too fast. I tried again to find the calm in the center of myself, but there was nothing there, no center, no peace. Just the sound of my speeding heart and wet, raspy breath. I was worse off than I thought. Maybe a lot worse.

I didn't have the time to shift into my beast to save my life. Beast? I called in my mind. She didn't answer. No snarky comment. No insult. Nothing. Beast?

Feet padded in the dark, barely heard. Coming closer. I laughed, the sound little more than a wet, raspy moan. I closed my eyes. Beast pressed her claws into my mind again, the pain sharp and demanding. Forcing me down. I dropped. Deeper. Into the darkness inside my own past, where ancient, tenuous memories swirled in a world of shadow-gray and uncertainty. I heard a distant drum, smelled herbed wood smoke. The night wind coming through the broken window chilled my skin, smelling foreign and hot and dry. Beast forced me deeper, memories firmed, memories that, at all other times, were forgotten, both mine and Beast's.

In the memories, I saw a deer with fawn and knew I would not hunt her just now, but only after the fawn was grown. I saw an old woman bending over a fire, her silver hair in braids, her wrinkled face catching light and shadow like the cliffs and valleys of a river gorge. Her eyes were yellow like mine. I saw a kit straying toward the cliff edge and padded over, taking it in my mouth, his entire head in my killing teeth, held gently. I tasted/smelled/felt the kit struggling, heard his mewling cries. Breathed in his scent. Mine.

My heart rate began to slow. To stutter. The blood pooling in my hand felt chilled. I had held cold blood before. Had placed my hands in it, in the cavity of my father's chest. And then wiped my fingers across my face in a promise of vengeance. A vengeance I had never taken. The old promise, never fulfilled, scourged me, hatred unfulfilled. A wrong never avenged, never forgiven, I thought. But the concepts of vengeance and forgiveness melted away.

As I had been taught so long ago, I took up the snake that rests in the depths of all beasts. Beast. Beast's snake, remembered, even without actually touching the fetish tooth in my pocket. Beast's snake was a part of me. I fell within. Like water trickling down a cliff face. Like fog slowly obscuring the world. Grayness enveloped me, sparkling and cold. The world fell away. I was in the gray place of the change.

My breathing stopped. My heart faltered. My bones . . . slid. Skin rippled. Fur, tawny and gray, brown and tipped with black, sprouted. Pain, like a knife, slid between muscle and bone.

* * *

She fell away. My nostrils widened, drawing deep. The scent of blood. Jane's and the predator who had stalked her. Night came alive - wonderful, new scents, heavy on dry, hot air, thick and dancing. Blood. Salt. Humans. Sweat. Strange car. Blood. Faint trace of vampire. I panted. Listened for sounds. In the floor of car, Bruiser's voice still called, full of fear. But there were no cars, no music, no voices talking over one another. I pushed away the seat belt and pawed from the boots and clothes. Gathered limbs beneath and pushed, balancing on plastic between seats and placing front paws on door/window/opening. Ugly man-made light was far away. Nothing here was thief-of-vision. The world was clear, sharp. She never saw like this. Scented like this. Attackers were gone. I yawned and stretched front legs and chest, pulling against legs, spine, belly.

Gathered Jane's clothes and dropped them over the car door onto the dirt. Boots. The gun she had killed, emptying its noisy heart out. Dropped everything and turned back for cell phone. Bruiser was shouting for Jane on cell. Sounded angry-afraid. I looked at it on the floor. Sniffed at it, pulling in air over tongue and roof of mouth with soft scree of sound. Cell phone carried Jane-scent, and Bruiser could track her with cell phone. Could track Jane-scent on cell from far away. I did not understand how he did this, but Bruiser was good tracker of Jane.

I thought. Bruiser could find Beast! I stared at cell. Did not know what to do. I looked inside, to Jane, asleep in corner of mind-den. I swatted her, without claws. But she did not move. I looked back outside mind-den, at cell. I bent into floor of car and picked up cell phone in killing teeth. Foot slipped off plastic. Teeth bit down. Cell phone shattered into many parts, broken. Bruiser's voice went silent. I pawed cell and sniffed. Jane had told me about machines, like guns and Bitsa and cars, that were alive but not alive and that did not bleed blood. I did not understand stupid human things. Cell phone had no blood, yet it was dead. I killed it, like foolish yearling puma with first litter, killing kit with teeth. Stupid Beast. I batted bloodless cell parts into backseat. Did not know what to do. Did not know if Bruiser could track Jane now, but did not think that Jane wanted Bruiser to find Jane-clothes and Jane gone.

Looked out at night, sniffing strange new air. New scents made Bruiser-worry go away. Cell was dead. I could not make it alive again. I chuffed. Growled. Scented. Listening to world. I was safe here until Bruiser sent help. Then big-cat would be prey to white man's guns. Again. Bruiser did not know Beast. Would kill Beast. This hunt was not a good hunt. Beast needed Jane, but Jane still slept. I thought, Could hide Jane!

I took boots into killing teeth and leaped up, over, and down, lithe and lissome - her words for me. Liked those words. Landed on dirt. Hunger tore into belly. Shifting used much food, gave much hunger. But there was no meat here without hunting, and no hunting until Jane was safe

I carried Jane's boots across the ditch and into the dark. Went back to car, to Jane's bag and top-half clothes. Went back again for her bottom-half clothes. Snuffled her pants. They were full of Jane's blood, and spattered with her attacker's blood. Jane had shot him. Jane is good hunter, even without claws and killing teeth. Found hunter's blood on ground and bent over it, opened mouth, pulled back lips, sucking in air over tongue and scent sacks in roof of mouth. Tasting and smelling with scree of sound. Learning. Scent was human and vampire and something hard and metallic and ugly. Did not know this smell.

I bumped Jane's pants with nose. Smelled tooth of puma concolor in small trap called pocket inside of pants. Smelled cross and smelled magics of amulet. Jane thought amulet was important. It was safe in pocket-trap of Jane-clothes. Beast wore one suit of skin and fur. Humans wore skin and clothes - many clothes instead of fur. Would have been smarter to grow fur, but humans were never smart. Walking backward, dragged Jane's pants along Beast's paw-print trail. Hid paw trail. Hid her clothes. Jane was safe now from predator who might hunt her.

Hopped on top of boulder. Studied world. Smelled for mountain lions. Jane said mountain lions had been seen here. Two males, smart males who hunted as a pair. But I smelled no big-cat. Only goat smell. Not far away. Wanted to eat goat. Listened for Jane in mind. Jane still slept. I chuffed and snarled, claiming goats. And padded into night.

* * *

I ate. Long canines tore into throat of goat. Large goat still kicked, still dying. But I was hungry. I bit into meat. Drank down pumping blood. Ripped into goat and filled stomach. Hot blood. Good hunt. Over fences. Scared away large dog, as big as Beast. Took stringy old male, not baby goat, so that Jane would not be angry. Carried old goat back over fence into night. Ate. Afterward, licked blood from whiskers and face. Rolled over, belly to sky, paws in air. Happy. Beast is good hunter.

Overhead, a loud bird flapped wings in night, shining lights onto earth. Not an owl. Owls are good hunters. This bird was stupid hunter, noisy, frightening prey. But big. Beast liked big. Bird ducked and rose and circled, its heart an engine like Jane's bike, Bitsa. Alive but not alive. I remembered helicopter Jane had ridden in. Did not like helicopter, riding in belly of loud helobird. Liked Learjet, smelling of leather and vampire.

Beast, sleepy and full of old goat, lay on back and watched helobird. Helobird was like angel Hayyel, and not like. Hayyel was bright and fast and flew like helobird, but without humans in his belly. Hayyel had offered Beast freedom. Had offered Beast new life. Beast had refused. Did not want to leave Jane. Overhead, big helobird flew away.

Drew in night air. Cool. Clean. Delicate nostril membranes fluttered. Many new smells, some with value, some without. Unimportant: smell of flowers, spiky plants, hot earth, small creatures cowering in rocks, small snakes and big snakes. Rattlers. Dangerous hunters, stupid hunters. Would strike even at Beast, who was too big for them to eat.

Foul smells were distant: gasoline, rubber, hot road, oil on road. Men were not many here. Ridge of land, not far away, looked out over empty-of-man world. On ridge, Beast could see/smell/hear farfarfar. Beast would walk to ridge, take in new world. Maybe look for brothers who hunt together. Beast needed new mate. Strong mate would be good. Strong, smart mate would be better. Even better still, to have two of them.

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