Wolfsbane and mistletoe, p.11
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       Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, p.11

           Charlaine Harris
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Chapter Eleven

  The Star of David

  Patricia Briggs

  Patricia Briggs is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Mercy Thompson series as well as assorted other books. She lives in Montana with her husband and a menagerie of animals and kids in a house that resembles a zoo crossed with a library. The horses have to stay outside. And people wonder where the ideas for her stories come from.

  "I checked them out myself," Myra snapped. "Have you ever just considered that your boy isn't the angel you thought he was?"

  Stella took off her glasses and set them on her desk. "I think that we both need some perspective. Why don't you take the rest of the afternoon off. " Before I slap your stupid face. People like Devonte don't change that fast, not without good reason.

  Myra opened her mouth, but after she got a look at Stella's face, she shut it again. Mutely she stalked to her desk and retrieved her coat and purse. She slammed the door behind her.

  As soon as she was gone, Stella opened the folder and looked at the pictures of the crime scene again. They were duplicates, and doubtless Clive, her brother the detective, had broken a few rules when he sent them to her - not that breaking rules had ever bothered him, not when he was five and not as a grown man nearing fifty and old enough to know better.

  She touched the photos lightly, then closed the folder again. There was a yellow sticky with a phone number on it and nothing else: Clive didn't have to put a name on it. Her little brother knew she'd see what he had seen.

  She picked up the phone and punched in the numbers fast, not giving herself a chance for second thoughts.

  The barracks were empty, leaving David's office silent and bleak. The boys were on furlough with their various families for December.

  His mercenaries specialized in live retrieval, which tended to be in-and-out stuff, a couple of weeks per job at the most. He didn't want to get involved in the gray area of unsanctioned combat or out-and-out war - where you killed people because someone told you to. In retrieval there were good guys and bad guys still - and if there weren't, he didn't take the job. Their reputation was such that they had no trouble finding jobs.

  And unless all hell really broke loose, they always took December off to be with their families. David never let them know how hard that made it for him.

  Werewolves need their packs.

  If his pack was human, well, they knew about him and they filled that odd wolf-quirk that demanded he have people to protect, brothers in heart and mind. He couldn't stomach a real pack, he hated what he was too much.

  He couldn't bear to live with his own kind, but this worked as a substitute and kept him centered. When his boys were here, when they had a job to do, he had direction and purpose.

  His grandsons had invited him for the family dinner, but he'd refused as he always did. He still saw his sons on a regular basis. Both of them had served in his small band of mercenaries for a while, until the life lost its appeal or the risks grew too great for men with growing families. But he stayed away at Christmas.

  Restlessness had him pacing: there were no plans to make, no wrongs to right. Finally he unlocked the safe and pulled out a couple of the newer rifles. He needed to put some time in with them anyway.

  An hour of shooting staved off the restlessness, but only until he locked the guns up again. He'd have to go for a run. When he emptied his pockets in preparation, he noticed he had missed a call while he'd been shooting. He glanced at the number, frowning when he didn't recognize it. Most of his jobs came through an agent who knew better than to give out his cell number. Before he could decide if he wanted to return the call, his phone rang again, a call from the same number.

  "Christiansen," he answered briskly.

  There was a long silence. "Papa?"

  He closed his eyes and sank back in his chair feeling his heart expand with almost painful intentness as his wolf fought with the man who knew his daughter hated him: didn't want to see him, ever. She had been there when her mother died.

  "Stella?" He couldn't imagine what it took to make her break almost forty years of silence. "Are you all right? Is there something wrong?" Someone he could kill for her? A building to blow up? Anything at all.

  She swallowed. He could hear it over the line. He waited for her to hang up.

  Instead, when she spoke again, her voice was brisk and the wavery pain that colored that first "Papa" was gone as if it had never been. "I was wondering if you would consider doing a favor for me. "

  "What do you need?" He was proud that came out evenly. Always better to know what you're getting into, he told himself. He wanted to tell her that she could ask him for anything - but he didn't want to scare her.

  "I run an agency that places foster kids," she told him, as if he didn't know. As if her brothers hadn't told her how he quizzed them to find out how she was doing and what she was up to. He hoped she never found out about her ex-boyfriend who'd turned stalker. He hadn't killed that one, though his willingness to do so had made it easier to persuade the man that he wanted to take up permanent residence in a different state.

  "I know," he said, because it seemed like she needed a response.

  "There's something - " She hesitated. "Look, this might not have been the best idea. "

  He was losing her again. He had to breathe deeply to keep the panic from his voice. "Why don't you tell me about it anyway? Do you have something better to do?"

  "I remember that," she said. "I remember you doing that with Mom. She'd be hysterical, throwing dishes or books, and you'd sit down and say, 'Why don't you tell me about it?'"

  Did she want to talk about her mother now? About the one time he'd needed to be calm and had failed? He hadn't known he was a werewolf until it was too late. Until after he'd killed his wife and the lover she'd taken while David had been fighting for God and country, both of whom had forgotten him. She'd been waiting until he came home to tell him that she was leaving - it was a mistake she'd had no time to regret. He, on the other hand, might have forever to regret it for her.

  He never spoke of it. Not to anyone. For Stella he'd do it, but she knew the story anyway. She'd been there.

  "Do you want to talk about your mother?" he asked, his voice carrying into a lower timbre, as it did when the wolf was close.

  "No. Not that," she said hurriedly. "Nothing like that. I'm sorry. This isn't a good idea. "

  She was going to hang up. He drew on his hard-earned control and thought fast.

  Forty years as a hunter and leader of men had given him a lot of practice reading between the lines. If he could put aside the fact that she was his daughter, maybe he could salvage this.

  She'd told him she ran a foster agency like it was important to the rest of what she had to say.

  "It's about your work?" he asked, trying to figure out what a social worker would need with a werewolf. Oh. "Is there a - " His daughter preferred not to talk about werewolves, Clive had told him. So if there was something supernatural, she was going to have to bring it up. "Is there someone bothering you?"

  "No," she said. "Nothing like that. It's one of my boys. "

  Stella had never married, never had children of her own. Her brother said it was because she had all the people to take care of that she could handle.

  "One of the foster kids. "

  "Devonte Parish. "

  "He one of your special ones?" he asked. His Stella had never seen a stray she hadn't brought home, animal or human. Most she'd dusted off and sent home with a meal and bandages as needed - but some of them she'd kept.

  She sighed. "Come and see him, would you? Tomorrow?"

  "I'll be there," he promised. It would take him a few hours to set up permission from the packs in her area: travel was complicated for a werewolf. "Probably sometime in the afternoon. This the number I can find you at?"

  Instead of taking a taxi from
the airport, he rented a car. It might be harder to park, but it would give them mobility and privacy. If his daughter only needed this, if she didn't want to smoke the peace pipe yet, then he didn't need it witnessed by a cabdriver. A witness would make it harder for him to control himself - and his little girl never needed to see him out of control ever again.

  He called her before setting out, and he could tell that she'd had second and third thoughts.

  "Look," he finally told her. "I'm here now. Maybe we should go and talk to the boy. Where can I meet you?"

  He'd have known her anywhere though he hadn't, by her request, seen her since the night he'd killed his wife. She'd been twelve and now she was a grown woman with silver threads running through her kinky black hair. The last time he'd seen her, she'd been still a little rounded and soft as most children are - and now there wasn't an ounce of softness in her. She was muscular and lean - like him.

  It had been a long time, but he'd never have mistaken her for anyone else: she had his eyes and her mother's face.

  He'd thought you had to be bleeding someplace to hurt this badly. The beast struggled within him, looking for an enemy. But he controlled and subdued it before he pulled the car to the curb and unlocked the automatic door.

  She was wearing a brown wool suit that was several shades darker than the milk and coffee skin she'd gotten from her mother. His own skin was dark as the night and kept him safely hidden in the shadows where he and people like him belonged.

  She opened the car door and got in. He waited until she'd fastened her seat belt before pulling out from the curb. Slush splattered out from under his tires, but it was only a token. Once he was in the traffic lane, the road was bare.

  She didn't say anything for a long time, so he just drove. He had no idea where he was going, but he figured she'd tell him when she was ready. He kept his eyes on traffic to give her time to get a good look at him.

  "You look younger than I remember," she said finally. "Younger than me. "

  "I was thirty-five or thereabouts when I was Changed. Being a werewolf seems to settle physical age about twenty-five for most of us. " There it was out in the open and she could do with it as she pleased.

  He could smell her fear of him spike, and if he'd really been twenty-five, he thought he might have cried. Being this agitated wasn't smart if you were a werewolf. He took a deep breath through his nose and tried to calm down - he'd earned her fear.

  "Devonte won't talk to me or anyone else," she said, and then as if those words had been the key to the floodgate, she kept going. "I wish you could have seen him when I first met him. He was ten going on forty. He'd just lost his grandmother, who had raised him. He looked me right in the eye, stuck his jaw out, and told me that he needed a home where he would be clothed and fed so he could concentrate on school. "

  "Smart boy?" he asked. She'd started in the middle of the story: he'd forgotten that habit of hers until just now.

  "Very smart. Quiet. But funny, too. " She made a sad sound, and her sorrow overwhelmed her fear of him. "We screen the homes. We visit. But there's never enough of us - and some of the horrible ones can put on a good show for a long time. It takes a while, too, before you get a feel for the bad ones. If he could have stayed with his first family, everything would have been fine. He stayed with them for six years. But this fall the foster mother unexpectedly got pregnant and her husband got a job transfer . . . "

  They'd abandoned the boy like he was an old couch that was too awkward to move, David thought. He felt a flash of anger for this boy he'd never met. He swallowed the emotion quickly; he could do that these days. For a while. He was going to have to take that run when he got back home.

  "I was tied up in court cases and someone else moved him to his next family," Stella continued, staring at her hands, which were clenched on a manila folder. "It shouldn't have been a problem. This was a family who already has fostered several children - and Devonte was a good kid, not the kind to give anyone problems. "

  "But something happened?" he suggested.

  "His foster mother says that he just went wild, throwing furniture, breaking things. When he threatened her, his foster father stepped in and knocked him out. Devonte's in the hospital with a broken wrist and two broken ribs and he won't talk. "

  "You don't believe the foster family. "

  She gave an indignant huff. "The Linnfords look like Mr. and Mrs. Brady. She smiles and nods when he speaks and he is all charm and concern. " She huffed again and spoke very precisely, "I wouldn't believe them if all they were doing was giving me the time of day. And I know Devonte. He just wants to get through school and get a scholarship so he can go to college and take care of himself. "

  He nodded thoughtfully. "So why did you call me?" He was willing to have a talk with the family, but he suspected if that was all she needed, it would have been a cold day in hell before she called him - she had her brothers for that.

  "Because of the photos. " She held up the folder in invitation.

  He had to drive a couple of blocks before he found a convenient parking place and pulled over, leaving the engine running.

  He pulled six photos off a clip that attached them to the back of the folder she held and spread them out to look. Interest rose up and he wished he had something more than photos. It certainly looked like more damage than one lone boy could do: ten boys maybe, if they had sledgehammers. The holes in the walls were something anyone could have done. The holes in the ten-foot ceiling, the executive desk on its side in three pieces, and the antique oak chair broken to splinters and missing a leg were more interesting.

  "The last time I saw something like that . . . " Stella whispered.

  It was probably a good thing she couldn't bring herself to finish that sentence. He had to admit that all this scene was missing was blood and body parts.

  "How old is Devonte?"

  "Sixteen. "

  "Can you get me in to look at the damage?"

  "No, they had contractors in to fix it. "

  His eyebrows raised. "How long has it been?"

  "It was the twenty-first. Three days. " She waved a hand. "I know. Contractors are usually a month wait at least, but money talks. This guy has serious money. "

  That sounded wrong. "Then why are they taking in a foster kid?" She looked him in the eye for the first time and nodded at him as if he'd gotten something right. "If I'd been the one to vet them, I'd have smelled a rat right there. Rich folk don't want mongrel children who've had it rough. Or if they do, they go to China or Romania and adopt babies to coo over. They don't take in foster kids, not without an agenda. But we're desperate for foster homes . . . and it wasn't me who approved them. "

  "You said the boy wouldn't talk. To you? Or to anybody?"

  "To anybody. He hasn't said a word since the incident. Won't communicate at all. "

  David considered that, running through possibilities. "Was anyone hurt except for the boy?"

  "No. "

  "Would you mind if I went to see him now?"

  "Please. "

  He followed her directions to the hospital. He parked the car, but before he could open the door, she grabbed his arm. The first time she touched him.

  "Could he be a werewolf?"

  "Maybe," he told her. "That kind of damage . . . "

  "It looked like our house," she said, not looking at him, but not taking her hand off him either. "Like our house that night. "

  "If he was a werewolf, I doubt your Mr. Linnford would have been able to knock him out without taking a lot of damage. Maybe Linnford is the werewolf. " That would fit, most of the werewolves he knew, if they survived, eventually became wealthy. Children were more difficult. Maybe that was why Linnford and his wife fostered children.

  Stella jerked her chin up and down once. "That's what I thought. That's it. Linnford might be a werewolf. Could
you tell?"

  His chest felt tight. How very brave of her: she'd called the only monster she knew to deal with the other monsters. It reminded him of how she'd stood between him and the boys, protecting them the best that she could.

  "Let me talk to Devonte," he said, trying to keep the growl out of his voice with only moderate success. "Then I can deal with Linnford. "

  The hospital corridors were decorated with garlands and green and red bulbs. Every year Christmas got more plastic and seemed further and further from the Christmases David had known as a child.

  His daughter led him to the elevators without hesitation and exchanged nods with a few of the staff members who walked past. He hated the way his children aged every year. Hated the silver in their hair that was a constant reminder that eventually time would take them all away from him.

  She kept as much distance between them as she could in the elevator. As if he were a stranger - or a monster. At least she wasn't running from him screaming.

  You can't live with bitterness. He knew that. Bitterness, like most unpleasant emotions, made the wolf restless. Restless wolves were dangerous. The nurse at the station just outside the elevator knew Stella, too, and greeted her by name.

  "That Mr. Linnford was here asking after Devonte. I told him that he wasn't allowed to visit yet. " She gave Stella a disappointed look, clearly blaming her for putting Mr. Linnford to such bother. "What a nice man he is, looking after that boy after what he did to them. "

  She handed Stella a clipboard and gave David a mildly curious look. He gave her his most harmless smile and she smiled back before glancing down at the clipboard Stella had returned.

  David could read it from where he stood. Stella Christiansen and guest. Well, he told himself, she could hardly write down that he was her father when she looked older than he did.

  "He may be a nice man," Stella told the nurse with a thread of steel in her voice, "but you just keep him out until we know for sure what happened and why. "

  She strode off toward a set of doors where a policeman sat in front of a desk, sitting on a wooden chair, and reading a worn paperback copy of Stephen King's Cujo. "Jorge," she said.

  "Stella. " He buzzed the door and let them through.

  "He's in the secured wing," she explained under her breath as she walked briskly down the hall. "Not that it's all that secure. Jorge shouldn't have let you through without checking your ID. "

  Not that anyone would question his Stella, David thought. Even as a little girl, people did what she told them to do. He was careful not to smile at her, she wouldn't understand it.

  This part of the hospital smelled like blood, desperation, and disinfectant. Even though most of the scents were old, a new wolf penned up in this environment would cause a lot more excitement than he was seeing: and a sixteen-year-old could only be a new wolf. Any younger than that and they mostly didn't survive the Change. Anyway, he'd have scented a wolf by now: their first conclusion was right - Stella's boy was no werewolf.

  "Any cameras in the rooms?" he asked in a low voice.

  Her steady footfall paused. "No. That's still on the list of advised improvements for the future. "

  "All right. No one else here?"

  "Not right now," she said. "This hospital isn't near gang territory and they put the adult offenders in a different section. " She entered one of the open doorways and he followed her in, shutting the door behind them.

  It wasn't a private room, but the first bed was empty. In the second bed was a boy staring at the wall - there were no windows. He was beaten up a bit and had a cast on one hand. The other hand was attached to a sturdy rail that stuck out of the bed on the side nearest the wall with a locking nylon strap - better than handcuffs, he thought, but not much. The boy didn't look up as they came in.

  Maybe it was the name, or maybe the image that "foster kid" brought to mind, but he'd expected Devonte to be black. Instead, the boy looked as if someone had taken half a dozen races and shook them up - Eurasian races, though, not from the Dark Continent. There was Native American or Oriental in the corners of his eyes - and he supposed that nose could be Jewish or Italian. His skin looked as if he had a deep suntan, but this time of year it was more likely the color was his own: Mexican, Greek, or even Indian.

  Not that it mattered. He'd found that the years were slowly completing the job that Vietnam had begun - race or religion mattered very little to him anymore. But even if it had mattered . . . Stella had asked him for help.

  Stella glanced at her father. She didn't know him, didn't know if he'd see through Devonte's defiant sullenness to the fear underneath. His expressionless face and upright military bearing gave her no clue. She could read people, but she didn't know her father anymore, hadn't seen him since . . . that night. Watching him made her uncomfortable, so she turned her attention to the other person in the room.

  "Hey, kid. "

  Devonte kept his gaze on the wall.

  "I brought someone to see you. "

  Her father, after a keen look at the boy, lifted his head and sucked in air through his nose hard enough she could hear it.

  "Where are the clothes he was wearing when they brought him in?" he asked.

  That drew Devonte's attention, and satisfaction at his reaction slowed her answer. Her father's eye fell on the locker and he stalked to it and opened the door. He took out the clear plastic bag of clothes and said, with studied casualness, "Linnford was here asking about you today. "

  Devonte went still as a mouse.

  Stella didn't know where this was going, but pitched in to help. "The police informed me that Linnford's decided to not press assault charges. They should move you to a room with a view soon. I'm scheduled for a meeting tomorrow morning to decide what happens to you when you get out of here. "

  Devonte opened his mouth, but then closed it resolutely.

  Her father sniffed at the bag, then said softly, "Why do your clothes smell like vampire, boy?"

  Devonte jumped, the whites of his eyes showing all the way round his irises. His mouth opened and this time Stella thought it might really be an inability to speak that kept him quiet. She was choking a bit on "vampire" herself. But she wouldn't have believed in werewolves either, she supposed, if her father weren't one.

  "I didn't introduce you," she murmured. "Devonte, this is my father, I called him when I saw the crime scene photos. He's a werewolf. " If he was having vampire problems, maybe a werewolf would look good.

  The sad blue-gray chair with the ripped Naugahyde seat that had been sitting next to Devonte's bed zipped past her and flung itself at her father - who caught it and gave the boy a curious half smile. "Oh, I bet you surprised it, didn't you? Wizards aren't exactly common. "

  "Wizard?" Stella squeaked regrettably.

  Her father's smile widened just a little - a smile she remembered from her childhood when she or one of her brothers had done something particularly clever. This one was aimed at Devonte.

  He moved the chair gently between his hands. "A witch's power centers on bodies and minds, flesh and blood. A wizard has power over the physical - " The empty bed slammed into the wall with the open locker, bending the door and cracking the drywall. Her father was safely in front of it and belatedly she realized he must have jumped over it.

  He still had the chair and his smile had grown to a wide, white grin. "Very nice, boy. But I'm not your enemy. " He glanced up at the clock on the wall and shook his head.

  "Someone ought to reset that thing. Do you know what time it is?"

  No more furniture moved. Her father made a show of taking out his cell phone and looking at it. "Six thirty. It's dark outside already. How badly did you hurt it with that chair I saw in the photo?"

  Devonte was breathing hard, but Stella controlled her urge to go to him. Her father, hopefully, knew what he was doing. She shivered, though she was wearing her
favorite wool suit and the hospital was quite warm. How much of the stories she'd heard about vampires was true?

  Devonte released a breath. "Not badly enough. "

  On the tails of Devonte's reply, her father asked, "Who taught you not to talk at all, if you have a secret to keep?"

  "My grandmother. Her mother survived Dachau because the American troops came just in time - and because she kept her mouth shut when the Nazis wanted information. "

  Her father's face softened. "Tough woman. Was she the Gypsy? Most wizards have at least a little Gypsy blood. "

  Devonte shrugged, rubbed his hands over his face hard. She recognized the gesture from a hundred different kids: he was trying not to cry. "Stella said you're a werewolf. "

  Her father cocked his head as if he were weighing something. "Stella doesn't lie. " Unexpectedly he pinned Stella with his eyes. "I don't know if we'll have a vampire calling tonight - it depends upon how badly Devonte hurt it. "

  "Her," said Devonte. "It was a her. "

  Still looking at Stella, her father corrected himself. "Her. She must have been pretty badly injured if she hasn't come here already. And it probably means we're lucky and she is alone. If there were others, they'd have come yesterday or the day before - they can't afford to let Devonte live with what he knows about them. Vampires haven't survived as long as they have by leaving witnesses. "

  "No one would have believed me," Devonte said. "They'd have locked me up forever. "

  That made her father release her from the grip of his gaze as he focused his attention on Devonte. The boy straightened under the impact - Stella knew exactly how he felt.

  "Is that what Linnford told you when his neighbors came running to see why there was so much noise?" her father asked gently. "Upscale apartment dwellers aren't nearly as likely to ignore odd sounds. Is that why you threw around so much furniture? That was smart, boy. "

  Devonte was nodding his head - and he straightened a little more at her father's praise.

  "Next time a vampire attacks you and you don't manage to kill it, though, you shout it to the world. You may end up seeing a psychologist for the rest of your life - but the vampires will stay as far from you as they can. If she doesn't come tonight, you tell your story to the newspapers. " Her father glanced at Stella and she nodded.

  "I know a couple of reporters," she said. "'Boy Claims He Was Attacked by Vampire' ought to sell enough papers to justify a headline or two. "

  "All right then. " Her father returned his attention to her. "I need you to go out and find some wood for us: a chair, a table, something we can make stakes out of. "

  "Holy water?" asked Devonte. "They might have a chapel here. "

  "Smart," said her father. "But from what I've heard, it doesn't do enough damage to be worth running it down. Go now, Stella - and be careful. "

  She almost saluted him, but she didn't trust him enough to tease. He saw it, almost smiled, and then turned back to Devonte. "And you're going to tell me everything you know about this vampire. "

  Stella glanced in the room next to Devonte's, but, like his, it was decorated in early Naugahyde and metal: no wood to be found. She didn't bother checking any more but hurried to the security door - and read the note on the door.

  "No, sir. She lived with them - they told me she was Linnford's sister. " Devonte stopped talking when she came back.

  "Jorge's been called away, he'll be back in a few minutes. "

  Her father considered that. "I think the show's on. No wooden chairs?"

  "All the rooms in this wing are like this one. "

  "Without an effective weapon, I'll get a better chance at her as a wolf than as a human. It means I can't talk to you, though - and it will take a while to change back, maybe a couple of hours. " He looked away, and in an adult version of Devonte's earlier gesture, rubbed his face tiredly. She heard the rasp of whisker on skin. "I control the wolf now - and have for a long time. "

  He was worried about her.

  "It's all right," she told him. He gave her the same kind of keen examination he'd given Devonte earlier and she wondered what information he was drawing from it. Could he tell how scared she was?

  His face softened. "You'll do, my star. "

  She'd forgotten that he used to call her that - hated the way it tightened her throat. "Should I call Clive and Steve?"

  "Not for a vampire," he told her. "All that will do is up the body count. To that end, we'll stay here and wait - an isolation ward is as good a place to face her as any. If I'm wrong, and the guard's leaving isn't the beginning of her attack - if she doesn't come tonight, we get all of us into the safety of someone's home, where the vampire can't just waltz in without invitation. Then I'll call in a few favors and my friends and I can take care of her somewhere there aren't any civilians to be hurt. "

  He looked around with evident dissatisfaction.

  "What are you looking for?" Devonte asked so she didn't have to.

  "A place to hide. " Then he looked up and smiled at the dropped ceiling.

  "Those panels won't support your weight," she warned him.

  "No, but this is a hospital and this is the old wing. I bet they have a cable ladder for their computer and electric cables . . . " As he spoke, he'd hopped on the empty bed and pushed up a ceiling panel to take a look.

  "What's a cable ladder?" Stella asked.

  "In this case, it's a sturdy aluminum track attached to the oak beam with stout hardware. " He sounded pleased as he replaced the ceiling panel he'd taken out. "I could hide a couple of people up here if I had to. "

  He was a mercenary, she remembered, and wondered how many times he'd hidden on top of cable ladders.

  He moved the empty bed away from the wall and climbed on it again and removed a different panel. "Do you think you can get this panel back where it belongs after I get up here, boy?"

  "Sure. " Devonte sounded thoroughly pleased. If anyone else had called him "boy," he'd have been bristling. He was already well on the way to a big case of hero worship, just like the one she'd had.

  "Stella. " Her father took off his red flannel shirt and laid it on the empty bed behind him. "When this is over, you call Clive, tell him everything, and he'll arrange a cleanup. He knows who to call for help with it. It's safer for everyone if people don't believe in vampires and werewolves. Leaving bodies makes it kind of hard to deny. "

  "I'll call him. "

  Without his shirt to cover him, she could see there was no softness in him. A few scars showed up gray on his dark skin. She'd forgotten how dark he was, like ebony.

  As he peeled off his sky-blue undershirt, he said, with a touch of humor, "If you don't want to see more of your father than any daughter ever should, you need to turn your back. " And she realized she'd been staring at him.

  Devonte made an odd noise - he was laughing. There was a tightness to the sound and she knew he was scared and excited to see what it looked like when a man changed into a werewolf. For some reason she felt her own mouth stretch into a nervous grin she let Devonte see just before she did as her father advised her and turned her back.

  David didn't like changing in front of anyone. He wasn't exactly vulnerable - but it made the wolf edgy and if someone decided to get brave and approach too closely . . . well, the wolf would feel threatened, like a snake shedding its skin.

  So to the boy he said quietly, "Watching is fine. But wait for a bit if you want to touch . . . " He had a thought. "Stella, if she sends the Linnfords in first, I'll do my best to stay hidden. I can take a vampire . . . " Honesty forced him to continue. "Maybe I can take a vampire, but only with surprise on my side. Her human minions, if they are still human enough to walk in daylight, are still too human to detect me. Don't let them take Devonte out of this room. "

  He tried to remember everything he knew about vampi
res. Once he changed, it would be too late to talk. "Don't look in the vampire's eyes, don't let her touch you. Unless you are really a believer, don't plan on crosses helping you out. When I attack, don't try and help, just keep out of it so I don't have to worry about you. "

  Wishing they had a wooden stake, he knelt on the floor and allowed himself to change. Calling the wolf was easy, it knew there was a fight to be had, blood to be shed, and in its eagerness it rushed the change as if called by the moon herself.

  He never remembered exactly how bad it was going to hurt. His mother had once told him that childbirth was like that for women. That if they remembered how bad it was, they'd lack the courage to face the next time.

  But he did remember it was always worse than he expected, and that somehow helped him bear it.

  The shivery, icy pain slid over his bones while fire threaded through his muscles, reshaping, reorganizing, and altering what was there to suit itself. Experience kept him from making noise - it was one of the first things he learned: how to control his instincts and keep the howls, the growls, and the whines inside and bury them in silence. Noise can attract unwanted attention.

  His lungs labored to provide oxygen as adrenaline forced his heart to beat too fast. His face ached as teeth became fangs and his jaw extended with cheekbones. His eyesight blurred and then sharpened with a predatory clarity that allowed him to see prey and enemy alike no matter what shadows they tried to hide in.

  "Cool," said someone. Devonte. He-who-was-to-be-guarded.

  Someone moved and it attracted his attention. Her terror flooded his senses like perfume.

  Prey. He liked it when they ran.

  Then she lifted her chin and he saw a second image, superimposed over the first. A child standing between him and two smaller children, her chin jutting out as she lifted up a baseball bat in wordless defiance that spoke louder than her terror and the blood.

  Not prey. Not prey. His. His star.

  It was all right then. She could see his pain - she had earned that right. And together they would stop the monster from eating the boy.

  For the first few minutes after the change, he mostly thought like the wolf, but as the pain subsided, he settled back into control. He shook off the last of the unpleasant tingles with the same willpower he used to set aside the desire to snarl at the boy who reached out with a hand . . . only to jerk back, caught by the strap on his wrist.

  David hopped onto the bed and snapped through the ballistic nylon that attached Devonte's cuff to the rail and waited while the boy petted him tentatively with all the fascination of a person touching a tiger.

  "That'll be a little hard to explain," said Stella.

  He looked at her and she flinched . . . then jerked up her chin and met his eyes. "What if the Linnfords ask about the restraint?"

  It had been the wolf's response to seeing the boy he was supposed to protect tied up like a bad dog, not the man's.

  "They haven't been here," said Devonte. "Unless they spend a lot of time in hospital prison, they won't know it was supposed to be there. I'll cover the cuff on my wrist with the blanket. "

  Stella nodded her head thoughtfully. "All right. And if things get bad, at least this way you can run. He's right, it's better if the restraint is off. "

  David let them work it out. He launched himself off Devonte's bed and onto the other - forgetting that Devonte was already hurt until he heard the boy's indrawn breath. David was still half operating on wolf instincts - which wasn't very helpful when fighting vampires. He needed to be thinking.

  Maybe it had only been the suddenness of his movement, though, because the boy made the same sound when David hopped through the almost-too-narrow opening in the ceiling and onto the track in the plenum space between the original fourteen-foot ceiling and false panels fitted into the flimsy hangers that kept them in place. The track groaned a little under his sudden weight, but it didn't bend.

  "My father always told us that no one ever looks up for their enemy," Stella said after a moment. "Can you replace the panel? If you can't, I - "

  The panel he'd moved slid back into place with more force than necessary and cracked down the middle.

  "Damn it. "

  "Don't worry, no one will notice. There are a couple of broken panels up there. "

  She couldn't see any sign that her father was hiding in the ceiling except for the bed. She grabbed it by the headboard and tugged it back to its original position, then she did the same with the chair.

  She'd forgotten how impressive the wolf was . . . almost beautiful: the perfect killing machine covered with four-inch-deep, red-gold fur. She hadn't remembered the black that tipped his ears and surrounded his eyes like Egyptian kohl.

  "If you'll get back, I'll see what I can do with the wall," said Devonte. "Sometimes I can fix things as well as move them. "

  That gave her a little pause, but she found that wizards weren't as frightening as werewolves and vampires. She considered his offer, then shook her head.

  "No. They already know what you are. " She gathered her father's clothes from the bedspread and folded them neatly. Then she stashed them - and the plastic bag with Devonte's clothes - in the locker. "Just leave the wall. We only need to hide the werewolf from them, and you might need all the power you've got to help with the vampire. "

  Devonte nodded.

  "Right then. " She took a deep breath and picked up her catchall purse from the floor where she'd set it.

  Her brothers had made fun of her purses until she'd used one to take out a mugger. She'd been lucky - it had been laden with a pair of three-pound weights she'd been transporting from home to work - but she'd never admitted that to her brothers. Afterward they'd given her Mace, karate lessons, and quit bugging her about the size of her purse.

  Unearthing a travel-sized game board from its depths, she said, "How about some checkers?"

  Five hard-won games later she decided the vampire either wasn't coming tonight, or she was waiting for Stella to go away. She jumped three of Devonte's checkers and there was a quiet knock on the door. She turned to look as Jorge, the cop who'd gotten babysitting duty today, poked his head in.

  "Sorry to leave you stuck here. "

  "No problem. Just beating a poor helpless child at checkers. "

  She waited for him to respond with something funny - Jorge was quick on his feet. But his face just stayed . . . not blank precisely, but neutral.

  "They need you down in pediatrics, now. Looks like a case of child abuse, and Doc Gonzales wants you to talk to the little girl. "

  She couldn't help the instincts that brought her to her feet, but those same instincts were screaming that there was something wrong with Jorge.

  Between her job and having a brother on the force, she'd gotten to know some of the cops pretty well. Nothing bothered Jorge like a child who'd been hurt. She'd seen him cry like a baby when he talked about a car wreck where the child hadn't survived. But he'd passed this message along to her with all the passion of a hospital switchboard operator.

  In the movies, vampires could make people do what they wanted them to - she couldn't remember if the people were permanently damaged. Mostly, she was afraid, they just died.

  She glanced down at her watch and shook her head. "You know my rules," she said. "It's after six and I'm off shift. "

  Her rules were a standing joke with her brothers and their friends - a serious joke. She'd seen too many people burn out from the stress of her job. So she'd made a list of rules she had to follow, and they'd kept her sane so far. One of her rules was that from eight in the morning until six in the evening she was on the job; outside of those hours she did her best to have a real life. She was breaking it now, with Devonte.

  Instead of calling her on it, Jorge just processed her reply and finally nodded. "All right. I'll tell them. "

  He didn't close the door wh
en he left. She went to the doorway and watched him walk mechanically down the hall and through the security door, which he'd left open. Very unlike him to leave a security door open, but he closed it behind him.

  "That was the vampire's doing, wasn't it?" she asked, looking up.

  The soft growl that eased through the ceiling was somehow reassuring - though she hadn't forgotten his reservations about how well he'd do against a vampire.

  She went back to Devonte's bed and made her move on the board. Out in the hall the security door opened again, and someone wearing high heels click-clicked briskly down the hall.

  Stella took a deep breath, settled back on the end of the bed, and told Devonte, "Your turn. "

  He looked at the board, but she saw his hand shake as whoever it was in the hallway closed in on them.

  "King me," he said in a fair approximation of triumph.

  The footsteps stopped in the doorway. Devonte looked over her shoulder and his face went slack with fear. Stella inhaled and took her first look.

  She'd thought a vampire would be young, like her father. Wasn't that the myth? But this woman had gray hair and wrinkles under her eyes and in the soft, white skin of her neck. She was dressed in a professionally tailored wine-colored suit. She wore a diamond necklace around her aging neck, and diamond-and-pearl earrings.

  "Well," said Stella, "no one is going to think you look like a cuddly grandma. "

  The woman laughed, her face lighting up with a cheer so genuine that Stella thought she might have liked her if only the laughter didn't showcase her fangs. "The boy talked, did he? I thought for sure he'd hold his tongue, if only to keep his own secrets. Either that or broadcast it to the world, and then you and I wouldn't be in this position. "

  She gave Stella a kindly smile that showed off a charmingly mismatched pair of dimples. "I am sorry you had to be involved. I tried to get you out of it. "

  But Stella had been dealing with people a long time, she could smell a fake a mile away. The laughter had been real, but the kind concern certainly wasn't.

  "Separating your prey," Stella said. She needed to get the vampire into the room, where her father could drop on top of her, but how?

  The vampire displayed her fangs and dimples again. "More convenient and easier to keep the noise down," she allowed. "But not really necessary. Not even if you are a" - she took a deep breath - "werewolf. "

  The news didn't seem to bother her. Stella fought off the feeling that her father was going to be overmatched. He'd been a soldier and then a mercenary, training his own sons and then grandsons. Surely he knew what he was doing.

  "Hah," sneered Devonte in classic adolescent disdain. "You aren't so tough. I nearly killed you all by myself. "

  The vampire sneered right back, and on her, the expression made the hair on the back of Stella's neck stand up and take notice. "You were a mistake, boy. One I intend to clear up. "

  David crouched motionless, waiting for the sound of the vampire's voice to indicate she had moved underneath him.

  Patience, patience, he counseled himself, but he should have been counseling someone else.

  If the vampire's theatrics scared Stella, they drove Devonte into action. The bed he tried to smash her father with rattled across the floor. He must have tired himself out with his earlier wizardry because it was traveling only half as fast as it had when he'd tried to drive her father through the wall.

  The vampire had no trouble grabbing it . . . or throwing it through the plaster wall and into the hallway, where it crashed on its side, flinging wheels, bedding, mattress, and pieces of the arcana that distinguished it from a normal bed.

  She was so busy impressing them with her Incredible Hulk imitation, she didn't see the old blue-gray chair. It hit her squarely in the back, driving her directly under the panel Devonte had cracked.

  "Now," whispered Stella, ping toward the hole the vampire had made in the wall, hoping that would be out of the way.

  Even though Devonte's chair had knocked the vampire to her knees, Stella's motion drew her attention. The thing was fast, and she lunged for Stella in the same motion she used to rise. Then the roof fell on top of her, the roof and a silently snarling red-gold wolf with claws and fangs that made the vampire's look like toys.

  For a moment she was twelve again, watching the monster dig those long claws into her mother's lover and she froze in horror. The woman looked frail beneath the huge wolf's bulk - until she pulled her legs under him and threw him into the outer wall, the one made of cinder blocks and not plaster.

  With an inhuman howl, the vampire leaped upon her father. She looked nothing like the elegant woman who had walked into the room. In the brief glimpse she'd had of her face, Stella saw something terrible . . . evil.

  "Stella, behind you!" Devonte yelled, hopping of the bed, his good arm around his ribs.

  She hadn't been paying attention to anything except the vampire. Devonte's warning came just a little late and someone grabbed her by the arm and jerked her roughly around - Linnford. Gone was the urban smile and GQ posture, his face was lit with fanaticism and madness. He had a knife in the hand that wasn't holding her. She reacted without thinking, twisting so his thrust went past her abdomen, slicing through fabric but not skin.

  Something buzzed between them, hitting Linnford in the chest and knocking him back to the floor. He jerked and spasmed like a skewered frog in a film she'd once had to watch in college. The chair sat on top of him, balanced on one bent leg, the other three appearing to hover in the air.

  It took a moment for her to properly understand what she was seeing. The bent chair leg was stuck into his rib cage, just to the left of his sternum. Blood began spitting out like a macabre fountain.

  "Honey?" Hannah Linnford stood in the doorway. Like Stella, she seemed to be having trouble understanding what she was seeing.

  Muttering, "Does no one remember to shut the security doors?" Stella pulled the mini-canister of Mace her youngest brother had given her after the mugging incident out of her pocket and sprayed it in the other woman's face.

  If she'd been holding Linnford's knife, she could have cheerfully driven it through Hannah's neck: these people had taken one of her kids and tried to feed him to a vampire.

  Thinking of her kids made Stella look for Devonte.

  He was leaning against the wall a few feet from his bed, staring at Linnford - and his expression centered Stella because he needed her. She ran to him and tugged him to the far corner of the room, away from the fighting monsters, but too close to the Linnfords. Once she had him where she wanted him, she did her best to block his view of Linnford's dying body. If she could get medical help soon enough, Linnford might survive - but she felt no drive to do it. Let him rot.

  Mace can in hand, she kept a weather eye on the woman screaming on the floor, but most of her attention was on the fight her father was losing.

  They fought like a pair of cats, coming together clawing and biting, almost too fast for her eyes to focus on, then, for no reason she could see, they'd retreat. After a few seconds of staring at each other, they'd go at it again. Unlike cats, they were eerily silent.

  The vampire's carefully arranged hair was fallen, covering her face, but not disguising her glittering . . . no, glowing red eyes. Her arm flashed out in a jerky movement that was so quick Stella almost missed it - and the wolf twitched away with another wound that dripped blood: the vampire was still virtually untouched.

  The two monsters backed away from each other and the vampire licked her fingers.

  "You taste so good, wolf," she said. "I can't wait until I can sink my fangs through your skin and suck that sweetness dry. "

  Stella sprayed Hannah in the face again. Then she hauled Devonte out the door and away from the vampire, making regrettably little allowance for his broken ribs. Dead was worse than in pain.

  It was working, David thought, watchin
g the vampire lick his blood off her fingers. Though he was mostly focused on the vampire, he noticed when Stella took the boy out of the room. Good for her. With the vampire's minions here, one dead and one incapacitated, she shouldn't have trouble getting out. He hoped she took Devonte to her home - or any home - where they'd be safe. Then he put them out of his mind and concentrated on the battle at hand.

  He'd met a vampire or two, but never fought one before. He'd heard that some of them had a strange reaction to werewolf blood. She seemed to be one of them.

  He could only hope that her bloodlust would make her stupid. He'd heard that vampires couldn't feed from the dead. If it wasn't true, he might be in trouble.

  He waited for her to come at him again - and this time he stepped into her fist, falling limply at her feet. She hit him hard, he felt the bone in his jaw creak, so the limp fall wasn't hard to fake. He'd wait until she started feeding and the residual dizziness from her blow left, then he'd take her.

  She fell on him and he waited for her fangs to dig in. Instead she jerked a couple of times and then lay still. She wasn't breathing and her heart wasn't beating - but she'd been like that when she walked into the room.


  Stella was supposed to be safely away.

  He rose with a roar, making an audible sound for the first time so the vampire would pay attention to him and leave his daughter alone. But the woman's body rolled smoothly off of him and lay on the floor - two wooden chair legs stuck through her back.

  "Are you all right? Jorge left the security door open. I knew it when the Linnfords came in. We broke the legs off Jorge's chair, and Devonte used whatever he used to toss the furniture around to drive them into her back. "

  The soldier in him insisted on a full and quick survey of the room. Linnford was dead, the abused chair was the obvious cause of death. A woman, presumably his wife, sobbed harshly, her face pressed into Linnford's arm: a possible threat. Stella and Devonte were standing way too close to the vampire.

  They'd killed her.

  For a moment he felt a surge of pride. Stella didn't have an ounce of quit in her whole body. She and the boy had managed to take advantage of the distraction he'd arranged before he could.

  "Everyone was gone, Jorge and everyone. " He looked at the triumph in Stella's face, not quite hidden by her worry for her friends.

  She thought the vampire was finished, but wood through the heart didn't always keep the undead down.

  "Are you all right?" Stella asked. And then when he just stared at her, "Papa?"

  He'd come here hoping to play hero, he knew, hoping to mend what couldn't be mended. But the only role for him was that of monster, because that was the only thing he was.

  He pulled the sheet off the bed and ripped it with a claw, then tossed it toward Linnford's sobbing woman. Stella took the hint and she and Devonte made a rope of sorts out of it and tied her up.

  While they were working at that, he walked slowly up to the vampire. Stella had called him Papa tonight, more than once. He'd try to hold on to that and forget the rest.

  He growled at the vampire: her fault that he would lose his daughter a second time. Then he snapped his teeth through her spine. The meat of her was tougher than it should have been, tougher than jerky and bad-tasting to boot. His jaw hurt from the hit he'd taken as he set his teeth and put some muscle into separating her head from her body.

  When he was finished, the boy was losing his last meal in the corner, an arm wrapped around his ribs. Throwing up with broken ribs sucked: he knew all about that. Linnford's woman was secured. Stella had a hand over her mouth as if to prevent herself from imitating Devonte. When she pulled her eyes away from the vampire's severed head and looked at him, he saw horror.

  He felt the blood dripping from his jaws - and couldn't face her any longer. Couldn't stay while horror turned to fear of him. He didn't look at his daughter again as he ran away for the first time in his long life.

  When he could, he changed back to human at the home of the local werewolf pack. They let him shower, and gave him a pair of sweats - the universal answer to the common problem of changing back to human and not having clothes to put back on.

  He called his oldest son to make sure that Stella had called him and that he had handled the cleanup. She had remembered, and Clive was proceeding with his usual thoroughness.

  Linnford was about to have a terrible car wreck. The vampire's body, both parts of it, were scheduled for immediate incineration. The biggest problem was what to do with Linnford's wife. For the moment she seemed to be too traumatized to talk. Maybe the vampire's death had broken her - or maybe she'd come around. Either way, she'd need help, discreet help from people who knew how to tell the difference between the victim of a vampire and a minion and would treat her accordingly.

  David made a few calls, and got the number of a very private sanitarium run by a small, very secret government agency. The price wasn't bad - all he had to do was rescue some missionary who was related to a high-level politician. The fool had managed to get kidnapped with his wife and two young children. David's team would still get paid, and he'd probably have taken the assignment anyway.

  By the time he called Clive back, his sons had located a few missing hospital personnel and the cop who'd been guarding the door. David heard the relief in Clive's voice: Jorge was apparently a friend. None of the recovered people seemed to be hurt, though they had no idea why they were all in the basement.

  David hung up and turned off his cell phone. Accepting the offer of a bedroom from the pack Alpha, David took his tired body to bed and slept.

  Christmas Day was coming to a close when David drove his rental to his son's house - friends had picked it up from the hospital for him.

  Red and green lights covered every bush and railing as well as surrounding all the windows. Knee-high candy canes lined the walk.

  There were cars at his son's house. David frowned at them and checked his new watch. He was coming over at the right time. He'd made it clear that he didn't want to intrude - which was understood to mean that he wouldn't come when Stella was likely to be there.

  He'd already have been on a flight home except that he didn't know how to contact Devonte. He tapped the envelope against his leg and wondered why he'd picked up a Christmas card instead of just handing over his business card. Below his contact information he'd made Devonte an open job offer beginning as soon as Devonte was eighteen. David could think of a thousand ways a wizard would be of use to a small group of mercenaries.

  Of course, after watching David tear up the vampire's body, Devonte probably wouldn't be interested, so more to the point was the name and phone number on the other side of the card. Both belonged to a wizard who was willing to take on a pupil, the local Alpha had given it to him.

  Clive had promised to give it to Devonte.

  David had to search under the giant wreath on the door for the bell. As he waited, he noticed that he could hear a lot of people inside, and even through the door he smelled the turkey.

  He took a step back, but the door was already opening.

  Stella stood in the doorway. Over her shoulder he could see the whole family running around preparing the table for Christmas dinner. Devonte was sitting on the couch reading to one of the toddlers that seemed to be everywhere. Clive leaned against the fireplace and met David's gaze. He lifted a glass of wine and sipped it, smiling slyly.

  David took another step back and opened his mouth to apologize to Stella . . . just as her face lit with her mother's smile. She stepped out onto the porch and wrapped her arms around him.

  "Merry Christmas, Papa," she said. "I hope you like turkey. "

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