While you’re waiting, why not enjoy more of the revised first chapter of the next book, Sorrows’ Knights? This is another big book, but not as sprawling as Sorrows’ Master. I hope you enjoy this meaty chunk.
Chapter 1. Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Palmers Rest, North Carolina
After hiding the fourth and last locked weapons case in the crawl space in the ceiling of the bedroom closet, Michael Kaminski let out the breath he didn’t realize he had been holding. There. Safe for now, he thought. As a temporary hiding place until he could bring in a real gun safe, it would do. Bring the gun safe from Vegas? Or get a new one? Hm. Damn things are heavy…but I like the one in Vegas. Okay, maybe have that sent out. Yeah, I’ll get it shipped. At least no emergency currently loomed, so he could stow his more formidable firepower for the time being. Hopefully he would not actually need the assault weapons any time soon—but better safe than sorry. Thus, stowing his armaments was the second thing he had done after taking possession of this rental apartment.
Michael let the piece of white-painted plywood drop into place and then stepped off the chair and backed out of the closet. He put the chair back against the wall next to the bare cheap veneered dresser. Looking around the mostly empty landlord-beige bedroom of the new furnished apartment, he began adding to his mental lists. He needed a set of bedding and towels, enough to last until he flew out to Las Vegas and drove back with the rest of his stuff. This rental came with a few plates, glasses, and assorted mismatched flatware. If he was going to have Alex Gotth and the his crew over, he would need more than that.
Clothing and housewares, meh. Most things were easily replaceable. Armaments and his art gear, that made a house a home. Had, for the last couple of decades he had spent working as a contractor for some of the “corporate interests” in Vegas, cleaning up other people’s messes. Nasty good fun, that was, he smiled to himself. Especially when he got to tidy up particularly awful villains who fought back.
But finally, being the hired help had gotten old, or he had changed, and it was time to move on.
Michael had traveled light for most of his life, so moving in would be neither a complex nor a lengthy process. But will I really need all the firepower? The Heckler & Koch PSG1, his current sniper rifle? Maybe, maybe not. But he was a sniper, for Pete’s sake, first and foremost. Keep. The FN-P90? Come on, that thing was sweet. Have to keep it. What about the New Best Toy, his lovely RPG7, lying snugly above the bedroom ceiling?
Be realistic, he told himself. You’ll never get rid of the boom-sticks or the knives and the katana. You just never know. He had lived by doing wet-work both before and ever since he left the Agency officially. That was what he had been for most of his life: a specialist in death. You did that, and death had a way of coming to look for you, too. Best to be ready for it.
His guns and electronics and his ghillie suit—and a couple of boxes of artist’s gear and papers—this was nearly all he owned. The clothing he had at hand needed washing again at some point, since he had been living out of his suitcase for weeks. So, there was a trip out to Walmart and the building’s laundromat in his near future.
But not this instant. First, chores done for the moment, the new lair required christening, if only to confirm and celebrate that he was really here, settling in. I am really doing this, he told himself. Even after he had decided to stay last month, to cut loose from Las Vegas once and for all, he had felt torn about committing to an apartment, even if this was ever so much cheaper than hotels he had been in for weeks. He knew it was silly, but he kept wondering if he had trapped himself by doing that. Well no, I’m retiring, Michael reminded himself. He had come out for El—Ian, must remember, he’s using his real name now—and stayed for Alex and the fascinating wackiness that came with him.
But in some moments since he had finally decided to stay here for good, he thought he had committed too much, put all of his eggs in one basket for the first time since ever. But mostly it felt good, this act of finally walking away from his other life, from cleaning up messes for people he didn’t give a flying fuck about.
Michael walked out of the bedroom with a quick duck and twist of his head to wipe his forehead on his gray tee shirt sleeve. Compared to Las Vegas, North Carolina felt like a swamp even with air conditioning. He could swear he hadn’t stopped sweating since he had arrived for this latest project in late May.
And now the project had adopted him. Yes, they had. They had asked him to stay.
This could be a good thing, he reflected, amused at his own conflicted feelings on the matter. He rather liked the idea of being adopted. Or was traumatized at it. Maybe both. Having a gaggle of cute young people not only see him for what he was—and he never claimed to be anything but a villain—and still clamor for his attention, his help—that was flattering. It felt nice. Or they were stupid, take your pick. No, they weren’t stupid, but they hailed him as the conquering hero, fer fuck’s sake. What they still don’t know won’t hurt them, he grinned to himself. Maybe.
But in the recesses of his mind, where dreams met daylight, he feared that he liked being adopted. He usually responded to the offer of attachments by backing away rapidly, especially since his one heartfelt sweetie in Vegas had abandoned him a couple of years back. Had pretty much been his only heartfelt sweetie ever, for that matter. He had not known how much he meant to Michael. Hell, Michael had not really known how much he meant. That young man hadn’t known that only he had to power to knock Michael down like that without Michael retaliating. Others who had messed with him in his younger days hadn’t been so lucky. Some of them were still missing.
Yet, here he was, setting himself up in a position where he could be sorely wounded once more—and by the same young man, no less. Yet…this move felt right. He liked it here, with these people, in this weird Southern town. Time for a change! Hell, at forty-one, he was a doddering ancient in Spec Ops years. He could be excused for wanting a bit of peace and quiet at last.
Or was he taking leave of his senses? What if his former clients in Las Vegas were not as okay with him leaving town as they seemed? Hopefully they wouldn’t send anyone out to retire him (as opposed to him retiring). If they did, he would handle it.
Guys like him usually died violently long before they ever got a chance to settle down. But not Michael, he was still around, kicking ass and handing out pain. He knew he had an unusual instinct for self-preservation that had allowed him to outlive his peers by a decade going on two.
That instinct had insisted that nobody know him entirely. That he stay unencumbered by emotion. That he always have a way out planned. So far, that spider-sense had sat and watched quietly as he went through the motions of settling down. Have I gone mad? Have I lost it? he found himself thinking repeatedly, even as he made housekeeping lists for the apartment and the move.
Maybe it’s time for me to take leave of my senses, he chuckled to himself. His nerves about it made it all the sweeter. And yes, that’s my kink. I only give power to someone who can truly master me. And I have found them. Found two of them here. Now there’s three of them.
The short hall with its squeaky, cheap parquet flooring took him to the small, plain kitchen on his left. On the right, the small apartment, painted in bland off-white, opened up to a high-ceilinged living room with a pass-through counter that doubled as eating space in between. He turned into the kitchen on habitually quiet feet and caught the brown paper bag enrobing the Black Bush whiskey off the counter. After dropping the bag into the trash can he cracked the seal on the bottle in one firm motion. Reaching into one of the cabinets over the counter, he pulled out a short glass of dubious cleanliness, so he put the bottle back down to free his hands for washing.
His OCD kicked in. Check your equipment, check again, tidy up, check some more. It meant that he couldn’t stop until all ten of the glasses were washed and dried with paper towels and standing at attention on the counter in a neat row. “At ease, soldiers,” he muttered after throwing out the wet paper towels. He half-smiled, taking up one of the glasses, inspecting it. Then three fingers of Irish whisky splashed into it, and he held up his tipple and said, “Cheers, Mikey.”
“Why, thank you,” he answered. Sipping, his eyes strayed toward the nearly-empty, sparely-furnished living room.
He rather liked sparse and empty. Empty as a blank canvas, a clean sheet of Bristol board, full of potential, one part of him said. Neat freak, he said back to himself. Yeah, so? he replied. Crazy neat freak, the other bit said. “We all have flaws,” he muttered, attempting to mediate. Working alone and being a crazy-careful neat freak had kept him alive. And now he would formally declare himself retired from that line of work. He would ease into this retirement thing. It would be fun.
And if it wasn’t fun, he would figure something else out. He was a veteran at starting fresh. He could make this work.
Michael crossed into the living room, put his glass on the coffee table, dropped into the couch, and kicked off his cross-trainers. Feet in socks went up on the plain wooden coffee table and he sat back in one balanced motion. Squirming into the saggy couch that threatened to absorb his sturdy, muscular five-foot-eleven frame, he snagged the glass of Black Bush off coffee table.
Plans, plans, plans. There were still a few ends to tie up. Another couple of days, and he would take a plane back to his Vegas apartment to pack up the rest of his meager possessions and a buttload of ammo into a few cardboard boxes. Then he would rent a van with one of the not-yet-burned Vegas identities and schlepp the last of his stuff back east to Palmers Rest. Yes, and get Boyle to ship the damned gun safe.
This rental apartment would do for a while, until he figured out which way things were heading with the Gotth crew, they who had adopted him. And hey, he needed someplace he could secure his stuff meantime. This place came with electronic security and multiple door locks, not to mention a second-story balcony. Huzzah, he thought drily. It had nothing he couldn’t defeat, himself, in under a minute using his pocket toolkit. Fortunately, he was pretty sure most of his Vegas clients would not be able to trace him here, nor really have a motive to do so. The locks would keep out most burglars while he was away.
Dismissing that issue, Michael glanced up at the wall to his right at the three framed drawings, the only decoration he had brought with him as yet. He still wasn’t sure why he had tucked them into his bag on impulse a few weeks ago on a running visit back west. He had made that trip just after he had introduced himself to the Gotth outfit because he had decided he would be extending his stay. No, that wasn’t true, he knew why he had brought the three pictures. He had drawn them, and where he put them was where he hung his hat, was where he laired. They represented one of the few instances of sentimentality or personalization he allowed himself.
Michael had made a number of drawings at Notre Dame de Paris over the years, on various trips: gargoyles, mostly. Sculpted grotesques tickled his sense of humor. El—no, his real name was Ian, had to remember to call him that—had one of the gargoyles, and another of them currently graced this wall, sticking out its stone tongue and mocking him. Beside it hung a study of ornament from Chartres, and next to that picture, a nice façade from a Roman church. His choice in subject matter signified nothing more spiritually significant than a love of order and the beauty and longevity of these historic buildings.
He looked forward to sketching up at Gotth Hill sometime soon. The Gotth had built onto their great eclectic pile of an estate house continuously in the town they had founded in colonial times. Michael smiled into his glass: things were looking good with the Gotth heir, young Alex, and his troop of sweethearts. He had come out looking for just one, the boy who had left him to go to college here, and found so much more.
And I’ve got to call and let old Gabe know I’m officially really and truly out of business in Las Vegas, he sighed to himself. He had been putting it off. But now, as part of his celebration, he formally turned toward a different future. Again.
Michael sighed again and felt around on the couch for his cell phone, the special one which he only used to speak with Gabe. He himself was “Archangel.” That joke had worn thin about a month after winning that designation many years ago, but they hadn’t seen fit to change his handle since he was still viable. The mobile phone, a fiendishly encrypted contraption, had slid under a cushion against the armrest. He fished it out, but laid it aside. First, on his personal mobile, he tapped out the number from memory and waited while it rang. The pleasant feminine mechanical voice asked him to leave a message, and he said, “Oops, wrong number. My bad,” and hung up. Dear old Gabe would get back to him in a few minutes on the encrypted phone, per usual.
Sucking up another mouthful of Irish whisky, Michael savored its warm, smooth peatiness. Sitting in his own living room, sipping whisky felt…hedonistic, perhaps? He could afford some luxuries like spending time out here, off the clock. He had made enough to retire in style a decade ago, so money wouldn’t be a problem. Even so, Michael knew himself to be frugal in most of his tastes. It would be a while before he was hurting for cash.
So: after getting back from Vegas, he would settle in to play with the kids and keep an eye on them, he guessed, just because they were fun. Whatever else developed would develop. He had begun hoping to re-establish relations with Ian…and then Alex had happened to him. He could spend some happy time drooling over Alex, not to mention the rest of the boys there. And those kids had more than hair between their ears. Michael discovered he could actually talk to them, and they would understand and speak back. This had wonderful possibilities.
He had located Ian in Palmers Rest shortly after Ian thought he had escaped from Vegas to go to school, a bit over two years ago. Well, maybe ‘escaped’ wasn’t exactly right. How about “dumped Michael?” Yeah, that was good, Michael chuckled to himself, perhaps a touch bitterly. Ian had made himself scarce and come east to reform and go to college, the murderous little angel, his bloody darling. But some angels never changed their feather-color, and his gleam black, black, black. Sweet Ian had been enjoying a special hunting season to himself in these parts, the naughty thing. Having moved in with the lovely Alex and his crew of tasty boys and girls, Ian staked out his territory and protected them viciously. Alex and his Number One Wife, a very tall mixed-blood boy named Kerry Jourdain, were not exactly harmless lads, either, but definitely not in Ian’s league.
However, when Michael came to Palmers Rest in late May to look into them, they were being stalked by curious beings of the apparently preternatural persuasion. These creatures had had a very serious feud going with the Gotth—preternatural politics, he guessed. I mean, who knew? Michael chuckled. He’d had opportunity to use the sniper rifle as well as the Best Toy, helping to clean up that mess. Man, you just can’t buy entertainment like that. And there might even be more, someday. Is having to fight monsters strange? Hey, I adapt, he told himself. I’m good at that. Strangeness? Bring it.
Michael was grinning to himself at those memories when the encrypted phone rang. He put his whisky down, picked up the phone and surged to his feet to pace toward the window. The secure phone had wretched reception, so he was always having to edge toward the outside of any building he was in for a decent signal. It was Government, which meant they had paid too much for a crappy phone, in his opinion.
“Yo,” he said cheerfully into the little slab of shiny black tech.
“Yo yourself. What’s on your mind?” His handler—whose actual name was most certainly not Gabriel—spoke with a low, musical tenor and a flat Mid-Atlantic accent like Michael’s. It never failed to tickle Michael to think that they had actually grown up in the same county in Northern Virginia, in neighboring towns, but hadn’t met until years later.
“I’m out of L.V. Moving east. Going to settle here.”
“That North Carolina town?”
“Your boy take you back?”
“Uh, not quite. But he has friends. Lots of pretty, pretty friends, and they like me.”
“Guys, I take it.”
“And some girls.”
“You’re branching out?”
“As if. Anyhow, they’re cute as a basket of puppies and they need me, and not just for killing things all the time. Imagine! They have security concerns, and lots of excellent historical architecture that needs to be depicted.”
“Let me felicitate you on your new arrangements. But dealing death is in the picture, I take it.” Michael could hear his handler smiling—he knew Michael’s predilections quite well. He was one of the two people who had never run away screaming from them, besides Ian. Michael’s aunt Ida was the other hardy soul.
“Oh most certainly—there are lots of beasties that need offing, I am told.”
“So, tell me who this bunch of kids are, and where you are—officially.”
Michael recited his new address, first. Then he continued, “If you don’t already know—and I’ll bet you do—Alexander Malcolm Gotth is the name of the young man that El is attached to. Town founder’s great-great-great grandson. Him and his…you’ll love this. They call it his Coven. He declares he’s married six other kids, including El.” Michael pronounced Alex’s last name properly, with two syllables, not one: Got-huh, the second syllable sort of swallowed.
Gabe remained silent so long before he responded that Michael held the phone away from his ear and squinted at it to see if the call had dropped. No, his handler was just thinking. Probably writing, too.
That worthy finally said, “Well, that’s quaint. You are still hanging with the Gotth kid, hmm? This just goes with the vampires and Elder Gods story you handed me last month. They think they’re witches?”
“No, no. It’s just a local name for the arrangement. They are a god.”
“Oh my. They, you say.”
“Yes, sir. A tri-partate god. Well, I guess all of them are the god, for that matter, and they’re related to half the town, so I’m not altogether sure who is the god and who isn’t around here.”
“Hmm.” Gabe paused. “Legion, huh?”
“Well, sorta, maybe. Only it’s not demons, and it’s not some kind of nasty hive-mind thing that goes about devouring people. They’re still individuals. You really can’t tell much difference, but they’re all connected. I gather they were not born like this. But it’s there, it’s in them now, and they have a living goddess and a big ol’ magic sword that is also part of them. They’re some kind of ancient fertility god.”
“Appropriate, if they’re related to half the town. My, my, my. That is so interesting.” Curiously, Gabe really did sound interested.
“You sound suspiciously like you believe me.”
“Oh, I do, Archangel. I do. I have seen plenty of weird shit in my time, including your own fine ability to hide in plain sight—when anyone should be able to see you.”
Michael grinned again, preening a little. “I have some mojo. Fits right in. This place is weird-shit-city. Should be fun.”
“You do realize I have to report this move. You aren’t giving me notice, are you?”
“Hmm? Well, not exactly.” He paused, a moment of foreboding coming over him. “Gabe, brother…do you have to tell the bosses about the kids? That might not be such a good idea.”
Gabe sighed. “I understand, but you know the rules—if you want to keep getting that monthly check. But I can’t think of anything that they could do to hurt them. Or would do. Besides, you said you weren’t giving notice, or did I hear that wrong?”
“I might have a good year or two in me yet, but over forty is way, way over the hill for this sort of professional work.”
“Yes. Yes, it is. Why do you think I’m running operatives instead of being one, now?”
Michael laughed out loud. “Because you’re smarter than I am?”
“This is possible. And killing people is not my favorite pastime. I prefer gardening and cooking.”
Liar. Michael sighed. “Alright, then. Rat on me if you must. But don’t hurt the kids.”
Suddenly, living quietly in Palmers Rest seemed not only desirable, but smart—to keep his “project” out of harm’s way, if he could. Please let the Powers That Be not notice, he almost-prayed. Not that the God of his fathers had ever deigned to notice him. Come to think of it, God ignoring me is probably why I’m still alive, so that’s okay.
Gabriel continued, “I will rat, but in the nicest way possible. And only what our masters need to know,” Michael could hear his old friend’s wry smile in the words. Gabe, he could trust with his life. Had. Multiple times. Would do so again if need be. He would protect Gabe with his, too, if the need ever arose.
“So, the people you were looking out for in Vegas, what happens to them now?”
“They have someone on staff that’s good at protection now.” I hope, he added silently. That woman was still a bit of an unknown quantity, despite having been loosely acquainted with her for some years. There was acquaintance, and then there was knowing how well someone fought when backed into a corner. She was reputed to be pretty good.
“Good for them, then.” More notes were made. By hand, on paper, because, as Gabe had said, paper cannot be hacked.
Michael sighed. And then, because it was expected of him: “Are you still single?”
And because it was expected of Gabe: “And still straight, as far as I know.” Gabe snorted. “Get your own life.”
However, if Gabe had ever said yes to one of his passes, Michael would have flown to Washington, D.C. in a heartbeat, and flung himself, posy in hand, on his knees in front of the man. And he smothered that thought before it went a smidgen further. It was downright humiliating to have held a torch for his friend for this long.
Michael ended the call and laughed out loud. “Nah. I shouldn’t worry. Whatever it is, I can handle it,” he told his empty apartment. Then he sat down again, feet sweeping up, and put the phone down on the coffee table next to his heels and exchanged it for his glass. “Here’s to the quiet life.” He took another mouthful and then nearly spit it out.
Directly in front of him, seeming to twist out of nowhere, Alex’s grandmother and goddess materialized soundlessly. This was no hallucination. He had seen her do this once or twice before—never anywhere public, of course. But she would occasionally just pop up like this around the family—so he supposed he had been officially absorbed into it, having dallied with her grandson.
“Michael Kaminsky,” Dolores Gotth stated in her vibrant, low voice, a smile curving her full lips. She didn’t look all that much like a grandmother, but she would do for a goddess—which she was, so he had been told—and he believed it. Upslant deep amber eyes the color of golden ale and framed with naturally dark lashes watched him lazily from under winged black brows. A wisp of her dark hair fell from its twisted knot on top of her head and swung past her eyes. She flicked it out of the way with one finger and folded her long, strong hands together in front of her in a way that an empress might while giving an audience—a goddess wearing nice blue jeans and a modest but expensive blue and white flowered blouse.
“Yes, ma’am?” Michael managed to swallow his mouthful and stand up again without coughing too hard. “May I offer you refreshment?”
“Oh, how kind. What have you there? It smells like Irish whisky. That would be lovely.”
Michael had reviewed his mythology in the last couple of weeks and learned that offering wine or spirits to a fertility goddess was a good move. Besides, she was a Southern lady not of the Baptist persuasion, and therefore would take a drink. So, he went to the counter between the dining room and his mostly-empty kitchen and poured out three fingers of Black Bush for her into a glass. Suddenly behind him as he turned, she graciously took it from his hand and raised her glass to him. She took a healthy swallow without the least bit of notice of the undiluted liquid fire in the glass, luminous golden eyes holding his.
Michael gestured to the arm chair beside the couch. “Sit? What may I do for you?”
She moved and flowed into the one uncomfortably rectangular arm chair which stood to the left of the couch, its back to the balcony. Michael sat back down on the couch and watched her run an elegant finger over the rough stain-proof fabric on the arm of the chair. Her other hand maintained her glass of whisky aloft, and she sipped again. Her amber eyes stayed on his face, contemplating him lazily. Michael ran a nervous hand through his very short dark curls, and his steel-blue eyes stayed on hers.
She was quiet, so he spoke. “I’m gathering that since you could come to me, that I’ve been inducted into the commune.”
“Not necessarily. Well, you have become a regular visitor at my great-great grandson’s house, so I have observed.”
Michael nodded. It was true. He courted them hopefully. And politely. Yep, that was the project. Courtship. Who’d have ever imagined me courting anyone? Or them saying yes?
“Which is fine, of course. And I taste Alex on you.”
What she meant by that…well, he could only wonder, since she had never come remotely close to him with her mouth. He, on the other hand, had gotten much, much closer to Alex. Alex’s mouth was sweet and delightful. Alex knew how to kiss, that was certain.
“So, my young friend,” she continued with a faint smile, “What exactly were you telling that man on the phone?”
“You eavesdropped?” Michael’s curly eyebrows rose as he wondered how. The apartment was bug-free; he had swept it himself before storing his guns.
“Not precisely. You have a little of Us, of Sorrows, in you now, so I can get the gist of things. My ears were burning, and I had a bit of a notion. You work for someone else, so I am concerned. Naturally concerned, I would think, given our recent troubles.”
Michael blinked. “Oh… Oh! I’m not selling Alex.” In her case, since she could probably literally kill him with a look, he thought honesty was the best policy. “I’ve had a handler in the Government for many years. I was just checking in and letting him know I was moving permanently to P.R. I pretty much have to tell him.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Really.”
“Really.” He nodded. “The pension is good.”
“Well, then. He may be trustworthy, but what about his masters? Are they?”
Michael blinked again, taken aback. “They’ve kept me out of the hands of the FBI for decades. What’s to tell? I mean, nobody but the locals believes this preternatural s—stuff.” His teeth clicked closed on the easier, more profane description. He didn’t mind mentioning the FBI thing—she already knew what kind of monster he was after last month’s adventures.
Dolores chuckled, a sound as rich and sinful as Swiss chocolate. “I certainly hope not. But one can never quite predict the future or other people’s reactions, can one? I hope you’re prepared to cope with the consequences, because there will be some, I do not doubt.”
Michael felt a sudden flutter in his stomach.
And she put her empty glass down. “Well, then. Welcome to Palmers Rest.” And she stood and vanished again.
Suddenly, Michael’s apartment felt very, very empty.
* * *
In an office on the fifth floor of a downtown building in Washington, D.C., the lean and forty-something man that Michael had been talking to on the phone stared out the window across the cubicle aisle. His wintery blue gaze went past the shoulders of a coworker in the cube across the aisle to the bright July day. It was only a little hazy out, but despite that would be miserably hot and humid outside—normal weather for Washington at this season. But it was not weather that concerned him at the moment. His mind was on his star resource, Archangel.
Yes, he would have to do some paperwork for this change. He wondered what his supervisor would make of Archangel’s announcement. He had no intention of passing on the vampires-Elder God material, of course, lest they all be sent for psychiatric counseling or reprimanded for foolishness. Still, the move: Goodness knows assets who were used to kill people were an ornery, capricious lot. Many ended up just on this side of crazy if they survived more than a handful of years, holding onto normal behavior by their fingernails. Occasionally, they had to let the FBI catch them and put them out of the citizens’ misery. Archangel had been amazingly long-lived in his career, managing to hang on to fairly-normal by keeping to himself. Michael’s thing for the boy, Ian Stewart, was his sole exception to his rule. He had kept his life together far, far longer than Gabe thought he ever would. This was, for him, personally, a good thing, since Mike was an old friend just as Archangel was a terribly talented and creative assassin. He had been afraid that the thing with the boy had been the fatal crack in Michael’s armor, but so far, nothing untoward had happened. That intrigued Gabe.
He and Michael had met in a military hospital in San Diego a bit over twenty years ago, both recovering from near-fatal abdominal wounds. Gabe, then in Navy Special Operations, had made friends with this smart and funny Marine sniper. The Powers That Be apparently took a notion from that, as they had ended up working together over the years rather successfully. Since being banished from official service at the Agency, Archangel had been traded like a professional athlete from covert group to covert group within the Government. He had taken Gabe with him as his handler—a condition that Archangel imposed upon remaining in the employment of his country. As one of Death’s divas, he had earned that right. His other assets would be handed off, Archangel taking precedence. Gabe wondered where they’d go next.
Michael wasn’t the only one with secrets. Gabe had not been kidding about his own experiences with Weird Shit, so called. He did know it was out there and right under most people’s noses, plain as day. The real thing did not come with Hollywood extravagance and special effects—mostly. It was quiet, sometimes deadly, and often rather eccentric—rather like Gabe himself.
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he turned back to the computer on his desk. He called up the forms and intranet pages that he would need to work on, thinking about how to word this. Because of who he was, and how goddamn classified he was, Archangel’s known associates would come under scrutiny as well. Gabe felt bad for Alexander Malcolm Gotth. The boy that Archangel had come looking for, Gabe didn’t feel bad for. El was short for Cinderella, and he knew about Cinderella’s charming past. So far, that little predator had evaded the FBI’s radar. Fine; he kept Michael happy. And Gabe was dead certain that Ian Stewart could take care of himself.
* * *
Ian paused in the shade of one of the mossy oaks overhanging the lopsided sidewalk in downtown Palmers Rest, and hauled the bandana out of his pocket to mop sweat out of his eyes where it trickled down behind his sunglasses. Michael was right: July in Palmers Rest was pretty swampy. Still, this was his second summer here, and he felt like he was slowly adjusting. Slowly. In fact, he was pretty sure that Alex’s becoming Sorrows’ newest sword-bearer had given them all more than a little extra resiliency in the face of extremes—exertion, heat, wounds, and probably cold, too. I mean, they came out of Switzerland, Ian thought. I bet we’re pretty freeze-proof, now.
That wasn’t all. A massive amount of Weird had been building up the past two years, with the master of a nest of ridden vampires aiming to take out the new sword-bearer. That came to a head in June with the battle out at the vampire master Torgil’s lake house with the ridden vampires, the shootout in the cemetery, and finally the battle at the entrance to the Gotth Hill estate. He had fought real, squicky monsters beside Alex and Kerry and even Michael.
Since then, however, things had calmed down, and left Ian with little to do besides pay attention to his summer school courses. No rogue vampires to kill, no beasties to hunt. How boring. Today, for instance: here he was, walking from his human physiology course to the restaurant which one of the multitudes of remote Gotth cousins, the Cloutiers owned, to meet Adele for lunch. Human physiology was fun, however much work it might be. Ian habitually had a course load year-round that made others stagger, he was that capable, and he wanted to graduate as early as he could. Hell, he had finished high school early. Why not college? Not just because he didn’t want to be left behind, as Alex and the rest had graduated in May. It was because he was older than they, and further behind because of his years in Vegas earning money as an exotic dancer.
How do you grind so hard? He smiled at the pun that Kerry habitually asked him about his workload. Ian often wondered how he did it, too. He could put out in sheer hours of work and study and writing that had made even Alex and Kerry wilt, they who were pretty damned tough in school, both always on the Dean’s List. There is a price, the dark voice inside whispered. There is always a price.
Oh yeah, there certainly is, Ian admitted. He started walking again, and made an effort to push that dark voice down. This wasn’t a lone occurrence of his personal demons: he was having those dreams again. Dreams where he knelt on cold stone and lapped up bowls of hot blood. Delicious hot blood. While studying, he would find himself stabbing his wooden desk with his KA-BAR when he was reading, and realize he was thinking about stripping bones of flesh. He would look at people and see…meat. The more he drove himself beyond the normal limits, the worse it got. More and more the bloody visions rose up during waking hours.
Here, in P.R., he had had an opportunity to clean house of rogue vamps and orphans for the local Masters. That sure fed the demon. God knew, P.R. had an awful lot of vamps—but then, they were under the protection of Sorrows and sort of had a vamp safari park going on. Tourists even came to play with the blood-suckers. But if they stepped out of line, the sword-bearer’s Second—he, Ian—would tidy them up. Nobody would ever find the evidence, either. Michael had taught him how to be tidy.
He smiled to himself as he walked, remembering lessons with Michael out in the desert, and realized that the two women dodging off the sidewalk had thought that cold smile was for them. Well, crap. There’s being a scary bastard, and then there’s being a scary bastard, he thought. He drew attention because of his looks. He was short—five-foot-five on fluffy hair days—with straight, golden, waist-length blonde hair, a muscular build, and an androgynously beautiful face. But that was false advertising, to his way of thinking, not what he was. Not what he deserved. I should look like Grendel, he knew in his heart. People see the monster peep out of my eyes and they instinctively move over. They glimpse what I really am…
Crap. This is not running under the radar. How the fuck am I going to go through med school, when I’m looking forward to chopping up corpses? They’ll find out. They’ll find out. Bad monster, down!
He heard the snarl of the black noise in reply, so he pointedly focused on the bright, golden day outside himself, too-warm breezes lifting the hair of his ponytail. He pushed it firmly down into its pit again. It’s hungry and I’m getting tired. I’ll have to do something soon. But what? Nobody has needed killing in a while.
He turned the corner into shadow and looked up at the slightly listing brick storefront of The Museum. He stepped under its brick-red awning and into the bustling foyer of the restaurant. The eatery featured genuine collections, an old-fashioned cabinet of curiosities as the decor. They had organized the rooms by theme, surrounding them in Art Nouveau trappings and plenty of wood and tin-tiled ceilings. They also boasted odd food, which was fun. The family of Thelma Cloutier ran the place. Miz Thelma happened to be the town’s Vaudun mambo-in-chief, the still-living illegitimate daughter of Augustus Gotth—one of Sorrows’ sword-bearers and Alex’s great-great grandfather. Both the Vaudun and the scandalous Gotth connection titillated the tourists from Raleigh, so you saw a lot of gawkers eating ostrich burgers here.
Tammy Cloutier, the owner’s youngest daughter, came to the podium in the foyer and claimed him from the hostess. “Mister Ian! How y’all been?”
“Fucking awful hot,” Ian snorted in his rough, quiet voice. “Otherwise, fine, thanks.”
Tammy laughed—they all knew Ian’s colorful language, and nobody seemed offended. “July,” she said, as if that explained everything. Which it did, actually, he reflected. Tammy picked her way in front of him through two small dining rooms. “Adele is just back here,” she said, and swept menus toward the table with a flourish. Tammy went off to get them water and left them with menus.
Adele grinned up at him from her seat, looking as exotic as the Egyptian exhibit around her, with her braided and beaded shoulder-length dark hair, creamy light brown skin, and huge sapphire-blue eyes in a heart-shaped face.
“You’re looking pretty today, Mister Honey,” Adele said, her whole face lighting. From anyone else, that would have earned them a knuckle sandwich, or at least a disdainful sneer. From Adele, his—and Alex’s—little princess, it was sincere and sweet. Adele he counted among his best friends. For some reason, this beauty loved her beasts. He could only be grateful that she did.
“Special for you,” he said to her compliment, and a giggle slipped out of her. He slid into a chair cattycorner from her and flipped his sunglasses onto the table, to rest upside down on their frames. His straight blonde hair, bound sleekly into a pitilessly neat tail, swayed as he sat.
Her grin widened a little, if that was possible, brightening the room for him. “I’m glad you could make it.”
Ian shrugged, because of course he would have come. “Between classes. Fuckin’ awful hot out there for walking. Jimmy come with? Why isn’t he here?”
“Naw. Got a commission for some stuff for a web site. He stayed home to work on it. I had to talk Trent into giving me a lift, then he had to get back to work.”
Ian snapped his fingers. “Yeah, that’s right. Just you and me, then, Princess?”
“Just us chickens.”
“Cool. What’s good today?” He picked up the menu and examined the specials clipped to it, neat and small but strong hand flipping up the list.
“The mesclun salad with grilled chicken, then, speaking of. I don’t know what Alex sees in ostrich burgers and sweet potato fries.”
Adele could only shrug at that. Alex could be pretty strange.
When Tammy came back, they ordered two salads, and Ian got a beer with that, too, a Corona Extra, his favorite brand. The beer helped offset all that healthy green stuff.
Leaning toward her over the table, he said, “Speaking of Alex, you heard from the Pooky yet? Hope the audition went okay.”
Adele pinched her lips together and frowned. “I called him and he said they were still in New York, those people, so he got all prettied up in his leather jeans and boots for nothing. In this heat, no less.”
“And schlepped his guitars down there. Well, he was going to see Williamson for the monthly consultation, too. Trip wasn’t entirely a waste.”
“Uh huh. And get the estate lawyer started on the trusts for us.”
“That Pooky.” He leaned forward and slid his hands toward her, palms up, inviting her to put her small, slender pale brown hands in his, which she did. It always gave them a frisson of pleasure just to touch each other now that they were Coven. It seemed so necessary. Ian’s strong fingers closed gently over hers, and his thumb stroked back and forth over her knuckles. “This seems to be his big day out. I hope he’s okay alone at that City meeting tonight. He was nervous about it.”
“Oh, he’ll be fine, and the pretty won’t go to waste.”
“Nah. Never wasted. We’ll just have fun peeling him out of those leather jeans when he gets home.” Ian smiled at her, one of his rare, genuine smiles. From her face, he knew it brightened his whole countenance. Her being happy made him happy, too.
Adele giggled. Still, it didn’t fool Ian. He had a hunter’s appreciation of his prey’s nuance of expression. He lifted his chin and said to her, “So. Something’s bugging you that you didn’t want to bring up at home, yeah? Who do you want me to kill?”
“Ian!” She slapped at his palm with one of the hands he had been holding. But he was apparently right about her being bothered, and she sobered. After a good hard stare at the table, she admitted, “It’s my Dad.”
Ian’s heart fell: there wasn’t much he or anyone else could do about the mess between Adele’s parents lately. Their anger spilled over onto their only child every time she called home, which was several times a week. It was about the only thing that could get her down.
“You want me to kill your Dad? Seems a little drastic. What’d he do to you?”
This time she tsked and poked his hard, carved bicep. He barely noticed, keeping his eyes on hers. But she looked away and blinked and sighed. The beads on her shoulder-length braids clicked.
“What? You cannot keep secrets from Mister Honey. Tell me everything.” He hunched his shoulders a little, leaning forward on his elbows, and peered at her, trying to recapture her gaze.
She looked back shyly. “Daddy’s been…very odd recently. More odd. Really nervous about something. So, this morning he calls me from work—” the timber of her voice rose as if it were a question “—and he says he wants me to think about moving home, or getting my own place or something. Like he’s worried that you guys would hurt me. Or that you have, or something. That’s so stupid! We would die to protect each other.” She nearly squeaked the last few words, her distress pinching her vocal cords.
“That we would,” Ian said grimly. “He say why it’s bad now? He obviously knew you were playing house with us in the suite for four years at Trinity.”
“No. That’s the fruity thing. We’re not super-close Gotth cousins, so it’s not an inbreeding worry. And I’ve dated Alex forever. Mom and Dad know him real well. Dad’s never took on so before.”
Tammy brought their salads and refilled Adele’s ice tea, which Adele stirred. Ian tipped some of his dressing onto his salad and mixed it gently, lifting the lettuce delicately with his fork. Adele watched him, seemingly fascinated by the precision and deftness of his movements.
Ian spoke while stirring his salad. “Any dozen of the chicks in this town, their parents would be over the moon to have the Gotth boy dating their daughter for years. Pooky is gonna see that you’re taken care of, even if none of us officially marry, and he don’t skimp.”
“Polyamory being frowned upon,” she added. “I know he’ll take care of us. Alex is more than generous, and he loves us to pieces.”
“That he does.” Ian crunched on his lettuce and chewed. She picked up her own fork and poked at the salad in front of her. Ate a crouton.
“And between him and you and Kerry—and hell, Trent and Jimmy, too—I’m perfectly safe. We’re perfectly safe. If something else like the Oogly-booglies at the lake turns up, we’re going up to Gotth Hill and hide. That’s not it. It’s like Alex has recently done something to me, according to Dad.”
“Princess, your Pop’s crazy. We—Alex and the soldiers—we’re different, now. The rest of you are same as always, as far as I can tell. The only thing Alex is going to do to us is love us to death, possibly.”
Adele’s smile faltered. “Yeah. I just don’t know how to head this off. Or if I can. I don’t know what’s gotten into Dad.”
Ian frowned into his salad for a while before saying, “I wish Kerry was home. You Dad knows him. He doesn’t know me at all. At least Kerry’s not Alex. Kerry might be able to talk to him to figure out what is up. He’s good with cranky people.”
She leaned her cheek onto one palm, that elbow propping her head up. “Yeah. I wish Kerry were home, too. But he’s off in Asheville, doing his theater thing.”
Ian shook his head.
“I’m not sure that Kerry’s theater thing is going to work out the way he wants. Or the way we need.”
“Yeah, but he’s been planning on this for a solid year. He’s practically got flowcharts for working out his career.”
“We wish things would go according to plan, but they never do, yanno?” Ian shook his head at Kerry’s optimism regarding his future. “Still, if your Dad tries anything, he’ll be plenty sorry,” Ian said softly, eyes hooding. “You want advice on handling your family, I’m not the person. But you want protecting, you just yell.”
“I will, Mister Honey. Promise.” She crossed her heart and held up her hand.
Ian picked out a strip of grilled chicken from his salad with his fork, smiled at her, and tore it with his teeth.
* * *