Car mechanic Mercy Thompson has always known there was something different about her, and not just the way she can make a VW engine sit up and beg. Mercy is a shapeshifter, a talent she inherited from her long-gone father. She's never known any others of her kind. Until now.
An evil is stirring in the depths of the Columbia River-one that her father's people may know something about. And to have any hope of surviving, Mercy and her mate, the Alpha werewolf Adam, will need their help...
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From The Dalles Chronicle
Thomas Kerrington (62) and his son Christopher Kerrington (40) are still missing, though the boat that they were fishing in has been recovered. The boat was found abandoned two miles downstream of John Day Dam yesterday. The men set out on a morning fishing expedition Monday morning but never returned. Sherman Co. marine deputy Max Whitehead says, "This has been an unusually bad year for boating fatalities on the Columbia. We're stepping up patrols and urging boaters to take their safety very seriously." Searchers are scouring the river, but after four days, hopes are low for a safe recovery of the two men.
From The Hood River News
This week's fish counts are drastically down at both John Day and The Dalles Dams. Allen Robb of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says, "We are concerned that there was some sort of toxic dump in the river somewhere between the dams. There is a significant reduction in the numbers of fish and our operators are telling us that this is especially true of our larger fish such as the adult Coho salmon." Although extensive testing is under way, no sign of poison has been found in the river nor has there been an unusually high number of dead fish. "The fish are spooked," says local fishing guide Jon Turner Bowman.
Under the glare of streetlights, I could see that the grass of Stefan's front lawn was dried by the high summer heat to yellow. It had been mowed, but only with an eye to trimming the length of the grass, not to making it aesthetically pleasing. From the debris of dead grass in the yard, the lawn had been left to grow long enough that the city might have demanded it be mowed. The grass that remained was dry enough that whoever had cut it wouldn't have to do it again unless someone started watering.
I pulled the Rabbit up to the curb and parked. The last time I'd seen Stefan's house, it had fit right into his ritzy neighborhood. The yard's neglect hadn't spread to the house's exterior yet, but I worried about the people inside.
Stefan was resilient, smart, and… just Stefan—able to talk Pokémon in ASL with deaf boys, defeat nasty villains while locked up in a cage, then drive off in his VW bus to fight bad guys another day. He was like Superman, but with fangs and oddly impaired morals.
I got out of my car and walked up the sidewalk toward the front porch. In the driveway, Scooby-Doo looked out at me eagerly through a layer of dust on the windows of Stefan's usually meticulously tended bus. I had gotten the big stuffed dog for Stefan to go with the Mystery Machine paint job.
I hadn't heard from Stefan for months, not since Christmas in fact. I'd been caught up in a lot of things, and getting kidnapped for a day (which was a month for everyone else because fairy queens can apparently do that), was only part of it. But for the last month, I'd called him once a week and gotten only his answering machine. Last night, I'd called him four times to invite him to Bad Movie Night. We were a person short of the usual as Adam—my mate, fiancé, and the Alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack—was out of town on business.
Adam owned a security firm that, until recently, had dealt primarily with government contractors. Since the werewolves—and Adam—had come out to the general public, though, his business had started to boom on other fronts. Werewolves were seen as very good security people, apparently. He was actively looking for someone else who could do most of the traveling but so far hadn't found the right person.
With Adam away, I could give more attention to the other people in my life. I'd decided Stefan had had time enough to lick his wounds, but from the looks of things, I was a few months late.
I knocked on the door and, when that got no response, gave it the old "Shave and a Haircut" knock. I'd resorted to pounding when the dead bolt finally clicked over, and the door opened.
It took me a while to recognize Rachel. The last time I'd seen her, she'd looked like the poster girl for the disenchanted goth or runaway teenager. Now she looked like a crack addict. She'd lost maybe thirty pounds she didn't have to lose. Her hair hung in limp, greasy, and uncombed strings down her shoulders. Mascara smudges dripped over her cheeks in faded smears that would have done credit to an extra in Night of the Living Dead. Her neck was bruised, and she held herself like her bones ached. I tried not to show that I noticed she was missing the last two fingers on her right hand. Her hand was healed, but the scars were still red and angry.
Marsilia, the Mistress of the Tri-Cities' vampires, had used Stefan, her faithful knight, to oust traitors from her seethe, and part of that involved taking his menagerie—the humans he kept to feed from—and making him think they were dead by breaking his blood bonds to them. She seemed to think that torturing them had been necessary as well, but I don't trust vampires—other than Stefan—to speak the truth. Marsilia hadn't thought Stefan would object to her use of him and his menagerie once he knew that she'd done it to protect herself. He was, after all, her loyal Soldier. She'd miscalculated how badly Stefan would deal with her betrayal. From the looks of it, he wasn't recovering well.
"You'd better get out of here, Mercy," Rachel told me dully. "'Tisn't safe."
I caught the door before she could shut it. "Is Stefan home?"
She drew in a ragged breath. "He won't help. He doesn't."
At least it didn't sound like Stefan was the danger she had been warning me about. She'd turned her head when I stopped her from shutting the door, and I saw that someone had been chewing on her neck. Human teeth, I thought, not fangs, but the scabs climbed the side of the tendon between her collarbone and her jaw in brutal relief.
I shouldered the door open and stepped inside so I could reach out and touch the scabs, and Rachel flinched back, retreating from the door and from me.
"Who did this?" I asked. Impossible to believe Stefan would let anyone else hurt her again. "One of Marsilia's vampires?"
She shook her head. "Ford."
For a moment I drew a blank. Then I remembered the big man who'd driven me out of Stefan's house the last time I was there. Half-changed to vampire and mostly crazy with it—and that had been before Marsilia had gotten her claws into him. A very nasty scary guy—and I expected he'd been scary before he'd ever seen a vampire.
I have very little tolerance for drama that ends in people getting hurt. It was Stefan's job to take care of his people, never mind that for most vampires their menageries existed as convenient snacks, and all the people in them died slow, nasty deaths over a period that might last as long as six months.
Stefan hadn't been like that. I knew that Naomi, the woman who ran his household, had been with him for thirty years or more. Stefan was careful. He'd been trying to prove that it was possible to live without killing. From the looks of Rachel, he wasn't trying very hard anymore.
"You can't come in," she said. "You need to leave. We're not to disturb him, and Ford…"
The floor of the entryway was filthy, and my nose detected sweaty bodies, mold, and the sour scent of old fear. The whole house smelled like a garbage heap to my coyote-sensitive nose. It would probably have smelled like a garbage heap to a normal human, too.
"I'm going to disturb him all right," I told her grimly. Someone obviously needed to. "Where is he?"
When it became obvious that she couldn't or wouldn't answer, I walked farther into the house and bellowed his name, tilting my head so my voice would carry up the stairs. "Stefan! You get your butt down here. I have a bone or two to pick with you. Stefan! You've had enough time to writhe in self-pity. Either kill Marsilia—and I'll help with that one—or get over it."
Rachel had resorted to patting my shoulder and tugging at my clothes to try to get me back outside the house. "He can't go outside," she said with frantic urgency. "Stefan makes him stay in. Mercy, you have to get outside."
I'm tough and strong, and she was shaking with weariness and, likely, iron deficiency. I had no trouble staying right where I was.
"Stefan," I bellowed again.
A lot of things happened in a very short period of time, so that I had to think of them later to put them together in the proper order.
Rachel sucked in a breath of air and froze, her hand on my arm abruptly holding on to me rather than pushing me away. But she lost her grip when someone grabbed me from behind and threw me onto the upright piano that sat against the wall between the entryway and the living room. It made such a huge noise that I mixed up the sound of my impact with the pain of my back hitting the top of the piano. Reaction to countless karate drills kept me from stiffening, and I rolled down the face of the piano. Not a fun thing. My face hit the flagstone floor. Something crashed into a limp pile beside me, and suddenly I was face-to-face with Ford, the big scary guy who inexplicably seemed to have thrown himself down beside me, blood dripping out of the corner of his mouth.
He looked different than he had last time, leaner and filthier. His clothing was stained with sweat, old blood, and sex. But his eyes, staring momentarily at me, were wide and startled like a child's.
Then a faded purple T-shirt spilling over ragged dirty jeans, and long, tangled dark hair blocked my view of Ford.
My protector was too thin, too unkempt, but my nose told me that he was Stefan almost before my brain knew to ask the question. Unwashed vampire is better than unwashed human, but it is not pleasant, either.
"No," Stefan said, his voice soft, but Ford cried out, and Rachel let out a squeak of sound.
"I'm all right, Stefan," I told him, rolling stiffly to hands and knees. But he ignored me.
"We don't harm our guests," Stefan said, and Ford whimpered.
I stood up, ignoring the protest of sore shoulders and hip. I'd have bruises tomorrow, but nothing worse thanks to sensei's sometimes brutal how-to-fall sessions. The piano looked like it would survive our encounter as well.
"It wasn't Ford's fault," I said loudly. "He's just trying to do your job." I don't know if it was true or not; I suspected Ford was just crazy. But I was willing to try anything to get Stefan's attention.
Still crouched between Ford and me, Stefan turned his head to look at me. His eyes were cold and hungry, and he gazed at me as though I were a complete stranger.
Better monsters than he had tried to cow me, so I didn't even flinch.
"You're supposed to be taking care of these people," I snapped at him. Okay, so he did scare me, which is why I was snippy. Get-scared-and-get-mad wasn't always smart. I, raised in a pack of werewolves, certainly knew better. But looking at Stefan and what had happened to his home made me want to cry—and I'd rather get scared and mad than do that. If Stefan thought I pitied him, he'd never let me help. Criticism was easy to take.
"Look at her—" I gestured toward Rachel, and Stefan's gaze followed my hand in response to the command in my voice, command I was just learning to borrow from Adam. There were a few perks to being the Alpha werewolf's mate.
Stefan jerked his gaze back to me as soon as he realized what I'd done, baring his fangs in a way that reminded me more of one of the werewolves than a vampire. But the snarl died from his face, and he looked at Rachel again.
The tension died from his shoulders, and he looked down at Ford. I couldn't see the big man's face, but his body language clearly said surrender to my pack-trained sight.
"Merda," said Stefan, releasing his hold on Ford.
The menace was gone from his face, but so was all trace of any emotion. He appeared almost dazed.
"Go get showered. Comb your hair and change your clothes," I told him briskly, striking while he was still weak. "And don't dawdle and leave me at the mercy of your people for very long. I'm taking you out tonight to watch some bad movies with Warren, Kyle, and me. Adam is out of town, so there's a slot open."
Warren was my best friend, a werewolf, and third in the Columbia Basin Pack. Kyle was a lawyer, human, and Warren's lover. Bad Movie Night was our therapy night, but sometimes we invited people we thought needed it.
Stefan gave me an incredulous stare.
"You obviously need someone to hit you with a cattle prod to get you moving," I informed him with a sweeping gesture that took in the disreputable state of his house and his people. "But you got me instead, your friendly neighborhood coyote. You might as well give in because I'll just annoy you until you do. Of course, I know a cowboy who probably has a cattle prod somewhere if it comes to that."
One side of his mouth turned up. "Warren is a werewolf. He doesn't need a prod to get cows moving." His voice sounded rough and unused. He glanced down at Ford.
"He's not going to hurt anyone soon," I told the vampire. "But I can drive most people to violence given enough time, so you should get moving."
Abruptly, there was a popping noise, and Stefan was gone. I knew he could teleport though he seldom did it in front of me. Both of his people jerked reflexively, so I guess they hadn't seen him do it much, either. I dusted off my hands and turned to Rachel.
"Where is Naomi?" I asked. I couldn't see her letting things get into this state.
"She died," Rachel told me. "Marsilia broke her, and we couldn't put her back together. I think that was the final straw for Stefan." She glanced up the stairway. "How did you do that?"
"He doesn't want me to get the cattle prod," I told her.
Her arms were wrapped around herself, her mutilated hand clearly visible. She was bruised, bitten, battered—and she said, "We've been so worried about him. He won't talk to any of us, not since Naomi died."
Poor Stefan had tried to curl up and die because Marsilia had sold him out—and he'd done his best to take the remnants of his menagerie with him. And Rachel was worried about him.
"How many of you are left?" I asked. Naomi had been a tough lady. If she was gone, she wouldn't have been the only one.
No wonder they looked bad. Four people couldn't feed a vampire all by themselves.
"He's been going out hunting?" I asked.
"No," she said. "I don't think he's been out of the house since we buried Naomi."
"You should have called me," I said.
"Yes," said Ford from the ground, his voice deep enough to echo. His eyes were closed. "We should have."
Now that he wasn't attacking me, I could see that he was thin, too. That couldn't be good in a man in transition from human to vampire. Hungry vampire fledglings have a tendency to go out and find their own food.
Stefan should have fixed this before it got so bad.
If I'd had a cattle prod, I might have been tempted to use it, at least until the stairs creaked, and I looked up to see Stefan coming down. I have a dusty degree in history for which I'd sat through a number of films of the Third Reich, and there were men who'd died in the concentration camps who were less emaciated than Stefan in the bright green Scooby-Doo T-shirt he'd filled out just fine when I'd seen him wear it a few months ago. Now it hung from his bones. Cleaned up, he looked worse than he had at first.
Rachel said that Marsilia had broken Naomi. Looking at Stefan, I thought that she'd come very close to breaking him, too. Someday, someday I would be in the same room with Marsilia with a wooden stake in my hand, and, by Heaven, I would use it. If, of course, Marsilia were unconscious, and all of her vampires were unconscious, too. Otherwise, I'd just be dead because Marsilia was a lot more dangerous than I was. Still, the thought of sinking a sharp piece of wood into her chest through her heart gave me great joy.
To Stefan, I said, "You need a donor before we go out? So no one pulls us over and makes me take you to the hospital or the morgue?"
He paused and looked down at Rachel and Ford. He frowned, then looked puzzled and a little lost. "No. They are too weak, there aren't enough of them left."
"I wasn't talking about them, Shaggy," I told him gently. "I've donated before, and I'm willing to do it again."
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