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Death's Rival

A Jane Yellowrock Novel

Faith Hunter - Author

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ISBN 9781101596548 | 336 pages | 02 Oct 2012 | Roc | 18 - AND UP
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Jane Yellowrock is a shapeshifting skinwalker you don’t want to cross—especially if you’re one of the undead…

For a vampire killer like Jane, having Leo Pellisier as a boss took some getting used to. But now, someone is out to take his place as Master Vampire of the city of New Orleans, and is not afraid to go through Jane to do it. After an attack that’s tantamount to a war declaration, Leo knows his rival is both powerful and vicious, but Leo’s not about to run scared. After all, he has Jane. But then, a plague strikes, one that takes down vampires and makes their masters easy prey.

Now, to uncover the identity of the vamp who wants Leo’s territory, and to find the cause of the vamp-plague, Jane will have to go to extremes…and maybe even to war.



Chapter One

I’m Gonna Need Some Stitches

“Vamps don’t get sick,” I said. “They may go nuts at the least provocation, but they don’t get sick.” Air currents buffeted the small jet; I held on to the phone and the seat arm with white–knuckled grips. Inside me, Beast was purring, enjoying the ride entirely too much for a creature who used to be afraid of flying.

Static fuzzed the connection, but I made out the words “—two of these did. And maybe the third one, don’t know.” If Reach didn’t know something, it was better hidden than the identity of Kennedy’s killer—assuming that there really was a coven of blood–witches on the grassy knoll. Conspiracy theorists have a consensus on that, but there never was any evidence to back it up. “I’m still searching,” Reach said, “but it looks like the masters of the city of Sedona and Seattle are still showing signs of malaise. Boston’s MOC has vanished, and rumor has it the suckhead’s dead.”

Malaise, I thought, unamused, reading the description of their symptoms. It was a heck of a lot more than malaise. In spite of what I’d said, the vampires were sick—maybe dying. “Give me details.”

“According to my latest timeline, this vamp came out of nowhere two months ago and vamps started getting sick, which should be impossible, I know,” he agreed. “Once they were sick, they each got an ultimatum from an unknown vampire to swear him loyalty in a blood–ceremony, or face that master in a Blood Challenge, not something they could survive while sick. As soon as they swore allegiance to the new guy, the vamps got somewhat better. He didn’t kill them once he deposed them, but left them to run the cities as his loyal deputies. Each went from masters of independent strongholds to completely loyal subjects overnight. He’s successfully created a new power base and no one knows how he did it or who he is. Yet.”

“No vamp is loyal,” I said. “They’re all egocentric blood–sucking fiends.”

“True. But rich egocentric blood–sucking fiends, which is why we work for them.”

I grunted. I hated to think of myself that way, but he had a point. I’m Jane Yellowrock, and I used to kill vamps for a living. Until I started working for them. It wasn’t easy money, and I’d dumped the contract with Leo Pellissier, the chief fanghead of the Southeastern U.S., when the retainer ran out. But when Leo had requested my help yesterday, I’d re–upped to resolve this problem, because it was the right thing to do. Leo and his people had been attacked under my watch. Humans had been injured. Blood–servants had died. I’d killed some of them. No one knew who this new enemy was, and now vamps were sick, maybe dying, and a new, powerful vamp had entered the vampire political scene.

Which was why I was in a Learjet flying at way–too–dang–high. I didn’t like flying. Well, I didn’t like flying in planes. Wings are different.

Reach continued to update me on two months of data and to answer a lot of questions. I’d need it. We’d touch down in Sedona in minutes, and assuming I got out alive, I’d be off to Seattle almost immediately. Listening to Reach’s matter–of–fact tone helped to keep my mind occupied and my heart out of my throat. Sorta.

“Okay,” I said. “And you’re—” Leo’s Learjet dropped several feet before leveling out. My mind went blank and I swallowed my dinner—again. “And you’re sure the attack on Leo in Asheville was this same guy who took over Sedona, and Seattle?”

My question wasn’t argumentative. The attack on Leo had happened before any of the others, and had been purely weapon–based, a frontal attack, no disease, no ultimatum, no nothing. I didn’t know what to make of the discrepancy. “If it’s the same vamp,” I said, “his attack on Leo falls completely outside his subsequent M.O. Of course, he did try to kick sand in Leo’s face, and Leo’s people busted his chops. Maybe when that happened he tried this new tack.” I hated guesswork.

The sound of leather squeaking reminded me to relax my grip on the seat arm. I took a breath, blew it out, and drank half a bottle of water to settle my stomach. Computer keys clacked in the cell’s background, sounding like a quartet of castanets as Reach—the best research and intel guy in the business—worked.

“I stopped believing in coincidence,” he said, “about ten seconds before I stopped believing in Santa Claus. It’s like this. Leo visits Asheville, is attacked in a hotel, and wins a gun battle. Within weeks of the attack on Pellissier, Lincoln Shaddock and three of his vamps in Asheville become ill with a brand–new vamp disease. Then Sedona gets sick, then Seattle, and now Boston. They got challenged, swore loyalty, and got better. Leo’s Asheville vamps are still sick, unlike in cities where the MOCs got sick, challenged and defeated, and then received treatment. Shaddock’s peeps are dying—as if it’s a punishment rather than a takeover tool.”

Which thought made me sit up in my chair. Vamps were big on sneak attacks and vengeance. This scenario made all kinds of sense. Shaddock was bound to Leo and an attack on Shaddock was, by extension, an attack on Leo.

Reach went on, “Yeah, it’s outside the attacking vamp’s modus operandi, but the symptoms of Lincoln’s peeps are exactly the same as those of the other masters of the city who fell through the looking glass.”

“Peeps,” I muttered. I knew those vamps. Among the sick ones was Dacy Mooney, Lincoln’s heir. The two were vicious killing machines. The fact that I sorta liked them may have said something not quite sane about me. “We only think the other vamps were treated. We don’t have empirical evidence,” I said.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. But the disease is circumstantial evidence I’m willing to bet on. I think our BBV”—Big Bad Vamp, I thought with a smile—“started in Asheville with a frontal attack, and had to abandon his plans there when Leo’s people kicked his butt, and he left the disease as a punishment, a calling card, a warning, and a threat. The evidence you obtain in Sedona and Seattle will either confirm or deny that theory.”

“Ahhh,” I said. “That makes sense, which is why I pay you the big bucks.” The jet bumped up as if slapped high by a giant hand; then the bottom fell out. The small craft dropped what had to be a thousand feet before catching itself. On air. “Crap,” I whispered.

My things in an overhead compartment thumped around as gravity was again defeated. I wrenched my seat belt so tight it nearly cut me in two.

Inside me, my Beast huffed with amusement.

Beast is the soul of a mountain lion that I absorbed when I was child and fighting for my life. It had been accidental, as much as black magic can ever be an accident. When I shifted, Beast’s was the form I most often took, and her thoughts and opinions counted nearly as much as my own. Fun, she thought. Like chasing rabbits in hills.

I slapped my brain back on, swallowed my dinner yet again, and focused. “Agreed,” I said, wishing I’d turned down this job. “But that theory still leaves questions. Why did the attacking master choose vamp strongholds so far apart on the map? Running three cities at a distance has to be a pain. Why not announce to the world who he is and what he’s doing? Every vamp I know is a megalomaniac and would publicize his conquest. This guy hasn’t.” And the newly subdued master vamps weren’t talking about what had happened on their turf or who their new master was—at all—which was another reason for this flight.

“The attacker is cheating, not challenging, according to the Vampira Carta,” Reach said.

I grunted again. The Vampira Carta and its codicils was the rule of law for the vamps—or Mithrans, as they liked to be called—and it contained laws and rules for proper behavior between vampires, their scions, blood–servants, blood–slaves, and cattle—meaning the humans they hunted. It provided proper protocols for everything, including challenging and killing each other in a duel called the Blood Challenge. The new vamp had challenged his conquests, but there had been no fights. None at all. And Boston, attacked a week ago, had gone off the grid. There had been no communication from that MOC in days. He was presumed to be true–dead.

Reach said, “If an unknown vamp is making a major power play, one that involves vamps getting sick, and Leonard Pellissier, Master of the City of New Orleans, is attacked, and then Leo’s scions get sick, it’s the same dude.”

“That isn’t quite ipso facto. It’s still more than half speculation.”

“Ipso facto? Janie knows her Latin. I’m sending you a folder on the vamp you’re visiting—the ex–master of Sedona. It’s put together from the files you loaned me to collate and organize.”

Back when I had a working relationship with the head of NOPD’s weird cases (not that the New Orleans Police Department used those words to describe the official department. Local cops called it lots of things, none of them very flattering), I’d had access to NOPD’s supernatural crime’s hard–copy flies. It was kept in the woo–woo room, and I copied copious amounts of info directly into my own electronic files. I was paying Reach an arm and leg to organize the info.

Reach said, “The ex–MOC’s name is Rosanne Romanello. Check your e–mail.”

Peeling my fingers off the armrest again, I pulled the Lear’s laptop across the table to me and logged on, checking e–mail. The Lear had all the office and party bells and whistles and its electronic gear was easier to use at jet speeds than my own. “Yeah. Got it. Thanks.”

“Your business is my pleasure and profit.”

“You oughta get that trademarked.” I hung up the jet’s phone and sat back with the laptop, reading the collated records—which was way easier than finding and reading scraps in individual files. Not that I’d tell Reach that. No way. He’d find a way to make a bigger profit off my now effortless search.

Rosanne Romanello had an exceptionally well documented history. She had been born in 1787 in a small town in Calabria, the eldest child of grape and olive growers and olive oil exporters. A beautiful woman, she had been turned in a violent confrontation with a young rogue. Rescued by her fiancée, Luca, she appeared to die and was placed in the church for the death watch, which ended when she rose on the third night, killed the acolyte who had fallen asleep in the nave, and vanished into the hills. She survived there for four years, a rogue in hiding, until Leo Pellissier, traveling through the countryside one night, saw and chained her so she could grow out of the posttransformation insanity vamps called the devoveo. He had taken her west with him when he returned to the United States, and set her free seven years later, sane and strong.

According to Reach’s notations, there were indications that the relationship between Rosanne and Leo had been more than just passing friendly. Well, duh. Leo believed in something he called the Dark Right, an authority that gave him the right to rule, and that permitted him to sleep with and drink from anyone under his power or his scions’ power. Leo was charming and charismatic, but he was an old–time sleazeball too. I had a lot of sleazeballs in my life right now, and some important people who were seemingly out of my life for good. Old grief welled up in me, but I shoved it back down, hard. There was nothing I could do about the past. Not a thing. And I could grieve the lost relationship with Rick LaFleur later. Much later. I went back to the dossier.

Rosanne had emancipated herself from Leo and risen slowly in the ranks of the U.S. vamps, moving west until she claimed and settled in Sedona. She had been the blood–master of that city for nearly two hundred years, comfortable in her stronghold—literally. Romanello had started an olive oil business much like her family’s, and built an Italian–style fortress–home where she still lived. Over the centuries, she had made friends with several blood–covens of witches and, with their power base, had protected her land and her scions. Until now.

Now things had changed. She had lost in direct Blood Challenge to an unknown master—and she was sick. The digital photos accompanying the file were hard to look at. In one, taken only last month at the full moon ceremonies with her witch allies, she had been stunning, pale–skinned, dark–eyed, almost ethereal in her delicate beauty. The poor–quality photo that arrived in Leo’s headquarters e–mail yesterday showed a very different woman. Wasted, wan, with dark circles under her eyes and a dark crust at her nostrils that was presumed to be blood, she looked like death warmed over. Or worse—death still chilled. On the back of her hand was a lump, which looked like a pustule. I didn’t know who had sent the file photo, as it came through a circuitous route and an e–mail account that went nowhere, but it was clearly a cry for help. I was betting on the MOC herself sending it to her former lover and friend, and Reach agreed it was likely.

Leo wanted her healed and restored, his Asheville scions healed and restored, the new master vamp identified so he could kill the bastard, and the vamp disease wiped off the face of the earth. To achieve that end, Derek Lee, my second–in–command, was going to Asheville to get blood samples from Shaddock, and I was supposed to obtain a few vials of Rosanne’s blood. Just walk in and say, “Hey, Ro. Feel like making a donation?” Right. Like that was gonna happen.

Even less likely was my obtaining blood and a cogent report from the vamp–stronghold in Seattle, another conquered master of the city who was reputed to be sick. The should–be–impossible vamp–disease seemed like it was everywhere.

The door to the cockpit opened and the first mate, Tory, stuck his head out. “We’re approaching Sedona’s Mountaintop Airport and will be landing in fifteen minutes. Can I get you anything before we land?”

I thought about my stomach and shook my head. The smoked salmon he’d served, cold, with toast points, a salad, and a light beer, just after takeoff in New Orleans, was still sitting uneasily in my stomach. “No offense, but I’ll just be happy to get my feet on the ground. Locked in this tin can with the mild turbulence you talked about back in New Orleans has not been fun.”

He grinned. “This tin can is a Bombardier Learjet 85, valued at over fifteen million dollars.”

I gulped and tried not to let my shock show. By the way the Tory laughed, I knew I hadn’t been successful. Tory was mid–thirties, not bad looking, standing about five–ten, with a lithe and wiry build, big thighs, like a cyclist, and it was clear that he found me amusing. It had to be the flight nerves.

“If you need anything just press your call button.” He disappeared behind the closed door and I looked around. I was pretty sure most Learjets were not laid out like this one. The cabin was decorated in muted shades of white and taupe. It held four, fully adjustable, heated leather seats, with a galley and full bath between the seating area and the casket in back. Well, not really a casket, and I had been careful not to call it that out loud; vamps didn’t care much for the fictional assumptions that they sleep in caskets filled with dirt from the their homeland burial grounds. But the back portion of the cabin was a cramped bedroom with no windows and stacked bunks. It slept four—six in a pinch—strapped in to the single bunks, in perfect security, allowing vamps to fly by daylight, safe from sunlight, the doors and hatches sealed on the inside. But still. Fifteen million dollars. “Crap,” I whispered.

I went back to my reading, trying to ignore the bumpy ride. Fifteen minutes later, at Tory’s polite request, which I interpreted as orders, I yanked the seat belt again, cutting off the circulation in my legs, and grabbed the armrests as tightly as I could. The small jet dropped—this time on purpose, as the pilot descended for the landing at the private airport outside Sedona.

As a skinwalker—a supernatural being who can change into animal shapes, provided I have enough genetic material to work with—I’ve actually flown, and I far prefer wings and feathers to engines and metal. I knew what it felt like and what it took to land, in terms of wing feathering and variation, flight–feather positional changes, reaching out with front clawed feet, back–winging, tail feathers dropping, and I was relatively certain that the tin can—no matter if it was worth a rather large fortune—did not have the ability to do any of that. Or if it did, a human—a being never designed to fly—was in charge, which was doubly frightening. I’d rather be feathered and in charge.

Deep in the darks of my mind, Beast huffed. Beast didn’t like it when I took the form of an animal other than hers—the Puma concolor—the mountain lion. She especially didn’t like it when I changed mass into something smaller, because she didn’t get to hang around for the ride, though I was pretty sure she had made strides in that regard. After a century and a half—give or take—Beast was evolving, something that might have been helped along by access to an angel named Hayyel not long ago. Long story.

Moments later we touched down. Hard. My teeth clacked together. Relief washed over me like a wave. I took a deep breath, released the armrests, and pushed at the leather upholstery that was now twisted and dimpled by my fingers. They didn’t move back into proper position. Permanent damage to Leo’s toy. Crap.

As we taxied to wherever the Learjet was going to hang out while I did Leo’s bidding, I pulled the laptop to me again and sent Reach a text. “Still waiting on Seattle financial info.” It was a nudge that he didn’t need, but needling Reach to speedier work wasn’t something I got to do often, and was not about to pass up now.

Reach sent back a series of dollar signs by way of answer. “$$$$$$.”

“Funny guy,” I muttered. “Charge Leo all you want.”

I texted back “What about the CS canisters?” The CS canisters were a potential new weapon in the war on rogue–vamps, pressurized colloidal silver water. Vamps didn’t breathe often, but in combat they did sometimes take a breath. If the air had a mist of colloidal silver vapor, the vamps would inhale the poison. It wouldn’t kill them, but it would slow them down. Maybe. And the poison might kill them later. It would certainly hurt them, even maybe burn their skin. I could hope.

Reach immediately sent back “Done. Untested. Delivered to your place soonest.”

An e–mail beeped into my in–box, and I frowned, suddenly feeling helpless and useless. It was from Adelaide, the blood–servant daughter of Dacy Mooney. I opened it and read the short message. It was the same as the last three I’d gotten from her. “Any word? Any cure?” I typed back “Not yet. Will know more by morning.” Of course, her mother and the other vamps in Asheville could die any time, bleeding out from the new vamp disease. Just another reminder that time was of the essence.

I remembered to unplug my cell from the jet’s battery chargers. That reactivated the cell’s GPS tracking device and gave Leo the ability to track me, my calls, my e–mails, and texts all in real time. For all I knew, it gave him the power to listen in on non–phone–call conversations. But the guy was paying me very well, so I wasn’t complaining. Much. And I had two throwaway cells in my luggage for my private calls.

I tossed my go–bag on the seat as the small jet taxied and slowed. I wasn’t going to be in Sedona long enough to get to shift, which ticked Beast off. She knew most everything I did and that meant she knew that mountain lions had been sighted near here. Two large males, probably litter mates, as they had learned the unlikely ability of pack hunting. Instead of going solitary, they were taking down prey together. Like African lions.

Good hunters. Need strong mate, she sulked. Which she had been doing a lot lately.

They’re too dangerous. They’re being hunted. They’ll be dead soon, I thought at her.

Beast growled in anger, but there wasn’t anything I could do about two wild big–cats who had learned a new trick. Not a dang thing. Snarling, she retreated into the depths of my mind, silent, distant, as she had been for weeks, since that accidental run–in with the angel Hayyel.

When the plane finally stopped and the engine whine decreased, Tory appeared in the cabin and opened the door to the outside. The smells of the world blew in on a hot gust. I stopped. Lips parting, eyes closing. On top of everything was the reek of petroleum products, heated plastic and metal, rubber, exhaust, and asphalt, but underneath that was a blend of subtle scents all fused together, unknown trees, flowers, hot sand, minerals I didn’t recognize, herbs still carrying the heat of the day.

Beast rose fast and took over, holding me down, her claws in my mind, painful. I held on to the seat arms again, breathing in through mouth and nose, smelling, tasting, parsing the scents. It was . . . amazing was too trite a word. Too overused. I had no word for the aromatic mixture. It was yellow like sunlight, and red like iron–rich earth. It sang of scarlet and sun and iron, with rare blues and greens, and the land stretched out farfarfar. Magic tingled on the air, the magic of the earth itself, still alive here in this place. Beast wanted to Hunt! Now!

With a hard shove, I pushed Beast back down and unbuckled the belt. Stood. Pulled on my boots—Lucchese western dress boots, dark green snakeskin with a four–inch toe and a three–inch heel—seriously cool boots, the color matching the green vest I wore over the black silk button–front shirt that was unbuttoned to show off a bit of chest.

I unlocked the weapons cabinet where my weapons—both edged and handguns—had been secured for the trip and did a quick but careful check of each. They had thumped around a bit in flight, but nothing had been damaged. I strapped on the shoulder harness for the Heckler & Koch nine–mil under my left arm, checked the .32 six–shooter in one boot holster, and slid a two–shot derringer under my braids. All the guns were loaded for vamp, with silver—which worked well on blood–servants too. I’d checked the weapons exhaustively in New Orleans, and I’d check them again in the car. It wasn’t obsessive–compulsive disorder. Really. It was survival instinct, honed over the years.

I adjusted a new vamp–killer in the sheath of my other boot, carefully and deliberately not recalling the way I lost the old one. That was one of the memories I tried not to think about. The blade was half knife, half small sword, with a deep blood groove along its eighteen–inch length and heavy silver plating except for the sharp, steel cutting edge. Strapped to my waist, under the vest, went two more silvered blades and three backup silver stakes in sheaths and loops. I was going armed to the teeth, into the clan home of a vamp who had once been loyal to Leo and now was under the control of another. A sick vamp. Vampires were unpredictable at best. As Leo’s self–proclaimed Enforcer—which was going to cause me trouble, I just knew it—I was expected to be armed. Everywhere, everywhen.

Normally, half a dozen silver crosses were around my neck, my waist, and tucked into my clothes, but at the moment, there was no reason to cause pain to my hostess on my unexpected and unannounced visit. I carried only one, sterling, in a lead–foil–lined vest pocket. I twisted my tightly braided black hair into a fighting queue around the derringer, and slid four silver–tipped, ash–wood stakes into the bun as hair sticks. I hooked the silver–over–titanium collar around my neck. Protection against vamp–fangs, vamp–hunger, and vamp–anger. Into a pants pocket I tucked a mountain lion fang. I had begun to carry the fetish I used for emergency shifting more often, as my job working for vamps, rather than just staking them, seemed to result in more life–threatening violence, not less.

Lastly, I pulled on my summer–weight wool jacket and clumsily adjusted the fit. It was a gesture I’d been taught to do by the woman who had designed the clothing. It felt silly, but the small tug made my weapons hang right. Though it was November, it was too warm for my silver–studded, armored leather, and I felt naked without it; nothing protected against vamp claws and fangs like silver and leather. But, despite the weapons, this visit was not a challenge, a hunt, or an act of war; it was a fact–finding mission to discover who the enemy was. With the letter of introduction in my pocket, I was supposed to be safe even without the armor. Not that “supposed to be” ever meant anything in my line of work.

And while working for vamps is never smart, Leo’s money was too much of a lure to do anything else just now. I did the little jacket tug again and felt everything fall into place, which was what should happen when a jacket cost nearly five hundred bucks. Way too much for a jacket, but it wasn’t my money, it was Leo’s. I was expected to look good. It was part of my job description. I smeared on bright red lipstick and dropped it into the same pocket as the official cell phone.

Satisfied, I looked up and met Tory’s gaze. He was staring at me, a singularly acute and piercing look. Warmth rose up my neck. I had, effectively, just gotten dressed in front of him. How stupid was that? “Your car is out front of the airport,” he said. “The driver will have a sign in the window that says ’JY.’”

First a Learjet, now a chauffeur. This felt downright weird. My life was not . . . normal. Not anymore. “I’ll be back before dawn,” I said, and was surprised when my voice sounded professionally polite and not schoolgirl–silly.

I slung the tote with the blood–collection vials over a shoulder and passed Tory on the way out, looking down on his scalp and curly, deep–chestnut–colored hair. He was average height, but in the boots, I stood six–three, bringing my boobs about even with his face. Right. Smothering a sigh, I took in the small airport, or what I could make out from the top of the ramp. The sun had been setting when we took off from New Orleans, and it was only a bit later now than then, with the time changes.

I clattered down the steel steps and into the dusk. My boots made so much noise I missed the sound of cloth moving on cloth, but the scent caught me as I stepped onto the tarmac.

Blood–human–vampire, Beast thought. Guns. Upwind.

To my left.

I drew on Beast–speed and pulled the vamp–killer. Stepped right. Caught a glimpse of a shadow in my path. I smelled the gun oil and the fear–stink. I cut out right, hard. Impact jarred up my arm. A grunt. Reversed the knife and moved fastfastfast forward. Whirled. Into the light. Blinding my attackers. Two. Only two. Blood smell meant I’d hurt the one I’d cut at. On his blood I smelled vamp and something chemical. But there was no time to examine the scent. They came at me together. Moving faster than human. Nearly vamp fast. Crap.

I hit out, feinting, and leaped up, torquing my hips, rotating my body in midair, midkick, at the uninjured one. My heel flew around, speeding up on the pivot point. Time slowed into the consistency of cold maple syrup, each moment containing a snapshot clarity. The bright light and black shadows danced beside and below me. My target moved in the split second before the kick landed. My boot hit his shoulder. Crap. I’d been aiming at his chin.

I landed on my other foot, whirled, ducked, and struck out behind me with the knife. My blade hit metal, the sound the dull clang of a gun, followed by an “oof” of pain. Both attackers were injured now. This one cursed. I managed to drop the stupid blood–collection bag and pummeled the closest guy with a series of left–handed punches and right–handed cuts. Blocked his strikes. Hit him again, this time knocking the gun away. It spun in the air. Into the dark. I bounced back, fighting for balance on the three–inch heels. I came away with his blood on my fist. A shot exploded in front of my face, the muzzle flash blinding me. The ricochet echoed in the concussion.

I blinked hard, trying to restore vision. The first guy I had cut came at me out of the retinal glare. Blinking, I dodged, cut, bent, and whirled away, biding my time until my vision came back, moving fast to make a harder target of myself.

Heart thudding, I heard clattering. Tory. Joining the fight. Idiot man.

One man turned toward him. Pulled another gun. I opened my mouth to shout a warning, but Tory kicked, straight from the hip, his entire body in the move. A practiced, fluid motion that bent his body into a tight V and then snapped it open. I wondered what he studied.

The gun went flying. A shot rang out behind me, sounding dull beneath the concussive damage to my ears. Somebody had an extra gun. It sucks when the bad guys start thinking like me. Tory kicked again, but I smelled his blood. He’d been hit. Enough. I pulled a throwing knife and let it fly, the motion all one thing—pull blade, elbow back, wrist back, shoulder back, set up, throw, wrist snap, release. It took the shooter midchest, just left of his sternum. A lucky hit, between two ribs. The knife hilt thudded into his chest. Blood fountained out.

I whirled to the other guy. He was aiming at Tory, his extra gun in both hands in a Chapman stance. I dove forward. Grabbed his head. Our bodies impacted. I rode him down. Slammed his head into the tarmac.

He went limp. I didn’t. Not even for a split second of victory. I’d been taught better. I banged his head again. Hard. And rolled, kipping to my feet. Tory was dropping back onto the metal steps, his movement so slow it looked arthritic. The fight was over. I remembered to take a breath. My heart thudded into my chest like a jackhammer. Time snapped back to normal speed. I huffed for breath as I checked the two bad guys. One no longer breathing, one down and out.

“How bad?” I asked Tory.

“I’m gonna need some stitches.” He leaned left, hit the railing with his shoulder, and slid down. His blood flowed out, venous, not the fierce, arterial pumping of the man I’d just killed. But still, not good. Not good at all.


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