I stretched, working the kinks out of my shoulders and back. I kicked at the shadow on the wall, putting all I had into it but never touching my imaginary opponent. I cycled through some basic kicks, front snap, roundhouse, thrust, finishing with more elaborate forms. After ten minutes I broke a sweat and pushed on for another twenty, working mostly on strength in my arms, shoulders, and chest. Greg did not own weights so I used a heavy lead-filled mace instead of a dumbbell. It was poorly balanced but it was better than nothing.


I had not lifted for a few days and I felt weaker than usual. Still, the controlled, determined exertion felt good and my mood improved gradually, so by the time the shower started calling to me, I was almost upbeat.

The phone rang just as my hand touched the bathroom door. I did a 180, expecting Jim on the line.

"Jim?"

"Hello," said a male voice. It was a pleasant voice, well modulated and clear. I'd heard it before, but it took me a minute to remember where.

"Dr... Crane?"

"Crest."

Yes, the toothpaste-named charity worker. How the hell did he get my number? "Can I help you?"

"I was hoping you would have lunch with me."

Persistent bugger. "How did you get my number?"

"I called to the Order and lied to them. I said that I had information concerning the dead vampire and gave them my credentials. They gave me this number."

"I see."

"So will you join me?"

"I'm very busy."

"But you have to eat once in a while. I would really like to see you again, some place less formal. Give me a chance and if the lunch doesn't work out, I'll vanish from your horizon."

I thought about it and realized that I wanted to say yes. It was a completely ludicrous thing to do. I was sitting on top of a bomb and both the Pack and the People stood ready to light the fuse, and here I was, considering a date. How long had it been since I'd been on a real date? Two years?

"It's a deal," I said. "I'll meet you between twelve and twelve thirty at Las Colimas. Do you know where it is?"

He knew.

"And Dr. Crest?"

"Just Crest, please."

"Crest, please don't call the Order again."

I expected him to be taken aback, but he said cheerfully "Yes, ma'am!" and hung up.

Stepping into the shower, I tried to figure out why I had agreed to meet him. There had to be a reason, something besides feeling lonely and tired, and wanting normal human contact, male human contact, the kind of male that didn't warp into a monster or shift muscles around its frame with the ease of changing clothes. Perhaps, I would use this opportunity to pump him for information about the morgue's treatment of the dead vamp. Yeah, that was it.

Halfway through the shower the phone rang. I turned off the water and went to pick it up, dripping wet soap lather onto the linoleum.

"Yes?"

"This is Maxine, dear."

"Hello, Maxine."

"The protector wishes to see you in his office today at eight thirty."

"Thank you."

"No problem, dear."

I hung up and went back into the shower. The hot water hit me with a satisfying rush, soothing my muscles.

The phone rang.

I growled and stomped back to the phone, without bothering to shut off the water.

"What?"

"You've got some fucking nerve calling me in the morning," Jim growled.

"Forgive me for disturbing your beauty sleep!" I snarled.

"What the hell did you call me for?"

"I want you to claw your eyes open and give me a list of Pack murders: locations, times, and so on."

"You know, that's classified information. Who the fuck do you think you are?"

"I'm the only person that gives a shit. Look out the window. You see a line of people waiting to help your furry asses?"

I slammed the phone and returned to the shower. The absence of steam should have alerted me, but I foolishly stepped right into the ice-cold cascade. While I was talking, the shower had run out of hot water. Choking the shower pipe would not bring the hot water back, as satisfying as it might feel, so I turned the shower off and toweled dry. It was going to be one of those days.

I SAT IN ONE OF THE VISITOR'S CHAIRS DEEP IN THE bowels of the knight-protector's office. This time Ted was not talking on the phone. Instead he regarded me from behind his desk like a medieval knight watching the besieging Saracens from the ramparts of his stronghold.

Moments stretched into minutes.

Finally he said, "I pulled your file from the Academy."

Oh, shit.

"You had an e-rating," he said.

E for electrum. Not that big of a deal, really.

"Do you know how many squires with e-ratings came to the Academy in its thirty eight years?" he asked.

I knew. Greg told me so many times that the number made holes in my ear membranes, but provoking the protector would do me no good, so I kept my peace.

"Eight," he said, letting the words sink in. "Including you."

I tried to look solemn.

Ted moved his pen two inches to the left, gave it a careful look, and leveled his gaze back at me. "Why did you leave?"

"I had a problem with authority."

"A bad case of honor student ego?"

"It went beyond that. I realized that the Order was the wrong place for me and I withdrew before I had a chance to do something really stupid."

In my mind Greg's voice said with a touch of reproach, And so you became a mercenary, a sword for hire, without a purpose or cause.

Ted said, "You're working for the Order now."

"Yes."

"How does it feel?"

"Well, Doctor, it feels rather sore and tingly."

He waved my quip aside. "I'm not fucking around. How does it feel?"

"Having a base in the city is nice. The MA sticker opens doors. There's a lot of responsibility."

"It bothers you?"

"Yes. When I'm on my own, I screw up and my paycheck goes down the drain, so I eat what I grow until the next thing comes along. Now I screw up and a lot of people might die."

He nodded. "Feel choked by authority?"

"No. You gave me a long leash. But I know it's there."

"Just as long as you remember."

"That's not something I would forget."

"I've got a complaint from Nataraja," he said.

I relaxed. The tide was changing. "Oh?"

"He claims that you're avoiding discussing the case with them. He had a lot to say."

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