"Weak stomach," Curran said at my side.
I didn't jump. It was more of a small hop, really. "You do this on purpose, don't you?"
I rubbed my face, but the fatigue wouldn't go away. Just an adrenaline cooldown. It would be over in a few minutes and then I would be as good as new.
"You're out of your league," Curran said.
No shit. "I really didn't handle this whole thing too well, did I?"
"No," he said. His voice held no sympathy.
I wanted to ask for a do-over. I would be more restrained the second time around. Less mouthy. Unfortunately in real life you rarely got a do-over.
"I'm heading to the Casino from here. I need to know if I can take Derek with me. Nataraja likes to fuck with me. If Derek goes wolf, it would really screw things up." An understatement of the year.
"You know anything of the Code?"
" 'The Code is the Way,'" I quoted the Code of Thought. "'It is Order among Chaos; it is sanity amidst the oblivion.'" He glanced in my direction. Surprised, Your Majesty? Yes, I did read it. Many times over. "Without the Code, the shapechangers lose their balance. The Beast overwhelms them, compelling them to murder and cannibalize their victims. Consumption of human flesh triggers a cataclysmic hormonal response. Violent tendencies, paranoia, and sexual urge shoot into overdrive, and a shapechanger degenerates into a loup - a psychopath that engages in every perversion involving blood and sex that a human mind can imagine. A human mind can imagine quite a bit."
I was definitely tired now. Slowly I slid down and sat on the floor. Screw him, if he wanted to stand over me, so be it. "I was at Moses Creek when the Guild busted Sam Buchanan's compound of horrors," I said.
Like a servant overly eager to please, my mind thrust a memory before me. The front yard of Buchanan's holdout, past the trenches and the mud wall from which his deranged pack had sprayed shotgun blasts at us. Fall grass strewn with bodies of dead loups, a kiddy inflatable pool - blue with yellow ducks - full of blood and clumpy pale strings of entrails, and a woman, naked and bloody, black holes gaping where her eyes once were. Her hands spread before her, she stumbles on the corpses, searching blindly, grabbing the trunk of a pine for support, and calling, her voice barely above a whisper, "Megan! Megan!" And us, two dozen mercs in battle gear, unable to tell her of the tiny dark-haired body hanging from a noose in the branches of the tree to which she clings.
I clenched my teeth.
"Bad memories?" Curran asked.
"You have no idea," I said hoarsely and remembered whom I was talking to. "But then you probably do."
I shook my head, flinging the memories from me like a wet dog shakes off water. That was my third job with the Guild. I was nineteen and the nightmares were still vivid. And Buchanan had gotten away, ran into the woods while we pounded his berserk loups into wet mush. We never caught him. Knowing that was worse than any nightmare.
Curran was watching me. I opened my mouth to ask him why hadn't he done something about that rabid loup and then remembered that Jackson County had barred the Pack from interfering. That was six years ago. Today they would not dare.
My mouth was open so I said, "What does any of it have to do with Derek?"
"Derek's parents were Southern Baptist separatists. He was the oldest son and allowed to attend school. For a while at least, until his father had gone deeper into religion. He remembers burning books in the front yard, Dr. Seuss and Sendak."
I nodded. The shift to "deep religion" wasn't unusual. Half of the mountain towns had gone "deep" before the "Live-Life-with-God" movement gave them a new dogma.
Curran rubbed his neck, biceps rolling under the sleeve of his shirt. "When the kid was fourteen, they went to an end-of-the-world tent revival and daddy brought home the Lyc-V."
He sat next to me. "He didn't know what the fuck it was or how to deal with it. He didn't even know enough to get help. Went loup within days. Loups are contagious as hell. Derek's mother killed herself after she got infected and left her rabid husband alone with seven kids. Five of them were girls."
I swallowed the hard clump in my throat. "How long?"
"Two years." Curran's face was grim. "They killed a passing lycanthrope midway through the first year and Derek found the Code on his body. That and starvation kept him sane."
"So how did it end?"
"The way it always does. The kid became competition for the females and the father tried to kill him. The kid has a good beast-form and he can keep it steady."
The beast-form is the warrior form, superior to both animal and man. Most first-generation shapechangers have trouble with beast-form, unable to maintain it longer than a few seconds. They get better with practice, but it takes years of trial and error.
"Derek killed his dad?"
"And set the house on fire."
"What of the other children?"
"Dead. Two from starvation, three from daddy's affections, and the last one burned to death. We went through the rubble and buried the bones."
"And now you're giving him to me? Why, Curran? I can't be responsible for him, I'm doing a piss-poor job of being responsible for myself."
His gaze held enough contempt to drown me. "Derek can handle himself. I don't tolerate loss of control. He's been tested and he won't lose his way when he smells the blood. In your place, I'd worry more about your own ass."
"Well, you're not in my place." I rose to my feet. Time to go.
We walked back to the room, where Curran said a few words to Mahon and left. Mahon approached me. "I'll show you out. Derek'll meet us at the entrance."
"Please make sure he takes a shower," I said. "Lots and lots of Irish Spring. I don't want the People smelling blood or wolf on him."
Mahon led me a different way, through the maze of dim passages and branching tunnels that brought us to a wooden door. Mahon leaned his palm against it and it swung open.
"Curran wanted you to see this before you left," he said.
In the room, on a simple metal table under a glass hood laced with preserving spells, lay the head of Sam Buchanan.
BETSI WOULD NOT START. A WERERAT MECHANIC took one look under the hood, mumbled something about the alternator, and pointed me toward the stables.
Before we left, I popped Betsi's trunk, untied the strings holding the long oiled-leather roll and pulled it open, displaying swords and daggers secured in leather loops. The moonlight silvered the blades.