I touched the wall. About a quarter of an inch away from the concrete, my finger encountered elastic resistance, as if I was trying to squeeze a tennis ball. A faint shimmer of silver pulsed from my skin and I withdrew my hand. The building was heavily warded against hostile magic. If someone with a lot of juice was to hurl a fireball at it, it would probably bounce off without so much as scorching the gray walls.

I opened one half of the metal double doors and walked inside. A narrow passage stretched to the right of me, terminating at a door boasting a large red-on-white sign: Authorized Personnel Only. My other option was a flight of stairs leading upward.

I took the stairs, noting they were surprisingly clean. Nobody tried to stop me. Nobody asked why I was there.

Look at us, we are helpful and nonthreatening, we live to serve the community, and we even let anyone walk into our office.

The need for an unassuming building I could understand, but public records claimed that the entire Chapter consisted of nine knights: a protector, a piner, a questor, three defenders, and three guardians. Nine people, overseeing a city the size of Atlanta. Yeah.

The stairs ended on a landing with a single metal door painted dull green. A small dagger gleamed weakly on its surface about my eye level. Knocking didn't seem like a good idea, so I swung the door open and let myself in.

A long hallway stretched before me, offering a variety of color to my tired eyes: gray and gray, and yet more gray. The ultra-short carpet boasted plain gray pile; the walls were painted in two shades of gray: lighter on top and a darker gray runner at the bottom. The small warts of electric lights on the ceiling looked gray, too. No doubt the decorator chose a particularly dull smoky glass out of esthetic considerations.

The place looked spotless. Several doors branched from the hallway, probably leading into the inpidual offices. At the very end a large wooden door supported a kite shield enameled black. In the middle of the shield reared a steel lion, polished to a bright gleam. The knight-protector. Just the fellow I needed to see.

I marched through the hallway, aiming for the shield and glancing into the doorways as I passed them. On my left I saw a small armory. A short, well-muscled man sat on a wooden bench polishing a dha. The wide blade of the short Vietnamese sword shimmered slightly as he drew an oiled cloth against its bluish metal. On the right lay a small but immaculate office. A large black man dressed in an expensive suit sat behind the desk, talking on the phone. He saw me, smiled with automatic courtesy, and kept talking.

In his place I wouldn't have given myself a second glance either. I wore my work clothes: jeans loose enough to let me kick a man taller than me in the throat, a green shirt, and comfortable running shoes. Slayer rested in its sheath on my back, partially hidden by my jacket. The saber's hilt protruded above my right shoulder, obscured by my hair gathered into a thick plait. The braid was cumbersome - it slapped my back when I ran and made for an excellent hold in a fight. If I were a little less vain, I would've cut it off, but I've already sacrificed feminine clothes, makeup, and pretty underwear in the name of functionality. I would be damned if I gave up my hair, too.

I reached the protector's door and raised my hand to knock.

"Just a moment, dear," said the stern female voice I had heard through the phone yesterday.

I glanced in its direction and saw a small office cluttered with file cabinets. A large desk sat in the middle of the floor and on top of the desk stood a middle-aged woman. The woman was tall, prim, and very thin, with a halo of curly hair dyed platinum-gray. She wore a stylish blue pantsuit. A matching pair of shoes rested near the leg of the chair she must have used to get on the table.

"He's with someone, dear," the woman said. She raised her hands and proceeded to change the twisted bulb in a feylantern affixed to the ceiling next to an electric light. "You don't have an appointment, do you?"

"No, ma'am."

"Well, you're in luck. He's free for the morning. Why don't you give me your name and the reason for your visit, and we'll see what we can do."

I waited until she finished with the feybulb, told her that I was here in connection with Greg Feldman, and gave her my card. She took it down, showing no reaction at all, and pointed behind me. "There's a waiting area over there, dear."

I turned and walked into the waiting area, which turned out to be just another office, equipped with a black leather sofa and two chairs. A table stood against the wall by the door with a coffeepot, guarded by two stacks of small clay cups. A large jar of sugar cubes stood next to the cups and next to the jar sat two boxes from Duncan's Doughnuts. My hand twitched to the doughnuts, but I restrained myself. Anyone who had the pleasure of trying one of the old Scot's doughnuts quickly learned you couldn't eat just one, and waltzing into the protector's office covered in hand-whipped chocolate cream wasn't a good way to make the right impression.

I found a safe spot by the window, away from the doughnuts, and glanced past the bars to the outside, at the small stretch of the overcast sky, framed by roofs. The Order of Merciful Aid offered just what its name suggested: merciful aid to anyone who asked. If you could pay, they would charge you; and if you couldn't, they would kill shit on your behalf pro bono. Officially their mission statement was to protect humanity against all harm, by magic or by weapon. Trouble was, their definition of harm seemed rather flexible and sometimes merciful aid meant they lopped your head off.

The Order got away with a lot. Its membership was too powerful to be ignored, and the temptation to rely on it was too great. It's been endorsed by the government as the third part of the law enforcement triumvirate. The Paranormal Activity Police pision, the Military Supernatural Defense Units, and the Order of the Knights of Merciful Aid were all supposed to play nice together and keep the general public safe. In reality, it didn't exactly happen that way. The knights of the Order were helpful, competent, and lethal. Unlike the mercenaries of the Guild, they were not motivated by money and they stood by their promises. But unlike the mercs, they also made judgments and they believed that they always knew best.

A tall man stepped into the waiting room. The stench hit me almost before I saw him, a sickeningly sweet, lingering odor of rotting garbage. The man wore a sweeping brown trench coat stained with ink and grease spots and smeared with so many varieties of foodstuff and plain trash that he looked like young Joseph in his coat of many colors. The coat hung open in the front to allow a glimpse of an abomination of a shirt: blue and red with green tartan stripes. His filthy khaki pants were held up by orange suspenders. He wore old steel-toed paratrooper boots and leather gloves with their fingers cut off at the first knuckle. On his head sat a felt hat, an old-fashioned fedora, soiled and stained beyond belief. Thick mousy hair dripped in limp strands from under the hat.

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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