"It's hard for you," Derek observed. "To rely on other people, I mean."
For a moment I wondered if he had developed telepathy, too. "What makes you say that?"
"You said you were worried about Julie and then your face looked like you had a hemorrhoid attack. Or a really hard..."
"Derek, you just don't say things like that to a woman. Keep going this way and you'll spend your life alone."
"Don't change the subject. Andrea is cool. And she smells nice. It will be okay."
Apparently I was supposed to sniff people to determine their competence. "How do you know?"
He shrugged. "You just have to trust her."
Considering that the two men I had most loved and admired spent my formative years drilling into me that I could rely on myself and myself alone, trusting other people was easier said than done. I worried about Julie. I worried about Julie's mom, too. Since I'd gotten the liaison position with the Order, I made it a point to hang out in the knight-questor's office, because I knew next to nothing about investigative work, and he, being an ex - Georgia Bureau of Investigations detective, knew pretty much everything. While there I had picked up a few vital crumbs of information, and I knew the first twenty-four hours of any investigation were crucial. The more time passed, the colder the trail grew. In a missing person case, that meant the chances of finding that missing person alive dropped by the hour.
The first twenty-four had come and gone. The first forty-eight were waving good-bye from the window of the "you suck at your job" train. None of the normal procedures applied in this case: canvassing the neighborhood, interrogating witnesses, trying to determine who wanted the person to be missing, none of it applied here. All the witnesses were missing with her.
I had no clue where Julie's mom had gone. I wished she was safe back at her house. I had left a note on her kitchen table, explaining that I had Julie, she was safe, and asking her to contact the Order. Until she showed, all I could do was to tug on the tail of the only lead I had - the cauldron and Morrigan - and hope there wasn't a woman-eating tiger on the other end.
We turned to the left onto Centennial Drive, following Ghastek's vampire. A solid wall of green towered along our left, blocking the view. Pre-Shift, the park was open and airy, a large lawn, sectioned off by paths and carefully planted trees into predefined areas. You could stand on the lookout at Belvedere and see the entire layout of the park, from the Children's Garden to the Fountain of Rings.
Now the park belonged to the covens of the city. The witches had planted fast-growing trees, and an impenetrable barrier of verdant green hid the mysteries of the park from prying eyes and sticky fingers. The park was larger, as well. A lot larger. It had swallowed several city blocks previously occupied by office buildings. All I saw was a wall of green. It must've quadrupled in size.
The fact that so many covens had banded together to purchase a park was always a puzzlement to me. If you piloted vampires, you belonged to the People, and if you didn't, they would quickly make a very persuasive financial argument in favor of your signing up with them. If you were a merc, you belonged to the Guild, because you wanted 50 percent off your dental, 30 percent off your medical, and access to a Guild lawyer. But if you were a witch, you belonged to your coven, which usually topped out at thirteen members. Witches had no hierarchy outside of their individual covens. I always wondered what different covens had in common. Now I knew: the Oracle.
It's a good thing Saiman was high on magic. God alone knew how much this information would've cost me under normal circumstances. Of course, under normal circumstances, all this mess wouldn't have happened.
The city gave the park some berth but not too much. Across the street the ruins had been cleared and a new timber building rose, proudly bearing a YardBird sign. Under it in big red letters was written "Fried Chicken! Wings!" And lower, "No Rat!"
The air smelled like fried chicken. My mouth filled with drool. The good thing about chicken is that it's hard to disguise dog meat as a chicken wing. Mmmm, chicken. Thanks to Doolittle's efforts, I still had the metabolism of a hummingbird on crack. The fried chicken aroma beckoned me. After the witches. Once we were out of Centennial Park, come hell or high water, I'd get myself some chicken.
The carpenters from the new construction going up ahead had much the same idea. They sat outside at small wooden tables, munched on wings, and watched the afternoon sun broil the streets. Laborers and craftsmen traveled up and down Centennial Drive, feeling the pavement through their worn shoes, staying on the other side of the street, away from the green. The sidewalk peddlers recommended their wares with hoarse voices. Up ahead at the intersection a fetish vendor, a short middle-aged man, danced about his cart, shaking colorful twine and cord charms.
A street sign announced we had reached Andrew Young Boulevard. Judging by the sign's location, the boulevard sliced off the southern chunk of the park, probably cutting straight through Centennial Plaza. Except no boulevard remained. The greenery grew wild, in full revolt against all things that pruned. Leafy branches hung over the path, their shoots lying on the pavement. Rose vines spread in thorn-studded tangles, binding the myrtles and evergreens into a solid mass that promised to leave no skin unbloodied. I'd need a chainsaw to get through there. A machete wouldn't do it. And I didn't even have a machete.
Witches: one. Kate and Co.: zero.
"We seem to be boulevardless," I said.
"I could've informed you of that, had you bothered to inquire." The vamp favored me with a ghastly attempt at a smile, sure to send any normal person to a therapist.
That's right - the Casino was built on the lot of the old World Congress Center. If it weren't for the fifty-foot trees blocking the view, the sky would be gleaming with its silvery minarets. The People and the witches were practically neighbors. Hell, they probably wandered over to borrow a cup of sugar from each other.
"There is an entrance up ahead." The vamp scuttled north, toward Baker Street. The sun chose that moment to strip off a small cloud, filling the world with golden sunshine and setting the vamp's wrinkled purple hide aglow.
"There is just something so wrong about this," I mumbled.
Derek answered with a light growl.
I trudged along the green wall. The air smelled of flowers. Birds chirped.
The greenery dipped. A narrow path burrowed into the green, twisting to the left, like a dim tunnel to the heart of the wood.
Derek raised his nose and inhaled deeply in the manner of the shapeshifters. "Water."