We headed to the door. Saiman caught up with us and passed the bundle to Jim. Jim showed no strain as he took the bundle. It might have been light as a feather, but by the way Saiman's stride eased, I could tell it had to be heavy.
"Your crew passes." Saiman handed me two yellow tickets and slowed down, putting some distance between us and himself.
We reached the doors and I presented the crew passes to the outside guards. They waved us on to Rene's welcoming arms. Recognition sparked in her eyes. She surveyed Jim and turned to me.
"Congratulations, love. You traded up. Does he treat you well?"
"He's a teddy bear," I said.
Teddy bear looked like he was suffering from murder withdrawal. Rene grinned. "He certainly is. First room on the right, get yourself logged in." Rene glanced at the doors, where Saiman was making his grand entrance. "Hurry now. Your ex is coming through. We don't want him getting hysterical again."
THE FIGHTER LEVEL WAS BASICALLY A LONG hallway forming a ring. Red Guards were thick in the hallway like flies on a dead horse. Big deadly flies, armed with Tasers, chains, and nets. No fights would break out there. Inside the ring lay a large exercise room located directly under the Pit. Outside the ring branched off fighter quarters: sets of rooms where the fighters waited for their bouts.
Jim leaned against the doorframe of our room, like some dark sentinel. The patrolmen gave him a wide berth.
I sat at a bench. I had inspected our quarters: the front room where we waited now was long and narrow, a bottleneck. No door separated us from the hallway. In case of trouble, a couple of Guards could easily contain a dozen people or more within the room.
On the left a door led to a narrow locker room with a bench and three showers and off it was a small bathroom with three toilets, separated by partitions. Behind me another door led to a large bedroom housing eight double bunks. The Order's files said the teams were sequestered once the tournament began and for three days they lived in their fighting quarters.
Above us the crowd roared, enthused by someone's death.
Guilt gnawed on me. It haunted and stalked me, just waiting to pounce when I had a dull moment. I should have kept Derek from being hurt. As they had beat him, in the parking lot, he had been utterly alone. He knew no help would be coming. That was his last memory: the molten silver being poured on his face.
My heart clenched. I tried to make some words come out, anything to keep thoughts out of my head. "My father would've approved of this place. Of all the arenas he took me to, this is the best equipped and best secured."
Jim's gaze was still firmly fixed on the hallway and the patrols. "What kind of father would take a kid to the slaughter?"
"The kind who wanted his daughter to get used to death. I guess you could say I turned out according to his plan."
"Yeah. He teach you to talk a lot of shit, too?"
"Nope. Picked it up from you."
We sat in silence.
"My dad hated killing," Jim said. "Couldn't do it, even when he had to."
"Not everybody grows up to be a monster."
Another thump. The noise of the spectators died down to a hum. I got out my throwing knives and began polishing them with a cloth.
"He was human," Jim said.
"The Pack never turned him?"
Jim was half. Could've fooled me by the way he treated outsiders. Usually mates of shapeshifters became shapeshifters themselves.
"How did it go over with the cat clan?"
Jim gave a barely perceptible shrug. "We're cats. We mind our own business. He was welcome, because he was a doctor. Not many physicians in the Pack. Doolittle and he were friends. Graduated together."
I remembered Saiman's words. He said Jim killed the man who had murdered his father while they were both incarcerated. "How did he end up in prison?"
"One of the lynx children went loup. A little girl. She was ten. The alpha was out and the parents brought her to him to be put down. Humane death and all that shit."
Once a shapeshifter went loup, there was no return.
"He couldn't do it," Jim said. "He gave her an injection and she went to sleep. He told the family he wanted the body to see if he could autopsy it and find out what caused loupism.
They believed him. He hid her in a cage in the basement. Took tissue samples to try and find the cure. She broke out and killed two people before we caught her and put her down. One of them was a pregnant woman. There was a trial. He got twenty-five to life."
Jim still wasn't looking at me. "His second day in prison a lowlife called David Stiles stabbed him in the liver. Later I found David, and I asked him why. He wasn't in the position to lie.
You know what he said?" Jim turned to me. "He said he felt like it. No reason."
I didn't know what to say.
"My father helped people. He treated a loup kid like she was normal. I treated a normal kid like he was loup and six years later sent him to have his face beaten off his head. Doolittle tells me he's fading. He doesn't have long. If my dad was alive, he'd spit in my face."
It was an old wound and he'd ripped the scab off and left it raw for me to see. I had no salve to put on it, but I could show him my own scar. "If my father knew that I deliberately put myself here, in this situation, for the sake of another person, he would consider himself a failure."
Jim looked at me. "Why?"
"Because ever since I could walk, he taught me to rely only on myself. To never build a relationship or to attach myself to a human being, even to him. He used to send me out to the woods for several days with nothing except a knife. When I was twelve, he dumped me in the Warren. I ran with the Breakers for a month. Was beaten several times, almost raped twice." I braided my fingers into the Breaker gang sign. "Still remember how."
Jim just stared at me.
"Friends are a dangerous thing," I told him. "You feel responsibility for them. You want to keep them safe. You want to help and they throw you off balance, and the next thing you know you're sitting there crying, because you didn't make it in time. They make you feel helpless. That's why my father wanted to make me into a sociopath. A sociopath has no empathy. She just focuses on her purpose."
"Didn't quite work out that way," Jim said quietly.
"No. His training had a fatal flaw: he cared. He asked me what I wanted to eat for dinner. He knew I liked green, and if he had a choice between a blue sweater and a green one, he'd buy the green one for me even if it cost more. I like swimming, and when we traveled, he made it a point to lay our route so it would go past a lake or a river. He let me speak my mind. My opinion mattered. I was a person to him and I was important. I saw him treat others as if they were important. For all of his supposed indifference, there is a town in Oklahoma that worships him and a little village in Guatemala that put a wooden statue of him at the gates to protect them from evil spirits. He helped people, when he thought it was right."