I wasn't sure if he would come back, but if he did, I wanted to be prepared. I had imagined our encounter a dozen times. I had constructed long conversations in my head, full of barbs and witty comebacks.

The bastard didn't show.

The longer his MIA lasted, the surer I became that he would never show up. It was blatantly obvious - he enjoyed screwing with me, and having done so, he got all funned out and moved on. Perfectly fine with me. Best solution possible. I had dreamt of him once or twice, but other than that, everything was peachy.

Wherever this thread of Derek's troubles led, I really didn't cherish the idea of finding Curran on the other end.

It was always good to have a Plan of Action. I started the engine. Item one of the POA: avoid the Beast Lord. Item two: do not fall asleep.

Chapter 3

"KATE? "

I have a superior reaction time. That was why although I shot out of my chair, jumped onto my desk, and attempted to stab the intruder into my office in the throat, I stopped the blade two inches before it touched Andrea's neck. Because she was my best friend, and sticking knives into your best friend's windpipe was generally considered to be a social faux pas.

Andrea stared at the black blade of the throwing dagger. "That was great," she said. "What will you do for a dollar?"

I scowled.

"Scary but not worth a buck." Andrea perched on the corner of my desk. Short, blond, and deadly. A full knight of the Order, Andrea had one of those nice-girl faces that instantly put people at ease and made them fall over themselves in a rush to disclose their problems. I once went shopping with her, and we heard no fewer than three life stories from total strangers.

People never wanted to tell me their life stories. They usually scooted out of my way and said things like, "Take whatever you want; just go."

Of course, if the total strangers had known Andrea could shoot dots off dominoes at twenty yards, they might have decided to keep their issues to themselves.

Andrea eyed the file on my desk. "I thought you were off today."

"I am." I jumped down. I had caught three hours of sleep, dragged myself to the office in search of background information on the Midnight Games, and promptly passed out at my desk facedown on the open file despite the near-critical amount of coffee in my system.

Which explained why I had failed to hear Andrea enter the office. Typically I didn't go zero to sixty out of dead sleep unless I was startled.

I rubbed my face, trying to wipe away the layer of fatigue. Somebody had poured lead into my head while I was sleeping, and now it rolled around in my skull, creating a racket. "I'm looking for some info on the Midnight Games."

Unfortunately, the file on the Games proved to be anorexic. Three pages of shallow overview on structure, no specifics. This meant there was another file, a big fat one, with a nice CLASSIFIED stamp on the cover, which put it squarely out of my reach. As security clearances went, mine was bare minimum. This was one of the rare moments when I regretted not being a full-fledged knight. As it was, getting my hands on the secret file would prove slightly harder than getting an ice cream cone in Christian hell.

"I don't know much about it," Andrea said. "But one of my instructors was in it, before the tournament was outlawed. I can tell you a little bit about how it worked back then. Over lunch."

"Lunch?"

"It's Friday."

That's right. Andrea and I always had lunch on Fridays. Typically she just waylaid me in the office and didn't give me any choice about it. In Andrea's book, lunch was something friends did. I was still getting used to the idea of friends. Steady relationships were a luxury I wasn't allowed to have for most of my life. Friends shielded and protected you, but they also made you vulnerable, because you sought to return the favor.

Andrea and I had worked closely during the flare. I had saved her life; she had saved my kid, Julie, who had started the flare as a street rat with a missing mom and ended it a killer of demons, who lost her mother permanently but gained crazy Aunt Kate. After the flare, I had expected Andrea and me to quietly drift apart, but Andrea had other plans. She became my best friend.

My stomach growled, informing me that I was ravenous. Food and sleep - you could do without one, but not without both. I put Slayer into the back sheath where it belonged, returned the throwing knife to its sheath on my belt, and grabbed my bag. Andrea checked the two SIG-Sauer P226s she carried in hip holsters, patted down her hunting knife and a smaller backup firearm on her ankle, and we were ready to go.

I STARED AT THE HUGE PLATE OF GYROS. "I'VE died and gone to Heaven."

"You have gone to Parthenon." Andrea took a seat opposite me.

"True." The only way I could get into Heaven would be by blowing up the pearly gates.

We sat on the second floor, in the garden section of a small Greek joint called Parthenon. The garden consisted of an open-air patio, and from our table I could see the busy street beyond an iron rail. The only drawback to this place was the furniture. The tables were wooden and decent enough, but they were flanked by uncomfortable metal chairs bolted to the floor, which meant I couldn't really watch the door.

I scooped the meat with my pita. My brain kept returning to Derek with a small smile in the night-soaked parking lot. A big, heavy ball of worry had accreted in my stomach over the past few hours.

I was stuck. Aside from Derek, who wasn't talking, the only people who could shed light onto this situation were Pack members. There might have been a way to broach the subject with them without giving away the facts of Derek's spectacular escapade, but I was too stupid to think of any. And considering the recent death, they would want full disclosure. If I said anything about Saiman or the Games, Derek would be punished. If I said nothing, he might risk his hide doing something idiotic.

Combined with my headache, all this rumination put me into a foul mood. For all I knew, Derek's little note said, "Meet me at the Knights Inn. I bought the rainbow-colored condoms."

Of course, it could also say, "Tonight I kill your brother. Get the stew pot ready."

I should have just read the damn note. Except I'd given my word I wouldn't. In the world of magic, your word had weight. When I gave mine, I kept it.

Besides, going back on my word would betray Derek's trust. Actually, any action on my part would betray Derek's trust: I couldn't read the note, I couldn't ask anybody about the note, and I couldn't refuse to deliver the damn note. I would've really liked to kick him in the head right about now.

To top it off, my calls to PAD cops produced no useful information whatsoever. A dismembered body of a woman was found on the corner of Dead Cat and Ponce de Leon. She was identified as a member of the Pack and the matter was turned over to the shapeshifters.

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