“Kate?” Maxine prompted.

“Do you have any details?”

“Someone started a fight and departed. They have something cornered in the cellar, and they’re afraid to let it out. They’re hysterical. At least one fatality.”

A bar full of hysterical necromancers and werebeasts. Why me?

“Will you take it?”

“What kind of cookies?”

“Chocolate chip with bits of walnuts in them. I’ll even give you two.”

I sighed and turned Marigold to the west. “I’ll be there in twenty.”

Marigold sighed heavily and started down the night-drenched street. The Pack members drank little. Staying human required iron discipline, and the shapeshifters avoided substances that altered their grip on reality. A glass of wine with dinner or a single beer after work was pretty much their limit.

The People also drank little, primarily because of the presence of shapeshifters. A bizarre hybrid of a cult, a corporation, and a research institute, they concerned themselves with the study of the undead, primarily vampires. Vampirus immortuus , the pathogen responsible for vampirism, eradicated all traces of ego from its victims, turning them into bloodlustcrazed monsters and leaving their minds nice and blank. Masters of the Dead, the People’s premier necromancers, took advantage of this occurrence—they navigated vampires by riding their minds and controlling their every move.

Masters of the Dead weren’t brawlers. Well-educated, lavishly compensated intellectuals, they were ruthless and opportunistic. Masters of the Dead wouldn’t be visiting a bar like the Steel Horse either. Too lowbrow. The Steel Horse catered to the journeymen, navigators-in-training, and since the Red Stalker murders, the People had tightened their grip on their personnel. A couple of drunk and disorderlies, and your study of the undead would come to an untimely end. The journeymen still got roaring drunk—most were too young and made too much money for their own good—but they didn’t do it where they’d get caught and they definitely didn’t do it with the shapeshifters watching.

A shadow scuttled across the street, small, furry, and with too many legs. Marigold snorted and kept on, unfazed.

The People were led by a mysterious figure known as Roland. To most, he was a myth. To me, he was a target. He was also my biological father. Roland had sworn off children—they kept trying to kill him—but my mother really wanted me and he decided that, for her sake, he could suffer to try one more time. Except he changed his mind and tried to kill me in the womb. My mother ran and Roland’s Warlord, Voron, ran with her. Voron made it, my mother didn’t. I never knew her, but I knew that if my natural father ever found me, he’d move heaven and earth to finish what he started.

Roland was legend. He’d survived for thousands of years. Some thought he was Gilgamesh, some thought he was Merlin. He wielded incredible power and I wasn’t ready to fight him. Not yet. Contact with the People meant the risk of discovery by Roland and so I avoided them like a plague.

Contact with the Pack meant the risk of contact with Curran, and right now that was worse.

Who the hell would attack the Steel Horse anyway? What was the thinking behind that? “Here is a bar full of psychotic killers who grow giant claws and people who pilot the undead for a living. I think I’ll go wreck the place.” Sound reasoning there. Not.

I couldn’t avoid the Pack forever, just because their lord and master made my sword arm ache. Get in. Do my job. Get out. Simple enough.

The Steel Horse occupied an ugly bunker of a building: squat, brick, and reinforced with steel bars over the windows and a metal door about two and a quarter inches thick. I knew how thick the door was because Marigold had just trotted past it. Someone had ripped the door off its hinges and tossed it across the street.

Between the door and the entrance stretched potholed asphalt covered with random patches of blood, liquor, and broken glass, and a few moaning bodies in various stages of inebriation and battle damage.

Damn, I’d missed all the fun.

A clump of tough guys stood by the tavern’s doorway. They didn’t exactly look hysterical, since the term was conveniently absent from their vocabulary, but the way they gripped makeshift weapons of broken furniture made one want to approach them slowly, speaking in soothing tones. Judging by the battle scene, they had just gotten beat up in their own bar. You can never lose a fight in your own bar, because if you do, it’s not your bar anymore.

I slowed my mule to a walk. The temperature had plummeted in the past week, and the night was bitterly, unseasonably cold. The wind cut at my face. Faint clouds of breath fluttered from the guys at the bar. A couple of the larger thuggy-looking citizens sported some hardware: a big, rough-hewn man on the right carried a mace, and his pal on the left wielded a machete. Bouncers. Only bouncers would be allowed to have real weapons in a border bar.

I scanned the crowd, looking for telltale glowing eyes. Nothing. Just the normal human irises. If there had been shapeshifters in the bar tonight, they’d either cleared off or kept their human skins securely on. I didn’t sense any vampires nearby either. No familiar faces in the crowd. The journeymen must’ve taken off, too. Something bad went down and nobody wanted to be tarred by it. And now it was all mine. Oh, goodie.

Marigold carried me past the human wreckage and to the doorway. I pulled out the clear plastic wallet I carried on a cord around my neck, and held it up so they could see the small rectangle of the Order ID.

“Kate Daniels. I work for the Order. Where is the owner?”

A tall man stepped from the inside of the bar and leveled a crossbow at me. It was a decent modern recurve crossbow, with close to two hundred pounds of draw weight. It came equipped with a fiber-optic sight and a scope. I doubted he’d need either to hit me at ten feet. At this distance the bolt wouldn’t just penetrate; it would go through me, taking my guts for a ride on its fletch.

Of course, at this distance I might kill him before he got off a shot. Hard to miss with a throwing knife at ten feet.

The man fixed me with grim eyes. Middle-aged and thin, he looked as if he’d spent too much time outdoors doing hard labor. Life had melted all the flesh off his bones, leaving only leathery skin, gunpowder, and gristle. A short dark beard hugged his jaw. He nodded to the smaller bouncer. “Vik, check the ID.”

Vik sauntered over and looked at my wallet. “It says what she said it did.”

I was too tired for this. “You’re looking at the wrong thing.” I took the card out of the wallet and offered it to him. “See the square in the bottom left corner?”

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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