He said nothing. He didn’t get it. I treated him to a pass on his terms and he didn’t get it. I had just made a fool of myself again.
“You know what, never mind. You’re dense like a rock.” I’d chased him as he had chased me and he couldn’t even figure it out.
“I’m leaving the catnip where it is,” he said. “You will remove every piece of it. And you’ll do it naked.”
“Only in your dreams.” And I meant it, too.
“Of course you know this means war.”
“Whatever.” I hung up and exhaled.
The attack poodle gave me a bewildered look.
“I’m in love with an idiot.”
The dog turned his head to the side.
“Just wait until he figures out I shut him out of his slut hut.”
The poodle whined softly.
“I don’t need any criticism from you. If you can go a day without barfing or destroying my house, then I might listen to what you have to say. Until then, keep your opinions to yourself.”
I fell back into my bed and put a pillow on my head. I’d just had a conversation with a poodle and accused him of criticizing me. Curran had finally driven me out of my mind.
I WOKE UP EARLY AND LAY IN BED FOR ABOUT TEN minutes, thinking of various ways I could kill Curran. Unfortunately, I still had the Steel Mary to catch, so I dragged myself out of bed and got dressed.
Outside the world had turned completely white. The snow must’ve started shortly after I got in and at least three inches of powder covered the asphalt. Thick gray clouds smothered the sky. Cold burned my face. Winter had taken Atlanta into its mouth and bit hard.
I looked at the attack poodle. “Are you cold?”
He wiggled his shaved butt at me.
I went back inside and added a T-shirt under my turtleneck and a green sweatshirt on top of it. Together with my old cloak, the layers would keep me warm. Next, I retrieved an old torn-up black sweater from the closet, cut off the sleeves, and stuffed the poodle into it. Since I’d shaved him, I now had to provide the artificial fur. He looked . . . cute. Some people got vicious Dobermans. I got a shaved attack poodle in a black sweater. His tough, spawn-of-hell image had taken a fatal blow, but at least he would be warm.
We headed to the Order. The snow crunched under my feet. Saiman would love it. Being a frost giant, he lived for winter. For me, the winter meant high heating bills, eating lean, and freezing as I tried to conquer snowdrifts. The colder the weather, the more poor people would die of exposure.
We turned a corner onto a narrow path between two rows of decrepit office buildings. The magic hit hard here. Some offices had crumbled and spilled onto the street in huge piles of bricks and mortar. Some teetered on the brink of collapse, looking over the edge but not quite willing to take a plunge. Once the entire street crumbled, the city would clear the rubble out and rebuild—the location was too close to the Capitol to remain vacant for long.
A male voice floated from behind the bend. “. . . just walk right on. Gotta pay.”
A shakedown. I picked up speed and circled the pile of debris.
Two men and a woman crowded an older woman toward a concrete building, all three with a familiar hungry look in their eyes. Not professional thugs, just opportunists—saw an easy mark and took a chance. Bad idea.
The older woman saw me. Short, stocky, she was swaddled in a dark garment. An indigo mesh veil covered her dark hair and forehead. Two deep-set eyes looked at me from a face the color of walnut. She showed no expression. No fear. No anxiety.
I headed toward them. The attack poodle trotted next to me, amused.
“It’s our turf,” the younger woman barked.
“Actually it’s my turf.”
The thugs spun to me.
“Let’s see . . . You’re hassling people in my territory, so you owe me a fee. A couple of fingers ought to do it. Do we have a volunteer?”
The small thug pulled a bowie knife from a sheath on his waist.
I kept coming. “That’s a mistake.”
The thug crouched down. He clenched his knife, like he was drowning and it was a straw that would pull him out. A little crazy light danced in his eyes. “Come on, whore. Come on.”
The oldest bluff in the book: get a crazy glimmer in your eyes, look like you’re ready to fight, and the other guy might back off. Heh.
“That might work better for you if you held the knife properly. You were doing okay until you pulled the blade. Now I know that you have no clue how to use it and I’ll have to chop your hand off and shove that knife up your ass just to teach you a lesson. Nothing personal. I have a reputation to uphold.”
I pulled Slayer out. I had years of practice to back me up and I made the draw fast.
The two bravos behind the knife-wielding thug backed away.
I looked at Slayer’s blade. “Well, check this out. Mine is bigger. Let’s go, knife-master. I don’t have all day.”
The knife thug took a small step back, spun on his heel, and peeled out like his life depended on it. His friends chased him down the alley.
I sheathed Slayer. Their would-be victim didn’t move. Her eyes stared straight at me, unblinking, the irises so dark, I couldn’t tell where her pupils were. She smiled, wide lips stretching, her mouth opened, and she laughed. It was a throaty, genuine laugh, deep for a woman.
She wasn’t laughing at the thugs. She was laughing at me.
“Are you alright, ma’am?”
She gave no indication of having heard me.
I shook my head and kept going. The attack poodle followed. The woman’s laughter floated after me. Even after we turned off onto the side path, I could still hear it.
“It doesn’t matter if she’s a creepy old lady,” I told the attack poodle. “We still had to do our job.”
Ten minutes later we stepped through the door of the Order’s building. Andrea exploded out of the staircase, her eyes huge.
“Someone broke into Curran’s private quarters in the Keep and welded his weight bench together. They also melted the lock on the room where he entertains his women. Was it you?”
“He’s making a big deal about never expecting me to behave like a shapeshifter. So I did.”
“Are you out of your mind?”
It’s not polite to lie to your best friend. “It’s a possibility.”
“You challenged him. The whole Keep is talking about it. He’ll have to retaliate. He’s a cat, Kate, which means he’s weird, and he never courted anyone that way. There is no telling what he’ll do. He doesn’t operate in the same world you do. He might blow up your house because he thinks it’s funny.”