Jerome stood up. "Miracles generally aren't in our repertoire. I've seen all I need to. I'm going to go drink now in a futile effort to wipe away the memory of this debacle. When I show up for your next practice, I expect to see significant improvement in all of you. If I don't, you're all going to learn a new definition of teamwork through your shared misery and suffering." He turned abruptly on his heels and nearly ran into a waitress approaching us. She yelped in surprise when she saw the furious look on his face. "Do not serve them alcohol," he warned her. "We can't risk any chance of this getting worse - not that that's probably possible."

We watched them both hurry away. Once Jerome left the bowling alley, Roman exhaled in relief and sat down with us. "Okay, now that he's gone, can we dispense with this bowling nonsense and get down to business? Cody, we need to talk to you about Milton."

"Whoa, whoa," said Peter. "Was I the only one who heard that part about 'shared misery and suffering'? We need to practice."

Roman waved a dismissive hand. "We'll get back to that."

"What about Milton?" asked Cody, looking puzzled for any number of reasons.

"You told him," said Hugh. "Shit."

"What'd you expect?" I asked. "You had to have known I'd do something about it."

"Milton's a hit man for Hell," said Roman.

"Milton . . . not Milton that ass**le vampire that was here a while ago?" asked Peter incredulously. "A hit man? Come on. He was a fashion nightmare, but that's about it."

"We have good reason to think he really is an assassin," I said slowly. "He travels a lot, and when he's in town . . . people die. Like Erik."

"Erik was killed by a robber," said Cody. "There was no sign of a vampire."

"Well, of course not," said Roman. "Hell doesn't want its murders to look obvious."

"Yeah," said Peter, "but that implies Hell had a reason for killing Erik."

"Hell did," said Roman. He nodded toward me. "Her. Erik was investigating Georgina's contract when he was killed."

I swallowed, taking a moment to find my voice. There was a small, small comfort in thinking there was a reason for Erik's death and not just some random chance of the universe. But that comfort was negated by the fact that I was the reason.

"Roman thinks there's some nefarious explanation for me being transferred. Some larger plot. And that Erik's death was part of it," I said at last.

Seth stared at me in astonishment. "I thought you said this was routine."

I shrugged, unable to meet his eyes. "I don't know. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't."

"It isn't," said Roman fiercely. "There are too many things going on, too many things that don't add up. Erik got too close to something, and Hell got rid of him. Which brings me back to my original point. Cody. You and Gabrielle followed Milton around, right?"

"I . . . yeah . . ." Cody was still in shock. "But I mean, we didn't see him kill Erik! We didn't see anything like that."

"Did you ever see him in Lake City?" I asked. That was where Erik's store had been.

Cody shook his head. "Never that far out. We just followed him mostly to some clubs. It was a game, that's all. She wanted to see a vampire, so we watched him for a while. We never followed him outside of downtown."

"I did."

Everyone turned to stare at Peter.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" he demanded.

"I didn't know about that," said Cody. "Why did you follow him?"

Peter snorted. "Why do you think? He was in our territory. I was seeing if he was really just on vacation like he claimed. I had to make sure he wasn't out hunting victims."

I grew so complacent sometimes with the idea of my silly, laid-back friends that it was easy to forget their true natures. Peter and Cody were the most deceptive of all sometimes. They were goofy and absurd in most of their normal living, but at the end of the day, they were vampires.

"And?" asked Roman, getting that zealous look again. "Did you see him in Lake City?"

"No. I followed him once to the Eastside and once to West Seattle."

A chill ran down my spine. "West Seattle? What was he doing there?"

"Nothing," said Peter. "He drove though some neighborhoods, sat in his car for a while. I figured he was stalking prey but saw me and gave up. Which he was smart to do."

"He might very well have been stalking prey," I murmured. "Erik lived in West Seattle. Do you remember the neighborhood?"

"If I saw it, maybe," said Peter. "But I couldn't lead you back there. I'm sorry."

"It doesn't matter," said Roman. "This is all we need. This is enough proof."

"It's circumstantial at best," argued Hugh. "Which I told Georgina initially. And it doesn't explain why Hell would want him killed - especially after he helped Jerome. I know, I know." Both Roman and I had started to protest, and Hugh held up a silencing hand. "The contract. But remember, Kristin checked it for you. She said there was nothing wrong with your contract."

Kristin was an imp who worked in Vancouver. I'd done her a favor, and in return, she'd dared to look in Hell's archives and review my contract for me, back when I'd clung to the hope that there might be an error. The imp who'd brokered my contract, Niphon, had been in town behaving suspiciously, and I'd been certain we'd learn that the contract was faulty. Kristin had come back with disappointing news: everything was in order.

"Erik said it wasn't mine that was the problem, though. He said it was a different one," I said.

"What other contract? And how is this connected to your transfer?" asked Hugh. When none of us had an answer, he sighed. "Look, sweetie. I'm as much for a good caper as any of you, but not at the expense of being stupid." He glared at Roman. "You've been around for a while, I'll give you credit for that, but you haven't lived our lives. You haven't had to answer to the system. We do. Don't f**k things up for her with some far-fetched, crazy-ass theory."

"What if it's more than a theory?" asked Roman. "What if it's true?"

Hugh met his gaze squarely. "Then make damned sure uncovering it is worth the consequences."

Silence fell over us. At long last, Cody said, "How much do you think Jerome scared that waitress? Because I could really use a drink."

Roman resumed his coaching, but a weird mood had descended upon us in the wake of the Milton and Erik revelation. We went through the motions, but it was clear no one's heart was really in bowling. When we finally called it a night, Roman declared that we'd all improved but were still in need of more practice. Since that wasn't a mystery to any of us, we set up a schedule for the rest of the week before dispersing. Roman caught a hold of my arm as I was walking out.

"I won't be home tonight," he said. "I've got some . . . things to do."

"Things that are going to get you in trouble?" I asked warily.

"No more than I already am. Just figured I'd let you know in case . . ." He glanced at Seth, then me. "You know, just in case you wanted to know."

"Thanks," I said. Taking the hint, I turned to Seth once we were alone in the parking lot. "What do you think? Do you want to come have a sleepover? Or do you have to go back to Terry's?"

Seth put his hands around my waist and drew me close. "Actually, I have the night off. Andrea was having a good day today."

I remembered yesterday, how, despite her fatigue, it had been clear she'd significantly improved. I felt a flutter of hope in my chest and rejoiced at finally having something that was clear-cut and good in the world for a change. "Do you think she's really healing? That the treatment's working?"

"I don't know," he said wistfully. "I'd like to believe it. It would be . . . amazing. More than I could hope for."

My heart ached for him and for the whole family. I didn't know what to say, so I simply brushed a light kiss across his lips. They were warm in the chill air.

"Georgina," he said, when I'd pulled back. "All this other stuff . . . about your contract and the transfer. This is the first I'm hearing about it."

"I know," I said. "I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to keep anything from you. It's just . . . so much is still unknown. I didn't want to bring it up when I don't even fully understand what's happening."

Tags: Richelle Mead Georgina Kincaid Fantasy