"I'm to be an opportunity while you will be the means?"

I nodded. "We share information and resources to accomplish a common goal. Think of it as a business arrangement." The business angle would appeal to him.

Saiman leaned forward, very intent. "Why should I work with you? Just how badly do you want this, Kate?"

A low warning growl reverberated in Jim's throat.

I leaned back and swung one leg over the other, mimicking his pose. "You need us more than we need you. I can flash my ID, walk into the Midnight Games, and make myself a giant pain in the ass. I'm very good at that."

"I have no doubt," Saiman murmured.

"I'll shine a big searchlight onto the Games and the Reapers in particular. Sooner or later they'll develop a burning desire to kill me, and Jim here will help me slaughter them one by one. He has a big axe to grind. Meanwhile, the attendance to the Games drops, House profits plummet, and you lose money."

I gave him a smile. I was aiming for sweet, but he turned a shade paler and scooted a bit farther from me. Note to self: work more on sweet and less on psycho-killer.

"Since you don't wish to work with us, you'll have to hire some muscle to assist you with the Reaper issue. As the parking lot incident showed, they're all about loading you on the first available train to the afterlife. You require protection, which will cost you a lot of trouble and money - judging by Mart, you must employ top talent if you wish to keep breathing. After the Reapers help a couple of your bodyguards find their wings and halos, you'll have to hire replacements, only now you'll enjoy the reputation of a man whose bodyguards die. Prices will shoot up into the stratosphere and the quality of employees will drop. Despite popular misconceptions, most bodyguards aren't suicidal. So you see, you need us more than we need you. We'll kill the Reapers one way or the other. We don't really care. We work for revenge, not for money."

Saiman studied me as if he saw me for the first time. "This is a side of you I'm unfamiliar with."

It was the side of me I used to settle disputes between the Guild and the Order, which was technically my job. I rose. "Think about it. You know my number."

"Is there a method to your madness?" Saiman asked.

"You'll have to shake on it to find out." Since I trusted him about as far as I could throw him, I would've preferred to have his signature in blood on a magically binding contract, but I'd take a shake. Provided he didn't spit into his hand first.

I took exactly three steps toward the door before he said, "We have a deal."

"HERE IS WHAT I KNOW," I SAID. SOME OF IT CAME from Jim and some of it I had put together. "The Reapers entered the picture approximately two months ago. Most of them are certified as human and have passed the m-scan with flying colors."

"Blue across the board." Saiman's face dripped distaste.

"But the Reapers aren't exactly human. We've established that. However, because they fight as 'normals,' initially the House gave long odds in their favor. They were an unproven commodity and most humans fighting against a shapeshifter or a vamp will typically lose. The Reapers cost the House a great deal of money, correct?"

Saiman confirmed it with a short nod. "Yes. There are also other reasons for their 'humanity.'

You see, to participate in the tournament, the team must consist of seven members, at least three of whom have to be human or a human derivative, such as a shapeshifter. Without three humans, they wouldn't be able to enter the tournament."

"So to sum up: you don't know what they are, how they're tricking the m-scanner, or where they go when they leave the Games?"

"No." Saiman wrinkled his nose in distaste, a distinctly female gesture that fit the blonde to a T.

"Not very useful, are you?" Jim said.

Thank you for your help, Mr. Diplomacy.

Saiman glanced at him. "Twenty-one years ago, on April twenty-third, you killed the man who murdered your father while they had been incarcerated. You nailed your father's killer to the floor with a crowbar through his stomach, and then you dismembered him. The coroner estimated he took over three hours to die. His name was David Stiles. You were never charged with the crime."

Oh boy.

"I disclose this fact to prevent any appearance of incompetence on my part. I deal in information. I'm expert at it. When I say that I don't know what the Reapers are, I say it with all the weight of my professional expertise behind it."

Jim laughed softly, displaying his white teeth in a wide smile.

Saiman inclined his head in an amicable bow. He may have gathered information about Jim, but he didn't know him. Jim was a jaguar. He showed his teeth only to people he intended to kill. He wouldn't kill him just yet, because we needed him, but one day when Saiman least expected it, he would find himself stalked by death from above.

And I would have absolutely nothing to do with any of it. "Back to the Reapers," I said. "Do you know what they want?"

"That I can answer. They want the Wolf Diamond," Saiman said.

I waited for him to elaborate but he just sipped his martini. He wanted to be prompted. Fine. I obliged. "What is the Wolf Diamond?"

"It's a very large yellow topaz."

"Why the name?" Jim asked.

Saiman pondered his martini. "It's the precise shade of a wolf's eye. The stone is bigger than my fist."

A flashy prize. The topaz itself would be very valuable owing to its uniqueness, and the presence of the stone gave the tournament a nearly legendary flair: a contest between the mightiest warriors for a fabled gemstone and glory. In reality, it was a sick game, where lives were thrown away for the sake of soft bills. Glory? There was no glory in dying for somebody else's money and glee.

"How did you acquire the stone?" Jim asked.

"It was bought by one of the House members and donated to reward the winner of the upcoming tournament. It's an extravagant prize, in line with our current style. People who patronize our venue expect exotic."

A topaz bigger than a man's fist was certainly exotic. I searched my brain for any rudimentary gem lore. Topaz was one of the twelve apocalyptic stones protecting the New Jerusalem.

Naturally yellow and expensive, it was rumored to have a cooling influence on one's temper and to protect the wearer from nightmares. The generic "protection" property was the default setting for all precious stones - that was what people said when they had no clue what the stone did or when it had no mystic properties whatsoever. I made a mental note to find a gemology book and look up topaz.

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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