I had enough juice for one power word. It would buy us a couple of minutes, but I would pass out, and with the kids immobile, we were trapped.
"When the shit hits the fan, you hide, you hear?"
"Don't be a hero, dog."
I slid the cover in the door aside, exposing the narrow viewing window. The door of the van was open. Inside, the man in the tactical vest slowly, methodically loaded another explosive bolt into his crossbow.
We were done.
When they blasted through the wall, I would take a few of them with me. That was all I could do.
The crossbowman raised the bow.
A gray shape leaped off the roof. A massive beast, a meld of human and lion, landed on the roof of the van, crushing it.
The giant claws gouged the top of the van, and he ripped the metal sheet away, as if opening a can of sardines. The crossbowman looked up in time to see the huge paw just before it cracked his skull like an egg. The enormous jaws of the leonine head opened and a deafening roar blasted forth in a declaration of war, drowning even the noise of the enchanted engine. The beast dipped his massive head inside, pulled a kicking body out between his teeth, pinned it with his paws, and ripped the top half of the body off.
He had come for me again.
Curran's body flowed, snapping into a more humanoid form. He plucked another man from the van, snapped his neck, hurled the broken body aside, and dove into the vehicle. The van rocked. Blood sprayed the windows, someone screamed, and he emerged from the van, bloody, his golden eyes on fire.
I unlocked the door. It swung open and he clenched me to him. I threw my arms around his neck and I kissed him, blood and fur and all.
HELL WAS DRIVING A BLOOD-SOAKED VAN LISTENING to two children dying in the backseat, while Grendel whined as if something were killing him. Hell was watching Jezebel run out of the Keep's gates, her face a pain-distorted mask, clench Joey's mangled body, rock him like a child, and scream and scream and scream, as if it were Jezebel who was dying. Hell was seeing fear in Doolittle's eyes when Curran carried Julie, wrapped in the sheets from my office cot, into the Keep, and then sitting in the waiting room.
Curran spoke into the phone, biting off words. "Is anybody going to tell me why our own fucking render attacked my mate?"
Barabas walked into the room. The skin of his face stretched too tight over his features, making him look sharper and fragile. He came over and crouched by me. "Can I get you anything?"
I shook my head. Curran hung up the phone.
Barabas's eyes were watering. He looked feverish and unhinged. His quiet voice shook with barely contained anger. "Did she hurt before you killed her?"
"Yes," Curran said. "I saw the body."
"That's good." Barabas swallowed. His hands shook. Technical difficulties with controlling his rage. I could relate. "Jez will be glad to hear it."
"Was Joey a relative?" I asked. My voice squeaked. I could've given a rusty metal gate a run for its money in the creaking department.
"He was the youngest of our generation," Barabas said. "Jezebel used to babysit him. We all did, but she had done it the most."
The door swung open and Jim blocked the light. Tall, dark, grim, and wrapped in a black cloak, he looked like death walking in. Jim reached into his cloak and pulled out a thin gold chain. The light of the feylanterns clutched at the gold and slid down to a small pendant. A lighthouse. A tiny diamond winked from the spot where the lighthouse lamp would have been.
"Boyfriend had it," Jim said. "Leslie broke the chain. He was getting it fixed for her birthday."
Leslie Wren was a Lighthouse Keeper.
It wasn't the hundred-mile walk through rough terrain that had hurt Julie. It wasn't a freak accident or a render gone loup. No, it was my case. Had she not been in that office, she wouldn't have been attacked. Had I ordered the trackers to bring her back to the Keep ... "Leslie's father was an engineer in Columbia," Jim said. "Made good money. About fifteen years ago the man lost his shit, quit his job, and moved the family north of Atlanta, to the countryside. He'd inherited the house from his parents. Leslie had an older brother, but he stayed in Columbia. The locals say they never saw the family much. They remember Leslie--a quiet kid in threadbare clothes. She went to school, but the parents wouldn't leave the property."
"How did they survive?" I asked.
Jim put the pendant on the table. "Lived off the land. There are deer in the woods, raccoons, small game. They must've hunted a lot. Three shapeshifters need a lot of food."
Curran glanced at me. "Explains why Leslie made a good render. She probably spent more time in her fur than in her skin growing up. It's not good for children. Messes with your head."
Jim shrugged off his cloak. "She came straight to the Pack the moment she turned eighteen. She's been with us for nine years. She was squared away. No warning signs, no problems, nothing. In hindsight, I should've asked myself why there were no problems. Most renders miss a step once in a while. She never did. She was the go-to render when we had an issue."
I leaned back. "Why would you look for trouble, when there is none?"
"She was with us for a third of her life. We treated her well." Curran leaned on the table. "I want to know why."
Jim squared his shoulders. "Teresa, one of my people, tracked down Leslie Wren's brother. She came back this morning. We'd just missed her. She says that Leslie's father, Colin Wren, had a serious case of paranoia. The mother, Liz, was a go-with-the-flow kind of woman. The brother says she was passive, didn't like confrontations. They weren't the most stable couple."
A paranoid shapeshifter with a passive mate who'd do pretty much anything he wanted to avoid a fight. That was a recipe for disaster.
Jim kept going. "When Leslie was twelve and her brother was seventeen, their mother had an affair with Michael Waterson."
"Local cat alpha of Columbia," Curran said for my benefit. "Not a bad guy. Capable."
"The affair didn't last long," Jim said. "When Colin found out, he snapped. From the way the brother tells it, he took Leslie with him out of Columbia and went to his parents' house. He gave Liz a choice: if she didn't come with him, she'd never see Leslie again."
"Used his daughter as collateral," Curran said.
Jim nodded. "The brother says she was afraid he'd do something to Leslie, so she went with him. Waterson never followed her. He says she told him not to look for her and that she was going to save her marriage. They holed up in the house. Liz wasn't allowed to leave the property. The brother was in high school at the time; he stayed behind to finish the year out. He came to visit them on his break. The dad tried to kill him. Said he was competition."