Z parked his motorcycle across the street from the Java Junkie. Cherry worked all the damned time. If only he could learn her schedule, he might still be able to get his coffee during her off times. But not today he wouldn't. Her car was right out front.
He grumbled, his eyes changing briefly. He'd have to settle for the diner on State Street. Their coffee was too acidic.
"What can I get for ya?" the bottle blonde asked when he stepped in the diner. She popped her gum and smelled of cigarettes. She had to be pushing hard against fifty.
"Just a tuna melt and some coffee."
She raised a brow and cocked her head to the side like a curious poodle. "Tuna melt? You're a brave one."
Z had a stomach like iron. You could pour poison straight down his throat, and his stomach would take care of it, no problem. He hadn't tested the theory, but he'd never had a bout of food poisoning in his life, and he'd eaten in worse dives than this.
He slipped into a corner booth and pulled out his cell phone to dial the number he'd been trying not to dial since he'd left Fiona at her cottage. He had no idea what he'd say to her. 'Hey, sorry I'm such a schmuck, but how are you?' It rang six or eight times, but no one picked up. She's okay. She just doesn't want to talk to you. Leave her alone.
He wasn't sure what he'd do if she answered the phone. How was that conversation going to go? He was still the same guy he'd been when he'd told her he couldn't give her anything. Nothing monumental had happened to change that in the past several hours.
Z stared out the window until a familiar figure passed into his line of sight. He tensed when he saw the priest's collar. It was the vampire who liked to absolve people.
The priest's gaze locked with Z's as the moon rose in the sky. If it had been the sun, with the way the vamp was standing in the middle of the street staring at him, he'd think he was being challenged to a duel.
After a minute or two of intimidation, the priest began moving toward the diner. The bell over the door dinged, and ominous footsteps plodded to the back corner, stopping at his booth. Z tried to look bored, but he knew the vampire could hear the blood pumping faster than it should as his heart pounded out a staccato beat. At least therian minds couldn't be controlled by vampires.
"Panther," the priest said.
"Vampire," Z mocked.
The vamp glanced around, but there was nobody else in the diner save for the cook and the waitress, and they were busy with Z's ever-so-complicated order of tuna and cheese on toasted bread.
Without an invitation, the vampire slid into the seat across from him. "I don't normally like to have my back to the door, but I'm sure you'll watch out for me."
The waitress appeared with burnt coffee and a tuna melt that looked like it might be able to get up and walk off the plate on its own, but Z didn't care. How this place had stayed in business even before the Java Junkie was anybody's guess.
"Can I get you something, Father?" the waitress asked. She'd gotten rid of her gum, or at least had the courtesy not to smack it at him.
The priest's smile was mild, but the disgust was clear in his eyes as he looked from the tuna melt to the waitress.
"I'm afraid not," he said. She nodded and stuck her pencil behind her ear, then went back to wipe down the counters. The vampire turned his attention to Z. "Where's your witch?"
Z had only taken a couple of bites of the sandwich, but now he wasn't hungry, and it wasn't the less-than-appetizing food. "My what?" Maybe he hadn't heard him right. Maybe he was just preoccupied with Fiona, and the moping was causing him to hear things.
"Don't play stupid. We know you have a witch in your care. Or she was in your care. Now she's in our care."
Z lunged across the table, grabbing the vampire by the collar. The waitress came rushing out at the commotion with a burly, tattooed cook in tow.
"Is there a problem here? You should leave the priest alone," the cook said. He was simple-minded enough to assume religious clergy were all spotless lambs, so the priest couldn't have instigated this scene.
"You should listen to him," the vampire said, forcing a thin smile to his lips.
Z turned on the cook and bared his fangs, letting them see his sharp teeth and inhuman eyes. A low growl rumbled from his throat. "Go back to the fucking kitchen and learn how to make a proper tuna melt. This isn't your concern."
The waitress had scurried to the back the moment Z's face had shifted. The cook backed up slowly, not wanting to look weak, but not wanting to take the panther on, either. In the end, he followed the path she'd taken.
When they were alone, Z turned back to the vampire. "You think you can take me in panther form? Are you that confident?"
"You wouldn't dare."
"Try me. You'll have to thrall those two anyway, may as well make it a good show. You don't feel very old to me. Not more than a few decades. I can probably take you, and I haven't even hunted today." He'd been too busy moping.
The vampire growled and pried Z's hands from his clerics. "We have your witch. By now she's arrived at my employer's compound. We have the pup as well. If you want to see her alive again, you will tell the wolf to come to us at this address."
Z backed off as the vampire slammed a piece of paper on the table with an address in Washington state. Fiona would be terrified being that far from home.
"How do you know about the wolf?" Z knew the vamp was referring to daddy wolf.
"He left a scent trail, but it disappears into nothing. We suspect he's got some way to travel through dimensions. We just don't know how that's possible or where the portals are. If he was looking for his pup, he would have left a way to contact him in case you learned anything. Wouldn't that be the normal thing to do in this situation?"
Z got out of the booth and prowled around the diner, fighting not to change and rip the vampire apart. "Why did you bring her into it? She has nothing to do with whatever you want the pup for."
"You have an in with the wolf. I think the witch motivates you more than the pup. They told me what you did in the clearing. You killed two of ours for her, and you would have killed more. You chose her over the pup, so she has something to do with this now. Tell Cole to be at that address by 8pm tomorrow night and we'll release her."
Z was taken aback that he knew the werewolf's name. This wasn't some random kidnapping of a therian born in his fur. They'd known who the pup belonged to from the start. The vampire slid gracefully out of the booth. To his credit, he didn't flinch or show any fear of the panther as he made his way back to the kitchen to take care of the security leak.
Z threw money down on the counter and headed for his motorcycle.
When he got to the cave, he went straight for the kitchen and dumped the contents of the garbage can out on the floor. He cursed when he cut his hand on some glass, trying to sort through the trash to find the crumpled piece of paper with Cole's number on it.
Thank God he'd thrown it in the trash instead of the fire like he'd done with the priest's number. But then, despite his bravado, he'd wanted to leave the door open to the werewolf in case he got a lead on the missing pup.
Cole stared at his computer screen deep in thought when Jane came in and put a cup of coffee on the desk. He smiled sheepishly at her. "Thanks." He was trying to forget about behaving like some whipped pup in front of her.
"You looked like you could use it. Have you found any leads yet?"
"A couple. Mick is sending the information now."
When he'd snapped out of his premature mourning, he'd realized that if somebody had taken the pup for a ritual, they still had a few days until the next full moon. Anyone who'd taken him to release and steal his power would wait until the time when it would give them the best results. Therians born in their fur were rare enough that you didn't take their power half-assed on any night. There was still a chance this could end well.
Whatever they needed it for, chances were good they'd tried to get werewolf blood through other means first. That was when the idea had come to check the theriantype.com order databases. He'd been emailing with Mick to determine who'd tried to order werewolf blood from their company. If Mick had turned somebody away, they might have started a hunt for someone with strong blood who was vulnerable. Which was where the pup came in.
That left a huge mystery as to how they'd stumbled upon the pup to begin with, but the only thing that mattered right now was finding him and getting him back to the hive and his pack safe and sound.
Cole swiveled in his chair as the fax machine spit out several pieces of paper.
"I still think we should contact Dayne. He could do a spell and help us pinpoint the location." Jane sounded defensive, like she thought he was going to argue with her. He wasn't going to argue with her.
He was finished being stupid and stubborn. Whatever they had to do to get the pup back, they'd do.
"No, you're right. It was a good idea. We need to know which of these suspects could have the pup, and we don't have time to follow every lead, not before the full moon comes." Cole's money was on suspect one, though. The first suspect wasn't a magic user, but a werewolf pack alpha from Alabama.
Close proximity to Georgia. Check. And, being a werewolf, one could see how the pup's power would benefit him. The other suspect was a male magic user who claimed to be a wizard, but had tripped something during the psychological screening. He'd been flagged, but it wasn't obvious why he'd need a wolf pup. Plus he was in Maine.
"Will you get me my cell? It's in my pants in the bedroom where I shifted."
Jane nodded and slipped out of the room to retrieve the phone while Cole looked at the information and photos they'd gathered on the two suspects. He swiveled back to the computer and typed another email to his tech support guy:
Mick, I know I asked you to go back just one month, but that might not be enough. Could you check the past year to be safe and forward me the files of anyone we turned away? I want to see everybody.
Jane handed him the phone. "You missed a call."
"Hmmm. I must have had it on vibrate. I'll call back later."
"I think you should call now. It might be that panther or the witch."
Cole was anxious to get on the phone with Dayne. He'd have to reinstate his ordering privileges with the site, and even then he wasn't sure the sorcerer would help him, which was why he wanted to get that phone call over with so he could know if he was getting his hopes up for nothing. But the look in Jane's eyes had him dialing the missed call first.
"Cole?" The panther said in answer.
Even as long as caller ID had been around, it still spooked him when somebody called him by name when they answered their phone.
The werewolf tensed. "Yes? Do you know where my pup is?"
"I do. A vampire hand-delivered me a location. It's in Washington State."
"Tell me." Cole growled. He knew who had his pup, but all he cared about was getting the information.
"They've got Fiona. I'm going. You come get me, and we'll go together."
"Fine." He stabbed the button angrily to end the call, arguing with the panther would only waste time, and if he wanted to lend some extra muscle, so much the better.
"Well?" Jane looked anxious.
"We were wrong. There's no ritual."
"What do you mean?"
"It's Anthony. He'll want a trade. The location of the hive for the pup."
Fiona heard a snapping sound. She opened her eyes to find a hand near her face trying to get her attention.
"Ah. There she is. I'm so glad you could join us, hours after you were bespelled. Are you sure this woman's a witch?"
"Yes, sir. She's a witch, just not a very good one."
Fiona would be angry if it weren't for the mind-numbing terror. Her vision blurred as she opened her eyes. Everything looked strange and warped, like she'd been drugged. She took a deep breath and things began to clear. She scooted away from the hand that had been snapping at her.
A glass of clear liquid was shoved in her face.
"W-what is it?" As if she had a choice in the matter.
She struggled to a seated position and took a tentative sip. When nothing tasted off, she drank the rest down quickly. She hadn't realized she'd been so thirsty.
"It's an aftereffect of the spell."
Vampire. He knows what I'm thinking.
"I do. So it's going to be pointless for you to lie to me when I ask you questions."
Fiona glanced around the room. It was warm and masculine, like somebody's home. Z could have lived there if not for the cave. It had that bachelor-pad feel to it.
"This is my penthouse. I don't live here anymore, but I still keep it just in case. The pup is playing on the roof by the pool."
"The pup's here? Y-you haven't hurt him?"
The man stood in front of her, menacing in all black. His long blond hair was pulled back into a low ponytail, making him look like a hit man. At least he wasn't wearing black leather gloves.
"Of course I haven't hurt him. I need him for information. That's all. Tell me, dear, when Cole came for his pup, did he tell you anything about where he lived?"
"N-no, he just wanted the pup. Why would he tell me anything about..."
"Stop talking. I don't care what your mouth says. I care what your thoughts say."
Fiona froze while he stared hard at her, poking around in her head, searching through her thoughts. She tried not to think anything lame or weak.
After several minutes, an exasperated look crossed his face. "I didn't expect anything. Oh well. Cole will be here soon enough, but let's make sure, shall we?"
He produced a phone from his jacket pocket. It was the prepaid phone Z had left with her when he'd gone searching for the pup's family.
Fiona's brow creased in confusion. "Call who?"
"Your boyfriend. Make sure he's sending Cole. Use your sad little tears on him. I'm sure that will sway the therian."
As if on cue, tears began to track down her face. "He won't come. He doesn't care for me. I was never anything more than a conquest."
The vampire's eyes narrowed. "I don't think so. You smell like him. He marked you."
Fiona blushed. Was there a sign over her head? Perhaps someone had given her a tramp stamp while she'd been out cold. Z hadn't bitten her or left any other kind of mark. He'd slept with her, yes, but that didn't make her his.
"Cats rub against things to mark them. You smell like him in a way that is deliberate. It's not just sex. He cares. And I'm betting he's the last number that called you while you were unconscious."
Her hands shook as she took the phone from the vampire and checked the missed calls. Z's number was there. And the vampire was right, it wasn't long ago. A couple of hours at the most, depending on how long she'd been out.
"It doesn't mean... "
"Call him. And when you ask him to send the wolf tomorrow night, make sure it sounds like your life depends on it. Because it does. I have no other use for you. I'd just as soon drain you for dinner and be done with it. You're a bargaining chip. Once that value disappears, I get hungrier."
"How will Cole know how to get here?"
"The panther already has the address. A member of the coven delivered it."
She wished the vampire would give her some space and stop hovering. Despite what he'd said, she wasn't sure Z would help. All he has to do is call Cole and relay a message. Even if he doesn't want to see you again, he'll do at least that much. It won't interrupt his bachelor lifestyle.
Z answered on the second ring. "Fiona?!"
Okay. Maybe he cared.
"Z! Are-are you sending Cole? I mean I know that we aren't a thing or anything, but please just call him... they'll kill me if he doesn't show up." She winced at the way her voice sounded, the horrible pleading in it. There was a long pause. "Z?"
"Are you kidding me? Of course I called Cole. I'll be there, too. I don't know who you think I am, but if you think I'm just leaving you to be negotiated over by a bunch of monsters, you've lost your motherfucking mind."
Fiona's gaze shifted to the vampire, wondering if he'd be upset about extra members in the rescue party.
The vampire raised an eyebrow. "I don't care who all is coming. I've got an army of my own. Should be fun. I look forward to the smackdown."
She turned her attention back to the phone, still processing the fact that he was coming for her. Directly. No intermediaries. "Yes?"
"Is he there in the room with you?"
She nodded, then remembering Z couldn't see her, she said, "Yes."
"Give him the phone."
She passed the phone to the vampire. "He w-wants to speak to you."
"I'm sure he does."
The vampire took the phone, and then there was a lot of yelling. Fiona couldn't make out what Z was saying, but he was angry.
Without the slightest irritation, the vampire said, "It will be lovely to meet you tomorrow night. Ciao." He chuckled as he closed the flip phone. "That boyfriend of yours has a temper. He told me if I touched a single hair on your head that he'd let me find out what my intestines looked like before I died, then he'd make a noose out of them and hang me while he drove a stake through my heart. Such vivid imagery. It makes me wish he was one of mine."
"He said that?" She wasn't quite sure if the vampire was messing with her, though it did sound like something Z might say.
"Nothing like a kidnapping to bring young lovers together. Just think, without this melodrama, you two might have remained stubborn for years until you forgot about one another. You can thank me later."
"Who will I send the card to?" Fiona asked, uncharacteristic bravery creeping through.
"The Clockwork Orange guy?"
Anthony rolled his eyes. "No. Not The Clockwork Orange guy. I swear. Do you have any idea how old I am? More than one person on the planet can have the same name! If I'd known that man would become famous for that book, I would have hunted him down and killed him before he'd written the first page."
Fiona shrank back. "Sorry," she mumbled. This was obviously a sore spot.
Anthony composed himself like someone had flipped a switch, then patted her on the knee and started toward to door. "No harm done. Someone will bring you dinner in a while. I expect you to watch the pup for me until the big showdown."
So what else was new? Kidnapped to be a babysitter. Again.