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|Thirteen(Women of the Otherworld #13) by Kelley Armstrong|
A distant knock startled her. She turned off the water and listened. It must be housekeeping or pizza delivery—hell-beasts and evil sorcerers don’t knock—but she wasn’t taking any chances.
The knock came again.
“Is that our door?” she called.
No one answered. Jaime wrapped a towel around herself, stepped out of the tub, and cracked open the door.
The beds were empty. She pushed the door. The whole room was empty. She heard a muffled man’s voice outside. As she strained to listen, the phone by the bed rang.
She looked around. Weapon. She needed a … She grabbed a glass from the sink and went to break it, then realized it was plastic. “Goddamn cheap motel,” she cursed.
She looked down at her clothing, left in a puddle on the floor. She tugged out her belt and held it in one hand. As she eased from the bathroom, she clutched her weapon and prayed that Eve wasn’t out there or she’d never live this one down. Eve still liked to remind her of the “sock puppet” incident, when Jaime had used a sock to hold onto a glass shard in case she needed to fight off a cult of crazed humans who’d discovered magic. Jaime had considered the makeshift weapon rather ingenious, but admittedly, it did pale next to Eve’s sword.
The phone was still ringing.
“Ms. Vegas?” the man outside the door called. “Could you please answer that?”
Jaime looked at the phone. She’d never heard of them being used as a method of instant death, so she crept toward the nightstand, gaze fixed to the door. Then, still holding the belt, she lifted the receiver with the same hand.
Just that one word and she dropped to the bed, sighing in relief, weapons falling. It was Jeremy.
“Jaime? Are you there?”
“Yes. Alone. In a motel room. With a stranger knocking at the door. Care to tell me what’s going on?”
She tried to put a little edge in her voice, but she wasn’t very good at edge. She was mostly just relieved to discover she wasn’t going to need to defend herself, dressed in a towel, armed with a belt.
When Jeremy explained that she’d been abandoned by her friends, and that Lucas had sent a baby-sitter, she did feel a spark of righteous indignation, but only a spark. Yes, it pricked her ego to be left behind, but she knew she was better off out of it. What did annoy her—really annoy her—was that Eve hadn’t given her the opportunity to make that decision herself.
“I know,” Jeremy said when she complained. “She felt this was better.”
“Not better. Easier. She’s quick to wield that damned sword, but not nearly so brave when it comes to personal confrontations. All those messy emotions. Blood is so much easier to clean up.”
Jeremy chuckled—that rich, deep chuckle that made her insides flip, and she yearned to just stretch out on the bed and talk to him. Forget everything that was going on. But there was still a man standing outside her door and she should probably get dressed before she let him in.
“Yes, I would prefer that,” Jeremy said when she said as much to him. “He might not, but I would.”
She laughed. “All right, then. My adventure is over, thank God.” She paused. “But if you hear from Eve …”
“You’re mortally offended at being left behind.”
The poor guy had been waiting long enough. So, wrapped in her towel, Jaime opened the door an inch, told the man she was just popping into the bathroom to dress, then scampered off. At least a minute passed before she heard the motel door close. Anyone smart enough to be assigned as her escort would have the sense to realize that a sneak peek at Jaime Vegas in a towel wasn’t worth the risk of offending the werewolf Alpha.
She was almost finished dressing in her hastily wiped clothing when she heard another knock at the outside door. She frowned. The guard had come in—she was sure she’d heard him moving around the bedroom.
A high-pitched voice. “Mommy? Why’s the door locked?”
A sigh from the bedroom. The guard called back. “You’ve got the wrong room.”
“Mommy?” Louder pounding. “Is that you, Mommy?” Jaime threaded her belt through her slacks, then opened the bathroom door. The guard—a dark-haired guy in a suit—was staring out the window, his lips pursed.
“It sounded like a little girl,” Jaime said.
He glanced her way. “It is. I’ll get rid of her. But I’ll ask you step back in there until I do.”
Jaime nodded and retreated. He waited until she’d shut the door. She heard him undo the chain.
“Who’re you?” a girl asked.
“Not your mommy. Now, if you’ve forgotten your room number, go down to the office—”
“What did you do with my mommy? I heard her in here.” Jaime sighed. The girl sounded old enough to know better, but she kept insisting that her “mother” was in there and the more the guard argued, the more distressed she got.
Jaime stopped fussing with her wet hair and reached for the door handle. She could clear up this “mommy’s voice” problem by just sticking her head out.
As she twisted the knob, the guard yelled, “Hey! What do you think you’re—”
“I’m looking for my mommy. You’ve got her in here. I know you do.”
“Get back here, you little—”
A growl. Then a gasp of pain.
A crash. Then the patter of footsteps on carpet. The guard’s cry, muffled, then garbled. Jaime yanked off her belt, wrapped it around her hand, and turned the knob slowly, her bare foot braced against the bottom. She eased it open, just enough to peer through and see—
Something flew at the door. It hit with a patter, like rain, some of it falling to the carpet. Bright red drops of blood sprayed across the wall and carpet.
Jaime shut the door fast and locked it. Then she looked around frantically for real weapons.
Weapons? Against something that was killing a trained Cabal operative? Her gaze rose to the window.
Was it big enough? It better be. She wrenched the towel bar, stumbling back in surprise when it actually came free in her hand. Thank God for shoddy construction. She wrapped the bar in a towel to muffle the noise, then smashed out the window. She managed to get most of the glass cleared, then someone—or something—began yanking on the door.
A quick sweep of the remaining glass and out she went, ignoring the slivers that bit into her stomach as she wriggled through. Had she been thinking, she’d have gone feet first. She didn’t, and tumbled headfirst to the ground, managing to land in an awkward somersault and bounce back onto her feet. It wasn’t exactly martial arts, but sometimes decades of yoga paid off.
The motel backed onto a field, with boggy forest about fifty feet away. To either side, the building stretched out at least half the distance. The forest was really Jeremy’s domain, not hers. She took a few running steps along the back wall, then saw a shadow stretching out from the far end. Another joined it. She spun, her back going to the wall. Through the broken window, she heard the bathroom door give way with a crack.
She looked out across the weed-choked field to the forest. She took a deep breath, then she started to run.
We walked along the road, with Mom casting blur spells every time a car passed.
“Maybe a cello case,” I murmured, eying the sword as she reappeared.
“Will I look like a cello player? Or an assassin hiding an automatic rifle?”
Valid point. My mother didn’t look like an assassin, but she looked even less likely to set foot in a symphony hall.
“A hockey bag would work,” Mom said as we continued on. “Once, just after I got the angel gig, I had to deliver a message to your dad at his hockey game, and we weren’t exactly eager to share my new occupation with his teammates yet, so I hid it in his bag.”
“My father plays hockey?”
“Plays might be an exaggeration. More like watches from the penalty box.”
I laughed. “That I can see. But, um …” I looked at the sword. “It’s an angel sword, Mom. Stuffing it in a hockey bag just doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s a tool, baby. One that come with some serious …” Her face clouded for a moment, then she shook her head. “Let’s just say that while I’ve grown fond of wielding a four-foot hunk of metal, I don’t have a problem with stuffing the damned thing in whatever does the job. Irreverent, yes, but the Fates expect no less of me.”
“Okay. Well, a hockey bag might work, but your chances of finding one in New Orleans … ?”
“Mmm, you’re right. A sports store is still our best bet, though.”
It was. I left her outside, went in, and returned with a bow case. We still weren’t getting through any metal detectors, but Mom could walk around like a normal person, which meant—as Jaime warned—that she did bump into a few people before she got the hang of being corporeal again. I’d also bought myself a mock turtleneck tank top, which covered the cut on my throat.
We took a cab to the dead sorcerer’s place, which we got from his ID, along with his name. Shawn Roberts. He lived in the French Quarter, in an apartment over a shop selling high-end masks.
He didn’t live alone either. He had a wife. And a Rottweiler. Both figured prominently in his wallet photos. Both were home, as a quick call from a pay phone confirmed. No, I hadn’t asked to speak to the dog, but I heard it barking. And barking. And barking.
“Who the hell keeps a Rottweiler in an apartment?” Mom fumed as we stood beside the building. “And it’s two in the afternoon. Shouldn’t she be at work?”
We stepped back for a couple of drunken tourists with pink drinks in plastic cups. Mom stared after them then grabbed my wrist to check my watch.
“Little early, isn’t it?”
“We’re a block from Bourbon Street.”
Her face screwed up, as if she didn’t know what difference that made. Then she winced. “Damn, I really have been dead too long. Also been away from New Orleans too long. I kept wondering what that smell was.”
“The faint traces of rotting garbage, urine, and vomit, mingled with street cleaner. Eau de la French Quarter. And four things you probably don’t smell in the afterlife.”
“True.” She took a deep breath. “As disgusting as it is, it does bring back pleasant memories. I did a lot of business here in the old days. I loved New Orleans, almost as much as I loved Savannah, Georgia.”
I smiled. “I remember. As for why Roberts’s wife is home …” I pulled a couple of business cards from Roberts’s wallet. His wife’s. Being a considerate husband, he must have handed them out for her. She was a baker. The work address matched their apartment.
“Damn,” Mom said.
“We’re going to have to lure them out. Question is, what would get both the woman and the dog—”
A whistle. Followed by a happy bark. I leaned out from our hiding place to see the woman in the photos walking from the building, the dog on its leash.
“Our timing is excellent,” I said.
I’d grabbed break-in supplies from the sporting-goods store. Amazing what you can get there. Not exactly regulation cat burglar tools, but they’d do the job.
I had rods that approximated picks, but Mom’s unlock spell handled that. Then, as she stood watch, I rammed a pencil into the keyhole and broke off the tip.
“Adam’s trick,” I said. “Makes it hard to open. It’ll give us enough advance warning so we can escape.”
“I have a perimeter spell for that.”
“Which you can use. Never hurts to have backup.”
Inside, the place reeked of dog—the smell of fur and canned food and the faint odor from a time or two when Rover must not have been let outside fast enough. Which made me think …
“We need to work fast,” I whispered. “She might just be taking the dog for a pee break.”
I took the computers. There were two—both laptops—on desk shelves. The first started up fine, no password required. It was hers. The second was protected. I didn’t have time to crack it. As it was a laptop, I couldn’t easily snag the hard drive. I could take the whole thing, but that would be noticed a lot faster than a missing hard drive.
So I joined Mom in her search. She’d hit pay dirt. A cell phone. Roberts didn’t have one on him when I checked, and I figured he’d left it in his car. This was an older model that he must not have been quite ready to ditch. The SIM card had been removed, but he had plenty of contact information saved on the phone itself. Enough for us to track down whomever he’d been working with.
We took the phone and left.
We headed for a coffee shop. Easy enough to find in the French Quarter. I’d withdrawn cash near the sports store—Lucas had deemed it safe enough, as long as I promptly left the immediate area after I used the machine. I’d given some to my mother so she wouldn’t be wandering around with empty pockets.
“Remember I used to do that?” she’d said. “Always made sure you had a few dollars in your pocket?”
“I thought that was for emergency phone calls.”
“You’d only need a quarter for that. I just … I remember when I was little, I liked having some money on me. Made me feel safer.”
I’d never thought of it that way. Even now, I wasn’t really sure what she meant. I guess we’d had very different childhoods. I didn’t know much about hers. Just that when she’d left it behind, she left behind everyone in it.