|Home > Kelley Armstrong > Women of the Otherworld Series > Thirteen (Page 12)|
|Thirteen(Women of the Otherworld #13) by Kelley Armstrong|
We picked a narrow shop that advertised slow-drip coffee. I had no idea what that was, but it sounded promising.
As we went in, Mom pulled out a five and said, “My treat.”
“Not with that.”
She looked at the menu board and stared at it a moment. Swore. Then took out a ten.
“You go sit down,” she said. “I’ve got this.”
“Okay, I’d like—”
“Mocha with whipped cream and sprinkles.” She grinned. “Right?”
I wanted to say yes. Damn it, I really wanted to, but my expression gave me away.
“So what you drank at twelve is not what you drink at twenty-one, right?” she said.
“Mmm, no. Sorry. But if you get a chance to meet Adam, you can buy him a mocha. He loves the sweet stuff.”
Her smile softened. “I hope I do get a chance to meet Adam, baby.”
I blushed, and remembered our kiss after the bomb blast. Did he mean it that way? God, I hoped he meant it that way, even though it was a completely inappropriate concern under the circumstances.
I took a deep breath and started to say I’d have an espresso, then remembered where we were and changed it to café au lait. Not my usual drink, but there’s something about New Orleans that makes it the only choice for caffeine.
I went out the side door and found a table in the alley. Mom arrived a few minutes later, with two café au laits and an assortment of baked goods.
“I figured you must be hungry. I know I am.” She sat down. “Which feels really strange. Took me a minute to figure out what it was.”
“You don’t get hungry, I take it.”
“Nope. Never tired either.” She took a long drink of her coffee, then closed her eyes and shivered. “Damn, that feels good. I’ve spent ten years drinking coffee in the afterlife, feeling like there’s something missing.”
She took a cranberry-studded cookie from the selection, and I bit into a red velvet cupcake. She waved at my choice, “Some things don’t change.”
I smiled. “Yes, I still have a sweet tooth. Just not for coffee. Okay, let’s check out this cell phone.”
She took it from her pocket. I held out my hand. She hesitated then put it back into her pocket.
“Not yet,” she said. “Jaime’s safe. We’re safe.” She took a sip of hers. “So tell me about Adam.”
I blushed again and shook my head. “Nothing to tell.”
“Oh, there’s plenty to tell.” She tilted her head, studying my face, then gave a wistful smile. “I’ve missed so much, haven’t I?”
I wanted to say no, she hadn’t, not really. But that was silly. Nearly half my lifetime had passed since her death. I imagined what it would have been like if she’d been there. What would I have told her about Adam? Would I have sought her advice? Or would I have been terrified of it? Worried she’d say he was too old for me? That she might tease me and tip him off?
Except, if she had been there, the point would have been moot, because there would be no Adam in my life. No Paige. No Lucas. No werewolf Pack. No interracial council. No Cabals, except maybe the Nasts, and only because we’d be hiding from them, my mother trying to keep me safe, which meant keeping me away from the Nasts.
No Adam for me. No Kristof for her. A completely different life for both of us.
A better life?
It felt disloyal to admit that this life was better for me. Painful to admit it was also better for her. But it was. I’d said earlier that I wanted to ask if she was happy. Now, looking over at her, I didn’t need to. I’d always thought of my mother as a free spirit, loving to wander, needing to see everything, do everything, be everything. But now, as I looked back, I didn’t see wanderlust. I saw an anxious restlessness that had kept her up at night, when I’d sneak in and find her staring out the window, only to turn and announce we had to leave again. There wasn’t anticipation in her voice on those nights—there was regret.
She was different now. Grounded. Centered. She was still constantly in motion, fingers rubbing her coffee cup, gaze surveying the alley. But it wasn’t anxiety, just my mother’s usual watchfulness.
“Tell me about you,” I said. “About your new job. Being an angel. That’s gotta be cool.” I grinned. “Considering the size of that sword, I’m guessing angelhood isn’t about playing harps and listening to prayers.”
“It’s not. Glorified bounty hunter is more like it. We go after anyone and anything raising hell where they shouldn’t be. Imps and demi-demons, hell-dimension escapees, general afterlife shit disturbers.”
“Which explains why you were hot on Leah O’Donnell’s trail. So that happens a lot? Souls escaping hell?”
“Not like that. If they do escape, it’s from a minor, temporary hell dimension. More like a holding cell for folks who need a time out before they’re ready to join—or rejoin—afterlife society. And they’d escape into the afterlife or some other realm on our side of the veil. It takes serious mojo to come here, which is why the Fates should have guessed Leah’s escape wasn’t an isolated incident.”
“But you like the job?” I said. “You seem to be okay with it.”
“The job’s fine. It’s the deployment I could live without.”
“Ascended angels are celestial soldiers. Career soldiers. We live in the angel realm, like a soldier lives in barracks. Every now and then we get leave, but otherwise, it’s a calling, not a nine-to-five job.”
“But Kristof … ? You don’t live with … ?” I paused. “No, wait. That’s why Jaime says you’re on walkabout—when you’re deployed. She can’t contact you and he can’t contact you.”
She nodded. “Three months on, three months off. They started with six and six, but I’ve renegotiated.”
“And that’s the part you’re not okay with. Being separated from him.”
“We’ve learned to deal with it. I’ve learned to stop bitching about it. I like the job. Love it, though I hope the Fates aren’t eavesdropping on me admitting that. As for your father … Let’s just say I go AWOL more than any other ascended. Fortunately, my partner and I have the best soul-skewering record around, so as long as I don’t flaunt it, the Fates look the other way.”
I leaned forward. “Tell me a story.”
She stopped sipping her coffee. “Hmm?”
“You used to tell me bedtime stories. Wild adventures of yours—suitably cleaned up, I’m sure. Tell me one now. From the afterlife. You don’t have to clean it up anymore.”
She laughed. “Actually, I might, since the one I have in mind involves your father. All right, then. An afterlife story. Once upon a time, your dad was in court, defending a half-demon who …”
As she told me the story, I leaned back in my chair, coffee in one hand, cupcake in the other, and the rest of the world seemed to swirl away. The details of what she was telling me didn’t matter. I was ten again, curled up in bed, listening to my mother’s voice. Whatever happened after this didn’t matter either. For these few minutes, I had her back. Not Eve Levine, notorious dark witch. Not Eve Levine, daughter of Balaam. Not even Eve Levine, ascended angel. Just my mother. Me and my mom.
After that, we got down to business. I wasn’t familiar with Roberts’s older-model smartphone, but figured it out easily enough. Contacts, recent calls, e-mails, and calendar. Those were the things we wanted. Sadly, none of his contacts were marked “evil confederates in a plot to destroy life as we know it.”
“There are a few possibilities in the calendar,” I said. “Seems he put in a lot of gym time. He didn’t look like a body builder to you, did he?”
“Nope. Just your garden variety office drone, makes a pit stop at the gym once or twice a week to keep his spare tire at bay.”
“He seems to have been meeting people at the gym. Which would be more helpful if he didn’t refer to them by a single initial. And if he wasn’t a salesman.”
“Huge contact list?”
“Bigger than mine.”
She smiled. “If yours is anything like mine, that’s big. Okay”—another slug of coffee. Another blissful shiver—“let’s start going through that list. We’ll—”
My cell phone—well, Jaime’s phone—rang. Some god-awful eighties tune.
Mom winced. “I can change that, right? After three years of listening to it, please tell me I can finally change it.”
“You can. Right after this call. It’s Lucas.”
I answered with, “So how angry is Jaime?”
“Has she called you?”
There was a tightness to his tone that told me this wasn’t a casual question.
“She’s okay, right?” I said quickly. “We checked the guy’s ID, got the passcode, watched him knock on the door. I mean, we didn’t stick around to make sure he went in, but—”
Mom was leaning forward, frowning. I pulled the phone away a bit and turned up the volume so she could hear.
Lucas said, “Jeremy had to speak to Jaime to get her to open up, but she did. The operative was supposed to take her to a hotel and call for further instructions. After an hour, Jeremy grew concerned. I’d told the operative to make sure Jaime got everything she needed, though, so I presumed they were …”
“Yes. After another thirty minutes, Jeremy insisted I call our man. Jaime may like to shop, but under the circumstances, she’d only pick up what she needed for a brief hotel stay. So I called. The operative didn’t answer. I left a message. It’s been twenty minutes since.”
Not exactly time to call in the National Guard. I suspected Jeremy was applying pressure, in his quiet but inescapable way.
“Give me the hotel address,” I said. “We can pop by and see … No, you’d have already called. She hasn’t checked in.”
“Correct. Paige is running Jaime’s credit cards now. I’m having the security department pull GPS records for the operative’s vehicle. In the meantime, Jeremy would like you to return to the motel.”
Lucas had us pick up a rental car. All the paperwork was filled out in the Cortez Corporation name, so I just had to flash ID. I drove. We really didn’t want anyone pulling over my mother and asking for her license.
“Shit,” she whispered as we pulled into the motel lot.
A dark blue Toyota was parked in front of our room. The same dark blue Toyota that the operative had been driving.
Mom was out of the car before I stopped. She left her sword in the trunk and raced inside. The motel room door was unlocked.
I was getting out when the car lurched, the back end rising. It thumped down so hard my teeth rattled. I hit the trunk release before the damned thing ripped through the metal. The sword flew—case and all—through the motel room door.
I tore after it. When I got inside—
Blood. Oh, God, there was so much blood.
The operative lay on his back, arms raised to ward off something. His clothing was shredded, exposed skin mangled and torn, like he’d been attacked by …
I had no idea what he’d been attacked by.
I dropped to look under the bed.
“Already checked,” Mom said. She stood in the middle of the room now, turning slowly.
I ran into the bathroom.
“Checked there, too,” Mom called.
I still looked. There was nowhere else to search. The bathroom was empty, but there were bloody footprints on the floor.
Small sneaker prints.
She came in. I pointed at the prints.
“Jaime must have put those sneakers back on,” she said.
I moved my foot alongside one of the prints. Mine was nearly twice the size.
As Mom crouched for a better look, I followed the prints into the bedroom and noticed as I did that the bathroom door knob was crooked. Broken.
“Jaime locked herself in there,” I said. “Whoever killed the operative broke in and—”
I stopped. There was a handprint on the outside of the bathroom door. It was two-thirds the size of mine.
“There’s a kid’s handprint here,” I said. “How could a child—?”
“Children,” Mom said. “The prints are from more than one person. And—”
She stopped and turned to the bathroom window as the curtain billowed. She yanked it up. The window was broken out, jagged glass like shark’s teeth in the frame. Blood-tipped shark’s teeth.
“She went out here,” Mom said.
I pointed to a small shoe print on the toilet seat. “And they followed.”
So did we.
Directly behind the motel was a strip of scrubland that bordered a patch of forest. There was no sign of which way Jaime or her pursuers had gone. Jaime was smart enough to head for the road. Had they let her? Or had they herded her into the forest? I was betting on the latter.
I was right. There was a single overgrown path leading in. Fresh footprints in the soft earth. Vines and undergrowth trampled.
We moved quickly and quietly, ears attuned. I picked up the occasional bird cry. That was it.
How long ago had Jaime run? I didn’t want to think about that. Of course, I still did. We’d been gone about two hours. Two hours of running through the forest, fleeing her pursuers.
If she’d escaped, she would have found a phone and called Jeremy. If she hadn’t called …