“If I help you find this person, am I allowed to report on any of it?” Timmie asked in a hopeful voice.
“Not just no, but hell no,” I said firmly.
He heaved a sigh. “You suck, Cathy.”
“You actually went there?” I asked, grinning.
Timmie grinned back. “Sorry. Sometimes I forget you’re . . . you know.”
“We need you to find a girl ’round ten years old,” Bones stated, getting down to business. “Start with rumors of a child with glowing green eyes, or bodies of people with snapped necks who were last seen with a little girl.”
Timmie’s mouth fell open. Then he goggled at us. “You lost a little vampire?” Why would you need MY help to find her? flashed across his mind.
“We can’t ask our normal allies because we don’t want people in our world to know about her.” I gripped his arm, my smile fading. “I can’t explain why, but they’d kill her, Timmie. Or use her to make really horrible things happen.”
From his thoughts, he was intrigued, yet hesitant. He needed to find another freelance photography gig to make rent this month. Plus, it kinda sucked investigating something he couldn’t tell anyone about—
“We’ll give you twenty-five thousand dollars as a retainer,” Bones said, freezing Timmie’s thoughts into a single chorus of YES! “And another twenty-five if your information leads us to the little girl.”
“W-when do I start?” Timmie managed, stunned into stuttering.
Bones broke the strap around Timmie’s neck with a casual swipe, sending the camera crashing to the floor.
“Now, so you won’t be needing that anymore.”
We knew Timmie was good. He’d given Don, then Tate headaches when he kept exposing paranormal secrets to the public through his investigative e-zine. He was also trustworthy, as he’d proven over a year ago when we enlisted his help tracking rogue ghouls. When we left California, I had high hopes that he could sniff out Katie’s trail eventually.
What I didn’t expect was the text only two days later: “Check for your package on the east side in Detroit.”
“Wow, Timmie thinks he has a lead, and it’s nowhere near where Ian and Tate have been looking,” I told Bones.
He glanced at the text. “Detroit’s east side is one of the most crime-ridden places in America.”
Oddly enough, he sounded approving, and tinges of admiration threaded through my emotions.
“You’re glad a little girl is on her own in that area why?”
“She’s safer there,” Bones replied, arching a brow. “She has her pick of thousands of abandoned buildings in an area where people don’t pry into each other’s business, and where the occasional body of someone who attempts to trifle with her won’t raise a public outcry.”
Such a coldly logical analysis. Bones had had hundreds of years fighting for his life to think that way. Katie was only a decade old, yet she was demonstrating the same mentality if she’d picked Detroit for those reasons instead of ending up there by accident.
“If it was deliberate, it also shows restraint on her part,” Bones went on. Something icy brushed against my emotions this time. “That’s good. Less chance that she’ll need to be killed if she’s amenable to staying hidden.”
For several seconds, I couldn’t speak, my mind rejecting that he’d actually said such a thing.
“Need to be killed?” I finally repeated. “Are you insane?”
The look he gave me was so chilling, I was reminded that Bones had been a hit man for almost two centuries before we met.
“The danger of war hasn’t diminished because of her age. It’s the reason I’m willing to let Katie live if she allows us to hide her for the rest of her life. Otherwise, by our hand or someone else’s, she’ll have to die.”
My expression must have conveyed my flat refusal because he grasped my shoulders and all but shook me.
“It sickens me, but you know I’m right! You turned into a full vampire because the mere possibility that you could add ghoul attributes to your half-vampire nature nearly caused a war. Katie is that addition, and if that ever becomes general knowledge, she’ll start the war we all fear. Or be killed to stop it.”
“But she doesn’t have to stay hidden forever,” I whispered, still reeling over the bleak future Bones had laid out for the child. “When she’s old enough, she could choose to become one species or the other—”
“It’s too late,” Bones said in a far gentler tone. “Katie’s already a combination of vampire and ghoul. Losing her humanity won’t negate that; it will only increase it.”
I had no words to refute that. Too well, I remembered the hundreds that had died when ghouls started taking out Masterless vampires in the early stirrings of a species uprising. Then the hundreds more, on both sides, that died quelling that conflict. Bones was right; only my changing over had stopped those hundreds from turning into millions since ten percent of the world’s population was undead. That, and our uneasy truce with the new ghoul queen, Marie Laveau, who’d already stated that if we didn’t shut down this new threat, she would.
I took in a ragged breath, more for the familiarity of the act than any hope that it would soothe me.
“You’re right.” Damn you, Madigan! “The best Katie can hope for is a life hidden away. Maybe it won’t be too awful. Due to her demonically enhanced blood being a drug for vampires, Denise has to hide, too.”
Bones let me go, only his gaze gripping mine as he spoke.
“And if she proves impossible to hide, we won’t be able to protect her from what will happen next.”
I let out my breath on a bitter sigh. “No. I suppose we won’t.”
Katie was one life against millions. Multiple millions, adding in the fact that humans would be collateral damage if vampires and ghouls ever engaged in an all-out war. We wouldn’t only be fighting our enemies trying to keep her alive. We’d be fighting our allies, too. I’d do everything in my power to prevent a young girl from being sacrificed for the greater good, but as my long list of past regrets proved, sometimes, my best wasn’t good enough.
Please, God, let it be good enough this time.
Mencheres took that moment to enter the room. With his bat ears, he would’ve overheard everything we’d said, but he made no argument, and that was akin to his full agreement.
“We’ve recovered some data,” he stated. “Come and see.”
When Mencheres had said his “people” were working on the drives we’d brought back from Madigan’s compound, I’d assumed he meant vampires. When we followed him to the room he’d converted into a tech lover’s paradise, however, the black-haired boy beaming at his computer was human. And he looked about seventeen years old.
“I am the shee-it,” the adolescent said in a singsong voice. Then he swung around, smirking at the nearly five-thousand-year-old Egyptian vampire.
“Who’s your daddy, M?”
Far from being offended, Mencheres went over and flawlessly executed a street-style handshake complete with finger slaps, fist bumps, and a high-low finale.
“You are the shit,” he solemnly agreed.
I couldn’t stay silent anymore.
“You used a teenager to salvage information sensitive enough to cause a worldwide war?”
Mencheres gave me a tolerant look. “Most vampires are slower to embrace technology than the average senior citizen. Tai is loyal, and he has been writing code since before you learned how to text.”
The boy grinned at me.
“Don’t worry, sugar, I know how to keep quiet. Besides, M is one of my mains.”
Bones raised a brow at the “sugar” comment, but I waved it off.
“Okay, Tai, show us what you’ve got.”
Like a switch had been flipped, the teenager became all business.
“I had to piece this together because the drives were so torched, the files were fragmented. Then I weeded through what M said you didn’t need, like genome findings and experiment logs. Lots of those—”
“Intact?” I interrupted. They might not help us find Madigan’s backer, but they could be useful for insight on Katie.
“Are now. Anyway, to the good stuff. They must’ve had cameras rigged all over the room she fought in, because this file”—his fingers flew across the keyboard—“has the best images of your tiny Godzilla in action.”
The computer screen filled with a distorted image, as though the video had been run through a shredder, then taped back together. Still, Katie was easy to spot. She was the child with the shoulder-length reddish brown hair facing a grown man who pointed a gun at her.
“. . . dn’t . . . mk . . . me . . .” came through in unintelligible staggers.
“Sound quality blows, but if you read his lips, he’s saying he doesn’t want to shoot her,” Tai said.
More sound gurgled from the video, then a blur of action. If I hadn’t been a vampire, I would have needed slow motion to see Katie lunge forward, ducking the bullet the man fired, before sweeping his legs out from under him and slamming her elbow onto his throat.
“That was her being told to neutralize him,” Tai supplied darkly.
I knew she’d killed people, but knowing and seeing were two different things. She hadn’t hesitated for a second, and nothing changed in the little girl’s expression when she leapt up and stood at attention, impervious to the body convulsing in its death throes by her feet. That a child would display such detachment while snuffing out a life chilled me to my soul. She seemed to have no concept of what she’d done.
Then again, how could she? All she received in response was a few curt words of praise from Madigan for her swiftness. He was in the video, too, watching Katie from behind a glass wall. It was all I could do not to punch the screen when the distortion cleared enough to see his smugly pleased expression.
Was it possible for Katie to unlearn every violent, conscienceless behavior Madigan had taught her? Even if it was, might she be too hardwired toward using her abilities to stifle them by always pretending to be human, as she’d need to do if we were to keep her safely hidden? After all, unless she was locked in a cell her whole life, Katie would be out in public at some point. One display of superhuman strength or speed in front of the wrong person, and the gig would be up.
On-screen, Madigan dismissed Katie. A hidden door swooshed open, and the little girl disappeared through it. She didn’t spare so much as a backward glance at the body behind her, either. I was so overwhelmed by the odds against reconditioning Katie into a somewhat normal little girl that it took a second for Tai’s, “This old guy might be who you’re looking for” comment to sink in.
Someone else appeared behind the glass wall where Madigan had been watching Katie. At first, all I could make out was a fiftyish man—guess that was old to a teenager—with salt-and-pepper hair who was the same height as Madigan though built stockier. Bones let out a hiss when the blurry imagery cleared and his face became distinct. I gasped, recognizing him, too. Tai smirked.
“Thought so. Saw him on TV before.”
So had most of America. Richard Trove was a former White House chief of staff and a current political advisor. You couldn’t flip channels during the last presidential election without running across him, but there was only one reason I could think of for why he’d be at a secret underground facility watching a genetically-engineered, tri-species child execute some poor guy on command.
He was Madigan’s shadow backer.
We doubted there was anyone above Trove, though to be sure, Denise shapeshifted into a replica of him and walked into Madigan’s cell. As with Don, Madigan recognized him at once and seemed delighted to speak with him. After several hours of mostly nonsense, we gleaned enough tidbits to convince us that the buck had stopped with Richard Trove. He’d been in office when Don’s operation started, and though he’d left the government since then, he was widely believed to be the power behind several current senators and at least one former president. Plus, he was wealthy enough to finance Madigan’s operations on his own if he didn’t want to run the expenses through a puppet politician.
After some digging, Tai found out that Trove would be in New York City this weekend for a political fund-raising dinner. We didn’t know where he’d be after that, which meant we had to choose between going after him or Katie. Trove won since we already had two vampires and a ghost tracking Katie. We texted Ian the information Timmie had relayed about her potential location, then contributed an astronomical amount of money in order to get reservations for the fund-raising dinner. Finally, we went shopping.
At fifteen thousand dollars a plate, we couldn’t show up in jeans and tee shirts.
Two days later, we checked into the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue. At 7:00 P.M. sharp the next night, we stood in line to enter the Grand Ballroom. Security was tight since more than a few prominent political figures were expected. Not a problem; Bones had several aliases who had been law-abiding citizens for decades. All it took was Tai hacking into a few databases to update the photos, then having a trusted forger print the documents, and voila.
“Mr. and Mrs. Charles Tinsdale,” Bones stated to the Secret Service agent screening the dinner attendees. Then he handed over his invitation and wallet, new driver’s license faced outward. After those were verified, he went through the metal detector, the green light signifying that he had no weapons on him.