So what did you do, Mary Jo?” called Ben in his crisp British accent. Mary Jo shut her car door and started toward us and toward the mountainous metal barn that Ben and I waited beside. She gave Ben a quelling frown, and waited to speak until she had come up to us. She asked, “What do you mean, what did I do?” It was a little chilly, made more so by a brisk wind that blew a bit of hair I’d failed to secure in my braid into my eyes. The Tri-Cities don’t cool off at night with quite the thoroughness that the Montana mountains I’d grown up with did, but night usually still kills the heat of day. Ben bounced a little on his toes—a sign that he was ready and eager for violence. I could sense that his attention, like mine, was mostly on the barn, even though his eyes were on Mary Jo. “I killed Mercy three times in a single session of Pirate’s Booty the night before last. I think that’s why she woke me up to come out hunting tonight.” He glanced at me and raised an eyebrow in an open invitation to address the situation. Okay, that’s not exactly what he said. As usual he spiced his language with profanity, but unless he spouted something truly amazing I mostly edited it out. “You passed up the opportunity to gain a hundred Spanish doubloons in order to kill me that last time,” I told him, unable, even days later, to keep the indignation out of my voice. In the fierce highseas computer-generated battles the werewolf pack delighted in, a hundred Spanish doubloons was a treasure trove of opportunity for more or better weapons, supplies, and ship repairs. Only a homicidal maniac would give up a hundred doubloons to kill someone.
Ben gave me a wicked grin, an expression mostly empty of the bitter edge all of his expressions had once contained. “I was merely staying in character. Sodding Bart enjoys killing more than money, love. That’s why his kill score is third on the board, just behind Captain Wolf and Lady Mockingbird.” Captain Wolf Larsen, stolen from the titular character of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, is the nom de guerre of my mate and the pack Alpha. Lady Mockingbird, who was up by fifteen kills on everybody, teaches high school chemistry in her alter ego as Auriele Zao. She is a scary, scary woman. I’ve been told her high school students think so, too. Ben’s gaze, swinging back to Mary Jo, paused on the dark maw that gaped in the front of the huge metal barn, the only building within a mile of where we stood. It was either very late at night or very early in the morning, depending on which side of sleep you were on.
Dawn wasn’t yet a possibility, but the waxing moon was strong in the night sky. The entrance to the barn was big enough to drive a pair of school buses through at the same time, and at least some of the ambient light should have made its way into the interior of the barn. Ben considered the barn for a second or two, then turned a sharp grin on Mary Jo. “Mercy just confirmed why I’m here. What did you do to win the crappy job lottery?” “Hey,” I said, “before you all feel too sorry for yourselves, remember I’m out here, too.” “That’s because you’re in charge,” Mary Jo said, her voice distracted, her eyes on the barn. “Bosses need to jump in the outhouse with the grunts occasionally. It’s good for morale.” Mary Jo wore a T-shirt that read Firefighters Like It HOT, the last word written in red and gold flames. The shirt was loose like the sleep pants she wore, but her clothes didn’t disguise her muscular warrior’s body.
She looked away from the barn, turning her attention to Ben. “Maybe I owe this . opportunity to the way I treated her before Adam put his foot down.” She tilted her head toward me, a gesture that, like Ben’s raised eyebrow, asked for my input. She didn’t meet my eyes as she once would have. I was growing resigned to the way the pack dealt with me since my mate had declared me offlimits to anything but the utmost of respect on pain of death. By consensus, they mostly deferred to me, as if I were a wolf dominant to them. It felt wrong and awkward, and it made the back of my neck itch. What did it say about me, I wondered, that I was more comfortable with all the snide comments and personal attacks than with gracious subservience? “Wrong,” I told her. I pointed at Ben.
“Killing me instead of getting rich is bad. Consider yourself punished.” I looked back at Mary Jo. “Ben is a simple problem with a simple solution. You are a stickier mess and this is not punishment. Or not really punishment. This”—I waved around us at the earlymorning landscape—“is so you quit apologizing about the past for something you meant wholeheartedly at the time. And would do again under the same circumstances. Your apology is suspect—and annoying.” Ben made an amused sound, sounding relaxed and happy—but he was bouncing on the balls of his feet again.
“That sounds about right, Mary Jo. If she were really getting back at you for all the trouble you caused her—it might land you on the List of Mercy’s Epic Revenge. Like the Blue Dye Solution or the Chocolate Easter Bunny Incident. Getting called out at the butt-crack of dawn doesn’t make the grade.” “So all I have to do is quit apologizing and you’ll stop calling me out at three in the morning to chase goblins or hunt down whatever that freak thing we killed last week was?” she asked skeptically. “I can’t promise that,” I told her. Mary Jo was one of the few wolves I could count on not to increase the drama or violence of a situation. “But it will . ” Must be truthful. I gave her a rueful shrug.
“It might mean I stop calling you first.” “Epic,” she said with a wry glance at Ben. “Epic it is. I think I will probably quit apologizing.” Then she said, “I suppose I’ll find some other way to irritate you.” Hah! I’d been right—her apologies had been suspect. I had always liked Mary Jo—even if the reverse was not true. She looked at the barn again and sighed heavily. “Have you spotted the goblin in there?” She didn’t bother trying to be quiet—none of us had been. Our prey could hear at least as well as any of us.
If he was in there, he’d have heard us drive up. I was still learning about the goblins and what they could do, but I did know that much. “No,” I said. “Do you think he’s still in there?” she asked. “He’s still in there,” I said. I held out my arm so they could see the hair rise as I moved it closer to the barn. “If he weren’t, there wouldn’t be so much magic surrounding it.” Mary Jo grunted. “Is it my imagination, or is it too dark in the barn?” “I think I remember this,” said Ben thoughtfully, peering into the barn. His clear British accent had the weird effect of making everything he said sound a little more intelligent than it really was, an effect that he conscientiously—I was convinced—canceled by adding the kinds of words responsible for whole generations of people who knew what soap tasted like.
“You know—the whole seeingfuck-all-in-the-dark thing?” “I never was human,” I told him. “I’ve always been able to see pretty well in the dark.” After I said it, I had a thought. There was a faint chance that the goblin’s magic was affecting our eyesight rather than just spreading an illusion of darkness over the interior of the barn. I looked away from the barn to make sure my eyes were functioning as they should. There was nothing but open fields around us, a couple of old wooden posts set into the ground as if they had once been part of a fence, and in the distance, a few miles away, I could see the new neighborhood of McMansion farmettes that I’d passed driving here. Mesa, where we all now stood, was a little town of about five hundred people that was in real danger of being swallowed in the outward creep of Pasco’s ever-growing population. It is flatter than most of the area around the Tri-Cities, with an economy primarily based in growing dryland wheat, hay, and cattle. The town name is pronounced Meesa, not Maysa—which, even after all the years I’ve lived in the Tri-Cities, still strikes me as wrong. With so many Hispanic people living here, you’d think we would be capable of pronouncing a Spanish word correctly instead of borrowing from the ridiculous dialogue of a Star Wars character, right? But Meesa it is.
“Cain’s hairy titties,” muttered Ben, joining me in my observation of the rural setting. “What hermit was so misguided in life that he was hanging around this peopleless landscape at the bell end of the night and happened to see a freaking goblin disappear into a hay barn? And for that matter, goblins are city denizens like me. What the shagging hell is it doing out here?” “No one living was here when it came,” I told him in a sinister voice. He gave me a look. In a confidential whisper I said, “I talk to dead people.” He scowled at me. I wasn’t lying but he knew me well enough to know that I was pulling his leg. He stared up at the barn with narrowed eyes. He snorted. “Bollocks, Mercy.
There’s cameras here.” I don’t think he actually saw them—I hadn’t spotted any yet. But Ben was a computer nerd; when in doubt, his brain focused on electronics. “A surveillance system connected to the owner’s iPhone,” I confirmed, dropping my dramatic pose. “Apparently there was a party involving underage participants and several kegs of alcohol that ended up with a mess and several thousand dollars of damage. Thus the cameras and a motion sensor were installed. They made the farmer happy by interfering in two underage keggers, and tonight they alerted the owner of the barn that he had an uninvited guest. He called me.” “And you called us,” said Mary Jo dryly. “Thank you for that.
” I grinned at her and gave her my best John Wayne impression. “It’s a dirty job, ma’am, but someone has to do it.” “Where’s Adam?” asked Ben suddenly. “He wouldn’t send you out alone after a goblin, not even a half-arsed, hay-shagging knob who doesn’t know any better than to keep to the city like a civilized goblin should.” Like me, the whole pack had been learning about goblins, and gaining a new respect for them. I shrugged. “He wasn’t home when the call came. Top secret meetings. I left a message on his voice mail.” “A meeting at this hour?” asked Mary Jo.
“Goes with his job,” I told her. Adam, my mate, was not only the Alpha of our local werewolf pack, but he owned a security firm with two bases of operation that mostly did hush-hush government contracts. Meetings that went overnight were unusual—but not unheard-of. The past month there had been seven of them. He couldn’t tell me anything about the meetings—and that bothered him more than it bothered me. I didn’t need to know who or what he was securing for whom. I knew my husband. He would never do anything he considered immoral, and that was good enough for me. Danger was a given—but he was military trained and a werewolf. He was as capable of protecting himself as anyone I knew.
Yes, I was scared anyway. But he was scared about some of the things I got involved in, too. We’d both gone into this relationship, this marriage, with our eyes wide open. As long as he didn’t want to keep secrets from me, I could deal with it when he had to. “Ben had a good question,” Mary Jo told me. “Why is a goblin hiding out in a barn in Mesa?” “Running from justice,” I said. “Probably. Do you remember all the headlines last week about the monster that killed that police officer out in Long Beach, California?” “Goblin,” said Ben thoughtfully. “I remember. His face was plastered all over the news.
Are we sure this is that goblin?” I pulled out my cell phone and showed him the snapshot of the goblin’s face that the farmer’s camera had caught. The area around the front of the barn had been pretty well lit before the goblin destroyed the security light. There had been a camera when the goblin killed the cop, too. That video, grainy and indistinct, had been played over and over again on the news. The actual killing had been off-screen, but the goblin’s face and inhumanity had been unmistakable. Mary Jo peered around Ben and I tilted the screen to her. “Not a pretty face,” she observed. “What about glamour, though?” Glamour was the magic the fae used to alter their appearance. “Why would a fae want to look like someone who killed a member of law enforcement?” I asked. “That would be unholy dumb.
It seems more reasonable to assume that this one is one of the goblins whose glamour isn’t as effortless, so when he doesn’t actively need to blend in, he resumes his normal appearance.” The farmer who’d called me an hour or so ago had been apologetic. His son worked in the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, and that was the law enforcement office he should have called. “But I figure this creature didn’t seem to have had much trouble killing that policeman down in California, and my son is working tonight,” he’d said. “I thought I’d call you first and see if you might consider Mesa a part of the territory your pack protects.” He paused. “If you come out, I’ll have some explaining to do, but I expect that’s better than attending my son’s funeral.” I’d decided then and there, without consulting my husband, that we did consider Mesa a part of our territory. If I continued this trend, I was going to make us responsible for half the state. But humans had very little chance against a goblin.
I wasn’t about to sit by while people were thrown into a situation they weren’t equipped for when I was able to handle it safely. Mostly safely. Probably safely. My eyes caught a movement in the cavernous darkness. Maybe if I changed to coyote I’d see better. Coyote eyes are good at seeing moving things in the dark. But I can’t talk while I’m a coyote, so I couldn’t relay intelligence to my allies. Taking the goblin on as a coyote would be even stupider than sending the human Franklin County Sheriff’s deputies after it. The farmer had been right; a normal human stood no better chance than a coyote did against a goblin. Goblins might be considered among the less powerful of the fae .
but that didn’t mean they were weak. I patted the steel and silver weapon that hung at my hip for reassurance. The first game of ISTDPB4 (Instant Spoils: The Dread Pirate’s Booty Four) that the pack had played right after we’d gotten back from Europe I had, totally uncharacteristically, won. Usually I was among the first to go—due to my special high-value target status as She Who Makes Treats as Soon as She Dies. But everyone had been treating me like a weakling after I got myself kidnapped by vampires. Irritated, I’d used dirty tricks to take out the usual winners and fought the rest to the bitter end. Ben maintained that I’d won because they were all trying to coddle me. Honey said I was better at deviousness after being held by Bonarata, the vampire Machiavellian ruler of Europe. Po-tay-to, potah-to—both equally true. Adam said, with a sly smile, that the only reason anyone else ever won was because I didn’t usually try too hard, but this time I’d had something to prove.
Ahem. It is only right and proper that one’s mate regards one with rosy glasses. Regardless, the next game, normalcy returned and they obliterated me in two rounds. However, in honor of the occasion of my only win in three months, the pack formally presented me with a prize. Normally winners get fun things like foil-covered chocolate coins or kid-sized eye patches. Once, at the end of a four-game winning spree, Auriele had received a Lego pirate ship complete with plastic Jolly Roger. But I earned a cutlass, the real thing, steel-bladed and silver-hilted. As a bonus, I got a whole bunch of werewolves who fancied themselves experts, eager to teach me how to defend myself so that no stupid vampires would ever be able to kidnap me again. I didn’t tell them that Excalibur herself would not have saved me from Bonarata. It is difficult to defend yourself when you are unconscious.
Instead, I settled in and learned because next time I might have a chance to fight. My pack was thoroughly spooked at how easily the vampires had stolen me away—and I could feel their tension decrease as my skill with the cutlass increased. That made me work even harder. I had some experience with a katana, which helped more than I’d expected. Most of the wolves who tried to teach me were no better than I was once you made allowances for the advantages of speed and strength that being a werewolf bestowed. They still made good sparring partners. But a couple of wolves really knew how to use a blade. The best of those were our lone submissive wolf, Zack, and the one-legged Sherwood Post. I carried the cutlass wherever I went. It made me feel better, and it made the pack feel better.
I’d expected to have trouble with the police, but it seemed to make them feel better, too. Apparently if our pack was going to be protecting the humans in our territory from the fae, my carrying a sword made us look more like we were capable of doing our job. After the troll-bridge incident, we pack members had achieved brothers-in-arms status with most of the law enforcement types. So I was armed with the cutlass and my favorite carry gun, but my growing respect for the capabilities of goblinkind left me with no illusions about my ability to take down a goblin. I was, when it came right down to it, not that much better off against the supernaturally gifted than a run-ofthe-mill human was. Coyotes are not huge and powerful predators. Which was why Mary Jo and Ben, my werewolf minions, were with me. “What are we going to do? Stand out here until the goblin gives up and runs out screaming, driven desperate by boredom?” asked Mary Jo after a bit. I listened for sarcasm and didn’t hear any. That didn’t mean she didn’t feel it—just that she was being careful.
My mate had been very clear when he put the fear of God into the whole pack concerning me. I bit back a growl. “We,” I told them, “are waiting for backup.” I looked at the sky worriedly. I had just opened my garage for business again two days ago, so I couldn’t afford to be late. “I hope, anyway.” “Who else annoyed you enough to call?” Ben asked. “He didn’t annoy me,” I told him, “but I figured that we might need an expert, so I contacted Larry.” “The goblin king,” Mary Jo said, a little awe in her voice. It might have been horror rather than awe, but I took the optimistic view.
“You called the king of the goblins in the middle of the night. What did he do to you?” Larry had moved to the Tri-Cities a couple of years ago because, he said, matters were getting interesting here. Common lore said that goblins ran from trouble, but you couldn’t prove it by Larry. I wasn’t really sure if he was the ruler of all the goblins or just the ones in the Tri-Cities—he tended to be vague about specifics in the way of most of the more powerful fae I’d dealt with. The only thing that Larry had said in my hearing about his rank was that goblins didn’t use the term “king.” “Fucking goblin problem,” said Ben good-humoredly before I could answer Mary Jo. “Who else should she have called, the elephant-shagging king of the expletive-deleted goblins?” That last sentence was about four words longer and he didn’t actually say “expletive-deleted.” “To be fair,” Larry answered mildly from just on the far side of my car, “I was still up. I tend to be nocturnal.” I hadn’t heard a vehicle drive up, nor had I seen or heard where he’d come from.
I’d have felt stupid for not being more alert, but Ben and Mary Jo both subtly stiffened because Larry had taken them by surprise, too. None of us were crippled with mere human senses. He shouldn’t have been able to approach us without someone detecting him. With the darkness hiding the unreal color of his eyes and with gloves on his hands, he could easily have passed for human. I couldn’t tell if he was actively trying or if it was just an effect of the night. He wore his medium-brown hair in a cut that even I recognized as expensive. His jeans looked too tight for hand-to-hand fighting except that they stretched easily as he moved. His shirt was a black tee that fit like a second skin. He stopped on his brisk journey to close the distance between us as he passed my car, an old Jetta that had been well-used before the twenty-first century dawned. It was my chosen replacement for my obliterated Rabbit and it had proved to be a challenging project, one I was nowhere near completing.
Larry examined the Jetta mutely for a moment, then said, “Are you sure this is legal to drive?” “All the lights work,” I told him. My Vanagon, which was otherwise in showroom condition despite its age, had a coolant leak somewhere. With a radiator in the front and the engine in the rear of the fifteen-foot-long van, finding a leak that was probably a pinhole was a long and frustrating process. Adam had taken the new SUV that had replaced the SUV the vampires had smooshed with a semi. That had left only the Jetta to take me goblin hunting. I’d had to jury-rig the left rear turn signal with wires that ran out the trunk to the light, which was held on with zip ties. Then I’d crossed my fingers and headed out. I was hopeful it would make it home as well. In case it didn’t, I’d thrown my mobile tool kit into the backseat—or rather into the space where the backseat would someday be.