Jake blocked the way out. “Come on, Hunter, you don’t have to do this.”
But he did have to, if for no other reason than that the very thought had him shaking with fear.
“I won’t be long.” Hunter limped forward, hoping Jake would move before he had to force him to.
As Hunter stalked past his friend, Jake caught him by the arm. “Damn it, Hunter, if you won’t let me go with you, at least let me get Jarvis.”
Hunter jerked free of Jake’s grip, hating being touched and hating the worry in his friend’s eyes even more. “No, Jake. Wait here if you’re that concerned, but this is something I have to do alone. The last thing I need is a babysitter. Don’t follow me.”
“Fine, but I don’t like it.” Jake stepped aside to lean against the cavern wall, his sword drawn and ready. “Holler if you need me, and I’ll come running.” Just like he hadn’t when Hunter had last wandered down this particular tunnel.
Hunter walked away while he still could, the sour taste of bile burning his throat as he left the main cavern behind. It took him far too little time to reach the mouth of the correct tunnel. Time and pain had distorted his memory, making this specific place out to be the monster. But the limestone walls weren’t his enemies. Their only sin was once offering his assailants sanctuary.
He kept moving forward one step at a time, ignoring the constant, bone-deep ache in his leg. The urge to break and run was riding him hard, but Hunter wasn’t about to let the bastards win. Not this time.
The rough-hewn walls closed in on him, making it hard for him to breathe. His lungs constricted until he could no longer draw in enough air. He ignored the tight band of grief and fear blossoming inside his chest, concentrating instead on moving forward. Only another few yards to go, taking one painful step and then another. He’d make this journey or die trying.
Finally, when the tunnel widened out again, Hunter coasted to a stop. He reached out a hand to steady himself but jerked it back when he saw the rusty brown splotches that covered the walls. And the floor. And the ceiling. As far as he could see.
Dried blood. And all of it his.
He felt a wetness on his cheek. He touched it with his finger, too afraid to look. His logical mind said it wasn’t blood; his fear screamed that it had to be. But it was just a single tear trickling down his face as he stood grieving for the man who’d died there. Thanks to the Paladins’ special DNA, Hunter’s body had made the painful journey back from death. Even now his heart continued to beat and his lungs to draw breath. But although Doc Crosby had done his best to patch Hunter back together, modern medicine and good genes could only do so much to heal a shattered soul.
Hunter stood shivering in the chill of the underground chamber until temper, not fear, ruled his decision to leave. If he didn’t go soon, Jake would come charging in to rescue him, not from their enemies but from himself. Hunter drew his sword and stared at its broken blade. He ran his hand down the jagged length of steel, drawing comfort from the cool touch of the metal. It was time to let go. He knelt down and gently laid the sword to rest right where he himself had died.
Then he turned his back on the past and walked away.
“Thanks for the ride.” Hunter couldn’t wait to get out of the car, but at the same time he was reluctant to leave Jarvis behind.
Jarvis stared out the windshield, the tension in his jaw a clear warning that he had something to say and was unsure of how Hunter would react. But his reaction was always the same these days: anger and rage. For the sake of their long friendship, though, he’d try to do better.
Hunter eased back in the seat and took his hand off the door handle. “What, Jarvis?”
His friend angled around to face him. “Hunter, you know I’m not much one for the mushy stuff, but I want to tell you what an honor it has been to serve with you all these years. I hate that you need to leave. We all do, but we also know that it’s the best thing for now. You need to put some serious distance between you and this stretch of the barrier.”
“Yeah.” Even now he could feel it calling him, the need to stay close and defend it riding him hard. Leaving was for the best, even if he hated it. He didn’t say that last part out loud because it would only make it harder on Jarvis and the others.
Jarvis made a move as if to reach out to Hunter, but he stopped, knowing Hunter’s reluctance to be touched. “Buddy, believe me, if I could change things, I would. Having said that, I’m sending you out to Seattle because I trust Devlin Bane and Blake Trahern to make sure you get a square deal.”
This time the bitterness spewed out before Hunter could catch it. “I’m sure they’re both thrilled to be getting another crippled Paladin to babysit. Who knows? Maybe Penn Sebastian and I can form one of those touchy-feely support groups.”
Jarvis hit the steering wheel with his fist. “Damn it all, Hunter, don’t talk that way. Even with that leg of yours, you’re still a better fighter than most Paladins and all of the guards.”
“I’m glad someone thinks so.” Because he definitely didn’t. And it wasn’t because of his leg.
“Give yourself time, Hunter. It’s only been a couple of months.” He reached into the backseat. “I’ve got something for you.”
He handed Hunter a long, narrow box wrapped in brightly colored clown paper and tied up with a big red bow. “You can thank Jake for the paper. Gwen did the bow.”
Hunter stared at the gaudy package, his stomach doing somersaults over the possibilities. Everyone knew his sword had been broken. That didn’t mean he was ready for another one that he might actually have to use.
“Go ahead and open it. It won’t bite.”
Hunter didn’t need to look at Jarvis to know there was sympathy in his eyes; it was there in his voice. God, he hated that his fear was so obvious to his friends. To avoid further conversation, he tugged on the ribbon, and then ripped into the paper.
As he wadded it up and threw it into the back of Jarvis’s Chevelle, he said, “Tell Jake Seattle isn’t all that far away. I can and will get back at him for the clowns.”
Jarvis’s grin was wicked. “I’m sure he’s counting on it.”
Finally, when Hunter couldn’t put it off any longer, he lifted the lid off the box. His throat closed up as he looked at what lay nestled in the tissue paper. If Jarvis thought Hunter was on the mend, why had he given him a cane? It was a beauty, all right, made out of black wood, maybe even ebony. The handle was a wolf’s head carved out of ivory. Beautiful, yes, but a symbol of Hunter’s weakness.
“Now, before you get the wrong idea, let me explain.” Jarvis lifted the cane out of the box. “This belonged to my grandfather. Just like now, the authorities back in the day frowned on folks carrying a sword in public.”
He pushed a small button at the top, then pulled on the handle, drawing out a razor-sharp sword. “My father said his dad had this custom-made. I figure you’re not always going to need a cane, but this will allow you to carry a weapon with no one being the wiser.”
Okay, so maybe the gift was acceptable after all. Hunter took the cane back from Jarvis. The wood was silky smooth, and the wolf’s head fit his hand perfectly. “I’ll take good care of it.”
“More importantly, it will take good care of you. Now get going or you’ll miss your flight.”
Hunter reached for the door handle. At the last second, he reached out his hand to Jarvis. “Thanks for everything.”
Jarvis didn’t immediately let go. Instead, he tugged Hunter closer for a quick man-hug, the kind that said what neither of them had words for. For once, the brief intimacy didn’t make Hunter want to dive for cover.
“I’ll email you when I have an address and a new cell number.”
“You’d better. If I don’t hear regularly, I’ll send Jake out there to kick your ass.”
Hunter laughed as he got out of the car, mostly because it was expected. Then he retrieved his duffel and tucked his new cane inside to avoid any awkward questions from security. Waving over his shoulder, he disappeared into the crowd and left his world behind.
Devlin Bane sat at his desk with the phone to his ear. The wall behind him was covered with an interesting array of weapons. Hunter should probably be impressed, but he wasn’t. Paladins collected swords and guns like other people did stamps. What did impress Hunter, though, was how much Devlin reminded him of Jarvis Donahue.
They were both big men, but then so was he. No, it was in the steady gaze that said they could see right through to the heart of a man. No doubt Devlin possessed the same highly developed bullshit meter that kept Jarvis one step ahead of both the Regents and the Paladins that served under him.
Okay, so maybe he could deal with Bane.
Devlin hung up the phone. “Sorry about that. I’ve been waiting all morning for that call.”
“No problem.” Hunter had nowhere he needed to be, nothing he was expected to do.
“I’d ask how your trip was, but I won’t. For one thing, I’m not much into small talk. For another, I’d rather get to the point.” Devlin’s green eyes narrowed as his gaze met Hunter’s head-on.
“Which is?” Hunter settled back into his chair, forcing his muscles to relax.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
So, okay, maybe Jarvis hadn’t smoothed the way as much as Hunter had thought. Fine. If he wasn’t wanted, he’d leave. But before Hunter could move a muscle, Devlin started talking again. He ran his fingers through his shoulder-length hair, frustration clearly driving him.
“Sorry, that came out sounding worse than I meant for it to. I know you needed to put some distance between you and the barrier in Missouri. Jarvis filled me in on what happened.” He pegged Hunter with a hard stare. “By the way, nobody else around here knows the details. That’s your story to tell.”
The last thing Hunter wanted to feel was gratitude. He knew rumors were probably flying through the Seattle ranks, because Paladins gossiped like a bunch of old hens. It didn’t mean he wanted them to know what really happened.
“My real question is are you here to lick your wounds or to work?”
Son of a bitch, this guy went right for the jugular. If he liked blunt, he’d get blunt. “A little of both.”
Devlin lapsed into silence, clearly considering his options. Finally, he nodded. “Okay, here’s what I can offer you. I’m not going to trust you or anybody else at the barrier until I know he can face what comes across it. None of us have any reason to love those crazy bastards when they attack, and you definitely have more reason than most to hate them. But here’s the bottom line: if you’re unsure of how you’ll handle it, I won’t risk my men’s lives by asking them to fight next to you.”
If Bane hadn’t wanted to take on Hunter, why had he let Jarvis send him in the first place? “So you’re saying maybe I should book my return flight to St. Louis?”
“That’s up to you. There is an alternative.”
Hunter had already come this far. He might as well hear the man out.
He settled back in his chair. “I’m listening.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard about our interactions with the Kalith.”
Hunter sneered. “Yeah, we heard you’d adopted a few strays. Didn’t realize you were actually naming your pets.”
Bane’s big fist slammed down on the desk hard enough to topple a stack of files onto the floor. He ignored the mess as he leaned forward and snarled, “That attitude will get you nowhere, Fitzsimon. Like I said, I know what you’ve been through.”
“Like hell you do!”
Some of the steam went out of Devlin’s fury. He leaned back in his chair and stared at Hunter for a few seconds. “Maybe you’re right, but you need to understand that things are different for us. I hate those crazy fuckers that attack every time the barrier goes down as much as the next guy. But around here, we consider the Kalith warriors like Barak, Lusahn, and Larem our friends and allies. All of them have risked their own necks to save lives—Paladin lives.”
“So what? It’s not like that evens the score.”
Devlin shoved his chair back and stalked around to Hunter’s side of the desk. “Lose the fucking attitude, Hunter, or I will personally stuff your worthless carcass on the next plane back to St. Louis!”
Hunter clenched his fists, but he held himself back. “Look, I’ll try. Just don’t shove them in my face.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. I’m shipping your ass north of here.”
Devlin reached across his desk, pulled a folded map out of the top drawer, and spread it out. He pointed to a spot on the enlarged map of the city.
“We’re here in our headquarters located in the Seattle Underground. The barrier stretches through under the city here and here. The closer you get to the volcanoes, the more unstable it becomes. And just to make things more interesting, we’ve got tectonic plates crashing into each other right offshore.”
Where was all of this headed? “Thanks for the geology lesson.”
“Smart-ass,” Devlin said with no real heat. “We do our best to guard the area, but you know there are never enough of us to go around. That means some spots are vulnerable.”
He flipped the map over to show the entire state of Washington. “We’ve found out that there has been movement going in both directions across the barrier. Greedy bastards on both sides are making money at the cost of lives of our people and theirs.”
Hunter didn’t much care how many crazy Others died—or Kalith warriors, for that matter. He kept that little bit of information to himself, figuring it wouldn’t pay to antagonize Bane any more than he already had. “Where do I fit in?”
Devlin pointed at a second spot some distance north of Seattle. “You may not have heard that one of my men spent some time on the other side of the barrier. While he was there, he discovered a small stretch of barrier we didn’t know about. Evidently it’s barely wide enough for two men to pass through shoulder-to-shoulder. To make matters worse, we have no idea how unstable the barrier is along there. What we do know is there’s clear evidence that humans have been crossing there on a regular basis. But again, no idea how many or who. I haven’t had anyone to post up there to keep an eye on things.” Devlin looked up from the map with grim satisfaction. “But now I have you.”
His phone rang again. While Devlin took the call, Hunter mulled over everything he’d been saying. They’d all seen Devlin’s pet Other when Devlin had brought Barak q’Young with him, back when Trahern had been in Missouri. If Jarvis had known anything about Paladins crossing to the other side of the barrier, he hadn’t said anything. What kind of crazy SOB would’ve done something like that?
When Devlin hung up the phone, Hunter asked, “So you want me to drive up there and take a look around?”
“No, we’ve done that. I want you to live up there for a while and assess the situation. You’ll report directly to me. If you can’t or won’t handle the assignment, maybe I can find something else for you to do at headquarters. Take tonight to think about it and get back to me in the morning.”
Hunter already knew what his answer would be, but there was no sense in rushing things. Might as well let Devlin sweat a bit. Earlier he had taken Hunter on a brief tour of the underground complex, as well as the admin building where the Handlers and the guards were stationed. Hunter’s nerves were stretched to the breaking point from all those faces staring at him and pretending they hadn’t noticed his limp.
The farther he got away from his own kind the better. Doc Crosby had warned him, though, that Paladins never fared well far from the barrier. This small bit of territory that Devlin was willing to cede to Hunter’s care might just help him hold it together long enough to figure out what to do with the rest of his worthless life.
He gripped the wolf head on his cane and prepared to leave. “I’ll check in with you in the morning.”
“Not so fast. I promised Laurel that I’d invite you over for dinner tonight. Trahern and Brenna will be the only other two there, if that makes a difference.” Devlin’s face flushed a bit. “I should warn you, Laurel can’t cook for shit, but don’t let that stop you.”
“This Laurel, is she the same Handler who helped save Trahern from the needle?”
“Yeah, she’s the one.”
Laurel’s progressive attitudes had filtered their way through to other Handlers, including Doc Crosby. “Then I’ll come. For her, I’d choke down dog food with a smile on my face.”
Devlin nodded, muttering something under his breath that sounded a lot like “you might have to,” then scribbled down directions and his address. “We’ll eat around six. Call if you need a ride.”
“Thanks. I’ll see you at dinner.”
It was only early afternoon, leaving Hunter with hours to kill. He’d spent most of his time on the airplane studying a guide book of Seattle that Jarvis had bought for him. If memory served, he was only a few blocks away from the waterfront. The walk would do him good and get him away from the prying eyes of the Paladins and everyone else who worked for the Regents.
Eventually he might have to get to know them, but not right now.
Trahern popped the cap off his beer and took a long drink. “Think Fitzsimon will show?”
“I don’t know. He did seem more interested when he realized Laurel was the Handler who helped save your worthless ass. He might stand you and me up, but I suspect he’ll show up for her.”
“Last time I talked to Jarvis, he was pretty closemouthed about Fitzsimon’s problems.” Trahern looked at Devlin, obviously waiting for him to fill in the blanks.
“All I can say is that this guy’s problems make Penn Sebastian’s seem like a walk in the park.” Devlin adjusted the controls on the grill. “I know more. I won’t say more.”
The sliding screen door opened. Hunter glared at Devlin and then Trahern as he stepped out onto the deck. “It’s nice to know you’re a man of your word. My business is exactly that—my business.”
“Fine by me.” Trahern leaned over to snag another beer out of the cooler, then held it out. “Here.”
Hunter accepted the drink and sat down. “Nice view.”
“Thanks. I’m going to hate putting this place on the market.” Devlin busied himself with straightening his barbeque tools.
“Why do it then?” Hunter picked up a handful of chips.
“Eventually the neighbors are going to notice that I haven’t aged in all the years I’ve owned it. It’s bound to draw unwanted attention.”
Trahern looked around, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I’ll probably have to do that myself one of these days.”
Time to change the subject. “How do you like your steak, Hunter?” Devlin asked.
“Bloody and still mooing.”
“That makes three of us. Brenna and Laurel like theirs a little less raw.”
The screen door opened a second time, and two women joined them outside. “Talking about us again?”
Hunter studied them. Both were attractive but in different ways. As soon as Laurel got close to Devlin, the Paladin leader slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her in close. Lucky bastard, he was the first Paladin to ever dare date a Handler. When Hunter had first heard the rumors, he’d been surprised that the Regents had allowed the relationship to continue. Now that he’d seen the two together, he realized the Regents must have figured they’d stood to lose both Devlin and Laurel if they’d pushed it. The two were very obviously in love.
The same with Brenna and Trahern, but Hunter had already seen them together back in Missouri. She’d fought tooth and nail to drag her man back from insanity. Hunter liked that about her. He wondered if she know that Jake had a bit of a crush on her. Hunter figured it had started when from the two of them had been shot at the same time.
Laurel smiled at Hunter. “As soon as the steaks are done, we’ll be ready to eat.”
“Sounds good.” He wasn’t much for etiquette these days, but for Laurel and Brenna he’d make the effort. “Thank you for inviting me over.”
“You’re welcome.” Brenna gave him a warm smile. “How are all the John Does doing these days?”
It took him a minute to remember that was the name Jarvis had told her to call all of the Paladins in Missouri when Trahern had breached security and brought her inside the compound without any authorization. Even if her late father had been one of the Regents, outsiders weren’t allowed in the underground facility.
“They’re all fine; Jake sends his regards. He said to tell you that his computer game is about to be released. He’ll be sending you one of the first copies.”
He eyed Trahern briefly before adding, “The dragon Jake named after you is a real beauty. It even has your coloring.”
Her face lit up. “He shouldn’t have done that.”
She was clearly pleased, even if Trahern wasn’t. He grabbed Brenna’s hand and tugged her onto his lap. “That’s right. He shouldn’t have.”
Devlin laughed and pointed his tongs at Hunter. “You might want to warn your friend that Trahern doesn’t share.”
Laurel rolled her eyes. “For Pete’s sake, it’s just a dragon. I think it’s sweet.”
Devlin planted a quick kiss on her cheek, then started piling an obscene amount of barely cooked beef on a platter. “These are done. Let’s eat.”
Hunter followed them inside and took the place at the end of the table, uncomfortably aware that he was the odd man out. He’d been feeling that way a lot lately.
Tate Justice pulled back her lace curtain and looked outside to check the weather. It was misty and cool. Perfect. Maybe it was selfish of her to wish for light rain every day, but her business thrived when the weather drove people inside. When it was hot and sunny, she sat inside her tea shop all day by herself. On the other hand, that gave her more time to work on her book.
She poured herself a second cup of coffee, her secret sin. She might run a small tea shop, but she liked a good French roast with her morning granola. Sometimes she thought it was a bit sad that her worst vice was coffee. However, living as she did in the small community of Justice Point, there weren’t all that many opportunities for sin.
Her daily to-do list was filled with the mundane activities of a small business owner and wanna-be writer. She read over today’s list: check stock and call in an order for more tea, sweep the hardwood floors in the shop, do some laundry, and write her daily allotment of pages. Oh, yes, and pay the bills.
That last one had been carried over from the day before and the day before that. She’d run out of both excuses and time. She knew she had enough to cover all the bills, but after the past few weeks of particularly nice weather, it was a tight squeeze.
If only a tenant would magically appear for the furnished apartment over the garage. She’d posted it for rent a month ago, but so far there had been no takers. Most of the locals were too elderly to handle the stairs, and the village was too far from the bus route to the nearest college town to make it convenient for a student.
Someone would come along eventually. She didn’t absolutely need the money, but it would give her budget a bit more breathing room. Sighing, she reached for the stack of bills and her checkbook. As painful as it would be, at least she’d be able to start her day with a clear conscience.
When Tate unlocked the front door of her tea shop on the first floor of her Victorian home, three of her favorite customers were already waiting for her. Collectively known as the Auntie Ms, Madge, Margaret, and Mabel were three elderly sisters who lived down the road. No one in Justice Point knew exactly how old they were, and Tate wasn’t about to ask. Two of them were twins, though all three women looked enough alike that sometimes it was hard to tell them apart.
“Good morning, dear. Here are some of those cookies you like so much.” Mabel shoved a plate into Tate’s hands before heading for the sisters’ favorite table in the shop.
“You shouldn’t have.”
She meant it. The sisters had to pool their limited resources just to get by. But no amount of arguing would stop them from making cookies for everyone in town. Tate made it up to them by sending them home with soup and other staples as often as they would let her. She understood pride and tried her best not to offend them.
The twins filed in behind Mabel, moving a bit slower with their matching walkers. When the trio was settled, Tate brought them a pot of their favorite tea and the morning paper. As usual, the Auntie Ms squabbled over who got first crack at the front page.
Tate swept the large front porch and fluffed the cushions of the wicker furniture scattered along its length. The checkers box was looking a bit ragged, and she made a mental note to bring out one of her empty tins to replace it. Nothing flowery or she’d get complaints from the two gentlemen who spent their afternoons trying to best each other at their favorite game.
Satisfied that everything was in order, she went back inside and started checking her inventory and making out her supply order. When that was done, she pulled out her laptop to edit the pages she’d written the day before. The hero was about to ride in and rescue the heroine from the villain. As a reader, she hated wishy-washy women and made sure the heroine was on the verge of saving herself already.
“Tate, dear, I think you have a customer.”
Normally, Tate would’ve finished the sentence she was working on, but the excitement in Mabel’s voice jarred her completely out of the story, derailing her train of thought.
Whatever had caught the attention of the Auntie Ms had them all sitting up straight and staring out the window. Tate couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, but they reminded her of a flock of house finches twittering over the approach of a cat.
Tate came around the counter to get a better look but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Before she could ask what was going on, the back doorbell rang. That was odd. The locals all knew to come around to the shop entrance.
“I’ll be back, ladies,” Tate told the sisters.
“Take your time, dear,” Margaret said.
“Yes, all the time you need,” Mabel added with a definite twinkle in her faded blue eyes.
“We certainly would.”
That last remark came from Madge, which set all three of them off in a fit of giggles. What on earth had gotten into them?
The bell rang twice more before she made it to the door. Somebody was in a hurry. She turned the old-fashioned key to unlock the door and opened it to find nobody there. She stepped out on the back porch to look around, wondering if some tourist’s kids were playing around.
Then she saw him. That was definitely no child. A man, easily several inches over six feet tall, was walking around toward the front of the house. She noticed he favored his right leg, but it didn’t detract one iota from the impression of overwhelming masculinity.
She tried to speak, meaning to call him back, but all she managed was a squeak. Evidently that was enough, because he immediately spun around and headed straight for her, radiating aggression as he stalked back to where she stood. She instinctively backed up a step, but then stopped and held her ground.
He smirked at her reaction.
She’d see what the jerk wanted and then send him on his way with good riddance. “Can I help you?” she said.
He stopped a few feet from the porch. “That depends. Are you the owner?”
His voice was painfully hoarse, sounding like rough sandpaper, sending shivers through her. “Yes, I’m Tate Justice.”
“Then you can help me. I saw your ad for the apartment. I want to rent it.”
Oh, no. The first serious looker she’d had, and it had to be this guy. “You haven’t seen it yet.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Are there any other places for rent in town?”
“Then it doesn’t matter what it looks like, does it?” He reached for his wallet and pulled out a wad of cash. “I believe the ad said first and last months’ rent.”
Visions of a balanced budget with a bit of cushion danced through her head before common sense took over. This guy was hardly what she’d had in mind when she’d run the advertisement. Even so, what grounds did she have to refuse him?
“Do you have any references?”
She studied his ragged jeans and the faded flannel shirt he wore unbuttoned over a white T-shirt. “Do you have a job? Locally, I mean.”
“I can pay my bills.”
That didn’t exactly answer her question. Then she noticed he was carrying a cane. “I’ll show you the apartment, but I fear it may not be suitable for you.”
“And why is that?”
Now this was awkward. “The stairs are steep.”
His eyes flashed with anger. “I can handle a few steps. Now show me the place if you insist, so I can get moved in.”
It all boiled down to the fact that she needed the income and he needed the apartment. Her decision made, she met his gaze head-on and nodded.
“I’ll get the key.”
© 2010 Patricia L. Pritchard