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Winter Lost


To my partner in crime - Dan dos Santos, who understands that a picture paints a thousand words. Thank you, my friend.

Chapter One


There was a 1960 Beetle parked in front of my shop.

I eyed it warily as I let myself into the office. Having a 1960 bug parked outside was not unusual— I specialized in the old aircooled VWs to the point where people brought them to me from other states to work on or restore. I just hadn’t seen this particular one before.

I would have remembered.

I locked away my purse, draped my coat over the chair behind the counter, then walked into the garage bays. The light was already on and Zee was hard at work. He’d been here for a while because the big furnace had already heated the space to human-friendly temperatures.

Buried in the engine compartment of the car he was bitterly cursing in German, Zee looked like a wiry old man with white hair that was thinning on top and a bit of a potbelly. Thanks to fae glamour, he bore no resemblance to the Dark Smith of Drontheim, who had built many deadly weapons and used them in his time to slaughter saints, kings, and anyone else who annoyed him. Currently, he worked a little more than full-time in the garage he’d once owned, helping me repair old cars.

“Unusual paint job out there,” I told him as I got into my overalls.

Zee grunted and tapped the quarter panel of the vintage Porsche 930 he’d been working on for the last three days. It was decked out in metal-flake red with extremely good pin-striping that included the word “Widowmaker” hand-lettered on the driver’s side in silver. The passenger door had a fist-sized black widow just below the side-view mirror with a silver web that extended over the rest of that side.

“Okay,” I said. “But the Porsche’s paint job is beautiful, and everyone knows the 930 turbo is called the Widowmaker. Why in the world would you paint a giant eye on the hood of a bright purple bug?”

Zee, back to tinkering in the engine compartment, grunted.

“Not that purple is a bad color for a bug,” I said. “And two eyes might even be cute— if they were soft and happy. But one crazytown eye on the hood is just creepy.”

“Shameful thing to do to a nice old car,” he agreed. “Did you see the plates?”

There was something in his voice that sent me back out into the cold to check the vanity plates on the bug.


It took me a moment to work it out.

I went back into the garage and went to work. After about twenty minutes, I said, “Does it eat flying purple people? Or purple people? Or just people?”

“Now you’ve done it,” Zee grumbled. “Be silent if you can’t be useful.”

I grinned and went back to work.

Zee broke first. By lunchtime, though, we were both humming the stupid song. An hour later, to change things up, I sang the first line of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini,” and our earworm grew by one.

The phone rang as Zee was fighting back with “It’s a Small World,” which was cheating.

“Mercy’s Garage,” I answered.

“It’s Mary Jo. I— ” She paused. “I really need to talk to someone about something and I think you are the right someone.”

Mary Jo wanted to talk to me. Maybe the Purple People Eater had changed the orbit of the planet, or hell had truly frozen over.

In December at six p.m., even with the streetlights, it was dark. I was running a little late because I’d stopped at home to change.

The overhead clouds blocked the stars and left the waning but still nearly full moon a faint glow in the sky. Snow drifted down in the giant fat flakes that only happened when the temperature was just perfect, snowman-building snow. The kind, in fact, that stuck to my wipers so they both squeaked and also left water splotches on my windshield.

Mary Jo had asked me to meet her. As I drove through the accumulating snow, I had the same triumphant feeling in my belly that I did at the end of a difficult but successful hunt.

Mary Jo and I had been not friends but certainly friendly until her Alpha had pulled me into the werewolf pack as his mate. She wasn’t the only wolf who had resented him bringing in someone who turned into a coyote, but Mary Jo had been the central player in the anti-coyote faction of the pack.

At first I’d tried ignoring their dislike of me. The pack was Adam’s problem, and they seemed to run better when I kept my head down. He’d put a stop to any active harassment, and what various of the werewolves had thought about me hadn’t mattered.

But things were different now. Our pack was responsible for the safety of anyone in our territory, thanks to yours truly. As an added bit of icing on the cake, we had to do it as a lone pack.

The Marrok who ruled the werewolves in this part of the world was worried that our actions could draw them all into a real war. So he’d cut us off. If we were unaffiliated (what a pedestrian word for the blood-and-flesh bonds that bound the werewolves together), then the worst that would happen is that the fae would wipe out our pack. Or the humans would kill us all. Or the witches. Or the vampires. Or some unknown nasty we hadn’t run into yet. But the damage would be local and not an interspecies war.

We were on our own and in over our heads. That meant we didn’t have time for petty rivalries or stupid games within our pack— we were too busy running to put out one figurative fire before another started. I had to fix the damage bringing me into the pack had done.

As Adam’s mate, I’d taken my share of organizing the defense of our territory. I had made a point of taking on the worst of the resultant jobs myself— and I’d made sure to bring Mary Jo with me. Every time we went out, she was a little less unhappy with me. Two days ago, we fought a fishy-something-with-teeth that decided to take up residence on one of the small islands in the middle of the river.

When Mary Jo killed it, the unidentifiable giant river monster thingy had exploded into a mass of inch-long versions of the giant thing. My legs still had bite marks. But Mary Jo had given me a high five when we’d hunted the last of them down.

Mary Jo wasn’t the only recalcitrant wolf I brought with me to awful jobs. She had just been the most resistant. There was nothing like shared misery to build relationships. Adam said that he’d felt the pack bonds settling in tighter since I’d started my campaign.

As I headed to the meeting with Mary Jo, I thought that just possibly I could start giving some of the worst jobs to people other than me. That would be nice.

My cell phone rang as Columbia Drive swung west on its trip to the Blue Bridge. The suspension bridge would have made the journey a lot shorter, but a troll fight had damaged it, then a fae lord demolished it. Reconstruction was set to finish, barring delays, in the spring, and in the meantime the Blue Bridge, already overcrowded, had become the main artery between Kennewick and Pasco.

I’d taken my Vanagon tonight. Built in the last century, it had a CD player but no Bluetooth. As a small business owner and the mate of the Alpha of a werewolf pack, I needed to answer my phone. I’d solved the problem with a Bluetooth earpiece.

My stepdaughter, Jesse, rolled her eyes when I first put it on.

“The time-share call center called, and they want their headset back. Get some earbuds, Mercy, you’ll thank me later.”

Earbuds and mechanicking weren’t good partners—at least not for me. I’d lost three pairs of earbuds before I decided that my twenty-dollar Bluetooth earpiece that could go through the wash and still work was a better option.

The phone rang twice before I’d fumbled the earpiece in and tapped to activate it.

“Mercy here,” I said.

No one answered.

I knew that silence. My breath hitched because my diaphragm thought it would be a really good idea to run away from whateverwas scaring us. Scaring me.

I’d gotten a different number and switched carriers. Only the pack and family had this number. It wasn’t listed anywhere— and my current phone was under Warren’s boyfriend Kyle’s name.

It could have been a misdialed number or a failed robocall. I hoped for a thickly accented voice to tell me their name was Susan and they were calling to talk to me about my credit card. But I knew who it was.

I felt my heart rate pick up as the seconds ticked slowly by. I should have disconnected, because anyone I knew would have already spoken by now. But I didn’t hang up. He would only call back.

The windshield screeched again, so I turned the wipers off. Someone honked at me. To get out of traffic, I took a right-hand turn too quickly, veering briefly into the wrong lane. Rather than continuing to drive, I pulled over and parked next to a used car lot.

“So nice of you to join us,” whispered Bonarata, the Lord of Night.

He wasn’t here. But I pictured him in my head, looking more like Thug Number Three in an old movie about the Mafia than the vampire who ruled Europe and, from what I had been able to gather, any other vampires he cared to take over. A little less than two months ago he’d fought Adam and beaten him. He’d beaten me, too— but I’m a lightweight. In the ten years I’d known Adam, I’d never seen anyone beat him in a fight. Bonarata had made it look easy.

If Bonarata had wanted to, he could have killed us both. Instead, he chose to play a game. He’d decided to make an example of me because I’d escaped from him and made him look weak. I hoped that it would work out to being a fatal mistake— but we wouldn’t know that for sure until the game ended one way or another.

The phone calls were to let me know Bonarata had not forgotten his promise.

My hands were shaking and I was hyperventilating. Bonarata scared me more than I would have thought possible. He had promised to kill everyone I loved— and I believed he could do it. But that would not be today, I reminded myself. Today, right now, I needed to control myself or Adam would notice.

I’d left Adam preparing for an online meeting with his business partners in New Mexico over some military legal snafu. I understood it was a dangerous matter, that lives had already been lost. Tightropes needed to be walked and tempers soothed. Adam was good at tightropes, but the temper thing was not his strong suit. Adam didn’t need to know about this call right now.

I was supposed to get help when Bonarata called, so we could trace his call and figure out where he was. But we hadn’t managed to trace the location meaningfully the last twenty or so times he’d called. I didn’t think that this call would be the one to change that.

I could hear someone breathing in my earpiece now, shaky, shivery breaths like a rabbit pinned by a fox. The bunny knows it’s about to die, but not when that moment is going to come. Bonarata was a vampire; he didn’t need to breathe. And if he chose to, he wouldn’t breathe like that. The Lord of Night had invited a guest to join us.

This was going to be one of the bad calls.

I’d hung up the first time and gotten an audio CD of what Bonarata had done over several hours after I’d disconnected. If I listened when he called, he said at the end of the CD, he’d be more merciful. If I hung up, he’d enjoy himself. The length of his victim’s suffering was my choice.

If this was going to be one of those calls, I was going to have to do something more than just keep calm, or Adam would drop his important business to come save me when I was in no danger at all.

I shared two bonds with my mate—the bond that made me a part of the Columbia Basin Pack that he ruled, and the more intimate mating bond. I knew how to shut them down hard so that very little information traveled from me through them. Adam had shown me how to do that.

My mate understood that sometimes being part of a werewolf pack could be overwhelming to someone who’d spent most of her life on her own. Sometimes I desperately needed to be alone again. He knew that. He’d shown me how to find solitude when I was bound to him and to the pack— and to the vampire Stefan.

Because that was the other bond I held in my soul. Stefan was careful. Like Adam, he knew that if he tried to hold too tightly, I’d chew my metaphorical foot off to be free. Stefan wasn’t going to know about this call. I always kept that bond as closed as I could manage, and Stefan was used to that.

But after our pack and mate bonds were silenced and I was spirited off to Europe, Adam wasn’t so sanguine about me closing down our bond, even though he could still sense me. We’d had to figure out something else.

Adam had been married before, but I was his first mate. That should have meant that both of us struggled through how to deal with our mating bond, but he’d been an Alpha since before I was born, and that gave him a distinct advantage. The mate bond was different from the pack bonds, but the rules they followed were written in the same language, figuratively speaking. He understood how the magical ties worked better than I did, and he’d figured out something that would give me privacy when I needed it without causing him to overreact.

Shadowing the bond, he called the new method. “Pull veils across the path until it’s difficult to see through,” he said. Pack magic, I’d discovered, involved negotiating through a lot of metaphors. Instead of closing it down like a faucet, I layered our bond with stretchy and filmy curtains. The metaphor gave me a method that worked as long as I didn’t worry too much about what the curtains were made of.

Sitting cold and frightened in my old van, I pulled the shadows around my bonds until I was alone in the night with the vampire. On the phone, I reminded myself. He was on the phone.

There was a sharp noise that made me jump. It took me a moment to realize the sound had come from the earpiece.

Maybe it had been a slap, because it was followed by a pained squeak. Then someone started crying. It wasn’t a cry for attention— those kinds of cries are about hope. Someone will care. Someone will do something about the situation. There was no hope in the sound I heard.

Most of Bonarata’s calls were voiceless, just me listening to environmental sounds— a street or woods or inside a building— until he hung up.

The last time he’d hurt someone, it had been a man. We’d had a package delivered from Romania with body parts in it a week later. Adam had traced it to the facility it had been mailed from, but no one there had remembered the package or who had mailed it.

That’s when I’d gotten the new phone and the calls had stopped. It had taken eight days for him to figure out how to contact me again.

I should hang up. I knew I should. He couldn’t make me answer the phone. But I couldn’t leave this person—who sounded like a child— alone with the vampire.

“There, there,” crooned the familiar deep voice. In my twenty dollar earpiece it lacked the resonance it had in person. That didn’t make it any less scary. I felt like I needed to hear every nuance in order to predict where the attack was coming from.

I pushed my earpiece deeper into my ear, and the sound got a fraction more clear.

“Are you scared?” he asked, a faint amusement in his voice that did not vanish when he repeated his question in French. “Tu as peur, ma petite?”

Oui.” And now I could tell the child was a girl. A little older than I’d first thought— though that didn’t make it any better.

The speed and raggedness of her breathing told me that she was way beyond scared. Me, too. I was so scared for her— and there was not a thing I could do about it.

I put a hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t make a sound. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

His next word was a whisper. “Bon.”

There was a gasp that sounded more like a noise a kitten might make, followed by a high-pitched whine. I sat frozen in my seat, listening to the wet sounds of Bonarata feeding.

I couldn’t have said how long I sat there before there was a little pop of cartilage giving way followed by a dull thump of a body hitting a hard floor.

On Bonarata’s orders, vampires were not allowed to kill their prey anymore. That didn’t mean the humans they fed upon didn’t die accidentally. They hid them in car wrecks and drownings. Sometimes they buried them in places the dead were unlikely to be found.

Evidently Bonarata did not follow his own rules. Color me not surprised.

Silence was sometimes very loud.

After a few more seconds, the caller disconnected.

I drew in a shaky breath and told myself what I’d just listened to had not been my fault. The problem was that I was well aware that might not be true. Maybe if Bonarata hadn’t decided to make my life a living hell, that girl would have lived a long and happy life. Maybe she had always been destined to be the food of vampires.

Maybe it had been a performance just for me and no one had died at all.

My fault or not, there had been nothing I could have done about it. That was truth, but cold comfort. I breathed slowly until I thought I was feeling more or less normal.

Then I got out the baby wipes I kept in all of my rigs because I never knew when I was going to get my hands covered with the mess mechanicking engenders. Baby wipes are surprisingly good at cleaning off grime. I used them now to wipe away tears and snot.

When I was sure that my face was clean— because I didn’t want to know what I’d looked like directly after that call— I pulled down the visor and popped open the mirror. I looked a little flushed— but that would fade by the time I made it to Uncle Mike’s. There was not much I could do about my reddened eyes. Hopefully the traffic on the Blue Bridge would be slow enough that they would clear up before I got to Uncle Mike’s.

I should have called Adam. But I wasn’t going to. I had things to do tonight.

I bent over and retrieved my purse. I pulled the phone out and set it screen up on the passenger seat, where I could see it. After a moment’s thought, I grabbed it, put the ringer on silent, and set it back down, screen side toward the seat.

I turned the radio up to full blast and pulled a U- turn to get back onto Columbia Drive. As I drove over the river, flowing black and deep below me, Freddie Mercury asked me if I wanted to live forever.

As soon as I opened the door of Uncle Mike's I was met with a wall of magic that forced me back out into the parking lot before I took even one full step in.

I did some deep breathing for a few minutes, watching the flakes come down. I’d had an incident with an ancient artifact a couple of months ago and it had left me with a few odd quirks that came and went, one of which left me overly sensitive to magic. Usually if I waited a couple of minutes, I’d be back to normal. Normalish.

When I got cold, I headed back in. This time, the magic wasn’t so overwhelming. There was always magic at Uncle Mike’s— it was a pub owned by a fae. There were wards to keep unaccompanied humans out. I was pretty sure there were wards that protected the building and its inhabitants, too. And there were just a lot of the kinds of beings who carried magic along with them wherever they went.

The scent of seasonal greenery outcompeted the mixed odors of alcohol and packed bodies that filled Uncle Mike’s. Music spilled from hidden speakers just loud enough that, if I wanted to, I could ignore the conversations going on around me without the music being so loud it was painful. Both the smell and the sound level were perfectly judged—as were so many things, because the proprietor took great care that they would be so. The fae take their hosting duties very seriously, and none more so than Uncle Mike.

Usually this part of the pub gave off tacky cheap-bar vibes and not winter-themed-greenhouse stage-production vibes. But now it felt like at any moment Santa would stroll in with a reindeer or two and offer naughty boys and girls peppermint schnapps.

There was a lot more obvious magic involved in the decorating than Uncle Mike usually allowed. Or maybe my recently acquired sensitivity to magic was still acting up.

I gave the vines on the wall a wary look. Were there more of them than there had been just a moment ago?

The deep green vines could have been an odd variety of ivy, or some other creeping kind of plant, but they looked like holly to me. I wasn’t a gardener, but even so, I was fairly certain that holly was usually found as a bush. Here, though, the thin willowlike withes covered in the distinctive spiky leaves and bright red berries wove through the vines to create a festive yet somehow oddly creepy air.

The knotted trunk of an ancient oak— which hadn’t been here at all two weeks ago—occupied one corner of the room. Its winter-bare branches reached up to the ceiling of the pub, which, once my attention was drawn to it, appeared to be higher than usual. Where the branches intersected the ceiling, they transformed into a painted version, an unreal canopy of gray bark that spread out over the crowded venue. Those gray branches, both painted and real, were burdened with an infestation of mistletoe that dripped down into the room.

The oak looked so much a part of the pub that I wondered if Uncle Mike had created it as part of his holiday decor— or if it had always been there and we were only privileged to see it now as the shortest day of the year approached.

I didn’t see Mary Jo in the main seating area, so I wove my way forward through the scattered tables and wandering people. Courtesy usually kept the dance floor in the back free of people who weren’t dancing, which served to lessen the density of the crowd somewhat. If I could reach the dance floor, I could edge around to the back rooms.

I broke through the mass finally. A passing bump from someone else trying to get through the crowd knocked me sideways, and I put a foot on the rough old flooring , this night clear even of dancers. Through the sole of my shoe, magic sizzled my synapses in a way that was consuming, if not quite unpleasant. I momentarily forgot the phone call, my tardiness (I had not wanted to be late to this meeting), and the importance of what I hoped to build tonight.

I stood a moment, dazed by sensation, before I realized where the magic was coming from: the Christmas tree in the center of the empty dance floor. As impressive as the old oak had been, it was this second tree that held true power. Gradually, the scent of bodies, of ivy and other greenery, faded away and all I could smell was pine.

The magic that held me faded, though it still burbled joyously through me, wiping away the weariness of the day and the black stain of fear left by Bonarata’s call. The euphoria wasn’t real, not quite, but I couldn’t help the smile that spread across my face.

Like the oak, the pine tree appeared to be part of the original structure of the pub. It erupted in the middle of the worn boards of the dance floor, rippling the nearby boards in an image of its root system. Mesmerized, called, I crossed the room until I stood near enough to touch it. It only occurred to me later that no one else approached it— even though the pub was tightly packed everywhere else. The dance floor usually wasn’t empty.

Spiderwebs covered the branches in graceful drapes of silver and gold. Airflow in the pub tore the fine gold strands, and they dropped to rest in glittering patterns on the dark green needles. My eyes caught the movement of dozens of tiny golden spiders spinning more gold for the tree.

The silver threads were tougher. A branch moved and I saw a single spider, its body the size of an acorn and the color of the silver web it wove. I felt it look back at me. Felt her look back at me. I knew the silver spider wasn’t a spider. Or maybe she wasn’t just a spider. Once she had moved mountains and hunted dangerous prey; now she was content to weave beautiful decorations. Or possibly eat coyote shapeshifters like me.

Hidden in my sneakers, my toes flexed uneasily. I was not arachnophobic, quite, but the same recent events that allowed me to feel the thing that lurked in the shape of a spider made me uneasy around them.

A light flashed between me and the spider, and I realized the flickering bits of brightness that illuminated the tree were not small electric Christmas lights. They were tiny . . . creatures flitting around the branches with housewifely intent, eating the gold spiderwebs— though they left the silver ones alone. Once my eyes figured out how to see them, I could spot dozens of the bright creatures in the holly berries, mistletoe, and other greenery scattered around the pub at large.

I’d been so focused on the tree and its occupants that I’d quit paying attention to the crowd. Truthfully, ever since the pack had entered into an agreement with the fae, I’d been becoming more comfortable in Uncle Mike’s. It made me less wary, knowing I was among allies. But that didn’t mean we were all friends. Standing alone on the dance floor, I might as well have had a spotlight on me.

“Think it’s pretty?” asked a rough voice to my left. “Like ourChristmas tree, do you, little coyote?”

I’d subconsciously noticed that the crowd had quieted down since I’d stepped up to the tree. Now every sound except the piped- in music fell silent, giving way to the growing menace. I took a quick glance around but didn’t see Uncle Mike. Not everyone in the place was looking at me, but even the ones who weren’t were paying attention.

Being called a coyote wasn’t an insult— I shapeshifted into a coyote. But the venom in the word “Christmas” would have dropped a full-grown bull dead if it had been of the literal rather than figurative type.

The fae conflated most of their present struggle for survival with the spread of Christianity in Europe. To the fae, Christmas was a four-letter word as foul as anything Ben, our pack’s champion filthy-mouthed wolf, had ever said. Which made me wonder why they had a Christmas tree growing out of their dance floor.

“Solstice, surely,” I returned, trying to sound calm— and mostly succeeding. “Here by the green man’s table, the old ways are followed.”

Uncle Mike was a green man— whatever that meant, because he was neither green nor, strictly speaking, a man. It didn’t matter what a green man was right now. I used the term to remind them all that Uncle Mike held sway here. He didn’t take kindly to fights breaking out among his guests.

“Stolen from us, your Christmas tree,” growled the same voice, which I now saw belonged to a woman in a business suit who sat alone. Though the place was crowded, the other three seats at her small table were empty— meaning she was unpleasant or dangerous. Likely both. She’d been here awhile, judging by the nearly drained pitcher. Goody. Nothing I like better than interacting with a belligerent drunken fae, because that always turns out well.

Just because she had no friends with her didn’t mean she couldn’t inspire the fae crowded in here to wipe the floor with me. I’d survived being raised by werewolves when my superpower was changing into a thirty-five-pound coyote by being observant. Now I observed that the atmosphere was growing increasingly ugly. I looked around and saw a few familiar faces. I met the eyes of a woman who worked at my bank.

She was a troll, a different variety from the one who had damaged the suspension bridge— much more intelligent if less powerfully destructive. She gave me a small smile with a hint of anticipation, as if she could see my blood on the floor in the future.

In the far corner, a man drew my attention because he didn’t seem to notice the drama coalescing in the center of the room. I could only see the back of his head, but I was pretty sure it was the human-seeming of the frost giant Ymir. He owed me— sort of. But he was the kind of being to make a situation like this worse rather than better. Hopefully he kept right on not noticing the building tide of violence.

I needed to stall. Until someone told Uncle Mike that trouble was brewing. To that end, I relaxed deliberately, settling onto the balls of my feet.

“Stolen,” I agreed, nodding my head at the fae woman who had addressed me. I didn’t try explaining who had stolen the idea of a Christmas tree from whom.

Zee had once told me that cutting down trees, bringing them indoors, and decorating them to celebrate Christmas had been a human thing. He had also added, “Placing Christmas near the winter solstice was clever psychologische Politik on the part of the early Christian church.”

“Clearly it was stolen,” said Uncle Mike from somewhere behind me, his voice dropping on the room like a heavy wet blanket dropped on open flames. “Beautiful things often are.”

The scowling woman closed her mouth with an audible snap and looked at her drink as if it were suddenly interesting. I turned to see Uncle Mike walking toward me, all white- toothed smiles and commanding eyes. The ugliness rising in the crowded pub subsided reluctantly as patrons pretended they had not been paying attention to me at all.

“Mercy, your companion is awaiting you in the silver room. Do you know how to get there?”

I felt my eyebrows rise. The silver room was a small one located in the maze of private spaces in the back of the pub reserved for secret meetings and expensive dates. I hadn’t thought that either I or Mary Jo— who had asked me to meet her here— was of stature or need to rate the silver room.

“It has its own air vents,” Uncle Mike said obscurely as he cupped a solicitous hand under my elbow and pulled me gently away from the Christmas tree.

The bright lights followed us for a moment, clustering around Uncle Mike’s face. He pursed his lips and blew them back to the tree with far more effect than a simple puff of air could have managed. I followed the green man out of the dance hall and into the halls that led deeper into his domain.

Uncle Mike gave a whistle as we neared the closed door to the silver room, tucked somewhat inelegantly in an alcove between the men’s and women’s restrooms.

A server appeared from around one of the corners, bearing a tray with a glass of water, a champagne flute filled with a violet liquid, and one of those overly scented candles— this one smelling of apples. Uncle Mike took it from her with a nod, then, balancing it on one hand, he opened the door.

The room was a step back in time to a more gracious and formal era. It was small, maybe ten feet by fourteen feet, but the ceiling was high, making it feel larger than it was. The walls were covered with delicately pink silk wallpaper embossed with patterns of silver fleur-de-lys. The floor was marble, and the table where Mary Jo sat was oak carved with graceful flourishes.

Mary Jo’s short blond hair was wet and plastered to her head. She was dressed in blue scrubs that fit her in the shoulders and hips but everywhere else were too big. The bottoms of the pant legs were rolled up and secured with a safety pin on the outside of each leg. Judging by the size of the roll, they were a good six inches too long. The muted blue of the scrubs made her sparkling purple toenails stand out.

I didn’t see shoes anywhere, so she must have come here barefoot.

The silver room was a room where proposals of marriage took place or where two people might celebrate reaching their fiftieth year of marriage— elegant, expensive, and romantic. It was not a room that anyone would expect a pub to have, and in my jeans and T- shirt, I was definitely out of place— but not as out of place as Mary Jo.

Mary Jo looked exhausted, and the gold flash of the wolf in her eyes nearly distracted me from the smell. Despite the evidence of her freshly washed hair, an unpleasant reek had settled around her, a combination of harsh disinfectant topped with other chemical scents I couldn’t quite place. I thought of Uncle Mike’s earlier comment about air vents.

Uncle Mike, breathing through his mouth, pulled out the unused chair for me and put the tray on the table in the same graceful motion. He gave me the water glass and set the violet drink in front of Mary Jo, who already had a glass of water in front of her. Then he put the apple-scented candle on the table and lit it with a butane lighter he pulled from somewhere. It could have been out of a pocket— or not. There was too much magic running around Uncle Mike’s this afternoon for me to sense any separate act.

“The candle will help,” he told Mary Jo with a sympathetic smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Give it a minute or two and it will eat the scent.”

He paused before leaving, looking at me with a frown of something that might have been concern. It looked like concern, but he was the consummate host, and I never entirely trusted any emotion Uncle Mike expressed that was in the category of useful attributes to make a guest feel cared for.

“Are you doing well tonight, Mercy?”

I wondered if he could feel the thundering rush of magic that rumbled under my feet. Or if that was something only I felt. For a moment, as our eyes met, I saw—

Forests deep and old, hiding secret

He averted his eyes and the insight died away, leaving me with a harsher-than-usual headache. Since the Soul Taker had played with my mind or whatever it had done, I always had a headache. I rubbed my temple in irritation.

“I’ll bring you something that will help with that,” Uncle Mike said at the same time that I said, “I’m fine.”

He spoke, I noticed, a bit more quickly than usual and retreated, shutting the door firmly behind him. He left me trapped in the room with Mary Jo. And that smell.

I inhaled a little too hard trying to figure out what I was smelling, and one of the chemicals dried the back of my throat. I coughed. Mary Jo met my eyes, her own gold-touched, and dared me to say something. Or possibly plug my nose.

“Disinfectant?” I asked, sitting down opposite her in the chair Uncle Mike had pulled out. Normally he would have waited around and pushed it in for me. I found it interesting that the odor emanating from Mary Jo apparently bothered him even more than it did me. My sense of smell is very acute.

“I wish it was just disinfectant,” she said sourly. She took up the glass Uncle Mike had left her and swirled it a couple of times before she tipped it back and swallowed a good two-thirds.

I think she meant to drink it all, but she had to set it down. After she quit making funny noises and caught her breath, she said, “I heard that he had something that could give even a werewolf a buzz for an hour or two, but George didn’t say that drinking it would be the hard part.”

“What happened?” I asked. From a closer distance I was beginning to smell hints of other scents underneath the chemicals. I’d expected skunk, maybe. Something like that. But it wasn’t skunk.

“I hate stupid people,” she told me. “I also hate that I was the smallest person on our team today when our firehouse got called to extract a fifteen-year-old from an outhouse vault.”

Outhouse. Yep. That was the scent.

Mary Jo watched me out of gimlet eyes and brought the glass to her lips again. This time she didn’t choke. I didn’t smile. Or laugh. But it took an effort.

The only outhouses I knew of around here were in some of the parks outside of town. Most of those weren’t in much use this time of year.

“In the winter?” I asked.

“It was damn cold,” she said, eyeing the remainder of her drink. “It was why I had to go in without waiting for equipment. I’m not sure what equipment might have helped anyway. Hard to get to the hole because of the building covering it. By the time we got there, the kid had been half submerged in cold and wet goo for at least half an hour already.”

She finished her glass, blinked at me owlishly, and then put her forehead down on the table.

She didn’t say anything else— and I needed to hear the rest of the story. “So how did this person manage to find themselves trapped in the business end of an outhouse?”

She tipped her head sideways and glanced at me, then returned to her former position. Her voice was a little muffled when she asked, “Do you know where Big Flat is?”

Big Flat was a park on the Columbia River about fifteen miles out of Pasco. People went there to hunt birds and fish— but also to jog or ride horses. The pack didn’t go out there on moon hunt nights because we didn’t usually hunt fish or birds.

I nodded, but she couldn’t see me with her head down, so I said, “I do.”

“Teenagers.” She slapped the table and sat up, her face a little flushed, but the wolf was out of her eyes and she was fighting down a grin. “I thought I was bad. But the things I’ve seen. And Renny has— ”

She fell silent, running a finger around the edge of her empty glass as though she wished it weren’t empty. I wondered what had happened between Mary Jo and her boyfriend to put that look in her eye. I waited for her to tell me. The longer I waited, the more worried I was.

Eventually, deciding to avoid Renny for now, I redirected her back to the story. “Mary Jo, how did someone fall into an outhouse? What were they doing at Big Flat in this weather, anyway?”

She shook off whatever mood she’d fallen into and said, “It took ingenuity. This group of kids skipped school to go hiking— and drinking— around Big Flat because they thought no one would see them. It’s pretty deserted during the weekday this time of year. Did you ever skip school?”

“I grew up under the Marrok’s rule,” I told her. “He was very strict.” I paused. “Of course I did.”

We exchanged smiles acknowledging our mutually reprehensible pasts. I had always liked Mary Jo. We had a lot in common.

“This one kid had a new cell phone,” she said. “When she used the restroom, it fell out of her pocket and into the pit. They’d all been drinking a bit, just enough to take the edge off their common sense.” She ran a finger over the lip of the empty glass beside her. “About like I am right now, I expect. Anyway, she was crying and her boyfriend took a couple of the guys in to assess the problem. There it was, bright and shiny and sitting right on top of the mound below.”

“Like a cherry on top of an ice cream sundae,” I said.

She gave me a look. “Thanks for that. Every time I see ice cream now, I’m going to think of that cell phone.” She went back to her story. “Anyway, they decided that if they took the toilet stool off, they might be able to reach it.”

I snickered. “They dismantled the toilet.”

She nodded. “With tools they had in the car. With the stool off, they were definitely closer. But it was still out of reach. They evaluated their assets.”

“No holocaust cloak,” I murmured.

“Or wheelbarrow, either,” she agreed. “They were doomed to fail, though they didn’t know it. What they did have was a small dog on a leash.”

“You didn’t fish a dog out of the pit,” I said.

“It’s not really a pit,” she said, though she’d used the word herself. “It’s a vault— ” She stopped herself from breaking into a technical explanation about the differences between a vault and a pit outhouse. “Never mind. No, though the dog was one of those little yappy things that bite everyone. Maybe it would have grabbed the phone if they’d dangled it down there by its leash. But no one tried that. They used the leash.”

I bit my lip to keep from laughing. Failed.

She nodded. “They took the lightest-weight guy— today was really not a good day to be small— and attached him by the back of his jeans to the leash so they could lower him down to get the phone.”

I put my hands over my eyes. “Holy wow. Tell me they didn’t just attach him by his belt loops.”

When I took my hands down, Mary Jo’s laughing eyes met mine.

“To his belt,” she said. “But the leash was meant for a teacup poodle. The guy was small but still around a hundred pounds. They were trying to hold the leash like a tug-of-war rope.” She mimed with her hands together. “The end guy was supposed to put his hand in the loop, but his hands were too big. As anyone with the common sense of an avocado could have predicted, it slipped right out of their hands as soon as our sacrificial lamb leaned out for the phone.”


She nodded, her grin widening as her shoulders started to shake. “He— he had to use the phone to call us, because no one else had cell coverage out there.”

She started laughing then— I thought it might be Uncle Mike’s magical drink, because in between bouts of laughter she would say a word or two and then have to stop because she didn’t have the breath to continue.

The words mostly didn’t make too much sense. “Purple leash.” “Twenty minutes to find the damned dog.” “Poodle. Get it? Poo- dle.”

She wiped her eyes and recovered herself a bit. “By the end of it the parents arrived. The girl’s mom”— she had to giggle for a minute— “her mom said, ‘At least this phone is waterproof.’ ”

“I would never use that phone again,” I said sincerely. “Even if it was waterproof.”

“My hiking boots were waterproof, too,” she said before giggling some more. “I tossed them.” She stuck her feet out and wiggled her toes. Something about that set her off again.

She was back to being face down on the table, this time laughing helplessly, when Uncle Mike came in with two bowls of stew and two frosted glasses containing some sort of amber liquid. He set my stew in front of me and put Mary Jo’s near the center of the table, where it would be safer from being knocked over by the incautious moves of someone who had had a bit too much to drink.

After he’d deposited the glasses, he tapped the one in front of me and the color changed slightly.

“For your headache, Mercy,” he said. “It shouldn’t affect the taste.”

I nodded. Not quite a thank- you, so it should be safe.

He nodded back, and then snuffed out the candle. Immediately the room filled with the scent of stew and apple cider, more strongly than I’d have expected. As if they flowed in to fill the gap in scents the candle had left behind. I hadn’t noticed when the sewer-and-chemical smell had vanished, but it was gone.

“Effective,” I said.

Uncle Mike gave me a professional smile, warm but without intimacy, and said, “It’s done its job. No reason to ruin the meal.” He looked at my helplessly laughing companion and said, “That elixir doesn’t last long with werewolves. She’ll be herself again in a minute. Eating will help.”

“Did she order stew?” I asked. Mary Jo was a burger kind of person who viewed any vegetables that weren’t fried and salted with suspicion.

“On the house,” he said. Then his eyes chilled a little. “An apology for the incident at the— ” He said a word I didn’t catch.

“At the what?” I asked.

He repeated himself. When I clearly didn’t understand him again, he rolled his eyes and dropped the jolly innkeeper role. “The pine tree. I let someone else decorate, and she thought the tree would be funny. If it weren’t for the spider, I’d take it down, but— ”

“Let’s not annoy the silver spider,” I said.

“Indeed.” He rocked back on his heels and pursed his lips as if in thought. “Larry was here earlier. Gave me a message for you. Said he’d tried calling but you hadn’t picked up.”

Larry was the goblin king. I’d never managed to discover if he ruled over all goblins or just the goblins in the Tri-Cities. He had a gift for seeing the future. Possible future, anyway.

I checked my phone. “It’s on silent,” I apologized, fixing that. Larry had called, but he hadn’t left a message.

“He said he was headed out of town on business for a day or two, but he said, ‘Winter roads are treacherous, but necessary to get you where you are going.’ ”

I waited for the rest.

Uncle Mike shrugged. “That was it.”

I bit my lip, unease stirring in my stomach. “Seems like he put a lot of effort into getting a warning to me that is— ”

“Inherently obvious, assuming you are going to be traveling,” agreed Uncle Mike, staring at me as if I were interesting. Or about to become interesting.

It made me want to look over my shoulder, because my half brother maintained that whenever he or events around him started to become interesting, our father was likely about.

Coyote wasn’t anyone’s idea of a typical father. He’d once shoved me into the Columbia to see if a river monster would eat me. Not so much the kind of parent who threw their children into a lake to teach them how to swim, but one who did it to see if they would drown.

“I’m not planning on going anywhere,” I said. Then thought about the trouble in New Mexico that Adam was dealing with tonight. My mate might be traveling soon. “I’ll keep Larry’s words in mind.”

Uncle Mike gave me a half nod and, once more, closed the door behind him.

The stew was good, and the apple cider— a nonalcoholic version— complemented it. It also killed most of my headache. I was halfway through the glass when Mary Jo quit laughing into the table, sat up, and gave the empty glass that had held her lavender drink a considering look.

“Not quite like being drunk,” she said. “Better in some ways, not as good in others.”

“Did it help?” I asked.

She sighed. “A little. Maybe.” She looked at her borrowed scrubs. “I didn’t actually come here to get drunk— or to tell stories about idiots.” She rocked her head from side to side to stretch her neck. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

“No worries,” I said.

She looked at me. “I haven’t always been nice to you.”

“I’ve been not nice to you back,” I said. “Miniature zombie goats.”

“Someone had to collect them, I suppose. Miserable little demon escape artists.” She flashed me a sudden grin. “I like the way your mind works,” she said.

“Don’t get mad, get even,” I deadpanned.

She raised her empty glass, hesitated, and set it aside to replace it with the apple cider and sipped from that. “Imagine my surprise when I ran into a personal problem and the only one I could imagine taking it to was you.”

I waited.

“If it hadn’t been you, I’d have canceled this meeting after I had to climb into that toilet.” She looked as though that was somes ort of revelation. After a minute she said, “You aren’t a very judgmental sort of person.”

“Thank you?” I wasn’t sure it was a compliment.

She gave me a quick grin and used the flats of her hands to play out a quick beat on the tabletop.

“Here goes nothing,” she said. “Why did you marry Adam?”