A Kelly McAllister Novella
She has nothing to lose, except her life.
Being an undercover agent who fought preternaturals, on the behalf of humans who didn’t have a clue creatures of nightmares existed, made a person extra wary. This person at least. I’m Kelly McAllister, former kindergarten teacher, current IR—I for Invisible, R for Recruit, agent, and recovering operative. What a mouthful. I was also overly optimistic, or I had been most of my twenty-five years. Now? Now I was just relieved that the incised silver ring I wore, the one that alerted me to the presence of demons, vamps and bogeymen that still had me waking up in cold sweats at night since my last mission, remained relatively cool on my finger. No known preternaturals on site. Except for the woman I was meeting.
So I braced myself as I walked through the door of the Georgetown coffee house off of M Street in Washington, D.C. to rendezvous with Alex Noziak, woman, friend and fellow IR teammate, who was a blood-born shaman and witch. She didn’t set off my ring. Having been bitten by her shifter brother made my ring tingle more the closer I walked toward her. The same brother who gave me a transfusion of his blood to save my life less than two weeks ago.
Yup, my life had become very complicated and messy lately.
Right now I was just happy to see Alex, whose Shoshone Native American ancestry made her look exotic and mysterious: tall, thick waist-length black hair she usually wore in a single braid down her back, sculpted cheek bones, emerald green eyes she inherited from her Irish mother. If I didn’t like Alex so much, I could have a terrible inferiority complex around her. My Iowa-born and raised Germanic heritage made me feel pale and white-bread next to Alex. I was the poster girl for blonde, blue-eyed, generic blandness and there wasn’t a thing I could do to change it.
She looked up from her seat way in the back of the quiet shop that smelled of caramel-laced coffee drinks, wet rain and expensive leather, and smiled. A smile that quickly morphed to a frown as I snagged the chair across from her, pulling it toward the wall so my back wasn’t exposed to the room at large.
Three weeks ago, I’d been considered the kind of person who only expected the best and always found a silver lining in every situation. But that had been before a messed up mission in Sierra Leone, West Africa and a whole lot of misery and pain.
“You look rode hard and put away wet,” Alex murmured, her Mud Lake, Idaho roots coming to the fore.
“That’s about how I feel.”
She eyed me as if I might topple at any second. “Still having nightmares?”
I avoided her gaze and did another quick scan of the place, near empty at this time of early evening, after the Georgetown students escaped from class and before the pre-bar hopping rush.
She sighed, “I’ll take your lack of answer as a yes to the nightmares.”
“You said you needed me.” Yup, I’d avoided her comment. Pinch me. My response was blunt, direct and not like me, but things had changed, and I was working my way through them, one nanometer at a time.
Alex’s eyes widened, her winged brows arching so high I thought they might take flight. “Ling Mai said you were ready to go active again?” It wasn’t said as a statement, more as a question.
Ling Mai, our Agency Director, had the final say on what jobs we took, what level of involvement we played on said jobs, or whether we remained agents at all. It was the last part that hummed dark beneath my skin. I had messed up in several ways on my last mission, the one I’d led, and though the outcome had been better than expected given the situation, I still felt very much on probation. Not a good kind of let’s-wait-and-see but a don’t-mess-up-again variety.
I shifted slightly. “Correction, I told Ling Mai I was ready to start working again. She hasn’t cleared me for an operation. Yet. But you said you needed some help. I’m here, what’s up?”
Alex leaned back in her chair as if I slapped her. I hadn’t, not really, but I was bone-tired of being treated like fragile china muffled in mummy cloth. Yeah, I’d nearly died. Yeah, it’d taken a heady dose of shifter blood to bring me back from the brink. Yeah, I’d killed my first individual, up close and blood-splatter personal, but he had been an Aka Manah demon and trying to kill someone else. Not someone, but Van Noziak, Alex’s wolf-shifter brother. So she, better than most, should understand needs must.
The wary look in Alex’s green eyes, green to her brother’s hot-cocoa brown, shadowed and then cleared, as if she’d come to a hesitant decision. When she leaned forward again, both arms propped on the table, fingers braided together as if she feared her hands wouldn’t remain still otherwise, she kept her voice pitched low, for my ears only.
Her glance cut to my right hand. “You healed enough?”
I nodded, not willing to share more details. Her brother’s preternatural blood had kick-started a healing process, saving my life, but I was still doing physical therapy. A sharpened punji stick through the middle of one’s palm tended to wreak havoc, both physically and mentally.
“The girl you brought back. She still in a coma?”
It was my turn to eye Alex. “You should know the answers to all of these questions.”
I bit off a sigh. Another new trait I didn’t particularly care for. I missed the people-are-what-they-are naiveté I’d once possessed. “Aini hasn’t woken up yet, though the doctors can find no cause for her collapse or prolonged . . .” What was it? Magic-induced trance? Shock? A way for a war-scarred, traumatized young girl to avoid reality for the time being? I actually could envy her that last impression if it were true, instead I shrugged my shoulders and skipped over the unknown to focus on what I did know. “She’s still at George Washington Hospital.”
“If you leave with me, will that make it harder for her?” Her voice lower than it’d been a minute ago.
I knew what she was asking. By all accounts, Aini was a powerful seer who’d seen my own involvement in her near-death. She’d tagged along with me anyway as I hunted for a rare orchid that didn’t exist and the man who murdered my sister in Sierra Leone. She’d also saved my life, so I owed her.
“Doctors say my being there, or not, won’t make much of a difference. She might wake up, she might not. No one knows.”
A ghost of a smile whispered through me. Alex rarely hesitated to speak her mind. A lesson I could learn from her.
But she didn’t jump into why she’d called me here, either. As I listened to the pumped-in music shift from a grating pop upbeat mess to a slow, cool jazz by someone I didn’t recognize, I told myself not to fidget, and memorized how many ways you could dump disguised sugar into a cup of coffee. I bided my time. It wasn’t the it’ll-be-okay patience I once possessed in spades, but a resignation. Alex evidently needed some time to chew on something. The easier I made it for her to come to her own conclusions, the faster we’d move along and I could claw my way back to normality. Whatever that was.
My plan worked. Alex thrust a hand through her hair, shook her head as if still debating, and looked me in the eye. “I know it’s been rough for you lately, but there isn’t anyone else I’d want to watch my back on this . . . this . . . ah, hell, whatever it is we’re about to do.”
I held my tongue, feeling a flicker of I’ll-be-okay warmth deep inside where I thought it’d all been burned out, but held my tongue to let her continue.
She plunged in. “You remember the teenage witch I escaped with from the a-hole druid in Paris?”
“Yeah, leave it to you to remember a kid’s name.”
“It hasn’t been that long since Paris.”
She looked like I felt, startled, as if a throw rug had been yanked from beneath us. So much had happened to both of us since we’d joined the agency—only a few months ago—that when I actually stopped and thought about it, chills tap-danced across my skin. Neither of us would ever be able to go back to the women we’d been. Ever.
“Damn.” She whistled softly, under her breath. “I thought time was supposed to fly when you’re having fun. Don’t think there’s been a whole lot of that happening lately.”
“Some’s been fun,” I muttered, thinking of another Noziak, a pair of bedroom dark eyes, killer lips, and way-out-of-bounds thoughts, then caught myself. Not the place, or the time.
Alex let it pass though, as if touching on any of the nice memories would scatter them, or let the scary, dangerous and way-too-dark moments gobble them up.
“Back to Sabina,” I nudged. “Is something up with her?”
Alex glanced away, as if looking for something over my shoulder before answering. “She’s missing.”