Authors: Patricia Briggs
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Electronic edition: February, 2006
Ace books by Patricia Briggs
STEAL THE DRAGON
WHEN DEMONS WALK
THE HOB'S BARGAIN
This book is for
Kaye's mom, Almeda Brown Christensen, who likes my books;
Alice and Bill Rieckman who like horses as much as I do;
and in memory of Floyd “Buck” Buckner, a good man.
As always, this book would not have happened without my personal editorial staff: Michael and Collin Briggs, Michael Enzweiler (who also draws the maps), Jeanne Matteucci, Ginny Mohl, Anne Peters, and Kaye Roberson. I'd also like to thank my terrific editor at Ace, Anne Sowards, and my agent, Linn Prentis. Bob Briggs answered a ton of questions about Montana wildlife and wolves. Finally, Mercedes owes a special debt to Buck, Scott, Dale, Brady, Jason, and all the folks who've worked on our VWs over the years. Thanks, everyone. Any mistakes found in this book are mine.
I didn't realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn't at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oilâand it's not like there are a lot of stray werewolves running around. So when someone made a polite noise near my feet to get my attention I thought he was a customer.
I was burrowed under the engine compartment of a Jetta, settling a rebuilt transmission into its new home. One of the drawbacks in running a one-woman garage was that I had to stop and start every time the phone rang or a customer stopped by. It made me grumpyâwhich isn't a good way to deal with customers. My faithful office boy and tool rustler had gone off to college, and I hadn't replaced him yetâit's hard to find someone who will do all the jobs I don't want to.
“Be with you in a sec,” I said, trying not to sound snappish. I do my best not to scare off my customers if I can help it.
Transmission jacks be damned, the only way to get a
transmission into an old Jetta is with muscle. Sometimes being a female is useful in my line of workâmy hands are smaller so I can get them places a man can't. However, even weightlifting and karate can't make me as strong as a strong man. Usually leverage can compensate, but sometimes there's no substitute for muscle, and I had just barely enough to get the job done.
Grunting with effort, I held the transmission where it belonged with my knees and one hand. With the other I slipped the first bolt in and tightened it. I wasn't finished, but the transmission would stay where it was while I dealt with my customer.
I took a deep breath and smiled once brightly for practice before I rolled out from under the car. I snagged a rag to wipe the oil off my hands, and said, “Can I help you?” before I got a good enough look at the boy to see he wasn't a customerâthough he certainly looked as though
ought to help him.
The knees of his jeans were ripped out and stained with old blood and dirt. Over a dirty tee, he wore a too-small flannel shirtâinadequate clothing for November in eastern Washington.
He looked gaunt, as though he'd been a while without food. My nose told me, even over the smell of gasoline, oil, and antifreeze permeating the garage, that it had been an equally long time since he'd seen a shower. And, under the dirt, sweat, and old fear, was the distinctive scent of werewolf.
“I was wondering if you had some work I could do?” he asked hesitantly. “Not a real job, ma'am. Just a few hours' work.”
I could smell his anxiety before it was drowned out by a rush of adrenaline when I didn't immediately refuse. His words sped up until they crashed into one another. “A job would be okay, too, but I don't have a social security card, so it would have to be cash under the table.”
Most of the people who come around looking for cash work are illegals trying to tide themselves over between
harvest and planting season. This boy was white-bread Americanâexcept the part about being a werewolfâwith chestnut hair and brown eyes. He was tall enough to be eighteen, I supposed, but my instincts, which are pretty good, pinned his age closer to fifteen. His shoulders were wide but bony, and his hands were a little large, as if he still had some growing to do before he grew into the man he would be.
“I'm strong,” he said. “I don't know a lot about fixing cars, but I used to help my uncle keep his Bug running.”
I believed he was strong: werewolves are. As soon as I had picked up the distinctive musk-and-mint scent, I'd had a nervous urge to drive him out of my territory. However, not being a werewolf, I control my instinctsâI'm not controlled by them. Then, too, the boy, shivering slightly in the damp November weather, roused other, stronger instincts.
It is my own private policy not to break the law. I drive the speed limit, keep my cars insured, pay a little more tax to the feds than I have to. I've given away a twenty or two to people who'd asked, but never hired someone who couldn't appear on my payroll. There was also the problem of his being a werewolf, and a new one at that, if I was any judge. The young ones have less control of their wolves than others.
He hadn't commented on how odd it was to see a woman mechanic. Sure, he'd probably been watching me for a while, long enough to get used to the ideaâbut, still, he hadn't said anything, and that won him points. But not enough points for what I was about to do.
He rubbed his hands together and blew on them to warm up his fingers, which were red with chill.
“All right,” I said, slowly. It was not the wisest answer, but, watching his slow shivers, it was the only one I could give. “We'll see how it works.”
“There's a laundry room and a shower back through that door.” I pointed to the door at the back of the shop. “My last assistant left some of his old work coveralls. You'll find them hanging on the hooks in the laundry room. If you want to shower and put those on, you can run the clothes
you're wearing through the washer. There's a fridge in the laundry room with a ham sandwich and some pop. Eat, then come back out when you're ready.”
I put a little force behind the “eat”: I wasn't going to work with a hungry werewolf, not even almost two weeks from full moon. Some people will tell you werewolves can only shapechange under a full moon, but people also say there's no such things as ghosts. He heard the command and stiffened, raising his eyes to meet mine.
After a moment he mumbled a thank-you and walked through the door, shutting it gently behind him. I let out the breath I'd been holding. I knew better than to give orders to a werewolfâit's that whole dominance reflex thing.
Werewolves' instincts are inconvenientâthat's why they don't tend to live long. Those same instincts are the reason their wild brothers lost to civilization while the coyotes were thriving, even in urban areas like Los Angeles.
The coyotes are
brothers. Oh, I'm not a werecoyoteâif there even is such a thing. I am a walker.
The term is derived from “skinwalker,” a witch of the Southwest Indian tribes who uses a skin to turn into a coyote or some other animal and goes around causing disease and death. The white settlers incorrectly used the term for all the native shapechangers and the name stuck. We are hardly in a position to objectâeven if we came out in public like the lesser of the fae did, there aren't enough of us to be worth a fuss.
I didn't think the boy had known what I was, or he'd never have been able to turn his back on me, another predator, and go through the door to shower and change. Wolves may have a very good sense of smell, but the garage was full of odd odors, and I doubted he'd ever smelled someone like me in his life.
“You just hire a replacement for Tad?”
I turned and watched Tony come in from outside through the open bay doors, where he'd evidently been lurking and watching the byplay between the boy and me. Tony was good at thatâit was his job.
His black hair was slicked back and tied into a short ponytail and he was clean-shaven. His right ear, I noticed, was pierced four times and held three small hoops and a diamond stud. He'd added two since last time I'd seen him. In a hooded sweatshirt unzipped to display a thin tee that showed the results of all the hours he spent in a gym, he looked like a recruitment poster for one of the local Hispanic gangs.
“We're negotiating,” I said. “Just temporary so far. Are you working?”
“Nope. They gave me the day off for good behavior.” He was still focused on my new employee, though, because he said, “I've seen him around the past few days. He seems okayârunaway maybe.” Okay meant no drugs or violence, the last was reassuring.
When I started working at the garage about nine years ago, Tony had been running a little pawnshop around the corner. Since it had the nearest soft drink machine, I saw him fairly often. After a while the pawnshop passed on to different hands. I didn't think much of it until I smelled him standing on a street corner with a sign that said
WILL WORK FOR FOOD
I say smelled him, because the hollow-eyed kid holding the sign didn't look much like the low-key, cheerful, middle-aged man who had run the pawnshop. Startled, I'd greeted him by the name I'd known him by. The kid just looked at me like I was crazy, but the next morning Tony was waiting at my shop. That's when he told me what he did for a livingâI hadn't even known a place the size of the Tri-Cities would have undercover cops.
He'd started dropping by the shop every once in a while, after that. At first he'd come in a new guise each time. The Tri-Cities aren't that big, and my garage is on the edge of an area that's about as close as Kennewick comes to having a high-crime district. So it was possible he just came by when he was assigned to the area, but I soon decided the real reason was he was bothered I'd recognized him. I could hardly tell him I'd just smelled him, could I?
His mother was Italian and his father Venezuelan, and the genetic mix had given him features and skin tone that allowed him to pass as anything from Mexican to African-American. He could still pass for eighteen when he needed to, though he must be several years older than meâthirty-three or so. He spoke Spanish fluently and could use a half dozen different accents to flavor his English.
All of those attributes had led him to undercover work, but what really made him good was his body language. He could stride with the hip-swaggering walk common to handsome young Hispanic males, or shuffle around with the nervous energy of a drug addict.
After a while, he accepted I could see through disguises that fooled his boss and, he claimed, his own mother, but by then we were friends. He continued to drop in for a cup of coffee or hot chocolate and a friendly chat when he was around.
“You look very young and macho,” I said. “Are the earrings a new look for KPD? Pasco police have two earrings, so Kennewick cops must have four?”
He grinned at me, and it made him look both older and more innocent. “I've been working in Seattle for the past few months,” he said. “I've got a new tattoo, too. Fortunately for me it is somewhere my mother will never see it.”
Tony claimed to live in terror of his mother. I'd never met her myself, but he smelled of happiness not fear when he talked of her, so I knew she couldn't be the harridan he described.
“What brings you to darken my door?” I asked.
“I came to see if you'd look at a car for a friend of mine,” he said.
My eyebrows climbed in surprise. “I'll take a look, but I'm not set up for American carsâI don't have the computers. He should take it somewhere they know Buicks.”
taken it to three different mechanicsâreplaced the oxygen sensor, spark plugs, and who knows what else.
It's still not right. The last guy told her she needed a new engine, which he could do for twice what the car's worth. She doesn't have much money, but she needs the car.”
“I won't charge her for looking, and if I can't fix it, I'll tell her so.” I had a sudden thought, brought on by the edge of anger I heard in his voice when he talked about her problems. “Is this
“She's not my lady,” he protested unconvincingly.
For the past three years he'd had his eye on one of the police dispatchers, a widow with a slew of kids. He'd never done anything about it because he loved his jobâand his job, he'd said wistfully, was not conducive to dating, marriage, and kids.
“Tell her to bring it by. If she can leave it for a day or two, I'll see if Zee will come by and take a look at it.” Zee, my former boss, had retired when he sold me the place, but he'd come out once in a while to “keep his hand in.” He knew more about cars and what made them run than a team of Detroit engineers.
“Thanks, Mercy. You're aces.” He checked his watch. “I've got to go.”
I waved him off, then went back to the transmission. The car cooperated, as they seldom do, so it didn't take me long. By the time my new help emerged clean and garbed in an old pair of Tad's coveralls, I was starting to put the rest of the car back together. Even the coveralls wouldn't be warm enough outside, but in the shop, with my big space heater going, he should be all right.
He was quick and efficientâhe'd obviously spent a few hours under the hood of a car. He didn't stand around watching, but handed me parts before I asked, playing the part of a tool monkey as though it was an accustomed role. Either he was naturally reticent or had learned how to keep his mouth shut because we worked together for a couple of hours mostly in silence. We finished the first car and started on another one before I decided to coax him into talking to me.