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CORMAC SAT quietly while the man across the desk from him talked.
"... model parolee, Mr. Bennett. I'm almost sorry to see you go." Porter gave a pleasant, practiced smile. He didn't mean anything by it. He was nondescript, a middle-aged bureaucrat with a plain suit and a tie someone else probably picked out for him. The office was equally nondescript, fifteen-year-old interior design washed out by fluorescent lights shining through frosted plastic. Cluttered desk, cluttered bookshelves, no view visible through a narrow window. Porter's padded executive chair didn't look much more comfortable than Cormac's hard plastic one. How'd the guy come here to work every day without going crazy? Cormac was itching to leave and never look back.
He tried a tight-lipped smile in return, because it was expected. It was polite, pretending like he thought the joke was funny. He kept his hands in his lap and twirled a braided band of leather wrapped around his right wrist. One turn, two, three ...
Porter relaxed further, the vague look in his eyes suggesting he might actually have been enjoying himself. "Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Bennett? Anything at all?" He needed to be helpful, did Mr. Porter.
So many favors Cormac might ask for. Special grants for ex-cons, maybe some cash rewards, payouts. Request a full pardon from the governor, get his conviction overturned entirely, wipe the record clean and reinstate his concealed carry permit-
A bird in the hand, murmured a voice in the back of his mind. A woman's voice, speaking in an aristocratic English accent. Let's not get carried away. It's enough to be done with this place.
Cormac agreed. Stick to the plan, and the plan was to end his parole as quickly and painlessly as possible. Then stay the hell out of trouble so he'd never have to go through anything like prison again.
"No, sir," Cormac said. "I can't think of anything. Just your signature and I'll get out of your hair."
"That'll be my true pleasure, Mr. Bennett." Pen scratched on paper, the official document that meant Cormac was well and truly-finally-done with the Colorado Department of Corrections. He kept turning the braided cord, counting. Anyone watching would think he was fidgeting out of nervousness.
At last, Porter turned the pages around, showed Cormac the places he needed to sign, separated duplicate copies, folded one set, stuck them in an envelope, and handed the whole batch over.
"There you go. You are now what we call 'off paper' and officially out of the system. Congratulations."
The envelope should not have felt like a piece of solid gold in Cormac's hand, but it did. He should run. Flee, before Porter changed his mind.
Give the cord another turn or two, his ghost Amelia said. Just in case.
He did, fidgeting. Porter's expression was expansive, pleased. The man was so happy to help, wasn't he? He reached out to shake Cormac's hand. "Good luck, son."
Maybe they didn't need the spell to ensure Porter's cooperation. Maybe the wheels of justice didn't need any greasing at all on this end. On the other hand, a little nudging couldn't hurt.
"Thank you very much, sir," Cormac said as calmly as he knew how. He picked up his black leather jacket from over the back of the chair, walked out of the boxy little office, down the hall, and out of the building into the bright morning sunshine. He squinted into the blue sky.
He was free.
* * *
BACK AT his Jeep, he tossed the precious envelope on the passenger seat. After consideration, he picked it back up and tucked it in the inside pocket of his jacket. Like he expected it to disappear if he didn't have it with him.
"Shouldn't feel any different," he said out loud. "Not like anything's really changed."
Symbols are powerful, Amelia said. You know that.
This one meant he'd done it, crossed another bridge, taken another step toward normal. For certain values of normal. And now he had to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
He made a call before even leaving the parking lot.
"It's done," he said when his cousin answered. "I'm off paper."
"Hallelujah," Ben O'Farrell sighed. "Congratulations."
"Congratulations to you for keeping me straight." Ben was also his lawyer.
"Group effort," Ben said. "Speaking of which, you have to come to New Moon tonight."
"Why?" he asked, wary.
"Kitty's planning a surprise party for you, to celebrate. I couldn't talk her out of it. Sorry."
Kitty, Ben's wife. Cormac had introduced them, years ago now. He still didn't know quite what to think about that. Smiled a little, though he wouldn't have if anyone had been watching. "She would want to do something like that, wouldn't she?"
"Yes, she would," Ben said, laughter and affection plain in his voice. "I thought you'd want some warning."
"Yeah, thanks. And Ben-thanks."
"You're welcome. You should call my mother next. She'll want to know."
"I will," he said, and hung up. His Aunt Ellen had been the one to take care of the Jeep while he was gone. Along with Ben and Kitty, she was his only family.
Cormac's manslaughter conviction had gotten him a slap on the wrist. There were so many other things he'd done that would have gotten him a longer sentence, a worse time of it if he'd been caught. If he'd gone down another road. The older he got-the longer he actually survived-the more grateful he was that Ben and his family had steered him away from that.
I'm grateful as well, Amelia said. I'm not sure I would have liked you, if we'd met in your younger days.
"I'm still surprised you like me now," he said. "You saying I'm not just a relationship of convenience?"
Hm, you're that, too. But still, I'm glad I met you when I did. She knew without him having to say it, that in his young wild days she might have tried to talk to him, but he sure as hell wouldn't have been able to listen. He would have been one of the ones she'd driven mad.
Amelia was one of those forks in the road that no one could have predicted.
* * *
SCREAMS, TERROR, the smell of death, a prison drenched in blood, fear sliding into a riot, unnatural and haunted. A monster, a shadowed thing with legs and arms but no visible face, with long claws and a wicked laugh. It had haunted those prison walls and would have killed him. It had already sliced open three men's throats, leaving their cell mates screaming in insanity and setting the whole prison at the edge of disaster.
Cormac had faced the demon down with nothing but his orange jumpsuit and bare hands. Then she'd been there, in his mind, guiding his hand. The spirit of a long-dead magician, a Victorian adventurer hanged for murder, who'd found a way to keep her soul alive-she said she could destroy the demon, but she needed his body, his living flesh and muscles, in order to do so. Finally, Cormac believed her. And not just because he didn't have a choice.
She had knowledge, but she needed him to fuel her spells. Her fire burned through him, tore the demon to pieces-
He woke up sometimes still expecting to see the washed-out ceiling of his prison cell, to feel the pressure of the bars on his back. He still shivered when he remembered that feeling, that something was lying in wait for him, waiting to rip open his throat, and he had no place to go.
Then he remembered her touch, the fire she brought with her.
He'd resisted her. He'd hated giving over part of himself, no matter what the reason. She hadn't been very happy about it either-she'd begun by trying to dominate him. Grab control and exert her will without having to argue with him. Slip on his body like a new suit. Of course, that wasn't an option.
They needed time to figure it out, but in the end they learned that they were stronger working together than they were apart. They could do more. They had a better chance for survival. And that was all either of them ever wanted.
* * *
HE BOTH did and didn't want to go to New Moon that night. He usually felt like that about the downtown restaurant that Ben and Kitty owned. The sense of obligation was ... discomfiting. He didn't like feeling that he owed them, or anyone, something. Loyalty was difficult. It was an anchor holding him in place. At the same time, knowing he belonged here, with people who wanted to see him-that was a prize. A trophy for surviving, not just prison but his whole life so far. The number of times he probably shouldn't have made it, the number of guns he'd faced, the number of monsters-both human and supernatural-he'd sought out and mingled with hadn't given him great odds.
Yet here he was. The feeling of belonging was growing on him, like a pair of leather boots finally breaking in to mold to his feet.
The place was a few blocks south of Colfax, part of a collection of funky shops and restaurants that had sprung up around Broadway and the art museum in the last decade, an old brick block of a building that might have been a small-scale factory or warehouse sixty years ago, gone through refurbishment a couple of times over, and now had what reviewers called character.
He hesitated outside the restaurant's front door and took a deep breath.
He told himself not to flinch when the calls rang out. What did you shout at an ex-con newly off parole anyway? Happy freedom day? Happy not-on-parole-anymore? He was determined not to smirk at whatever banner she'd hung up. He wouldn't frown too hard at the proceedings. Depending on how earnest Kitty was about the whole thing, he might even smile.
You are making far too much of this.
Oh yeah? he thought. Just wait.
When he opened the door and entered the restaurant, nothing happened. In fact, everything looked normal. Everything sounded normal. Something jazzy played on the speakers, barely audible over the ambient noise of the crowd. The bar ran along one side of the interior, straight from the front door. Tables, about three-quarters occupied, filled the rest of the space. A pair of waitresses maneuvered among them on the hardwood floor, carrying trays, pitchers of beer. The ceiling was fashionably unfinished, painted ductwork and rafters giving the place an airy feel. The crowd was young to middle age, professional. The guy working the bar, Shaun, was the regular manager. He was always polite to Cormac, but usually glared at him with some suspicion. He knew Cormac's history. Cormac ignored him.
He walked in, and nothing changed. Nobody shouted surprise, nobody jumped out from behind anything. He stood a moment, wondering what was wrong.
Kitty approached from the bar, carrying a mug of some dark and dangerous-looking beer, which she offered him. Her smile crinkled, an expression of vast amusement.
"Congratulations," she said, and that was all.
Blinking, he took the beer, holding it at a slight distance as if he didn't know what to do with it.
"Surprised?" she said, lips parted in a grin that showed teeth. A challenging grin. Ben approached, coming up to look at him over her shoulder.
"You set me up," Cormac said to him.
"She set us both up. Not my fault." He held up his hands in a show of defense.
"You people don't have any faith in me at all, do you?" She heaved a dramatic sigh and turned to walk off to her usual table in back.
Kitty was cute. Not gorgeous, though she could probably approach it if she ever bothered with makeup and high heels and the whole getup. She chose comfort, in jeans and flat-heeled pumps and a short-sleeve blouse. About five-six, she had an athletic build and a quick grace about her. Her shoulder-length blond hair was loose, framing her face. Brown eyes. He'd known her for six or seven years now.
Ben he'd known his whole life, a fact that amazed him. Cormac sometimes had to adjust his own mental image of the man from the scruffy, gangly teenager he'd been when Cormac moved in with his family, to the focused, intense-and still kind of scruffy-adult he was now. He wore a blue button-up shirt untucked over khakis, hands shoved in his pockets. An average guy, likeable in spite of the law degree.
Side by side, the couple stalked to the back of the restaurant, retrieving their own beers from the bar. Cormac watched them, observing the undeniable, underlying truth of their lives: both Ben and Kitty were werewolves.
Cormac still flinched a little thinking of it. Werewolves were the bad guys, he'd known that truth since he was a boy learning to hunt from his father. His father didn't just hunt the usual game-he also took on vampires, werewolves, the supernatural creatures that most people thought were just stories, at least back then. Then, the inevitable happened. In hindsight, Cormac knew it was a matter of time. You hunted near-invulnerable monsters of the supernatural, ones that science and nature couldn't explain, that walked the Earth as proof that magic existed-eventually, you'd meet one you couldn't kill. And it would kill you. The men in the Bennett family who hunted all died young. He expected to die himself, by claw or fang, sooner rather than later. When Cormac was sixteen years old, a werewolf killed his father, and he hated them. Or thought he did. Then Kitty came along.
He'd meant to kill her. He'd been hired to kill her, a blatant attempt by his client to get her new and increasingly popular radio show off the air. Maybe he'd been stupid to take that job-the publicity of killing her on the air hadn't scared him, and he'd been confident, probably overconfident, of his ability to escape any repercussions after. He'd had a job, and his job was killing werewolves. She'd talked him out of it, live on the air, without breaking a sweat. At least not that he'd been able to see. They'd become something like friends.
When she'd needed a lawyer, he'd recommended Ben. Later, he'd brought Ben along on a job-just backup was what he'd said, someone to call out if the bad guy came around from behind. But there'd been two bad guys, and one of them had gotten Ben. They'd made a pact as kids: if either of them was infected with lycanthropy, vampirism, or something worse, the other would kill him. When the moment came, Cormac couldn't do it. Couldn't kill the only person in the world he trusted, because Kitty proved that not all the werewolves were bad guys. Cormac took Ben to Kitty for help. Now they were married.
It seemed like a lifetime ago. Centuries ago. That all had happened to a different person, and now he came to the bar to drink with a couple of werewolves who were also his friends. His father would be so disappointed with him.
Stop minding your father, Amelia reprimanded him. He's dead.
"Yeah, well, so are you," he murmured.
As he watched Ben and Kitty, he could see their true nature in a dozen little ways that they weren't conscious of: the way their nostrils flared when the door opened and they smelled newcomers, the watchful look in their eyes, the stiffness in their shoulders when they got nervous. When they perched in their chairs, he could almost see ears pricking forward with interest. Kitty brushed along Ben as she sat, shoulder to shoulder, a gesture both animal and intimate. They kept watch over the bar, which they'd opened to be something of a den for their pack of wolves. Shaun was also a werewolf, and Cormac recognized a couple of others hanging out. Most people wouldn't see it, but Cormac knew what to look for.
When they were all seated with beers in hand, Ben raised his glass and said, "Cheers."
It was easy being comfortable here, drinking beer and sitting with friends. Being comfortable made him nervous.
"Does it feel different now?" Kitty asked.
He shrugged a little, the start of a deflection, but he changed his mind. "Yeah, it does. Feels like finally getting the keys to the handcuffs." He could feel the envelope resting in his inside pocket, pressing against his heart.
"Any big plans?" Ben asked.
"Vacation," Kitty said. "I'd go on vacation. Someplace with beaches. Or Disneyland! You could go to Disneyland."
Ben looked pained. "Your vacations don't tend to be all that relaxing."
"Someday," she answered. "Someday, I will have a vacation that doesn't go pear shaped."
Cormac's lip quirked in a smile. Kitty couldn't take a trip without combining it with work, which meant publicizing it, which meant attracting attention, and that was where the trouble started.
"Don't laugh," she muttered at him.
Ben said, "It's probably best not to make any life-changing decisions just yet. I've seen it happen-people go off paper, go crazy, throw themselves for a loop, fall into old habits, end up back in prison." Ben was a criminal defense attorney and spent a good chunk of his business escorting clients through the system.
"You don't trust me?" Cormac said.
"I'm your lawyer, it's my job to tell you these things."
Cormac picked at the edge of a coaster left on the table. "I'm thinking it's time I follow up the lead in Manitou Springs. Talk to Amy Scanlon's aunt." A different road, a new kind of job-he was ready to move on. Maybe this really was what he ought to be doing with the rest of his life.
"You okay with that?" Kitty asked. "You want company? Me being there might make things a little easier." She was a born diplomat, and for some reason she didn't think Cormac, in his leather jacket and biker boots, approaching some grief-stricken old lady, was a particularly good idea. Go figure.
"No, I'll be fine. I'm just getting fidgety. The part of Scanlon's book we put online might give us something eventually, but I don't think we can wait much longer."
Ben turned to Kitty. "You still don't have anything from Grant? Tina?"
"They're checking in. You know how this stuff works, it's hit or miss. More misses than hits, usually. It's not a science."
Kitty had a whole collection of contacts, real-deal mediums, magicians, and ghost hunters in addition to the vampires and lycanthropes she knew. She'd met most of them through her radio show. Each of them provided various bits and pieces of information, but they still didn't have the whole picture-the key to decoding Scanlon's book, which in turn might be the key to solving an even bigger problem: the vampire Roman.
"Maybe this one'll be a hit," Cormac said.
Even though it meant telling this woman that her long-lost niece was dead. And it meant going back to the end of Amelia's life.
Amelia turned unusually quiet whenever the subject of Manitou Springs came up. They'd both been avoiding it. With his parole over, Cormac was running out of excuses to put off the trip.
He kept himself to one beer and didn't talk much, but that was usual. Watched Ben and Kitty and their easy way of bantering. They had some friends come through-and not just members of their werewolf pack. Normal people, coworkers and contacts, who chatted and laughed with them. Talked about ordinary things. Ben and Kitty, they had a life. They may have been werewolves, but this wasn't the first time Cormac felt like the outcast next to them.
Before he started getting too uncomfortable, Cormac bowed himself out. They only argued a little for show, and Cormac assured them that he was fine, he just needed some rest. The usual song and dance. The normality of a life he wasn't sure he'd ever really get used to.
Copyright © 2014 by Carrie Vaughn, LLC