Insanity’s Not the Point
The crash shook the house, sounding as though the front wall had exploded. I whirled as my front door blew in, icy wind gusting with hurricane force. My ears popped. The bed skirt blew flat beneath the bed. My Beast rammed into me, the light going sharp and the colors bleaching into greens. Beast-fast, I grabbed two nine-mils from the bed, off- safetied, and chambered rounds into both. Raced into the foyer.
The door was open, the knob stuck into the wallboard, the hinges bent. The glass of its small window was busted all over the floor. Again.
Gale-force winds rushed through the open door. No one stood there. Icy air whirled through the house with a scream. I heard windows breaking in back. My ears popped again. A table in the living room tumbled over. Daylight patterned the wood floor off the foyer and reflected off broken glass shoved by the wind into the corner. Not vamps, I thought. But I’d been a target for blood-servants and scions for months. This wasn’t the first such attack, but it was the first that had gotten this far. And then the frigid cold tingled up my arms, blue and golden, flecked with darker sparks of frozen force. It smelled like the air over a glacier, fresh and full of suspended, preserved power. It circled over me, tried to latch onto my skin.
My Beast rose and batted the spell away. Magic, she thought. Air magic. Angry, like storms rising on the horizon. Witches.
I advanced the few steps from my room to the front door, the frigid squall pushing against me. In my peripheral vision, I saw Eli at the top of the stairs, his hunting rifle in one hand, a blade in the other, a small subgun on a sling over his back. The former Ranger was wearing boxers, his dark skin slick with shower water.
There was no music in the attack, no wind instrument, no whistling, no singing, none of the usual methods air witches used when they attacked. And the wind seemed random, blustery, not the tornado of might from a focused attack. More like wild magic, the kind teenaged witches might toss when their power first fell on them, out of control and turbulent. I danced into the doorway and back, getting a glimpse out. Despair pelted over me, sharp and burning as sleet, as I identified him. Sorcerer Evan Trueblood, my best friend Molly’s husband, was standing in the street, attacking my home.
Eli raced halfway down the stairs, his bare feet placed with rooted precision, his wet skin pebbled from the cold.
“No guns,” I shouted to Eli.
“Are you insane?” he shouted back.
“Probably, but insanity’s not the point. It’s Evan.”
Understanding dawned in the set of his shoulders and Eli raced back up the stairs. I turned my full attention to the open door. “Whaddaya want, Evan?” I shouted.
The wind receded marginally.
“I don’t want to fight you,” I called out. “I know I’d lose.” Maybe. Possibly. Okay, not likely, not with Eli and Beast on my side, but why stir a frozen pot? My big-cat huffed with agreement. “Talk to me, Evan! Please!”
“Tell Molly to come out and I’ll leave your house standing.”
My eyes went wide. I hadn’t seen Evan’s wife, Molly, in months, not since I killed her sister. Instantly I felt my hand on the knife as the blade slid into Evangelina. Hot blood gushed over me. I blinked away the unexpected tears that the cold wind stimulated and the memory evoked. I had killed her. I’d had no choice.
The police in Asheville had cleared me. There had been a hearing two weeks ago, attended by me, my lawyer, Adelaide Mooney, two local vamps, the PsyLED hand of the law, Rick LaFleur, and lots of press.
Molly hadn’t come to my hearing. None of her sisters had come. I’d kept glancing to the back of the courtroom, hoping. But they hadn’t come. I had only seen two of the Everhart witches while I was in Asheville, and that was because of vamp business, not friendship. Molly’s friendship had died. And why not? I didn’t deserve to have a relationship with her.
Despite, or maybe because of, the media coverage of Evangelina’s dying, I’d been cleared of any wrongdoing in the same way anyone would have been cleared, anyone who had stopped an armed killer from talking more lives. But the feeling that I’d managed to hide from in the months since I killed Evangelina had roared up like hot flame and taken me over. I couldn’t get rid of the feel of her blood, hot and sticky on my hand. Even now, I wiped the back of my hand on my jeans, feeling the cooling blood, long gone, but as real to my flesh and nerves as if it still coated my hand.
I had survived the distance from New Orleans and my accidental binding by Leo Pellissier, Master of the City of New Orleans, but only by hours. I’d flown back on Leo’s private jet, the fastest transport available to me. And retched the entire way home, sick as a dog because of my Beast’s inadvertent binding to the MOC, one that put a deadline on how long I could be apart from him, and also how far away from him I could go, even for short time periods. Getting my legal problems settled had made me deathly sick, but maybe the nausea was only partly from the binding. Maybe the rest of the sickness had been because Molly hadn’t been there. Hadn’t returned my fifteen million phone calls to her cell.
“Send her out!” Evan shouted, and a burst of wind hit the house. It creaked under the pressure. Evan wasn’t attacking my house on purpose. He was losing control. He was so furious that his magic was operating on its own, ripping free.
“Molly . . .” I stopped as my voice cracked. I took a slow breath, bent, and set the nine-millimeter semiautomatics on the floor in the open doorway where he could see them. The rushing air nearly froze the skin on my hands. I stood and crossed my arms, putting my hands under my armpits to warm them. “Molly’s not here. I haven’t seen her,” I shouted to him. “Why would you think she’d come to see me? If Molly ever really forgave me, she would have called. Answered my calls. Texted me. Something.” I laughed shakily. “She didn’t.” My voice dropped. “Though why that would surprise me, I have no idea. I haven’t been able to forgive myself.”
Moments later, the wind slowed to a trickle. Something in my bedroom overbalanced at the change in pressure and shattered to the floor. I glanced back to see the bed skirt dropping down and a lamp on the floor. I shivered in the cold. Over my head on the landing upstairs, I heard a faint click. Eli readying a gun. I looked up and saw the barrel of the rifle angled down from the floor. Eli was lying prone, aiming into the doorway. “Put it away, Eli.” When he didn’t move, I stepped into the doorway, standing so he’d have to shoot me first, before any attackers. He cursed softly behind me.
I stood in the doorway, the sun’s glare hiding Evan from me, except for a silhouette. A huge bear of a silhouette, six-six and more. Squinting, I made out his red hair and beard, fire-bright, his flannel plaid shirt and jeans. Boots laced up.
I put up a hand to shield my eyes from the sun and studied him. His face was drawn and pale, nose red as if from crying. Dark circles puffed beneath his eyes. He stood less than fifteen feet from the freebie house I lived in. Molly’s minivan was behind him, sunlight bouncing off the chrome. Evan’s rattletrap red truck hadn’t made the trip; it had barely made the previous trip to the Deep South, even with an air sorcerer tinkering with it. Which meant that if Molly was traveling, it was by air or rental car. Or maybe bus. Train. Anyway, easy to track, no matter how she’d traveled. My investigational brain kicking in when the emotional one was in turmoil. I tried for something lighter than his unintentional attack on my house. “You coulda called, you know. I’d have told you she wasn’t here, saved you a trip.”
Big Evan looked bewildered. “Why would you tell me the truth? Where is she?” he whispered. Louder, he said, “Her sisters agreed that she wanted to put things to rights with you. She’d been talking to all of us about you.” His body wavered, and he put a hand to the minivan to steady himself. I figured he was drained by the magic, or maybe drained by trying to control his magic, and wondered if my house would still be standing had he really been trying to destroy it. He said, “She forgave you a long time ago. I told you that she forgave you.” He raised his head and met my eyes, his cloudy with worry, his leaning, propped body looking unutterably weary. “She even went to your trial, in disguise, so the press wouldn’t give her trouble. With the numbers of people, you never caught her scent, did you?”
I opened my mouth, but no words came. I couldn’t help the rush of joy that flooded through me. Molly had come? Did that mean she had really, truly forgiven me?
“I’ve looked everywhere. Her mother hasn’t seen her. There’s . . . no other place she could have gone. No other place. She just vanished.”
And then I realized Molly was missing. And the cold from Evan’s magic stabbed into my heart. Where was Molly?
The van’s back door, on the far side, opened, and I tensed, until I heard the scamper of small feet racing toward the house. I took a step out the door as Angie Baby rounded the front of the van and hurled herself at me. I caught her up in my arms and sank to my knees on the front porch. And then settled into a sitting position, Angie on my lap. Her arms tightened on my neck, holding me so close I could feel her heart beating fastfastfast in her chest. She smelled of strawberry shampoo and sunlight and love. A moment later Little Evan joined us, pushing onto my lap. He smelled of baby powder, prepackaged juice, and crayons. I pulled him into the group hug.
Inside me, Beast murmured, Kits. . . Missed kits. She huffed and settled her chin to her paws.
I started crying in earnest, my tears falling to Angie Baby’s head and trickling into her hair. Little Evan, who had grown three inches since I saw him last, stood on my jeans- clad thighs and grabbed my braid like a rope, saying, “Aunt Jane. Aunt Jane. Aunt Jane,” like a chant over and over.
There was no way he could remember me. Not with the memory of a child and the months that separated us. Yet he seemed to know who I was, and that was enough for now. “Yes. Aunt Jane,” I said. “Ow. That hurts. Stop that.” Which made Little Evan giggle and yank harder, pulling my hair until my scalp protested. “Stop,” I said, laughing, wiping my face, pulling them close. I stood, holding them both. Most people couldn’t carry a six- year-old—seven-year-old now—and a toddler, but I wasn’t just anyone. And since most of the world now knew that I was a skinwalker, I didn’t have to hide my stronger-than-human strength. “You coming in?” I asked their father.
Evan scowled. I shrugged and toted his children, Molly’s children, inside. I looked up, not seeing the barrel of a rifle, which meant my backup had stood down. “Eli,” I called, “can you get the door to close, and cover the broken windows with plywood?”
“On it,” he said, clattering down the steps from the second story. He was dressed in jeans, unlaced combat boots, and layered T-shirts, the tees hiding the weapons he never went without. A toolbox was in his left hand, keeping his right free for weapons. “Alex’s getting his toys, on the way down to start a search for one Molly Everhart Trueblood.” Eli paused in the doorway, studying the big man who still stood on the street, as if he couldn’t make up his mind if he wanted to enter my home. “How long has she been gone?” he asked Evan.
“Three days. No. Four now.” Evan wiped his face with a hand as if trying to wake up. “Sorry. It’s been a long drive.”
I felt, more than saw, Big Evan approach the house, blocking off the light at the door for a long space of time as he made up his mind to enter. Standing in the middle of the foyer, his hands hanging loose and empty, he said, “Molly’s not here? You haven’t seen her? For real?”
“For real,” I said. His face looked ravaged, his eyes bleary.
“Details,” Eli said, setting the tools on the floor and kicking aside broken glass.
I wanted to make Big Evan talk, with my fists, if necessary, but the children were more important. I moved into the house and sat on the couch, holding my god-children to me. My partners, Eli and his little brother, the Kid, were a well-oiled team, capable and self- reliant. They had listened to the dialogue between Big Evan and me and were already getting to work, even though it wasn’t a for-pay search. Money was important, but not even close to the importance of family. The Truebloods were my family.
“I saw her last on Monday. I kissed her and left for work in town. I have a gig installing lights in a new bar. When I got home that night, her sisters were there.” He stepped into the house and stood in the foyer, so tired he was nearly wavering on his feet. “Regan and Amelia. Babysitting. Not unusual. Until they left and I found the note on the bed.”
The hurt in his voice made my eyes tear up. “Evan, may I see the note?” He put a hand to his back pocket, but didn’t pull anything from it. “Does the note tell you why you thought Molly was coming to New Orleans? Coming to see me?”
Evan handed me the paper. It was oft folded and worn, shaped to a slightly rounded curve, like the way a wallet shapes to the wearer’s buttock.
Juggling children, I slowly opened the note and read aloud. “Darlin’, I’ve gone to New Orleans to make things right with Jane, and put some other things to rights too. I can’t hide from it anymore. But don’t try to contact me. I’ll be busy and not able to answer for a while. I love you with all my heart and soul and might. Kiss our babies. Molly.” Something about the message sounded so final. As if a good-bye was included in the words, without ever being said. I turned the paper over. Nothing was written on the back. “What can’t she hide anymore?” I asked
“I don’t know. Something about her magic. She was having trouble growing things, making them thrive. The woods behind the house were hit with some kind of blight, beetles or fungus or something, and they were dying and she . . . couldn’t make them right.”
Put some other things to rights too, she had written, like maybe a hitch in her magic. But what was magical here that could help her? Except the magical implements and gizmos in my possession, which she knew about. Not that Molly would ever use black magic items. So it had to be something else, like the witches here in New Orleans, who might know things she didn’t. I hadn’t attempted to get to know the witches here. Maybe I should have.
Softly, I said, “You really could have called. I’d have told you she wasn’t here. I’d have helped.”
“But Mol said she was coming. Why would she say she was coming and then not show up?” He asked again, “You really haven’t—”
“No. I haven’t seen or heard from her.” I started to ask more questions, but the tension in the small bodies in my arms suggested that the children needed a break from their overwrought father and his worry. Folding the note, I repositioned Little Evan and handed it back, to see Big Evan tuck it carefully in his pocket, as if he’d done it hundreds of times in the last few days, maybe rereading it over and over, looking for reasons or information he’d missed on a previous read. Maybe just holding it because Molly had touched it. “Are you hungry?” I asked the children, pulling them closer, feeling them snuggle against me. “I have cheese toast. Ravioli.” And steaks and salad and oatmeal and beer. I’d need to shop or send out for food the children would like. I’d make a list and put the Kid on it. He could order online while we did other stuff. If no one wanted to go out, it could be delivered. I pulled a blanket from the back of the couch over the three of us, the new energy-efficient heater unable to keep up with the cold air still moving through the house, by nature now, not magic.
“Do you have her credit card numbers?” Eli asked from the door.
“Yeah. That for starters,” the Kid said as he made his way down from the second floor. He handed Eli a broom as he traversed the glass-strewn foyer. “I need her maiden name, DOB, social and all electronic info, starting with cell numbers and credit card numbers.”
“Everhart,” I said as Evan rattled off her birth date and Social Security number. He pulled out his cell and gave the Kid the other numbers, and sent him three pictures of Molly to use in the search. The security business in the electronic age was so much easier than in the old days.
Before Evan had his phone put away, the Kid said, “Got it. I’m in.” He settled to his comfy chair and the small table where he worked. “She rented a car in Asheville the day she disappeared, on her Visa. Like most rental cars, it has GPS. It’ll take a bit, but I can access it.”
“You can tell that already?” Evan asked, his voice pained and incredulous at once.
“Yeah. You came to the right place, dude. Even if you did huff and puff and try to blow the house down.”
“Three little pigs,” Little Evan chortled. “Daddy’s a wolf-ees!”
“Yes, he is,” I said to Little Evan. To Big Evan, I said, “Go help Eli. It’s cold in here.” His eyes widened, and he acted as though he was gonna balk at taking orders from me, but really, what choice did he have? Whether subconsciously or by deliberation, he had come to me. My turf, which meant my rules. And I needed to set the parameters early because my team needed freedom to search the way we wanted, not under the thumb of a distraught husband.
Big Evan blew out a breath and his shoulders drooped. He called to Eli, “I got a drill in the van. I think I stripped out the screws when I blew the door open like some hormonally charged teenager.”
“Yeah, I see that,” Eli said, his voice casual, as if he dealt with air witches every day. He knelt at the doorway and fingered the splintered wood. “Better than a battering ram.”
“Daddy’s a wolf-ees!” Little Evan chortled again. “He huffed and he puffed!” Then he turned in my arms, yanked my braid, and demanded, “I’m hungry. Fruit Loops!”
Big Evan looked up at that. “In the van. I’ll bring them.”
Eli chuffed slightly, a catlike sound he had picked up from me in the last few months. I detected derision in the tone and knew it had to do with the amount of sugar in the cereal. As well as a former Army Ranger, Eli was a dyed-in-the-wool health nut.
“Fruit Loops it is,” I said cheerfully. Eli shrugged slightly without turning his head, his body language so restrained no one else might have detected it. I was still learning what the minuscule changes meant. This one meant People are idiots. They eat too much sugar and fats and carbs. This is why everybody’s gaining weight.
I carried the kids to the kitchen and grabbed the high chair in the back of the butler’s pantry (a tiny, windowed room off the kitchen that the guys and I had started using for a tea and coffee bar) and deposited Little Evan at the table. The Kid, watching from the living area where he worked, chuckled when he saw the high chair. It had been in the way, but I hadn’t let anyone put it in the small attic, and hadn’t explained why. Now the Kid asked, “Skinwalkers are psychic?”
I grabbed the tall books that Angie sat on so she could be a big girl at meals. I ignored how easy it was getting the children settled in my house. Molly hadn’t talked to me in months, and yet I had kept all their things handy. “No, not psychic. Just . . .” Pitiful? I settled on “Just hopeful. We used it when Molly visited last summer.”
My Beast was hyperaware, alert, and focused on all the people, especially the children, in her den as I opened a can of ravioli for Angelina. Kits, she purred, her happiness like a warm blanket.
Yeah, well, we get to keep all the guys too, I thought at her. We can’t have the kits without the grown-ups.
Pack, Beast spat. I could tell by her tone that she wasn’t pleased. As I opened the ravioli and heated it in the microwave, she sent a series of memory pictures to my forebrain, and I understood her disquiet. In the wild, mountain lions were solitary creatures, except when a female had kits. For a while after they were weaned, the female kits stayed in the den with the mother cat, sometimes for several years, hunting together, sleeping together, and even, rarely, mothering another litter together, until wanderlust hit the females and they disappeared. Which I had totally not known. But never, ever were males allowed to stay once they were grown. They were kicked out to fend for themselves as soon as they learned to hunt and kill.
Will be trouble, Beast thought at me. Too many males. She sent me a memory of big-cat brothers fighting to the death over a female. They were her kits, these young males, who bit and shredded flesh with teeth and claws. From a high promontory, Beast had watched them fight. The memory was detailed—bloody, vicious, the memory-scent of blood and rage pheromones rising on the wind, the sound of yowling, spitting, screaming. My breath caught in my throat as one male sank his teeth into his brother’s belly and ripped. Gore and blood spattered the ground. Beast had watched as the injured male dragged himself off to die.
I shivered, horrified, ravioli scent filling the kitchen, replacing the memory-scents. But from Beast I got nothing, no emotional reaction to the memory at all. I had no idea of her feelings at the time of the fight, or now, when she shared the memory with me. Trouble, she thought.
Big Evan has a mate, I thought at her. Eli has a mate in Natchez. The Kid is too young for a mate.
Beast growled at me and sent me a memory picture of Rick LaFleur, stretched on my sheets. Jane had mate. Jane is stupid. With that pithy thought she prowled into the back of my mind and lay down, her head on her paws.
“Yeah,” I whispered to her and to myself. “I am.” The microwave dinged, pulling me back to my kitchen. Big Evan entered and set a half-empty grocery bag of food, one of garbage, and a cooler on the kitchen table. “We ate on the road,” he said.
“Yeah. I see that,” I managed, and poured milk and Fruit Loops into a bowl for Little Evan.
An hour later, the door was closed on new hinges that Eli had bought, just in case, and the back windows were boarded over with plywood he had bought for the same reason. The former Ranger was Mr. Prepared. Or Mr. Paranoid, though I’d never say so aloud.
Evan, when he wasn’t helping Eli, had moved in, which felt so weird. I hadn’t even had to beg or insist. And since Evan had agreed so readily when I suggested that they stay here, I had spent that hour getting my new guests settled, the children in the bedroom directly over my own, in the twin beds they had stayed in on their one visit, and Big Evan in the room directly behind them. His bed was shoved against the wall, to make room for the workout equipment that had made its way into the house in the last few months, but he didn’t seem to mind. I wasn’t exactly Betsy Homemaker, but I put sheets on the beds and got towels from the stash in the upstairs linen closet. There were two bathrooms upstairs and Eli had cleaned his out, without being asked, now sharing one with his brother.
It had been a seamless transition from a family of three to a family of six, and when I let myself think of it, that was weirder than weird. The house felt odd and full and not quite right, as if it was shifting to accommodate the bodies, probably more people than it had housed since it had been used as a brothel back in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds.
But while all the situational stuff was good, by the end of that first hour we had lost Molly’s trail. The car she rented had been turned in to the rental company in Knoxville, only a few hours’ drive from Asheville, and Molly’s trail had stopped cold. The Kid had not found a single credit card purchase since, and my idea of easily tracking Molly by train, plane, or bus had proven incorrect. My former best friend had truly disappeared.
I stood over his shoulder, as Alex worked on four electronic tablets simultaneously, smelling the stink of his worry and stress, seeing it in the tightness of his shoulders, hearing it in the pounding of his fingers on the tablets. I took a calming breath and asked, “Thoughts? Ideas?”
The Kid looked around the room. Finding us alone, he said, “I have an untraceable account in India.”
I drew a slow breath. Alex was on parole for hacking into the Pentagon to get a look at his brother’s military records. Eli had put his younger brother on a short leash in computer terms, denying the Kid the opportunity for any illegalities. Well, except for a short stint in Natchez, and that had been life and death. And very, very big bucks, a hypocrisy that hadn’t been lost on any of us.
But Molly was missing. What if someone picked her up out of the parking lot? What if she had met a rogue-vamp who smelled her witch blood came after her? Okay, that wasn’t likely, but . . . Molly was missing. Was finding her worth incurring Eli’s wrath? Getting the Kid stuck in a parole violation and tossed in jail? I thought about Molly, hurt somewhere, in an accident; off the road, in a gully. Or abused by some kid who had stopped for the lone female on the side of the road and decided to hurt her. Yes. It was worth it. “What are we talking about?” I hedged.
“Security cameras in front of the car rental center for starters, to see what happened to Molly immediately after she dropped off the car.”
“Minimal to none. Except pis— Sorry. Ticking off big brother and hiding from Big Brother.”
“Do it,” I said. “I’ll talk to your brother.”
“Better you than me,” he said, and opened a black screen with white code on it. He bent his head over this tablet, his fingers moving with nearly balletic precision.
I walked to the back of the house, to the small washroom/mudroom I had never used until I had housemates, where Eli was putting his tools onto the shelves he had built. The house was darker with the windows covered, more intimate, safer, and more claustrophobic. But my big-cat and I could live with the denlike feeling for a while. Until the smell of male got too strong.
Eli glanced up, took in my face and posture, and sighed, reading my body language, or maybe just knowing me too well to miss what would happen next. He stood and angled his body to me, dipping his nearly shaved head, his brown eyes narrowed. We stood within inches of each other, nearly the same height, so the posture looked both uncomfortable and aggressive. “How dangerous?” he growled.
“Minimal to none, he says. For now, just checking the rental car’s security cameras to see where she went when she turned in her car.”
He thought about that for a while, while I sweated and waited. “We monitor every step along the way.”
“Thank you,” I said. And dang if my eyes didn’t fill with tears. I turned away fast, but Eli caught my shoulder and pulled me back, an action I’d never have allowed anyone else to make.
“We’ll find her,” he said, one hand on my shoulder, gripping hard.
“I just . . .” Words failed me. I didn’t know what I felt. Or thought. “She’s family,” he said. “I know what it means when family is in trouble. I cried a few tears when Alex was arrested and they wouldn’t let me in to see him for forty-eight hours.”
I blinked away my own tears and gave him a disbelieving glare.
“Okay. I busted down a wall in my rental unit. I did shed a few tears digging the splinters out of my knuckles.”
I laughed, a small hiccup of sound, which was what he intended, I’m sure.
“Look. It’s possible she really intended come to you for help. It’s also possible that she intended that as a distraction for Evan and she went elsewhere, and then it took longer than she expected to get finished with whatever she needed to do. A lot of things are possible, not just her dead in a ravine.” He did that little lip-twitch smile at my reaction to his mind reading. “We don’t know enough yet to worry. We’ll do the best we can to find her.” Her patted my shoulder and left me in the cold mudroom, swallowing down more tears, my breath harsh.
“Yeah,” I whispered. “She could have called if she had a problem. She could have asked for my help. Instead she’s disappeared. And I don’t know how to help her.”
Eli paused in the short hallway and said over his shoulder, “Help her husband. Keep her kids safe. Let us work. That would be my best guess as to what Molly would want.”
And of course, my partner was right. I took a ragged breath and squared my shoulders. “Okay. Yeah. Okay. We can do this.”