Chapter Fifteen

"It does not help me."

Great, Ifrit were just as evasive as Djinn when it came to the important stuff. "Look, just tell me, if you know. What is this stuff? How do we stop it?"

"It is life," she whispered. "It is love. It is death."

Point taken-Ifrit were more evasive. "How about in more, you know, technical terms . . . ?"

She seemed to be trying to tell me, struggling to describe something that she didn't have a language to cover. "It has happened before."

"But Rahel said . . ."

"She was not told."

"Sara . . ."

"Do not say my name!" It was a cry of mortal pain. "You don't understand. Love consumes. Love must consume."

I heard Lewis say something from the other room, his voice rising into a question.

"Lewis?" I called.

The Ifrit said, "He is a man. Men are weak. They don't always see . . ." Was she talking about Lewis? Patrick? I had no idea, but she wasn't making any sense that existed in my reality. Ifrits were crazy, I knew that much already. "You must choose. I could not."

"Okay," I said, and held up my hands in surrender. "I'll choose. No problem. Ah . . . Lewis?"

I backed away-not quite confident enough to give her my undefended back-and came out into the living room again.

Patrick was back, and he'd brought friends. Two of them, to be precise. He was in the process of taking his coat off and hanging it on a tacky-looking gold rack-had I put that there? Ack!-while the other two looked around, evidently checking out my interior decorating skills. I didn't know the kid- sixteen, seventeen at most-who stood looking pale and mutinous and typically disaffected; he pushed hands into his pants pockets and slumped in a don't-notice-me attitude. He needed a haircut, but that was probably just the generation gap talking.

The woman had her back to me, but those curves looked familiar.

"Patrick?" I asked. His too-blue eyes flashed to me, and then away. He looked uncomfortably guilty. "What's up?"

Lewis was up off the couch, now, too, clearly wary. He didn't like drop-in visitors any more than I did, especially not right now, when things were so ... weird.

"I'm sorry," Patrick said. "You see, I had a preexisting commitment."

"Sorry . . . ?"

"A business partner," he said, and indicated the woman, who was still studying the Mondrian with her back to me. "We have something of a barter arrangement. I owe her something."

She turned, finally, and it took me a few seconds before the memory ball dropped. Yvette Prentiss, from my funeral. She was out of uniform-no lace dress-but the skintight jeans with lace insets on the sides and the tight lace shirt, no bra in evidence, made a definite fashion statement. The statement said, Hi, I'm a total slut, climb aboard and ride me like a rented pony. Bear in mind, this is coming from a girl with a finely honed appreciation for trashy outfits. I once spent two hundred bucks on a pair of thigh-high patent leather boots, just to say I owned them. But there are limits.

Her eyes widened, and kept on widening. On her, that looked sexy. Her pouty, collagen-enhanced lips parted. "Oh," she whispered, low in her throat. "I know you."

"Yvette?" Lewis had stepped into the conversational gap. He took a couple of steps closer, and extended his hand. "We met at the-"

"Memorial service," she supplied, looking past him at me. "For her."

Lewis turned and looked, too, as if he'd forgotten all about that. "Well . . . yes. She's-"

"-Djinn." How sweet, they were finishing each other's sentences. Lewis still had hold of her hand. I didn't care for that at all, but I could see from the warm, oh-so-sexy smile she favored him with that she liked it just fine. "Thank you, Patrick. But you know she's not exactly what I was looking for."

Patrick cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Yes. Well, another small problem . . . she's already been claimed."

Yvette's smile died a fast, ugly death. Her prettiness had a hard edge to it, I found, like a razor blade under velvet. "This isn't what we agreed."

"I know." He helplessly indicated Lewis. "There were . . . considerations."

Her green eyes locked onto Lewis's face and held there. The smile came back, but I didn't trust it. I couldn't tell from Lewis's bemused expression if he was even paying attention to anything but the generously revealed swell of her chest.

"Of course," she said. "Well, I'm flattered to meet you again . . . sorry, I didn't catch your name . . . ?"

"Call me Lewis," he said. She was pretty much the last person I'd pick to know who he was, but I could tell he didn't feel the same way. "You were looking for a Djinn?"

"Well, yes." She looked sad-clown distressed, but not enough that it made her look less than stunningly attractive. "I'm afraid mine-well, a friend of mine needed his services. I'm currently without support. I was hoping to persuade your friend to work for me. Temporarily. It's important."

Lot of that going around. I folded my arms and tried to look threatening. Neither of them paid the least bit of attention. Patrick wouldn't meet my gaze, either. The kid was roaming the room, checking out the stuff. He looked back over at Yvette, who nodded slightly, and went back to messing with movables, picking them up and putting them down. Checking for price tags? Jeez.

"I'm afraid she's booked up," he said. "But maybe there's something I can do for you."

Her eyes raked him up and down. Blatantly. "I'm sure that's perfectly true." She giggled.

He laughed. I hadn't heard Lewis laugh in-well, I don't think I'd ever heard him laugh. Not a yuk-it-up kind of guy, generally. His humor was quiet, his sexuality-well, until now, I would have thought it was kind of subdued.

"Nothing I can do to change your mind?" she asked, and looked up at him from under thick lashes. Moved closer. "You look like you'd drive a hard . . . bargain."

I rolled my eyes, thought about picking up the phone. Hello, Central Casting? Are you missing your Seducto-Bitch stereotype? Surely he could see it was an act.

"I've been known to ... bargain," he said, and smiled at her. Was that a leer? Was he actually flirting with Miss Artificial Intelligence of 2003? "Maybe later we could-"

She arched against him like he was a pole and she was the stripper. "How about a little negotiating session now?"

This time, I did find my voice. "Ah, excuse me?"

She put her hands in his pockets, pulling him groin to groin for a vertical lapdance. He was trying to step away, but not really putting any effort into it. More of the token I'm-a-nice-guy-but-I-can-be-persuaded sort of resistance. I knew, because I'd done the female version of it often enough. And hey, once with Lewis.

David hadn't liked her. Not at all. And I was more than willing to go with David's instincts, especially when mine were screaming bloody murder.

"Not now," Lewis said absently to me. Which was not quite an order, but had the definite aroma of one. And I didn't like that at all.

"Hey!" This time I put some lung power into it. "Lewis! Use the big brain. What the hell does she want? And if you think that for one minute I'm going to work for this cut-rate road show temptress . . ."

Her hand came out of Lewis's pocket.

She was holding the small perfume vial in her hand, and a small plastic stopper. My bottle. I felt a lurch, as if gravity was shifting, and felt a sickening sense of despair close over me. Oh God . . .

Lewis pulled free and shoved her back. His eyes went wide. He reached out for the perfume bottle, grabbed hold of her wrist . . .

. . . and the kid, who'd been examining a heavy glass bowl, lunged forward and hit him in the head with it. Lewis staggered and went to his hands and knees. The kid-tall, gawky, pale, his knuckles white around the edges of the leaded glass-raised it for another blow.

"Stop!" I yelled, and reached out to give him the most powerful whammy that I still had at my command.

"No, you stop. Right there." Yvette's cool, southern-smoothed voice. I jerked to a halt. Utterly, completely out of control. No, in her control. She was holding my bottle, and that meant she was holding me, too. Body and soul.

"Now, is that really necessary?" Patrick asked weakly, and waved at the boy and Lewis. "You have what you want. There's no need for all this violence-"

"Shut up, Patrick," Yvette snapped. Patrick winced and turned away, shoulders hunched. He raised his hands in surrender.

Lewis was still trying to get to her, crawling slowly now, blood dripping out of his hairline to spatter the flesh-pale carpet. His voice was weak and deep in his throat. "Jo, go, get out-"

"You. Do not move," Yvette said, precisely. Nailing me in place as the boy with the glass bowl advanced again, skittishly, aiming for another swing at Lewis's head. "Kevin. Do it."

"No!" She hadn't made me stop talking, just moving. I screamed it as the boy lifted the heavy bowl. I reached desperately for power . . .

But Lewis got there first.

The bowl shattered into sharp-edged, spinning pieces in the kid's hands. He cursed and dropped it, shaking cuts; more blood flew out at velocity to spray the walls.

He kicked Lewis in the head, taking his anger out on the nearest and most helpless target. Lewis went down. Stayed down. I couldn't see him from where I was, pinned in place by Yvette's merciless command.

Patrick rounded on them, shouting, "That's enough! No more!"

The boy stopped, panting. His face was corpse-pale, shining with sweat.

"You planning on getting righteous on me now?" Yvette asked. If she was perturbed that Patrick had just ordered her teen psycho around, she didn't let it show. "Where are you planning to get your next meal for your beloved Sara? You going to ask him for it?"

"Just-stop." Patrick swallowed hard, fists clenched. "Not in my house. I'll not allow this."

"But you'd allow this." Yvette pulled a frosted glass bottle from a purse she'd dropped in the corner. Rattled it suggestively. Popped the rubber cap on the top.

A Djinn formed. A man, gorgeous, a study in gold and bronze. He looked utterly delicious, except for the stark terror in his eyes. He started to back away, but she froze him in place with a whispered command, and walked all around him, trailing her fingers over his gleaming skin.

I remembered something David had said. They had appetites in common. Well, I knew Bad Bob Biringanine's appetites well enough to be sickened by that.

Patrick went sickly pale and protested, "Don't-" but it was too late.

The black shadow of the Ifrit slid around the kitchen door, flowed over carpet.

"I see she's hungry," Yvette said, and moved out of the way. "Want to lecture me about morality now, Patrick?"

He hung his head.

The Ifrit leaped like a hunting cat. Ripped into the Djinn with flashing claws, digging deep. The Djinn's mouth was open, but no sound was coming out. He wasn't fighting. He was just . . . dying. Dying horribly. Disintegrating into wisps of bloodred, pain-heavy mist.

She sucked him in through that black gaping maw of a mouth and swallowed him whole. Nothing left. Not even a scream. I was frozen by Yvette's command, but I wouldn't have had the courage to run even if I were free. There was something so predatory, so cold in the air ...

The Ifrit turned her non-face toward me, sniffing, and I went utterly cold. To stand here and be devoured without a fight was the worst fate I could imagine.

But then she changed. Frosted black skin going pale, smooth, glorious. A glowing waterfall of white hair. Her eyes were the last thing to change, flickering from dead black to a deep dark amethyst.

Sara, as I'd seen her in the dream. She stretched out her arms mutely to Patrick, and collapsed. He rushed to her, picked her up and cradled her in his embrace, lips pressed to the soft waves of her hair.

He was whispering something to her, over and over. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. When he looked up at me, the misery in his eyes hit like a blow. "It's the only way," he said. "She has to eat . . ."

And she ate other Djinn. I couldn't imagine how lucky I'd been the other night, when he'd put me in a cage match with her, or even when I'd been chatting with her in the kitchen. What had she said in the kitchen? Don't blame him. She'd known what he was going to do. They'd done it before.

Yvette's cool green eyes were all over me like sticky hands. She'd forgotten all about Lewis, unconscious on the floor. "You're like Patrick, then. Human, changed by a Djinn."

I don't think I'd ever been so ashamed of my origins. I gave her a burning glare back. "So what does Patrick do for you, to get your castoffs? Besides pimp out whoever he can get his hands on?"

She had the sweetest, most revolting smile. "Why, I don't think the business details of our arrangement are going to be your concern, pretty girl. No, I think you'd just better concentrate on making my son Kevin very happy."

Yvette tossed the kid the bottle. He almost fumbled it. I had that one second to move while the bottle was out of her control and passing into his; I used it to race to Lewis's side and pour what healing energy I had into him.

He was hurt. Badly. I couldn't do enough, wasn't good enough.

"What are you doing?" Patrick protested, clearly thrown-not talking to me, but to Yvette.

She rounded on him with clenched fists. "Getting rid of the trash. You think I wanted her? You told me you had a way to get to David."

"I do!" He nodded at me. "He'll come for her. As soon as he knows you have her, he'll come running."

"He'd better," she said, and gave him a full smile, with teeth. "If he doesn't, there's no place you can hide from me. You know that." She shot a look at me, and I was struck by the sheer callous indifference in her eyes. "Put your toy away, Kevin. I want to go home."

The kid clutching the bottle pointed at me and said, "You. In the bottle. Now."

I had no choice, none at all. I felt myself breaking apart, looked up to see Yvette watching me with dreaming sea green eyes. "Don't you worry, sweetie," she said as I was sucked away into gray oblivion. "I'm sure we'll think of something interesting to do with you."

* * *

You wouldn't think you could dream in oblivion, but well, there you go. I dreamed I was a child again. Very small, too small to understand the world around me-a toddler, teetering around on stubby uncertain legs and grabbing for anything pretty, shiny, interesting, dangerous.

I dreamed of being held in someone's arms, maybe my mother's, with my head pillowed on her shoulder. I remembered rain, falling like perfect diamonds from the soft gray sky. I remembered wind licking cool over my skin. I remembered thunder vibrating through me like the voice of God.

Dreams and memories are so very close to the same thing.

In the dream, in the memory, I fell down on the cool, damp grass and wailed in fright, and there was somebody there, gathering me up, holding me, stroking away the pain and fear and tears.

Shhhh. It was my mother's voice, warm and blurred the way things are in dreams. They'll hear you.

I was too young to talk, but somehow I was talking anyway. Who?

Her hands smoothed my hair in gentle, careful strokes. You know.

I did. I cuddled in closer to her warmth. Overhead, the clouds muttered to each other in a language I could almost understand, and I reached out to them and felt them draw closer, all soft edges and cold alien intensity.

They wanted me. I wanted them. In my simple child logic, I thought that meant there was no danger; anything that was interested in me had to be my friend, didn't it?

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