At Grave's End (Night Huntress #3)

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05.03.2019

THE WAITING WAS GETTING TO ME. UNDER other circumstances, I would have considered spending most of my time with Bones behind closed doors as a vacation. But suspiciously eyeing the people around me whenever we left the bedroom was not my idea of relaxing. It was worse for Bones, I knew. At least I didn't have emotional attachments to whoever the traitor was.

This morning at breakfast, Bones upped the ante. As I munched French toast, he casually mentioned to Zero that Reno should be a pleasant change in temperature compared to here in Whistler, British Columbia. All of our suspects were close enough to have overheard. Here I thought I'd outgrown Clue.Will it be Zero in the kitchen with a cell phone, or Doc in the drawing room with a pistol?

Speaking of Doc, he'd been acting strangely. Several times, we saw him lingering near the hallway where Tate was being held, wearing his guns, chewing on an unlit cigarette and watching everything around him with a surgeon's attention. He seemed to appear behind me whenever Bones wasn't there, soundless as a shadow. When Bones would appear, he'd exit in a polite but deliberate way, still staying in close proximity.

It creeped me out.

Bones didn't care for it, either, but out of necessity didn't confront Doc or show that it bothered him. Instead, he would smile and say things like, "Oh, there you are, mate," in such a breezy, unaffected tone it was all I could do not to applaud. Maybe in another couple centuries, if I lived that long, I'd have such good acting abilities as well.

Tick Tock and Rattler, the other two suspects, went about their business in such a blithe manner I mentally placed them lower on the totem pole. If anything, they seemed to sense my discomfort around Doc and tried to lead him off the few times Bones wasn't glued to my hip. I took to wearing knives under my clothes, though they didn't provide much comfort. With how blazing fast Doc was with those guns, I'd be pumped full of bullets before even getting a chance to fling one.

Soon after the Reno announcement, Bones went for his morning drink. I wandered outside on the porch. Vampires traditionally hated the freezing cold, having no internal heating system as a human did. Mencheres didn't choose to hide out in the Canadian mountains in December on a whim. He knew it was a place the undead usually avoided. At this time of year, Florida was full of pulseless visitors. You couldn't swing a cat without hitting a nonbeating heart.

It was with mild trepidation therefore that I glimpsed a lone figure in the trees just to the left of where I was on the wraparound porch. I knew that form by now. Tall, lean, and deadly. Something glinted, and the sudden chill I felt made the outside air seem balmy in comparison. It was the reflection of sun off metal.

Without obvious rush, I turned and headed toward the door, concentrating all my willpower on not letting my pulse race. Such a sound might as well be a scream of fright to a vampire. As I walked, I wondered if I could dodge the bullets fast enough to avoid any vital organs. But it made sense that Doc would aim for my head. Why would he target anything else?

The door opened before I reached it, Vlad at my side, right in the way of any oncoming gunfire. I couldn't remember when I'd been so glad to see him.

Thank you, I sent to him without giving a last look over my shoulder like I wanted to.

"It's freezing out here," he said with a sardonic twist of his mouth. "You'll catch your death."

"Stay away from Doc, Kitten," Bones began as soon as we were in our room and I told him what happened.

"You should just grab him and find out what he knows," I muttered, irritated with myself for presenting such an open target.

"Yes, well, it would take longer to torture it out of him than to be patient and wait for him to get caught spilling it," Bones said with calculated menace. "Believe me, if it were a matter of preference, you know mine."

Yeah, I had a pretty good idea. If imagination failed me, I was sure he could arrange for a demonstration to jog my memory. Whenever we left this room, his mask of cheerful obliviousness was on with full force. Once inside, it fell from Bones like scales. He rubbed the side of his temple almost impatiently. However rough it was on me, it was certainly worse for him.

"You must go crazy wishing for a few minutes of real peace and quiet," I said. "I mean, it's never quiet for you, is it? Either you've got noise from people around you or the crap rattling off in my head."

He smiled with a trace of bitterness.

"Don't fret, luv, I had a bit of real silence not too long ago. It's highly overrated, if you ask me."

He sat on the high-backed chair near the bed. Red velvet, mahogany wood, gold threading, maybe a real Louis the Eighteenth. Bones looked compatible with it, just as beautiful and finely molded.

I sat down and rested my head on his legs. "This isn't your fault," I said, softly but out loud, so he could hear it both ways.

He sighed. "Then whose is it, Kitten?"

Whatever I might have replied cleared right out of my head. Bones yanked me down on the carpet and covered me before my heart even finished its beat. No, it wasn't from being overwhelmed by passion. It was because of the sudden eruption of gunfire.

He dragged me to the bathroom before snapping, "Stay here," and disappearing in a blur. His quickness actually made me shake myself for a second before I ignored his directive and vaulted after him. No way was I sitting it out by the tub and hoping for the best. Doc only used silver bullets. It would be just as dangerous for Bones as it was for me.

Without bothering with the stairs, I jumped the three floors down and followed the direction of the other streaking bodies, not to mention the noise. There was another succession of bullets, too fast for me to count, and an accompanying shout that picked my feet off the ground and had me diving forward. The commotion was coming from the dungeon below, and the voice yelling out was Tate's.

I blasted past the other vampires racing down the narrow hallway and made it through the ruined door, hurtling straight at the man who raised the knife even as I crashed into him. The force of my velocity bashed both of us through the wall in an expulsion of concrete. Before I allowed myself to think, I jammed one of my silver knives into the form scrambling away. I didn't have time to wonder what part of him I'd pierced, or why the hell it wasn't Doc, because he was yanked out. Just as swiftly my legs were tugged on next, and I was plunked out of the new hole in the wall.

Above Tate's panicked cries of "Cat! Cat!" I heard Vlad's cool voice.

"You're holding the wrong man, Bones, and you owe Cat your life."

"Kitten, are you all right?"

Bones had Doc gripped in such a way that it stalled my response. Or maybe belated dizziness from the impact of my head smashing through solid concrete was to blame. I shook some of the blood off my forehead and accepted Spade's hand to help me to my feet. The small room was shoulder to shoulder with people.

"I'm fine," I managed. "He was going to stab you."

"No, Doc was going to shoot Rattler again, weren't you, mate?"

Bones asked it with caressing menace as he tightened his grip. I winced and instinctively straightened my spine. Doc couldn't; his was bent at the opposite angle. Bones had him folded like a backward sandwich.

"Bones!" He looked up from sharpness of my tone. "Rattlerwas going to stab you."

"She's right," Tate said, pulling on his restraints. "He stabbed Annette, is she okay?"

"I have her," Mencheres replied from outside the cell. "Zero, go fetch a human. She needs blood. Annette, don't move. This will hurt…"

Underneath the rest of the uproar her low, pained voice penetrated. It was irregularly spaced but audible, and everyone shut up as her words became clear.

"…Crispin…it was Rattler-ah! Christ, that's excruciating…Doc shot him…when he stabbed me…is that bloody blade out yet, Mencheres, I can't bear to look…"

Bones released Doc. Vlad held Rattler in a punishing embrace, one hand on the silver knife I'd lodged in his chest, which was very close to his heart. Bones pushed past the people in the cramped space until he was in the hallway, kneeling by Annette's crumpled form.

"Don't move, sweet," he said with the soothing cadence one would use on a child. "There, feel my hand? It's almost over, squeeze very hard…"

With precision delicacy, Mencheres drew the wicked-looking silver blade from her chest. A laser beam would have been sloppier. The reason for his caution was obvious-she'd been skewered straight though the heart and any sideways motion would finish her. I held my breath as the last inch left her chest, because despite it all, I admired Annette. When it was out and she made a grunt of pain, sitting up, I let out my breath. It seemed everyone did, even those who didn't breathe.

Zero came back, holding a wide-eyed teenager under his arm. Bones moved to allow the young man to be deposited next to her, and Annette latched her mouth onto him the next moment. Her hand still was curled around Bones's and he brought it to his lips before letting her go and standing with grim purpose.

Doc stood also now, his spine having healed in the interim. He went to Annette, who just released the teenage boy with a last lick of her lips. Zero supported him as he lurched away. I hoped they had a good supply of iron pills here.

Doc stretched and his back made an audible crack.

"Think the last of them settled back into place. Bones, don't try to play chiropractor with me again. After all, I'm the only certified medical professional in this room."

"You were a bleedin' dentist, and a rotten one from what I hear. Still, you are without a doubt the fastest shooter I've seen anywhere in any era, and I shall be grateful to you the rest of my days." Bones glanced at Vlad next. "Pull that knife out of Rattler once my wife is clear of his reach." To Spade, he said simply, "Let Tate loose."

The clanking of irons was the only sound now as Spade released Tate from his restraints. Once free, Tate stretched in much the same manner Doc had, only with a lot less graciousness for his rough treatment.

"Told you it wasn't me."

"I knew you suspected me," Doc said. "Sorry if I made you uncomfortable this morning, Cat, but Rattler had been skulking around the side of the house after you. He knew I saw him, and it made him des perate. I followed him down here just in time to see him stab Annette. At least my bullets kept him from finishing her."

Bones laid his hand on Doc's shoulder. "Take Annette out of here, and once again, you have my deepest gratitude."

After the two of them left, Bones turned to Vlad with a cold smile. "Let's fill that vacancy on the wall, shall we?"

There was a matching smile on the former prince's lips as the two of them strapped Rattler into the same clamps that had held Tate.

"You must be hungry," I said to Tate, who'd gone to my side as soon as he was released. "They're stocked here, believe me. Have someone show you."

Tate rubbed his arms, as if he could still feel those clamps biting into them. "It can wait. Your head's bleeding."

"I'll tend to her."

With Rattler bound, Bones came to me, pressing his lips against the wound in my crown.

"You could have cracked your skull like an egg smashing into that wall, let alone the risk of getting shot. Mule-headed woman, at least it appears your stubbornness is well protected by a thick layer of bone. Have I thanked you yet for your reckless disregard of my directive to stay upstairs?"

"No," I said with a small smile.

Bones set me back, pulling a knife from his pants. "I will. Promise."

He cut his palm and placed it over my head. The tingling sensation was almost instant as my flesh healed. With a last brush of his lips, he let me go, and turned to the vampire who was the center of attention.

"Why?"

It was asked with the threat of punishment and the pain of betrayal combined. Rattler dropped his gaze.

Spade rammed his elbow so hard into Rattler's rib cage that half his arm disappeared from sight.

"You were asked a question, Walter!"

Walter, a.k.a. Rattler, gave a gasp of pain even as Bones laid a hand on Spade.

"It's all right, mate. We'll give him a chance to confess without bloodying him first." Then to Rattler, with a much harder tone.

"You know how this will go down. No matter how brave you fancy yourself, everyone breaks eventually. So you will either detail exactly when, why, and how you threw your lot in with Patra with all your limbs and skin attached…or with new parts growing as fast as we can tear them off."

For once, such a grim pronouncement didn't fill me with the slightest bit of compassion. It was all I could do not to fling myself on Rattler and start ripping him to pieces just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

"Was it for money?" I hissed. "All that gold and glory she promised? Is that it, were you just greedy?"

"I don't care about money." Whether it was spoken to me or Bones was a toss-up; Rattler glanced at both of us. "I did what I had to do for love."

"For love?" I repeated. "You're in love with Patra? Then you're stupid as well as a backstabbing asshole."

"Not Patra. For Vivienne."

"Patra killed Vivienne, why would you-" Bones began, and then stopped. He shook his head with a sound that was much too callous to be laughter.

"Ah, I see. All this time, then? You told me Vivi enne had been slain months ago. I grieved with you, you sod, and all the while you were waiting for your chance!"

It clicked then. I remembered the explosion at Mencheres's house caused by vampires who'd turned themselves into walking bombs all for the sake of whoever Patra had kidnapped beforehand. Seems Patra had done the same with Rattler by kidnapping someone he loved to get him to betray Bones. What a truly vile person Patra was. If possible, I hated her even more.

"How do you even know Vivienne's still alive?" Bones asked.

Rattler looked even more pained than he did right after Spade had elbowed him out the other side.

"Because every week Patra calls me…and lets me hear her scream."

Bones began to pace in limited, impotent strides.

"I only told her about the train," Rattler went on. "I had nothing to do with the attacks on your wife. Earlier, I was going to snatch Cat and threaten to kill her unless you slew yourself in my sight, but Doc saw me, and I knew he'd shoot me before I could grab her. So I came to where you were holding the only other person the Reaper would endanger herself for, but I failed. I know you'll punish me as an example, yet I ask one thing…"

"You'd dare ask me for anything?" Harshly.

"I don't plead for lenience. I know you'll put me with the other one, but before you do…Bones, my sire, I ask that you forgive me."

Bones quit pacing. There was a loaded silence. Then he came to stand in front of Rattler.

"In 1867, I befriended you. Five years later, I changed you, and what did I say was the worst thing you could ever do as a vampire?"

Rattler looked away. "To betray your sire."

"Right. You have committed the worst act you could in the eyes of our people, yet you ask my forgiveness. Do you know what I have to say to that, Walter Tannenbaum?"

Bones was completely still, and that should have been my warning. Maybe it was the aftereffects of slamming my head through solid concrete that slowed me, or it could have been that he moved too fast, outdistancing even Spade and Vlad as they tried to block him.

"You have it."

The knife he'd used to cut his palm was still in his hand. It buried with a fierce twist into Rattler's heart even as he uttered those words.

There was a split second as their eyes met, me yanking futilely on Bones's arm and shouts of protest coming from the onlookers, when I would swear I saw Rattler smile. It died in the next instant along with him. His body slumped, and before my eyes, his skin started to wither.

"Bones, why?"

Now I was the one who directed that ringing question to him. He swung around to face me.

"Because I would have done the same thing if I were him, so he has my forgiveness."

In the uncomfortable moment of silence I spoke up. "He didn't have mine."

Only the pain in his voice kept me from screaming at him. Instead, in a manner very like his, I grew more still.

"I heard that bitch laugh when she told me she'd killed you. Then saw her face when she thanked me for it being all my fault. Aren'tI deserving of any retribution? Doesn'tmy injury measure up next to Rattler's? This might have been merciful but it waswrong, Bones. You taught me that. No matter how much you empathized with Rattler, you shouldn't have killed him. I let you have Max. You should have given me Rattler."

And with that, I left the small room, the other vampires clearing a path to let me pass.