‘Your father is going to kill you.’
Bas Zelig grimaced as he slammed the door of the late-model Ford Bronco and faced the imposing edifice of the mansion he called home. ‘It was hardly my fault,’ he argued. ‘Dad would have killed me if I hadn’t done a thing.’
‘Tom was your best friend, idiot. Safe to assume he’s not anymore.’
Bas snorted as he strode toward the doors and up the wide porch steps, stopping long enough to set up a pot of his mother’s beloved lilies. ‘Like I care,’ he scoffed. ‘Tom had it coming.’
‘Yeah, and about that . . . do you think your parents are going to be pleased? You were kicked out of law school, you know. I don’t think either one will be impressed . . .’
‘It was boring. I wouldn’t have lasted an hour as a lawyer, anyway . . .’
‘Oh, well, that’s good reasoning for you. Never mind you’ll be damn lucky if Tom doesn’t press charges for battery.’
Bas didn’t bother answering that as he stepped inside the mansion.
“Sebastian? You’re home early,” Gin Zelig said, setting aside the dust cloth as she hurried over to welcome her son home. He had to bend down to receive the greeting. Wincing at the long version of his name, Bas sighed and brushed a chaste kiss over his mother’s cheek. “Class cancelled today?”
He shrugged. “Well, uh, no,” he grumbled, staring at his feet and wondering just why his tiny mother had the ability to make him feel about five years old without even trying. “I . . . got kicked out.”
Gin had been retrieving the cloth. It fell from her fingers as she whipped around to stare at her son. “What?”
He cleared his throat. “I was expelled,” he stated a little louder.
“But why? How?” Gin blurted then shook her head as she waved her hands in a dismissive gesture. “Never mind that. I’ll have your father call. I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding . . .”
“Forget it, Mom,” he said as he headed for the stairs. “I didn’t like it, anyway.”
“No, it’s fine,” he interrupted, taking the stairs three at a time in his haste to get away from his mother’s line of questioning. Mother was easy to evade, but his father . . .
It was safe to say that people didn’t normally evade Cain Zelig. The North American tai-youkai was a force to be reckoned with, and Bas wasn’t looking forward to his father’s demands for answers. Grimacing as he heard the light footfalls of his mother following him up the stairs, he didn’t have to be brilliant to know that she was probably heading straight to Cain’s studio. He’d give it ten minutes before his father was knocking on his door.
Sebastian grimaced. It only took five. “Come in,” he called, bracing himself for the rapid-fire interrogation that Cain normally reserved for those who had displeased him.
Filling the doorway with his nearly seven-foot-tall frame, Cain Zelig crossed his arms over his chest and stared thoughtfully at his oldest son. “Your mother said you were kicked out of law school. Care to tell me why?”
Bas sighed. “It isn’t important. Just a disagreement.”
“A disagreement doesn’t get you kicked out of school,” Cain argued. “Try again, son.”
“It was stupid. Tom was running his mouth, and I shut it for him, was all.”
“Tom was . . .?” Cain sighed, knowing well enough that Bas’ friend had a nasty habit of saying stupid things at the wrong time. Normally harmless enough, Cain figured Tom must have gone a little too far, or maybe Bas had just heard it one time too many. Either way, it wasn’t the first he’d heard tale of Tom’s having said something stupid, but it would be the last . . . “Running his mouth about what?”
Bas shot his father a glower that might have ordinarily have earned him an upbraiding. Cain seemed to realize that it wasn’t necessarily directed at him, and he simply waited for an explanation. “What do you think? The same shit he always says.”
Cain’s bland expression dissolved behind a mask of controlled irritation. “He’s just not the brightest bulb, is he?”
Bas snorted. “Pfft! No, not really . . .”
He looked reluctant to ask, probably because he knew that whatever it was, wasn’t good. In the end, curiosity won out over trepidation, and he heaved a sigh. “Okay, I’ll bite. What did the little punk say this time?”
Bas made a face. Cain knew that Tom had a habit of fairly drooling over Bas’ mother. He had since he’d hit puberty. As far as Bas was concerned, he’d issued enough warnings on the subject. Apparently they hadn’t stuck in his friend’s head, though, and Tom, in Bas’ considered opinion, had deserved the walloping he’d gotten. “Nothing much . . . just details of things he’d love to do to Mom . . .”
Cain grimaced. “I hope you wiped the floor with him.”
Bas sighed. Sure, Tom had overstepped himself. Still, Bas was nearly full-youkai, and with that came almost freakish strength in comparison to mere humans like his ex-friend. He’d been told forever that he had to control his temper. One hit from a youkai would probably kill a human, and while Bas had controlled himself enough not to cause lasting damage, he had caused damage enough. “He’s . . . got a broken arm . . . and nose . . .” Bas confessed.
Cain nodded slowly. “I’d have done worse,” he grumbled. “Is he going to press charges?”
Bas shrugged. “Don’t know . . . I doubt it.”
“As much as I hate to, I suppose I should call and offer to take care of the medical bills . . . Consider yourself lectured over the ramifications of fighting with humans,” he said, “so if your mother asks . . .”
He nodded, tugging off his shirt before rifling through his closet for his practice hakama. “Yeah, fine . . . ‘Don’t fight with humans because they’re weak and pathetic, blah-blah-blah . . .’ I got it.”
Cain rolled his eyes but let the subject drop.
“Hey, Dad . . .”
Cain stopped and turned to face his son once more. “Yes?”
Bas dropped his jeans on the floor and pulled on the hakama. “I was thinking . . .”
“Since I can’t go back to school and the odds of transferring aren’t good, considering . . . You, uh, got an opening for a hunter?”
Glancing up as he tied the pants—a gift from his grandparents—Bas grimaced at the foreboding expression on his father’s face. “I thought I could hunt for you.”
Cain sighed. “I hate your uncles, you know that? Didn’t used to hate Ryomaru, but I think I do now . . .”
“It isn’t Uncle Ryo,” Bas maintained. “I’m just not cut out for a nine-to-five job, Dad.”
“And that’s a good reason to become a hunter?”
“No, but I can do it. I’ve been trained.”
“And I hate your grandfather, too, by the way . . .”
“This isn’t about the old man or anything,” Bas said, referencing his grandfather in what InuYasha Izayoi considered to be the highest respectful title any of them could use. Well, Gin and her younger brother notwithstanding. They called him ‘Papa’, as did Bas’ half-sister Bellaniece, who was married to Gin’s brother, and that was another can of worms that Bas would rather not open . . .
Bas had spent almost every summer vacation since he was eight with his grandparents in Japan, learning how to fight and being trained in tracking and hunting skills. It was considered that since he would one day usurp his father as North American tai-youkai that he should be trained, and in the tradition of old, he’d received his training not from his father, but from his grandfather, and a couple of summers had been spent with Toga Inutaisho, the next Japanese tai-youkai. The belief used to be that one’s father would not be as diligent in training, and while InuYasha had taught all of his children the skills, Cain had been fostered by InuYasha’s older half-brother, Sesshoumaru, the Japanese tai-youkai as well as the overall Inu no Taisho. Cain hadn’t liked the idea of sending his eldest son to Japan, especially not at the tender age of eight, but Gin wanted her sons trained by her father, and when Bas had quietly voiced his own desire to go, Cain had made the arrangements.
The ruckus that preceded the youngest of Cain’s sons made Bas roll his eyes as he sank on the edge of his bed and slowly shook his head. “Does he have to make so much noise?” he grumbled moments before Evan Zelig poked his head into his brother’s room.
“Busted!” Evan hissed with an incorrigible smirk. “Is it true? Daddy’s boy got in a fight?”
Bas shot his father a look. Cain reached over and thwapped his youngest son across the back of his head. “Don’t pester your brother.”
Evan’s grin widened. “About time you grew some balls. I was starting to wonder . . .”
“Go crawl back under your rock, brat,” Bas retorted.
“So what did good ol’ Tom say this time?”
“Does it matter?” Bas countered, nearly tripping over Badd, his butt-ugly dog. A mix of several breeds of very large dogs, Badd actually stood for Big-Ass-Dumb-Dog, but since Gin objected heartily to the name, Badd’s name had been shortened. Badd cocked his knobby head to the side, tongue hanging out as he slobbered on the floor. All in all, he looked fairly stupid—hence his name—but Bas loved him, anyway.
Evan shook his head. “Not really, but you can’t blame the poor bastard for looking. I mean, being completely objective, Mom is hot.”
“Hey!” Cain barked.
“Makes me wonder why she married an ugly mutt like Dad,” Evan joked.
Cain snorted. “Pfft . . .”
“Your father isn’t ugly,” Gin scolded as she brushed past her youngest son to slip her arms around Cain’s waist.
“Daddy? Ugly? Puh-leez!”
“Oh, my God . . . is there a reason why every one of you nutters has to be in my room?” Bas grouched as fifteen year-old Jillian Zelig ferreted her way past Evan to hug Cain’s other side.
“You’re not still mad about Lisa, are you?” Jillian asked with a disapproving shake of her head.
Bas snorted but didn’t deign to answer. So what if Lisa, his last girlfriend—and the one before that, come to think of it—had become smitten with his father? Bas wasn’t upset about that; not at all . . .
“There’s just something about the brooding artist-type,” Lisa had said.
‘Brooding artist? Right . . . Dad hasn’t ‘brooded’ since he met Mom . . .’
Lisa had just laughed at him, patting his hand as though he were no better than a pup in love with his babysitter.
“I still don’t see the need for the family reunion,” he grumbled, glowering pointedly from one sibling to the other, neither of whom got the message that they were welcome to leave.
“So did we find out why Bassie was expelled?” Jillian asked, ignoring her brother’s obvious irritation.
“Fighting,” Cain answered simply.
Gin looked shocked. “Fighting? Sebastian Kaemon Zelig!”
“You got the full name treatment!” Evan chortled. “Really, really busted!”
“You’re about to get the full ‘foot-up-your-ass’ treatment if you don’t get the hell out of here,” Bas growled, advancing on his brother.
Gin stepped over, placing a hand in the center of her eldest son’s chest to stop him. “No swearing at your brother, Sebastian.”
“Sorry, Mom,” he grumbled as Evan laughed out loud.
“That’s not the real issue,” Cain interrupted with a sigh. “Bas wants to become a hunter.”
Gin blinked, mouth falling open. She closed it and swallowed, shaking her head as she stared from her mate to her oldest son and back again. “A hunter?”
Cain seemed to think of something, and he grinned. “Yep, a hunter, Gin. He wants to be a hunter, just like your brother. Isn’t that great?”
Bas winced. He knew his father’s ploy: banking on the idea that Gin was going to disagree completely, Cain waited for the gauntlet to fall. “I think he’d be a good hunter,” Gin finally said.
“What?” Cain demanded.
“Go, Mom,” Evan muttered.
“Shut up,” Bas growled at his brother.
“Bassie? A hunter?” Jillian remarked with a raised eyebrow. “When donkeys fly . . .”
“Don’t you have someone else to pester?” Bas demanded. “Where the hell is your damn Gavvie when he could be useful?”
“You leave Gavvie out of this,” Jillian complained, her expression registering her instant hurt at Bas’ below-the-belt attack.
Bas ignore the stab of guilt over having reminded Jillian of her one-sided love affair with her childhood friend, Gavin—Gavvie, for short.
“Yeah,” Gin stated, nodding her approval. “He’s been trained by the best, and he is your son, Cain. He’ll be fine. I think you should give him a shot.”
“Eh?” Cain rasped. “Gin . . .”
“I should call Papa. He’ll be so proud,” she said, turning to speed out of the room before Cain could stop her.
“I want to talk to Grandpa!” Jillian hollered as she ran after her mother.
The tai-youkai heaved a sigh and shook his head slowly, sparing a moment to eye his eldest son before turning on his heel and striding out of the room. “Damn it . . .”
“Swe-e-e-eet!” Evan exclaimed, grinned as their father pushed past him to follow his wife. “If you get slaughtered, I’ll be tai-youkai,” he remarked as he grabbed an autographed football off the dresser. “Choice.”
Bas stood up and snatched the ball out of his demented sibling’s hands before slapping Evan upside the head. “Dad’ll live forever if you’re his only heir,” he shot back, thumping the football onto the dresser again before shoving his brother out of his room.
Evan chuckled and retreated across the hall into his upstairs bedroom that he rarely used since the basement had been soundproofed for his musical delusions, slamming the door behind him.
Bas let out a deep breath just before the vaguest hint of a smile surfaced. A hunter . . . he could do that.
Staring in morbid fascination as blood spiraled down her arm from her raised hand, she blinked and swallowed hard, forcing the bile that rose in her throat back into her stomach as the reek of death filled her nose. ‘Curious, really,’ she thought as she cocked her head to the side; as she gazed at his body, askew on the bed. She thought there would be more of a feeling of completion, didn’t she? She thought she’d feel something more than the hollowness of nothing. No pity, no sorrow, no despair . . . Nothing . . .
Raising her hand in front of her face again, she sighed softly. Blood as deep as scarlet; glistening on her claws like stars in the night sky . . .
He hadn’t cried out, had he? He hadn’t made a sound when she’d stared into his eyes, when she cut his throat with a flick of her deadly-sharp claws. His blood had flowed over her like a macabre flood, and she hadn’t shoved his body aside until the flow had slowed to a drip. The pool of crimson on the white sheets . . . She’d remember it forever. Insanity, perhaps? Divine retribution . . . Maybe she was as much of a monster as he was. Maybe that was why she hadn’t felt a damn thing.
The opulent apartment solidified in her line of vision, and she smiled almost sadly. She wouldn’t miss it; not at all. The trinkets and baubles . . . he had thought he owned her, didn’t he? It was all a charade; a well-played deception, and she was absolutely, unequivocally an expert on deception . . .
With a sigh, she slipped into the adjacent bathroom, turned on the shower taps and stepped into the frigid cold. Closing her eyes against the sight of the watery streaks of red that washed down her body under the unrelenting flow, she stood there for what could have been hours. The water warmed, washing away the remnants of a terrible dream; of a dim shadow of life that sustained her.
Would the nightmares stop now? Would they leave her alone? The contorted beasts of distorted memory that had haunted her sleep . . . They’d tormented her for longer than she could recall; the demons of a night that would never let her go.
There should have been a sense of finality. There should have been some sort of recognition; a sense of completion to something that had begun so long ago. There was nothing, really. No peace, no happiness . . . not even self-loathing at the things she had done. She’d bided her time, waited for her chance, struggled to live in a world that hadn’t even noticed her; fading in and out of the shadows that had offered her a strange sort of solace only to emerge into the light that blinded her . . .
It was nearly over, wasn’t it? The end was so close she could feel it. She was tired; tired of running, tired of hiding, tired of living the charade in her world—a hall of mirrors. Good and bad had become a matter of perception, and maybe that was the truest evil of them all.
Shutting off the taps and stepping out of the shower, she dried herself off with curiously steady hands as her mind clicked over into habit. ‘Dress . . . brush your hair . . . remember, you have to get out of here. Don’t fall apart . . .’
Hand pausing with the brush in mid-stroke, Kit suddenly smiled. ‘Fall apart?’ she mused as she resumed the brushing. ‘Fall apart . . .’
Catching the odd sparkle in her deep green eyes, she wondered why she looked so calm, so nonchalant. She’d killed someone—premeditated murder. Funny. She didn’t look like a killer, did she?
Dropping the brush onto the counter, she wrenched the door open and slipped back into the filmy light of the bedroom. The coppery scent of his blood was already fading, shifting into something darker, more rancid, something deeper and uglier . . . an odor she couldn’t forget . . .
The flicker of memories that she knew only too well shot to life and flared up like the flames of a fire. Another time, another place . . . a run-down building where no one could possibly live . . . Another body left broken and bloody, and in the darkest corner . . .
Impossible, wasn’t it? Images and memories combined in her head. Muffled screams, cries for mercy . . . Kit shook her head and drew a deep breath.
‘Get out of here. You’ve done what you came to do. Don’t get caught; not yet. Get out of here because they’re coming. They’ll hunt you, and they’ll find you, and they’ll kill you . . .’
She knew that. Of course they would. They’d come with the wrath of God on their side, and they’d be right, wouldn’t they? She expected no mercy, no quarter. It wouldn’t matter in the end. It was a game, and it was still her move. She’d see it through till the end.
Sparing a moment to gaze around the room, committing the scene to memory, Kit didn’t smile as she blinked, staring at the disheveled bed, the blood soaked linens . . . His arm hung limply, knuckles scraping the floor. An edgy laugh welled inside her. Knuckle dragger? Somehow fitting, wasn’t it? Clothes strewn haphazardly—he’d been in a hurry to get them off . . . She’d played her part well. He hadn’t realized a thing until it was too late to do a damn thing . . .
‘One more, Kit . . . just one more . . .’
Digging through his wallet, she took his cash—cheap bastard. Pocketing the hundred dollars she found, Kit turned toward the window and pushed it open. Into the night, into the shadows, blending into the darkness that she knew so well, she didn’t look back. Somewhere in her mind, she wondered if the sense of accomplishment would come with the other. ‘New York City . . . That’s where he is . . .’
Just one more, and she’d be free . . .
“It’s not a game, you know. Hunting is serious business.”
Trying not to roll his eyes at the unnecessary censure in his father’s voice, Bas sat back in the chair across from his father’s desk and nodded. “I know.”
Cain wasn’t finished; not by a long shot. “It’s kill or be killed most of the time. Are you sure you’re ready to kill someone? They won’t hesitate to harm you, especially if they know who you are.”
“For the record, I think this is the worst idea you’ve ever had, but your mother thinks you’ll be all right . . .”
“I trust you, of course. You’ve been trained. It’s dangerous, Bas, and if you’re smart, you’ll guard your real identity with your life.”
Cain sighed and slouched back, dragging a hand over his face before scowling at his son. “I’m dead serious, damn it.”
“I know you are, Dad. So am I. I can do this.”
Staring at Bas as though he were trying to measure him up, Cain finally nodded and leaned forward, pushing a large manila envelope across the smooth desktop. “Here you go. Your first hunt. This one is kind of different, though.”
“Oh?” Bas questioned, picking up the envelope and bending the tabs to open the flap, scowling at the contents of the packet. A thick stack of hundred-dollar bills, a prepaid cell-phone, a one-way ticket to Los Angeles on a flight set to depart at noon, and a very thin folder . . . “What’s this?”
“Expenditures. Never use anything that can be traced; never use a phone that can be tapped. I want you on that plane. Time is of the essence right now . . . and that,” he said, nodding at the file, “is the profile of the girl I want you to bring in, such as it is.”
Cain nodded, watching Bas’ face as he opened the file and scowled at the single piece of paper that should have had all the identifying information as well as a photo attached. Most of the lines were blank. Where height should have been listed was the vague reference, ‘somewhere between five and six feet tall’, which pretty much encompassed better than ninety-five percent of females, and for hair color, it said, ‘rumored to be red’. The name was actually filled in. ‘Kit’, it said, but didn’t give a last name, either. “Cat youkai?” he asked dubiously. “What the . . .? Dad, there’s nothing to go on here.”
“We don’t always have the best information,” Cain remarked. “That’s all we were able to get. She was apparently Cal Richardson’s girlfriend, and the last one to see him alive.”
“Cal Richardson?” Bas echoed, eyebrows lifting in surprise. The man in question wasn’t a general but he was a high ranking youkai officer. He was murdered? Why? “This girl killed Cal Richardson?”
Cain sighed. “So it would seem. I don’t know . . . there’s something weird about it. I can’t put my finger on it. Anyway, I thought it’d be best to bring her in for questioning before a real hunt is issued for her.”
That gave him pause. Cain never ordered someone be brought in for questioning. Then again, unless it was dire, hunts were considered to be last-resort options . . . “What do you think is weird about it?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” Cain admitted. “Just a feeling, maybe . . .”
Bas hesitated, knowing his father’s feelings about that particular youkai, but had to ask, “Are you sure that you’re not looking for more since you hated the bastard?”
Cain leveled a dark look at his son and sat back. He’d never made any bones about his feelings toward Cal Richardson. The man had been a pain in Cain’s side for years. Too cowardly to challenge the tai-youkai outright, Richardson had spent way too much time trying to undermine Cain’s authority in hushed whispers to others who might object to Cain’s decision to take a hanyou as a mate, especially after Cain’s first wife—a human—had died. “Just because I wasn’t fond of Richardson doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have his killer brought to justice.”
Bas grimaced inwardly. “Sorry.”
Cain sighed, relaxing out of his wary posture. “If you read the file, I think you’ll see what I mean. There’s something missing; some crucial bit of information that simply isn’t there. This girl might have that answer. Bring her in, Bas.”
Bas frowned as he glanced back at the pitiful document. “Age: unknown . . . rumored to be very young? Is that right?”
Cain nodded. “That’s one of the things that doesn’t make sense.”
“Think you can do it?”
Bas stared at the paper for a moment before tucking it back into the folder and slipping all the items into the envelope once more. “Yeah.”
“We just want her for interrogation right now, but remember: if she did kill Richardson, then she’s dangerous.”
“She was last rumored to be in the Los Angeles area. I’ve made arrangements for you to take your sword, but you have to take it in the suitcase you pack. They won’t let you take it as a carry-on.” Cain sighed. “Don’t make your mother worry, all right?”
Bas nodded. Cain hid his emotions well enough most of the time. He couldn’t hide the trace worry in the depths of his sapphire stare. “I won’t.”
“You’d better get packed.”
Bas stood and strode toward the door. His father’s voice stopped him. “That cell phone . . . it’s not standard to take one along. If anything goes wrong—and I do mean anything—you call me. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” he answered, using the address that he’d been taught to use when speaking to Cain the tai-youkai, not Cain the father.
Cain stared at him for a long moment then finally nodded. “Good luck, hunter.”
Bas nodded once and turned on his heel to leave.
‘This feels weird, Bas . . . Your father didn’t give you hardly anything to go on.’
‘You don’t suppose he wants us to fail, do you?’
‘Don’t be stupid. Dad’s never wanted me to fail.’
‘Can we do this? Can we, really?’
Bas’ golden gaze lit with determination as he ran up the stairs to his bedroom. ‘Yeah,’ he thought as he checked his watch. He had less than an hour to pack and to be on his way to the airport. ‘We can do this, or we can die trying . . .’
'. . . Nice choice of wording.’
‘She’s a cat—a young cat. We’ll find her and be back within a week.’
‘What makes you so sure?’
Bas shrugged, spotting the suitcase Gin had already opened on his bed. ‘It was probably just a fit of jealousy or something. Stranger things have happened. Maybe the girl didn’t realize what she was doing. She’s probably hiding somewhere, scared to death.’
‘Your father was right, though. If she did kill Richardson, then she’s dangerous. Just don’t take any stupid chances, and don’t underestimate her, okay?’
‘I won’t,’ he agreed as he tossed the envelope onto his bed and pulled the top dresser drawer open. ‘If I can find her . . . I don’t have a helluva lot to go on, do I?’
‘Let’s just get there and see what we can dig up. Maybe one of Richardson’s friends can give us more information.’
Bas nodded, tossing a few changes of clothes into the suitcase before tucking his sword, Triumvirate—a gift from his grandfather, great-uncle, and father—between layers to keep it from being jostled around in transit then closed the locks with a snap. ‘Good idea . . .’
His youkai sighed. ‘You ready?’
Bas did, too, staring at the closed suitcase before tugging it off the bed and grabbing the manila envelope, too. ‘Yep. Let’s do this.’