Hooded raincoat pulled low over her horns, Angela crept along the row of empty seats. "Are you sure they didn't notice?"
Economy-sized container of popcorn cradled in one arm, Matt Bluestone stepped around a stray wad of gum. "Relax. You've been to the movies before."
"Only when we could sneak into the balcony." The young gargoyle cast a glance over the gradually filling theater. "There are so many people here!"
"Come on, Angela. Phantoms from the Deep. It's going to be a good show." Noting a ruby glow in her eyes, Matt put a calm hand on her shoulder. "Everybody's here to have a good time. Trust me, the only monsters they're going to see are the ones on the screen."
Caping her wings, Angela settled into the seat by the wall. "You're right. I'm just - this is the first time I've tried this."
The detective shrugged. "You should've seen me on my first undercover sting. I could've threaded a sewing machine while it was running." Spreading his trenchcoat over the seat back. Matt leaned back and prepared to wait out the commercials.
"Of course you know, this means war."
Hand in his popcorn. Matt turned toward the familiar voice. Dreadlocks. A long, bright red mane. And stuck between, tousled brown hair.
No. Oh, no. Of all the theaters in Manhattan, it couldn't be-
Sandwiched between Randy Hernandez and Dr. Elsie Chapman, Dr. Niko Tatopoulos sat stiffly in the second seat of their row, wrapped tight as Tut's mummy inside a red and blue afghan.
Matt blinked. "Nick?"
The mutation biologist craned his head. "Evening, Detective." He peered at the shadowy figure by the wall. "Who's your friend?"
The gargoyle scrambled past Matt's knees. "I'm Angela." She offered a hand.
Nick chuckled softly. "Think you'll have to settle for a nod." He inclined his head toward a smirking paleontologist. "These two aren't letting me loose until after the show."
"When we can get a good running start," Elsie agreed, shaking purple talons.
Kneespur almost in his lap. Randy just grinned. "Cool! You got past the usher?"
"We have our ways," the detective said mysteriously.
"And of course, this is Manhattan," Elsie noted, settling back into her seat. "If they don't bother us about Nick, they probably didn't even notice you."
"Just wait until we get back to the lab," the leader of H.E.A.T. warned. "There's a boathull with your names on it."
"C'mon, jefe." Randy rolled his eyes. "Doc can do better than that."
"Give me another hour."
"How did you...?" Angela gestured at the afghan cocoon.
Nick groaned. "Old habits die hard."
"College students get cold," Elsie explained. "People in the middle of Chernobyl get colder." She tugged fondly on red yarn. "Give Nicky a blanket, he just wraps right up."
Randy tried not to ogle the gargoyle's tunic too obviously. "Don't you guys get cold? Night like this, Delilah grabs a sweater."
"Delilah's half human," Angela shrugged. "We don't chill as easily as vou do."
Matt munched popcorn as the trailers started. "Hate to mention the obvious, but this is supposed to be a monster movie." He eyed the trio of monster hunters.
Randy slurped soda. "Space Battalion was a total loss, compadre."
Matt tried not to inhale a buttery hull. "You mean to tell me you not only got him in here - blanket and all - but managed to sneak out of your movie into ours?" He shook his head. "Remind me not to trust anybody here as an eyewitness."
"Shh!" Elsie leaned forward, emerald eyes intent on the hapless characters sailing toward deadly doom. "And they don't even have a biohazard kit..."
This is weird, Matt realized, listening to half of H.E.A.T. snicker about the fast-dying characters' survival techniques... or lack thereof. The rest of the audience might be huddling in the dark; his row was an oasis of relaxed amusement. Neat, but weird.
Not that he had an ordinary guy's perspective on monsters to start with. Living with gargoyles, you got used to the idea that sheet steel wasn't solid. That falling off a skyscraper didn't have to be fatal.
That magic was real.
A finger tapped Matt on the right shoulder. "Cut it out, Randy."
"What?" The hacker glanced his way, honestly confused.
A crunch of popcorn from his left. Matt turned in time to see a last yellow handful vanish from Angela's hand. Settling her wing back under her coat the gargoyle gave him a buttery smile.
Oh, yeah... and that some people have six limbs, Matt chuckled silently.
"No, don't smash the mirror, you idiot - aggh." Nick sighed as mini- phantoms misted through every glittering fragment. "All you had to do was throw a sheet over it..."
Angela sat up, craned her head back tow-ard the projectionist's booth. "I didn't think they were showdng another horror film here."
"Depends. Home Alone 5 count?" Randy quipped.
The main blonde on screen screamed as a co-star's flesh dissolved, and everyone in the row jammed fingers in their ears. Should've brought my ear protectors, Matt thought. Hey - Nick's loose!
The biologist didn't look like he was about to exact revenge anytime soon, though. He was too busy turning pale, finally squeezing his eyes shut as the hapless film character melted into a pile of animated goo.
"Gnarly!" Randy shuddered.
Freckles stood out starkly against Elsie's pallor. "Ooh...kay. That was a little too realistic..." She rubbed at an ear. "What is that noise?"
Matt lifted his fingers away, frowning at the staticy hiss that now underlay the soundtrack. "You met something like that?"
"Came, saw, fried," the hacker shivered. Ice sloshed as he set his soda on the armrest, liquid picking up the growing vibration.
"We still don't know what it was." A little color came back into the paleontologist's face. "Godzilla didn't leave enough to sample."
"I wasn't going to call him off." Nick frowned, listening to the growing clamor. "That's not from the soundtrack..."
The theater shuddered. Dust filled the air, bits of plaster raining down on the audience. Something shrilled, forcing hands over ears, shattering glass in a cascade of crystal.
Silence. Matt drew in a breath, coughed out flecks of paint. Talons gripped his arm, held him upright as the floor heaved, carpet splitting over fractured concrete.
"One movie," he heard Nick mutter before the crowd berserked. "Just one lousy movie. Is that too much to ask?"
Elsie clung to her seat, fighting her way back toward them as the howling audience ran for the exits. "Next time, we get it on video!"
Steel groaned overhead. "Ah, jefe..."
Nick never took his eyes off the ceiling, where ivory-painted beams were starting to poke through. "I see it."
Angela had one taloned hand sunk into the wall, ready to tear through. "It's going to come down!"
"Not yet," Dr. Chapman said briskly, judging the angle of warping steel. "We've got a minute."
Metal squealed. The ceiling sagged.
Breathe. Keep breathing, Matt reminded himself. The exits were clogged with screaming moviegoers. Extrapolate that to the rest of the theater - he didn't like the odds of jumping into that mob. "Angela! You see a way out of here?"
"This way!" Talons abandoned plaster for the solid hold of a real wood molding. Angela gouged handholds as she climbed, heading for the most stable area of the buckling roof.
"Ladies first," Randy grinned.
"Says the guy who doesn't want to get splinters." Elsie swarmed up torn oak.
If they can do it, you can do it, Matt told himself, bringing up the rear. Gripping splintery wood tight enough to draw blood as the theater shook again. Feeling the ache in legs and arms as the floor fell away, the tight catch of air in his chest as steel bent overhead. If they can do it-
Three pairs of hands pulled him through the hole gouged in tarry shingles; dark, violet, and freckled. "Are you all right?" Angela asked, drawing him towards the dark iron of the fire escape.
"Great," Matt croaked. Beats getting hauled up an elevator shaft by Goliath. Though not by much. "Where's Nick?"
"Looks like it's gone."
The mutation biologist stood fearless on the roof edge, gazing down at the slimy wreckage in the streets. Concrete and steel had spilled into rush-hour traffic, pinning a pickup and three SUVs in one massive tangle. Screaming, dusty, hysterical victims milled around the shattered marquee, uncertain which way to run. Various cars and a FedEx truck were auditioning for the Indy 500, cutting a corner in front of an oncoming firetruck. A slick of translucent gel gleamed from the northeast edge of the theater down to dark asphalt, spinning out a limo as they watched.
"We should get a sample of that," Elsie pointed out.
"Aw, man!" But Randy was already pulling out a handheld computer. "Not on my night off..."
Angela frowned as ambulances started to arrive on the scene, sirens blaring. "Is there anything we can do to help?"
Steel and concrete rumbled. Matt clung to wrought iron, started climbing toward solid ground. "We could get off the building."
Angela leapt off the side, wafting down. "What if there are people still inside?"
"That's Search and Rescue's job." Matt skewed a glance toward the last man down. "It's not like they haven't had practice."
"Looks like it came from the river." Nick's boots thudded to the alley floor. "Coating seemed to have an even thickness. As if it crawled over hard surfaces."
Randy punched keys, peering around the corner into chaos. "So Ugly oozes out of the Harlem, and people don't start screaming 'til it gets here?"
"You'd think somebody would've noticed." Elsie flipped open a cell phone. "Hey, French Fry. Guess what we found?"
Detective Bluestone sighed, plucking oak splinters out of his fingers. Wincing as one from his palm welled scarlet. So much for showing Angela a good time on the one night they both had off. Now she'd go back on patrol, and he'd get swept up in the NYPD response to yet another Manhattan mutation. Life is not fair.
Angela tapped a finger against her lips as H.E.A.T. strolled off toward flashing sirens. "There really isn't that much we can do here, is there?"
"Well, we could - or - no, not really," Matt admitted, plucking another shred of oak out of one thumb. Not in plain view of a horde of trigger- happy New Yorkers; not when the subject in question probably wouldn't fit in an armored car, much less a pair of handcuffs.
"So." She held out a taloned hand. "Where was that music store you liked?"
"Our servant missed the mark," blonde Phoebe frowned, floating above the sirens.
"Perhaps it needs assistance." Dark Selene turned a pupil-less gaze on her sisters.
"But carefully." Silver-haired Luna frowned. "We must not let our mistress suspect we wish to aid her."
"As we do," Phoebe smiled.
"To bring Goliath's clan pain." Selene's eyes glowed.
"As we will," Luna laughed.
With a three-part wave of hands, the Weird Sisters vanished.
"Wire clippers, soldering iron, solder," Dr. Mendel Craven muttered, rummaging through lab cabinets. A flat-bladed screwdriver and a drill were laid carefully on the counter, followed by a set of screws. "Knobs, water filter, spare transistors..."
White wings cloaked, Delilah poked at the growing pile. Her textbook of Basic Chemistry lay on a nearby counter, bookmarked with some of Monique's notes on mental shielding. "What are you looking for?"
"A - achoo! - a brass hinge," Mendel sniffled, leaning back. The roboticist shivered, despite the scarf wrapped around his sore throat. Maybe I should just grab a coat. "For the front door. I know I had one somewhere."
Delilah felt his hot brow, shook her head. "You should be at home."
"What, where my mom can get at me?" Mendel sneezed, grabbed a tissue. "I'm allergic to chicken soup."
Besides, at home he couldn't see Delilah.
Not that he had any intention of doing... well, whatever Randy thought he was up to. Delilah had only had about a year's experience of the real world, outside of the programmed environment Thailog had fed in while she'd grown in Sevarius' vat. Not nearly enough time to learn about human or gargoyle relationships.
And if Delilah ever did decide she wanted... that kind of relationship, why would she ever look at him? Four "rookery brothers", as Hudson called them, and one female - you didn't have to be an engineer to do that math.
But it was nice to sit and talk for a while about chemistry and gears, hull pressures and waterproofing circuits. To be friends.
Even if he didn't stand a chance.
"Ecoute." Monique Dupres stepped out of the elevator, a shadow in leather and cotton. A cell phone dangled from one hand, faint sirens echoing from the receiver. "An unknown mutation attacked an East Harlem movie theater."
"Oh no." He knew what Elsie and that punk hacker had planned to do this evening. Not that he'd ever tell Nick that. A-Team quotes in Nigel's vocal processor - that teenage menace to robotic life had to pay. And Nick's payback always seemed to come out better than any revenge he could plan. "Did they-?"
"Minor injuries." Monique listened to the voice on the far end. "They will return once they have acquired sufficient samples."
Delilah perked up. Over the past week she'd visited the ferry building for an hour or so each night, shyly prying into a world alien to the Labyrinth. A realm of computers and scuba gear, of radiation and neurolinguistic programming; H.E.A.T.'s own blend of science and intuition. "What kind of mutation?"
"Eyewitness accounts conflict." A Gallic shrug. "We shall see what the analysis yields." Dark eyes skewered Mendel. "Nick says you are to take an aspirin and lie down."
"And leave that door in pieces?" Mendel sniffled, rubbed his nose with a tissue. "Does anyone know where the hinges went?"
Listening, the agent lifted a dark brow. "No, he will not listen - a wooden chest under the bed? Ah. Oui, go." Monique snapped the phone closed. "Reporters."
Audrey, Nick thought desperately. The blonde reporter's voice was clear, even through the red haze in his mind. Move. She won't miss you twice. Animal was filming the destruction, but it'd only take them a minute to document that, and then-
Elsie tugged him behind a wall of chattering rubberneckers just as the camera panned their way. "You okay?"
"Minute." The biologist closed his eyes, trying to determine how much of the roiling fury was Godzilla's, how much his own. Prying alien emotions away long enough to drag up a shield. I'm all right, he reassured his giant charge. We're okay.
Warmth curled around him, carrying a taste of fresh tuna, a smooth movement of scales through brackish river water. But the fury didn't lessen.
My territory, came that surge of anger; pure, reptilian rage. My parent.
Randy whistled, keeping an eye on strobing cameras. "G-man's ticked?"
Nick drew in a shaky breath. Running screaming through the crowd is not an option, he told himself. No matter how good it sounds. "He's looking for it. Mad it got past him. I think."
Elsie's fingers touched his cheek. "You're sweating."
Figured. "I've - got to get out of here." Hard to admit. But better to tell them now than be hauled up on charges later. Which he was going to be, if that idiot tourist in front of him stepped into his space one more time-
The paleontologist deftly dragged him back. "No hitting."
Right. Not his territory. Not an intruder. Just a tourist with a camera. "The samples-"
"Got what we could here, compadre." Randy took his other arm, steering him through the incoming gawkers. "Let's blow this joint."
"I hate this," Nick muttered as they walked down the slimy sidewalk, trying to trace the creature's trail. Godzilla's fury boiled against his shield, frothing higher as the lizard found no trace of his parent's attacker. Elsie and Randy walked to either side, intercepting any stray touch that might have fallen on a man alone in such a crowd. Lucky for the crowd.
It's not that bad, Nick reminded himself. He'd never hurt anyone in the middle of these rages. And his shields were getting better.
But knowing that he might, that he'd never keep his temper in the face of Audrey's probing questions, that his team had to protect him... it hurt.
Which, of course, didn't make holding his temper any easier.
You are an empath. Monique's voice, matter-of-fact in his memory. Godzilla 's emotions echo through your own; as they always have, since he was hatched. Accept it. Move on.
Easy for her to say.
"We don't mind. Nick."
Nick rounded on the redhead. "Don't mind what?" Don't take her head off, you idiot. She's trying to help. "Sorry. What?"
"Running interference," Randy shrugged, slipping by a gaggle of breathless teenagers on their cell phones. "S'okay, jefe."
"You followed us home, and we're keeping you." Elsie flashed him a smug grin. "Get used to it."
"Thanks. I think." Something looked off about the street ahead. "What the..."
The trail of slime ended suddenly, an even curve of glistening translucence. No spatters. No change in thickness, as would happen if the creature had run out of slime. Just - stopped. "Let's sample that."
Randy scratched his head, peering down, then up. "What'd it do? Fly?"
Elsie frowned, handing Nick a vial and scraper. "No... there'd be some kind of drag mark." She bent nearer, studying the demarcation on concrete. "Levitation?"
"The slime should have been pulled upward." Nick snapped on the lid, looked down the street toward the line of lights marking the river. Somewhere out there swam a scaly behemoth, prudently keeping out of sight as it searched for the intruder.
Fury eased, settling into a puzzled annoyance. Come?
Nick sighed in pure relief. We're okay. We're coming toward you.
Intruder? A questioning; images of nearby buildings, tunnels, water.
Nick frowned. "No, I don't know where it is either."
"G-man can't find it?"
Nick shook his head. "No scent. No sound. Nothing that shouldn't be there." Eerie, to feel the flow of the river; the rush of life Godzilla had known almost from the moment he hatched. Eerie, and familiar, and strangely comforting. My territory.
Godzilla's territory. Keep it separate, Nick, he reminded himself.
"Here's something." Elsie pointed off to the side. A slim band of translucence glistened in the streetlight, barely two inches wide. "You don't think it could have shrunk, do you?"
A dark mike under his nose. "Any theories, Dr. Tatopoulos?"
"Audrey." Nick managed a polite smile. Which dimmed a little, as her cameraman shuffled for a better shot.
Elsie groaned, throwing up her hands. "Animal, you just stepped in our evidence."
"Evidence?" The camera jerked toward sneaker-shod feet. "This ugly gunk?"
"Ugly slime," Randy corrected. "Even Craven knows that much."
"Yes, where is Dr. Craven?" Timmonds' smile was vaguely predatory; reporter hot on the scent of something newsworthy. "If H.E.A.T. is responding to the city's plea for assistance..."
Home sick. But that's no business of yours, Nick thought. The general public wouldn't believe H.E.A.T. got anything as innocent as head colds. "We're just gathering some information. When we have facts, we'll let you know."
Audrey sniffed. "I've heard that one before." She stepped in for the kill.
Only to be forestalled by another mike. "Travis Marshall, WVRN News," the well-dressed reporter declared. "Any theories on this terrifying assault. Dr. Tatopoulos?"
"I wouldn't exactly call it terrifying..." Dangerous, yes. Life-threatening, definitely. But terrifying?
Then again, most people weren't used to buildings collapsing around them.
"Hey!" Audrey glowered up at the darkly handsome reporter. "This is my story."
Marshall turned on the charm. "But surely you agree the public has a right to know the details you may not emphasize-"
"This is my beat, buster. Go back to chasing drainspouts."
The charm slipped. "I suppose investigative reporting gets a little easier when your subject's twenty stories tall."
Nick winced, seeing the angry flush in Audrey's cheeks. "This is going to get ugly," he murmured.
"Outa my face!" Animal snarled at Marshall's freckle-faced cameraman. "You couldn't film black if the lens cap was on!"
Nick glanced at Elsie. The redhead shrugged, skewing her own glance at Randy. Who grinned.
Leaving the horde of embroiled reporters behind, they sauntered off.
"The sign is here," Luna laughed, skipping on the wind over Central Park.
"Though muted." Phoebe frowned.
"The nature of our prey, sister."
"And what of Puck?"
Selene smiled grimly. "We know Oberon's limits on him. He will not trouble us."
Ah. Lounging back in steamy water, David Xanatos stretched. Wriggled his toes, sending up a spatter of subtle splashes. Sipped a bubbling soda, before setting the dark drink aside to dunk his ponytail in hot water. Nothing better after a long day of corporate takeovers than a relaxing soak in a hot tub at a thousand feet.
Floating on his back, he sniffed the green scent of growing trees, the resiny leaves of the rosemary Fox had insisted on planting in the Eyrie Building's courtyard. Along with parsley, sage, and thyme. It can't hurt, she'd argued, almost angrily. It might not do more than slow Mother down - but it can't hurt.
No. He was not going to think about Titania, or Oberon's Children, or even Goliath. Tonight was their night off, and he meant to make the most of it.
"The Arnold report, Mr. Xanatos."
Xanatos opened his eyes enough to catch a glimpse of the white-and-red FedEx package. "Just leave it on the table, Owen. I'll get to it." Later. Much later. After playtime-with-Fox later.
Conquering the world wasn't easy, after all. He deserved this night off.
A long shadow fell over his face, and he smiled. "Ah, Fox. I hope you brought the backscratcher."
"What was that, David?" Fox's voice, pleasantly abstracted.
From the other side of the courtyard.
Xanatos' eyes jerked open. Tentacle- "Fox!" he yelped as rubbery muscle whipped around his legs. "Get-"
"David?" The blue foxhead tattoo creased as green eyes narrowed. Towel slipping off her scarlet bikini. Fox dropped into a combat crouch.
Gurgle. Gurgle, gurgle. A gasping multi-billionaire broke the surface, gold-speckled tentacles squeezing his ribcage. "Gun!" Splash.
"Owen! Get security!" Slapping a wall panel, Fox pulled out a particle beam pistol. Red beams seared water into steam, tearing suckered arms; her husband surfaced with a gasp. "David!"
Xanatos sucked in air. "Behind you!"
Blue-clad security poured out from the elevator, adding their fire to Fox's deadly shots. To no avail; fast as particle beams slashed inhuman flesh, it flowed back together.
"Owen!" Xanatos gripped the edge of the hot tub, fighting the suckered pull on his legs. Fox backed up near him, shooting tentacled horrors in mid-air. Security's screams were adding to the clamor; blue-armored bodies flung about like junior-league bowling pins.
"I assure you, Mr. Xanatos, Alex is in no danger."
Meaning no help from Puck. I swear, he's enjoying this. "Do something!"
Owen pulled out a phone. "I fear we must call in the experts, Mr. Xanatos." Balancing the cell on his stone fist, the fae started punching in the number. "Biological specialists, experienced in the removal and/or destruction of such infestations." A faint smile touched pale features. "Particularly large infestations."
Xanatos' eyes widened; his grip slipped off the edge of the tub. "No!" Thump. Thump. Muscled ribs hit cedar, tentacles undeterred by impact. "Not them!" Crash.
Monique plucked up the phone. "H.E.A.T."
Screams, swears, breaking glass. And through it all, a calm voice. The French agent listened, amused. "Oui. Lower your air defenses, and we shall do what we can." Cupping her hand over the receiver, she glanced across the lab. "Dr. Craven. We require the helicopter."
"Clear?" Elsie asked, poking her head around an alley corner.
"So far, so good. Geez Louise!" Randy shook out his dreadlocks. "I thought Audrey dumped you!"
"That doesn't mean she's not mad at me," Nick pointed out. He reached toward his charge, hoping Audrey wasn't about to get a multi-ton lizard in her lap.
Right. Godzilla had better things to worry about than reporters. Might as well relax, Nick told him. We need to do our own hunting.
The presence in his mind calmed. Images flickered by; the team in the lab, on the H.E.A.T. Seeker, peering into a computer screen as a dotted red line arced over a graph.
Nick smiled, impressed. That's right. Labwork.
"No stomping?" Randy asked. "Yo, taxi!"
"Not unless he finds it before we do." Godzilla wouldn't tolerate threats to his territory or his parent. But the mutated lizard knew enough to realize there was no point in setting the Sandy Point military base off before he was ready to fight.
"So," Elsie ticked off points on her fingers as the cab pulled up. "It had slime, it was large enough to do serious structural damage to a theater, and it disappeared."
Disappeared was something Nick didn't want to touch. Not after that last battle in Central Park. Spells. Magic. I don't think so. Telekinesis, maybe. Mind control, sure. But magic? "Staten Island," he told the cabbie. "Most of them agree on the tentacles."
Pulling out, the dark cabbie gave them an in-the-mirror stare. "Excuse me?" came the LA. accent.
"Don't mind us, bro," Randy shrugged. "Just a little shop talk."
"Uh-hunh." Black eyes stayed suspicious as the cabbie merged into traffic heading for the Brooklyn Bridge. "You come from back west? 'Cause I swear I seen you 'round."
"Hollywood?" Elsie giggled. "That's one I haven't heard."
"Well, I only ask 'cause I hear you talking 'bout special FX. Is that right?"
Nick bit back a laugh. "Ah... how long have you been in town?"
"Long enough to know when somebody scouting for locations. Everybody does Manhattan, right? So you're doing Staten Island. New angle, new look. Mucho dinero. If the audience buys it."
"Ah... right." Saved by the cell phone. "Tatopoulos."
A dark-eyed stare. "Swear I know that name."
"Hey, hey. Eyes on the road, buster," Elsie threatened. "I want to get over that bridge in one piece."
"Monique? There's a... right." Nick groaned, favoring the phone with an expression of resignation. He could just see the new wires gleaming on the Brooklyn Bridge. "Turn around."
"Hey, I didn't get to this town yesterday," the cabbie shot back. "Staten Island is that way."
"And we're heading to the Eyrie Building." Nick turned back to Monique. "Standard equipment. Break out the cephalopod antitoxins. Meet you there."
"Que pasa, jefe?"
Nick glanced at his teammates. "We've got squid."
Randy slapped the seat. "Calamari. Cool!"
"At a thousand feet."
The cab screeched off the road. "Hey!" came the mass protest from the back.
Eyes wide and staring, the cabbie brought his ride to a shuddering halt on the sidewalk. Horns blared around them, drivers responding to what even a New Yorker saw as a blatant violation of the rules of the road. "Nick Tato - Tata - whateveritis?" The man shrank away from his passengers. "You that guy on TV! That crazy guy, runs around with the lizard!"
"Tatopoulos," Nick sighed. "Could we get back on the road now?"
"Uh-uh." The cabdriver seemed to vibrate, he was shaking his head so fast. "No way. I know what you do to cabs!"
"One little cab ride through Godzilla's mouth, and they never let you forget it." Randy tapped a few more keys on his laptop, grinned at the screen. "Sidestep a little security here, slip through the firewall... and we are in."
"Squids it is." Nick eyed the videocam footage of pale, tentacled beasts slamming Xanatos Security into stone walls, glanced up at their reluctant driver. "It's the Eyrie Building, or no fare. Your choice."
Jean-clad shoulders slumped. "I am turning in my notice," the cabbie swore, pulling back into traffic. "Uh-hunh. Minute I get off-shift? Won't see me darkening that door again. Uh-uh. Nobody needs this kind of abuse. I got skills - I could be an entertainer-"
Nick tuned out the rest of the harangue, feeling water ripple over scales as a massive body shifted course. Be careful, he willed his charge. They still didn't know what had mutated these squids, or why, or how the creatures had appeared on top of New York's tallest building. Let us get there first.
"Arf! Arf!" Feeling garden earth shake under its paws, a white-and-brown Jack Russell terrier tried to sound the alarm. "Arf! Grrr! Arf, arf, arf!"
A massive head broke the surface of the Hudson, orange eye searching out the source of the noise.
"Arf?" Jack Russells were bred to be brave. But not idiots. "Wuh-oof." Ever so slowly, white fur started backing up.
A hundred and eighty feet of scales shook off water, drenching the riverside. Mostly missing the garden.
Sighting the tall building his parent had pictured, Godzilla strode through Manhattan. It would have been faster to come from the eastern river. Less distance. Less chance for the intruders to get away.
But this way was shorter over land. Less buildings. Which meant less time for annoying humans with guns to come.
Those were confusing. Sometimes they attacked him, other times they attacked the intruders. Sometimes his parent could stop them. Sometimes his parent wanted him to flee them - to leave his territory undefended.
And sometimes they attacked his parent.
Maybe there were different groups of humans, Godzilla thought, stepping around a blue-and-white car. No; he'd smelled the same scents more than once, attacking and defending.
A helicopter beat its way towards the tall building; engines tuned, familiar. The machine his parent sometimes used, though his parent was not within it. Orange eyes narrowed, noting the dark-haired occupant, the dangerous female his parent saw as an ally.
Warmth, reaching out from Nick. Comfort, mixed with wariness.
Long claws gripped reinforced steel, began the climb toward the squeals of the intruders. A solid building. Good.
Nostrils sniffed as someone screamed and slammed a window shut. The scent of his parent was already within. Not good.
He reached for Nick's presence. No pain, his parent wasn't hurt, but there were the flash-flickers of rising anxiety -
Hard wall of a barrier slammed up; a bolt of fear and need. Snarling, Godzilla surged over the battlements.
Elsie dodged and grabbed, snagging the particle beam rifle Monique had tossed her way. Safety, trigger - fire!
Tentacles fell away from the unconscious security guard's chest, seared into grayish lumps. The horse-sized squid squealed, squirting black ink in her face.
Yuck! Slipping on inky grass, Elsie rolled under suckered arms. Rotor wash blew red strands in her eyes as she slid and staggered past the demolished hot tub. Usually she'd be just as keen as Nick to sample instead of shoot. But not when they'd walked right into a firefight.
Gold-speckled giant squids writhed and jetted through the courtyard, wreaking mass havoc on glass, furniture, and anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way. Pieces of navy-blue and gray body armor were strewn all over the place, though the wearers had apparently put up enough of a fight to keep anybody from being eaten. A fierce woman with a tattoo and a dripping black-and-red bikini sprayed the area around the hot tub's remnants with particle beam fire, reaching back to pull a bruised man in swim trunks onto the courtyard stone.
"Nick!" Elsie called, heart racing. She hadn't seen this much unconscious security since the last time Monique cut loose.
Green bolts shot past her; Frenchie herself, Nick's rifle slung over her shoulder. "Where is he?"
"Elevator, uglies, dodged, lost him." Warm, ink-wet body at their side; Randy. "This is not my idea of a night off, compadres!"
Dark eyes snapped fire. "You should have remained together!"
Elsie shot off another white tentacle, dashing ink out of her eyes. "Can we argue tactics later-"
"Here!" came Nick's shout, followed by the whoosh of a discharging fire extinguisher. One squid shrieked, lurching away with a crust of frost.
The biologist's gaze met hers. He's too far away-
Nick bolted to their left instead, clambering up a battered lightpole while his frosted assailant keened. A slimy horde jetted toward the pole, beaks snapping.
Nick! And she couldn't fire into that knot of tentacles; she didn't have Monique's deadly, unerring aim-
Gray-green talons gripped the battlements. Orange eyes slitted. A roar shook the walls about them, tumbling granite from the parapets.
"Wah-hoo!" Randy cheered. "The cavalry has arrived!"
"I'm standing in front of the Eyrie Building, past source of many of this city's more explosive events and currently ground zero of Godzilla's latest battle," Audrey reported. "Here we have-"
Officer Morgan swore under his breath, trying to herd the rest of the curious civilians behind the police line. It never failed. Lights on top of the Eyrie Building drew a crowd, no matter how many times the networks showed the granite wreckage afterward. "Lady, get out of there!"
"Ought to listen to the officer, Timmonds," Travis Marshall smirked, setting up just inside the barrier. "This is my beat."
"Lizards and giant squids?" Audrey smirked right back. "Please."
"Laugh now," her competitor's lip curled. "I'll get the exclusive up there."
The blonde's eyes narrowed. "When pigs fly, Marshall-"
"Hey!" Animal yelled. "Either of you two lovebirds want to look up?"
"Not now-" the two reporters started.
A wall of black splattered down.
Morgan sighed as the two reporters slung off black ink. "At least it wasn't granite."
Revving its engines, a FedEx truck screeched away from the inky puddle, tearing through downtown traffic like a demolition driver.
Somebody needs to give that guy a ticket, Morgan thought. But not him. Not while there was still a multi-story lizard upstairs.
"It seems the object we seek has left this place," Blonde Phoebe observed, standing in mid-air.
"Fled, in a chariot of cold iron." Silver-haired Luna's lip curled.
"Let us waste no more of our magic here." Black hair flew as Selene's fingers curled, beckoning with her sisters. Emerald coiled in their palms, calling to its kin across the city.
Nick felt his fingers slip down cool steel. Hang on! he ordered himself, kicking at the suckered arms dragging him down. Holding a tight shield against the burning rage, the red desire to kill any intruder that would not yield.
Two inches. Skin burned on his palms. Sharp shots from particle beam rifles were clearing the crowd below, but there were far too many gaping beaks.
Massive jaws bit a squid out of the air, a wind of razored teeth. Suckers ripped brown cotton.
Three inches. Something hard snapped against the sole of his boot.
Talons closed around him like an emerald-gray wall.
Nick let go of steel, clinging to scaled armor. Peace and fury mingled in his veins as his charge slashed clinging tentacles from his leg. This was calm, here in a leviathan's grip. This was safety.
Heat in his throat, against his skin; green fire, gouting out to sear flying squids into charcoal. Hold the shields, Nick reminded himself, trying to figure out how to get to his embattled team. Jumping was out. Fifty feet was too far, even for Monique. Contact brings you closer, don't lose it now.
Another blaze of green, haloing the few remaining squids. Alien. Uncanny. Shrinking.
Fury's pressure eased, diluted by confusion. Godzilla rumbled, lowering his head as his quarry dwindled out of sight.
"Not that I'm complaining," Elsie gasped, back to back with Monique and Randy in a circle of seared slime. "But what just happened?"
Something small and glistening caught Nick's eye. "Over here!"
A tendril of confusion brushed his shields. The intruder?
"Maybe," Nick muttered. It didn't seem possible, but-
His phone rang.
Nick rolled his eyes. "Tatopoulos," he sighed. Carefully he began lowering the shields, accepting the last remnants of battle-rage. Something weird was going on here. They needed every scrap of information they could get.
"You better have a good explanation, Worm Guy!"
"Nice to hear from you too. Major." Talons lowered him to the ink-splotched courtyard. Nick scrambled out of Godzilla's grasp, eyeing the gold-speckled squid Elsie had just plucked up in a sample bag. A squid that'd had one feeding tentacle torn away by particle beam fire... yet was less than a foot long.
A chatter of tense orders underlaid Major Hicks' voice. "I can see your lizard from Jersey!"
Scraping up a vial of slime, Nick bit back a smile. "We're chasing squid."
Silence on the other end of the line. "Run that by me again?"
"The damage is centered here." Monique prodded slimy wreckage. In the middle of inky sludge floated a white-and-red package, shedding white pages like leaves.
"Earthquake defenses. Magical defenses. Gargoyle defenses," the bruised man muttered numbly. "Cold iron. Energy shields. Laser cannons. Internal generators." He stared around the shattered courtyard. "Giant bleeping squids..."
Puzzled curiosity; Nick let it wash through him. "Relax, Major," he smiled. "We'll let you know if we have a problem." He closed the phone on the indignant yelp. What is it?
A tongue swept the courtyard, lingering on muscular tentacles. He knew this taste. It belonged to webs of hungry arms, jetting through schools of small fish to feast and slay.
Blue eyes studied cylindrical bodies. "Randy? Call up files on Atlantic squid. Near-shore species."
Photos started opening on Randy's laptop. "Think you know what they came from, jefe?"
"I think I know what they are." Nick pointed at an image of a gold and red-speckled white squid. A foot long, large eyes mostly covered by skin, its slim triangular fin bore a distinct resemblance to jet wings.
"Illex illecebrosus." Elsie raised a red brow, zipping her bag shut as her sample tried to jet toward freedom. "Short-fin Squid?"
"Jet-propelled 'flyers'," Randy read off. "Bunches'll charge into schools of fish, kill more than they can eat. Nasty."
"Not a mutation?" Monique scowled.
"They're not radioactive," Nick reported, putting away his scintillation counter. "And I don't think we'll find any mutagens."
"So..." Randy tilted dreadlocks toward the bag, swung arms wide as their attackers' fins.
The French agent's face went still. "Electromagnetic variation?"
Elsie flinched as the hacker went to work. "Karentec?"
"Not a chance." The biologist nodded toward the massive lizard investigating the courtyard. His hand touched his shirt pocket, where a certain dragon brooch was hidden. He wasn't letting that out of reach until they heard about the mage - one way or the other. "We'd know. Trust me."
"And... we have a winner." Randy drew back from the screen. A slight curve arched over his graph, decaying rapidly to baseline. "EM's just a little bit funky."
"Then we seek an intelligent foe." Monique regarded the battlefield with new interest. "One who chose to withdraw its forces."
"So..." Elsie matched glares with her plastic-bound captive. "Did it get what it wanted, or not?"
Gazing at the pool of ink-spattered pages, the French agent gave a slight nod. "It did not."
A red brow arched. "And you know this, how?"
Wariness struck; Nick sucked in air. What's wrong?
Godzilla snarled. Something was - off, about the odor near the castle wall. Human but not-human. A twisted version of the curious scent that hung about the woman in the dripping bikini.
A pale man stepped out of the shadows, adjusting his glasses. Not a speck of slime marred his deep blue suit. "A copy of the Arnold report should be here by noon, Mr. Xanatos."
"You," the bruised Xanatos breathed, combing soaked hair out of his eyes. "You enjoyed that."
A slim smile. "Neither you nor Fox were in true danger."
"And how did the stiff know that?" Randy said in an undertone, downloading files while Security picked itself off the flagstones.
"I don't know." Elsie shivered, backing up under Godzilla's chin; space she'd ordinarily steer clear of. "Something about him gives me the creeps."
A weaving tail was his charge's threatening agreement. Orange eyes fixed on the swath of blue. No sense of hostility, not yet... but this creature was not safe.
"Owen Burnett," Monique identified the pale blond, giving cover while the others finished gathering samples. "A very... efficient man." Dark eyes narrowed. "With a background one might call thin."
Nick lifted a lip to taste the air, feeling certainty echo through him. "He's not human."
"Vraiment?" The agent moved slightly aside, clear of the growling lizard's line of fire. "You are certain."
The biologist dipped another scoop of water out of the ruined tub, poured it into Elsie's bag of squid. "I'm sure."
Fox was advancing on Burnett, eyes glowing dangerous emerald. "You let us nearly get killed-" Green flame lashed from her fingertips.
Wide-eyed, Owen spread empty hands.
Too late. Unearthly power struck, blasting the blue suit into granite with a rain of jade sparks.
H.E.A.T. hit the ground. A wall of talons interposed itself between them and the deadly rain, emerald sizzling out on gray-green scales.
Shielded by a massive tail, Elsie held out a beckoning hand.
A shard of emerald fire banked in mid-air, arcing as a hawk to a falconer's call. A phoenix in green and gold mantled on her fingers, fiery talons gripping her wrist.
"Whoa!" Randy breathed. The hacker reached out to touch, winced at boiling heat. "Yow!"
Wondering, Nick gazed over Elsie's shoulder, feeling uncanny fire surge and flare. Godzilla's curiosity fanned his own to a flame, orange eyes narrowed against citrine light. So like the fiery breath that guarded them all; the endless strength that could save or slay.
So very like. Yet its source was elsewhere. Like a shattered mirror, reflecting shards of some other truth.
"No," the paleontologist whispered. "No." Green eyes tore away from living flame. "Get away from me!"
Emerald shrieked into the sky, a blazing fountain of fire. A falcon's cry in the night, heartbroken and grieving.
"Lovely blast, my dear." Xanatos' voice drifted past Godzilla's protective crouch, carrying a hint of its usual smoothness. "But you might have waited until he explained."
A low, human growl. "He ticked me off."
"Hmmm." Wet footsteps slapped their way. "And what was that bit with the bird?"
"I don't know..."
They didn't see. Nick flicked a glance over the courtyard, picking out every angle a camera might hide in. From some of those angles flew sparks. They'd better not have seen. "Randy. Wipe the last ten minutes off their system."
The hacker's lips pursed in a silent whistle. Reddened fingertips hit his keyboard. "On it, jefe."
Nick smothered doubts, the niggling voice that whispered how many laws he was breaking. He could feel Monique's gaze boring into the back of his skull.
H.E.A.T. protected him. If this building had to come down to protect Elsie - he'd do it.
"Elsie." Nick reached an arm around her, clasped still-hot fingers in his. "It's all right."
"It's not all right." Anguished eyes met his, wide with the knowledge of what it meant to hold fire in her hands. "It'll never be all right."
"Dr. Tatopoulos?" Xanatos stepped carefully around the courtyard, as far from the annoyed lizard as he could get and not fall off the castle. "Was anyone hurt?"
A rumbling snarl echoed Nick's own frustration. I am not going to kill him, the biologist thought firmly. He passed Elsie's hand to Monique, stood so his body blocked any view of Randy's flying fingers. "You might want to watch where you throw those things."
A smug smile. "Proprietary technology. Still in development." A bruised brow arched. "You understand."
Uh-huh. Sure. "You wouldn't happen to know why this happened?" The biologist gestured toward stray, seared bits of tentacle.
The smile turned dark. "Not a clue." Xanatos glanced at their equipment. "I don't suppose you'll be able to tell me?"
"It'll take some time to analyze this." Dr. Chapman's voice. Cool. Professional.
Nick could have wept.
A questioning whuffle. The intruders were gone. Why the sadness?
Elsie's hurt, Nick tried to explain. All too aware of dark, calculating eyes on them, no matter how dazed Xanatos might seem. She's afraid.
A snort. Afraid because she was dangerous? All Nick's allies were dangerous.
The biologist blinked, covering his double-take with a swift scribble on a sample bag. Dangerous? How are we dangerous?
Heading down the building, Godzilla gave him the impression of a shrug. They were his parent's allies. What could they be but dangerous?
Nick closed his eyes, trying to sort the fine nuances of image and emotion. Something about connection, protection; the feel that he recognized as himself associated with every image of the rest of H.E.A.T.
Familiar hand on his shoulder. "We will take the helicopter back," Monique informed him. "Randy believes there will be no cab for three blocks." Her dark gaze fixed on sparking cameras, on the thoroughly unconscious Burnett. "Well done. But we should not linger."
He'd never been so glad to slam a helicopter door.
"Intense!" Randy crowed, cinching his buckle as the chopper leapt upward. "When you going to do that again?"
Elsie shrank back against cool steel. "I'm not."
"Elsie," Nick began.
A panicked shake of ink-stained hair. "I won't!"
"You have contacted these phenomena twice." Monique adjusted her headset. "It would be foolish to ignore the possibility of a third."
Freckled hands moved toward her ears, as if to block away the words. "It's not real." Green eyes were wet. "It can't be."
"Mendel tracked a transmission to the hydrozoids." Nick gripped a hanging strap, held out a hand. "A transmission, Elsie. Whatever this is, it's detectable. It's measurable."
Some of the fear vanished from her gaze. "Don't tell me you're going to explain this with science, Nick."
Nick's smile was pure challenge. "Watch me."
A shimmer of light; three women in sky-blue robes walked out of thin air. "At last," Phoebe sighed. "There stands our prize, outside cold iron."
Eyes without pupils narrowed. "And its bearer is unguarded."
"A mere human mortal." Luna sneered at the nervous man below. "Little enough barrier to us-"
Wind howled through, knocking faeries from the sky. "'Ware, sisters!" Selene called over the sudden roar. "This is no natural breeze-"
Concrete blasted the air from magical lungs. "What?" Phoebe gasped, blonde head ringing. Elegant hands reached out, felt a wall of unseen chill. "Sorcery?"
"No; far more perilous a wyrd!" Selene's raven locks rose as she sent a seeking probe of jade at what seemed but empty air.
Only to see it dissolve, pulled thin as stardust in a black hole's grip. "Mortal witchery!" Luna exclaimed.
Phoebe flicked out a lash of celadon. Fae power shimmered downward, sucked out of sight. "Strong, and rooted deep."
"Anything might lurk within, unseen." Selene snarled. "How dare the humans work such trickery against us!"
"We do not need to see within," Luna said coolly, waving a hand at the nearby harbor. "Our servants will seek our prize."
Slimy, wet, and frustrated, Nick squelched out of the chopper. "Need any help?"
"Non." Monique flipped switches, shutting down the engine. "Find a towel. I would prefer not to deal with anyone else - how do you say, catching cold?"
"Second that," Elsie muttered, dripping ink as she headed for the side door. "Anybody expecting a package?"
Randy held up empty hands. "Hey, I track mine."
And yet there was a battered, black-spattered white-and-red FedEx truck loitering in the drive. With a harried, sweaty driver arguing with an equally harried Mendel Craven. "Look, I have to have a signature-" The man stopped. Blinked. "What happened to you guys?"
"Squids?" Mendel shuddered.
"Squids," Elsie sighed, wringing out once-red hair. "Hope this gunk washes out."
Acting as if nothing had changed. Nick felt something tighten about his heart. It won't help, Elsie. I know.
But it was all she had.
We'll find an answer, Elsie. I promise.
"Mr.-" Nick scanned the nametag; H.E.A.T. never seemed to get the same deliveryman twice. "Thompson. Dr. Craven's fully authorized to accept any deliveries for H.E.A.T."
Mendel coughed. "It's not for us, Nick."
"You're Niko Tatopoulos?" Agitated hands thrust a clipboard and a small box under his eyes. "Sign here."
Hmm. Nick patted his shirt pocket. No pen. Must've fallen out in the fight. "Hang on a minute. I'll get a pen-"
A ballpoint jabbed under his gaze. "Take it!"
Ooh-kay. Nick signed off, barely handing the clipboard back before the driver leapt into his truck and floored it.
Mendel frowned after the screeching truck. "Is it just me, or is he a little more jittery than usual?"
Nick looked out over the harbor. No; no large head in sight. So what had spooked Thompson?
"Ah, he probably thought we were going to throw off his run." Randy grinned. "If you're not absolutely sure, you're absolutely dead." He peered over Nick's shoulder. "So who's Shannon Inire?" Dark brows waggled. "Old flame?"
Nick laughed softly. "Very old. Ninety... one, I think she'd be by now." Probably still a stalking terror, if his memory served. At least she hadn't looked any worse at seventy-one than most people did at fifty.
"She's my grandmother, Randy." Which didn't give him any more clue what this was.
Mendel blinked. "You have a grandmother?" He glanced at Elsie. "I didn't know you had any family."
"We're not on speaking terms." Which made this even stranger. "I think we'd better let Monique look at this."
"What, you think it's going to blow up?" Randy snickered. Stopped, when he saw the look on Nick's face. "1 was just kidding, jefe. I mean, she's your grandmother..."
"I'll get Frenchie." Elsie headed for the chopper.
"Well," Mendel said, trying not to watch the paperback-sized box. "We got the front door back together." Labcoat shoulders slumped. "Then the truck showed up, and I didn't get to tell her goodbye."
Easy to tell which her he had in mind. Nick hid a smile.
Sweet, was what Elsie called it. Incroyable, in Monique's terms. Talon might have had other words for it, but fortunately the mutate clan leader didn't seem to realize his "little sister" had Dr. Mendel Craven's devoted attention.
Not that the shy roboticist was likely to do anything about it. At least, not without help.
Hernandez grinned. "So when you gonna take up hang gliding?"
That was not help.
"Hang gliding?" Mendel gulped.
"You know; you, her, a starry night," a suggestive arm wriggle. "A little acrobatics..."
"Aerial vertebrates mate on the ground. Randy." Sheesh, the biologist thought. Even albatrosses landed to mate. And they might not come back to earth for a year or more at a time. He sincerely doubted an intelligent gliding species would risk a crash landing in the middle of-
Oops. Very red-faced roboticist. "Not that I think you had anything like that in mind," Nick backed up a step. "You're a professional, I trust your judgment-"
"You do not truly believe it explosive?"
Saved. "No," Nick said, abandoning the conversation before he could jam his foot any farther into his mouth. "It's just... strange."
"Twenty years of no contact, then a second package within as many weeks." Monique raised a dark brow. "C'est tres bizarre, no?"
So she knew about the chest. No surprise. "Mind checking it over?"
Gloves on, the French agent took the small box. Dark eyes scanned the shadows. "This will be best done indoors."
Blue eyes narrowed. Monique knew better than to take a suspect box into their living area, whether or not she thought it was explosive. Which meant- "Right, people. Inside."
"We could even use the front door. For once," Mendel pointed out.
"Ah, yes." Monique rolled her eyes at the antique brass hinge as they hiked through. "Yet another potential breach in security."
Despite the rising anxiety. Nick had to smile. He'd forgotten how much he'd missed that little touch of home. His mother had gone through three doors in less than twelve years, yet that hinge had survived every time.
"Aahh, you're just trying to make us feel better." Randy waggled bushy brows at her. "I bet you had that door wired the first night you snuck in."
"Perhaps I should have used a higher voltage." The door slammed.
Swifter than the human eye could follow, two tentacles struck old wood, splitting the door in two-
Froze, sparks flying from brass to flesh. Bolts of static burned black across slimy skin, jerking the squid out of concealing shadow.
Randy whistled, scrubbing dust off a window to watch the light show. "Looks high enough to me, amiga."
"I did not install current to that door." The dark gaze was cold, worried.
"There isn't any current to the door." Brown eyes were wide as saucers, recoiling as suckered arms battered at empty air. "I just put that hinge in!"
"Check the elevator!" Nick ordered. "Lock everything down!" There were limits to what they could do: despite Monique's efforts, this wasn't a fortress- "The ramps!"
Rifle in hand, Monique stalked dark water. "C'est impossible!"
Squids swarmed just outside the open bay, tentacles writhing against air. Whenever a suckered arm tried to cross the invisible line into the building, it was repulsed in a flash of blazing silver.
Territorial annoyance roused in the back of Nick's mind. A grouchy lizard drew in a deep breath of cave air, plunged into New York Harbor one more time. What, again?
Nick sighed. I guess they don't know when to quit.
Elsie was checking windows, backing off as speckled flesh battered at glass. "Nick, if they took apart the movie theater-"
"We'll be okay," Nick said softly. "I think." He pointed out toward the bay.
A glittering haze rose from earth and sea, misting air and glass. Suckered arms curled over it, sparks flying whenever they touched. A haze he'd seen before, one terrifying night.
Comforting arms left him; his mother's hand cranked back strings of steel. The scent of roses lingered, battling a stench of swamp. "Stay behind me, Nick." Steel gleamed in the silvery haze from the shattered door; barbed crossbow bolts, aimed at the heart of darkness. "Away, Nightborn! This is my land. You don't belong here!"
A gurgling roar.
"Like I care." A slim finger pulled the trigger.
"You have seen this before?" Monique, swift and silent at his side as arm-length beaks gnawed at air.
"I was - six, I think." The biologist blinked, hauling up shreds of memory. "Halloween." He remembered the candy, the candles; the saucer of milk and cakes his mother had left on the front step. "Something broke down our door. But it couldn't get in." No use; all he had were fragments. "It wouldn't go away, so my mother shot it."
"Your mother carried a gun?" Checking his own rifle, Mendel backed into the tight knot that was H.E.A.T. Together the team watched squids slither from the sea to cluster near their shattered front door.
"Repeating crossbow." Another glint of memory; sunlight off bronze feathers while his mother readied a stewpot. "She could take down a wild turkey at a hundred yards." He touched a hand to cracked paint, feeling that ever-so-slight tingle that reminded him of home. "Electromagnetic?"
Mendel waved his palm computer near the wall, flinching as tentacles slammed the other side. "This doesn't make sense. I mean, this place has always had weird EM readings, but-" He held it an inch away from the paint; frowned, moved it back. "A field this strong ought to take five feet to drop off!"
"Weird?" Nick asked pointedly.
"There is a point of instability beneath this building," Monique shrugged. "A variation in the planetary magnetic field. Most humans find it... unsettling." Dark eyes weighed him. "You never considered why this property had so few dwellers nearby?"
Annoyance swept through Nick; a higher wave lapped against the boat bay. Coiled tentacles sprang into sharp relief in his mind as Godzilla studied the suckered invasion. How many of these intruders were there?
"Got me," Nick murmured. But given that his charge didn't seem to be in any hurry to rush in... "You think we're safe?"
Calm warmth, lacing through the first stirrings of battle readiness. Orange eyes could see all the intruders; none could pass the ferry building's thresholds. A scent of safety wreathed his parent's dwelling, sharp as lightning's strike.
"Ozone." So maybe it was electricity striking the squids. But what could be powering it?
Elsie brushed fingers over a wall, eyes wide at the static that sparkled around her hand. "This isn't like Karentec."
"Different frequency modulation," Mendel shrugged. "They're actually quite distinctive."
Nick raised a dark brow at the images accompanying that thought. Every squid had left the water, crowding near the portal they couldn't breach. Why? He hefted the FedEx package, frowning at its weight. "Stay here."
Tentacles scraped down the wall as the biologist walked toward the boat bay. Nick set the box on the floor and retreated.
Monique raised a dark brow. "They are drawn to the package?"
"Thompson!" Elsie snapped her fingers. "That was ink on his truck!"
"FedEx truck running from the theater," Randy counted down. "Envelope on Xanatos' table-"
"And I haven't seen a driver that spooked since the last time Godzilla checked out the fish delivery," Mendel finished.
"They've been chasing this box all over town." Nick pried open a pocketknife. "Let's see why."
Tape ripped. A bundle of notepaper uncrumpled. Something metallic thumped against cardboard.
Nick felt a slight tug on his knife. "It's magnetic."
Nigel's arm snagged the box. "I pity the fool don't run a MAD over this!"
"B.A. Barracus?" Mendel glared at the hacker. "I will remember this. You will pay."
"High iron, fool!" Nigel reported, running a Magnetic Anomaly Detector over the package. "An' enough iridium to knock you silly."
"Iridium?" Elsie perked up. "Meteoric iron?"
Nick pulled out the paper and metal bundle. "Let's see."
Long sheets of elegant handwriting spread over the table, unveiling black metal carved into the slim, bat-eared head of a fennec. "A hunt cup," Monique said thoughtfully, cradling dark iron in her palm. "Not cast, nor forged." Her gaze rested on Elsie. "Cold iron."
The paleontologist toyed with worn cardboard. "Guys? Tell me if the ugly bunch moves." Box in hand, she headed for the boat bay.
"Elsie?" Slimy bodies were slipping into the water, abandoning the rest of the building.
"Just playing a hunch." Elsie wound up, let cardboard fly.
Suckered arms snagged flying tape, drew it in with a crunch. Massive bodies slipped back into the sea.
"Something Hudson told me." Elsie wiped off beads of sweat as the rest of H.E.A.T. stared. "About Oberon's Children. He said they're powerful, but they're not always smart." The paleontologist snickered. "Whoever set those loose didn't give them good instructions."
"They were after the box?" Randv scratched his head. "Now, that's twisted."
"Ah, guys?" Mendel shivered. "How long is it going to take for them to realize they've been gypped?"
Cardboard crumpled, burst into malachite flames. "How dare they!"
"Calm, sisters," Luna said coolly. "We've hours before dawn."
"To batter away at a fortress of human witchery?" Phoebe's lip curled. "Hopeless!"
"Not quite." Selene studied the emptiness before them. "Our Queen has pierced the veil of human magic."
"But only in human form," Phoebe pointed out.
"We would still need permission to enter," Luna added.
"And we would be weak," Selene agreed. "But only until we found our prey."
"Resume our true form in a place of human science?" Phoebe lifted a golden brow. "A gamble."
"Small enough risk, for our revenge." Selene smiled cruelly.
"And I know of a way to gain entry," Luna laughed.
"Yeah, yeah, hang on," Randy grumbled, lifting the freight door. The rest of the team was scattered around the building, studying Nick's cup or trying to get in contact with Hudson. His stomach growled. Between carting Nick off and the mess at the Eyrie Building, dinner had gotten lost in the shuffle.
Three lovely ladies smiled at him, dressed in neat uniforms and carrying boxes straight from paradise. "Did someone order a pizza?"
Deep-dish. Randy drew in a deep, mouth-watering breath of salty tomato paste, baked ham, melted cheese.
"Come on in," the hacker invited, holding the freight door up as the three brought in their fragrant load. "And stay awhile," he murmured, grinning. Man, Mendel had started his cheese melt just a minute too early. Not that he was going to gloat. Oh, no.
Well... not much.
Gripping the squid's muscular mantle, Nick met their unwelcome guest eye to eye. Normal squid. Tentacles, ink, skin; nothing tested outside the regular limits of the species.
"He ain't got the jazz, man," Nigel growled.
No more electromagnetic variation, then. Nick tapped a finger on the edge of the fishtank. Salt water from the bay sloshed atop his lab counter, splashing up as he dropped the squid back in. The red-speckled siphon gulped water, shot the tentacled creature through the surface.
"Nice try," the biologist murmured, locking the glass top. "At least it wasn't mantis shrimp."
The biologist shook his head, feeling the strength of scaled muscles pushing back water as Godzilla returned from chasing off the mob of shrunken squid. For a moment, everything had seemed... off.
The last time that had happened...
H.E.A.T. headquarters had been invaded.
"Hey, jefe!" Randy led a trio of women out of the freight elevator, trailing a scent of tomato sauce and cheese. "Pizza! Great idea, compadre!"
Pizza? Nick had enough time to think, before battle-rage struck. I didn't order a-
The women blurred, uniforms flowing into sky-blue robes. "Nightmares your folk bring to heel," the black-haired woman smirked, emerald power glowing around her hands.
"So in your nightmare's form reveal!" her sisters chorused. Force gathered around them, built-
"Down!" Drawing fury around him like armor, Nick knocked Randy to the floor.
Green lightning lashed out, sheeting through the fishtank, missing a quaking cephalopod by inches. Citrine power bounced off the lighted microwave-
Slammed inside Randy's dangling chili pot-
Zark zap-zap-zap zing-
Bounced back out of the steel pot, hurled into the lab window-
Hit one of Monique's alarms; citrine flame burned down the tape, crawled along the sensor wire-
Ricocheted off Mendel's pollen counter-
Blasted Nigel, collapsing the hapless robot in a scream and a shower of rusty parts as the green bolt bounced off Nick's terminal-
Hitting the Weird Sisters dead-on.
Ribbit. Ribbit, ribbit.
Fingers gripped the table edge. Wide-eyed, Nick and Randy peered through the smoky haze.
There on the floor squatted three indignant toads. One white. One black. One yellow.
Randy swallowed. "What the heck was that?"
"Not deep-dish," Nick deadpanned. I'm all right, he projected, trying to ride the waves of fury. Careful not to stray too near Randy; not while the room still flashed and flickered. We're okay.
The red haze faded, swift as falling leaves. In its wake echoed a pulse of satisfaction. Safe.
Deliberate, Nick realized. Too far away to reach him, Godzilla had deliberately lashed that rage through their link.
To protect him.
Mendel strolled through, opening the microwave to pluck out his cheese melt. "What have you guys been doing up here?" He waved a hand through the smoke. "Frying circuits?"
Nick shook his head, pulse settling back to normal. "Randy?"
"...Jefe?" The hacker was still staring at the toads, who were huddling in a furious heap.
"Never, ever invite anyone in here again. Ever."
"Now." Nick stalked over toward the toadpile. Licking thumb and finger, he snuffed out a bit of scorched notepaper clinging to the edge of his computer screen. "As for you three. I don't want to see any of you in here again. Ever. Got it?"
"Ah, Nick?" Mendel chewed a bite of cheese; swallowed. "You're talking to frogs-" He choked. "Nigel!"
"I noticed," Nick growled.
"Whew!" Elsie fanned smoke out of her face, threw? open the roof door. "How about some air?"
As one, three toads bolted out the door.
The paleontologist regarded him with a raised eyebrow. "Starting a menagerie, Nicky?"
Nick traded a glance with Randy. "Where do we start?"
"I don't believe this." Matt Bluestone shook his head, eyeing the charred wreckage scattered over H.E.A.T.'s lab. "It bounced?"
"Like a pinball on speed." Randy gestured a mad arc. "Man, I saw it and I don't believe it."
"I know Staten Island's a little out of your jurisdiction, but..." Nick shrugged.
The redheaded detective nodded, stifling a yawn. He'd seen Angela off to the clocktower just half an hour ago. Goliath got grouchy when his daughter was out alone too close to sunrise. Alone. Guess I don't count. "Who else could you call?"
Elisa Maza chuckled, picking up a rusty piece of robot. Her eyes still sparkled from a night spent seeing the town with the clan leader. "I don't think anyone's ever Rube Goldberged the Weird Sisters before." She set yellow steel on the counter. "They were after a magical cup?"
Nick cleared his throat. "Meteoric iron, that exhibits some anomalous electromagnetic readings."
"As many relics do." Monique's gaze was veiled. "And we do not know it was the cup they sought."
"But you did track the delivery," Matt pointed out. They're hiding something. But what?
"Thompson's run hit every place the squids did," Randy shrugged. "And given that the triplets from the Twilight Zone hit here, I kind of doubt they were after him."
Mendel was flipping through neat handwriting, elegant blueprints of an antique brass hinge. "This is amazing! Electroplating, acid-etched circuits, crystal resonators..." Knuckles cracked, fingers wriggling at the thought of digging into yet another engineering project. "And you wouldn't even need twentieth-century technology."
"Cardea's Hinge," Elisa read off the folded paper. "Something new?"
"You could say that," Nick said evasively.
"Cardea was supposed to be a Roman guardian of the threshold." Elsie waved one of a pile of library books; works of folklore, tomes of myth, anything H.E.A.T. could find that might give them a leg up on the latest creature to wander out of the woodwork. "She defended people against powers of night, those who need permission to wreak evil on humankind. Her symbol was the door hinge."
"Looks like you put it together just in time." Maza lifted a skeptical brow.
Blue eyes were still as deep water. "Looks like."
"Nick." Matt made a slight move toward the biologist, not quite offering a hand. Not after the last time. Chasing jellyfish in Central Park in a commandeered squad car... how had that happened? "We're trying to help."
Tatopoulos closed his eyes, rubbing away a headache. "I know. I know." He drew a deep breath. "It's just... that cup may have come from a relative of mine." Nick met their gaze. "Someone I've never met."
"Ouch." Matt winced. "Black sheep?"
"We are investigating the name," Monique said coolly.
"Let us know when you put together some more of those hinges." Elisa stepped onto the ladder. "We could use them."
A blue tail lashed in the thin light before sunrise. "You failed me!"
"The cup you sought is beyond our reach," Luna acknowledged.
"And our service to you ends with the dawn," Phoebe sneered.
"But take heart." A glowing image formed in Selene's palm. "This man holds what you seek."
Demona growled, fingering the talisman that had won her a night's service from the Sisters. "Does he have a name?"
Three pairs of eyes were blue and chill as glacial ice. "Cameron Winter."