Lily Beauregard, though even she'd started thinking of herself as 'Melinoe' lately, silently picked the lock to the office on the right of Torin's. Paranoid bastard. He had designed the ventilation system so that she couldn't use it as an access point. His office had the most sophisticated alarm system she'd ever seen. Even at her best, without Hawk's pain killers swimming in her system, she tripped it. Torin's post-alarm tripping lectures were the worst.
The office next to Torin's was empty. It was reserved for the American ambassador because Torin was a firm believer in keeping one's enemy as close as possible. Currently, there was no ambassador in residence. Not since Torin had threatened to knit a sweater out of the previous ambassador's entrails. Since he'd said it because the ambassador had been caught on tape kicking two Zo children, Lily didn't blame him. In fact, she'd left a blood red, chunky knit sweater on the ambassador's doorstep just to watch the man piss himself.
Shortly after Torin had claimed his office, she'd created a passage from the ambassador's office to Torin's via the supply closets in each room. As Torin used the closet as a catch-all, the false panel at the back remained undetected. She rarely used the passage, but Torin was keeping secrets regarding Fanghold's security. Secrets about Team Seven's whereabouts. She would have worried over any team, but Team Seven? She'd cut out Torin's concrete heart if anything happened to Team Seven – anything a timely intervention could have prevented, at least. She wasn't unreasonable.
Minutes later, she was in Torin's office. There were no cameras inside. He relied too heavily on the exterior security. Sweat slid down her spine as she avoided the pressure plates on the floor and ended with a back-flip onto the printer stand next to the desk. The chair was atop a pressure pad, and the desk was rigged with a dozen sensors. With the lightest of touches, she placed a slim, metallic rectangle atop Torin's rugged laptop. She didn't have time to crack his passcode or dig through his files. He was having dinner with the Rex and the Rex's wife and could return at any moment for late night paperwork.
The nifty piece of data cloning tech had been taken from a lab she'd raided a year earlier. She cheerfully handed over almost everything she discovered during her raids. She'd do whatever necessary to further the Zo liberation cause. That didn't mean she couldn't keep a few choice goodies for herself. Normally she hoarded weapons, but as soon as her hand had hit the alarmingly powerful device, she knew she'd need it. That unexplainable certainty had saved her life a hundred times over.
When the small sensor on the front of the device lit up, she slipped it into her pocket. She eyed the reports on the desk. They were tempting, but she couldn't risk being caught. Her reflexes were off. Her senses scattered. She needed to be safely in her temporary bedroom before the weakness worsened.
Returning to the supply closet was not as easy as emerging from it had been. She nearly missed the hooks anchored to the wall near the window. The bent metal dug into her fingers as she dangled her feet off the floor. Biceps screaming, she swung herself to gather enough momentum to reach the potted plant a few feet away. Though her landing was less-than-graceful, she missed the pressure plates surrounding the plant. Knees wobbling and head spinning, she dove for the supply closet.
The cool air outside the office building dried the sweat on her forehead. She'd forgotten her backpack in the lobby earlier so that she'd have a reasonable excuse for being near the building. She waved at the two guards tromping about the perimeter as she made her way to one of the five four-story, fifty-unit apartment buildings at Fanghold.
Lily used keys – such a novelty – to unlock the door to the apartment across from Mordecai's. Before her recon jaunt, she'd only been in long enough to drop off her duffel and start a load of laundry. She took a moment to breathe in the soothing aroma of cedar, fresh sea air, and grass. The scent made her long for cool nights under the stars and a warm arm wrapped around her waist. Unexpected, hot tears stung her eyes and a lump gathered in her throat.
She shook off the melancholy and meandered into the apartment. After moving her load of whites into the dryer and starting a second load of laundry, she grabbed a pre-made salad out of the fridge and settled at the large wooden desk in what should have been the dining room. That the fridge was full of her favorite foods when the apartment's owner was out on an assignment nearly brought on another rush of tears.
Her laptop was a lightweight, smaller version of Torin's. She attached the stolen GKF device to it, munched on crisp greens and seasoned chicken while she waited for it to finish downloading and decrypting the information she'd collected. When the salad was gone, she tossed the plastic clamshell in the trash and picked the lock on the liquor cabinet. It would serve him right if she drank every last drop. The wine rack was empty when she clearly remembered leaving several excellent vintages behind during her last visit.
The shelves of the liquor cabinet were bare. A yellow square note was stuck to the inside of one of the doors. She snatched it off, scowled at the looping scrawl.
'Keep a clear head, Lil. Take what Hawk gives you. Keep an eye on Torin. i fear no fate.'
Lily ran a trembling finger across the last line of the note. Poetry was their code. It took the place of the declarations they'd yet to make aloud. Her drive to eradicate every GKF outpost on the planet and his goal to make the country a little safer for his brethren meant that they rarely spent time in the same place for more than a handful of days at a time. It hurt to know that she'd missed him by a few hours. Just a couple of minutes with him – long enough to bask in the warmth of his smile and in the heat of his arms – would have done more to restore her than every potion in Hawk's pharmaceutical cabinet.
"'For you are my fate, my sweet,'" she quoted, carefully folding the note and sliding it into her pocket.
She grabbed a diet soda out of the fridge and returned to her laptop. The device had finished working its magic. Her first search was for the whereabouts of Security Team Seven. San Francisco. Not particularly shocking. There were two Zo communities in the Bay Area, and the attitude out there swung from pro-Zo to anti-Zo with frightening frequency. The Witch's Guild of San Francisco had opened a sanctuary for Zos, but not even that move had eased tensions.
So why had Torin played the classified card?
Did he fear she'd run off to play with his boys? No worry there. She wasn't keen for another long plane ride. Their current assignment required a level of diplomacy she did not have the patience to maintain. Plus, witches. She did her utmost to steer clear of witches.
She started backtracking through the jumble of data she'd downloaded. What had precipitated Team Seven's assignment? There was an email chain regarding the threat of a bombing in San Francisco, but the warning was vague. Why send one of the more elite teams to investigate when those in San Francisco could have done an adequate job? What was she missing?
Lily was eyeballs deep in Torin's email archive when a sharp rap of knuckles on the front door sent her heart into overdrive. She pressed a key to encrypt the laptop, gently shut the lid, and reached for her Glock. She'd kept the blinds drawn. The apartments were soundproofed out of deference to advanced Zo senses. She'd washed her perfume off at Hawk's clinic. Why was someone knocking on the door of a man who wasn't home?
The phone in her pocket vibrated. With one hand on her gun, she retrieved the phone and glanced at the display. Mordecai's contact information filled the screen. She rested her thumb over the phone's sensor before raising the phone to her ear.
"Not a good time, 'Cai," she murmured, knowing his super-hearing would pick up even the softest whisper.
"Open the door, woman."
She ended the call, slid the phone back in her pocket. She kept the gun as she crossed the room to peer through the peephole. A tall, massively muscular mountain was planted in front of the door. Lily quickly undid the locks and stepped back to admit her visitor.
Mordecai, a feline member of Team Seven grounded due to a bullet to the gut five weeks earlier, filled the apartment's foyer. Short, dark blond hair topped a rugged, square face. His wide nose was crooked and there was a thick white scar bisecting his fat lips. One of his arms was a thick as both of her thighs. He looked like a Neanderthal, and her heart simply melted when he grinned at her.
He wasn't the one she'd been longing for, but he was an adequate substitute. Mordecai had seen her after a few of her most hellacious assignments. He didn't judge. He had the same expectations as the others, but he didn't actively try to cage her. Yeah, to him she was the legendary Melinoe; she was also his best friend's girl.
"Hi 'Cai," she said, setting the gun on the small side table.
Mordecai gingerly wound his tree-trunk arms around her waist and gathered her against his chest. A purr rumbled in his chest. He rubbed his cheek against hers. The instinctual, cat-like greeting suffused her with warmth. She stroked the smooth skin behind his ear; the purr intensified.
"I won't break," she chided. The hug lacked its usual back-popping strength. She needed him to hold her tight and chase away the chill that was her constant companion.
"Busted ribs say otherwise, hellcat. Torin sent me the highlights of Dr. Hawkins' report. The Chief seems to be under the impression you're bunkin' with me." His accent was pure West Texas, slow and low.
She pulled back just far enough to flash a wide, innocuous smile. "Oh, but I am."
"And when he asks me how you're sleepin'?"
"Like a baby."
He gently ran a thumb across the dark shadows under her eyes. "You still don't lie worth a damn."
"You're terrible for my ego, 'Cai."
"Just pickin' up loverboy's slack." Mordecai set her on her feet. He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms over his big, barrel chest. "I'm supposed to escort you to the isolation ward."
She rubbed the back of her neck. She wanted to see the two Zos having difficulty adjusting to life after hell, but it was not a good idea in her current condition. Her synapses were firing just a shade slower than usual. Her knees were shaky and her arms hurt from her earlier activities.
She couldn't be weak in front of unstable Zos. It would only exacerbate their condition. Besides, she could count on one hand the number of people she trusted enough to be around when she was weak. She hadn't spoken to her sisters in a very, very long time. One person was away in San Francisco, and the one who'd recruited her into the now-defunct Animal Liberation Organization was dead. Torin did not make the list as he would use his advantage to keep her "safe".
She'd worked too damn long and too damn hard to build up her reputation. She couldn't afford to have anyone at Fanghold see her when she was at anything less than her best. The idea of her as someone who needed to be protected, coddled, wouldn't easily leave a person's head once it took root. Rebuilding her reputation would take the rest of her life.
"I would rather wait until the morning."
Mordecai's far-too-astute gaze narrowed. "What's wrong?"
And… suddenly she was less delighted to see him. Lily snagged her soda can off the desk and guided Mordecai to the small living room and its comfy leather seating. She itched to dive back in to her investigation, but Mordecai was her friend and she didn't spend enough time with him. Dr. Hawkins would approve of a few hours of decompression.
Lily tucked herself into the sliver of loveseat not filled with Mordecai. He pulled her feet into his lap, tugged off her shoes and socks, and dug his fingers into her arches. Pleasure rocketed up her legs. She slumped against the supple leather, let her eyes slide shut.
"New plan," she said, holding back a groan, "let's run away, you and me. We'll free Zos, destroy the GKF, and you can do this all the time."
"Spend my life as your personal foot masseur?"
"I wouldn't pigeonhole you like that, 'Cai. You're a man of many talents. You can be my personal whim fulfiller."
Mordecai tweaked her left big toe. "Keep dreamin', hellcat."
She rubbed her chest, puffed out her lower lip. "Ouch. Rejection stings, meanie."
"You keep telling us you're a big girl."
"I don't know that I'll recover from this blow."
"You're as much a drama queen as the Chief."
She bopped him in the face with a blue decorative pillow. "First you reject me and then you insult me? Take it back!"
"Tiara-wearing drama queen."
She hit him again with the pillow. A short scuffle ensued over possession of the pillow. He was stronger, but she was faster and more agile. By the time Mordecai tossed the pillow across the room, both were panting and laughing. Lily squirmed back into her seat, returned her feet to Mordecai's lap.
"You may continue," she said, waving an imperious hand.
"My sympathy, as always, is with Drage."
Her lips curled into a wistful smile. "As it should be." She sighed wearily. "Why San Francisco?"
"Chief know you hacked his records?"
"Not unless a certain kitty blabs." She didn't fear he would tattle. Mordecai trusted her to have his team's back. To watch out for the community. He, like many other Zos under Torin's command, respected the man he followed but wasn't fully comfortable with all the covert operations and manipulations.
"Why don't you want to go to the isolation ward tonight?" Mordecai countered.
She peered at him through half-slit eyes. His hands cupped her heels, and the muscles beneath her feet were tense. He hadn't asked on a whim. She couldn't blow him off this time. Damned feline tenacity.
He'd seen the report from Hawk. Admitting to what he already knew wasn't the same as showing weakness. "Hawk dosed me with painkillers. I won't finish metabolizing them until the morning."
"How strong of a dose?"
That was the problem with friends: they saw through attempts at ambiguity. She had liked it better when he'd seen her as an urban legend to be admired and never questioned. Protecting her secrets had been so much easier.
"I nearly kicked your ass in a pillow fight just now."
"You're not answerin' the question."
"Stronger than it would have been if I'd known he was going to do it," she said. "Minor impact on motor functions and reaction times. A bit like taking a go pill during a mission, but it's enough to make meeting with two unstable Zos a bad idea."
Mordecai dragged Lily against his side and draped an arm across her shoulders. She snuggled up against his warmth, settled her head against his chest. He palmed the remote control but didn't turn on the television. "I'll stay the night, monitor your vitals."
"Unnecessary." But, it warmed her. After all her years of interacting with those as Fanghold, the concern was unexpected. The ALO had been more of an every-man-for-himself operation. Some days she missed the anonymity.
"Not just 'cause Drage'd skin me, either," Mordecai continued as if she hadn't spoken. "Something's going on. Something's got the Chief spooked. I reckon you're our best bet at ferreting out the boss-man's secrets before the shit hits the fan."
Yeah. Hearing Mordecai confirm what she'd already guessed didn't make her want to jump up and perform her victory boogie. It made her want to crawl into bed and pull the blankets over her head. She was so tired. Tired of taking down a facility only to have two more pop up in different locations. Tired of saving Zos but never having a day where everyone lived. Tired of the blood that never washed off her hands and the screams that echoed in her head. Tired of hellish days and sleepless nights. She was just tired.
"Why San Francisco?" she asked.
"I don't know, hellcat. I simply don't know."