“Melinda isn’t an OPA employee.” Henry hung up the phone and paced back to Elise, where she sat in the condo’s living room. He had already healed the bruises of the battle. The shadows under his eyes were exhaustion. “There’s no trackers for her.”
“The OPA has trackers on its employees?” Elise asked.
“Magical ones,” he said.
With the sanctuary’s complicity, the OPA could track its people and bomb any city it wanted.
What had become of Rylie’s pack? How had she grown such power, and left it to people like this Deirdre Tombs—a woman that Elise did not know? How would the Alpha use this power when Abel died? What would the next Alpha do?
And why the hell had Elise let it get like this?
Because of the baby?
Victoria was lying on Elise’s lap, her spine resting along the line of Elise’s thighs. She was still staring at nothing. Her quiet alertness should have been a welcome change from the shrieking. But the staring…the blindness…
“It seems like I’m unsuccessful. Did you find what you wanted?” Henry asked.
“No,” she said.
In the records stolen from the Sun Valley shelter, Elise had found that a man named Jacques Offenbach had spent the last twenty-four hours in its short-term housing. He had checked in shortly after the bombing of Craven’s.
It was a pseudonym, she was certain. Offenbach was well-known for composing “Orpheus and the Underworld” centuries earlier, and was not a homeless witch passing through Reno.
James used to call himself Orpheus.
He had been in the shelter.
And the Traveler had wanted Elise to have faith in him.
So yes, Elise had found what she expected in the records Henry retrieved. But she hadn’t found what she wanted.
Elise plucked another set of foam earplugs off of the coffee table. She had spent the last several minutes attempting to whittle them into custom shapes. “I have to locate Melinda again. She’ll be the easiest way to get what I need.”
“What did she show you?” Henry asked.
Though the memory of James had been borrowed, it still felt too private to share. Elise said nothing.
She attempted to insert the plugs into Victoria’s ears. They were too big.
“I need Melinda,” Elise said.
Henry raked a hand through his hair. “All right. Let’s try surveillance footage from around the city. Just have to hope she hasn’t left yet.”
City surveillance was no surprise after the revelation of trackers and bombers, but Elise felt it like fingers of venom in her gut. “
Elise cut the foam down again, rolled it between her fingers, and inserted it into Victoria’s ear canals. The plugs were now too small to stay in place when she squirmed. Elise needed to try again.
“What are you doing?” Henry asked.
Elise lifted one shoulder in a shrug. Victoria had responded poorly to gunfire, suggesting her hearing was human, or close to it. Once damaged, the hairs within the ears would never recover.
The thing was already potentially going blind. She didn’t need to go deaf too.
“Ear protection,” Henry finally realized, sitting on the couch across from Elise. “You’re worried about ear protection now? After all that close quarters gunfire?”
Elise hadn’t planned on permitting close quarters gunfire. There was a reason she’d left Henry disarmed, and volume was chief of them.
“You’re not taking this baby into more firefights,” he said.
“Not if I can avoid it,” she agreed grudgingly.
Henry was staring at Elise. “I don’t get you.”
“There are a lot of people from a hundred years ago who’d sympathize,” she said.
The second attempt at baby-sized earplugs fit. She put them into place carefully. Victoria stuck a fist in her mouth and grunted.
Satisfied, Elise handed Victoria to Henry.
She took a plastic bag out of the pocket of her jeans. The skin inside was old, beginning to rot. The markings remained distinct. That was all she needed.
To his credit, Henry didn’t look as sickly as most people did when they realized that Elise skinned demons. But he still looked disturbed.
“Most young mothers just carry extra diapers,” he said.
She searched the database for the marks but came up empty. Whoever had branded the demon was not registered by the OPA.
Elise was fighting a ghost.
Ghostly-white hair and eyes swam through the forefront of her mind.
I found it. The last piece.
A little girl needs her father.
She tossed the skin into the refrigerator.
When she turned, Henry stood behind her, Victoria content within the crook of his arm. The infant had grown more hair in recent days when Elise hadn’t been paying attention. It was a black brush over her forehead, contrasting sharply with gray baby eyes that gazed at nothing.
“What are you doing in Reno?” Henry asked, blunt as he’d ever been.
“I will stop the trading of infernal artifacts,” Elise said. Which was true. It would be a side effect of her actions.
“What infernal artifacts?”
She said nothing.
“There are no infernal artifacts in Reno,” Henry said.
“Your authorization must be too low for the information.”
“No, there can’t be,” he said. “This place is built on ethereal ruins. They can’t coexist. It’s literally impossible. There are other cities with infernal foundations, but this area’s been ethereal since before Genesis.”
That stirred old memories in Elise. Ancient gateways, a blond girl with a bullet wound in her forehead, angels in an upside-down city.
Infernal and ethereal foundations couldn’t coexist.
Yet James was here dealing in infernal artifacts somehow. Nash had told her so, and Melinda’s memory had confirmed it.
“Find Melinda,” Elise said again.
“I told you that I tried. There’s another thing we can attempt, but…” He shifted the baby to free a hand and typed on a laptop. “I’ve put in details of her appearance. She’ll be matched against all potential faces that the city’s cameras have seen in the last twenty-four hours and we’ll get a list of candidates. We could end up with thousands.”
Elise’s eyes narrowed. “Who controls that surveillance?”
“The OPA,” he said.
“Who controls the OPA?”
Henry rubbed a hand down his face. “I mean, there’s a secretary, but it’s Deirdre. Deirdre Tombs. The sanctuary’s Alpha has always been a level above.” He seemed to come to some silent conclusion. “If I have to put up with you, I need to know what’s happening. I need to know what your mission is and I need to know what the hell you are.”
“I’m human,” Elise said. “This time. This isn’t my only life.”
“You’re not a phoenix,” he said.
“No. I am an avatar.”
“An ava…” He trailed off before finishing the last word. His face went ashen. “Like in the Balefire Wars?”
“You’re an avatar,” he said. “You’re a demigod.”
Elise frowned. “Demigod?” What the fuck had she done to the world this time? She couldn’t even summon that meaning to mind. “I’m looking for another avatar. He may no longer be in his avatar form. He is purported to be dealing in warlock artifacts, he is the deadliest man I have ever known, and I am the only person who can stop him.”
“Once he’s gone, you’re gone,” Henry said.
He glanced down at the laptop. “We’ve got a few hits.”
She looked over his shoulder as he scrolled through them. They all resembled Melinda to some degree, but there were hundreds. It would take time to look through them.
“Is it true what they say?” Henry asked. “About the demigods, and how they snap if they get lonely?”
Elise knew that gods went mad without companionship. In isolation, Adam had turned from an ordinary monster into a world-destroying abomination. “Probably. I know it’s true of angels.”
“Yeah, because of the Fascination.”
“Yes. How did you learn about that?” Nash had said that angels were still rare in this age.
“They teach it at the shifter academy,” Henry said. “Some Gray deal with Fascination and its side-effects, so people who attend the academy—people likely to end up in positions of influence—are trained to identify it.”
It was a sound idea. Occasionally, angels had fallen in Fascination with humans during the First War, and it had always ended in disaster; even when it wasn’t wartime humans just didn’t live as long as the eternal ethereal.
Just as Adam had gone crazy when Eve died, angels had a habit of snapping when they lost their objects of Fascination.
There was a reason angels were dying out.
Even a rare risk of Fascination was too much.
“But demigods are different,” Elise said. She didn’t phrase it as a question though she probably should have.
Henry kept paging through the faces. He didn’t look away from the laptop screen when he said, “Is that why you made a baby? Because you were lonely?”
Elise considered Henry’s profile. He was attractive by any standard; there was intelligence in the swoop of his monolidded eyes and a certain stoic appeal to his brow. His body was as muscled as any shapeshifter. Had Elise ever had sex with a shapeshifter? She was certain she would not break him.
But even if her body were totally healed internally—she wasn’t certain; she’d declined a pelvic exam—there was no hint of attraction in Henry’s body language. Despite motherhood’s gift of oversized breasts and hips and James’s gift of perfect skin texture, Elise had been rendered sexless in the eyes of men by her status as incubator.
He was a combat-ready nanny and no more. Not a remedy for loneliness should such a thing prove to be an issue for Elise.
“Stop,” she said.
He lifted his finger from the keyboard. They had found Melinda.
The city’s cameras picked her up when she entered Reno—not over Clear Acre Boulevard, but from Pyramid Highway. She must have been attempting to avoid obvious routes to make herself harder to find.
From there, her path was unbroken to downtown Reno, and the river, Idlewild Park, and…
“It’s a museum,” Elise said aloud, surprised.
Motion and Dance had once been a studio that James and Elise co-owned. It was an unexciting brick building with large mirrored rooms on the first floor and an even more unexciting apartment on the second floor.
It shouldn’t have existed anymore.
But it did, and it was a museum.
Elise’s first life had been laminated, bubble wrapped, and committed for historical preservation.
Now Melinda was there. Melinda, a half-angel who had seen James in a dark room carrying obsidian and diamond.
Elise was in motion before she realized she’d made a decision. She set Victoria in a bassinet—when had Henry found time to get a bassinet?—and then she was in the armory, looking at all the guns and swords, trying to decide how this death would happen.
Henry followed her to the other room.
“If you’re a demigod, then you should call on the Oracles,” he said. “You’ll need them for business this big. I don’t know why Abel dropped me into this. Even my training isn’t cut out for that kind of fighting.”
Elise understood Abel’s thought process. Twenty or thirty years earlier, she’d have likely been in Reno with Summer Gresham, or someone equally nurturing. But this was so much later than Elise had planned on substantiating. She didn’t have one of Rylie’s children. She had Henry.
“You’re staying with Victoria,” she said.
She elected for a simple collection of weapons: a few daggers that would be easy to hide with blades of varying materials that would allow her to kill most preternatural creatures; and a single firearm that would serve as a ranged weapon if necessary.
“I should call the Oracles,” he said.
“No,” she said.
And Henry didn’t argue. He folded his arms tightly across his chest. “I didn’t sleep at all last night.”
“Sleep with the baby,” Elise said. She hesitated, and then rested a hand on his shoulder. “I trust you to protect my child.”
Something about the way she said it—the look in her eyes, her tone of voice—made quiet sink over Henry Lee. He nodded slowly. He didn’t even flinch when Victoria started fussing again.
Elise would feed her before she left.
Fully armed, with daggers at her wrists and a gun in her belt, Elise lifted the baby from the bassinet. Victoria silenced as soon as she was picked up. Elise sat to feed her, but no mouth closed upon her nipple. The baby didn’t seem interested in nursing.
Not only was Victoria no longer staring into space, she was looking directly at Elise.
Victoria opened her mouth. Her eyes crinkled.
Elise blinked. “Victoria.”
The baby’s mouth opened wider so that Elise could see the toothless rims of her gums, her milk-yellowed tongue.
“What’s wrong with her?” Elise asked.
“She’s smiling,” Henry said.
It didn’t look like a smile.
Elise let her finger slip against the baby’s palm, and small fingers closed around it. She couldn’t bring herself to smile back. Victoria’s face looked so much like her father’s. But she traced her thumb over her daughter’s smooth knuckles while Victoria gazed directly at her, seeing her mother for maybe the first time.
And then Elise left.
Elise walked to Motion and Dance from the condominium. It wasn’t far away; she used to run twice that distance in the mornings before her first pot of coffee, and then again when she got bored of ledgers, credits, and debits around eight-thirty in the morning. She took the distance more slowly that day. Half because she wasn’t actually certain she wanted to find James at Motion and Dance, and half because she was thinking about Victoria.
Not just Victoria. She was also thinking about another little girl—a newborn, a preemie—who had been born so small that Elise had held her connected to a dozen tubes and wires. Her name had been…it started with a D. Dana?
No, Debora. Debora McIntyre.
That infant had been the offspring of one of Elise’s early demon hunting partners. Debora had been the first baby that Elise ever held. And she had helped raise Debora through the infant years, through the toddler years. Debora’s clumsy fat hands had knotted Elise’s demon hair into ugly braids that Elise had worn to crime scenes unblinkingly. The girl had fought with her sister over the right to do Elise’s makeup in shrieking toddler pidgin and brought Elise ragged dandelions in the spring.
As Elise walked, borne on a wave of Nevada warmth, and she allowed herself to imagine another fat-fingered toddler yanking on her hair. One with eyes like James’s and a wide-mouthed smile missing several teeth.
Debora had died at four years old.
Just as Elise had been there for the child’s birth, she had been there for the child’s death too. She had seen the fat hands go limp. She remembered the puddle of blood as clearly as she remembered the desperate, aching feeling that had followed the death of Debora and her parents.
Elise’s friends. Her family, in all honesty.
She recalled their deaths so much more clearly than their lives.
Nothing good in this world remained. The Nevada sunlight was still too hot on the top of her head, Debora McIntyre’s body had long since rotted into nothing, and Motion and Dance had been turned into a museum. A monument to the worst parts of her life.
Victoria, for the moment, had much ahead of her. Much of it would be terrible. In the short term that meant a lot of diapers and sleepless nights. In the long term, surely worse.
But she also had a future of clumsily braiding Elise’s hair, maybe, and toothless smiles, hopefully.
Had Elise ever smiled at Debora McIntyre?
From around the trees emerged a brick building. Time had slid away from Elise while she was trapped in thought, and now she faced a familiar sight: a brick building with a sign outside declaring it to be a historic monument maintained by triadists. It did not look to be well maintained. Dried ivy clung to its sides, digging cracks into the crumbling mortar, and the yard was more dirt than grass. According to the hours posted, it was open, but there were no cars outside.
Not only had Elise’s young adulthood been reduced to a historical footnote, it was one largely ignored by a disinterested public.
Her chest was hurting as she looked at the glass front door, too dusty to see through. The wooden stairs leading up to James’s old apartment had too many missing pieces to climb. The roof was missing tiles.
Melinda was in there.
And worse, James was in there. If not in present, then in the past. In the way his smell would cling to warped wooden floors and the ivory keys of a piano he’d played for hours on end.
Elise drew the gun from underneath her shirt. It was an unpleasant weight in her hand—a weapon she’d never enjoyed wielding.
“Home sweet home,” Elise said.
And she entered the studio.