Madhouse (Cal Leandros, #3)(7)

He turned his gaze to me. It was still annoyed. "Insolent bastard."

"True enough, but it doesn't change the fact." I tossed the bar towel over my shoulder. "You were watching his ass, don't lie." I had no idea if Goodfellow had a good ass or not. That wasn't the way my boat floated, but Robin had told me and everyone in the free and not-so-free world that he did. Could be Ishiah had an opinion on the subject. "By the way, is it a good…"

He turned and walked away before I had a chance to finish. In reality, I kind of doubted that's what it was all about. If it were, Robin would've been walking out of here with feathers in his hair, down his pants, and a smug grin on his face.

I shrugged. Not my business. At least, as long as Robin wasn't in trouble. And he usually wasn't. He'd gotten very, very good at avoiding that since before the human race was born. I wasn't sure how old he was exactly, but I was guessing that he had probably served up one of mankind's wriggling water-going ancestors on a nice wheat-berry bread at some point or another.

At four I closed up the bar. Swept up the feathers, fur, and scales, locked the door, and headed home. The apartment was relatively close to the Ninth Circle on St. Mark's Place, but every time I had to think I might not make it … I had every night for the past four months, but I always had my doubts. Spine tense, shoulders set, I searched every dark nook and every roof for the Auphe. I never saw my relatives during that period, but it was only a matter of time.

They'd kidnapped me and kept me prisoner for two years when I was fourteen. They'd done the same again last year only with a little more of a twist. They'd had me possessed and planned to use me to remake the world in their image. When we'd returned the favor by destroying the remains of nearly their entire race, they had been a little put-out. We'd thought they were all dead, destroyed by a collapsing warehouse, but we'd been wrong. And when you were wrong about the Auphe, you might as well cut your own throat and get it over with. It would be a helluva lot less painful.

The Auphe had torture down to a fine art. They'd roamed the earth with the dinosaurs—before the dinosaurs. It had given them a long time to perfect their technique. And the Auphe had technique out the ass. I still didn't remember what they had done to me in the two years they'd had me. I doubted I ever would…not without ending up in a place where people shambled in paper slippers and considered lunch to be a cupful of happy pills.

Unfortunately the Auphe were determined to make me pay for betraying my own kind. Months ago when I'd had the one thing in my hand that would bring George back to us, one had snatched it away and told me in excruciating detail just how I would pay. They'd make the others pay too, Niko and Robin, who had helped in their destruction. They'd also take anyone I cared for, simply because I did care for them. My friends, my family, they would all go first, long before I did.

Like I said, the Auphe had torture down to a science. And that they were taking their time about it only made things worse. The only thing that kept me moderately sane was the fact that Niko, Promise, and Robin could take care of themselves, and I avoided George whenever I could. The Auphe would never know she existed if I had anything to say about it.

Of course, all that sanity rested on the fact that I was living in denial about how amazingly good at killing the Auphe were. God knew that they'd almost killed Nik and me on more than one occasion. We were good. They were better.

Trudging up the stairs to the apartment, smelling of secondhand beer and worse, I unlocked the door, opened it, and dropped my jacket on the nearest surface…the floor.

"You may as well pick it up. We have someplace to be."

"Christ. It's four thirty," I groaned as I took in Niko waiting with arms folded. His face was amused but serious nonetheless. His hair was pulled back into a bare inch and a half of ponytail. Once it had been a braid that trailed down his back, but I knew he didn't begrudge its sacrifice. It had been for me, and he hadn't expected to survive long enough to walk around with the Kojak look.

"Yes, it is four thirty and the longer we stand here the later it will get, but I'm sure the basic mechanics of time are understood even by you."

"You're in rare form tonight," I sniped. "Rare shitty form."

"Yes, keeping us in rent payments, how inconsiderate of me." He tilted his head and frowned slightly. "How's the shoulder?"

I'd moved only with the slightest amount of stiffness, but he'd still noticed. I rotated it and did my best not to wince at the pull of torn flesh. "Bearable."

"I told you serving drinks would aggravate it. You should've told Ishiah that you were injured and couldn't work." He stared pointedly at the jacket, and I picked it up with an annoyed groan.

"I was afraid he'd turn me into a pillar of salt. Besides, he's pretty iffy about me working there, period. Apparently when I'm grouchy, I exude Auphe." I snorted. "And I'm guessing they don't make a roll-on for that."

We were already out in the hall and moving as I yawned heavily. "It's only because the clientele already know thanks to the loose-lipped werewolves." Niko focused on the bandage, visually checking for blood as I pulled on my jacket. Satisfied that it was unstained, he continued. "If it weren't for them, no one would know."

Niko tried hard, he did, to make me believe I really wasn't that different. And even though it wasn't true, I was grateful as hell for the effort. "The peri would know," I said absently as I zipped the jacket. "They know, shit, everything as far as I can tell. At least everything that has to do with who or what passes through their bar. Although Goodfellow seems to have them bamboozled."

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