"What's happened?" Ronnie asked. I'd almost forgotten her. She didn't belong in this part of my life, but there she was, leaning against the kitchen cabinets, searching my face, looking worried.
"I'll take care of it."
She gripped my arm. "You gave me this speech about wanting your friends back, about not wanting to push us all away. Did you mean it, or was it just talk?"
I took a deep breath and let it out. I told her what the other side of the conversation had been.
"And you don't have any clue what this is about?" she asked.
"No, I don't."
'That's odd. Usually stuff like this builds up, it doesn't just drop out of the blue."
I nodded. "I know."
"Star 69 will ring back whatever number just called you."
"What good will that do?"
"It will let you know if they're really at this club, or whether it's just a trap for you."
"Not just another pretty face, are you?" I said.
She smiled. "I'm a trained detective. We know about these things." The humor didn't quite reach her eyes, but she was trying.
I dialed, and the phone rang for what seemed forever, then another male voice answered, "Yeah."
"Is this Narcissus in Chains?"
"Yeah, who's this?"
"I need to speak with Gregory?"
"Don't know any Gregory," he said.
"Who is this?" I asked.
"This is a freaking pay phone, lady. I just picked up." Then he hung up, too. It seemed to be my night for it.
"They called from a pay phone at the club," I said.
"Well, at least you know where they are," Ronnie said.
"Do you know where the club is?" I asked.
Ronnie shook her head. "Not my kind of scene."
"Mine either." In fact the only card-carrying dominance and submission players that I knew personally were all at the club waiting to be saved.
Who did I know that might know where the club was, and something about its reputation? I couldn't trust what the wereleopards had told me about it being a safe place. Obviously, they'd been wrong.
One name sprang to mind. The only one I knew to call that might know where Narcissus in Chains was, and what kind of trouble I'd be in if I went inside. Jean-Claude. Since I was dealing with shapeshifter politics it might have made sense to call Richard, with him being a werewolf and all. But the shapeshifters were a very clannish lot. One type of animal rarely crossed boundaries to help another. Frustrating, but true. The exception was the treaty between the werewolves and the wererats, but everyone else was left to fend, and squabble, and bleed, among themselves. Oh, if some small group got out of hand and attracted too much unwanted police attention, the wolves and rats would discipline them, but short of that, no one seemed to want to interfere with each other. That was one of the reasons I was still stuck baby-sitting the wereleopards.
Also, Richard didn't know any more about the D and S subculture than I did, maybe less. If you're wanting to ask questions about the sexual fringe, Jean-Claude is definitely your guy. He may not participate, but he seems to know who's doing what, and to whom, and where. Or I hoped he did. If it had just been my life at stake, I probably wouldn't have called either of the boys, but if I got killed doing this, that left no one to rescue Nathaniel and the rest. Unacceptable.
Ronnie had kicked off her high heels. "I didn't bring my gun, but I'm sure you have a spare."
I shook my head. "You're not going."
Anger makes her gray eyes the color of storm clouds. "The hell I'm not."
"Ronnie, these are shapeshifters, and you're human."
"So are you," she said.
"Because of Jean-Claude's vampire marks, I'm a little more than that. I can take damage that would kill you."
"You can't go in there alone," she said. Her arms were crossed under her breasts, her face set in angry, stubborn lines.
"I don't plan on going in alone."
"It's because I'm not a shooter, isn't it?"
"You don't kill easily, Ronnie, no shame in that, but I can't take you into a gang of shapeshifters unless I know that you'll shoot to kill if you have to." I gripped her upper arms. She stayed stiff and angry under my touch. "It would kill a piece of me to lose you, Ronnie. It would kill a bigger piece to know that you died because of some shit of mine. You can't hesitate with these people. You can't treat them like they're human. If you do, you die."
She was shaking her head. "Call the police."
I stepped away from her. "No."
"Damn it, Anita, damn it!"
"Ronnie, there are rules, and one of those rules is you don't take pack or pard business to the police." The main reason for that rule was that the police tended to frown on fights for dominance that ended with dead bodies on the ground, but no need to tell Ronnie that.
"It's a stupid rule," she said.
"Maybe, but it's still the way business is done with the shifters, no matter what flavor they are."
She sat down at the small two-seater breakfast table, on its little raised platform. "Who's going to be your backup then? Richard doesn't kill any easier than I do."
That was half true, but I let it slide. "No, I want someone at my back tonight who will do what needs doing, no flinching."
Her eyes were dark, dark with anger. "Jean-Claude." She made his name a curse.
"Are you sure he didn't plan this to get you back into his life, excuse me, death?"
"He knows me too well to screw with my people. He knows what I'd do if he hurt them."
Puzzlement flowed through the anger, softening her eyes, her face. "I hate him, but I know you love him. Could you really kill him? Could you really stare down the barrel of a gun and pull the trigger on him?"
I just looked at her, and I knew without a mirror that my eyes had grown distant, cold. It's hard for brown eyes to be cold, but I'd been managing it lately.
Something very like fear slid behind her eyes. I don't know if she was afraid for me, or of me. I preferred the first to the last. "You could do it. Jesus, Anita. You've known Jean-Claude longer than I've known Louie. I could never hurt Louie, no matter what he did."
I shrugged. "It would destroy me to do it, I think. It's not like I'd live happily ever after, if I survived at all. There's a very real chance that the vampire marks would drag me down to the grave with him."
"Another good reason not to kill him," she said.
"If he's behind the scream that Gregory gave over the phone, then he'll need better reasons to keep breathing than love, or lust, or my possible death."
"I don't understand that, Anita. I don't understand that at all."
"I know," I said. And I thought to myself it was one of the reasons Ronnie and I hadn't been seeing as much of each other as we once had. I got tired of explaining myself to her. No, of justifying myself to her.
You're my friend, my best friend, I thought. But I don't understand you anymore.
"Ronnie, I can't arm wrestle shapeshifters and vampires. I will lose a fair fight. The only way I survive, the only way my leopards survive, is because the other shifters fear me. They fear my threat. I'm only as good as my threat, Ronnie."
"So you'll go down there and kill them."
"I didn't say that."
"But you will."
"I'll try to avoid it," I said.
She tucked her knees up, wrapping her arms around those long legs. She'd managed to get a tiny prick in one of the hose; the hole was shiny with clear nail polish. She'd carried the polish in her purse for just such emergencies. I'd carried a gun and hadn't even taken a purse.
"If you get arrested, call, and I'll bail you out."
I shook my head. "If I get caught wasting three or more people in a public area, there won't be any bail tonight. The police probably won't even finish questioning me until long past dawn."
"How can you be so calm about this?" she asked.
I was beginning to remember why Ronnie and I had started drifting apart. I'd had almost the exact conversation with Richard once when an assassin had come to town to kill me. I gave the same answer. "Having hysterics won't help anything, Ronnie."
"But you're not angry about it."
"Oh, I am angry," I said.
She shook her head. "No, I mean you're not outraged that this is happening. You don't seem surprised, not like ..." She shrugged. "Not like you should be."
"You mean not like you would be." I held up a hand before she could answer. "I don't have time to debate moral philosophy, Ronnie." I picked up the phone. "I'm going to call Jean-Claude."
"I keep urging you to dump the vampire and marry Richard, but maybe there's more than one reason why you can't let him go."
I dialed the number for Circus of the Damned from memory, and Ronnie just kept talking to my back. "Maybe you're not willing to give up a lover who's colder than you are."
The phone was ringing. "There are clean sheets on the guest bed, Ronnie. Sorry I won't be able to share girl talk tonight." I kept my back to her.
I heard her stand in a crinkle of skirts and knew when she walked out. I kept my back facing the room until I knew she was gone. It wouldn't do either of us any good to let her see me cry.