Kitty Goes to Washington Page 63

But what would I have done if they hadn't come to pick me up? Waited until morning and taken the Metro? Gone back for a ride from Flemming?

I had a couple of miles to get to Alette's. I could run that far, but I didn't want to go there, not right away. I put my head down, sucked in night air, and ran. A wolf on the open plains couldn't have gone much faster.

I arrived at the Crescent, pounded down the stairs and stopped at the door to catch my breath. It was closed. Hesitating, I tested it. Ahmed was true to his word. He kept the place unlocked, even on a full moon night. There probably wasn't anyone around, but I had to check.

No lights were on, but my eyesight worked fine in the dark. I saw the bar, moved quietly around tables, didn't see anyone. Let my nose work, taking in scents. The place wasn't empty. Someone was here. Something was here.

I continued on, and movement caught my eye. Past the front of the bar, where cushions on the floor replaced tables and chairs, a gliding shape drifted forward. Sleek, feline, huge. My heart pounded hard for a moment. I'd never seen a cat that big without a nice set of solid bars between us.

His face was stout, angular, more intimidating than any house cat's. His fur was tawny, and circular black smudges covered his coat.

He sat in front of me, blocking my progress, and for a disconcerting moment he did look like a house cat, straight and poised, his slim tail giving a nonchalant flick.

“Luis.” I fell on my knees. It smelled like him, even now. More fur than skin this time, but it was him.

He licked my cheek, his rough jaguar's tongue scratching painfully. Laughing weakly, I hugged him. His fur was soft and warm. I buried my face in the scruff of his neck. He remained patiently still.

“He waited for you.”

Ahmed appeared at the back of the club, tying closed a dressing gown over bare legs and bare chest. His hair was wild. He must have just woken up. He must have waited, too. I wondered if the two of them had gone running on the Mall, when their animals took over. They could have hunted pigeons.

“You didn't have to do that,” I said to the jaguar. “Either of you.”

Luis stood and rubbed the length of his body against me before flopping down on the floor and licking his paws, then using them to wash his face.

Ahmed shrugged. “He was worried. I said you could take care of yourself. Then, it seemed that you couldn't. By then it was too late to do anything.”

“I was shanghaied.”

“So it seems.” He sat next to me, lowering himself, propping himself with his hand, as if he were an old man with creaking bones. I didn't hear any bones creak.

“Ahmed, I need help.”

“What do you need? I can give you a safe place to stay, to hide you.”

I shook my head. “Not for me. For Alette. Leo's the one who shanghaied me, and I think she's in trouble.”

He frowned. His whole expression darkened, eyes narrowing, like how a dog looks when it growls. But I couldn't back down. Couldn't flinch.

“You don't owe her anything,” he said. “She offered you hospitality, then failed to protect you.”

A technicality. He harkened back to the old traditional ideals of hospitality, where people had to offer shelter to travelers who would otherwise fall prey to robbers or wolves on the wild, ungoverned roads. There was something else going on here. The wolves were the ones I was asking for help.

The jaguar had fallen asleep, his lean ribs rising and falling deeply and regularly. He'd curled up beside me, his back pressed to my legs, where I sat.

I said, “If something happens to Alette, Leo will be in charge of the city's vampires. Do you want that?”

“And what if Leo was acting on her orders?”

“I don't believe that.”

“You are too trusting.”

“Alette's been… kind to me.”

“And I have not?”

“It's not that. But someone has to help her.”

“Please take my warning as a friend, as an elder: don't involve yourself with them. It's not your concern.”

He sounded so somber, so serious, using the tone of voice a favorite high school teacher might, when he put his hand on your shoulder and urged you to think twice before hanging out with “that crowd.” Almost but not quite patronizing. Utterly convinced that I couldn't take care of myself.

Not that I had a real excellent track record in taking care of myself. But I couldn't ignore my instincts.

If I hadn't been watching him, absently stroking the fur across his ribs, I wouldn't have noticed Luis begin to shift back to human. It happened slowly, gradually, the way ice melts. His limbs stretched, his torso thickened, his fur thinned. Bit by bit, piece by piece, cell by cell.

“What are you doing here, Ahmed? This place, this little empire of yours—you say this isn't a pack, that you aren't an alpha. But everyone treats you like you are. You expect to be treated that way. Maybe you rule by politeness and respect instead of brute force. You promote this ideal of a safe haven so you don't have to fight to keep your place. And it works, I'll give you that. It's the best system I've seen. But you ignore everything that happens outside your domain. And I can't do that.”

If I'd given that speech to any other alpha male I'd ever met, I'd have started a fight. I'd offered a challenge to his place—at least, as subtle a challenge as his claim to the place of alpha here was subtle.

He spread his hands and gave me a respectful nod. “Of course that is your choice.”

Which meant he maybe hadn't deserved my speech in the first place.

“I'm sorry, Ahmed,” I said, starting to get up. He didn't say anything.

I touched the shoulder of the man lying asleep beside me. I didn't do more; I didn't want to wake him.

I'd talk to Luis later. I hoped I'd be around later.

Chapter 13

If I'd had any money with me I would have called a cab. I might have been able to borrow a couple bucks from Ahmed, but I was two blocks away from the Crescent before I thought of that. The shuttle to Georgetown didn't start for another hour. As it was, I jogged. I had to move fast, because dawn was near. I was so tired. I was numb, and barely felt my legs move.

I should have kept Ben's cell phone so I could call the cops. I should have had Ahmed call the cops. Should have, should have—this was why I sucked at politics. No planning ahead.

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