Oh this is such a bad idea. She looked at J.D. in the rear view mirror and felt a surge of annoyance at how relaxed he seemed. He leaned against the seat, arms sprawled across the back, watching the lights of the passing buildings. She glanced over at Elia, and he looked as tense as she felt. A nervous frown was fixed on his face and his fingers twitched where they rested on his knees. If he’d been in his cat form, she was sure his tail would have been lashing. Who is this guy? She wondered again for the hundredth time since he’d stepped out of the darkness.
He tried a few times to make small talk, but gave up with a shrug and a grin after Sierra and Elia refused to rise to the bait. At the apartment building, he followed Sierra, with Elia falling in at the rear of the group. He made himself at home once they were inside, flopping down on the love seat and taking up as much of it as he could, smirking at Sierra’s scowl. “Guess you’ve got some questions,” he drawled as Sierra set her gear down in the corner by the door.
“Why are you here, J.D.?” Elia demanded, stalking over to stand in front of him, fists clenched.
“Chill, man,” J.D. said, shaking his head. “Damn, you really are on edge, aren’t you?”
“Wouldn’t you be?”
J.D. appeared to think this over, then gave a slow nod. “Guess so, yeah. Look, it’s all good. I’m not here to turn you in or anything. I’m here to warn you, man.”
“About something besides Orsino?” Sierra asked, settling down in the armchair. Now that she saw him in the light, he didn’t look like someone who belonged to a magical gang. If anything, he looked like a skater. Baggy clothes, long red hair tied back in an unruly ponytail, a scruffy soul-patch on his freckled face. Not someone she would normally feel threatened by, but Elia’s continued tense posture said otherwise.
J.D.’s gaze swiveled over, green eyes locking on her own. “Hell, yeah,” he said. “Dude’s been riding Bobbi Leigh pretty hard since one of his wolves disappeared.” His eyes flicked back to Elia in an unspoken question, but he didn’t wait for an answer, continuing, “We were the last ones to see you, so he’s insisting she use her people to track you down, and she’s got us out in full force.”
Surprised flickered in Elia’s eyes. “It doesn’t seem like Bobbi Leigh to give in to another capo. Or to waste her time looking for someone who left the group without doing her any harm. She’s not Orsino.”
“That’s just it, man,” J.D. said. “She’s not this Orsino dude, and she’s pissed as hell that he’s sending his people to her turf and ordering her around. But she’s letting him. No idea why, but I do know she’s not happy about it. So as far as she’s concerned, you have done her harm, because you brought this guy into her business.”
“Ah.” He looked regretful. “It was never my intention.” He pursed his lips, “Although she should know it was someone in her circle who tipped Orsino off about my presence in the first place.”
“Believe me, she knows, and I’m pretty sure she’s doing everything she can to ferret that asshat out, but it doesn’t change what’s going on now. As far as you not meaning us any harm, I know, man. That’s why I’ve been neglecting to report what’s shown up while I’m monitoring your finances. But I can only hide so much from her. Like I said, I know that whatever’s going on with you, you’ve gotten the short end of the stick. Figured the least I could do is give you the courtesy of a heads up.”
“That you’re going to show what you found to your boss?” Sierra asked with a frown.
“Not for a few days,” he promised, holding up his hands, “more than long enough for my boy here to get out of Dodge.”
“Start running again,” Elia said with a heavy sigh, dropping down to sit on the coffee table.
“What? No!” Sierra sat forward in her chair, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder. She glared at J.D. “He’s been running for years! He doesn’t deserve this!”
“Shit, no one does,” J.D. said, shrugging. “But my boy here now has magical badasses on two continents gunning for him. Not really any other choice, unless he wants to turn himself in.” He glanced back at Elia, then pushed himself off the couch. “Look, right before I left, word came down that Orsino’s sending more wolves to pick up the trail of the one that went missing. Three this time. You stay here, and it’s a matter of when, not if, they track you down. If I were you? I’d get a few towns over, pull out the max deposit at every ATM I can find, then buy a plane ticket with my card, before using cash to get a bus ticket going in the opposite direction.” He glanced at Sierra, then back at Elia. “Might even be enough to deflect attention from any purchases made here.”
Elia frowned, taking in J.D.’s meaning.
“Look, I’ve said what I came to say. What you do next is your call, man. I’d better get back to the city before Bobbi Leigh notices I’m gone and starts to wonder why.” He clapped Elia on the shoulder. “Good luck.”
Elia nodded, not really paying attention. Sierra frowned at him, then got up to follow J.D. to the door. “There has to be some other way,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Someone else who would take him in, protect him from Orsino.”
J.D. was already shaking his head. “That dude is serious bad news. He might take another boss telling him to mind his own business, but no one’s gonna risk actively defying him by harboring someone he wants. That’s an act of war, doll. The only folks he won’t attack are the fae, and before you ask, don’t bother thinking they might help you. They don’t get involved with mortal shit.” He looked at Elia then back at her. “You’re a normal, right?” At her nod, he shook his head again. “Let him go, doll. You’re in over your head here. So’s he, but at least he’s a little equipped to deal with it. It’s safer for both of you if he doesn’t have to worry about protecting you when it all hits the fan, yeah?” He slipped out the door without waiting for an answer, leaving Sierra staring off down the hall after him.
“He’s right, you know,” Elia said in a quiet, resigned voice.
Sierra frowned and shut the door, turning around to face him. “You shouldn’t have to live on the run,” she insisted. It wasn’t right. His whole life, he’d been hiding from this Orsino bastard. People couldn’t live like that. She was so angry she could spit. No. This wasn’t happening. Something had thrown them into each other’s lives–maybe Dios, maybe some magical power–and she thought she was beginning to see why. He needed someone to be there for him, to help him find another way. She had no idea what that other way might be, but she was growing ever more determined to find it. “Do you want to leave?” she asked. She could only help him if he let her.
His head snapped up and he stared at her. “What?”
“Do you want to leave? Or do you want to stay here?”
He shook his head, a wry smile forming. “It doesn’t matter what I want.”
“It’s the only thing that matters.”
He gave her a long look, disbelief warring with fear and hope in his eyes. “It’s not safe for you,” he said at last. “You were right to be angry when you found out the truth about me. It wasn’t fair of me to put you in danger like that. It’s not fair for me to stay when I know that even more danger is coming my way.”
Sierra rolled her eyes. “I was angry because you put me in danger without bothering to tell me about it,” she retorted. “It’s different now. I know exactly what I’m getting myself into. Or, well, I know it’s bad. But here’s the difference, I know it’s coming, this time, and I’m still asking if you want to stay. That’s on me. I’m the one risking my neck, not you, and I’m asking if you want to stay.”
“Yes,” he whispered, staring down at his hands on his knees. “I like it here,” he admitted with a heavy sigh, “and I am so tired of running.”
“Then it’s settled,” she said, sitting on the love seat and taking his hands. “Whatever’s coming, we face it together. I’ve got your back, Elia.”
“Grazie,” he said, looking up with a wan smile.
The next morning over breakfast, Sierra pointed out that part of J.D.’s suggestion had merit. Maybe there was a chance to distract Bobbi Leigh’s people from looking at Bowieville too hard. They got in the car and headed in the general direction of Houston, stopping every few towns to hit up an ATM or two. They also bought a cheap tablet and visited places with free wi-fi. Elia bought a ticket from George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Mexico City leaving the next day, and another ticket from Mexico City to Lima, leaving a few days after that. “Just enough time to leave doubt as to whether I actually will take that flight or find some other way to leave Messico,” he explained.
It took some creativity to get around withdrawal limits, but they managed to clean out most of Elia’s accounts. Sierra tried not to think too hard about how much cash was piling up in the duffel bag they’d been using to hold it. “What are you going to do with all of this?” she asked. “I guess we can get a safe. Or if we can figure out how to get you a fake ID, we can set up a bank account under a new name.” She paused to consider that. It might not be a bad idea to set him up with a new identity, since he was sticking around. He’d eventually want to get a job or something. How do you actually get a new identity?
“Ah, I thought I could just give it to you,” Elia answered.
Sierra almost crashed the car. “You what?”
He shrugged. “You already have accounts,” he said, “and it would be the easiest solution.”
“But not the smartest,” she snorted. “Even if your amigo can get them to look away from Bowieville, they might set up at least a cursory watch on my accounts, since the bass was sent to my address. If they see me deposit that much money into my account, it’s only gonna pique their interest. Not to mention the IRS.”
“Ah. You are right. Perhaps a safe, then, until we can figure out something better.”
Their last stop was a hotel about an hour outside of Houston. Sierra waited in the car while Elia checked in using his last card with a remaining balance. He went up to his room, making sure the security cameras all caught him. Elia slid the tablet he’d used for his online purchases underneath the bedside table. He grabbed a hanger from the closet and used it to push the tablet all the way back to the wall, so it wouldn’t be seen by any casual observers. Next, he cut up all of his credit cards and dropped the pieces into the wastebasket by the desk. Then he changed into a cat and, carrying the bundle of his clothes in his mouth, snuck out using the balcony and taking just as much care to this time avoid the cameras.
“Do you think it will work?” Sierra asked as they drove back north.
Elia shrugged. “I have no idea. I hope it will at least keep them busy looking the wrong way for a while.” He kicked the bag at his feet. “And they won’t be able to track me by my bank accounts anymore.”
Probably it would just piss the bad guys off more when they realized they’d been sent on a wild goose chase, but she could live with a little extra time to prepare. “These wolves of Orsino’s,” she said as she stared at the road in front of her, “do you know who they are?”
“Everyone in the court knows the wolves,” Elia snorted. “Even the children. Our parents make sure that we stay out of their way. No one wants to attract their attention.”
“Good,” Sierra said, hands tightening on the wheel. “Tell me about them.”
“What do you wish to know?”
“Everything you can think of.”
Everything returned more or less to normal over the next few days–well, the new normal at least–but Sierra still felt jumpy. She couldn’t shake the feeling that any stranger she ran into might be one of Orsino’s people, or one of Bobbi Leigh’s. Elia had given her descriptions of the remaining wolves in Orsino’s service, as well as the local hunters he had met, but it wasn’t enough to settle her fear. She and Elia spent the next week staying in as much as possible, only venturing out of the apartment when they had no other choice. She could admit to herself that it wasn’t much better than living on the run, but with every day that passed, a little of the tension eased. Her hopes rose that maybe their ruse had worked. They would stay alert, of course, but the longer they went without being found, the safer she felt. Elia was convinced J.D. would see the money trail they’d left and take it to Bobbi Leigh, assuming his friend had taken his advice and run the other way. With any luck, he could avoid bringing Elia’s stop in Bowieville to her attention at all.
She was more than a little grateful for band practice. Intira’s garage had always been a happy place, and now it was one of the few places where she could well and truly let go of her stress and just be herself without worrying about anything–or anyone–else. Work became a bit of a haven too, odd as that seemed. She buried herself in reports and data and found them a welcome distraction. Her boss even stopped by her office to compliment her improved performance. She was really starting to think that they would get through this. That Elia might have some chance of a normal life after all.
That all came crashing down on Friday morning when she stopped by the break room to make a cup of coffee and found a crowd of her coworkers gathered around the television in the corner. No one was talking, everyone was just staring at the screen with serious expressions. Sierra couldn’t see what they were looking at; there were just too many people crowded together.
Seeing Kyle, she tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. “What’s going on?” she asked in a hushed voice.
He stepped back from the group, putting a hand on her arm to bring her along. “Cops found a body on the edge of town,” he said, “mangled all to hell. They’re trying to play it off as a wild animal attack, but all of the news outlets are suggesting there’s evidence a person was behind it.”
Sierra felt her blood run cold. A murder that looked like an animal attack? That sounded like how Elia had described wolf killings. “Who’s the victim, do they know?”
“No clue,” he said, shaking his head. “State of the body, it’s going to take them a while to get an ID.”
“That’s terrible,” she whispered.
“Yeah,” Kyle agreed.
Coffee forgotten, Sierra excused herself and returned to her office on wobbly legs. She sat down at her desk and opened a browser on her computer, pulling up a local news site. The body was the top story and it didn’t take her very long to find images of the scene. Kyle was right, it was a bloody mess. She shuddered in revulsion at the image, but made herself stare at it, looking for any clue that might tell her if the killing was connected to Elia. She found what she was looking for with far too much ease. One of the victim’s shoes had come off in the attack and it lay near the body. She recognized the hi-top Vans with the bright green laces. A closer look at what was left of the head confirmed her fear. Despite the carnage, the long, bright red hair was still clearly visible. “J.D.” she whispered, sitting back and putting a hand over her mouth. Damn. She scanned the article about the discovery. Authorities thought the body had been in the woods for about a week. Double damn. If that was true, then he’d been killed not long after he left her apartment.
She closed the article and sat back, taking deep breaths to steady herself and slow her racing thoughts. Two immediate problems came to mind. First was that a second wolf was already in Bowieville. She had to assume he didn’t have her address, or he’d have turned up already. So, either he’d followed his fellow wolf’s trail to town, or he’d noticed J.D. leave the city and followed him here. The body in the woods seemed to suggest the latter. She’d bet good money that J.D. was dead because he refused to give up Elia’s location. Which led to her second problem. Without J.D. helping to throw Bobbi Leigh’s people off Elia’s financial trail, it was only a matter of time before she had someone else start looking into it. When that happened, they would find her address. Whether they’d investigate it or not after seeing the plane tickets and ATM withdrawals was anyone’s guess, but she wasn’t willing to bet on them getting lucky on that front.
So what do we do? She didn’t want to tell Elia about J.D. He was finally starting to settle down and accept the possibility of starting a life somewhere. She couldn’t ignore the obvious danger, either. She closed her eyes and thought it through, turning it over to look at from every angle she could imagine. A wolf was here hunting Elia already. So she had to get Elia away at least long enough for him to poke around town and come up empty. If he didn’t find Elia still here, maybe he’d assume his quarry had moved on. Orsino’s people were working with Bobbi Leigh’s. Presumably they were sharing information. When Bobbi Leigh’s people found the Bowieville activity in Elia’s accounts, the wolf would tell them he’d already checked it out and come up empty. Then they could focus on the money trail that led south, right? She frowned. There were a lot of ifs and maybes in there, but it was all she had. At the very least, a temporary getaway would allow her to give the matter deeper thought in relative safety, right?
Mind made up, she reached into her back pocket and pulled out her cell phone. She pulled up a number from her contacts and hit send, collecting herself as she waited for someone to pick up on the other end.