Home > River Marked (Mercy Thompson #6)

River Marked (Mercy Thompson #6)
Author: Patricia Briggs

Chapter 1

UNDER THE GLARE OF STREETLIGHTS, I COULD SEE that the grass of Stefan's front lawn was dried to yellow by the high summer heat. It had been mowed, but only with an eye to trimming the length of the grass, not to making it aesthetically pleasing. Judging by the debris of dead grass in the yard, the lawn had been left to grow long enough that the city might have demanded it be mowed. The grass that remained was so dry that whoever had cut it wouldn't have to do it again unless someone started watering.

I pulled the Rabbit up to the curb and parked. The last time I'd seen Stefan's house, it had fit right into his ritzy neighborhood. The yard's neglect hadn't spread to the house's exterior yet, but I worried about the people inside.

Stefan was resilient, smart, and ... just Stefan-- able to talk Pok?mon in ASL with deaf boys, defeat nasty villains while locked up in a cage, then drive off in his VW bus to fight bad guys another day. He was like Superman, but with fangs and oddly impaired morals.

I got out of my car and walked up the sidewalk toward the front porch. In the driveway, Scooby- Doo looked out at me eagerly through a layer of dust on the windows of Stefan's usually meticulously tended bus. I had gotten the big stuffed dog for Stefan to go with the Mystery Machine paint job.

I hadn't heard from Stefan for months, not since Christmas, in fact. I'd been caught up in a lot of things, and getting kidnapped for a day (which was a month for everyone else because fairy queens can apparently do that), was only part of it. But for the last month, I'd called him once a week and gotten only his answering machine. Last night, I'd called him four times to invite him to Bad Movie Night. We were a person short of the usual as Adam--my mate, fianc?, and the Alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack--was out of town on business.

Adam owned a security firm that, until recently, had dealt primarily with government contractors. Since the werewolves--and Adam--had come out to the general public, though, his business had started to boom on other fronts. Werewolves were seen as very good security people, apparently. He was actively looking for someone else who could do most of the traveling but so far hadn't found the right person.

With Adam away, I could give more attention to the other people in my life. I'd decided Stefan had had time enough to lick his wounds, but from the looks of things, I was a few months late.

I knocked on the door and, when that got no response, gave it the old "Shave and a Haircut" knock. I'd resorted to pounding when the dead bolt finally clicked over, and the door opened.

It took me a while to recognize Rachel. The last time I'd seen her, she'd looked like the poster girl for the disenchanted goth or runaway teenager. Now she looked like a crack addict. She'd lost maybe thirty pounds she didn't have to lose. Her hair hung in limp, greasy, and uncombed strings down her shoulders. Mascara smudges dripped over her cheeks in faded smears that would have done credit to an extra in Night of the Living Dead. Her neck was bruised, and she held herself like her bones ached. I tried not to show that I noticed she was missing the last two fingers on her right hand. Her hand was healed, but the scars were still red and angry.

Marsilia, the Mistress of the Tri-Cities' vampires, had used Stefan, her faithful knight, to oust traitors from her seethe, and part of that involved taking his menagerie--the humans he kept to feed from--and making him think they were dead by breaking his blood bonds to them. She seemed to think that torturing them had been necessary as well, but I don't trust vampires--other than Stefan --to speak the truth. Marsilia hadn't thought Stefan would object to her use of him and his menagerie once he knew that she'd done it to protect herself. He was, after all, her loyal Soldier. She'd miscalculated how badly Stefan would deal with her betrayal. From the looks of it, he wasn't recovering well.

"You'd better get out of here, Mercy," Rachel told me dully. " 'Tisn't safe."

I caught the door before she could shut it. "Is Stefan home?"

She drew in a ragged breath. "He won't help. He doesn't."

At least it didn't sound like Stefan was the danger she had been warning me about. She'd turned her head when I stopped her from shutting the door, and I saw that someone had been chewing on her neck. Human teeth, I thought, not fangs, but the scabs climbed the side of the tendon between her collarbone and her jaw in brutal relief.

I shouldered the door open and stepped inside so I could reach out and touch the scabs, and Rachel flinched back, retreating from the door and from me.

"Who did this?" I asked. Impossible to believe Stefan would let anyone else hurt her again. "One of Marsilia's vampires?"

She shook her head. "Ford."

For a moment I drew a blank. Then I remembered the big man who'd driven me out of Stefan's house the last time I was there. Half- changed to vampire and mostly crazy with it--and that had been before Marsilia had gotten her claws into him. A very nasty, scary guy--and I expected he'd been scary before he'd ever seen a vampire.

"Where's Stefan?"

I have very little tolerance for drama that ends in people getting hurt. It was Stefan's job to take care of his people, never mind that for most vampires their menageries existed as convenient snacks, and all the people in them died slow, nasty deaths over a period that might last as long as six months.

Stefan hadn't been like that. I knew that Naomi, the woman who ran his household, had been with him for thirty years or more. Stefan was careful. He'd been trying to prove that it was possible to live without killing. From the looks of Rachel, he wasn't trying very hard anymore.

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