"Careless of you to lose your identity bracelet."
"The lynx was stronger than we thought." Another smile. "Can I have it back?"
Charming, she thought. And he used his charm like a weapon. "We're not here to be friends. Where's Nash and what do you want in exchange for him?"
"He's safe." Bowen said, no hint of sweat or panic in him.
Mercy wasn't fooled. People could learn to regulate their breathing and bodily reactions if they practiced hard enough. "I'd like to see him."
"After we talk." No charm now.
"So talk. Explain why you traumatized a young girl and stole her brother."
Bowen blew out a breath, his hands fisting. "It was meant to be a straight grab, no harm, no foul. The little one . . . we didn't realize she was outside until it was too late."
"What do you want?" she asked again.
"To talk with the DarkRiver and SnowDancer alphas. There are things you need to know about the Human Alliance."
"And you want to tell us out of the goodness of your heart?"
"I have a price on my head as of the night of Nash's kidnapping," he said, tone blunt. "So do the rest of my men and women. We're a crack team, but there are only ten of us. We need to ally ourselves to someone stronger or we'll be dead in a matter of days."
Mercy raised an eyebrow. "I can tell you now, your chances aren't high." Maybe it wasn't what a human negotiator would've said, but if Bowen knew anything about changelings, he'd know a less hostile response for a lie. Even now, she could feel the tidal wave of enmity from the men and women at her back. Cat or wolf, it didn't matter - they all wanted to tear Bowen into a million small pieces.
"Yeah, well, it's better than no chance." Bowen shrugged, shoulders moving with a fighter's grace under a battered leather-synth jacket.
"Long as you continue to hold Nash, no one will talk to you." She made her tone as unyielding as his own. "Nonnegotiable."
High cheekbones cut sharply against skin the rich, exotic shade of the finest caramel. "He's sitting in room 10 at the Happy Inn down the street."
"No." Bowen actually looked shamefaced. "We told him we'd gone back and grabbed his little sister so he'd cooperate."
That explained why the Rats and trackers had struck out. Hiding an angry lynx was a far different cry from holding a cooperative one. "Nice."
For the first time, the mask of civility slipped. "Hurt feelings can be mended. Dead men won't rise."
Mercy didn't say anything. "We'll wait while my people check out the inn."
So they did. In silence. Riley's energy was a violent heat against her skin, but he held his position outside.
Fifteen minutes later, there was a commotion at the front and then someone yelled out, "We have Nash!" A pause. "And he wants blood!"
Mercy met Bowen's eyes, not dropping her guard. "You going to make trouble?"
"I gave you back your boy, didn't I?"
"True. So I could kill you right now." She wasn't as hostile as Riley, but she didn't like those who preyed on the weak. Nash and Willow had been under DarkRiver's care - they were hers as much as Tammy's cubs were. "A claw slash to a few important spots and you're out of our hair for good."
Time stood still.
Many miles from the chill standoff in that abandoned building, a slender male drove his car into the San Gabriel Mountains. His face was covered with sweat, his hands white-knuckled around the steering wheel. There were no embedded roads this far up, no way to put his small, city-use car on automatic. Even if it had been possible, he wouldn't have chosen it.
He needed to focus, to concentrate.
His eyes saw only gravel and rock, an endless twisting pathway.
Take the gun hidden in the trunk of your car. Drive to the enclave of artists on the edge of the Mojave. Kill as many of them as you can before the ammunition runs out. Remember, save one bullet for yourself.
The car shuddered as it fell into a pothole, rattling his brain, throwing those whispering thoughts into chaos. He managed to get it out but the tire was flat. Hitting the hover-drive, he continued on his way. He couldn't stop. If he stopped, the gun would find its way into his hands. And men, women, and children would die.
The compulsion crushed his mind, creating pinpricks of darkness behind his eyelids - veins were starting to shatter, to bleed inside his skull. He couldn't go any farther. Twisting the wheel, he brought the car to a halt on the side of the rough mountain road. Then he got out - his gaze going immediately to the trunk. No. He willed himself to turn. That cliff, it was close enough. Holding his head in his hands, he forced himself to put one foot in front of the other.
All he had to do was get to the edge. He didn't trust himself with the gun. But a fall would shatter his brain just as well.
An hour after finding Nash, Mercy drove a still alive and uninjured Bowen out of the city, Indigo by her side. Bowen's hands were cuffed, his eyes blindfolded. Dorian had come out and used his toys to search for - and remove - two tracking devices.
Bowen wasn't worried. "I'd have been stupid if I hadn't had backup."
Assuming his team was following, Mercy took him out through a number of back roads, making any pursuit highly visible to the large SUV following her vehicle. By the time they circled around and pulled into a deserted section of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on the other side of the bridge, Bowen was very much alone.
He held up his wrists when they removed the blindfold and let him get out. "I think you guys can take me on even if I'm free."