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Chapter 21

Colin asked about his clothes, which Andreus informed him were left unwearable after last night. He offered Colin a pair of sweatpants and a shirt from the dresser.

“How many pairs of sweats does one man need?” Colin asked, pulling a shapeless dark blue pair up. He picked up a soft shirt from the selection of identical clones. “This is actually creepy.”

“They’re cheaper in bulk,” Andreus said, switching on the computer. “In case you haven’t noticed, I lose a lot of clothes.”

“I feel like your girlfriend right now,” Colin grumbled. His arms barely fit through the arm holes of the shirt. “Your fat girlfriend.”

“Oh, sweetie, you’re beautiful to me.” He laughed at Colin. “Which way to the gun show?”

Colin rolled his eyes, but smiled and flexed anyway. A seam popped in one of the sleeves. “Shit, sorry.”

“That’s why I have so many,” Andreus said, turning to the computer. “Oh, shit.”

Colin looked over at Andreus, seated at the computer, stared slack-jawed. “What is it?”

“It’s Kurada. She’s ready to make a move.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean she has information and motive enough to warrant an attack on the Purest.”

Colin leaned toward the screen. The tight shirt pulled at his chest and constricted him under his arms. The email looked like a mailing list from a company called “Flourish Organics” and offered Andreus Stocks ten percent off the digital “new day, new you” kit. The image showed a stack of papers with fitness and nutrition tips, and a stock photo of a bikini-clad model eating a slice of pizza. “I don’t follow.”

“It’s code. Obviously. I know where to meet her. Let’s eat and go. It really should cook longer, but we don’t have the time.”

They ate almost the entire pot before Andreus insisted on washing the dishes and putting away the leftovers, just to complete the illusion they might come back.

“We’ll stop at your place first,” Andreus said. “Grab your cash and whatever else you need. Be prepared for anyone to be there waiting for us.”

“Mary has to know we’re not dead, right? If it was her, for whatever reason, do you think it’s worth the risk?”

“Considering we don’t know who would want to kill us or why, everything is a risk. I can slip in and check it out or you can just blast the place before you go in to make sure.”

“I don’t want to kill anyone, especially if they’re not there to hurt us.” Colin thought of Mary. The girls didn’t recognize her, but what the hell was she doing there? Could she have left the poisoned wine, and the girls were sent by someone else at the same time? Was every elemental in existence out to get him? “How are we getting there?”

“My emergency car. It’s about ten years old, tinted windows, well-maintained, white. Completely inconspicuous. I’ve got a little cash and clothing in there, first aid kit.”

“Just in case,” Colin said.

“Just in case,” Andreus repeated.

They parked down the street from Colin’s house and crept along hedges and fences in the neighbors’ yards. Andreus shifted and Colin watched, with the usual uneasiness, as the puddle went into his house through a small grate near the garage floor.

Andreus, fully formed and dressed, opened the back door a minute later. “I didn’t see anyone, for what it’s worth. Hurry up.”

Colin ran up the stars, threw open the bedroom closet, grabbed a little bag of cash he kept there, and froze. Something wasn’t right. There was something out of place, something he’d been in too much of a hurry to take notice of. Something in the upstairs hallway. Something that wasn’t supposed to be there.

He stepped slowly out of the room, ready to attack with everything he had, which didn’t feel like much.

A lion statue, peaceful and proud, took up space on top of a cabinet. The lion fit in with the rest of the décor, but it didn’t belong there. He started to call for Andreus when the lion shifted in front of him.

“Colin,” Mary said. She covered her body with one trembling hand and reached for him with the other. She winced when he backed away.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

“I’m unarmed,” she said. Not that she’d need a weapon to fight him. “And I’m alone, Colin. Oh, God I’m so alone right now. The Purest turned against me. They sent some incompetent dick after me, but they’re asserting their influence. They’re taking sides with Terrafiers now.”

“Terrafiers?” Colin’s eyes flicked to Andreus, standing at the top of the stairs, with a kitchen knife in his hand.

Mary turned. “What exactly do you think that would do against me?”

“Find out,” Andreus growled. His long hair fell around his face in greasy sheets, his blue eyes glowed from their red background. He stood like a wild animal, head low, teeth bared.

Mary’s skin turned hard and gray. She took a step toward Andreus. “Have I ever backed down from a fight?”

Andreus bent lower, a rabid cat about to pounce. “Never.”

Mary shifted back into her own dark brown flesh and raised her hands. “Well, I am now. I won’t fight against you. I need you to fight with me. In all the time you’ve known me, have I ever wanted what they want? World domination?”

“I’ve never known what you want. But I’ve watched you squash anyone who challenges you.”

“Who the hell have I ever squashed?”

Andreus laughed. “You’re going to pretend that you haven’t squashed Colin’s heart and then sent him to kill your enemies?”

“Our enemies, and what the fuck business is it of yours what our relationship is like?”

“He’s my best friend. That makes it my business.”

“Then if you know everything, you’ll know he’s the one who did the squashing. How many times did I reach out to him, to try to get him to understand that we could still be together, even if we couldn’t be seen together? How many times did I try to make him see that I love him, but he can’t verbally attack me every time I say something he doesn’t like?”

“Are you going to blame him for killing Henry, or Millicent, or whoever else you’ve sent him after? It’s not his fault shit went wrong, Mary, it’s yours. You knew he wasn’t in a good place, you knew he was too inexperienced, and you sent him alone anyway.”

“I fucked up, Andreus. It’s not the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I didn’t send him so he could make your job harder.”

“What about Sierra? That was more than a fuck-up, wasn’t it?”

Mary burst into tears.

Colin stood frozen in place.

“She was my friend, Andreus. I loved her almost as much as you did.”

“Then why did you kill her?”

“I didn’t kill her. We had bad intel, shit went sideways. You know all of this already.”

“I know that the story you tell isn’t the same as the evidence. You can’t say bad intel led to you poisoning us, sending some psycho bitch assassin to kill us.” Andreus moved closer, knife still poised.

Mary remained herself, though she watched the knife. “Poisoning you?”

“The wine,” Colin said.

“What wine?”

“The bottle of wine you left us,” Andreus said. “Before your bitch tried to finish the job.”

“What are talking about?” Mary laughed. “Why would I bother to poison you? Either of you, when I could cut your throats in your sleep? Why would I make it that hard on myself?” She turned gray and took a step toward Andreus, so her face almost touched his, until he straightened his back to look down at her. “I have a thousand elementals in my pocket. You think I wouldn’t hire someone competent? I know where you sleep, I know where you work, I could have gotten you alone underground where no one would have ever found you. I could pull a trigger or cut your throats, or crush you, and you think I would resort to poisoned wine?”

“Why did you come here,” Colin asked. “Of all places?”

“Because I love you. And I trust you, even if you don’t trust me. And I’d rather you kill me than some half-ass wannabe assassin working for the Terrafiers.”

“What about your loyalty to the Purest?” Andreus asked.

“Same as your loyalty to me, that shit ends when my life is on the line.”

“Great,” Andreus said. “Hang tight, we’ll call you.”

“What do you mean you’ll call me?”

“We’ve got places to be.” Andreus started down the stairs. “Come on, Colin.”

“Let me get some clothes on.” Mary gave Colin a pleading look.

Andreus swung around. “Oh, no. You’re not coming.”

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