Killing rites, p.37
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       Killing Rites, p.37
 

         Part #4 of The Black Suns Daughter series by M. L. N. Hanover
Page 37

 

  He shrugged.

  “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I was wrong about there being a second rider,” he said. “Anything else?”

  Are you angry with me? I almost asked. But he’d say he wasn’t, either way. And that wasn’t really what I meant.

  It was just a few days before that he’d lain on the couch wearing a blanket and told me in a soft voice about falling from grace with God. I’d hesitated at this cracked-open door to see him sleep, and he’d promised that if my feet were too bruised, he would carry me. I wanted to know if we were still those people. The long nights of distracting me when I woke up screaming, the mornings of making coffee for me quietly enough that I didn’t wake up. They’d been hellish, and every single time, he’d risen to the occasion. I didn’t know how I’d have made it through without him. He’d never tried to use my bad nights to make a pass. He’d never been anything less than great, crisis after crisis after crisis. There was an intimacy in it that I hadn’t totally recognized until now. And now I was afraid it was gone.

  I wanted to know if the man who’d protected me when I was broken was able to forgive me for saving myself without him. I wanted to know what was behind the poker face. I wanted him to kiss me just so I’d know that he wanted to.

  “Seriously,” Ex said. “Is there something you want to say? It’s cold out here. ”

  “No,” I said past the thickness in my throat. “I just wanted to make sure we were good. ”

  “We are,” he said shortly.

  “Okay,” I said, and he opened the door again and walked inside. It took me a second before I was ready to follow him.

  Alexander was standing at the kitchen counter, Ozzie sitting at his knee with her long, pink tongue lolling out. Dolores’s arms were folded, her face a mask of disapproval. Chogyi Jake leaned against the back of the couch, his brow furrowed in thought.

  “Do we have any alternatives?” Chogyi Jake asked.

  “Alternatives to what?” Ex demanded.

  “We’re having a tactical discussion,” Chogyi Jake said.

  “I’m not going to stay behind,” Alexander said. “For one thing, I’m the best evidence you have that the attack in Questa happened. You can’t take Jayné in by herself and expect Chapin to believe her. ”

  “Okay, roll this back,” I said. “Why do we want Alexander to stay behind?”

  “Someone has to take care of Dolores,” Alexander said, waving toward her.

  Dolores’s scowl deepened.

  Truth was, I’d been thinking we’d take her with us. Until that moment, I hadn’t seen how bad an idea that was. She was a third grader, thin from growing too fast and still marked by the sores and cuts from the first time we’d met. The chances weren’t good that the thing inside Tomás was going to sit back and take this lightly. We were walking into a trial where she’d be a good witness, but we were also walking into the near certainty of violence.

  Of course I couldn’t take a kid into a fight. Especially not one who’d already been traumatized three or four different ways within the last week. I pushed away my sense of confusion and loss around Ex and focused on the girl. As if she could feel the weight of my consideration, she looked up at me.

  The first time my mother had left me at home by myself, I’d been fourteen. She’d been going to the grocery store because we were out of milk. I’d been watching TV. It had taken her twenty minutes, but for that time, I’d been alone in the house for the first time in my life. I could still remember the exhilarating sense of power and fear. Dolores was six years younger than that, and we weren’t going on a quick errand. We were going to a confrontation whose outcome we couldn’t know.

  I imagined leaving her here on her own, and I couldn’t see doing it. And I couldn’t take her with us into the teeth of danger. We could leave Alexander behind with her, in which case I wouldn’t have any witnesses besides myself. I could leave Ex behind, except that in a million years, he still wouldn’t agree to being ditched. I could ask Chogyi Jake to baby-sit, but he was the only one who’d come in from outside. He’d be able to see things in the tight-knit group of Chapin’s cabal that no one else could. Besides which, I didn’t want to leave any allies behind. We could take her home, except the Akaname would be waiting there, wearing her sister’s skin and waiting to retake Dolores’s. And, to round out the problem set, just having Dolores with us might count as kidnapping and child abduction, and for all I knew, the FBI could be looking for her.

  The room had gone quiet, everyone waiting for me to speak.

  “How long do we have before we’re supposed to see Chapin?” I asked.

  “We can wait as long as we want,” Ex said. “But the longer it takes, the more the Akaname can prepare. It probably didn’t know that we’re aware of it, until Ex told Chapin that we had Dolores back, but now it’s got to be feeling jumpy. And since the one in Dolores’s sister escaped, it’s also possible that it’s gotten a more explicit warning. Or will soon. ”

  “So the longer we take, the more time the enemy has to prepare,” I said.

  “Or escape,” Ex said. I had a momentary sense of Ex feeling pleased to see me struggling with the dilemma, but that was just me being paranoid.

  I wondered if my lawyer had any friends or contacts in Taos willing to be an accessory to child abduction. I wondered how I’d ask the question even if I did call her. I hated this. No matter which way I looked at it, there was a problem. If it had just been fighting the rider in Chapin’s group, I’d have known what to do. If it had just been keeping Dolores safe, I could have come up with something, even if it was something incredibly illega. Doing both seemed impossible, and they both had to be done.

  “I’m open for suggestions here,” I said low enough that my rider would know I was talking to her. I waited a few seconds, but I didn’t get an answer. Either she wasn’t listening or she was stuck too. I knelt at Dolores’s side, putting my eyes even with hers.

  “Hey,” I said. “You have anything you want to have happen, because the options are looking pretty bad to me. ”

  “I want to go with you,” she said.

  “I’m going someplace dangerous,” I said.

  “I don’t care,” she almost shouted. There were tears in her eyes. She turned away from me. “I want to go home. ”

  “We can do that,” I said. “But your sister might be there. And she’s still got the demon inside of her. ”

  Dolores was quiet for a moment.

  “I don’t want to go home,” she said.

  “Jayné,” Chogyi Jake said. The two syllables of my name were all it took to carry a truckload of meaning. She’s a kid, so stop asking her to take responsibility and This decision has to be yours and I’m sorry. I hung my head.

  She had been through so much that she hadn’t deserved. I wanted to give her her own voice in whatever happened next. I wanted her to have power, or at least to feel like she did. That giving her that was also another burden on her shoulders seemed profoundly unfair. The kid needed someplace safe and someone to watch out for her, and she also needed to stand up on her own. I didn’t know how to get that for myself, much less for her.

  “Okay,” I said as much to myself as to anyone. “Dolores? Sweetie? I need you to be a big girl right now, okay?”

  She turned back to look at me. Her eyes were wet, tears streaking down her cheeks. She looked about as unlike a big girl as humanly possible. She didn’t have her family. Didn’t even have her own clothes. I’d saved her from riders twice when everyone else around her had failed or betrayed her, and now I was going to abandon her. The thought rested uncomfortably in my gut. I nodded to her and smiled, hoping it would get her to smile back at me.

  “I’m going to go try to stop the thing that’s been doing these things to you and your sister. And I need you to stay here and take care of Ozzie while I do it. ”

  The dog’s ears shifted forward at her na
me, and she started wagging her thick tail. Dolores sniffed wetly, looking from me to the dog. She knew it was bullshit. I’d have left Ozzie alone or even curled up in the back of the SUV a hundred times before I left a little girl by herself.

  “What am I supposed to do?” Dolores asked in a small voice.

  “You just stay here with Ozzie. There’s a TV upstairs and I’ve got some snack food in the car. If the dog needs to go out, let her out. When she wants in, let her in. There’s some dog food for her. And I can help you find a bowl for that and her water before I go. ”

  “What if she goes out and she never comes back?” Dolores asked, and I knew from the high, rough voice that we weren’t just talking about the dog anymore.

  “She’ll come back. It might take some time, but she will come back,” I said. “And I will too. Your job is to hang out here for the night and be safe. Knowing that you’re okay is what’s going to let me do the things I need to do next, okay? Can you do this for me?”

  Dolores hesitated, then nodded. She wasn’t looking at me. I leaned close, kissing the top of her head.

  “Thank you,” I said.

  Twenty minutes later, the rest of us were piling in the SUV. I had my laptop and the leather backpack I used as a purse. Chogyi Jake had meditated in the master bedroom, focusing his qi and calming his mind. If you had to pick whether Alexander or Ex looked worse, it would have been a hard call. Next door, three snowboards were leaning against the little fence, and four guys about my age were shouting at each other about how to get a grill started. They sounded drunk. I ignored them, climbing up behind the wheel. Chogyi Jake took shotgun, looking back at the lights shining in the condo’s windows as the sun began its winter descent among the high peaks in the west. All around us, the pines had gone from green to black. I started the engine and paused.

  From the time I’d arrived at Denver International Airport, just shy of my twenty-third birthday, until Chicago, I’d driven only when I was alone. Aubrey was our default driver before he left, and Ex had taken over in the weeks since. Now I was sitting behind the wheel, and it felt as natural and obvious as something I’d done every day. I had the feeling it meant something. I hoped it was something more than If this all goes south, it’ll be my fault.
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