Every year I wondered what to buy Judith, my stepmother, for Christmas. You'd think after fourteen years I'd get better. Of course, you'd think she'd get better at buying for me. Judith and I always end up staring at each other across this chasm of misunderstanding. She wants me to be this perfect feminine daughter, and I want her to be my dead mother. Since I can't have what I want, I've made sure Judith doesn't get her wish, either. Besides, she's got Andria, who is perfect. One perfect kid in the family is enough.
Ronnie and I were Christmas shopping. We had jogged on the slick wintery streets at nine that morning. I'd managed about three hours of sleep. The running helped. The freezing wind slapping my face helped even more. I was wide awake and temporarily energized when we hit the mall, hair still damp from the shower.
Ronnie is five foot nine. Her short blond hair is cut in a sort of pageboy. It's the same haircut she's had since I met her, but then my hairstyle hasn't changed, either. She was wearing jeans, cowboy boots with purple tooling, a short winter coat over a lilac crewneck sweater. She was not wearing a gun. Didn't think the mall elves would get that out of hand.
I was dressed for the office, because I'd need to go straight there from shopping. The skirt was a standard navy blue, with a black belt for my shoulder holster to slip through. The skirt was about two inches higher than I was comfortable with, but Ronnie had insisted. She's a tad more fashion conscious than I am. Then, who isn't? The jacket was a rich midnight blue, the color of Jean-Claude's eyes. Darker blue designs, nearly black, traced it in a vaguely Oriental pattern. The open-necked blouse was a blue that matched the jacket. With black high-heel pumps, I looked pretty snazzy. Ronnie had picked out the jacket, too. Its only fault was that it didn't hide the Browning as well. You got little flashes of it as I moved. So far no one had run screaming to the mall cops. If they'd had known I was wearing a knife on each forearm under the pretty jacket, maybe they would have.
Ronnie was staring into a jewelry case at Krigle's, and I was staring at her eyes. They were grey. The same color that Gabriel's eyes had been last night, but there was something different. Her eyes were human. Even in human form Gabriel's eyes weren't human.
I shook my head. "Thinking about last night."
"How do you feel about loverboy after last night?" The jewelry store was three deep in people. We'd forced our way to the case, but I knew I wasn't buying anything here, so I sort of stood beside Ronnie, scanning the crowd. All the faces looked hostile, but it was nothing personal. They were Christmas shopping with two weeks to the big day. Ho, ho, ho.
The store was a mass of shoving, jostling people. I was getting claustrophobic. "Are you going to buy something?"
Ronnie looked up at me. "You never answered my question."
"Get me out of this mess and maybe I will."
She stood up and motioned me forward. I cleared us a path to the open mall. I'm small and was dressed too pretty to be intimidating, but people cleared a path. Maybe they saw the gun. When we were in the main open space, I took a deep breath. It was crowded but nothing like the stores. At least here, people weren't actually brushing against me. If they did it out here, I could yell at them.
"You want to sit down?" There were miraculously two seats open on a bench. Ronnie had made the offer because I was dressed for work, which meant heels. In her comfy jogging shoes she didn't need to sit. My feet didn't hurt yet. Maybe I was getting used to wearing heels. Eeek.
I shook my head. "Let's hit the Nature Company. Maybe I'll find Josh something there."
"How old is he now, thirteen?" Ronnie asked.
"Fifteen," I said. "My baby brother was my height last year. He'll be gigantic this year. Judith says he's outgrowing his jeans faster than she can buy them."
"A hint to buy him jeans?" Ronnie said.
"If it is, I'm ignoring it. I'm buying Josh something fun, not clothes."
"A lot of teenagers would rather have clothes," Ronnie said.
"Not Josh, not yet anyway. He seems to have taken after me."
"What are you going to do about Richard?" she asked me.
"You're not going to let it go, are you?"
"Not a chance."
"I don't know what I'm going do. After what I saw last night. After what Jean-Claude told me. I just don't know."
"You know that Jean-Claude did it deliberately," she said. "To try and drive a wedge between you."
"I know, and it worked. I feel like I don't know Richard. Like I've been kissing a stranger."
"Don't let fang-face break you up."
I smiled at that. Jean-Claude would love being referred to as fang-face. "I won't."
She punched my shoulder softly. "I don't believe you."
"It won't be Jean-Claude that breaks us up, Ronnie. If Richard's been lying to me for months..." I didn't finish the sentence. I didn't have to.
We were outside the Nature Company. It was crawling with people like a jar of lightning bugs abuzz with activity, but not half as bright.
"What exactly has Richard lied about?"
"He didn't tell me about this battle he's got going with Marcus."
"And you tell him everything," she said.
"He hasn't lied to you, Anita. He just didn't tell you. Let him explain. Maybe he's got a good reason."
I turned and looked full at her. Her face was all soft with concern. It made me look away. "He's been in danger for months, and didn't tell me. I needed to know."
"Maybe he couldn't tell you. You won't know until you ask him."
"I saw lycanthropes last night, Ronnie." I shook my head. "What I saw last night wasn't human. It wasn't even close."
"So he's not human. No one's perfect."
I looked at her then. She was smiling at me. I had to smile back. "I'll talk to him."
"Call him before we leave the mall and set up a dinner for today."
"You are so pushy," I said.
She shrugged. "I've learned from the best."
"Thanks," I said. "What have you learned from George Smitz?"
"Nothing new to add to the folder you showed me. Except he doesn't seem to know that his wife is one of eight missing shapeshifters. He thinks she's the only one. I got a picture of her. You need pictures of the others. First thing you need in a missing-person case is a picture. Without a picture you could pass them on the street and not know it."
"I'll ask Kaspar about pictures."
"I'm sort of mad at him. I don't want to ask him for help."
"You're being petty."
"It's one of my best traits."
"I'll check out the usual channels for a missing person, but if they're all lycanthropes, I bet it isn't a missing person."
"You think they're dead?"
"But what could take out eight shapeshifters without a trace?" she asked.
"That's got me worried, too." I touched her arm. "You wear your gun from now on."
She smiled. "I promise, Mommy."
I shook my head. "Shall we brave one more store? If I can get Josh's gift, I'll be halfway done."
"You'll have to buy Richard a present, you know."
"You have to buy your steady a gift. It's traditional."
"Shit." I was halfway mad at him, but she was right. Fighting or not, I had to buy him something. What if he bought me something, and I didn't? I'd feel guilty. If I bought something and he didn't, then I could feel superior. Or angry. I was almost hoping he wouldn't buy me anything.
Was I looking for an excuse to dump Richard? Maybe. Of course, maybe after we talked he'd give me a good excuse on a silver, excuse me, golden platter. I was ready for a knock-down, drag-out fight. It did not bode well.