The last time I'd seen her she'd had her arm damn near shot off. There was a faint tracery of scars on her right shoulder, pale pink and white. Silver shot will scar even a shape-shifter. There'd even been a faint possibility that the silver could have lost her the use of her arm. But the right arm looked as whole and muscular as the left.
"You look great, how's the arm?" I asked, smiling. One of my favorite things about hanging with the monsters is the healing. Straight humans seemed to get killed on me a lot, monsters survived. Let's hear it for the monsters.
Claudia flexed the arm, and muscles rippled under her skin. It was downright impressive. I lift weights, but not like that. "Not all the way back to full strength. I still can't curl more than one hundred and forty pounds with it."
I could bench-press my own body weight, plus a few pounds, and until now I'd been pretty impressed with doing reps with forty pounds for curls. Suddenly I felt inadequate.
I wanted to ask her if she was okay with putting her life, and that impressive body, on the line for me again, but I didn't. Some questions you just don't ask. Not out loud.
I stood there pressed against the black-mirrored glass that, from the outside, looked like part of the wall. I'd always wondered how someone was usually there to meet me at the back door. Now I knew--they had a lookout. We could have watched the bad guys all day, and they'd never have seen us.
It was part of a narrow loft area up above the main part of the Circus of the Damned, but this one small nook was equipped with binocs, comfortable chairs, and a little table. The rest of the loft area was mostly cables, wires, stored equipment, like the backstage areas at a theater. Most of the ceiling of the Circus was open to girders and beams like the warehouse it originally was, but now that I knew the loft was here, I realized that there was a narrow band of enclosed space that went around the entire top of the building. I'd asked if there were other hidden lookouts, and gotten the answer of course.Ask an obvious question, and you get the obvious answer.
"Claudia's going to drive one of the cars for our little plan," Bobby Lee said.
"I thought the plan was for someone who looked harmless and normal to drive both cars."
Claudia gave me a flat unfriendly look.
"No offense, but you look anything but ordinary."
"She'll throw a shirt on over the muscles, take out the ponytail, and look like a girl," Bobby Lee said.
I looked at him and her. She was taller than he was, hell she was as broad through the shoulders as he was, and she had more bulk. "You know Bobby-boy if I had to choose between arm-wrestling you, or Claudia, I'd pick you."
He blinked at me, totally not getting it.
Claudia got it. "You're wasting your breath, Anita. No matter how much I work out, I'm still a girl to even the best of them."
Bobby Lee was looking from one to the other of us. "What are you two talking about?"
I tried being very clear, using small words, "Claudia is more muscled and taller than most of the other wererats you have here today. Why are you putting her out in the first car to look normal and harmless? She looks anything but harmless."
He blinked at me, frowning. "You won't see the muscles under the shirt."
"She's six-freaking-feet and six-fucking-inches tall, with a pair of shoulders as broad as yours. You're not going to hide that under a shirt."
"I'm aware of that, Anita."
"Then why put her out in front to look harmless?"
Bobby Lee tried to wrap his mind around it, but in the end he was a man that had spent most of his life being muscle--smart muscle, but still muscle. "She's the only girl we have here today, except you, and they'd recognize you."
"Are you really telling me that the bad guys would feel less threatened by Claudia than by a short, less-powerfully built man?"
That was clear enough that Bobby Lee finally got it. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, smiled, and gave a small laugh. "I see your point, but truthfully, yeah, they'll be less intimidated. Men just don't see women as a threat, no matter how big they are, and all men are suspect no matter how small."
I shook my head. "Why, because we have br**sts and you don't?"
"Give it up, Anita," Claudia said, "just give it up. They're men, they can't help it."
Since I wasn't a man, I took Bobby Lee's word that the bad guys would panic less if one of the people involved in our mock accident was a woman. I had to admit that even I was less physically afraid of another woman, but it seemed wrong somehow. Claudia threw a man's pale blue shirt over her jeans and buttoned it up, even the sleeves. She left enough buttons undone in front to flash some cle**age, then she took the tie out of her hair. She shook her hair out, and it fell around her face, over her shoulders, in a slick, brunette flood. The hair softened the strong lines of her face, and I suddenly had a glimpse of what she might look like if she put any effort into being a traditional girl. Spectacularwas the word that came to mind.
Bobby Lee watched the hair cascade with nearly openmouthed attention. I think I could have shot him twice before he reacted. Shit. I'd thought better of him than that.
Claudia met my eyes and crooked one shapely eyebrow. It said it all. We had one of those moments of perfect understanding between girls, and I think that for her, like for me, there weren't that many of them. We both spent far too much time hanging out with the men. But no matter how many times you saved their lives, and they saved yours, no matter how much you could bench-press, no matter how tall, or strong, or competent--you were still a girl. And the fact that you were a girl overshadowed everything else for most men. It wasn't good or bad, it just was. A woman will forget that a man is male, if they are good enough friends, but men rarely forget that a woman is feminine. Most of the time it bugged the crap out of me, but today we'd use it against the bad guys, because they'd see all that hair, those br**sts, and they'd underestimate her, because she was a girl.
They'd only been following me for one day, as far as I knew, so why such determination to find out why? One: It's usually better to know than not to know when people are following you, and two: I was in a truly foul mood.
I had no idea what to do about Asher. I didn't want to lose him, and now I didn't trust the feeling. In fact I was pretty certain it was really vampire mind tricks. Maybe I'd never really loved him. Maybe that had always been a lie. The logical part of me knew I was kidding myself on that one, but the scared part was happy with the theory. The thing that bothered me the most was I was no longer certain which was the brave thing to do. Was it brave and right to dump Asher for his treachery? Or was he right, and he'd just done what I asked him to do? Was I wrong? And, if I was wrong about this, how many other things had I been wrong about, unfair about? I was losing my sense of rightness about so many things. Without my sense of holier-than-thou anger, I felt shaky and unreal. I didn't feel like me anymore.
What if I got Claudia killed, the way I'd gotten her friend Igor killed a few months back? Hell, what if I got Bobby Lee killed like his friend, Cris? I'd killed nearly fifty percent of any wererats that Rafael, their king, had loaned me. No one complained about it, but today, the thought of more losses seemed completely unacceptable.
If I wasn't willing to let people risk their lives, then this plan wouldn't work. We needed four vehicles to block four roads, and make sure there was no place for the bad guys to go. We'd cut off all escape routes and reason with them. That meant a minimum of four people in danger. More, since Bobby Lee wanted shooters hidden among the few cars in the parking lot. The shooters would move out of the Circus when the bad guys were busy driving around trying to figure a way out of the parking lot. Or, that was the plan.
It was a good plan, unless the bad guys pulled out guns and started shooting. Then we'd have to shoot back, and they might get killed, and I'd be no better off. I still wouldn't know shit, and I might have gotten some more of Rafael's people dead.
"You alright, Anita?" Bobby Lee asked.
I was rubbing fingertips against my temples and shaking my head. "No, I'm not. I'm really not okay with this."
"This, all of it." Even as I said it, I saw Claudia driving down the back road, and Fredo coming up the other road. I'd made sure I knew his name. You shouldn't ask people to die for you if you don't at least know their name. He was a few inches under six feet, a slender dark man, with large graceful hands, wearing more knives than anyone I'd met in a long time. Bobby Lee said that both Fredo and Claudia could make the accident look real, they were both drivers. He said driverslike it should have been in capital letters. I'd asked to be one of the drivers, and I'd been informed that I didn't know how to DRIVE, and I couldn't argue with that. But right that moment, waiting and watching other people take the risks for me was harder than risking myself.