TALON CHAPTER THREE
Isi woke with a weary groan to find the late morning sun pouring through her open window.
Momentarily disoriented, she pushed herself to a sitting position, glancing in confusion around the room painted a cheery yellow.
What the hell? This wasn't the room she'd been using for the past month.
It took a minute before the memories from the night before slammed into her.
Talon the Bastard. Yep. That suited him to perfection.
Shoving herself out of the bed, she stomped her way to the attached bathroom.
Last night she'd hovered at the edge of the Wildlands for over an hour before the sickness had driven her back to the cottage. Her every instinct had warned her to return to New Orleans and take the first bus the hell out of town, but she wasn't entirely sure that the threat of the elders wasn't real.
Finally she'd had no choice but to return to the cottage where there was some measure of relief from the constant sickness.
Although not as much as there had been during the night, she realized as she quickly showered and pulled on a robe. Which could only mean that Talon was no longer in the cottage.
Good, she savagely told herself, entering the room he'd taken over, to gather her clothes and take them to her new, painfully sunny room. She'd rather be sick than have to endure his repulsive company.
Pretending she actually did find him repulsive, Isi pulled on a pair of jeans and skimpy top that hit just below the gentle swell of her breasts. She smiled with a grim defiance as she realized the top was cut low enough to display her evil birthmark. Then, spiking her blue-streaked hair, she headed out the door and to the clinic where her sister continued to fight for her life.
Acutely aware of the cats who trailed behind her at a discreet distance, she followed the narrow path that led from the isolated marsh to the village, keeping her head high.
She'd learned from day one that her presence in the Wildlands attracted unwelcome attention.
Some curious, some hopeful, but most filled with a predatory hunger that assured her they were just waiting for the opportunity to rip her to shreds.
Not the nicest neighbors a girl could have, but sadly they weren't the worst.
She'd run away from the orphanage when she was barely fourteen to live on the streets of Chicago.
Tough to top that.
Reaching the clinic, she entered the wooden structure through a side door and headed directly to her sister's room at the back of the building.
Unlike human hospitals, there was no stench of antiseptic or disinfectant. Instead the air was laced with the scent of healing plants and potions as well as the exotic musk that was unique to each Pantera.
There was also a decided lack of sterile white walls and linoleum floors. In this clinic the walls were paneled in rich cherry wood with floors covered by handwoven rugs.
Pushing open the door to her sister's room, she stepped inside, not surprised to find Raphael sitting beside the bed.
The male refused to leave his mate's side unless it was a matter of dire urgency.
Rising to his feet at Isi's entrance, Raphael motioned for her to take his seat beside the bed.
"Good morning, Isi."
She hurriedly perched on the edge of the chair, always a little on edge around the man.
He might have sworn to protect her, but he was clearly ready to snap. She didn't want to be around if something happened to Ashe.
"How is she?" Isi asked, focusing on the dark-haired woman lying in the wooden bed, covered by a hand-stitched quilt.
"She's holding her own," Raphael said, the weariness in his voice drawing her gaze to his haggard features.
Christ, he looked like he hadn't slept in days.
"Why don't you go rest?" she offered. "I'll sit with Ashe."
There was a brief hesitation, as if he was debating whether or not to trust Isi alone with his beloved mate. Then, obviously realizing he was near collapse, he gave a reluctant nod.
"I'll be just down the hall."
The Pantera leaned down to place a gentle kiss on his mate's lips before turning to leave the room and gently closing the door behind him.
Alone with the female they claimed was her sister, Isi studied the pale, perfect features that held only a faint resemblance to her own. Over the past month she spent a part of each day with Ashe, usually watching her sleep, although there were times when the other woman would wake long enough for a short conversation.
Still, Ashe remained more a stranger than a member of her family.
Which suited Isi just fine.
Concentrating on her sister with a fierce intensity that didn't allow any stray thoughts of Talon the Bastard, she was aware the second Ashe's lashes twitched and her hand unconsciously reached for her mate.
Isi leaned forward, lightly grasping the outstretched hand. "It's Isi."
The thick lashes lifted to reveal beautiful brown eyes. "Sister."
Isi stretched her lips into an uncomfortable smile. "That's what they tell me."
Ashe gave Isi's fingers a squeeze. "I always wanted a sister. Didn't you?"
Isi hid her shudder.
When she was young she'd learned that the only way to stay alive was to stay on the move and avoid attention. Something that would be impossible with family or friends.
Having a sister was a burden she couldn't afford.
Still, Ashe was studying her with her big, hopeful eyes. It would feel like kicking a puppy to admit the truth.
"I..." She struggled for words that would offer comfort without being an outright lie. "Wanted not to be alone."
"Yes." Ashe gave a weak nod of her head, looking impossibly beautiful despite the pallor of her skin and the shadows beneath her eyes. "I've always been alone. Until Raphael."
Isi frowned, perplexed by the soft words. "I thought you lived with our mother?"
Ashe wrinkled her nose. "Dixie wasn't much of a mother. She spent most of her time and money at the local bar." She hesitated before asking the question that had obviously been on her mind. "What about our father?"
Isi stiffened. "What about him?"
"Did you know him?"
"No." Isi felt a familiar stab of rage toward the man who had abandoned her when she needed him the most. "He dumped me at an orphanage in Shreveport and disappeared."
"Did you ever search for him?"
Isi scowled. Like she'd waste one precious second of her life on the worthless sperm donor who'd impregnated their mother?
"Why should I?" she demanded. "If he wanted to be with me he wouldn't have tossed me away like a piece of trash."
Ashe placed a hand on her swelling stomach, the gesture revealing her instinctive urge to protect the child growing so rapidly in her womb.
"Now you know he had no choice."
Isi abruptly released her sister's hand and rose to her feet. She'd done her best to pretend the elders' claim of her birth was nothing more than a fairy tale.
And she'd been remarkably successful.
Of course, she had a lot of practice at pretending the nasty things in her life didn't exist.
"Do I?" she muttered.
"You don't believe the elders?" Ashe asked.
Isi moved to gaze at out the window that offered a view of the clearing where the Pantera gathered for their meals.
There was no denying it was a beautiful sight, even for a girl who'd never spent more than an hour away from the city.
The long tables covered in green cloth set among the lush flowers and cypress trees. The unexpected wooden statues that were tucked among the azaleas to provide charming glimpses of native art. The nearby lake that sparkled in the lazy sunlight.
It was a land crafted by magic.
A magic that was fading.
And they wanted to blame her.
"Would you, if you were me?" She gave a humorless laugh, her voice edged with a bitterness she couldn't hide. "You get to be the beautiful princess who saves the Pantera while I'm the evil twin who offers nothing but destruction."
She heard Ashe's soft gasp of remorse. "Isi, I'm sorry. I didn't think-"
"Look, it's not like I give a shit," Isi interrupted the soft words. Hell, the only thing worse than being tagged as some sort of Antichrist was pity. The mere hint gave her hives. "Only suckers believe in prophecies."
"You're not evil."
Hidden behind her well-perfected wall of indifference, she turned to meet her sister's sympathetic gaze.
"Well, I'm not good," she said. "And it doesn't bother me at all."
"I mean what I say," Ashe insisted, clearly as stubborn as Isi. She smiled wryly. At least they had one thing in common. "You're not evil."
"Great." Isi shrugged, just wanting to be done with painful conversation. "If you could convince the crazy cats in charge I'm one of the good guys, I'll be on my way back home."
Ashe reached out her hand, her expression filled with a wistful yearning that tugged perilously at Isi's heart.
"We'll figure this out," she promised. "Together."
Isi instinctively backed away. She wasn't ready to give Ashe what she so obviously desired.
"Yeah. Whatever." She continued to back toward the door. "I have to go."
Ashe dropped her hand, her gaze searching Isi's face. "You look better."
Isi came to a reluctant halt. "I was. Now..." She swallowed her words. There was no way in hell she was going to admit that there was something about Talon that eased her illness. "It doesn't matter."
Ashe bit her lip, her lids already beginning to droop. "I'm worried I'm draining you of your strength and that's what is making you sick."
Isi shrugged. "Don't sweat it, I'm tough."
Her sister struggled against the rising tide of weariness. "Isi-"
"I'll come back after dinner."
Isi slipped from the room, but lingered until she was certain her sister was deeply asleep.
It wasn't that she cared whether or not Ashe might feel alone. Or need something before Raphael returned.
It was just...
With a muttered curse, Isi headed out of the clinic and straight to the cottage.
This entire place was making her nuts.
Talon ignored the closed sign clearly displayed on the door of the voodoo shop. He wasn't a man who let pesky barriers stand in his way when he wanted something. Still, he was civilized enough to use his lock-picking skills to deal with the door rather than just kicking the damned thing open.
Glancing up and down the narrow street, he slipped inside and shut the door behind him. There would be witnesses to his B & E, of course. The specialty shops that lined the streets weren't so busy that the proprietors weren't aware of what was going on in neighboring stores. He could only hope they'd wait to see if he tried to walk out with a bag of loot before they called the cops.
Halting just inside the door, Talon immediate realized he wasn't alone.
Despite the heavy scent of incense that hung in the air there was no missing the smell of two human males. Or the sour stench that marked them as enemies.
Walking past the rows of leather-bound books, crystals that came in every size and color, ceramic pots that were filled with Isi's potions, and voodoo dolls, Talon silently paced to the body art room at the back of the store.
He hesitated at the open doorway, scanning the brightly lit room for hidden danger.
There wasn't much to see. The walls were covered with a variety of tattoo patterns and framed pictures of happy customers. There were two narrow massage tables covered with white paper, and rolling cabinets that held the paraphernalia needed by the tattoo artists.
No hidden closets or cupboards.
And best of all...no exits.
Curling his nose at the strange odor that clung to those humans who carried the Mark of Shakpi, Talon turned his attention to the two men who had yet to notice his arrival.
One was seated at the end of a table. He was a young, blond-haired man with the hard muscles of a dedicated bodybuilder. He had a dozen tattoos running up his arms and around his thick neck, but he wasn't at the shop for another.
No. The second man who was standing in front of him was holding a small metal rod with a flat piece of metal at the end.
A branding iron.
And Talon would bet his left nut it had a raven design on it.
A stupid, sharp-edged disappointment sliced through him before he was sternly reminding himself that he'd come to Isi's shop precisely because the elders suspected Isi was connected to their enemies.
What else had he expected?
With a shake of his head he forced himself to concentrate on silently stepping into the room. The men might be mere humans, but Raphael had discovered that their enemies had weapons that could weaken a Pantera and make their cats dangerously vulnerable.
"Am I interrupting?"
With a flurry of curses both men jerked their gazes toward the doorway.
The blond on the table was the first to recover. "Hey, this is a private-"
"Fuck," the one with the branding iron breathed. He had lanky black hair, a narrow face that had a rat-like quality, and brown eyes the color of mud, but there was an intelligence in his gaze that was missing from his companion. "Run."
"I don't think so."
Talon stood in the doorway, bracing himself as the blond pulled a knife and charged forward. He waited until the man was in striking distance, grabbing the arm holding the knife and using the attacker's own momentum to his advantage as he spun and slammed him face first into the doorjamb.
Having momentarily stunned his opponent, Talon spoke directly into his ear.
"Drop the knife and sit in the corner like a good boy and you might make it out of here alive," he offered.
Possessing the tedious belief that his size made him the toughest guy in the room, the blond wrenched his arm free and swung the knife toward Talon's face.
Dodging the blade, Talon grabbed the man's bloated head and with one efficient twist broke his neck.
He'd given the moron a chance to live.
Allowing the dead man to drop to the floor, Talon turned his attention to the slender, rat-faced man clutching the branding iron as if it could protect him.
Talon stepped forward, a lethal smile curling his lips. "We need to chat."
"I don't know who the hell you are, but-"
"Don't lie," Talon overrode the arrogant bluff. "I've seen you with Raphael."
"Yes..." A cunning light glowed in the mud eyes. "Yes, that's right. I'm Derek and I spy for him. He's going to be pissed if you blow my cover."
With a blur of motion, Talon was standing directly in front of the man, the tip of his dagger beneath his chin.
"Here's the deal," he said in soft, lethal tones. "You've been working with Suits. I'm a Hunter. Do you know what that means?"
The man licked his lips. "No."
Talon allowed his cat to glow in his eyes, watching the man with a hunger that would terrify any human.
"It means that my job description is tracking down enemies and killing them." He allowed the dagger to pierce the man's skin. "I don't negotiate. I don't heal. I don't nurture. I kill. And I do it very, very well."
"Fine," the man hissed, his expression sullen. "What do you want?"
"Who do you work for?"
"Isi," he answered without hesitation. "She owns this joint."
Talon clenched his teeth, pretending his cat wasn't snarling in disbelief. What did his cat know about human treachery?
"She trained you to brand traitors with that mark?"
Something flickered in the mud eyes. A warning that he was about to lie.
"The truth or I'll start cutting off body parts." He lowered the dagger to press it against the man's dick. There was nothing like threatening to take an idiot's manhood to put him in the mood to share. "Starting here."
A layer of sweat coated the man's face, but his expression remained defiant. "No. The bitch has no idea what's going on."
Talon's grip tightened on the handle of the dagger. Did he believe the man?
Derek might pretend to be a tough guy, but at his core he was a coward.
If he could try to throw blame on Isi to cover his own ass, he would.
Refusing to dwell on the surge of relief that rushed through him, Talon nodded toward the iron rod still held in Derek's hand.
"Then who gave you the brand?"
"I made it myself." He lifted it to reveal the raven on the bottom. "Like it?"
Rage blasted through Talon.
These son of a bitches were destroying his homeland.
He wanted answers. Then he wanted to rip the bastard into tiny, bloody strips.
"It's as offensive as you are," he snarled. "Where did you learn to create the symbol?"
The man licked his lips, no doubt sensing Talon was just waiting for an excuse to kill him.
"I was approached by a voodoo priestess while I was in jail for a minor disagreement with my ex-wife," he said.
Voodoo priestess would match what Vincent and Savoy had told Bayon.
"What was her name?"
The man shrugged. "I don't know."
Talon lifted the dagger to press it beneath Derek's chin.
"Don't screw with me," he growled.
The man hissed in pain, but he was smart enough not to try to pull away. "I'm serious. She called herself Lady Cerise, but when I tried to find her later no one had ever heard of her. She must have used a false name."
"What did she say to you?"
"She paid my bail and told me she had a job for me," Derek admitted. "She gave me a card with the symbol of the raven flying across a full moon, and the address. Then she left."
"What was the job?"
"I went to the address that was an old warehouse where I met a group of men who promised an endless supply of money if I did what I was told and didn't ask too many questions."
Talon narrowed his gaze. Even with the threat of death, he was surprised Derek would so easily answer his questions.
He'd sensed the man was a coward, but surely he had to worry his fellow traitors would discover he squealed?
"For doing what?"
The man glanced toward the branding iron clutched in his hand. "My primary job is to brand the new recruits, but I do whatever I'm told to do."
"How did you end up in this shop?" he demanded, needing to know his connection to Isi. Why? He scowled, refusing to answer the question. "Was it because of her birthmark?"
Derek blinked in genuine bafflement. "What birthmark?"
"Never mind," he growled, aggravated he'd even asked the question. "Why did you choose this shop?"
"It was Lon."
"The alpha dog of our little crew." Derek's lips curled in disdain. The loser clearly had an allergy to authority. Typical. "He wanted me here to keep an eye on Isi."
Talon slid the dagger toward the man's throat, his eyes glowing as his cat snarled for blood.
Derek stiffened, the stench of his fear making Talon grimace. Still, his expression remained insolent.
"Lon wanted to know where she was and who was visiting the shop."
"He wanted to know about the Pantera?"
"Lon wasn't specific. He wanted me to keep a log on everyone who entered the shop." The mud eyes darkened with frustration. "I assume they were hoping someone would contact her, but they didn't share the information with me. I was just an insignificant peon."
Talon studied Derek's rat face. "And that's it?"
He gave a lift of one shoulder. "For me."
"What about the others?"
"There are some who sneak into the Wildlands and perform some hokey ritual," Derek said, unaware of Talon's burst of fury. Those hokey rituals were destroying his home. "And others who spend most of their time traveling around the world."
"No." Derek arched backward, as if trying to remove his chin from the sharp edge of Talon's blade. "Like I said, they're looking for someone."
Talon was instantly intrigued.
If his enemies wanted this person, then it was imperative the Pantera got their hands on him first.
"You have some idea who this person is? Man or woman? Human or Pantera?"
Bitter envy twisted the man's expression. "That info was above my pay grade."
Talon made a sound of impatience. "Where is the warehouse?"
Derek abruptly spit in Talon's face, using the momentary distraction to yank out the gun he'd had holstered at his lower back.
Talon belatedly realized why the man had been so eager to answer his questions. He'd simply been trying to keep Talon distracted long enough to get out his weapon.
"That's enough questions," the man roared. "Die, you fucking animal."
With a speed the human couldn't hope to match, Talon wrenched the gun from the man's hand, and with one swing of his arm he'd knocked Derek off his feet to crash head first into the wall.
The man landed heavily on the floor, blood flowing from the cut on his forehead. He was injured, but Talon could hear the steady beat of his heart.
Grimly he forced himself to turn and leave the room, closing the door behind him.
There was nothing he wanted more than to cut out the man's heart and feed it to the gators, but he was a Hunter who understood that sometimes the best way to catch his prey was to use bait.
Once Derek woke up, his first instinct would be to return to the Mother Ship.
Or in this case, the warehouse where Lon and his crew were hidden.
Talon intended to make sure the bastard was followed.
Pulling his phone out of his pocket, he hit speed dial. "I need a surveillance team in New Orleans. Oh, and there's a stiff to clean up."
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