Home > Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles #1)(3)

Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles #1)(3)
Ilona Andrews

I looked down the street. From the balcony I could see nearly three hundred yards down to the first bend of the ridiculously named Camelot Road before it curved this way and that through the subdivision. People hurried to work. To the right a couple of toddlers rode their tricycles up and down the concrete driveway in front of their house. To the left Margaret was refilling her bird feeder while a small, fluffy ball of reddish fur that was supposedly a Pomeranian bounced up and down at her feet.

They were my neighbors. They had their normal lives and ordinary problems. They lived in the suburbs, struggled with debt and a faltering economy, and tried to save for their children's college. Most of them weren't equipped to deal with things that had sharp teeth and a predatory intelligence stalking them in the night. Most of them didn't even know things like that existed.

My imagination conjured something with long claws bursting from under the hedges and snatching up a toddler. The rules and laws by which I lived said I shouldn't get involved. I was neutral by definition, which gave me certain protections, and once I compromised that neutrality, I'd be fair game for whatever owned those claws.

"Misha!" Margaret called.

The Pomeranian dashed around her, all but flying over green grass.

"Misha! Come here, you little brat!"

Misha dashed the other way, thoroughly enjoying the game. In a minute Margaret would lose her patience and chase her.

You'd have to be a heartless snake to leave them to deal with a monster on their own. Caldenia, despite her twin hearts, was quite heartless, but it didn't mean I had to be.

Caldenia crunched another Funyun.

I smiled. "More Mello Yello, Your Grace?"

"Yes, please."

I fished another can out of the bag. There would be no more dead dogs if I could help it.

*** *** ***

I opened my eyes. My bedroom lay shrouded in gloom, the moonlight painting long silvery stripes on the old wooden floor. The magic chimed in my head. Something had crossed the boundary of the inn's grounds. Well, something magically active or weighing more than fifty pounds. The inn was pretty good at distinguishing between a potential threat and random wildlife that wandered onto the grounds.

I sat up. Next to the bed, Beast raised her tiny head from her dog bed.

I listened. Crickets chirped. A cool breeze drifted through the screen of the open window, stirring the beige curtains. The wooden floor felt cool under my bare feet. I really should get a rug in here.

Another gentle chime. It felt as if someone had tossed a rock into calm water and the ripples splashed against my skin. Definitely an intruder.

I stood up. Beast made a mad lunge and licked my ankle. I took the broom from its spot against the wall and left the bedroom. A long hallway stretched before me, dappled with cool darkness and moonlight coming through the large bay windows. I walked along the hallway, zeroing in on the disturbance. The Shih Tzu trotted next to me like a vigilant seven-pound black-and-white mop.

The inn and I were bound so tightly it was almost an extension of me. I could target any intrusion with pinpoint accuracy. This particular intruder wasn't moving. He was milling about in one spot.

The house was dark and quiet around me. I crossed the hallway, turned, and stopped at a door to the western balcony. Something moved below, in the orchard. Let's see what the night dragged in. Soundlessly, the door swung open in front of me, and I stepped out onto the balcony.

In the orchard, twenty yards from the house, Sean Evans was urinating on my apple tree.

You've got to be kidding me.

"Stop that," I hissed in a theatrical whisper.

He ignored me. His back was to me and he was still wearing the same jeans and gray T-shirt I'd seen him in that morning.

"Sean Evans! I see you. Stop marking your territory on my apple tree."

"Don't worry," he said without turning. "It won't hurt the apples."

The nerve. "How would you know? You've probably never grown an apple tree in your entire life."

"You wanted me to handle it," he said. "I'm handling it."

He was handling it, all right. "What makes you think that marking things will have any effect? The dog killer ignored your marks before."

"This is how it's done," he said. "There is a certain etiquette to these things. He challenged me, and now I'll challenge him back."

"Not in my orchard, you won't. Get out."

Beast barked once to add her support.

"What is that?" he asked.

"It's a dog."

Sean zipped himself up, turned around, and took a running start at an oak tree. It was an incredible thing to watch: six feet away from the oak he leapt up and forward, bounced off the bark upward to the spot where two large branches split from the trunk, pushed off them like he was weightless, landed on the branch stretching toward the balcony, ran along it until it thinned, and crouched. The whole thing took less than two seconds.

His eyes shone once with bright golden amber. His face had gained a dangerous sharpness, predatory and slightly feral. A shiver ran down my spine. No, not repressed. Not even a little bit.

A werewolf was bad news. Always. If I had met him on the street like this, I'd have started making soothing noises and thinking of exit strategies. But we were on my turf.

"That's not a dog," Sean said.

Beast let out a tiny snarl, astonished at the insult.

"She weighs what, about six, seven pounds? Now, I'm willing to concede that somewhere in the distant past one of her ancestors might have been a dog. But now she's an oversized chinchilla."

"First you insult my house, now you insult my dog." I leaned on my broom.

"She has little ponytails," Sean said, nodding at the two tiny ponytails above the Shih Tzu's eyes.

"Her fur gets in her eyes. She's due for a grooming."

"Aha." Sean tilted his head to the side. He seemed completely feral now. "You're asking me to take a dog with two ponytails seriously."

"I'm not asking you to do anything. I'm telling you: get off my property."

He bared his teeth at me in a slightly deranged smile. He looked hungry. "Or what? You'll hit me with your broom?"

Something like that. "Yes."

"I'm so scared right now I'm practically shaking."

He was within the inn's boundary. I was clearly an innkeeper --the broom was a dead giveaway. Yet he showed no respect. I'd met some arrogant werewolves --when you were a highly effective killing machine, you tended to think the world was your oyster --but this one took the cake. "Go away, siri." There. That would fix him.

"Name's Sean." He tilted his head again.

No reaction to the insult. Either he had a bulletproof ego or he had no idea I'd just called him a sniveling coward in his own language.

Sean tilted his head. "So how does a girl like you know about werewolves?"

"A girl like me?"

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-four."

"Most twenty-four-year-old women I know sleep in something more revealing. Something more adult."

I raised my eyebrows. "There is nothing wrong with my Hello Kitty T-shirt." It was thin and comfortable, and it reached to my mid-thigh, which meant that if I had to get up in the middle of the night to dispatch any intruders, I'd do it with my butt covered and modesty intact.

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