Dangerous Deception by Kami Garcia

  An animal.

  A cat.

  Lucille Ball. She was sitting on the shoulder, as if she was waiting for them.

  “Pull over. That’s Link’s cat.”

  “I wonder how she got all the way out here.” Sampson stopped the car a few feet away from Lucille.

  The cat didn’t move until they both got out. Then she trotted off into the trees.

  Nox took off after her. “I think she wants us to follow her.”

  Sampson shook his head. “It looks more like she’s running away from us.”

  “But toward what?” Nox asked. Ridley had told Nox a story about how Lucille had practically led Rid and her friends to her cousin Lena when she was missing once. He had no idea how much of it was true, but that cat was definitely different.

  Lucille scampered ahead, stopping every now and then to make sure they were still behind her. Nox wasn’t that interested in chasing mangy cats through the bushes, but he followed her anyway.

  If that stupid cat was in the car with them … she could be leading us to Rid.

  Nox wasn’t so sure when the cat led them through a cluster of trees and he saw Link slumped against a trunk ahead of them. The ridiculous spiked blond hair and threadbare Black Sabbath T-shirt were unmistakable. Above Link, the branches were cracked and broken as if he’d hit every one of them before he finally made it to the ground.

  Headfirst, knowing him.

  “What are you doing out here, Link?” Sampson asked as they made their way through the brush.

  Link barely moved. His skin was smudged with black smoke and ash, and one side of his shirt was singed above the burns running down his arm.

  Nox leaned closer and grabbed a handful of Link’s ripped shirt. “Hey. Wake up.”

  Confused didn’t begin to describe the expression on Link’s face. He opened and closed his eyes, shaking his head at the sight of Nox. “Aw, great. I’m in Hell. My mom was right.”

  “You’re not in Hell. You’re in New Jersey.” Nox squatted in front of him. “Where’s Ridley?”

  Link jerked his head up at the mention of her name. “Wait. You don’t know where she is, either?”

  Nox stiffened. It was the million-dollar question, and Link didn’t have the answer any more than he did.

  “We were hoping you knew,” Sampson said.

  Link rubbed his eyes, wincing as he lifted his arm. “It all happened so fast. ‘Stairway to Heaven’ came on the radio. That’s all I remember, until this black truck ran a red light and plowed right into the Beater.” His face clouded over as he realized what he was saying. “Aw, man. The Beater.”

  “Mangled,” Nox said, with a shred of satisfaction.

  Sampson nodded. “You don’t want to know.”

  Link pressed his hands against his temples. “The driver didn’t even try to swerve out of the way. It was like he was headin’ right for us.” He rubbed his eyes like he was fighting the worst headache of his life. “The only thing I remember after that was the sound of metal crunchin’ and Ridley screamin’. There was so much smoke I couldn’t see her. I kept callin’ her name, but she didn’t answer. Then the Beater caught on fire.”

  Sampson examined Link’s eyes. “Do you remember how you got here? You’re pretty far from the crash site. I doubt you walked.”

  Link squinted, as if he was trying to piece everything together in his mind. “I didn’t walk. I Ripped.”

  “And you didn’t take Ridley with you?” Nox snapped. He didn’t bother to hide the rage in his voice.

  Why did she leave with this clown in the first place?

  Link shook his head. “It wasn’t like that. I reached out for her, but she wasn’t in the passenger seat. The fire kept gettin’ bigger, and then my shirt started burnin’. I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t tryin’ to Rip, but the next thing I knew, I was out here.”

  Sampson glanced at Nox. “I bet it was some kind of defense mechanism. An Incubus fight or flight response.”

  “A cowardly one,” Nox muttered. “All you had to do was get her out of here. You had her back for, what, two hours? And this was the best you could manage?”

  “It’s not like I had a choice.” Link was trying to stay focused, but his vision was fuzzy. He fell back, pushing his hands against his temples.

  Nox grabbed his arm and yanked hard. There it was. The Binding Ring—the one that should’ve been going off like a three-alarm fire.

  It was completely dark now.

  They all stared at it in horror. Even Link looked like he wanted to chuck it in the bushes.

  “Maybe it’s broken.”

  Nox’s voice was hard. “Maybe you were just born an idiot.”

  Link rolled to one side. “I was right the first time. If I’ve gotta listen to you, Rich Boy, I might as well be in Hell.” He winced, sounding more miserable than pained.

  “This is real productive,” Sampson said. Now everyone was annoyed.

  Even though the hybrid had ruined everything, Nox knew it wasn’t that simple.

  Link didn’t have a choice, but I did. I chose not to fight. I chose to give in—to give up everything so she’d have a better shot at being happy.

  Or at least staying alive.

  Nox sighed and bent down in front of Link. “Think. Do you remember anything else? Were there any other cars around, or people who might have witnessed the accident?”

  Link shook his head. “No. The only car I saw was the truck that hit us. It wasn’t a pickup like the junkers folks drive back home in Gatlin. It was one of those fancy black Raptors with the big tires and everything.”

  A black Raptor.

  Sampson stared at Nox. “You know what that means, right?”

  Nox nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

  “What am I missin’?” Link asked, pushing himself off the ground.

  Sampson grabbed his arm and pulled him up, so fast that Link’s legs dangled above the ground for a second. “Do you remember if the truck had a huge bird on the hood?”

  “Yeah,” Link answered. “Full-on Big Bird sized. How’d you know?”

  Sampson dropped him. Link stumbled, like his knees were going to buckle, and Nox grabbed him before he could fall.

  “It’s a raven.” Nox tried not to think about all the things that might be happening to Ridley right now. “It was one of Silas Ravenwood’s trucks.”


  Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)

  Silas Ravenwood. The thought sent Link reeling. It was a punch to the gut multiplied by a hundred.

  What if she didn’t make it?

  Don’t do this to me, Rid. I just got you back.

  “I’m the one they wanted. This is all my fault.” Link couldn’t bring himself to look at Sampson and Nox as they searched the area. Link hadn’t been this banged up since he stopped being a hundred percent Mortal. But he felt even worse on the inside, like his heart was limping, too.

  All he could think about was Ridley. He slipped his hand out of his pocket and stared at the lifeless ring on his finger.

  Where are you, Rid?

  “You’re right. Your fault. No one’s arguing with you,” Nox said, walking ahead of them. He didn’t bother to turn around.

  Link ignored him. “She must’ve made it out of the car. Like I said, I reached for her and she wasn’t there.”

  “Or whoever was driving Silas Ravenwood’s truck grabbed her,” Nox snapped. “Did you think of that?”

  Link frowned. “Are you sure it was Silas’ car?”

  “Everyone knows that truck,” Sampson said.

  Link stopped walking. “I’m the one who killed Abraham Ravenwood, not Rid. His psychotic grandson shoulda taken me.”

  “Finally we agree on something,” Nox said.

  Link’s expression hardened. “You can stop actin’ like you’re a big hero. The way I see it, we both let her down. At least I’m man enough to admit it.”

  Nox’s eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t the one
behind the wheel.”

  Link stepped forward, moving closer to Nox. “You might as well have been.”

  Nox’s hands curled into fists. “You have no idea how much I wish I was. Then I could’ve done something. Unlike some of us.”

  Sampson stepped between them. “You two can fight it out after we find her.”

  “After we find her, I’m taking her somewhere safe where you’ll never see her again.” Nox didn’t take his eyes off Link.

  Link barely kept himself from punching the guy in the face. “I’d like to see you try.”

  “And I’d like to beat the crap out of you both. Unfortunately, as Mick Jagger would say, you can’t always get what you want.” Sam shoved them both. “Now move.”

  Link didn’t care if Lennox Gates had saved their lives at Sirene. As far as he was concerned, the guy was still a tool. Another piece of Underground club trash who was too rich and too slick for anybody’s good. Not to mention the other thing.

  A tool who spent the last few months tryin’ to steal my girlfriend. Who only wants to find her so he can steal her again.

  If she’s even still alive.

  Link tried not to think that way. Especially since now the three of them were holed up in a diner off the highway, doing their best to figure out a way to find Rid before they killed each other. Only exhaustion had prevented it from happening so far.

  The three of them—four, if you counted Lucille—had searched the woods for hours, looking for any sign of Ridley, even though the odds seemed pretty high that Silas or one of his thugs had taken her.

  Or her body.

  That was the part no one said out loud.

  The situation sucked.

  I suck.

  Link didn’t have to say that out loud, either. He pushed the fries he’d never consider eating around on his plate. Mortal food tasted like cardboard, another downside of being a quarter Incubus. Not that he would’ve been able to eat at a time like this. “You really think Silas might have her?”

  Nox didn’t respond right away. Instead, he stared into the coffee cup in his hand.

  A bad sign.

  “If she’s still alive,” Nox said finally.

  “Don’t say that.” Link started to lunge across the table, but Sampson caught him. “Don’t ever say that again. She’s alive. We just have to find her.”

  “Your ring—” Nox stared at it.

  “Is busted.” Link glared.

  “Grow up,” Nox shot back. “It’s called reality. We let him take her.”

  Link lunged again, and Sampson picked him up by the scruff of his neck, as if the hulking hybrid was a harmless kitten.

  “We don’t know anything for sure yet.” Sampson hauled Link back down to his seat. “And I’m not sure Ridley Duchannes ever let anyone do anything. So let’s all relax. We’re not gonna figure this out if we can’t work together.”

  The bells on the door of the diner chimed and Necro and Floyd walked in, scanning the restaurant. Sampson had called them as soon as he’d sat down. The girls had been laying low in a crappy Motel 6 outside Brooklyn, waiting for Sam to rescue Nox from Silas’ thugs so the band could head out to LA as planned. When Sam called to tell them about the accident, Link’s bandmates hadn’t wasted any time getting there.

  Floyd’s stringy blond hair swung over her shoulders as she searched for Link. When she saw him, her face broke into a thousand pieces, like she was about to start smiling or sobbing. Link couldn’t tell which. She practically ran toward their booth, in her holey jeans and faded Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon concert tee, and caught Link around the neck in a huge hug. “You okay? We were so worried.”

  Link squeezed her tight. He knew Floyd still had a thing for him, but at that moment, he was so happy to see his friends that he didn’t care. At least she didn’t blame him for everything that had happened, like some people.

  Myself included, he thought miserably.

  Someone coughed, and Necro stood behind Floyd, flashing Link a pierced smile. Her short blue faux-hawk seemed bluer and her futuristic leather jacket looked even more Mad Max than usual. Maybe everything was a little sharper after you’d dodged death.

  “Hey, man.” Link reached to hug her, but she held up her fist instead.

  “Pound it,” she said, smiling.

  Same old Nec. Thank god they’re here.

  Necro squeezed in next to Sampson, across from Link and Floyd. Nox was sitting on the other side of Sam, and the Darkborn took up more than his share of the booth.

  “That was fast,” Sampson said.

  Necro nodded. “Hopped in the first cab we could find.”

  “A fifty-buck cab ride. Don’t act like we don’t love you.” Floyd turned red as she stumbled over the words.

  “And don’t act like you actually paid the driver,” Nox countered.

  “So what happened?” Necro asked.

  “Silas Ravenwood—or someone drivin’ one of his trucks. That’s what happened.” Link shrugged. “The Beater took her last beatin’, and Rid—” His voice faltered. He couldn’t tell the story again.

  Not without puking.

  Floyd squeezed his shoulder. “Sampson gave us the highlights on the phone. He said Ridley’s missing.” Even though she had feelings for Link, she almost sounded sorry.

  “We looked everywhere, and there was no sign of her,” Nox said. “Our guess is Silas has her, but we don’t know where he took her.”

  Sampson chugged what had to be his fifth glass of milk. The guy ate more than Link used to when he was still a Mortal. It was hard to know how things worked with Darkborns, since there had never been any until the Order of Things was broken last year. Everyone was still figuring it out, including Sampson. “Silas is the head of the Syndicate. He can’t run an operation like that without a place to meet his scumbag associates. It’s not like he can rent out office space.”

  “The Syndicate?” Link had never heard of it before. “As in a crime syndicate?”

  “The Underground has even more organized crime than the Mortal world,” Floyd said. “Gambling, drugs, power trafficking—you name it. And the Syndicate runs most of it.”

  “So you’re sayin’ Silas is the head a the Mob?” The thought made Link nervous. “You mean like Don Corleone, that fat guy from The Godfather?”

  Sampson shoved the empty glass across the table. “The Syndicate makes the Mob look like a charity organization.”

  Link almost made a joke about his mom and her cutthroat Daughters of the American Revolution meetings; the DAR could give the Mob a run for its money, any day of the week. But then he remembered Rid wasn’t there, which meant there was no one around to laugh at his Gatlin jokes.

  Nothing’s the same without her.

  Then another thought crossed his mind.

  The DAR. My mom.

  Link bolted upright in his seat. “Holy crap. I’ve gotta call my mom.”

  “You didn’t call her yet?” Sam shook his head. “The cops probably traced the license plates on the Beater by now. I bet they already called her.”

  Link dialed his home number as fast as he could. His mom was going to kill him for not calling. The preacher and all her DAR friends were probably already at the house in one of their prayer circles.

  His mom picked up on the first ring, and Link could tell from all the sniffling that she’d been crying.

  “Ma? It’s Link. I mean, Wesley—”

  “Wesley!” He heard a muffled sound like she was covering the mouthpiece. “It’s Wesley. The Good Lord Almighty answered our prayers.”

  Link could imagine the chorus of hallelujahs, in between big bites of I Told You That Boy Was Trouble Casserole and Hope Your Son Doesn’t Smoke Pot Pie.

  A moment later, his mom was back on the line. “What happened? The police called and told me they found your car totaled on the highway, but you were missing. Up North.” She said the words the way someone else would say “on the Titanic.” Then she went on. “Are you all right? Do you ha
ve amnesia? Lord, please don’t let him have amnesia.”

  “Calm down, Mom. If I had amnesia, I wouldn’t have remembered our phone number. I’m okay. I wasn’t even in the car.” Link had only come up with that detail a moment ago, and he was pretty proud of himself. “It was a mix-up. Somebody stole the Beater, but I hadn’t reported it yet, so when they got to the crash site, they thought I was the one drivin’.”

  “And you’re just calling now?” The anger was already brewing in his mom’s voice. “Do you have any conception of how worried I’ve been? I already called old Buck Petty and asked him to load up his hounds!”

  Link sighed, rubbing his spiky hair.

  “What were you gonna do? Drive down to Georgia Redeemer with a truck fulla bloodhounds?” Link was proud of himself for remembering the name of the college he was supposed to be attending.

  “That is what good mothers do when their sons are missing, Wesley Jefferson Lincoln! I have been absolutely beside myself. Did you forget how to call collect? We practiced before you left.”

  “I’m sorry, Mom. I just found out what happened a little while ago, and I can’t talk ’cause the police need me to fill out a report.” And his mom thought all those hours he’d spent watching Matlock were a waste of time.

  “Why would someone steal a car from Georgia Redeemer and drive it all the way to the New Jersey Turnpike?”

  “I don’t know, but you’d better activate the phone tree and call everybody before the ladies in the DAR drive to Georgia and start nailin’ my picture to telephone poles.”

  “You’d better call me back later, Wesley,” Link’s mother said under her breath. “This conversation isn’t over.”

  “Okay, Mom. Gotta go. I’m losin’ ya.” Link crumpled a napkin into the speaker for good measure as he hung up.

  Some things never changed, no matter how bad you wanted them to.

  When he turned back to the table, everyone was trying not to smile—except the rich boy. “All right. All right. Show’s over,” Link said. “So where do we find Silas?”

  “When Silas isn’t throwing his weight around, he likes to lay low,” Sampson said. “So he probably runs his operation from somewhere off the grid.”

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