The man leaning quietly on the side of the building stood only a little over five feet tall. He looked Japanese, old enough to have some steel in his black hair, and was impeccably dressed. How the hell had he managed to sneak up on her? Stasya aimed her handgun at his face. “Who are you?”
“At the moment, a friendly party.” He shrugged. “Shoot me, and that will change rapidly.”
“How did you find us? I covered tracks.” She shook her head.
“Oh, you did. A very good job, in fact. I was actually impressed.” He straightened. “But I marked you at that little church fair a while back.” He turned to look at Sean. “Mr. Wu, the circumstances regarding the western division are extremely complicated. I believe it would be best if your family remained apart from those affairs.”
“My son is —” Sean glared.
“An extraordinary individual. The apple has fallen rather far from the tree.” The newcomer smiled, ignoring the fact she was still pointing her gun at him. “Steps have already been taken regarding Adam’s wellbeing. It is in his best interest if you remain far from harm’s way.”
“As it happens, Mr. Wu, I am almost always in need of talented accountants. I would like to offer you a job.”
“Who the hell even are you?” Sean shook his head.
“Someone who can ensure the safety of your family, Mr. Wu. Madam Petrov is extremely talented at what she does, and I have no doubt she will do all she can to keep them safe. She may even be successful. I would certainly give her better odds than most.” He smiled. “I, however, can make it a guarantee.”
“If you don’t tell me who you are right now I’m going to ask her to shoot you.” Sean glared.
“My name is Ryuu Ishi.” He met Stasya’s eyes as he said his name.
The gun nearly fell out of her hand. She stared. “Bozhe moi.”
“Oh, not quite that.” He shook his head. He held her eyes with his. “I am offering them gainful employment in my service, you as well, with all the…” He smiled again. “Benefits and protections that come attached.”
“You should take offer, Mr. Wu.” She lowered the gun.
Coraline looked up at the mysterious man. He gave her a warm smile. Her parents were still discussing taking him up on his offer, but the simple fact he clearly intimidated Stasya made her a little concerned. “Who are you?” She raised an eyebrow.
“In truth, my dear girl, the concern is not so much who I am…” He shrugged. “But what I am.”
“Alright.” She nodded. “What are you?”
He held out his hand, and light suddenly seemed to coalesce above it. A heartbeat later, the toy horse she’d forgotten in their flight from home materialized, dropping into his hand. He offered it to her. “Powerful.”
She took the horse from him gingerly. Then she looked down at it. “James found this at a rummage sale and I wanted it, but I didn’t have enough money. He bought it for me with his money, then had Adam repaint it before giving it to me for my birthday.” She ran her fingers over the little carousel horse.
“Your brothers love you very much.”
“James is dead.”
“That doesn’t change that he loves you.” Mr. Ishi smiled.
“Mr. Ishi…” Coraline looked over to see her father. He took a deep breath. “I need to know what your offer entails.”
“Naturally.” Mr. Ishi nodded. “I will relocate your family to Las Vegas, and take care of all associated expenses. There are three bookkeeping positions open, all of which pay fair wages. I will not ask anything unethical or unseemly of you. Even if you choose to leave my employ, as long as you remain in Las Vegas you will have some measure of protection. There are also job openings for your wife.” He glanced at her mother. “Should the public schools not interest you, I can also make arrangements at one of the private academies for Coraline.”
“I beg pardon, Mr. Ishi…” Lidia swallowed. “But your offer sounds too good to be true.” She shook her head. “If you can do all this, can’t you help Adam?”
“Yes.” Stasya nodded. “Could you —”
“I have…” Mr. Ishi’s voice was soft. “Made arrangements in that regard. It is best, however, for Adam’s own personal safety that I not take a direct interest. However, given his gifts and the true nature of his parentage being kept secret, it would not surprise any that I sought to acquire his sister. The Cabal itself had similar inclinations.”
“And just what…” Sean’s eyes narrowed. “Exactly is your interest?”
Something flickered across Mr. Ishi’s eyes. “Has Stasya told you what I am?”
“She said you’re a powerful man.” Sean glanced at Stasya. “Frankly, though, I’m not sure how much I believe what I’ve been told lately.”
“Perhaps it would be better…” Mr. Ishi stepped off the patio. “If I showed you.” His form suddenly seemed to glimmer. There was a flash of gold and silver as his shape changed, growing long and serpentine as his flesh changed from skin to scales. Her mother’s legs went out from under her and she sat heavily on the ground, and her father staggered before catching himself on a railing. Even Stasya was not immune. Coraline watched raptly as the man vanished, and a dragon took his place. The massive head lowered, eyes glowing with silvery light. “Tell me, Mr. Wu…” The voice rumbled with ancient thunder. “Do you believe now?”
He couldn’t make his mouth work. Or his legs. Or his hands. Stars appeared before his eyes and he realized he’d actually forgotten to breath. He drew a ragged breath, then another. The dragon shifted, once again becoming the dapper little oriental man. Mr. Ishi raised an amused eyebrow in his direction. “I…” Sean swallowed. “You’re a dragon.”
“I am.” He smiled.
“You’re a dragon.” Coraline was staring. “You’re an actual…” She blinked. “You didn’t have wings. Can you fly? Can you breathe fire? Can you —” She cut herself off.
“Yes. And yes.” Mr. Ishi smiled, then winked at her. “And yes.” He looked back up at Sean. “I can also protect your family, Mr. Wu.”
“I guess…” Sean looked at his wife. She was still pale, but she nodded. He looked back at the dragon. “You’ve got yourself an accountant.”
“Marvelous.” Mr. Ishi turned toward Stasya. “I could also use talented individuals in my security team, Madam Petrov. My offer extends to you as well.”
“I…” She took a deep breath. “I accept.”
“Excellent.” He smiled. “You’ll find a jet waiting for you down there…” He pointed at the town in the distance. “At the local airport. The pilot’s name is Reginald. Do wipe your feet before you get inside. He is ever so fussy about keeping it immaculate.” Mr. Ishi bowed.
And then, just like that, he was gone. Sean stared at the spot he’d been only a moment before. “A dragon…” He swallowed. “Just hired me to do bookkeeping.”
“A dragon…” Lidia slowly got to her feet. “Has taken an interest in our son.”
“Perhaps it is best…” Stasya nodded. “We learn the nature of said interest.”
“Agreed.” Sean glanced at the house. “Alright, everyone get your stuff. We’ve uh…” He rubbed his neck. “Got a plane to catch.”
Lidia stared. The house was lovely. Mr. Ishi had kept his word thus far. Their belongings had arrived two days ago, carefully and meticulously packed. They’d accepted the mover’s aid in getting the heavier furniture where they wanted it, but she’d declined their help with the rest. She’d been uncomfortable at first with the nature of both the offer and their benefactor himself.
The items that held her gaze had changed that. Every year, on their birthdays, she’d had her children stand against a different door frame and marked their heights. When her own mother had died, James had ridden on his bike nearly twenty miles to the house she’d grown up in and had stolen one of her mother’s old rosebushes for her. The mouldings with their carved marks and the carefully potted rosebush sat in the corner. Monsters wouldn’t have understood. “Thank you.”
“I hope that means the accommodations are to your satisfaction?” Mr. Ishi raised an eyebrow.
“You’ve…” She nodded. “I know you must have had your own reasons, but I do appreciate all you’ve done.”
He nodded to the backyard, where Coraline was making friends with the two dalmatians owned by their new neighbors. “It does an old soul good to see children smiling. I fear I do not have the opportunity as often as I would like.”
“Next week I’ll take her to look at schools. Let her settle in a bit first.” She sighed. “Let us all settle in a bit first.”
“Ah, that reminds me.” He produced a couple folders from, as near as she could tell, thin air, and set them on the table. “I believe I mentioned private schools?”
“You…” She blinked. She’d discounted those at first, but then again, with the money Adam had sent, they could afford to send Coraline to the best school available.
“There are two I would recommend. Coraline, however, may prefer this one.” He moved one of the folders closer to her. “They have a focus on art and music, as well as a thriving drama program. And…” He opened the folder. “Their science department actually maintains a small zoo.”
“Well now…” She laughed a little, then it faded. “Adam would want her in a place like this.”
“He is a strong young man. Stronger than I gave him credit for, and clever.” He nodded to her.
“You’re…” She hesitated. “You came to us because you are looking out for him.” She met his eyes. “Why?”
“I fear the answer to that question, Mrs. Wu, would greatly increase the danger to all of —”
“He’s my son, Mr. Ishi.” She folded her arms. “Do you have children?”
“I…” Something flickered across his features. “Yes.”
Her stomach dropped as realization came to her. “Adam’s father. Haru. He…”
“It would be best, Mrs. Wu, if you discontinued this line of reasoning.” His voice was gentle rather than threatening. “For Adam’s sake.”
The memory of the man’s true form filled her eyes for a moment, then she nodded. “Do they have horses?” She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Coraline has always wanted to learn how to ride.”
Her condo was a simple one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. She could see the Wu family residence from the balcony. The complex had a pool and a gymnasium, and Coraline had already stated her intention of coming over to visit for the express purpose of using the former. The Wu’s were in their backyard now, apparently trying to decide how they wanted to set up their patio furniture.
Even after unpacking, the place was still virtually empty. She put Patrick’s things in the hall closet. It was silly, but she couldn’t bear disposing of them. She’d left his rifle for Adam, but Patrick’s extra handguns were in the drawer beside her bed. Lidia had brought her a painting the day after their belongings had arrived. It was a simple landscape, but she recognized the signature of the artist. Adam’s work. Lidia had followed it up by insisting she come to their Sunday family dinners as often as possible. “You need troubleshooter.”
“There are occasionally troubles I would like to have shot.” Mr. Ishi nodded. “However, if you would prefer to remain local, arrangements can be made.”
“Just until they settle in, are comfortable. I made promise to Adam.” Stasya turned to face him. “After that…”
“After that…” He took a deep breath. “Not all who fall afoul of groups like the cabal are lucky enough to find shelter with werewolves. I could use someone to help me with…” He smiled. “Retrieval.” Before she could speak, he held up his hand. “Given that it is in Adam’s best interest that the Cabal not learn he spared your life, you would not be dealing with them. There are other groups though, some just as dangerous.”
“I’m in.” She nodded.
“Just like that?” He raised an eyebrow.
“You know my background, Mr. Ishi. You know why I joined Cabal. I was fool. Thought them different. Thought them…” She shook her head. “They became monsters in their search for power.” She smiled, a bit of bitterness in the expression. “You were always a powerful monster.”
He laughed softly. “That is, I suppose, one way to put it.”
“I am not good. Neither are you. I want to do good. So, I think, do you.” She shrugged. “I think that is reason enough to work for you. And there is work to do.”
“I have always admired Russian pragmatism.” He inclined his head. “Let me know when you are ready, Madam Petrov. There is, indeed, work to be done.”