“What is that smell?” Yala sniffed the air, tilting his head from side to side. “It smells like that twix creature.”
“Twix creature?” Phil glanced at Natalya.
“Long story…” She glanced at Phil before turning toward Yalathanil. “That’s called fudge.”
“Two at eight o-clock.” Greg shielded his eyes before indicating a store front. “They are offering samples.”
“Don’t look.” Phil caught her hand as she started to turn. “If you look they’ll know we’ve made them.” He smiled at her, his face calm despite the concern in his eyes. He grinned at her as though they were on holiday. “I’ve got another at five. You were military?”
“Navy.” Greg nodded. “You?”
“Air force.” Phil exhaled. “Navy probably prepared you a little better for this.”
“No.” Greg shook his head. “No, it did not.”
When Phil tried to release her hand, she tightened her grip. One of the men whose reflection she caught in the glass was the man who’d constantly stared at her ass. “They are Xue’s people. At least one of them.” She swallowed.
“And they are trying to get between us and the water.” Adele was paler than usual, though she tried to keep a friendly smile on her face as she and Yala helped themselves to fudge samples. She also accepted a bit of fish for the kitten, who nibbled at it eagerly.
“I’ve got my badge.” Phil exhaled. “If they cause a problem, that should be enough to handle things.” He shrugged. “Unless, you know, anybody runs the badge and learns I’m a hostage.”
“I do not think I like mint.” Yala frowned at the fudge in his hand.
“Oh, I’ll take it.” Greg immediately held out his own hand, and Yala handed him the slice of fudge. “Phil, they are cutting off the road but we could go through the alley, circle around.”
“If I were them, that’s what I’d want you to do. We’d be isolated, outside of public view.” Phil kept moving forward.
“Not sure I trust the short-fringe…” Yala nodded. “But he is right. Stay in the group, the predators go after loners.”
“Swim in a school.” Greg sighed. “And now I feel like a bait-fish.”
“Am I the short-fringe?” Phil glanced at her.
“You’re the first friendly person with short hair he’s encountered.” Natalya nodded. “Don’t take it personally.”
“We’ve just been telling everyone he’s Dutch. From Amsterdam.” Adele patted Yala’s arm, then shifted her grip on the kitten.
“Might not work here. Holland settled quite a few places in this area.” Phil waved a hand. “See how many places have windmill decorations?”
“What is Holland?” Yala raised an eyebrow at Phil.
“The country the Dutch are from.” Phil blinked.
“Dutch are from Amsterdam.” Yala glared at him.
“Amsterdam is a city.” Phil shook his head. “Holland is the country.”
“What is the country?” Yala glanced at Greg.
“Wait…” Greg tilted his head. “I thought the Dutch were from Deutschland.”
“From…” Phil stopped walking forward. “Germans are from Deutschland.”
“That does not make any sense at all.” Yala kept moving.
“You know…” Adele followed, Greg a pace behind her. “He does kind of have a point there.”
“Somewhere a geography teacher is crying herself to sleep and has no idea why.” Natalya squeezed Phil’s hand as they started walking again.
They were still nearly a half mile from the lake when one of the men stepped into their way. “You’ve taken something that doesn’t belong to you.”
Yala made a soft snarling sound. “You want to get out of our way.” Greg stepped to Yala’s shoulder.
“Mr. Xue is has made you a generous offer.” The man narrowed his eyes. “I suggest you take it.” He lowered his head. “Because if you don’t, he will be putting an offer out. Half a million dollars on each of your lives.”
“He will have a difficult time doing that from prison.” Phil shook his head. “I can arrest you right now.”
“We have two snipers in position.” The man smirked at Phil. “If you go past Vision street, they are going to open fire into the crowd.”
Adele felt herself pale, and saw the expression mirrored on the faces of all of her companions, Yala included. “You son of a bitch.”
“Now now.” The man started smirking at her. “You don’t hear me talking about your mother.” He met Yala’s eyes. “Turn yourself in, and your new friends live. Or don’t, they and a lot of people die, and we catch you at the locks anyway.” He turned and walked away.
She swallowed. “Yala?”
The merman turned to look at the people walking by, then back at the water. He took a few deep breaths. Then he turned toward them. “Xue is sick. He takes my blood to keep himself from dying.”
“Your…” Her eyes widened with realization. “But you healed me…” The idea that when he left she’d go back to the wheelchair made her legs feel weak already.
“He took the healing by force. I gave it to you as a gift.” He smiled at her, then looked again at the crowd. Then he shook his head. “There are small ones.”
“Children.” Greg’s voice was filled with fury. “Fucking bastard is threatening to kill kids if he doesn’t get what he wants.”
“I can call in reinforcements, find the snipers.” Phil held out his hand. “Let me see the phone.”
“They think Greg is a copkiller, Phil.” Natalya’s voice was thick. “We’ve got to get him and Yala hidden before we call anyone else in, and…”
“And Xue’s folks are watching us. We make a call so will they. Somehow I don’t think Xue will have much issue getting hold of us in police custody.” Greg folded his arms.
“He will if I can help it.” Phil squared his shoulders.
“That is why he will kill you first.” Yala’s own voice was calm. He lifted his head, meeting Greg’s eyes. “I would rather turn myself in than allow any of you to be hurt.”
“Yala.” Greg started shaking his own head. “Don’t make me kick your ass, cause uh…”
“You can’t.” Yala gave him a small smile.
“I’ll find a way.” Greg returned the smile. “So, two snipers…” He looked down at his hands, then back up at them. “One carload of folks, maybe two. It’ll take them time to get anyone else here, so…”
“Get them before they get us.” Yala bared his teeth.
“Uh…” Adele started shaking her head.
“Oh, I have definitely heard better ideas.” Natalya sighed.
“Recently?” Greg gave her a look.
“Well…” She opened her mouth, then sighed again. “No.”
Xue stared at the footage. “It’s talking to them.” His fist clenched. “That creature can talk.” He glared. “A full year, and it never says a word. They are with it for a few days, and not only is it talking, it fully restored one of them.”
“Perhaps the collar interfered with more of its capabilities than we realized.” Genna leaned in to peer at the footage. “Adele was still crippled when the collar was removed.”
“A fair point.” He gestured at her. “Get Natalya on the phone again.”
“I would feel a lot better if we know where the snipers were positioned.” Phil was looking around. “But I think we have about as much cover as we can get without being trapped indoors.”
“They’ve got cameras all over this place.” Greg looked around.
“Yeah, which is why they won’t be able to grab us out here.” Phil nodded.
“I meant…” Greg glanced at him. “When the footage gets reviewed you’re probably fired.”
“I…” Phil started to open his mouth, then closed it again. “Yeah.” He sighed. He laughed a little. “You know, I always told myself when one of those moral dilemmas came up, I’d do the right thing. That if I lost the job because of it, it was the badge that failed, not me.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Course I figured that would involve planted evidence or something like that, rather than a merman.”
“Phil…” Natalya smiled at him. “You know, if we all survive this and end up okay somehow, I would really like to take you out for coffee or something.”
“Yeah, uh…” Phil returned the smile. “I’d like that. I mean, the coffee part, not just the surviving this and ending up okay but I mean that part to and uh…” He winced a little. “Sorry.”
Yala tilted his head, then glanced at Greg. “This is human mating protocol?”
“I think that’s what they are trying for.” Greg nodded. It was strangely adorable, and he could tell Adele’s sudden focus on the kitten was to keep herself from commenting.
“Nobody is changing color. How…” Yala suddenly nodded. “Ah, there is color change. So, taking the male prisoner is part of the protocol?”
“Way to ruin the moment, guys.” Natalya turned to glare at them. Phil covered his face with his hand.
“This is very educational.” Yala shrugged. “Human mating rituals are public?”
“Please stop talking.” Phil’s hand muffled his voice just a little.
“Alright, this is entertaining, but…” Adele straightened and looked around. “Sitting around the garden isn’t getting Yala closer to the water or us closer to the —”
Natalya’s phone ringing cut her off.
He stared down at the phone. It rang three times before Natalya’s voice came over the other end. “Xue.”
“I want to talk to the creature.” He glared.
There was a pause on the other end. “Well, he doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“Your friend Adele is currently clutching a kitten between her breasts. My sniper has the kitten in his scope.” He glanced at the camera footage and saw them all starting to look around. “I want to talk to the creature.”
There was a murmur of voices on the other end, and he saw Greg move to stand in front of Adele. A moment later, he saw the creature move to stand in front of Greg before it reached for the phone. “Xue.” The creature’s voice was strangely accented, and slightly guttural. He’d expected it to be more sibilant.
“If you return to custody, we can come to an equitable arrangement. You will be made comfortable. Your friends will be allowed to return to their lives, unharmed.”
“And if I do not…” The creature lifted its head. “Your body rots from the inside.”
“If you go into that water, I will have them all killed. Slowly…” Xue exhaled. “And painfully.” He glanced at Genna, and saw her slight nod. “There will be a van to pick you up in ten minutes outside the garden.” He hung up the phone, then met Genna’s eyes. “Make sure they have proper restraints and a sedative.” He hesitated a moment, then exhaled. “And tell them to collect at least one of the others. We will need the creature to cooperate.”
Yalathanil stared down at the phone in his hand. “You aren’t getting in that van.” Greg immediately started shaking his head in protest. “Not happening.”
“We need to get into cover.” Phil was looking around.
“If it keeps you safe…” He looked up, meeting Greg’s eyes.
“It won’t.” Greg’s voice was calm. “We know too much. As soon as he thinks he has you contained, he’ll give the order to have us either captured or killed. Leaving us alive is far too big a risk for him to take.”
“Greg’s right, Yala.” Adele’s eyes shown with tears, but her voice was steady. “Xue has to know as long as we are alive we will be doing everything we can to rescue you, no matter what it takes.”
“You’re our friend.” Natalya squared her shoulders. “Friends don’t leave friends behind.”
Phil put a hand on Natalya’s arm, then nodded. “I’m not going to stand by and watch while Xue kidnaps you for lab experiments.”
Humans were… Nothing like the stories about them. “Then…” He bared his teeth. “We have some hunting to do.” He raised his head. “Nobody threatens my friends.”