Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

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An Otherworld Universe Story

“You need to help Noah lose his V plates,” Reese said.

Nick looked up over his laptop as his young Pack brother strode onto the back deck, two icy beers clutched in one hand. Nick reached out. Reese dropped into a chair, popped the top on one and set the other on the deck.

“That’s backup,” he said. “Fridge is full for once.”

“Because I filled it. With my beer.”

“No wonder it tastes like horse piss.” Reese drained the can, wiped his sweaty forehead with the still-frosty empty, then grabbed the second. “If you and Antonio want me on lawn-cutting duty, you gotta keep the fridge full.” He leaned back in his chair. “Though I don’t see the point in cutting two goddamn acres every week. Back home, we had a few thousand, and I never cut one of them.”

“Because you lived in the desert.”

“No, I lived on the Outback. The part with grass, because sheep don’t live long eating sand.” He waved at the surrounding yard. “That’s what you need, you know. Sheep.”

“Werewolves and sheep, they go so well together.”

“Actually, they do, if you raise them yourselves.”

Nick shook his head and typed the final paragraph on his marketing plan while Reese’s sneaker tapped the deck, waiting for him to be done so he could talk again. For over four decades, Nick had been the one sitting there, impatiently waiting for his father—Antonio—to finish work. Then their household had doubled with the addition of Noah, the teenage son of a former Pack mate, and Reese, running from some mysterious tragedy in Australia. So now Nick got to play the responsible adult. Several decades past due, some might argue.

He closed his laptop. “You’re on yard duty until Noah is done with exams. He took it for yours last month. Speaking of Noah, what’s this about plates?”

“V plates. You need to help him lose his.” Reese watched for Nick’s reaction, then sighed. “They don’t say that here?”

“I’m sure they don’t say it anywhere except the middle of nowhere. On the Outback. With sheep.”

Reese choked on a mouthful of beer. “Sheep should definitely not be involved. Which isn’t to say they aren’t, sometimes, but for the record, no sheep were involved in mine. Though, I admit, the girl wasn’t a whole lot brighter than one.”

“Ah. V plate. Virginity.” Nick glanced around.

“Don’t worry. Noah’s studying on the opposite side of the house, which in this place means he’s a block away.”

“Well, I’m sure he’ll come to me when he’s ready. I’m not going to rush him.”

“He already came to me.”

“What? Noah knows I’m here—”

“For all his questions about girls and sex. You are the undisputed expert. Which means there’s no way he is admitting he’s eighteen and a virgin to you—a guy who lost his in primary school.”

“It was high school.” Nick paused. “Well, the summer between the two.”

“And by eighteen, you were probably well into double digits. Which is why he’s not coming to you.” Reese leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Did he tell you he broke it off with Lexi? He made a date with Leigh Madison for Friday night.”

“I don’t think I’ve met Leigh.”

“Sure you have. There’s one in every school. Can’t get laid? Ask Leigh out.”

“Oh.”

“Right. So, he’s dumped a girl he likes to hook up with one who puts out. Then he’ll dump her and get back with Lexi. That’s no way to treat either girl.”

“Agreed. We have to help him find a better way.”

“I already have. You need to buy him a hooker.”

Nick would have been very happy if the conversation had ended there. He’d say, “Like hell,” and that would be it. But Reese had gotten it into his head that Noah needed a hooker, and that Nick was the best person to provide one.

Not that Nick had any experience with hookers. True, one couldn’t overlook the convenience factor, but really, did you want someone who was only there because you’d paid her? No. Nick liked women, and he liked women who liked him back. That meant no hookers.

As it turned out, Reese didn’t expect him to find one. He had that covered. A brothel in Philadelphia, highly recommended by a couple of mutts Reese used to run with. Reese had never been there himself—he had hang-ups about girls, part of the baggage he’d brought from Australia. He’d kept the address, though, which suggested the no-girls situation might not be as dire as Nick feared. There was, however, no way Reese was taking Noah to the brothel himself. That was sex, and in this household, sex was Nick’s department.

“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Reese muttered as they walked along the dark Philadelphia street.

“We can’t come to Philly without seeing Karl and Hope,” Nick said. Karl was a Pack mate, Hope his half-demon wife. “When I mentioned it to Hope, she assumed you were coming, too.”

“Just as long as she doesn’t plan to introduce me to another cute young intern at True News.” He checked Nick’s expression, then let out a growl. “She does, doesn’t she? Bugger it. I don’t—”

“Oh, look, there it is.” Nick pointed at a house two doors down. There was no sign, of course. It was just a house, a rambling old Victorian with tended gardens and a lush lawn.

“It doesn’t . . . look like a brothel,” Noah said.

Nick glanced over at the boy. Slightly built, five-foot-eight, light-brown hair hanging in his thin face. Eighteen, but looking very young, which really didn’t help him with girls. Even setting his “official” age a year younger and enrolling him two years back—to compensate for what he’d lost when he dropped out—hadn’t helped Noah catch up.

Noah hadn’t said much since they’d arrived in Philadelphia. Not that he ever said much. He’d had a rough time of it in Alaska. While dealing with his Change to a full werewolf, he’d been in juvenile detention. Then he got out, only to lose both his father and grandfather—the former taking off, the latter murdered by mutts—before Noah was whisked across the country to live with strangers.

Nick had grown up with Noah’s dad, but that didn’t help much—they’d lost touch before Noah was born. The boy seemed to be doing better, though. More talkative. Less moody. Not as easily frustrated. But he was still easily set off—an alcoholic mother left his wiring frazzled. That meant the virginity issue couldn’t be ignored, as it could with most boys. For Noah, it was like a sliver, a minor irritation that would inflame and fester until they dealt with it.

“If this isn’t what you want . . .” Nick said gently.

“It is.” Noah looked over, his expression resolute. “I’m sick of the guys razzing me. They stopped when I told them you were bringing me here.”

“You . . . told them I was taking you to a brothel?”

“Uh-huh.” A rare grin. “They were so fucking jealous. None of their dads would ever take them to a whorehouse. Not that you’re my dad, but you know what I mean.”

Reese thumped Nick on the back. “Better let Antonio handle the next parent-teacher night. Though I think you’re about to become a very popular choice for school-trip chaperone.”

Nick sighed.

“It’s very dark,” Noah said as they headed up the front walk.

It was. No lights on the cedar-shrouded porch. All the blinds drawn. Nick supposed they were just being discreet. He knocked.

It took a few minutes before the door opened, long enough for Noah to start fidgeting. He didn’t stop when it did open, probably because the woman holding it had to be at least sixty. And not a well-maintained sixty.

“Please tell me that’s not a—” Noah started to whisper, before Reese cut him short with a look.

“Hello. Liam and Ramon sent us,” Nick said, naming the mutts who’d given Reese the brothel recommendation. “We’re looking—”

He’s looking,” Reese interjected, pointing at Noah.

“—for companionship for our friend here.”

“Not tonight.” The woman started to close the door.

Reese grabbed it and held it open. “What’s wrong with tonight? We came a long way and we were told appointments weren’t necessary.”

“We are busy tonight.”

Reese shoved the door open, so they could see into the dark interior. “Doesn’t look busy.”

“It is not a good—”

A second woman slipped through a hall doorway and tugged the old lady back. She was in her late thirties. Handsome, in a severe way, dressed in slacks and a blouse.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Darlene is a little overprotective of the girls. It’s their day off, actually, but you said only one needs companionship?”

Both Nick and Reese pointed at Noah.

“Ah, I see.” The woman smiled and winked at Noah. “I’m sure I’ll have more than one girl happy to give up her night off for such a handsome young man.”

The woman—Angelica, as she introduced herself—led them inside. It was a perfectly normal-looking house, no red velvet to be seen. She took them to a modern room with leather couches, a pool table, bar and big-screen TV.

As they sat, Nick noticed Reese sniffing the air. Nick himself was trying to inhale as little as possible. There were candles burning everywhere, giving off a slightly musky scent that he supposed was supposed to be a turn-on. With a werewolf’s overdeveloped sense of smell, though, the only thing it turned was his stomach.

They’d just settled on the sofa when Darlene returned with a girl. Not really a girl—mid-twenties, Nick guessed, which was good, because he’d gotten to the age where an eighteen-year-old hooker would have made him want to throw his jacket around her and bustle her out of there. Not that this girl needed to cover up. She was still dressed for her night off, in jeans and a pullover. She’d taken a few minutes to put on makeup, though. Too much, really, but she was cute enough, and when she walked in, Noah let out an audible sigh of relief. He got to his feet.

The girl giggled. “In a hurry?”

“Um, no, of course not. I, uh—”

The girl cut him off with a loud kiss. “I wasn’t complaining. I like eager. Young and eager is even better.” She grinned. “We don’t get a lot of hot young guys here.” She glanced at Nick and giggled. “Or hot guys of any age. I’m sure I could find friends for you two upstairs.”

“Nope, we’re good,” Reese said. “Tonight is all about him.”

“Then let’s get right to it.” She took Noah’s hand and led him out. “I’m Sophie, by the way.”

“Rob,” he said. “I’m Rob.”

Once they were gone, Angelica offered drinks from the bar. Nick eyed the Scotch, but Reese grabbed them both beers. Then they settled in, chatting awkwardly, glancing at the clock, as if waiting for Noah to finish an appointment. A short appointment, Nick figured.

After about ten minutes, another girl slid around the corner. This one was older than the first, and she looked like a hooker—bleached-blond teased hair, huge breasts that threatened to pop out of her bustier, long legs ending in stilettos.

She flashed her smile at Nick first, but his expression must have said she really wasn’t his type, because she plopped herself onto Reese’s lap instead.

Reese jumped so fast he nearly sent her flying. Then he lifted his hands, as if to keep them from going anyplace they shouldn’t.

“I, uh, I’m not a client,” he said. “No offense. I just wouldn’t want you to, uh, waste your efforts.”

The woman gave a throaty laugh and reached to run her hands through Reese’s hair, which brought those huge breasts right up into his face. Reese tensed and Nick thought he was going to throw her off, and Nick tensed himself, ready to run interference. But then Reese went still.

Nick couldn’t see Reese’s expression, probably because his face was buried in the hooker’s boobs, but it probably said something like, “Hmm, this isn’t so bad after all.” Reese had his hang-ups, but he was still a young werewolf. God only knew how long it’d been since he’d had sex. That couldn’t be healthy at his age. Hell, that wasn’t healthy at any age.

As Reese let the hooker coo and rub her breasts against his face, Nick began to think this brothel scheme wasn’t so crazy after all. Noah might not be the only guy who solved a problem tonight.

“You know . . .” Reese began.

“Uh-huh,” Nick murmured.

Reese pulled the hooker down onto his lap and plucked at the laces of her bustier. “Is there any way I can persuade you to give up your day off. . . ?”

“Sugar, I don’t need any persuading,” the woman drawled. “You’re so damned sweet I’d give you all my days off.”

She got to her feet, her hand entwined with Reese’s. He stood, then turned to Nick.

“Come with us,” he said.

The hooker laughed. “Oh, now that would be a treat. Come with us indeed, handsome.”

Nick was all for helping Reese and Noah. He liked taking on the role of guardian. A few years ago, when Clay and Elena—his Pack mates and best friends—had their twins, he started thinking maybe he wanted kids of his own. It didn’t take more than a few diaper changes to convince him otherwise, but he’d still felt the wolf instinct to raise the next generation. Taking in two almost-grown young werewolves seemed the perfect solution.

But this . . . this was taking mentorship too far. Of course he’d had threesomes before, but the male-female ratio had always been reversed, and that’s how he liked it.

“I need you up there, Nick,” Reese whispered.

Shit.

Nick looked at the hooker and tried not to shudder. Maybe he could just . . . be in the room. For moral support. He stood and waved for them to lead the way.

The hooker led them into the first bedroom at the top of the stairs. Which was a good thing, because Reese was almost as eager as Noah had been. Nick barely got the door closed before Reese had her on the bed. Then he pinned her, arms and legs on hers, hand over her mouth.

“Whoa!” Nick said, running forward. “Don’t—”

“Find Noah,” Reese growled. “I’ll keep this one—”

The hooker bucked and writhed, her eyes blazing, jaw working as if she was trying to bite Reese’s hand. He wrapped his other one around her throat and leaned down.

“Feel how strong I am?” he whispered. “There’s no use—”

The hooker fought harder, her muffled screams loud enough to alert anyone in an adjoining room. Reese’s hand tightened on her throat. The hooker glared at him one last time, then her body went limp, gaze emptying.

Reese yanked his hand back. “Shit! I barely—” His fingers flew to the side of the woman’s neck.

“Is she. . . ?” Nick began.

“Dead.” Reese paused. “And ice cold.” He leaned down and inhaled, then made a face. “Decomp. That’s what I smelled downstairs. The candles and her perfume were doing a good job of covering it until she got close.”

“You mean she’s. . . ?”

“A zombie,” Reese said, “We need to get Noah.”

Nick swung into the hall to see Noah backing out of another doorway, staring into the room he’d just left, his eyes huge. When Nick started toward him, he wheeled. He saw Nick, tensed, and glanced both ways, as if ready to make a run for it.

Nick loped down the hall before Noah could bolt.

“I-I didn’t mean to do it,” he said. “I swear. I decided since the guys knew I was coming here, that was good enough. I didn’t have to go through with it. B-but when I said I changed my mind, she got mad. I promised we’d still pay, but—”

“It’s okay,” Nick said, putting his arm around the boy’s shoulders.

Noah pushed him away. “No, you don’t understand. I tried to leave and she wouldn’t let me, so I shoved her. That’s all I did, but now she’s dead and—”

“You didn’t kill her.”

“Y-yes, I did. I checked for a pulse and—”

“She was already dead,” Reese said, coming up behind them.

Reese took Noah back into the room, where the girl lay on the bed. “See? She—Shit.”

Nick pushed past them. There, on the bed, was the girl. Or what remained of her—a skeleton wearing decomposing flesh, a red silk bra and panties.

“Th—that—” Noah began.

“Isn’t what she looked like a few minutes ago?” Reese said. “Yeah, I’m sure she didn’t.”

Noah turned and retched. Nick rubbed Noah’s back as he hurled dinner onto the carpet.

“Great,” Reese murmured. “More hours of therapy.”

“Did I say a hooker wasn’t a good idea?” Nick whispered back.

“I didn’t expect zombies.”

“No one ever does.” Nick stripped a pillow of its case and handed the fabric to Noah to use to wipe his face, then frowned at the dead girl. “The last zombie hooker I met didn’t look like that.”

“You’ve met others?” Reese said.

“One. With Elena and Clay. Everything like this usually happens when they’re around. That zombie had the rotting thing going on from the start. That’s what they do. Rot. And it’s why they really don’t make good hookers.”

“Uh-huh. Well, as interesting as this anomaly may be, I say we leave it to Elena and the council, and get out of here before—”

A thump sounded from out in the hall. Then a muted cry.

Nick started toward the door.

Reese grabbed his arm. “Curiosity doesn’t just kill cats. Let’s go.”

Nick hesitated. A few years ago, he’d have agreed. Hell, a few years ago, he’d have been the one grabbing Clay or Elena and saying, “Let’s go.” But he wasn’t the omega wolf anymore. He had responsibilities. Which meant . . .

He turned to Reese. “Take Noah out of here.” He waved at the window.

Reese protested, but Nick got them both out. Then he crept back into the hall and followed the sound of stifled cries to a bedroom. The door lock snapped with a sharp twist of the knob.

He pushed the door open. An empty room. Another thump, the muffled sounds louder. Nick followed them to a locked closet. Another werewolf-enhanced twist and the door opened. Inside, a young man lay bound and gagged on the floor. Seeing Nick, his eyes rolled wildly.

Nick motioned him to silence, then pulled off the gag.

“Thank God,” the young man gasped. “I didn’t think anyone would ever hear me. You must be a—”

He said a word Nick didn’t recognize. Probably the Latinized name for half-demons with hearing powers. Reese did say the brothel catered to supernaturals.

“It’s okay,” Nick said as he snapped the ropes. “I’m going to get you out—”

“No!” The guy grabbed his wrist. “The girls. The whores. They’re vetala.”

“If that’s some kind of zombie, I already know that.”

“It’s a demi-demon that possesses bodies of the recently dead.”

Which explained the non-rotting, Nick supposed.

The young man continued. “I knew what they were as soon as I got here. I’m a necromancer. I can recognize the dead. I confronted the lady in charge and all of a sudden, they swarmed me and locked me in there.”

“Okay, but you’re out now. So come—”

“My friend. They took him to the basement for some kind of ritual. That’s why they’re closed tonight. We need to get him out.”

Nick knew he wasn’t considered the brightest guy in the Pack. Clay was a freaking genius and Elena was damned smart, too, so he never tried to compete, just sat back and let them come up with the plans. But he wasn’t dumb. Or, at least, not dumb enough to try handling this on his own.

He clapped the young man on the back. “Don’t worry.” He took out his cell to call Karl. “I’ll get help—”

The young man’s eyes bugged. “There’s no time for that. Don’t you get it? My friend is about to be slaughtered in some kind of demonic ritual.”

“Then we’ll stall it until my friends arrive.” Nick started dialing.

The young man knocked the phone from his hand. “You aren’t making this easy, are you?” His eyes glowed orange and his voice changed. “I want your body.”

Considering where they were, there was a brief moment when Nick thought, “Whoa, sorry, that’s not my thing.” Then he realized, given the whole zombie/vetala/demi-demon issue—and the glowing orange eyes—that probably wasn’t what the guy meant.

A floorboard squeaked behind Nick, and the stench of rotting flesh wafted past. He spun as three young women slid into the room. The first looked normal enough, her skin just starting to gray. The second’s face was covered in blackened boils that bubbled and burst. The third was barely more than a walking skeleton, flesh sloughing off with every step. All three wore silk negligees, thongs, garters and stockings, presenting an image that ensured Nick was not going to be enjoying the Victoria’s Secret catalogue for a very long time.

He backed up to the window, watching their outstretched nails, and remembering the zombie scratch that nearly cost Clay an arm. When he reached the window and looked down, though, he saw two more zombie hookers waiting below in the yard.

Shit! Had Reese and Noah gotten away? He should have told Reese to call Karl and tell him where they were before he checked out the noise.

“Look, whatever’s going on here, it’s your business,” Nick said. “I’m just going to leave and pretend I didn’t see anything—”

“Did I mention I want your body?” the young man said.

“This body?” Nick said. “It’s a lot older than you think. I’m a—”

“Werewolf.” One of the girls licked her lips with a blackened tongue. “We know. That means your body is in very good condition. You and your friends picked a perfect night to visit. We were just beginning to gather fresh vessels. They last a long time, but not indefinitely. We’ll take yours and the handsome young Australian’s. The little one is too young, but we will kill him quickly. Mercifully.”

Nick hit the man first. A lightning punch to the throat took him down, and he stayed down, the demi-demon abandoning its host. On to the graying girl, who was already running at him, shrieking. A blow to the stomach doubled her over. He grabbed her hair and snapped her neck. When he looked up, the other two were gone, leaving a trail of rotted flesh in their wake.

Nick exited out the window. Only two zombies down there. As he landed, they rushed him. He took the first out with two quick blows. The second ran off. When the first zombie was dead—or dead again—he dropped her and turned . . .

Zombies stepped through the hedges, surrounding him. Six of them. All in lingerie and varying degrees of decomposition.

A figure raced through an opening in the hedge. Reese. The young man ran to Nick’s side and flipped around to cover his back.

“Noah?” Nick said.

“Safe.”

The zombies began to circle.

“You need to watch their—”

“Nails, I know.” Reese lowered his voice. “Where’s the necromancer?”

“Huh?”

“Zombies are controlled by a necro. Where’s—?”

Reese stopped as they spotted Angelica hidden in the shadows.

“I got her,” Reese said. “Cover me.”

Nick raced after him, knocking zombies aside as they charged. But not many charged. Not as many as should have, if Angelica could order them to guard her. Nick realized it just as Reese grabbed Angelica. Reese already had his hands around the woman’s neck. Her eyes flashed orange, then emptied as the demi-demon left her.

“Goddamn it!” Reese said, dropping the corpse.

“The old woman,” Nick said as he surveyed the zombies, closing in on them again. “Darlene. Where’s—?”

A white-haired figure stepped through the gate, lips moving, hands fluttering. The zombies shifted forward, rumbling and hissing.

A shadow appeared behind the old woman. Noah knocked her to the ground. His hands shot up to snap her neck. The zombies turned and rushed him.

“No!” Nick yelled.

He raced over, shoving zombies out of the way. Killing the undead was one thing. Killing a living person—deservedly or not—wasn’t something the boy needed on his conscience.

Nick grabbed the old woman away from Noah. A quick wrench broke her neck. The zombies hesitated. They didn’t evacuate their shells, though. They just watched him, as if confused.

Because they weren’t zombies. Shit. They were vetala, whatever that was. Normal rules didn’t apply.

“What do you want with us?” the one in front said. She had trouble speaking—her jaw hung by a few threads of tendon. Of all the zombies, she was the most decayed, barely more than a walking skeleton wearing a sweatshirt and thong.

Nick hesitated. They continued to watch him warily.

“You killed the one who summoned us,” the leader said. “We belong to you. What do you want from us?”

“Nothing.”

A rumble went through the pack, and they shifted, foot to foot.

The leader tilted her head. “We are free to go?”

“Yes,” Reese said, walking up behind them. “You’re free to go.”

She continued to study Nick.

“Go,” he said,

The leader dipped her head. “Thank you.”

Her body collapsed. The others did, too, one after another, corpses falling onto the grass and starting to rot.

Once Nick had moved the bodies inside, checked the house and made sure there weren’t any more zombies hobbling around, he called Elena. She’d contact the council and decide what to do about a brothel filled with corpses. Maybe he’d be back to clean it up. Maybe he wouldn’t. Not his call, thankfully.

They walked back to the car in silence. As they got in, Noah said, “So that should work, right? If I tell my friends I went through with it? They won’t . . . know?”

It took a moment for Nick to realize what he meant.

Reese beat him to an answer. “They won’t know. We’ll give you a few tips to make it sound good.”

Noah relaxed in the back seat and Nick realized it was what the poor kid wanted all along. Not to lose his virginity. Just to get his friends off his back. If only he’d figured that out sooner . . .

“I’m going to call Lexi,” Noah said. “Do you think I can get her back?”

“Just don’t mention the brothel,” Reese said. “If she finds out, tell her the truth—that nothing happened. I’ll back you up.”

“And as for winning her back,” Nick said. “I have some tips for that, too.”

Reese and Noah looked at each other.

“Um, maybe not,” Noah said. “I appreciate your help, Nick, but after tonight . . .”

They both laughed.

“Excuse me?” Nick said. “This was not my idea.”

But they were talking again, and neither heard him. He sighed and started to drive. Suddenly, changing diapers didn’t seem so bad. Teenager’s messes were a lot bigger and a lot tougher to clean up.

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