Spider-Man : The Darkest Hoursby Jim Butcher

  Chapter 21

Oliver was awfully quick for a man his age.

Felicia let out a snarl like a furious mountain lion, startling and savage enough to make me wonder - again - about the source of her grace and agility, and she flung herself after Oliver.

His suit was an expensive one - it hid the gun Oliver was carrying to perfection. He drew the weapon and pegged a pair of shots at Felicia, slowing down enough to make sure they went more or less in her direction.

She flipped into a lateral tumble - though with uncontrolled shots like that, you run almost as much risk of dodging into a badly aimed bullet as you do of dodging an accurate shot.

I gave them enough of a lead to make sure I wasn't going to be crowding Felicia, and then went after them.

Oliver darted down an alley between two apartment buildings, and I shook my head. The runners are always doing things like that. Maybe it's some kind of burrowing instinct left over from our ancestors, little mammals hiding from dinosaurs, right before a big rock fell on them. Whatever the reason, Oliver went down the alley, throwing glances over his shoulder.

One thing about the narrow alley, I supposed. Had Felicia simply sprinted after him, he'd have had a really hard time missing her when he opened fire again. Oliver might have been smart enough to have thought that through. Most of the time, though, it's just a side effect the thugs aren't really bright enough to appreciate. There are several means of ending a chase in a place like that, and Felicia employed my personal favorite. She outthought Oliver and got ahead of him.

He was a few feet from the other end of the alley when a patch of shadow erupted into movement, and the Black Cat fetched Oliver a kick to the belly that took him from a full sprint to a full stop as he folded around her boot. He went down, the wind knocked all the way out of him. Felicia, furious, stomped down on his gun hand until he dropped the weapon. She kicked it away. Then she picked him up by the front of his coat and slammed him against one wall of the alley.

"You greedy little toad."

she snarled, slamming his shoulder blades against the wall for emphasis.

"What did you do?"

"Ms. Hardy," he gasped, hardly able to speak. "Contain yourself. This is not a professional means of - "

She threw him against the other wall of the alley, then popped him in the back of one thigh with a simple snap kick. He cried out as his leg buckled, and fell onto his side. Felicia's boot flashed out again, this time striking Oliver's head in a firm push, trapping it between her foot and the brick wall.

"Oliver," she purred. "I am not prepared to be a sensitive, reasonable, professional individual right now. I'm not feeling my normal, elegant, stylish, and ladylike self" She leaned toward him a little, making him writhe at the additional pressure, and her voice sweetened. "So I want you to believe me when I tell you this: You get one chance. If I even think you're trying to lie to me in any way whatsoever, I'm going to crush your skull and wipe your brains off my boots with your expensive jacket. Have I expressed myself clearly?"

He let out a pained sound and gave her as much of a nod as he could manage.

Felicia leaned back slightly, folding her arms and supporting herself against the alley's other wall as casually as if she'd been resting one foot on a crate instead of on a man's temple. "What did you do?"

"She's a big-money client, Felicia," he said. "She's hired the company before. There's an established relationship. She came to me complaining that you were stalling and feeding her false information."

"Yes. Because I suspected she was plotting murder. Doing the fieldwork for murderers is not good business, Oliver, and it never will be." She paused and then said, "How much did she offer you?"

"Enough," he said, grimacing.

"What did she want?"

"To keep tabs on you," he said. "And when she heard about this Dex person, she wanted him as well."

"The going rate on this kind of thing is, I believe, thirty pieces of silver. I hope she offered you that much, at least."

Oliver lifted one hand in a gesture of surrender. "It wasn't personal, Hardy."

Felicia went completely still and silent for a second. Then she whispered, "Not personal?"

"No."

"This creature you worked for has attempted to kill my friend twice. If it gets the chance, it will kill me, too - not to mention all the bystanders who might get hurt when the music starts. And you pointed them right at him." She twisted her heel, grinding it slowly into the side of Oliver's head. "In what way is that 'not personal'?"

"Wait," Oliver choked out. "Look, it doesn't have to go down like this.

We can negotiate, cut you out of the deal. That was what I was trying to do from the start. Trying to look out for one of the company's assets."

"And to pick up some money on the side while you did it?"

"Don't do this," Oliver said. "You don't know these people, Hardy.

They're rich, richer than rich. They've got connections, power. You can't survive being their enemy. But if you let me help you, I think I can work something out. Protect you."

Felicia snarled, bent down, lifted Oliver against the wall again, and suddenly flicked out the fingers of her right hand.

I tensed. She had the gloves on. The deadly, razor-sharp talons built into it deployed with a wicked little rasping sound. Very deliberately, Felicia reached out and ran her clawed fingertips lightly down the bricks beside Oliver's head. Sparks flew up. There was an awful, steely sound.

Oliver turned white. He glanced aside at the five long furrows Felicia had dug into the' wall. Sweat beaded his skin.

Felicia picked up his tie with the same hand, her fingers idly toying with it - and soundlessly slicing it to slivers as they did. "Oliver,"

she said. "I am disinclined to let you betray me and simply walk away. So there's something I want you to think about."

His eyes were all on the claws. A cut across one cheek was bleeding a little. "I'm listening."

"First, you're going to go back to the van. You're going to get Dex somewhere safe, without telling anyone anything about him. You will never speak to Mortia or her flunkies again. Resign. The money you took to betray me is forfeit. You will find a place for it to go. A good place, where it might help someone."

"I have done nothing wrong," he said. "I have broken no laws."

"Which might matter to courts and lawyers," Felicia said pleasantly. And then her eyes blazed and she struck suddenly and savagely at the wall again, this time gouging out a six-inch-long section of brick as deep as the second joint of her fingers. "But you hurt my friends."

she snarled. "Do it, Oliver. Or I'll destroy you."

"You aren't a killer," he said, eyes narrowing.

"Who said anything about killing? By the time I'm finished with you, you won't have a penny. You won't have a home. You won't have a job. What you will have is nothing. And everyone you've ever crossed is going to know exactly where to look you up."

Oliver licked his lips, and his voice trembled. "You wouldn't do that."

She released him, springing the claws on the other hand, and simply leaned the tips of her fingers against the bricks on either side of his head, creating a steady trickle of sparks, a grinding, growling chorus of scrapes and tiny shrieks of protesting brick.

Her eyes turned wide and cold and angry, and leaned in close enough that he had to have felt her breath on his face. "Try me," she purred.

Oliver shivered and looked away.

"Get out," she said, her voice quiet and full of contempt. "Get out of my sight."

She stepped back from him, and Oliver tried for a dignified retreat.

She kicked him hard in the seat of the pants as he left, sending him out onto the sidewalk in an undignified sprawl. Oliver hurried away, limping.

Felicia watched him go for a minute. Then she recovered his gun, disassembled it in a single smooth motion, and dropped the pieces into several different trash cans. She put the lids back on the cans, shook her head, sighed, and looked up to where I sat thirty feet up the building's wall in a patch of heavy shadow. "I thought you'd have come down there, at the end."

I dropped to the alley to stand with her. "You had him under control. Why would I do that?"

She did not look at me, and shrugged. "The bit with the claws. I figured you'd grab my wrist any second, all worried that I was about to kill him in cold blood."

"What?"

"If the positions had been reversed, you'd have stopped Oliver."

"Well, yes, but - "

"If it had been the Rhino, you'd have stepped in."

"Felicia," I said, a little frustrated. "Where are you going with this?"

Her eyes grew cold, and she said, "Nowhere. Never mind. You'd probably want to help Oliver if he was in trouble. Just like you're helping the Rhino. No one is too black-hearted to be worthy of the Amazing Spider-Man's protection."

Then she began walking back down the alley toward the van.

I stared after her, and in a sudden flash of insight I finally understood her recent attitude - at least a little bit.

Felicia wasn't defending the Rhino.

She was defending herself

I knew that she'd tried, she'd really tried to be one of the active good guys, but... well, she hadn't been all that good at it. Her past sins had weighed against her, and she'd had a rough path to follow. She'd given up, largely, on the whole freelance-hero gig. Now she worked in private security. Like the Rhino, like Oliver, she was a mercenary - one on the side of the law and civilization, true, but a mercenary nonetheless.

Maybe my initial contempt and antipathy toward the Rhino bothered her, because she saw too many similarities in herself? Maybe it made her wonder if I harbored some degree of the same contempt for her.

Maybe she wondered if she had just been another sad charity case on whom I'd taken pity. Maybe that was why we hadn't worked out. Maybe my opinion, which had been important enough to her to help motivate her to abandon a life of crime, was still important to her.

If so, then by causing her to question the nature of our relationship, maybe I was eroding the foundation of the new life she was building.

I sighed.

Maybe if I rented a crane, I could pull my foot out of my mouth.

I caught up to her, prowling along the wall at head height while I tried to talk to her. "Felicia, wait."

She never slowed her pace or glanced aside at me. "Look. I found your toady for you. And you made it clear that you don't want me involved in your problems. So has MJ. So I'm leaving."

"Don't do this," I said. "Come on, would you hold up a minute?"

She didn't slow down or answer me, and I stopped as she stepped out of the far end of the alley.

"You were right," I said quietly. "You were right about the Rhino. And I was being a pigheaded idiot about it."

She stopped in her tracks. She turned her head enough that I could see the curve of her cheek.

"Only a real friend would have tried to point out a blind spot like that," I said. "And I didn't even try to listen to you. It was stupid and arrogant of me, to disrespect you like that. You deserve better from me, and I apologize."

The lines of her body shifted almost imperceptibly. Her shoulders sagged a little. Her neck bowed her head forward a couple of degrees.

"Yes," she said after a minute. "A pigheaded idiot."

I dropped to the ground and walked over to her, crossing my arms and leaning my shoulders against the wall. "I haven't ever said this," I said. "But I admire you, Felicia. When you went legit, you picked a hard road for yourself. You knew it would be hard, but you did it anyway. That took a lot of courage."

She turned to look at me. Her eyes were misty.

I put my hands on both her shoulders. "You're beautiful and strong, and you don't let anyone tell you how to live your life. You're a good friend, and you have a good heart. When the going gets rough, you always have my back, and I trust you there."

She blinked her eyes rapidly. Her voice came out quiet and a little shaky. "Then why don't you want me to help you with this?"

"Um," I said.

Felicia suddenly tilted her head to one side and her eyes widened in understanding, then narrowed in anger. Her hands came up and slapped mine from her shoulders. "You were trying to protect me! Like I'm some kind of china doll!"

"No," I said. "Wait."

"You pig."

she said, pushing her fingers stiffly at my chest. "You arrogant, reactionary, egotistical... My God, I ought to pop you in the mouth right now!"

"I'd really rather you - "

"I don't need your protection," she snapped. "I'm not a child. How dare you make that kind of decision for me! How dare you take that choice away from me!"

I rubbed at the back of my neck. "Listen. If I just hit myself in the mouth a few hundred times, would it make this rant go away any faster?"

"You're going to be hearing about this for years, Parker."

I sighed and lifted my hands in surrender. "All right, all right."

"So no more noble-defender crap. From here out, I've got your back.

Right?"

I nodded. "Right."

Her cheeks grew a little rounder as she kept a smile off of her face.

Then she nodded back and said, "Apology accepted."

"Sheesh," I said.

"So," she said. "Did it help? You figured out the silver bullet?"

"I think so," I said. "But it's right on the tip of my brain and I can't get it to come out."

She fought off another smile. "The tip of your brain?"

"You know what I mean," I said. "I've got all these facts, and once I put them together the right way it should be possible."

"Which facts?"

"Paranoid solitude during feeding," I said. "Feeding upon smaller victims for between-meal snacks. My fight with Morlun. The folklore accounts. The information you discovered. The way the Ancients shy away from crowds.

The fact that Mortia was, apparently, interested in finding you, even after

I agreed to meet her."

The Black Cat frowned. "Mmm. Maybe we should get everything written down.

Brainstorm. Two heads will be better than one, right?"

And suddenly it all fell into place, like the wheels on a slot machine coming up all cherries. Suddenly I saw what had been right there in front of me the whole time. I had picked out the false note, made a positive identification of the active variable.

I could beat them.

"That's it," I heard myself whisper. "I can beat them."

Felicia's eyes widened. "You've got it?"

"Eu-freaking-reka," I confirmed. I ran over the solution in my head a few times. It seemed sound. "But I can't do it alone."

She arched a brow and then smiled sweetly. "So what you're saying is that you need my help."

"Um. Yes," I said.

"How interesting."

She folded her arms, expression amused. "Say 'Please.' "

"Please," I said.

" 'Pretty please,' " she prompted.

"Pretty please. I need your help."

She sniffed. "It wasn't nice of you to provoke me into a fight so I'd walk away, you know."

"Then why'd you fall for it?"

She rolled her eyes. "I'll think about it. But I'll walk you home first.

You'd just get lost on your own."

"Very generous," I said.

She gave me a pious smile. "What are friends for?"

 

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