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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER EIGHTEEN)

SO I'D TASERED MY boyfriend. Other girls have done worse. I felt bad, really, but I wasn't going to beat myself up over it. He'd come at me, claws and fangs bared.

Anyone else would have done the same thing.

Yeah, he'd been in the process of saving my life. Had I known that at the time? No. Had he given me any type of warning? Again, no. I might feel (slightly) bad about this, as mentioned above, but I wouldn't accept blame. Rome was the only one at fault. Well, the assassin who'd been behind me was at fault, too. But not me!

Tanner switched on his flashlight and moved it over Rome, whose body still vibrated from the electrical charge. What did that mean? Crap, maybe I needed to examine him or something, and make sure I hadn't damaged him worse than I'd thought.

While I scooted out from under him, as well as the dead body draped over his back, Tanner's babbling assaulted my ears. "I shot him. I shot him dead. One bullet, just boom. Did you see me?"

"Don't beat yourself up about it," I said. God, Rome weighed a ton. "He was a bad guy, and he wanted to hurt us. You had to kill him."

"Beat myself up?" Grinning like a loon, he whooped. "Did you see my kick-ass aim? I had my eyes closed, but it was dead center-excuse my pun-and he went down like a horny boy in a whorehouse."

The implication of his words slammed into me harder than a bullet, and I gasped, my mouth agape. "You're telling me you aimed that gun in my general direction and your eyes were closed?"

Some of his excitement waned, and he gulped. "Well, yeah."

"The fact that you could have hit me doesn't bother you?" My eyes narrowed on him, the rims burning. "The fact that you could have hit Rome doesn't freaking bother you?"

Tanner's chin raised stubbornly. "What would a bullet have mattered? You Tasered him."

My jaw clenched. "For God's sake, he was coming at me."

"Yeah, to help you. And how did you repay him? By frying him up like an egg."

"Shut up and get over here. I need help. My legs are trapped under two tons of cat."

Tanner kicked the dead guy off of Rome. "I think the pussycat's coming around." He bent down and clutched Rome by his-its-head and shoulders, lifting. "My God," he grunted. "You weren't lying. What kind of cat chow has this heifer been eating?"

I wiggled free and glanced at the cat. He'd stopped shaking, at least, but his eyes were slitted on me. His lips were pulled back from his teeth in a lethal snarl. I'd never been Tasered, but I knew the electrical currents had rendered him immobile. Thank the Lord. He might have pounced on me for real if he could move.

"What?" I said to him, all innocence, with fluttering eyelashes and a dainty shrug. "This is your fault, and you know it."

Tanner released Rome, who thumped to the floor. "Oops. Sorry."

Licking my lips, I glanced around the room-anything to keep from looking at Rome. "Are there any more bad guys in the house?"

"Not that I can see," Tanner replied.

"So… what should we do next?"

"Aren't we, like, supposed to question someone and look for information about the doc and his evil potions?"

I nodded. "Yes, of course. While Rome 's recovering, why don't you look for a survivor and I'll search for the information."

Tanner's head canted to the side, and he surveyed the destruction. "Uh, I'd rather search for information."

"Fine. Jeez. Let the delicate woman search the menacing criminals for signs of life."

"Thanks," he said, flouncing off, his flashlight in hand, leaving me in the dark.

"Tanner!" I shouted at his retreating back.

"Don't make an offer you don't want accepted," he threw over his shoulder. He disappeared down the hall.

"Smart-ass," I muttered. To Rome 's prone body, I said, "We really need to teach that punk some manners." I reached toward the wall, feeling blindly for the light switch.

Rome growled.

My hand stopped in midair. "No light?"

Of course he didn't answer.

"Blink once if you want me to leave the light off, twice if I can turn it on," I said, turning on my flashlight-duh, I'd forgotten I had one, too!-and shining it in his face. Well, I needed some light, whether he wanted me to have it or not.

He blinked once.

Great. I got the privilege of finding a live body/killer with only a flashlight. Yippee for me. "Growl or something if you need me," I sighed. I planted a kiss on his nose and scampered off, only thin beams of amber illuminating my path.

The house had wide, spacious rooms that looked very much like the foyer, with furniture overturned and broken glass scattered in every direction. I counted nine of Vincent's agents, both upstairs and downstairs. Rome had made short work of them, and though he'd wanted to keep one alive, none had survived. The ones I'd heard moaning earlier were now quiet.

I bumped into Tanner in the master bedroom. He oomphed, but didn't remove his attention from the far wall. He had something long and blue in his hands. When I saw what held him enthralled on the wall, though, I forgot to ask him about the blue thing.

"My God," I said.

"Do you think I could, like, take some of this with me?"

"Eww. No. That's gross." The good doctor obviously enjoyed S and M. Whips, spiked collars, crops and black leather abounded. Not to mention the silver chain harness hanging from the ceiling. No wonder Lexis had said the man had a wild sexual side. Just how "friendly" had she pretended to be with him? I shuddered.

"Look at this." Tanner held up the long, blue thing. "What is it? What are the beaded things?"

"Tanner!" My cheeks heated. "That's a vibrator." I whispered the last word, embarrassed even to be saying it.

"Really?" Grinning, he shook it. The batteries rattled. "Cool."

"Put that down right now!"

"Hell, no. I found it on the floor, in plain sight. Finders keepers." Grin widening, he rattled it some more-and the end fell off. A sheet of paper drifted to the floor. "Hey, what's that?"

I frowned, bent down and pinched the paper between my fingers, shining my flashlight over it. When I realized what it was, I gasped. A note. From Dr. Roberts to… me. Well, to the Person Who Drank the Formula-my name wasn't specified. Still, my mouth fell open in shock. He'd known I would come here. Or maybe he had hoped.

"What does it say?" Tanner asked.

"It says 'I'm sorry.'" I swallowed and read the rest. "'I've done a terrible thing to you. I was weak and let a threat to ruin my public reputation influence my work. I should have destroyed the formula when I first discovered how dangerous it was. By the time I realized the error of my ways, it was too late-the formula had been perfected, and was just about to fall into the wrong hands. Evil hands. Unfortunately, the best hiding place I could think of on such short notice was… you. You were convenient, nearby. Please don't hate me. I've left you a present in my office, which is in a secret lab directly across from Utopia Caf��. Watch for prying eyes.'"

I paused, looking around. I could almost feel those prying eyes on me just then. "'P.S. Sorry about the sordid hiding place. I couldn't risk OASS finding this note, but I knew PSI would be hot on your heels and I hoped they'd know where to look.'"

"Wow," Tanner said. "You'd think since OASS knew he was a sex fiend, they'd have looked in the vibrator, too."

"I wonder why they didn't."

"They're dumbshits, if you ask me."

"Hey! Lexis told me the doctor was a pervert, but I didn't think to look in the vibrator, either." Tanner opened his mouth to comment, but I pointed a finger at him. "Don't say it."

He grinned. "Hey, this means the good old doc considered the employees of PSI pervs." He wiggled his eyebrows. "Belle hooked up with a perv," he sang.

"That means you're a pervert, too, since you're the one who actually found the note," I shot back.

His grin widened. "I know! Isn't it great?"

I shouldn't have been surprised by his happiness, the horn-ball. If I didn't change the subject, though-vibrators, for God's sake-we'd never get anything done. "So how'd Dr. Roberts get back into his house to hide this note?" I said, thinking aloud. "How'd he get past the OASSholes?"

"The who?"

I waved my hand through the air. "Never mind. Just ignore me." He could have planted it before he made his escape, knowing he was going to give the formula to someone.

Tanner shrugged. "Maybe there's another note around here, with more instructions." He began searching the rest of the "toys," whistling in tune with his movements.

I tapped a fingertip to my chin, wondering just what kind of confession was left for the doctor to make in a second note. I'd cause a world-wide flood if I wasn't careful? I'd have to live in an igloo for the rest of my life just to control the fire inside me? There was a depressing thought.

"I doubt we'll find anything else," Tanner said a few minutes later, his voice heavy with disappointment. "None of the other toys open."

"Just keep looking," I said.

Tanner ran his hand over the inside of a drawer, probing for a hidden compartment. "Have you found a live body yet?"

"No," I grumbled. I had to admit, in all my many jobs, many interviews, many hours spent scouring the classifieds, I'd never pictured myself doing this. Was there even a title for it? Certified Body Finder?

I should have preferred serving coffee to snobs. Should have preferred tweaking the odometers of used cars or making stupid balloon animals for ungrateful kids. Hell, I should have preferred sweeping disgusting balls of hair off the salon floor.

I didn't.

I kind of liked my current position, I realized. Maybe I wasn't ready to go back to my normal life. Sighing, I stuffed the doctor's note in my pocket. What would Rome say when he saw it? Maybe it would bribe him out of his Taser-induced bad mood when he finally came around.

As I trudged down the stairs, I ran my fingers over the bullet holes in the wall. Where was I going to find a living bad guy? The answer came to me instantly, surprising me. Grinning, I hopped over Rome 's body-which had begun the slow process of returning to human form. Big patches of fur had fallen out, leaving gaps of tanned skin and sleek muscle. At the moment he resembled a hideous man-beast. I tried not to grimace.

"Be back in a jiff," I told him with a false, breezy air. I sailed outside. The neighborhood was calm, as if the shootout had never happened, but the man next door was standing on his porch, scratching his head as he stared out at the hail and snow covering the ground.

He saw me and said, "You one of Roberts's girls?"

I was very thankful the two sleeping (or dead) agents were hidden by the SUV. "Yep." I wiggled my eyebrows suggestively, as I thought a hooker might do.

"Always weird stuff going on in that house." He motioned to the ground with a tilt of his chin. "You ever seen anything like this? Snow this late in spring, of all things."

"Very weird," I said, just standing there.

After a moment, he shook his head and went back inside his house.

Hurry, hurry, hurry! Before he comes out again. I raced the rest of the way to the SUV. The two men were slumped at the tires. One of them, the one I'd hit directly with lightning, was in the same condition as his cohorts in the house.

I lost a little of my giddiness. I'd killed him. Another victim of my powers. Don't think about it, Jamison. Remember, he was one of Vincent's men. He wanted to kill Rome. And capture you. With shaky hands, I checked the second man for a pulse. At the first touch of my fingers, he moaned. I sighed in relief. He, at least, was alive.

I anchored my hands under his arms and dragged him toward Dr. Roberts's house. He weighed a freaking ton (more than Rome, even, the fatty), and I strained under the burden. He had black streaks on his face and shirt, as if the lightning bolt had ricocheted off his friend, frying him, too.

By the time I heaved him onto the porch, gooey mud covered him from head to foot, splattered over his skin and clothes. I huffed and puffed from exertion. Amid his moans, I held him up with one hand and opened the front door with the other. Thankfully, the neighbor never came back out.

My gaze immediately sought Rome. Except he no longer lay in the entryway. The only sign that he'd been there was the mountain of fur he'd shed.

Should I call for him or not? He might be searching for me, ready to attack the moment he saw me, in retaliation for what I'd done. He might-holy shit-round the corner and storm toward me, death gleaming in his expression. He was in the process of jerking a black T-shirt over his head. A pair of black slacks already encased his lower body. How many spare pairs of clothing did this man have?

His eyes narrowed on me, then flicked to the man I held. "Don't say a word," he snapped, his steps never slowing.

"I wasn't." I shook my head for emphasis. "You look great. Really."

"How. The hell. Could you stun me?" The words left him haltingly, filled with the dark edge of his fury. He stopped just in front of me, our noses touching. Hot breath fanned my chin.

Better to go on the offensive, or he'd stomp all over me with guilt. "I think a better question is how could I not?" I released my burden, and the body thumped to the floor. I wagged a finger at Rome. "You came at me as you would a target. You should be commending my excellent reflexes in taking down an assailant."

His nostrils flared. "Commending? Did you just say commending?"

"Your hearing is excellent, Cat Man."

His pupils elongated, the black growing thinner, pointing on top and bottom. "What happened to waiting outside like a good little girl?"

"Tanner and I wanted to protect you. You're not invincible, Rome."

"But I'm damn close." He spread out his arms, motioning to the bodies lying around us. "You wouldn't have almost gotten yourself killed if you'd stayed where you were told."

"And you might have died if we had stayed. There was a man about to shoot you." I rose on my tiptoes, putting us on more level ground. "And like it or not, you've got partners now. We're supposed to look after each other. That means we look after you, just the way you look after us. Don't try to do this all on your own."

"If stunning me is how you look after me, I'd rather you didn't."

The man behind me moaned. "Look. I brought you a present. Two, actually. A live body and a note from the doctor."

Rome brushed past me, crouched beside the man and hefted him effortlessly over his shoulder. "Lock all the doors," he grumbled. "We might be here awhile. And what do you mean, a note from the doctor?"

I fished out the paper and held it toward him. "It was stuffed in a vibrator, of all places."

Rome reached for the note, but suddenly stilled. One corner of his mouth lifted, as if to say are you kidding me? Then he shook his head, muttered, "God save me," and grabbed the paper. He shifted the body over his shoulder as he read it. His expression became grim.

"You wanna put him down?" I asked.

"That bastard knew what he was going to do to you, and he did it anyway," he said, ignoring me.

"What do you think he left me in the office?"

"I don't know, but we will find out."

His voice was so ominous, I shuddered.

"What if someone called for backup?" I asked, only then thinking of the possibility.

"That's a chance I'm willing to take, rather than drag this guy with us." He rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Stand watch at the back and have Tanner guard the front. We'll do this quickly and get the hell out."

"Tanner," I called.

The kid trudged down the steps. "There's nothing else, just like I feared," he said, throwing his arms in the air. "No papers, no diary. Nothing. Hey, did you guys decide to stop arguing?"

"Yes," Rome said at the same time I said, "For the moment."

I opened my mouth to give Tanner his new orders, but his eyes lit on the unconscious man, and he clapped excitedly. "Is he breathing? Awesome. We get to question him, don't we? We'll torture some answers out of him for sure."

"I need you at the front, since you're our expert marksman," Rome said, hefting the body into the living room. "Stop anyone from entering."

Tanner's grin widened. "Did you see me take down that guy? Did you know I took him down in one shot? Just one shot?"

"You did real good," Rome praised. "If I hadn't been immobilized, I would have told you sooner," he added darkly. "Belle, right a chair for me."

As Tanner strode to the front door, I grabbed an overturned chair from the kitchen and dragged it to the center of the living room. Rome plopped the man in it and strapped him down with strips from his torn clothes.

"Should I turn on the lights now?" I asked.

"No. I don't want anyone outside to be able to see in or to know there's activity in here."

"The neighbor is awake. He was surprised by the snow."

"Did he seem suspicious?"

"Not at all. He just thought I was one of Dr. Roberts's regular hookers, and that the two of us were having one hell of a party."

Rome pinched the bridge of his nose. "Just… " he waved a hand through the air "… get me a glass of water. Please," he added after a moment's hesitation. "And hurry."

Okay, so I was no longer Wonder Girl. I was Errand Girl. That was fine. I didn't want to torture the guy, anyway. "You don't want me to put poison in it, do you?"

"Just water. Cold water."

"Why not just have Belle conjure some raindrops?" Tanner wondered aloud from his post at the door.

"We don't want to emotionally exhaust her," Rome said. "We should only use her powers when absolutely necessary."

Amen to that. I quickly found a glass in one of the kitchen cabinets, filled it at the sink and rushed back to Rome. "Here."

He tossed the contents in the man's face. Sputtering, our victim began to stir, blinking open his eyes. Rome and I leaned toward him expectantly. Seeing us hover around him must have shocked and frightened him, because he belted out a little-girl scream.

I winced. Rome grabbed a pillow to stuff over his face, and Tanner ran into the room and slapped him. "You should be ashamed of yourself!"

"Don't hurt me," the man cried. "Please don't hurt me."

"I locked the front door," Tanner told Rome. "Can I stay?"

Rome rolled his eyes. "Why not. Why stick to plan now?"

"I'll tell you anything you want to know," the terrified guy said.

I'd never been to a torturing session before. I'd seen several on TV, of course, so I had kind of expected resistance. Maybe threats, maybe cussing. Instead our guy blubbered like a baby. "Is he faking?" I asked, confused.

"No," Tanner said with disgust. "He really is this much of a pussy. No offense," he added wickedly, looking at Rome. Then, exasperated, he threw up his hands. "How are we going to work in these conditions?"

Rome looked like he wanted to flip Tanner off, but instead crossed his arms over his chest. "What are you doing here?" he asked our victim.

"Waiting for Dr. Roberts," was the hasty reply.

Rome gave Tanner a pointed look.

"What?" Tanner said.

"Is he telling the truth?"

"How the hell should-oh, wait." Tanner hopped to the man-who screamed again-and placed a hand on his shoulder. He closed his eyes. "Yes. Truth." His lips stretched into a full grin. "This is so cool. I'm a human lie detector, just like Lexis said. I mean, once I opened the gate to my superpowers-"

"You're an empath, not the Hulk," I said. Jeez. "And we need to get on with this." I admit, I was nervous and wanted to leave ASAP.

Tanner splayed his arms, an action that said, Look at me and look your fill. "Don't pretend you don't like the Tanner flavor. Like I was saying, once I opened the gates to my powers, it's been a constant stream of emotions and new abilities. The guy spoke and I could totally feel his fear recede."

"Good," Rome said. "Now, if you two don't mind, I'd like to resume my questioning. That is why we're here." He frowned at each of us before turning his attention back to the man. "Does Vincent know where Dr. Roberts is now?"

"No, no. I swear he doesn't."

Tanner nodded. "Truth."

Finally taking up my post, I walked to the nearest curtained window. I sank to the floor and crossed my legs, propping my elbows on my knees. There was a slight crack in the brown material, and I was able to see outside. The men had the interrogation under control, and we needed a lookout. Thankfully, everything appeared calm.

"What are Vincent's plans for Belle?"

"He-he wants to test her. See what she can do, then use her in the field."

"Truth."

"Does he have an antidote for her?" Rome asked.

"No."

"Truth." Tanner glanced at me. "Sorry, Belle."

Was I sorry? Part of me was, I think. Part of me… wasn't.

Rome pushed out a frustrated breath. "Let's try this from a different angle. Does Vincent have any leads on the doctor's whereabouts?"

The man shook his head, his dark hair slapping his forehead. "Dr. Roberts tried to break into Vincent's lab yesterday, but he was spotted before he got inside. He was chased, but managed to escape again."

"Truth."

"Now we're getting somewhere." Rome planted his hands on the chair arms and leaned down. "Why did Dr. Roberts want back inside the lab?"

I suspected the answer was that he'd been leaving me that "present" he mentioned in his note.

Inching backward, the man babbled, "I don't know. No one knew."

"Lie," Tanner said triumphantly.

"Do I really need to torture you?" Rome asked quietly, leaving no doubt he would do whatever was necessary. "The animal inside me-allow me to introduce you to him." For a split second, Rome 's mouth and chin stretched forward, his teeth gleaming long, sharp and menacing. "The animal inside me is hungry. Very, very hungry."

The guy squealed. "We think he left a written copy of the formula in his office," he babbled. "But we haven't been able to find it."

"Truth."

The formula-that's what he was giving me! What better present, in his mind, than the one thing that could possibly make me, well, me again?

Rome ran his tongue over his teeth. "How many men does Vincent have chasing Belle?"

"I don't know the exact number, I swear, I just know he wants her. Bad. Every day he sends more men searching. If he studies her blood, he can make more like her and his agents can begin killing off everyone who opposes him. He'll run the most powerful para-agency in the world. He'll decide which countries win wars. He'll decide who to help, who to destroy. Please, just let me go. I want to go home."

"Truth," Tanner taunted. "He just wants to run home to Mommy."

The man risked a glare in Tanner's direction, but cringed again when Rome snarled. "He'll never stop searching," the man added pitifully. "Like you, he'll do whatever it takes."

Great. What a fan-freaking-tastic thing to hear. My shoulders slumped. "Has Vincent given the formula to anyone else?" I asked. "Who survived," I added, remembering Rome had once told me others had died.

The man shook his head. "You're the only one," he said. "That makes you all the more valuable to him."

"Truth."

I rested my head against the wall and stared out the window, groaning inwardly. Thanks to the doctor's note, I now knew I'd survived ingesting the formula because he had finally perfected it, not because I was some sort of mutant freak with unusual blood. Would Vincent believe that, though? Probably not. That man was all about experiments. "I wouldn't work for him even if he captured me."

"If he caught you, you'd work for him," Rome said, his tone bleak. "He'd make sure of it, even if he had to destroy everything you love."

My dad, I thought, panicking.

Lexis is with him, I reminded myself, and calmed. He's protected.

"What about the formula's ingredients?" Rome asked. "Do you know them?"

"Roberts deleted the files," the man answered, "destroyed the paperwork and fled. There's no way we can duplicate the formula. Not without the written recipe. Or Belle. The hope is that the molecules in her blood will spell out exactly what she was given."

"Truth."

Rome straightened. He stood there for a moment, saying nothing, doing nothing, his expression raw, harsh.

"I cooperated." Tears streamed down the man's cheeks. "You're going to let me go, right? You're not going to hurt me? I won't tell Vincent what we talked about. I swear I won't."

Tanner didn't say anything, but he gave Rome a pointed stare. What was going on between them? Moving faster than the blink of an eye, Rome slammed his fist into the crybaby's face. Instantly his wailing stopped, and he sank into unconsciousness.

"What'd you do that for?" I asked, standing. "He was right. He cooperated."

"He would have killed you if he had the chance," Rome said. His voice was low and raspy, and dripped with quiet rage. "He's lucky I don't cut him up."

"Truth."

Rome shook his head. "Enough, Tanner."

"Yeah," I said. "You better not do that truth-lie thing to me. Ever. Or I'll hurt you."

He grinned. "Truth," he said, and I showed him my fist.

"Let's go." Rome picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. "We've got some planning to do."

"Wait." My eyes narrowed on the man. Rome was right. The guy would have hurt us if he'd been able. Might still one day hurt us if he had the chance. No one threatened my men and left unscathed.

I drew on my darker, colder emotions, let fear swamp me until my fingers went numb, until a mixture of dirt and ice formed. Just as I had that day in Lexis's apartment, I threw the ball. The moment it hit him, a frozen dirt box encased him. It would melt (I think), but not for a long while (I hoped).

I rubbed my hands together. "Now we can go."

true

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