The three of us kept holding hands, but we were quiet. Bram opened the door in the back wall but went through first rather than hold it for us, because bodyguards always go through the doors first if there are enough of them for it. Ru caught the door and held it for the three of us and Nicky, so that he and his sister brought up the rear. The guards in the little entry room had changed shift, and I knew these two.
Peppy--Pepita--was a little taller than me, darkly Hispanic, with her straight black hair cut even shorter than when she'd come to us, so that it was shaved on the sides and only a little longer on top. She was built like a square, with a pair of shoulders that would be the envy of any man. In the black on black of the behind-the-scenes bodyguards, she looked very masculine. The body-armor vest hid her chest and made it look more like nice chest muscles than breasts. She was partnered with Roger Parks, who was bigger than anyone in the room but Nicky, and taller than anyone but Bram. Roger was a nice guy who looked like he'd take your head off and shit down the hole. He played to the menacing looks, but in a fight Peppy was the more dangerous of the two, partly because she couldn't count on people backing down from just her appearance. I had to work harder, too.
She grinned at me. "Hola, gatita negra." She used the nickname that the wererats had given me; I was their black kitten. I didn't like being called just Kitten, but somehow being their black kitten wasn't the same.
"Hola, Peppy," I said, and I turned to the other guard. "Hey, Roger, Roger Parks."
Roger smiled and shook his head. "Hey, Anita. Are you always going to greet me like that, with both my names?"
"It's how you introduced yourself to me the first time," I said, smiling.
He rolled his eyes. "I remember."
"It makes me remember you."
The far door opened, and Claudia came through it with Pride at her back. "If we keep hiring new people, even I won't remember everyone's names."
Peppy and Roger did the civilian equivalent of coming to attention. I'd seen some of our ex-military types salute Claudia before they could catch themselves. She was head of security at the Circus, which meant she was in charge of the main security for Jean-Claude and the rest of us principal clients. Though I wasn't sure client was the right word when we were their bosses and paid their salaries.
Claudia was also six feet, six inches tall and built so that she could have walked onto most fit-model or Ms. Olympia contests and won by sheer intimidation. Her straight black hair was back in a tight ponytail like usual. It left her face clean and very unadorned. She had strong features, very Hispanic, and since she never wore makeup, her face and the rest of her were so damned intimidating it took a while to realize that she was actually beautiful. She was guapa, which is a Spanish word for a woman who is handsome rather than pretty, like the difference between Nathaniel and Nicky in attractiveness.
Pride was a few inches over six feet tall, but beside Claudia he looked shorter. Only his shoulder spread was wider than hers; he didn't hit the weights as hard as she did, but then few of the guard did except Nicky. Except for him and Roger, even the other men in the room looked delicate beside her. Though as Claudia walked farther into the room, I realized that Peppy's shoulder spread was wider. It wasn't that the girl was lifting heavier than Claudia; it was just natural body shape. Peppy had fabulous shoulders and arms if you were wanting to lift or box.
Pride followed Claudia like a blond, golden-skinned shadow. His short hair curled too much to avoid it unless he wanted to shave it down, so it spilled artfully or messily around his handsome face. He was model handsome, like most of the golden-clan weretigers, with blue-on-blue tiger eyes adding to the exoticness of his skin tone. He wasn't a blond who had tanned to a light gold; his natural skin color was golden, like most of his clan.
"Are you saying that you're having trouble keeping the new security hires straight, too?" I asked Claudia.
"I remember their faces, but names are starting to be a problem."
"Then we need to put a hiring freeze on," I said, "if you agree?"
"I agree, but it's not up to me. I'm only in charge of the security at the Circus and the main security around Jean-Claude and the rest of you. Hiring for other clubs and the overall hiring isn't up to me."
"Fredo would agree with you," I said.
"Fredo is still out of town on that special assignment," she said. Fredo, like a lot of the wererats, did contract work overseas, though I'd thought he was past the age for it. Wereanimals age slower than humans do, but he looked well over fifty, and that's old for contract--read mercenary--work. Fredo had two specialties, knives and driving, so wherever he was, either he was driving someone who needed protection, or he was doing something with knives that I probably didn't want to know about.
"I thought you were in charge until Fredo got back from his assignment," I said.
"So did I."
"Okay, who's hiring all these people, then?"
"Each animal group gets to bring in people of their choice," she said.
"Yeah," I said.
"After the last few years they're trying to recruit people that can help them fight, if it's needed."
"Logical," I said.
"People who are good in a fight aren't always good at working in anything else, Anita."
I looked at her, trying to think my way through it. "Are you saying that the animal groups in town are bringing in fighters and then expecting us to find places for them to work in our security without asking first?"
Micah said, "Claudia, you should have said something to us."
"You're busy helping other cities with bigger issues than this," she said.
"Then you should have brought it to me," I said.
She gave me a look, one hand on her hip, and I realized that though her nails were trimmed as short as possible for fighting and weapons practice, they were painted red. I'd never seen her use polish before.
"You're traveling out of town for the Marshals Service and to raise the dead almost as much as Micah is lately. Besides, Anita, this is my job."
"And you're great at it," I said.
"But it's not your job to talk to animal groups outside of the wererats about their new people," Micah said.
"No, it's not. Our king tried to speak with some of the other leaders, but they accused him of trying to serve the interests of the wererats over the rest of the groups in town."
"It shouldn't have fallen to Rafael to try to fix this," Micah said.
"Then just stop saying yes to employing them as part of our security force," I said.
She closed her arms over her chest and scowled. Her arms tensed and all that muscle stood to attention. It was sort of eye-catching, but I made myself raise my eyes to look at
her face in case she thought I was staring at her chest instead of her arms. I think she was grinding her teeth.
"Wow, you're pissed. What happened, or what else happened?"
"They were recruited to the various animal groups and invited to move to St. Louis with the understanding that they would be guaranteed employment."
"It's not our job to guarantee them employment," Micah said.
"That needs to come from you or Anita."
"Why hasn't Jean-Claude stepped in and stopped it?" I asked.
She shook her head. "He told me to talk to his accountant. He sees it as a money issue, and there's money to pay them. What there isn't, is work for them, and too many idle fighters are bad news."
"Agreed," I said.
"I'll talk to Sylvie about the payroll and then to Jean-Claude about what I learn," Micah said.
"You leave again on Friday," Claudia said.
"I'll talk to them before we leave for the wedding on Friday. I promise."
"And I'll explain to Jean-Claude that it's more a security issue than a money issue," I said.
"We can always use really good people," Claudia said.
"I'm confused," I said.
"I don't want to pass up people like the SEAL team, Anita, but we don't need more people whose only experience has been as college bouncers, or college athletes that didn't quite make the cut to professional."
"May I add one?" Pride asked.
Claudia nodded, once down, once up.
"We don't need more martial artists that have never had a fight outside of a tournament."
"Sorry, Claudia," Roger said, "but I was a bouncer at a college bar and I'd been in martial arts and wrestling all the way through college myself."
"Yeah, but you don't suck like most of them do."
Roger grinned at her. "Thanks, boss."
Peppy added, "A lot of the new wereanimals aren't very good with violence."
"They're wereanimals," I said. "They hunt animals; that's violence."
"Hunting for food isn't the same thing as when the food has fangs, claws, and fists of its own," Claudia said.
"Fair enough," I said, "but we don't need people that can't fight for real on our payroll."
"I couldn't agree more," she said.
"And you say you brought this to Jean-Claude's attention?" Micah said.
"I did, but as I said, he saw it as a payroll issue, not of the new hires being below the standards that the wererats had set for your bodyguards."