A muffled pop sounds as I head down the stairs into the basement to check in with Asa. Racing to the old hammer above the worktable, I grab the antique and tilt it away from the peg-board to trip the sliding wall in the corner. The wall doesn’t move.
Another pop sounds.
What the hell?
Walking over to the hidden door in the corner, I bang on the concrete.
“Hey? You in there? What’s going on?”
A minute goes by and the panel finally slides open. Asa stands shirtless, holding a long knife dripping blood. The smell of vampire blood and cordite hits me in the face like a stumbling drunk hitting the floor—hard and fast.
I push past him into the room and see what’s left of Joanna sprawled next to the opening. Her naked body lies against the concrete with a huge hole in her chest with her partially destroyed head lying a foot away.
“Holy fucking shit, man! What the hell did you do?”
“I can explain.”
“Explain? Are you out of your ever-loving mind? Vivian’s going to kill you!”
“Joanna tried to get me to help her drain Vivian.”
Whoa. Never expected that. It certainly puts a new spin on things.
“Huh. You don’t say?” I venture into the room a bit. “And why is she naked?”
Asa has the grace to look uncomfortable at my question. “Well… she, um… came down here and we had some fun…” He looks off in the distance and runs a hand over his clean-shaven head.
“Yeah, I’m listening… keep going.”
“She flipped out, man. That’s all I can say. I’m not sure when it happened—somewhere near the end I think.”
I must look incredulous; because he rushes on to explain without any verbal encouragement from me.
“First, she tried to drink me dry—I swear. She was talking about Vivian a lot and wanting her blood. And then she started yammering about how powerful we could be if we figured out a way to trap Vivian and drain her slowly.”
A snort sounds from me before I can contain it. “Trap Vivian? Yeah, right.” I shake my head at the ridiculous thought. “And come out alive? She must have been insane.”
“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, she’s been acting freaky toward Vivian for a while. But plotting to drain her? I had no choice.”
My look speaks volumes—and I’m sure he can see it. What a dumb ass. Vivian will be pissed.
“Seriously, dude,” he continues to ramble. “I had to protect the seethe. It was the right thing to do.”
“You trying to convince yourself or me?” I shake my head and walk away, back into the basement workroom, through the concealed opening. “You should have told Vivian. That’s what you should have done. You’re fucked.”
“Wait!” Asa’s panicked voice reaches me. “Can you help me clean this up?”
My laugh rings out as I take the stairs three at a time. “No fucking way. This mess is all yours, boy.”
I slam the basement door behind me, putting as much distance between myself and that train wreck as possible. There are times I wish I could be a fly on the wall. To listen in and see how things really work when I’m not there.
This is one time when I can honestly say that’s not how I feel. Vivian’s going to flip out; I wish I wasn’t even in the state of Alaska when the shit hits the fan on this one.
I grab the cell clipped to my waist and call in my intentions to the command center. Which is much safer then heading back and actually having to talk to Asa in that bloody room.
“Drew to command center. No need to pick up.” I add, hoping he’s busy with clean up and will listen to me rather than responding. “I’m heading over to the lobby to check-in on the new werewolf arrivals. We’ve got less than two hours left until the hunters are released.”
“Roger,” comes Asa’s short reply.
Would I have acted as Asa did, had I been in his shoes? It’s convenient for me to play Monday-morning quarterback and say he should have called Vivian, but would I have? I guess it would have to be pretty damn serious for me to pull the trigger. Patting the side holster carrying the Colt 45 I’m wearing for the hunt, I can’t help but wonder if I would have even reached for it. Guns, and using them, don’t come second nature to me.
The sounds from the lobby greet me before I can clear the dining room—loud, raucous hellos and shouts of welcome. The first thing I see is a smiling Vivian, as a short man with a powerful build spins her around.
“Romeo! Put me down, you old devil!”
He does as she asks and a tiny, athletic woman with short hair swats him playfully on the arm. “Careful, dear, no need to rile Jon up right when you walk in the door.”
When I look over at the younger werewolf, I can see hints of strain around his eyes.
“He knows I mean no harm, Elsa. Don’t you, boy?”
“Yes, sir,” comes Jonathan’s smooth reply. “But don’t do it again or I might return the favor,” he adds with a lecherous grin toward Elsa, his old female alpha.
The moment breaks when more of Jon’s old pack comes barreling through the doors, like a bunch of kids playing in the first snow of the year. The fluffy white stuff is shaken off parkas and knocked out of hair, as handfuls of ice are dropped down shirtfronts.
“Children!” Elsa’s voice carries out over the four roughhousing werewolves. “We’re here to hunt a vampire, not frolic in the snow drifts.”
The good nature prevails, despite the admonishment, and the pack members all clamor in to shake hands with Vivian and Rafe before heading over to the front desk to check in.
“Drew,” Vivian nods in my direction, “will bring you all to the theater, where you can catch the scent of Emiko. She was released onto the property about an hour ago.”
As I walk over to escort the group, Jon catches my arm. “The loner wolf, Melvyn, hasn’t checked in yet. His flight landed around the same time, but he hung back at the hanger to avoid coming in with the pack. I’ll wait for him and bring him by after this group leaves, okay?”
“Sounds good. Sure you don’t want to switch with me so you can spend time with your old pack?”
Jon’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes when he answers, “I’ve had my fill for now, but thanks.”
I head over to the two alphas, bowing over Elsa’s hand while introducing myself. “Charmed. Please follow me to the last place Emiko was in our custody.”
The pack trails after me as I head down the hall.
“Have you been informed of all the pertinent information about the criminal?” I enquire to the two alphas.
“Yes,” Romeo answers, “Jon met us at the hanger and drove up in the van to brief us.”
“Vivian looks as lovely as ever—doesn’t she, dear?” Elsa asks him.
Before he can answer, a soft female voice from the back snarkily whispers, “Bitch should keep her fangs off Jonathan.”
I swing open the double doors to the theater and pause for a moment. Not sure if I should respond to this insult to my master or ignore it, I hear a male voice whisper back in a sing-song tone, “Still jealous, Lor-lor?”
Motioning with one arm for the pack to move inside, I stand aside and watch the group filter in. One beautiful young woman with long brown hair glares at me with hate burning in her pretty green eyes. “Can’t wait to get me some vampire meat.” Her voice matches that of the woman referred to as Lor-Lor.
I meet her stare with one of my own, letting my true nature come close to the surface. My civil mask slips a bit, “Anytime you want to tango, puppy, give me a call.”
A growl starts to bubble deep in her throat, as one of her pack mates, a young man with a tight end’s build, pulls her in with a none-too-gentle jerk of her long hair.
“Enough, Lori. He’s not the rogue. We’re his guests.”
“Hmmph.” Her brattish response flows up to me from the sloping path down into the media room.
These younger wolves do act like children; I’m not surprised Jon didn’t want to continue his time with them. It must have been hard for him to bear any comments about his master. Not a weak man by nature, he’s been instructed, as we all have, to make sure we offer no blatant insults to any of the hunters this week.
Polite-host mask firmly back in place, I step deeper into the large room and close the doors behind me.
“Drew?” Romeo calls out, “Where can we find the best trail?”
“The scent of Emiko is unmistakable in the front left corner of the room. She was surrounded by three male vampires, but you should be able to discern her easily.” I maintain my position near the door. “Rafe escorted her to the exit door on the right, where she was released onto the property.”
The wolves crowd around the area I’ve indicated and sniff like, well… like a pack of dogs. Very unseemly, the poor buggers.
“We’ll need to come back here in wolf form to start the hunt.” Romeo calls out.
“Yes, that’s fine.” I answer. “You won’t need to enter the building but can pick up her trail from the hot tub grotto outside. It’s where all of the hunters will start from.”
Romeo nods, motioning for the pack to come back up the aisle. “We’ll head to our cabins now and get ready for the hunt.”
He wisely does not attempt to leave by the emergency exit door. Having all his wolves walk through it would dull the scent of their prey. I lead them back out to the hall, taking a left to bring them to an exit at the end of the wing.
“There is a lighted asphalt path outside that winds around to the cabins. Your bags should be inside waiting for you when you arrive. Please call the front desk if you need anything.”
I hang a polite, innocuous smile on my face as I usher the pack out the door. The one named Lori can’t seem to stop shooting daggers at me with her eyes as she leaves. That one is a true bitch, no doubt about it.
My smile becomes genuine as I glance after their departing forms into the darkness. Nice to be able to say the word “bitch” and mean it literally.
Closing the door, I turn and head back down the way I came. I grab the phone secured at my waist and call Jonathan.
“The pack is out. You can bring Melvyn down now.”
“Thanks. Will do when we arrive.”
Noting there’s under an hour until the start of the hunt, I head over to the dining room. Most all of the vampire hunters are gathered, looking eager to get out into the cold. Fools. Two months up here has certainly taught me to never underestimate the damage the cold can do to one of our kind.
Paul hands out last minute pots of blood coffee to each table. By the smell, I’d say they are heavier on the blood than the caffeine.
Vivian and Rafe work the crowd, as only they can. I don’t have the patience yet for the constant politeness, but I’ve found if I hang back in a corner, I can jump in when I’m needed. The sounds drifting to me from the lobby indicate Jonathan and Melvyn, the new wolf, have arrived and are at the front desk.
Everything seems to be going according to Viv’s carefully constructed plan. How she managed to pull this off is anyone’s guess. The why I understand only a little more clearly. She and Rafe may have come clean two months ago about a possible threat within the Tribunal against Vivian, but any other details not associated to Ivan’s original crimes eight years ago were left out.
That woman has a lot of history and I find it fascinating to see things unfold around her. I haven’t had this much fun in years. My life has been dark since Angie’s death. The chance to kill her murderer was a gift from Vivian; one I’ll always be grateful for. At the time, not so much, but now, yes. It gave me a closure I hadn’t known I needed.
Vivian slowly works her way over to my spot by the entrance to the lobby.
“Would you please start the rounds on the property?” I nod, ready to take my leave. “Asa’s on duty in the command center for another nine hours or so, right?” She’s looking right at me. Crap.
“Yeah, I think so.” My eyes dart away before I can stop them. Oh, I so don’t want to talk about Asa right now. Or the command center. Run away! “I’ll head out now.”
As she nods her gratitude, I push off the wall and head for the east wing, intending to leave through the exit in the poolroom. Jon and the loner wolf are just finishing up, when I wave them down.
“Hey, Melvyn, right?” I offer my hand to the scruffy man in a beat up bomber jacket. “I’m Drew, one of the organizers for the hunt.”
“Good ta meetcha, mate.” This new werewolf’s rough cockney accent brings me back to the streets of London I left behind over a hundred years ago. It took me years to lose my own distinct speech patterns and blend in more fully here in the States.
I drop his hand. “Has Jon told you the news about a possible wolf to run with on the hunt?”
“Yea, on the ride up, ‘e has. Not a real one, though, eh?”
“Better than by yourself,” Jon quips with a roll of his eyes my way.
The shaggy haired, older Were shrugs. “If you say so, mate.”
I say my goodbyes as they head into the north wing to get Emiko’s scent. Continuing on to my original destination, I stride across the lobby. My heavy coat hangs in the pool area where it’s a constant eighty-five degrees. The double doors open at my touch and the humidity of the space rushes out to greet me.
The exotic smell of green palms, tropical flowers and healthy growing things makes this one of the guest’s favorite spots. The lighting and island music give the whole glassed-in, two-story-high room in this wing the feeling of being transported to another world.
“Brrackkk! Watch out! Drew’s got a sword!”
Mikey, one of the green parrots who call this room home, screeches from his perch in a tall palm wrapped with Christmas lights. I smile in response to what has become his usual greeting. The first time he saw me here at the pool was when I chopped off the head of my wife’s killer, so the greeting is accurate.
“Hey, Mikey. No sword today. No fruit either. I’ll bring you some later.”
“Grapes! Don’t forget. Grapes. Braaacck!”
The area surrounding the emergency exit door has been set up as a makeshift receiving area for the hunters coming in from the cold. Coat racks, a table with coffee urns and mugs, hand and foot warmers ready for wear litter the tightly organized space. After being out in the Arctic temps for a long period of time, the pool water is a great spot to bring a vampire’s body temp up to at least eighty-two. The connected spa, set at a hundred-and-one, does the rest.
Grabbing my thick sub-zero parka from a rack, I bundle up and head out into the biting cold. The phone in my coat goes off and I fumble for it through all my layers. “Drew here. Go ahead.”
“Spotted some activity in the greenhouse. Go check it out, we’ve got an employee on duty there.”
“Roger.” I resist the urge to ask Asa how things are going in the basement room with Joanna’s corpse. If I stay out of it, I’ll have plausible deniability when Vivian finds out.
I pick up my pace as the wind howls in my ears. In a minute, the greenhouse looms into view. Because we don’t get any direct sunlight in the winter, the entire outside is covered in a thick seasonal insulation. It looks like a long, puffy semi-circle shape looming above the snow.
The heavy door opens with a swipe of my key card and I step into the lush combination of fertile soil and ripening vegetation. The artificial UV lights cause my eyes to squint after my short trek through the darkness.
Something feels off in the energy of the room. As the door closes behind me I take a deep breath in to scent the air for anything odd.
Just a hint…
A whisper of blood in the air.
A scraping sound ahead and to the left indicates the direction I need to investigate first. Opening the door certainly announced my presence to whoever is in the room, so I don’t believe stealth will work.
“Hello?” I call out. On a hunch I continue, “Emiko, is that you?”
A petite figure dressed all in black steps out into the center aisle, not twenty feet from me. Her long hair is tied back and a black mask covers most of her face.
“The hunt has not begun yet,” she answers. “You’re one of Vivian’s seethe, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am. What are you doing in here?”
“Topping off with a full stomach,” she says, motioning her head back the way she’d come. “Before the race begins in earnest. Don’t worry; I didn’t take too much from the gardener. She’ll be fine.”
I nod, not sure what I should say or ask of the rogue standing before me.
“The charges against me are false you know.”
“Excuse me?” I certainly didn’t expect to hear that.
“Do I look like I’ve survived this long, to do something as stupid as draining five government officials in the very city the Tribunal of Ancients calls home?”
“I think this is all about Vivian. Or as Coraline calls her, ‘Alexandria the Great’.”
She’s piqued my interest now, I’m sure she knows it, but I’ll be damned if I show it.
“Ever wonder about your new master and her mysterious background?” She lifts her mask, pushing it to her forehead, and gives me a small sardonic smile. “The enforcers still talk about her kill record. Even four hundred years later.
“Did you know she never lost a single one? Not one! Never had to have back-up called in, and never required a partner—no matter how crazy the other vampire was.”
I wasn’t aware of the details, but I had heard some things about Vivian’s time as an enforcer. Like that she was one a long time ago. Okay, maybe that’s about all I’ve heard.
“She pissed a lot of the Inner Circle off, including Coraline, spouting her opinions on the hypocrisy within the Tribunal.” Emiko moves down the aisle toward me, her measured steps slow and careful. “Even having served only five years, I easily saw what she meant. Yet, the eleven Ancients always keep silent on the matter of Alexandria the Great. I’ve often wondered why.”
“Can’t help you there. Loyalty to Vivian and all.” I smile a lopsided grin at her. Does she really think I’m going fall for this? Not that I have any information to share, but still, she’s got some gall.
“How did she kill her marks so easily? What weapons did she favor? Who trained her to kill so efficiently?” Her voice trails off as she stares into the lush vegetation surrounding us. “These questions, and more, have been pondered by every enforcer that has come after her for centuries.”
Since I don’t have any answers to those questions, I can see I won’t learn anything more from her on Vivian. “Why should I believe you didn’t drain those officials?” I switch topics to, hopefully, entice different information from her.
Her soft laugh tinkles softly in the humid air. A black blur of motion follows the sound. My head is wrenched painfully to the side, and a loud sickening crack follows me to the floor.
I land on the hard concrete, in a daze as the agonizing pain subsides.
Bitch broke my neck!
Reaching up, I carefully twist my head back to the front and lie still for the bones to re-knit.
“Because I’ve never done anything that stupid in my whole long life,” Emiko whispers close to my ear.
In the next instant, she’s past me and at the door.
“Don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.” The door whooshes shut behind her.
Christ! Don’t think I’ll be sharing this last bit with the others any time soon. Man, that bitch is fast. Wonder what I owe that parting gift to. Afraid I’d try and stop her for the hunters?
In a minute or so, my body heals and I push myself off the floor. A slight mewling sound reaches my ears from deeper in the greenhouse. As I head toward it, the rasp of fabric on concrete pinpoints exactly where the gardener lies.
Rounding a corner, I spot Helena struggling to sit up. She’s holding a hand to her head and has a glazed look in her eyes.
“Drew, honey, would you help me up?”
I reach down and assist the forty-something woman to her feet. “What happened, Helena?”
“Oh, I slipped and fell off that damn thing,” she says, motioning to the black rubber, non-slip stool.
Uh-huh. Safe to say Emiko covered her tracks here well.
“Want me to call Dr. Cook for you?” Our resident physician doesn’t have normal hours, because she’s on call twenty-four seven. The good news is she isn’t needed too often.
Helena tests her weight on both ankles, appearing to do an overall mental check of her body. “Nah, I feel fine. Just a little tired.”
“You’re working later than the curfew dictates,” I gently remind her. “And today is the first day. Why don’t you head on home and call it a night?”
“Good thinking. I could have sworn I was cleaning up a bit ago to head out on time. Don’t know what’s come over me.”
I help her close up the greenhouse and put away her last remaining items. The job takes a little while and by the time we’re done, I realize the hunters have already been let loose. Looks like Emiko got out with some time to spare.
Helena waits by the door for Greg, one of the grounds-keeping crew, to come pick her up. The walk back to the employee apartments is only feasible in the summer during the off-season. The building is a couple of miles away, tucked onto the northwest corner of the property, and she’d never make it back in this cold.
“I’ll report your fall to Vivian so your bonus isn’t at stake, okay?”
“You’re a gem, Drew, thanks.”
I wait with her about twenty minutes until her ride shows up. Before I can step back into the frigid darkness and decide where to go next, my phone buzzes again.
“Some info has come in from Cy on Emiko. Turns out the hot little Asian chick was trained as a female ninja over two hundred and fifty years ago.”
Huh, that explains the broken neck move.
“They’re called kunoichi,” I tell him.
“Yeah, that’s what the report says. How’d you know that?”
“I’ve been around, grasshopper.” A grunt reaches me on the end of the line. “Were you on deck when the hunters scattered?”
“Nope. They left about thirty minutes ago and I was, er… um… still busy.”
I’m sure that answers things about Joanna in a roundabout way, but I’m not touching that pile with a ten-foot pole.
“Oh wait, hold on, dude. I got a call coming in from cabin two’s landline.”
Asa must have kept the channel open on speaker function while he hit the speakerphone button on the landline because Paul’s frantic voice fills the airwaves next.
“Asa! I need help! There’s blood everywhere. And this guy’s dead!”