Monday, November 3, 2014
Strangers in the Night
Stefanya soared above the Seven’s latest target, Talbot’s Peak. If she loved any part of an assignment, it was this: reconnaissance. Learn the town, learn the people, their employer said. The killing could come later.
Her team had already disbursed to their individual tasks. Castor and Pollox (no more their real names than they were truly twins) had set up a blind from which to spy on the bar that served as entrance to Dante’s underground complex. Two more wolves would not be noticed in the woods around Talbot’s Peak. By now Yuri would have secured employment at the bar. He would be their inside man. Irwin was scouting several likely prospects: a flower shop, a garden center, the many eateries that relied on locally-grown organics. Alec was hampered somewhat by the town’s overall indifference to electronics. When a place and people relied heavily on their gadgets, Alec came into his own. This assignment leaned more toward Irwin’s and Yuri’s strengths.
At least until the mission reached its conclusion. Then it would be time for the sheep.
If a falcon’s beak could form a grimace, Stafanya would have done so. She did not care for the sheep. She didn’t even like to think his name. He had left them at the exit, with promises to join them in Talbot’s Peak after he’d “unwound a bit.” The last they’d seen of him, he’d been trotting determinedly toward the rodeo arena. So many humans, he’d giggled, so little time.
So far there’d been no reports of any homicides at the exit. The sheep’s idea of “fun” took many forms. As long as he didn’t draw attention to them, Stefanya would allow it. He’d proven in the past he could control himself. Up to a point.
Then her keen eyes spotted someone who, thankfully, drove all thoughts of the sheep from her mind. She’d heard he’d moved to Talbot’s Peak, in service of Zhere Ghan. There was another ugly story Stefanya preferred not to dwell on. She wondered instead why he would choose to wander out in the open like this, so blatantly visible. A white tiger prowling the nighttime streets would draw even a shifter’s attention.
As it had drawn hers, a point proven when he raised his head and gazed directly at her. Whoever he’d been angling for, she’d fallen for his snare.
She could fly on. She was on assignment. Yet some things mattered more than the mission. The gyrfalcon dove like a bullet, to pull up at the last possible second. She landed lightly before the tiger, on human feet. Her voice did not tremble at all. “Sergei.”
He shifted into his own human form, towering over the diminutive woman. He inclined his head. “Stefanya.”
“You don’t look surprised to see me.”
“News of your coming preceded you.”
“Already?” Stefanya looked thoughtful. “The witches?”
“The Seven makes powerful waves in the ether, so they inform me. You have psychics on your team now?”
She thought of Alec and his miraculous mind for tech. How he would laugh to be told he was psychic! Better him than the psychotic sheep. “I warned our employer Talbot’s Peak had witches. He wouldn’t listen to me.”
“And that would be … ?”
Stefanya smiled. The action brought a dimple to one cheek. “You know I can’t tell you that. I will tell you, it isn’t Zhere Ghan.”
He nodded. “You know I must inform him of your presence here.”
“Go ahead. Everyone else seems to know already.” Not that it would matter in the end. She tilted her head to look him in the face. “You look well.”
“And you, little diver. You won’t tell me who is on your team, I know, but let me guess. One is cat of some kind, yes?” He chuckled at the flash in her eyes. “Always the little bird flies to the cats. You have death wish, Stefanya.”
She looked away. Her dimple disappeared. “He’s alive, you know. Mikhail.”
“He will come for you. He’ll hunt you down.”
“And you, if he discovers you here. Your team is good, yes? Good enough to protect you?”
She thought of Yuri pitted against Mikhail, and repressed a shudder. She thought of the sheep, and prayed to all spirits of the air it never came to that. “I can protect myself, as you should know.”
“You will need to.” Sergei rested his hand on her shoulder. He was one of the few people on earth who could do so and not risk a scoring from her talons. “Advice, little diver. Abandon this mission. If your target is who they say it is, you will not succeed.”
“And what makes you think we’re here on a hunt? This is Talbot’s Peak, the shifter haven. We’re here to gather information only.” Again she thought of the sheep. Most of us.
Sergei snorted. “As you choose. I ask one thing only. Remember I am here.”
She nodded. That statement could be taken many ways. She picked the most benign interpretation to cling to. In a sudden flurry of feathers she became a falcon again. Sergei’s hand dropped from her wing. She paused only long enough to press her beak against his cheek, in lieu of lips. Then she sped away.
When she looked back, the street was empty. Sergei had already disappeared.
# # #
Zhere Ghan rose from behind his desk when his assassin entered his office. Sergei did not waste time with greetings. “The Seven are in Talbot’s Peak.”
Ghan raised a brow. “Indeed? Well. Someone’s in for a difficult time, then. Any idea who?”
“Wind whispers Dante Hancock. Others could be targeted. Take special care until we know.” He regarded his employer. “You did not hire them, of course.”
“Me? Great Ganeesh, no. I’m not that desperate. Seven operatives means seven chances for disaster. Maybe it was Hancock. Losing his pet mad scientist may have driven him over the edge. One can only hope. You will investigate this fully, of course.”
Ghan’s lip curled. No “Lord Ghan” from Sergei. He knew better than to demand one. “You know the Seven? You can handle this alone?”
“I know their leader. She is good. Very good. I trained her.”