Thursday, March 24, 2016

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

Far from Talbot’s Peak …

The man behind the antique mahogany desk carefully considered the reports his agents, the Seven, had sent him. Things had gone quiet of late in the hidden shapeshifter town. The inhabitants scurried to and fro in pursuit of their wretched little dreams. Meanwhile, those who mattered sat back and kept wary eyes on one another, but did nothing other than grow fat.

That would not do. That would not do at all. Peace, even a tenuous peace, did not suit his plans.

He reached for his phone. Time to shake things up a bit.

# # #

The Seven gathered in a corner of the dining room at the inn where Alec had found lodging. The room was practically empty, and the food was indeed as delicious as he’d promised. If only I could enjoy it, Stefanya thought, or anything right now. But they weren’t in Talbot’s Peak on holiday. All enjoyments would have to wait until after their assignment was complete.

She greeted the members of her team and let them engage in a bit of small talk before she got down to business. “I’ve received communication from our employer,” she said.

“About bloody time,” Cloyd the assassin muttered. He stabbed his fork into his salad and decapitated a slice of tomato. “When do we start killing?”

“Not just yet,” she said icily. She knew she should put her emotions on hold, but the sheep just ruffled her feathers. The sheep ruffled everyone’s feathers. She resolved to find a replacement, once their current mission was done. “Our employer gave specific instructions. No deaths yet. Terrorism first. He wants to play a bit.”

Cloyd flashed a smile with little sanity in it. Somehow Stefanya repressed her shudder. “That’s better. My kind of guy.”

“Targets?” Yuri asked. His strong, low voice brought them back on track. She squeezed her lover’s hand beneath the table. Yuri squeezed hers back.

“Three,” she said. “The rancher, Brandon Fledermaus. The real estate mogul, Damien Hancock. The businessman, Zhere Ghan.”

“Don’t you mean the crime boss?” Castor said. “Oh, wait. That could be Hancock.”

“The money men,” Irwin mused, chewing thoughtfully on his lettuce. Stefanya watched in wonder. The Australian botanist had been with the team for three years, and she still wasn’t quite used to the concept of a vegetarian crocodile. “The big boomers. Security out the arse. Getting to them won’t be easy.”

“Which is why I’ve called you together,” Stefanya said. “You’ve had time enough to study the town and its people. What can you tell me of these three?”

“Got it covered,” Castor said. He flipped his placemat over, bummed a pen from his partner Pollux, and swiftly sketched a crude map, with a tall triangle in the center to represent the Peak. “Hancock holdings,” he continued, drawing an irregular circle around the triangle. Most of the town of Talbot’s Peak fell within its radius. “He also owns properties down at the exit. This little wedge here is a dude ranch, right between his western boundary and the start of the Fledermaus spread, which is here.” He drew another circle.

“And here,” Pollux finished, outlining a third circle with the tip of her finger, “is the Ghan compound. Rumor has it he bought the land from Hancock through a proxy, so the wolves didn’t know they’d sold to a cat until the ink was dry. Word is the Big Kahancock isn’t happy about it.”

Castor stared at her. Clearly this was news to him. “Says who?”

Pollux tossed her red-fox hair and grinned at him. “Says every Hancock employee who bought me a drink while you were out marking territories. They’re wolves. A girl just has to shake her tail and they’ll tell her anything.”

Stefanya smiled thinly. Her spies had done well. “Our employer wants us to strike at them in the heart of their own territories. Where they feel the most secure. Which would be … ?”

“Stately Fledermaus Manor is here,” Castor said, marking an X within the one circle. “If you want to call a ranch house stately. He likes the simple life. That’s just the surface, though. Bet he’s got an underground sanctum. Most bat shifters do.”

“If that’s true, he won’t be easy to get at,” Alec said. “I’ve already done a flyover. No outside alarm systems I could see. Inside, no idea. He runs regular patrols, to protect the cattle, I guess. Some of his employees are vampires.”

“Real, or bat shifters?”

“Shifters.” He shivered beneath his pullover sweater. “Fast. And very suspicious.”

“I can get in,” Castor said. “I’ve been there enough in my coyote form. They know I’m not a Hancock wolf, so I get a pass.” He draped his arm over Pollux’s shoulders. “Bet Pol could get in too, if she shook her tail.” She growled at him and shoved his arm away.

Stefanya nodded. “Hancock?”

“He’ll be tougher. His stronghold’s here.” Castor put an X halfway up the side of the triangle. “You and the owl are fine, but those of us without wings are SOL.”

“Not necessarily,” Yuri spoke up. “These American Rockies are no challenge to someone who’s scaled the Himalayas.”

“There’s an elevator inside the mountain,” Alec added, “but yeah, you’d be better off outside. He has next to no electronic surveillance. Mostly relies on his bodyguards. Alpha wolf, y’know. Arrogant.”

“But still a wolf,” Stefanya said, with a worried look at Yuri. “And you’re a cat. If they see you—”

He shook his head with a gentle smile. “They won’t.”

She relaxed. He had a point. Leopards, especially snow leopards, could disappear like ghosts when they wanted to.

Which left their final target, the one that concerned her most, for reasons she would not voice aloud before Yuri. She made sure her voice was steady before she spoke. “Zhere Ghan?”

“Here.” A final X appeared beneath the tip of Castor’s pen. “High walls, armed guards, and tigers out the ass. Good luck getting a closer look.”

“No worries,” Irwin said. “While the rest of you were sitting on your tails, or shaking them around …” He beamed at Pollux, who shot him the finger. “I got a job. Part-time with that greenhouse at the edge of town. They supply plants to offices and other businesses. And to the Ghan place. It’s like a bloody jungle in his office. Tigers do like their greenery. I can draw you a floorplan of the whole flippin’ house.”

“What about a security system?” Alec asked.

“That I don’t know. But tell you what. I’m scheduled to make a delivery at his place three days from now. Come along with me. I’ll distract any prying eyes while you have a go at his systems.” His crocodile grin got wider. “This spying bit is fun. Cas, can I team with you and Pol on our next job?”

The coyote/wolf grinned back. “If you think you can keep up.”

“All right,” Stefanya said. “We narrow our focus to our targets and wait for further instructions. Any questions?”

“Can we kill now?” Cloyd asked.

“Not until we’re told to. Anyone else?”

“I got one,” Irwin said. “Who are we working for? Bloke’s got money, that’s a given, or he couldn’t afford us. But who gives a good bite about a bunch of shifters off in the woods in Montana? I don’t see where bogging up their lives makes a bloody difference to anybody.”

“Clearly it makes a difference to our employer,” Stefanya said, “which is all any of us needs to know. Any other questions? No? Then let’s enjoy our meals. After this we go to work in earnest.”

# # #

Following their meal the team moved on—Castor and Pollux, Irwin with Alec, Cloyd as always alone—until only Stefanya and Yuri remained at the table. She lingered over her coffee, avoiding Yuri’s eyes.

“You’re troubled,” he said. “You don’t care for this assignment any more than Irwin does.”

“Irwin doesn’t like the climate. He can’t stand any place too far from the equator.”

Yuri huffed. “Who are we working for?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “He never gave a name. I have no way to contact him. It may not even be a him. He alters his voice electronically and uses an untraceable phone. Alec already tried,” she answered before he could ask the obvious.

But the deposit to her account had been quite real, and quite substantial, if also untraceable. As had the subsequent payments. Normally she would not have questioned so closely. However …

This was Talbot’s Peak. And he was here.

“I don’t know,” she repeated. Except … there’d been something in that altered voice that had seeped through even the masking technology, something that put up her guard. Their employer had an axe to grind with one if not all of their targets. An axe he fully intended to see buried in somebody’s skull before this job was over.

She got up. “I need to fly,” she said. “I’ll be back before dark.” She bent to kiss Yuri. “I promise.”

He nodded, and let her go. He trusted her implicitly. That hurt her most of all, because this time that trust was misplaced. She hurried from the dining room, and barely made it to the inn’s front door before her clothing fell away from her falcon form. She soared into the blessed purity of the open sky, to begin her hunt.

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