Thursday, May 26, 2016
For his personal time he came here, to his personal space. These underground quarters predated the ranch house above. Dieter Fledermaus had built these rooms first, before he even started on the above-ground cabin. Call it a den, lair, burrow, rec room, basement, or bunker, all rodent shifters had an inborn need for a private place underground. Even those who normally took to the sky.
Brand had added his own touches—flat screen TV, Internet, softer lighting, sound system, library, more comfortable furniture. The rough-hewn rafters had been left bare and untouched since Grandpa’s day. Sometimes a fellow just needed to roost.
No one ever called it the Batcave. Not to his face, at any rate.
He’d poured himself a drink and had the glass at his lips when someone rapped briskly on the door. He sighed and set the glass back on the desk. “Come in.”
The door swung inward and Jerboa stuck his graying head in. “Just checking in.”
“I’m fine, Jer, thanks.” He waited. Jerboa remained stubbornly in the doorway. “I don’t need anything. Including a babysitter.”
“Beg to differ, boss. There’s been rumblings in town. Hancock’s in one of his moods again. Better safe than sorry.”
“Hancock isn’t fool enough to make a direct attack. I’ll check with my attorney and find out if he’s been up to anything. That will be all, Jer,” he added pointedly.
Jerboa had gone silent, intent. Brand swung his feet off the desk. “You hear something?” Jerboa said, his voice hushed.
His keen ears had already caught the noises in the house above, whispery scratches that didn’t belong. Like claws on the hardwood flooring. Jerboa gestured at him to stay put. “Shut the door. I’ll look—”
He disappeared from the doorway. Brand shot to his feet even before he heard the loud crash in the hallway. He lunged for the door.
Before he even reached it a wolf leaped inside. Or maybe not a wolf. Its body was too narrow and stringy, its muzzle long and pointed, its ears large. Coywolf, Brand thought. The men had mentioned a coyote nosing around the trash heap. Going so far as to rear up and peer through the windows. He revised his initial assessment. Shifter.
The beast cocked its head to regard him shrewdly. Deducing the jig was up, the coywolf shifted. A lanky, narrow-chested man with brownish-blond hair and a cocky grin stood before him. Brand waited for the coywolf to make his move.
“I’ll bet you’re wondering what’s up,” the shifter said. “We could have just emailed, I suppose, but this is so much more fun. Damien Hancock says hi.” He charged Brand.
If he was expecting a shift from his target, he was doomed to disappointment. Brand preferred the unexpected. When the shifter came at him he simply sidestepped, grabbed the man’s arm and flipped him into the desk. The crash was spectacular. Similar noises from the hall, and a decidedly feminine yelp of dismay, told him Jerboa was holding his own. But against how many?
The coywolf rolled off the desk and landed on four feet. He whirled toward his target—and found only a pile of clothing. Automatically he looked to the rafters, scanning for a small, flitting shape.
Exactly as Brand had predicted. The biggest advantage to having a shape with wings was everyone expected an aerial attack. With the coywolf focused on the ceiling, Brand crept from beneath the pile of his clothing and scuttled across the floor. In seconds he reached the wolf. His fur provided all the holds a bat could want.
Just because Brand wasn’t a vampire bat didn’t mean a lack of sharp, dangerous teeth. He battened onto the coywolf’s throat and burrowed through the fur.
# # #
Even as he turned toward the sound behind him, Jerboa was grabbed and yanked off his feet by—well, goddamn. By a woman. A petite bit of muscle with hair like a desert sunset and a sharp, vixeny face. She crouched over him in an attack pose. “Stay down,” she ordered. “It’s your boss Hancock’s after.”
“Can’t do that, little lady,” he drawled, and kicked her in the stomach. She went down, hard. Clearly she wasn’t expecting resistance from the old guy. He got to his feet before she did, and aimed a kick at her head. She dodged it, but just barely.
The little lady sure had pretty eyes. Right now they were huge as the Panhandle, with recognition growing in them, quickly followed by panic. His ego flared up briefly. Dammit, it felt good to be remembered.
# # #
“Now then,” Brand said. He had the coywolf pinned to the floor. The fur around his throat was tinged with blood. Brand had bitten just deeply enough to prove his point. Unlike his distant vampiric relations, blood gave him stomach cramps. No need for the coywolf to know that, however. “How about you tell me what’s going on here.” He tightened his grip on the coywolf’s ruff. “It will be easier if you shift.”
His captive did so. He wasn’t smirking any more. “You’re dead,” he gasped out. “Hancock wants you dead. You don’t stand a—”
A woman came flying through the open door. She hit the wall, slid to the floor and didn’t get up. Jerboa strolled in and hauled her upright by her hair. “Looks like it’s just the two of ‘em, boss. You’re lucky you didn’t get this one. Filly’s got a punch.”
“So much for your backup,” Brand said. “Now tell me what Hancock thinks to gain by sending two clearly untrained fighters to attack me in my own home.”
But the woman picked that moment to shift. Her wolf form had reddish fur, a sharp snout, dark legs and a thick brush of a tail that was tipped with white. She snapped at Jerboa, who dropped her. At the same instant the coywolf-man suddenly bucked and shifted and shot out from underneath Brand. Both raced out the door at top speed. Jerboa followed, yelling for the hands.
He returned some minutes later. “Got out through the kitchen,” he reported. “The boys’ll run ‘em down. Loco. But then, it’s ol’ Damien we’re talking about.” He brushed reddish hairs off his sleeve. “Looks like we’re at war with the Hancocks.”
Brand rubbed his own set of hairs between his fingers. Tawny hairs, that hadn’t come off a full-blood wolf. “I wonder.”
# # #
“Never,” Castor panted. He kept his eyes on the sky, alert for swooping, sharp-fanged forms. “Never again. Let the killers do the fighting. Nothing but spying for me from now on.”
“Relax,” Pollux said. “We lost them.” But she also stared at the sky. A leaf fluttered between her and the stars, and she flinched. “I hate bats. And kangaroo rats. And rodents in general. I’m with you. Intel-gathering all the way.”
“You didn’t recognize Fleddy’s pal? That was Jerboa Calhoun. Retired MMA fighter, world-class kickboxer. I’m lucky he didn’t take my head off. What the hell’s he doing working for Fledermaus?”
“Health benefits?” Cas fingered his throat. Thank Lupa the bleeding had stopped. “I better not need a rabies shot. You watch MMA?”
“Hey. Sweaty men in tights beating up on each other. What’s not to like?”
“Dunno. I’ve always been into roller derby. Let’s get back and report. As of now, I’m out of the assassination biz.”