Thursday, June 2, 2016

Strike Two

About the time Castor and Pollux were getting their asses handed to them by a pair of martial-arts rodents, Damien Hancock was prowling the halls of his stronghold once more. He couldn’t relax. He couldn’t be still. There was something on the wind tonight, a peril that teased at his senses but refused to reveal itself. He couldn’t put a finger on what disturbed him, and that made him both angry and afraid.

So he figuratively went to ground, to the Alpha suite. Nothing could reach him there. The door was reinforced steel, and the balcony was inaccessible except by air. The day he couldn’t deal with a stupid bird-shifter, or a bat, he’d—no. He’d never give up his position as Alpha. Some other wolf would have to take it, and no Hancock wolf had the guts. He’d made sure of that by ripping said guts out of any wolf who showed gumption. This was his pack, by Lupa, and he’d hold it in an iron grip until the day he died.

He climbed behind his desk and glared out the windows, wondering from which direction the next attack would come. There was always a next attack, when you were Alpha. You had to stay alert.

His gaze moved from the windows and scanned around the dimly-lit room. The couch where he brought lower-rank she-wolves when the mood struck him. The stone fireplace, currently cold, with a pile of dead ashes on its floor. Before it lay a tiger-skin rug. He’d bought the thing at an estate sale, not long after Ghan started bumping up against his borders. A private joke to himself, a promise to the tigers. His eyes swept beyond the rug to the walls, straight and smooth with no crannies to hide in, to the balcony door—

Which stood ajar.

Damien gripped the edge of the desk. He’d locked that door. He always locked the doors. Nothing could have climbed up the side of the Peak. Nothing could have broken in. The alarms would have gone off. Somebody would have smelled or heard an intruder. One of his own, looking to advance? Impossible. He had them all cowed.

He was about to get up when the rug before the fireplace turned its head toward him.

Damien grabbed at his desk drawer, for the gun he kept there. The drawer resisted. Locked. The key. Where had he hidden the key?

When he glanced up again, the cat had risen up on two legs. Scent and the dim light filtering through the windows told him it wasn’t a tiger. It wasn’t any American cat, either. They wouldn’t have the balls. Only one bastard could have sent him.

Damien rose up with a snarl. “Nice try, but no dice. You tell Ghan—”

The cat kept on coming, right up to the desk. “I will tell my employer,” he said, in a smooth, deep voice, “how easy it was to get in here. How easy it was to slip past your wolves and your security.” He stopped on the other side of the desk. He smirked at the alpha wolf. Suddenly he lashed out and slapped Damien hard across the face. “How easy it would have been to slash your throat. You’re the great alpha wolf who rules Talbot’s Peak? My employer has nothing to fear.”

Damien roared and leaped across the desk. It might have been an impressive attack, thirty years ago. The cat-shifter simply stepped aside. Damien’s own momentum slammed him to the floor. In the next second the cat caught Damien around the throat. His grip was powerful, merciless. Younger. Nevertheless Damien struggled until he was frothing at the mouth.

The cat merely held on. He didn’t even squeeze. He seemed perplexed. “Why don’t you shift?”

Damien continued to thrash, but there was desperation in it now. He had to take the cat out fast, kill him if he could. Before he guessed. Before he—

“You can’t,” the cat-man realized. “You’ve gotten old. Your body’s aged beyond its ability to shift.” He let go of Damien and stood. His voice was rife with scorn. “That’s why the old wolf hides away. That’s why you only allow meek followers. You can’t face a challenge. You’re no longer a threat.” He left Damien and strolled toward the balcony. “I’ll tell my employer he has nothing to fear. You won’t be around much longer. Once the pack finds out, your own wolves will tear you apart. We’ll make our arrangements with your successor.” He went out through the balcony door.

“Don’t you dare,” Damien tried to roar at him. It came out a wheeze. “Don’t you dare!

Now he remembered. The key to the drawer was taped to the bottom of the desk. He struggled to his hands and knees and scrambled to the desk. His groping fingers found the key. He jammed it into the drawer's keyhole. After an eternity, the drawer slid open. Damien dug around inside and found his gun. No threat any more? We’ll just see!

Still wheezing, he lurched to the balcony and peered over the rail. Nothing. No sign of the cat. It was as if he’d simply vanished.

Vanished with his knowledge. Knowledge he would deliver to Zhere Ghan. Ghan would see that the world spread around. And then—

“No,” he whispered thickly. “I’m the Hancock Alpha, dammit. I rule the Peak!”

Hurrying back to his desk, he called his security team. Someone had gotten into his office, and where the hell were they? What happened to the alarm system? Heads would roll and guts would spill for this. After he chewed out his head of security he made another call, to his private medical lab. “I want it,” he said.

“We still need to test—”

“You’ve done enough testing. Give me what you’ve got and get it up here now!”

He slammed the receiver down. Better late than never. As long as he was Alpha, never would never arrive.

# # #

The wolves were trackers, chasers, killers. Not climbers. Yuri avoided them easily. In his youth he had scaled the Himalayas in both human and snow leopard form. To him, this baby American mountain was little more than a ladder.

So the old wolf had aged past the ability to shift. That could be a game changer. Stefanya must be told. Silent as a spirit, he crept down the face of the Peak.

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