Thursday, July 21, 2016
Brandon Fledermaus stared at his waiting computer screen and sucked in a long, labored breath. He wasn’t looking forward to this, but it needed to be done. “You want a drink first?” Jerboa offered drily.
“Not yet. I need all my wits about me. Afterwards, leave the bottle.” He glanced at the clock in the screen’s corner. This call had been arranged earlier. The one he could count on to respond. The other? Still up in the air. He prayed both would listen. Lives, perhaps more than their own, might be at stake.
At precisely 7 pm he activated Skype. The screen split as he connected with the two incoming calls. One hurdle cleared: both horses had been successfully led to the water. Now to get them to drink. “Gentlemen,” he said. “Thank you for hearing me out.”
“You haven’t said anything yet,” Damien Hancock growled. The image from his end was slightly out of focus. Brand studied it as best he could. The Alpha wolf didn’t look good. He appeared somehow bloated, and hairier than usual, as if he hadn’t shaved or even combed his hair in days. By contrast, Zhere Ghan’s image practically crackled with clarity. He looked the same as always: handsome, dignified, polished, urbane. Dangerous. That burned in his narrowed eyes and was picked up by the camera. Hancock’s eyes were harder to read from his blurry image. They looked bloodshot.
“I’ll get right to the point,” Brand said. “By now you both probably know I was attacked in my home the other night. I know the two of you were also attacked the same night. Supposedly each of us ordered the attacks on the others. For example, the pair that came after me made a point of telling me they were Hancock agents, under orders from—”
“Like I’d bother,” Hancock snarled. “Stinking little flying rat. Scrape you off the bottom of my shoe.”
“While my attacker,” Ghan said smoothly, “dropped your name rather casually into the conversation, Mr. Fledermaus. Care to explain?”
“That’s why I arranged this meeting,” Brand said. “After asking around and weighing the evidence, I’ve concluded—”
“What evidence?” Hancock broke in. “Who’ve you been talking to? My wolves wouldn’t talk to you. They’d chew you up and spit out the wings. You’re just trying to—”
“Damien,” Ghan said, “be still. I wish to hear what our neighbor has to say.”
“Stuff it up your tail, you striped bastard. He’s not your neighbor. You don’t have a damned rat gnawing at your borders. You just hide in your den and send others out to skulk around. What’sa matter? Too good to get your paws dirty? You want a piece of me, you come at me yourself! See what it gets you!”
“Cram it, stripey. I will not ‘be still.’ You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Still as in dead, right?”
“I will admit,” Ghan said, “your demise would give me a measure of satisfaction. One less annoyance to concern myself with. But I didn’t order an attack on you or on anyone else. Not this time.”
“The hell you didn’t. Hump you. Hump the both of you.” Hancock’s blurry image vanished from the screen.
After a moment Ghan said, “Well. That could have gone better.”
Brandon didn’t answer right away. Hancock had a reputation for aggression—he was an alpha wolf, after all—but that outburst had been over the top even for him. “Something’s off,” he murmured.
“With Hancock?” Ghan sniffed. “You needn’t have disturbed me to tell me something both of us already know.”
“And I didn’t. I called to tell you both my findings. I’m convinced none of us ordered any attacks on the others. But somebody wants us to think that. Someone’s trying to pit us against each other. Someone from outside.”
“A common enemy?” For the first time, Ghan showed a modicum of interest. “Who would benefit from our mutual demise?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to ferret out. Either somebody wants the three of us to destroy each other so they can move into the power vacuum, or one of us was the real target and the other two are a smokescreen.” He half-smiled grimly. “I’m sure you have a number of enemies with a personal axe to grind.”
“Too many to count,” Ghan confirmed. “Including Hancock. You?”
“Hancock wants my land. He’s never made any secret of it. But that attack on me seemed awfully impersonal. They weren’t assassins, or fighters, for that matter. They weren’t even there to kill me. They said as much. I don’t know the details of Hancock’s encounter, only that someone got in, and also left him alive. What about your attack? Anything hit close to home?”
On the screen, Ghan stiffened. Ah, Brand thought. Struck a nerve, did I?
“My attacker did try to kill me. And mentioned your name,” the tiger reminded him.
“Then your life could be in serious danger. Hancock’s too, from his reactions. I suspect I was thrown in to muddy the waters.”
“And now you’ve called to inspect your handiwork?”
“I called to report my findings to you both,” Brand said patiently, “and to propose an alliance. I was hoping the three of us together—”
“Ah. The plot reveals itself.” Ghan turned brisk. “Remove us both and secure your own position, all the while playing the innocent. A tiger does not have allies, Fledermaus. A tiger has servants and enemies. I will deal with Hancock, as I should have long ago. And then I will deal with you.” He cut the connection.
Brand was still staring at the empty screen when Jerboa approached with the brandy. He set the bottle on the desk. “Well,” he said, “you tried.”
“I had to. Even though I think we both knew it wouldn’t work.”
“Yep. That’s a predator for you. So what happens now?”
Brand sat back and reached for the bottle. “We keep digging,” he said, “and try to contain the collateral damage before all Talbot’s Peak gets caught in the blast.”