Thursday, July 7, 2016
The Ripple Effect
Actions have consequences. Throw a stone into the center of a pond and the ripples spread out to the shoreline. The nameless person behind the scenes has just thrown huge stones into a number of lives. Now the ripples are starting to spread …
# # #
Brandon Fledermaus is looking for answers. The attack on him made little sense, and his instincts tell him Damien Hancock wasn’t really behind it. That opinion strengthens when he learns Hancock and Zhere Ghan both experienced similar attacks on the same night. Oh, the two kingpins themselves aren’t talking, but they have staff, and their staff tends to gossip, and speculate.
Hancock and Ghan are predators, and so are their employees. Most of the population of Talbot’s Peak is prey—herbivores, rodents. When predators talk, prey is always listening, in the form of a diner waitress, a clerk in a grocery store, a bartender in a local pub, a janitor mopping the floor in the offices of Hancock Real Estate or the tigers’ nightclub, Nirvana. Listening for the movements of predators is how the prey survives.
Brandon Fledermaus is a bat, and bats have excellent hearing. He flits through the night from one contact to another, and listens as the stories grow.
# # #
The doctor holds up a hypodermic. “This is what we have. It still hasn’t been fully tested—”
Damien Hancock thrusts out his arm. “Start testing.”
The scientist grimaces, but Hancock’s money keeps his pups in private school, away from human and herbivorous taints, so he swabs the prominent vein in the crook of the old wolf’s arm, slides the needle in, and prays he hasn’t just poisoned his financial well.
Nothing happens, at first. Hancock growls, down low in his throat. The sound has an edge of panic to it. The Asian cat who ambushed him hit too close to home. An Alpha who can’t shift might as well be dead. If his pack learns the truth, his life won’t be worth scat.
And then …
It starts in his gut, a twist like his innards are reshaping themselves. He doubles over, dry-retching. His heart slams against his ribs like a caged wolf against iron bars.
Then the power hits. Raw, crackling energy blasts through his veins, building and building with no end in sight. All of a sudden he’s twenty again, fierce and hungry and ready to hunt the world and crack its spine in his powerful jaws. His muscles thicken, his neck bulges. A howl starts up in the pit of his lungs and bursts free in a lusty bellow that almost seems to rattle the windows.
Still got it! he thinks exultantly. He’s still the king of Talbot’s Peak. Still the Alpha wolf.
When his body’s shudders stop he rises up. He’s suddenly a foot taller than he was before. He jabs a taloned finger at the empty hypodermic. “Make more.”
The doctor nods bleakly. Secretly, he wonders if it might be best to yank his pups out of school, pack up the wife and the SUV and move to that nice town in Oregon.
# # #
Zhere Ghan stands silently by while housekeeping removes the remains of his wrecked office jungle. One hand grips the edge of his desk. The other clenches and relaxes, clenches and relaxes. Each clench drives his nails more deeply into his palm. His men have searched the manor grounds, and beyond. They have yet to catch the assassin.
A sheep. Someone sent a sheep to kill him. A bloody herbivore. The blatant insult curdles in his gut.
Allegedly it was Fledermaus, but Zhere Ghan has his doubts. He’s studied the bat. Fledermaus certainly has funds enough to afford the Seven’s services, but would he be so crass? This attack reeks of contempt. It’s something Hancock would think of, had he the wit or the subtlety.
Worse still, it nearly succeeded. That rankles even more.
And now he’s lost his favorite and most powerful chess piece. Sergei’s in the wind, no longer at Ghan’s beck and call. Sergei, who knows every inch of this compound, who can ghost past its alarms, defenses and warriors any time he wants to. Who trained Stefanya, leader of the Seven.
The phone atop his desk goes off. The housekeepers jump. Ghan does not. He answers calmly. “Yes?”
“Father?” Tasman, from the club. “Are you well? I’ve been getting jumbled reports—”
“It’s nothing. A glitch in the security system. Stay where you are. No need for you to come home.”
Tasman pauses, reading between the lines. “I could send Leila.”
“No. Keep her with you. Better than a battalion, that one.” He might not have been the only target tonight. At least now he knows his son and heir is safe and, with his lethal assistant to guard him, likely to stay so.
Enough standing about. Time to take action.
“I have matters covered on my end, but there’s something you can do. That dancer, the red wolf, Genevieve Bordeaux. Is she still there at the club?”
“Not any more. She quit the other night. Went over to that new place, with the freaks and the perverts.”
“Did she now?” First her, then Sergei. Interesting timing. “Can you spare an agent? I want her watched. I want to know who comes and goes at her house, and where she goes, and why.”
Tasman makes a small noise, like he’s about to ask a question, but instead responds, “Yes, Father.”
“Good lad. We’ll discuss matters when you get home.” He’ll need to find out if Sergei at least killed Warner Hancock’s bitch and spawn. The House of Ghan is under attack. He can’t afford to take anything for granted any more.
After ending the call with his firstborn, he summons the head of his personal security team. “I want all your current intelligence on Fledermaus, the Hancock pack, Sergei, and that new upstart nightclub in town.” He sighs. It’s a happy sound, full of anticipation. “Looks like we’re going to war.”
# # #
Genevieve awakens from a restless sleep to the sound of a light tapping at her bedroom window. She squints through the gloom and spots a hulking silhouette that can only be Sergei. She springs from her bed and hurries to the kitchen door to let him in.
He does not waste words. “I have left Zhere Ghan,” he tells her somberly. “My life may be worth nothing now. Yours also, I’m afraid.” He bends to kiss her forehead. “I am so sorry, my firewolf. I should have killed him.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.” She isn’t upset. She’s been getting hints of this through her dreams for a while now. She’s known something along these lines was coming. “We’ll need a place to hide, at least for a bit.” A smile curves her lips. “And I know where.”
# # #
Working the late shift on the desk at the Rocky Top Motel, Hoover suddenly straightens when a poignant, musky scent assails his sensitive nose. His phenomenal sense of smell is how he got this job. Hancock’s corporation owns this motel, and Damien Hancock owns Hoover. His job is to assess the travelers who pass through the strip by the interstate exit. Most are humans, nonthreatening and oblivious, on their hurried way from here to there. Some are shifters. Some could pose a threat to the Hancocks and their hold on Talbot’s Peak. Any time Hoover sniffs someone iffy, he’s to contact the Alpha immediately.
One whiff of the man approaching the desk and Hoover figures he’s earned his pay for the week, and then some.
The man walks with a slow, effortless stride, like he’s stalking prey. Hoover doesn’t even need the walk. He knows a tiger when he smells one. He’s got smooth skin, paler than most Indian tigers, and straight black hair that falls to his shoulders. He smiles at Hoover. His eyes chill the wolf to his bones. The tiger’s eyes are blue. Hoover knows only one other blue-eyed tiger: Sergei, Zhere Ghan’s freak albino pet.
He swallows hard and offers up a wide, friendly smile. “Welcome to Talbot’s Peak, sir. Would you like a room?”
“That’s usually why one comes to a motel,” the tiger says dryly. His voice holds the hint of an accent, and it isn’t Indian. “I’ll need lodging for a week at least, possibly longer. Have you any available?”
“This time of year? Not a problem. You’ve got your pick of the second floor. How about one near the ice machine?”
“That will do nicely,” the tiger agrees. He nods toward the motel entrance, and the garishly-lit street beyond. “That road out there. Where does it lead?”
“Up into the mountains.” No point in holding back. He has a sinking feeling the tiger already knows and is toying with him. “There’s a town up there about the size of a pinhead. Nothing of interest, really.”
“Talbot’s Peak, yes?”
Scat. “Yeah, that’s it. They’re kind of insular up there, though. Survivalists. Home-grown Montana militia. You don’t want to go up there.”
“Perhaps not.” The man signs in and produces a credit card. Hoover makes close note of his name. Mikhail Dvorak. That answers some questions and raises a ton of others. Mr. Dvorak gives him a cold, thin smile and climbs the stairs. He’s brought no luggage with him.
The second he hears the upstairs door clap shut, Hoover dives for the phone and speed-dials the Hancock stronghold.