Mary the mute, who was of course no mute at all, opened the door and stepped quietly into billionaire Theodore Kraznick’s inner sanctum. He looks good today, she thought. Calm, in control, every bit the hard driving businessman who makes fortune building look easy. She was in love with him, of course, so her opinion might be a bit biased. Still, he wore his custom tailored midnight blue suit well, the crimson power tie a perfect accent. The lines in his strong features were much reduced from just a few days ago. However he’d done it, the top vamleopard shifter on the planet had once again found his center; Ted was back on top of his game.
Let his enemies beware.
“Speak freely,” he said, waving a hand toward the deeply padded chair she preferred. Real elk hide upholstery on that one, soft as a mother’s kiss on her bony bottom. Not that I can remember my mother kissing my bottom; that would be weird.
She began her report without preamble. “Two new shifters showed up this morning. Wolf forms only; they’re in no way multiple talents. From South Carolina, father and son, go by Paps and Bub.”
Amusement reached Kraznick’s eyes. “Paps and Bub? Inbred redneck cliché names or what?”
“They’re pretty cliché, all right. Our intake desk does report a few anomalies worth considering. The older man thinks he’s better than us but tries to hide it. The younger one is just plain crude, a couple of notches dumber than a box of rocks. They reek of opportunism…and they’re bitter toward the Clan leader they abandoned.”
“They’ve said that?” The billionaire’s eyes narrowed; bitterness in a traitor to his Clan was a fine trait, a trait that could be exploited, but lacking enough control to keep their mouths shut? Not so good.
“Not in so many words. But our intake people are good at what they do.”
“Ah. So, they’re singles, then?”
“Yes. No spellcasting talent.”
“All right. Next.”
“The latest report out of Montana–”
“Our idiot patrol. Yes. Go on.”
“The Sheriff in Deer Lodge and the local coroner are both on record as believing Brant and Lars shot each other. Brant was shot five times, one of the bullets going through his heart. Lars was shot once, through the left eye.”
“Cagey bastards,” Kraznick murmured almost admiringly.
“The idiot patrol?”
“No, no, I’m referring to the Wizard and the Weaver, or whoever helped Doctor Menning take the fools down. Presumably Rodeo Iron, unless Menning popped them both, all by himself. But,” he sighed, ” why couldn’t that idiot just follow his damned orders?”
“Got me, sir.” The operatives had been authorized to drop by the doctor’s home clinic, to loom and intimidate if possible. They had not been authorized to shoot anybody. Brant Glazier had gone way off the rez when he decided to try killing a man his boss had not ordered terminated. It made no sense. Unless…”Sir, it’s possible Glazier got the bright idea that (a) you did want Menning dead and (b) he could move up in the organization if he took a little initiative.”
Kraznick thought about that, steepling his fingers, considering. Mary Congdon waited silently. She was good at being silent, good at waiting.
“Maybe.” Her boss nodded, a bare dip of the head. “You might be onto something there. Brant Glazier…he wasn’t all that much brighter than Lars, not really, but he did have a spark of misguided ambition. It had gotten him into trouble before.”
“And this time it got him killed.”
“All righty then. Menning has disappeared for now, but we’ll find him eventually. If he’s left the area for good, that’s probably all we need to know. You have the redneck puppies waiting?”
“For the last two hours, sir, the better to mess with their heads.”
“Send them in. Oh, and permission to speak freely revoked.”
Mary the mute closed her notebook without comment, rising to go about her duties. She would not speak again until her lord and master once again gave her permission to do so. It was a good thing, this enforced silence. It gave her a serious edge over the chattering magpies that made up the rest of the human race.
Paps was slouched in a chair in the waiting room. His son paced the floor, not bothering to hide his anger at being treated this way. What were they, peons expected to wait patiently? Dogs? No, they were not dogs; they were wolves, fierce and wild, and by everything sacred, they should be respected.
When the pair went past her, striding on into Lord Heartbite’s office like they owned it, she had to bite back a smile. They had no idea. One word from her would mean their deaths, in horrible and protracted ways if she so chose, yet they considered her less than furniture. It was so easy for morons to overlook the power of the silent woman.
Although Chilly Bronson had not overlooked her. The brat had played her, and she still didn’t know how he’d done it. Ted wasn’t blaming her. In truth, she couldn’t remember him ever blaming her for anything that went wrong, ever, and he’d been fooled, too. But to lose a kid with that much secret talent…ouch. And how was he staying ahead of the pursuit team? True, they only had one witch on his trail, backed up by a half squad of expendables, but Tonya was no slouch. Returning to her office, she sat down at her oversized desk and pulled up the latest report.
Picked up one emotional flare at 6:23 a.m., an extremely powerful burst that lasted for 3 minutes and 13 seconds, more than long enough to pin the runner’s location. Subject was 22 degrees off from expected direction of travel. No repeat burst; nothing to triangulate. 73 miles SSE of our current position. He’s making better time than our worst estimates. Trail Spell not working; don’t know why. Expendable Duane (mundane tracker) able to follow, but slowly due to heavily wooded terrain chosen by subject to date. Best scenario: Will reach burst location in 2 days. Worst scenario: 3 days, possibly 4. Burst location: Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin, just shy of Menominee Indian Reservation. One conclusion: Subject does prefer deep timber for cover.
Mary had read this report twice through already…but this time a plan popped into her mind, fully formed. She knew plenty of the Menominee people, not surprising since she was 3/8 Menominee herself and had been raised on the reservation. Well…on the reservation that was eliminated by the U.S. Government at one point. Two of her uncles had been instrumental in the effort to get their Nation re-recognized as a Nation, and God bless President Richard Nixon, who had signed the bill Congress had put on his desk, making the Menominee sovereign once more.
She couldn’t tell her contacts the whole truth, of course; they would not appreciate knowing she worked for a vampire shape shifter. No, they would not appreciate that one little bit. But a version of the truth, that might be quite useful indeed.
Time to email her boss.
She had her answer back within minutes; he must have liked her idea. Yes, it’s a go.
Pulling up her contact database, she selected for Menominee people she knew who actually lived within the borders of the rez. She kept the tone light and humorous.
You’d never guess what crossed my desk today. Another werewolf sighting! Yeah, yeah, we all know about The Beast of Bray Road, all the Wisconsin werewolf sightings (by white people, of course, not NA’s) in recent decades. Seems some credulous hiker had himself a sighting just this morning, a creature in the forest–get this!–just north of the rez, not far from Bagley Rapids. This animal is no brother of Manabush, though; he’s supposedly a short, really fat wolf!
Well, hey, just a moment of laughter in my day. If you happen to spot a chunky chicken kind of wolf on the rez, let me know.
She hit Send. Her contacts didn’t exactly include all 8,700 Menominee, but 54 was a whole lot better than nothing. Who knew? Even one sighting of the “joke wolf” might be enough to make the difference. Added to the emotion burst, it could establish a direction of travel. With luck, Ted could authorize a helicopter, lift the pursuit team and drop them ahead of the fleeing youngster. Ambush? Priceless.
Homer “Paps” Meeker was a lot sharper than he looked. He was, in fact, a shrewd judge of people, and one look at Lord Heartbite was enough to tell him all he needed to know. This guy’s a saber toothed tiger to my lazy assed bloodhound; I will not be looking to mess with him, ever. Sadly, Meeker knew he had one horrible liability, a handicap that could easily drag him down to the depths, get him killed or worse.
His son, Jeremiah “Bub” Meeker, was a certified idiot and a triple certified jerk.
At the moment, Theodore Kraznick, Lord of the Manor in every way, was eyeballing Bub without the slightest hint of expression. Even the father of the triple jerk idiot had trouble believing the kid had said what he had. “We’re the toughest badass werewolves you’re ever going to meet,” he’d arrogantly claimed, “and if you don’t want to give us our due, we’ll go elsewhere.”
He’d said that; he really had. Kraznick’s silence probably only lasted three or four seconds, but that can be a long time under the right circumstances. In the rodeo arena, four seconds amounts to one half of a qualified ride on a bucking bronc or bull; ask any rough stock rider how long four seconds can be. Paps was pretty sure his life was over. That being the case, he composed himself, determined to go out with dignity, or at least as much dignity as the vamshifter decided to allow him. He waited, quiet, resigned to his fate.
Bub did not deal well with silence, at least not silence following his–to him–obviously important pronouncement. Still, he hadn’t quite gotten around to spitting out any more stupidity by the time Kraznick spoke, addressing Paps. “This is how you trained your cub?”
“Sir,” the graying shifter replied, “this is how I failed to train my cub.”
Bub’s eyes went wide. He was a teenager, after all, a teenager who’d just been openly insulted by his own father. “What–”
The steel in Kraznick’s voice cut him off. “Jeremiah Meeker. You insist on your due?”
“Yeah.” The youngster’s brow lowered, imitating the way he wore his jeans. “I said so, didn’t I?”
“Indeed you did. Do you mind answering a few questions? After all, this is an interview. I’ll need to know the answers to decide on your proper…due.”
“Uh. Yeah. I s’pose.” The boy did not like answering questions. The process reminded him too much of teachers and classrooms and stuff like that. He began chewing his nails.
“Good. Question number one: How fast can you shift?”
Kraznick turned to Paps. “Do you know the answer, Mr. Meeker?”
“Yessir. The fastest I’ve ever timed Bub on a shift is nine point four seconds, but he has to be angry to shift that fast. If there’s no emotion involved, he can take up to thirty seconds or more, struggling all the way.”
“I’m smooth, Mr. Kraznick, but not the fastest by a long shot. Pulled a complete shift in three seconds flat a time or two, but my average is closer to five going to wolf, four coming back to human.”
“You’re aware of your limitations, Mr. Meeker. That’s a good thing.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m not proud of those limitations, but I do know ’em. And I still practice, trying to get ’em down a bit.”
“Wait! Wait! Wait!” The angry teenager was sputtering, boiling over like a pot on the stove. “I thought you were supposed to be questioning me!”
“Indeed,” Kraznick replied softly. “Indeed. Question number two, then. Our intake desk reports that you have no spellcasting ability whatsoever. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Are you interested, then, in becoming a vamwolf?”
“Of course! That’s kind of the effing point, isn’t it? I didn’t come all this way for nothing!”
Paps shook his head ruefully. “The boy has never been overly inclusive. From the day he was born, it’s always been all about taking care of Number One.”
“Ah.” The man behind the desk smiled, chilling Paps to the bone. “Let’s give the man what he wants, then. Do you have a stopwatch, Mr. Meeker?”
“Not…not on me, sir.”
“Well then, here.” Kraznick tossed the glittering timepiece in a soft arc.
Paps snagged it easily, left handed. After all, he’d played shortstop in the Minors for a couple of years, back in the day. “Holy crap!” He thought, “This case is solid gold, and are those…diamonds?” A fancy functional piece, too, digital, capable of–
“Time me if you would, Mr. Meeker. Both going and coming.”
“Um…yes sir…let me just….”
“Yes. Yes, I’ve got it. Any time–”
Kraznick’s form blurred. Paps punched the watch stem. It seemed no time had passed at all before the giant leopard leaped across the desktop, fully formed. Paps punched the stem again. He’d gotten it right; surely he’d gotten it right. He couldn’t look at the watch face to see, though; his attention was riveted to the spectacle before him. The leopard’s barbed tail lashed around and forward, the tip spearing Bub smack dab center in the gut, driving through the boy, then retracting, the barbs lying flat, allowing the living weapon to pull free. The big cat was launching back over the desk before the boy even realized he’d been hit, let alone killed. Its form blurred. Paps punched the watch stem. Kraznick seated himself in his fancy chair with the leather upholstery, fully human, a dark stain on his coattail the only evidence of anything unusual. Paps punched the stem again.
The two men waited, expressionless, while the failure of the Meeker line fell to the floor, screaming, blood gushing both front and back. Kraznick keyed something on his control console; seconds later, four men entered the office through a side door, picked the dying youngster up by his arms and legs, and carried him out.
“Might good soundproofing,” Paps remarked, relieved to note his voice sounded normal. There was a stain on the plush crimson carpet, but the sound of his son’s agony had cut off the moment the door closed.
“The best,” Kraznick agreed. “I don’t dick around.”
“I can see that. Your times?”
“Yes, what were they?”
“One point three seconds to leopard. One point three seconds to human. That would be an unbeatable record where I come from.”
“Here, too. I was born fast; it carried over when I changed.”
“I presume my regrettable offspring will die, or is dead already, right? Sir?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. By the way, Homer–I really don’t care for the Paps nickname, if you don’t mind–feel free to call me Ted. Coffee?” He got up to pour, as if he were a down home country boy entertaining a guest.
“Yes, please…Ted. Black.” Frankly, Paps detested coffee almost as much as he detested his given name, what with kids back in grade school calling him Homer the Homo all the time, but he wasn’t about to admit that to the fastest vamleopard on God’s green Earth. “You said, maybe not?”
“Grab that chair on the end, there would you? This across-the-desk stuff is for playing games. I don’t believe you and I were meant to play games.”
“No, I don’t suppose we were.”
“Homer, I hit your misbegotten son with a strong dose of the virus but none of my combat venom. Do you know how the virus works?”
Did he? There were stories everywhere, but…. “Not really.”
“All right. Virus 101. It’s the virus, what we call the vam virus or vampire virus, that makes a vampire. All the old books and movies and old wives’ tales, they almost got it right. Why the scientific community has never identified this virus, I couldn’t say, except that it’s a slippery little bugger. The thing about creating a new vampire by biting a victim? That’s bull. It doesn’t transfer in saliva, doesn’t hang out in the mouth at all. There has to blood transfer.”
“Huh. You…passed blood through your tail?”
“I did. My leopard form is no accident. I chose that form a long time ago, working with a group of alchemists who believed they could help me design at least part of a specialized fighting form. We focused on the tail only, mainly because if things went south, the tail could be amputated without losing the rest of the animal. It was a dangerous experiment, which as far as I know has never been successfully duplicated, but it worked. I can control my tail strikes to inject up to 100 cc’s of blood, 100 cc’s of venom, both, or neither. Bub got the full 100 cc’s of blood. There’s a one in five chance the virus won’t kill him outright. If his system and the virus decide to get along, the virus will replicate at lightning speed, possibly even soon enough to repair the damage I did to his gut. I deliberately missed the spine, by the way; if he lives, he’s still going to be a dumbass, but he may think twice about mouthing off to me again, and I may be able to use him as cannon fodder in the future.”
“So….” Homer sipped his coffee, stalling for time, trying to figure out how to phrase his next sentence. “I’ll be getting injected, too?”
“Yes, no, and maybe. If I do decide you’re a viable vamwolf candidate, we’ll eventually give it a shot, but nothing like the shot Bub got. Instead, it’ll be a needle injection, a single cc mixed with a cocktail of viral suppressors I’ve developed over time. What that will do is slow down the growth of the virus, give your body and the virus more time to get acquainted before the kill/no kill decision point is reached. It still won’t guarantee your survival, but it will improve your odds considerably, to just over sixty percent.”
Homer felt a tug of relief threaten to loosen his bladder, sixty percent being decent odds in Vegas, but the billionaire wasn’t done yet.
“Frankly, I’m rather hoping you’ll prove valuable as a single talent, a werewolf only. Before I explain what I have in mind, I do have a question for you.”
“Fire away.” The graying werewolf winced. Fire away might not have been the best choice of words.
“Our background check states that you have a daughter. Where is she?”
Homer didn’t hesitate. He couldn’t afford to hesitate. “Wisconsin, last I knew. Dead or alive, I couldn’t say.”
“And why is that?”
“She…she took after her mother’s side of the family. Weak, shifts naked–no gear carry–and she couldn’t keep up on the trail.”
“So you abandoned her.”
“I…yes. She’d been following our scent, all the way from South Carolina, but she was lagging farther and farther behind. The last time I saw her, she’d barely made it to our camp by the time we were ready to move out again. I…in a way, she was tougher than I thought. I thought she might just follow us all the way here, but if she hasn’t made it by now, she’s not going to.”
“Brutal honesty.” Kraznick nodded in approval. “You believe in Darwin’s law.”
“Survival of the fittest. Got to, dealing with Nature, red of fang and claw. Or something like that; I can’t say as I’m remembering the quote exactly right.”
“Good.” A touch of a button brought the wall to wall screen behind the desk to life. “This is an aerial shot, part of the National Forest in Wisconsin. The route you took, and which your daughter would have been following, didn’t go through this area precisely, but it was close.” He picked up a pointer, indicating a spot indistinguishable from any other except for the red X. “We have a runaway who was identified at being here, right where you see the X, at 6:23 this morning. He’s only twelve years old, but unlike your son, he’s proving that he’s smart, tough, and talented. Do you have any problems with helicopters?”
“Dunno, Ted. Ain’t never been on one.”
“Ah. Well, you’re about to find out. This is your test. If you do well, your genetic mistake will be forgiven and forgotten, and I will most certainly find a position for you in my organization. This X is in heavy timber. I want to put you down in the nearest clearing where the chopper can hover close enough to the ground to let you jump out without breaking any bones. That looks to be about a quarter mile from the spot. Then, with your wolf nose and your wolf speed and power, you are to follow this boy’s trail until you catch him. He’s a fat one, fattest little werewolf I’ve ever seen, at least in boy form. I’ve never seen him in wolf form.”
“You want me to snag this kid and bring him back?” This was too easy; there had to be a catch.
“Bring him back if you can, kill him if you can’t. He’s got abilities I could use, but the most important thing is that no one gets the idea I can be defied without consequences.”
“Makes sense.” The kill will be a helluva lot simpler; I’ll just do that.
“One other thing, Homer.”
“Your daughter may be with him.”
“I…never thought of that. What are the odds, do you think?”
“Never mind the odds. Simply consider it a possibility.”
“Okay. And, um, Ted, what do you want me to do with my daughter?”
Kraznick looked at him levelly. “You’ll kill her if I say?”
“Hey, boss, my life is yours. I get that.”
“All right, then. Same rules. Bring her here if possible, kill her if you can’t. But if she’s a pretty little thing and goes to waste for no good reason, I will not be pleased.”
Homer Meeker swallowed hard. “Of course not. One runaway cub, coming up, dead or alive. One doable daughter, coming up, secured for the harem. When do I leave?”
“Hear the chopper?” Kraznick grinned, a shark barking its teeth. “I’d say you leave right about now.”
Moments later, the helicopter was on its way, bearing the hunter wolf toward Wisconsin. Lord Heartbite stood at the window, watching the aircraft as it dwindled into the distance. Will that redneck really deliver his daughter up to be raped? He might; trafficking in one’s offspring for one’s own benefit was certainly not new.
Well, the answer would come shortly, one way or another. Besides, taking out Chilly Willy Bronson was what mattered; the girl was an afterthought. Less than an afterthought, really, since he didn’t have a harem. He wasn’t even capable of having sex. No vampire was; the virus destroyed a man’s libido entirely, another little detail the books and movies had gotten dead wrong.
The idea of vampire sex certainly did sell though; he had to give it that. Nothing like the power of illusion