Trusting the people behind me, I focused forward one slow, careful step at a time, intent on matching the building’s innards with the briefing Chilly Bronson had provided. Low level offices on this first floor, mostly deserted now. We’d chosen to hit Heartbite on a Saturday when all of his mundane employees were off for the weekend–the noncombatant types, anyway–just as Kraznick had repeatedly assaulted Rodeo Iron when the welders were away from the shop, home working on their wives’ To Do lists or drinking themselves blind or whatever. None of us wanted the masses to become aware of the semi-supernatural war being waged beneath their noses. Quite frankly, none of us on either side could survive a nationwide witch hunt if the ordinaries ever got involved.
Not that I thought of any human as ordinary; that was a Kraznick term I’d picked up from the kid.
It had taken me nearly a full minute to wipe the blood from my goggles. Never mind cleaning the rest of my face; this was likely to get worse before it got better. My senses strained outward, testing, desperately needing that split second of warning…what was that? No. Nothing. A creak of the building, settling or complaining about the damage done to it by Hill’s initial strike. First room on the right…clear as far as I could tell, but were those…? Yes. Desks. Children’s desks, the pedestal kind with lift-up hinged lids, relics from the fifties or I missed my guess. Believe it or not, Heartbite taught children here. Were children, most likely, or did he brainwash offspring of mundane employees as well? Chilly hadn’t said; it must have seemed ordinary to him, not worth mentioning. The young werewolf had taken classes in this very room, basic everyday stuff during daylight hours, supernatural goodies three evenings a week during the winters.
No enemy worth the name could be hiding among the children’s desks, but the teacher’s desk and supply closet…I eased into the room, my boots moving more quietly than one might expect, given their special composition soles. When they needed to be, they were sneakier than sneakers. Neither Jack nor Sissy would follow me; clearing the room was my job.
Which turned out to be no big deal, this time. The teacher had apparently left her rubbers–overshoes, for those of you with dirty minds–under her desk, this not being the rainy season, but that was the extent of it. As for the supply closet, it was so crammed with schooly type stuff, a fat frog would have been in trouble behind that door.
The building wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t tiny, either. I’d eased through seven more rooms, all of them obvious office cubicle places except for one computer learning center. The cubicle walls wouldn’t provide much protection against bullets, but they made the rooms a series of visual hells for an invader. That’s me, the invader, I thought. More like a rat in a maze, expecting to turn the corner into the jaws of a rat eating snake at any second. The image could turn literal, too; we’d already encountered a hundred pound rattlesnake, the one that killed Horace and Jennifer, as well as a Jurassic were dino that shouldn’t even have been possible. It seemed all too likely that a four hundred pound fat man shifter could transform into a coiled python with expando-jaws big enough to swallow a two hundred pound cowboy without choking. Or did snakes choke? Probably not; they likely lacked a gag reflex.
Still the silence held, oppressive, a weight that threatened to hunch my shoulders down under the load. Kraznick had overextended himself every time he sent his minions against Rodeo Iron in Montana, but he was not overextended here. This was his turf, his citadel. He clearly knew how to fight a psychological war at close quarters.
I began to wonder if we’d made a serious mistake, charging right into the leopard’s den.
At that precise point, the ugliest decision of all loomed directly in front of me. It didn’t look like much, a simple door on the right, the same side as that first classroom. This door, however, led down a flight of stairs to the basement level. Only one level down there below ground, at least according to Chilly, but it housed the company break room. There were other rooms the youngster admittedly knew nothing about. Storage, he thought, and a bunch of electrical equipment, but he’d never been in any of them. They were always locked, always off limits. Anything could be in there. Emergency exits like our tunnel system back home. Weapons. Holding cells. Literally anything.
Or nothing at all.
We simply had no way of knowing. I understood, suddenly and with terrible clarity, why our military forces hated urban warfare. Fighting in and around the endless corners and hiding places inherent in any place called civilization…it was anything but civil. I wiped sweat from my forehead with the back of one wrist, smearing raptor blood into the mix, trying to think. If we had enough troops, we could and would simply post guards to watch this door, clear the rest of the floors all the way up to the top level where Kraznick’s offices perched, and worry about the basement later. But there were only the three of us; splitting up at this point would be as dumb a move as that made by Custer in his ill fated attack against the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe at the Battle of the Greasy Grass.
Come to think of it, we were probably just about as badly outnumbered as Custer had been back then, too. On the plus side, Yellow Hair had refused the offer of a Gatling gun for that little adventure, but we had a Purple Fire Wizard. One can only take these analogies so far.
Crap. I was stalling, not a good idea in this time and place. We didn’t dare waste time, but we didn’t dare leave a totally unexplored basement behind us, either.
Sissy suddenly clicked a signal in my ear. I jumped; the silence had been so intense that even that bit of noise in my headset nearly made me stain my shorts. She’d finally found what we’d known had to be there, a camera lens that blended into the decorative molding between wall and ceiling. Kraznick was watching us…or was he? I thought for a moment, then stepped over beneath the camera’s position. Sissy weighed 150 or so nude, closer to 175 as currently outfitted, which still made her the lightest member of our force by a fair margin. Hill stood guard while Sissy and I leaned our rifles against the wall. I lifted her up, her battle knife made short work of the molding, and sure enough, the camera was hard wired.
She ripped it loose, cutting the wires just for the heck of it. Did the billionaire have battery backup for these camera circuits? Redundant circuitry that would isolate the camera we’d just cut out of the loop, leaving the other cameras effective? Frankly, there was no way to know; this went way beyond Chily Bronson’s knowledge of the building’s layout. And either way, we were undoubtedly under surveillance of some sort.
Which meant, come to think of it…. “Jack,” I whispered, “Can you provide a little light and sound for the stairwell, when I open the door?”
He simply nodded. Abandoning any pretense at stealth, I crossed the hallway, grabbed the door handle, yanked as hard and fast as I could, flattening myself against the wall in a hurry.
It almost wasn’t hurry enough. Before Jack could release his strike, the explosion of green fire burst from the doorway, the hollow boom hardly registering as my retinas overloaded. Sissy had moved on down the hallway a bit one way, Jack the other. Flaming emerald goo splattered the wall where they’d been standing, sticking, burning, dripping, the leftovers sizzling when they hit the floor. In fact, I realized as I blinked rapidly, trying to clear my vision, the stuff was eating through both wall and floor. What it would do to flesh, I preferred not to find out.
The Wizard seemed to take it in stride. I was still frozen in place, holding the door handle in a death grip, when Jack sidestepped, lifted one hand, and flicked, a gesture that seemed entirely casual. From the corner of my eye, I became aware of a series of concussions rocking the stairwell, ordinary white light–ordinary?– pulsing, a new wave with each blast as the strike apparently went bang at every third or fourth downward step.
I hadn’t known he could do that.
Hill’s whispered voice penetrated my brain fog. “Step away from the door, Tree.” It was a mighty solid door, something stronger than ordinary steel, but I was happy to comply. It didn’t even register that my partner had taken over, stepping into the leadership breach until my brain could unscramble itself. This time, he did use Purple Fire, but as a tool rather than a weapon, welding the door securely to its frame, up the left side, across the top, down the right.
He looked exhausted when he was done, shaking his hands again in what was becoming a familiar gesture.
“How long?” I asked.
“Ten, fifteen seconds,” he gasped. He was right; I could see color and energy flooding back into his face even as we spoke. The Well provided by Carolyn West, clear back in Montana, gave him recuperative abilities beyond those of any normal man. Or even a vam, for that matter. It occurred to me that it might be a good thing if Kraznick was watching all this; Hill sealing off the basement like that–wait a sec. Almost sealing off the basement.
It took another ten minutes to clear the rest of the rooms. That left the elevator, probably not working but who knew? “Think you could weld those doors shut?” I asked innocently.
Hill shrugged. It was easier for him this time, took less energy to weld up a single vertical seam between the two doors that would now open nevermore. But…”What’s that smell? Oh. Burnt rubber.” I’d forgotten about the seal.
Sissy put in her two cents worth. “Hope we don’t need that elevator on the way out.” I was pretty sure she wasn’t serious; none of us were likely to chance getting trapped in such a contraption.
Well. Basement and elevator sealed off, one floor covered, three to go. One booby trap so far…set in the only stairwell we’d faced, with our next move being a…stairwell. For all of three, maybe four seconds, I thought about that.
“Change of plans,” I announced quietly. “Plan A sucks.”
Our hideout, tucked among a jumble of boulders near ridgetop a mere half mile north by northeast from Heartbite HQ, had all the amenities. The view, for instance, was spectacular, the hundred acre lake showing the sparkling calm of a northern Michigan evening in late summer. From the far shore came the haunting call of a loon, balanced beautifully by the much closer activity surrounding Kraznick’s damaged citadel, Building A. Frankly, it was noisy down there, more than enough to cover our quiet supper conversation. Not that we were really tasting the MRE’s, but our bodies needed fuel. I turned my gaze to Chilly and asked the umpty gazillion dollar question.
“You’re sure we’re good here for the moment?”
The youngster shrugged. “For the moment, yes. I still have trouble believing Kraznick let you three just walk back out of the building and into the woods like that, but the false trail you laid should hold them long enough. Judging by that last thunder and the change of wind, it should be raining down there any minute now.”
Out of the mouths of babes. It began to sprinkle, just like that. Not driving sheets of sky juice; we could see the buildings easily enough. But the opposition had been hesitant to foray into the woods after us, either because of the initial splash we’d made by wiping out their front door guard contingent or because Lord Heartbite really didn’t have enough shifters to spare on what might well amount to a suicide mission.
“Looks like Teddy’s decided they’ve cleaned up the bodies and enough of the blood,” Jack observed, taking his turn at the spotting scope. “Here comes the power company truck.”
“Yep. Upper Peninsula Power Company, UPPCO logo, truck number, all on the side as it should be. He really is bringing in the mundanes to repair your sabotage, Chill. Wait a sec…Tree, you’re not going to believe this. The big man himself just came out of the building to greet the utility guys. Right out in the open.”
“Let me see.” Jack scooted over; I lay on my belly, sighting through the scope. If nothing else, I wanted to see what this guy looked like for myself rather than continuing to rely on his rare press releases and the descriptions provided by Seed and Beets. “Whoa. He really is right out there, big and blond and looking nothing like a vampire.” I found myself stroking the .25-06 Winchester at my side. The rain was light. There wasn’t much wind. Okay, so it was half a mile, something like 300 feet lower in elevation down there, but still….
“Tree.” Sissy’s voice, that tone that said she intended to stop me from doing something stupid. Like popping the billionaire in front of civilian witnesses, for instance. Still….
“Tree.” Firmer this time, with her hand on my forearm. She wasn’t going to be ignored. “Let me take a look.”
Oh. Sure. She needed to know what this guy looked like, too. I was still calculating ballistics when she announced quietly, “That’s not Kraznick.”
Cold water in face. Gut freeze. “What?”
“I think it’s a double, honey. He’s moving without any limp at all that I can see.”
Chilly chimed in. “Definitely not Teddy boy. Unless he’s been faking that limp for all this time, but I don’t think that’s the case. We saw him a lot, when I was living there. He might not have bothered to tell a double to limp, though. I know he hates it, doesn’t want anybody noticing.”
Well, fooey. “All right.” The others relaxed visibly when I yielded. “But would you agree that his attention is likely to be focused toward the front of the building right now? There, and on the power shed where Chilly did his first bit of work?”
Multiple nods. “Okay. Jewel, you’re really sure you can pull this off?”
“Hey,” the girl grinned, “what’s not to pull?” Seconds later, she was out of her clothes, stark naked. Or so I presumed; Sissy watched, but Jack and I carefully kept our backs turned. Chilly stuffed her jumpsuit and running shoes into his pack, the two kids shifted, and a pair of wolves folowed by a black bear slipped away from us, down through the timber. They’d be able to get within eighty feet or so of Building A’s backside before shifting back to human form. Chilly had the bolt cutters. We’d estimated three minutes for the wolves to reach the fence plus one minute for the stocky boy to cut a hole through the chain link while Jewel got back into her clothing. Plus, of course, the belt with the pouch on it. So, four minutes total before we’d be seeing the girl sprint across the back lawn toward the building.
I’d have been happier with Jack down there as backup for the kids, but Sissy’s arguments had been rock solid. “I’m better and faster in the woods in bear form than any human,” she’d pointed out, “and you guys know it. Besides, the rumors we’ve been hearing might even be true; Kraznick might actually have some way to sense the approach of a wizard.”
“Doubtful,” Jack had grumbled, but neither of us had dared argue. If Lord Heartbite could do that, sending him along with the youngsters would paint targets on them, not protect them.
I had the range and elevation drop figured, making it safe enough to leave the .25-06 set up on the bipod while I watched events unfold through the night scope. Jack stuck to binoculars, albeit a mighty high tech set. Lacking a second rifle capable of true long range accuracy, he left his M1A1 carbine leaning against a rock. It felt a bit strange to be the primary sniper for Jewel if she got into trouble, but as powerful as the Wizard’s purple fire strikes might be, he’d never practiced throwing them at this range. As he’d explained, he’d use them if he had to, but he couldn’t guarantee either accuracy or power from a distance of 1,121 yards.
“Child abuse,” I muttered. The waiting was getting to me; I hadn’t realized I’d spoken aloud.
“Child abuse?” Jack’s tone was amused; he likely knew where I was heading with this.
“Yeah.” I didn’t take my eye from the scope, waiting for Jewel to burst from the treeline toward the back of the building while all the activity was going on up front, but I felt like shaking my head. “Pretty lady teachers are going to jail these days for getting it on with very happy seventeen year old boys, and what are we doing? We’re using preteens as soldiers in mortal combat. Child labor of the deadly sort. Bet all of those politically correct types would love to lock us up and throw away the key.”
Hill chuckled softly. “Kraznick himself would probably settle for that, you think?”
“Heh. If it was his personal dungeon, he might. Except I don’t think he’d exactly trust you not to blast your way out–there!”
“I see her. Whoa. That little girl can scat!”
I had to agree. “She’s got wheels, all right.” Fully dressed once again, in human form for the task at hand, Jewel zipped across the thirty yards of open ground between trees and building in nothing flat. We quit talking then, too busy watching the youngster’s progress and scanning for threats to engage in further chitchat. The half-log façade made for easy climbing, though obviously the sharp climbing spikes she held in her hands helped. Nothing fancy on her feet, just ordinary sneakers there, but she went up next to the corner logs like a monkey on speed. Four floors, forty-eight feet. She slowed a bit toward the top, but not much. On the roof now, crouched, darting from one bit of cover to another. Heating and air conditioning stuff, mostly, I thought. Despite the heavy snows that would come each winter, the billionaire’s seat of power had been built with a flat roof. Lots of junk up there, but still mostly flat.
We lost sight of Jewel for nearly thirty scary seconds, but then she was back out of the labyrinth, scrambling back down the wall–until, maybe moving too fast, maybe listening for the whistle, she missed a foot placement, missed with a hand spike, and fell. How far…twelve, maybe fourteen feet. Splat. Didn’t get up, just lay there.
Chilly burst from the trees first, blurring from human into wolf form as he came, but Sissy made the boy look like he was running in reverse. She’d chosen her tom mountain lion form for this emergency, her peak speed of 50 mph eclipsing the stocky canine’s relatively slow 30 mph. Not that some wolves couldn’t do better, but the young were was no speed burner, even within his species. By the time he reached Jewel, Sissy was already in human form, checking to see if the kid’s neck was broken before moving her.
I forced myself to shift the rifle, moving the scope away to scan for enemies. Our trio wasn’t being exactly silent down there at this point…and then I suddenly realized that my earphones were picking up something. A lot of something. The snooper Jewel had placed on the wall of the roof access stairway was actually working. “Jack,” I said, “I’ve got Kraznick’s office. Tell me if I need to shoot somebody.”
“Will do,” came the laconic reply.
It took me a few seconds to sort out the voices. Just two of them, with the Barry White sound belonging to Lord Heartbite, no doubt. Why hadn’t Chilly mentioned the billionaire’s incredibly charismatic voice?
“…another six hours?” Teddy Boy sounded mildly offended. “The damage is that extensive?”
The other voice was masculine enough, but no one would mistake the speaker for Barry White. “That’s what the UPPCO Supervisor told me. Seems the saboteur knew what he was doing.”
“Not the saboteur, Meeker. Chilly. The kid werewolf that got away. The one you lied to me about killing. His pee stink is all over the place; he’s been advertising, for cry-yi. But okay, UPPCO is going to need another six hours. We’ll deal with that. What I’m finding difficult to deal with is your inability to sort out his trail or the trail of the others.”
I’d kept scanning the area while listening. There were two guards, heavily armed humans, starting a circuit of the building. Routine patrol from the look of it, but they would turn the corner and see our people within seconds. This was the downside of relying on a bolt action rifle, albeit a good one; I could easily take out one of the pair, but in the time it would take to cycle the bolt and zero in on the man’s partner–roughly two seconds–a lot could happen.
Jack’s voice saved me from doing something stupid. “They’re in the trees, Tree. Hold your fire.”
“In the trees already?” I kept the crosshairs on the larger of the two men. “How’d they manage that?”
“Chilly went human, cradled Jewel in his arms, and Sissy gave them a cougar-back ride to the timber.”
“Any sign of life from Jewel?”
“No. Not that I could see.”
I swore quietly, ignoring the office voices in my left ear.
Jack agreed…sort of. “You might want to…ease off the pressure on that trigger finger. Those two down there look to be mundane, not were at all, certainly not vam. I seriously doubt they’ll smell our people or even notice any tracks. If it’s not bigger than a breadbox and right in their faces, or loud enough to raise the dead, they’re not going to sense it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it. Trigger finger is relaxed, okay? And by the way, the bug is working, but it sounds like Kraznick is just bitching out Paps Meeker, nothing of any–wait a sec.” That background could only be a door opening and closing, either somebody leaving the office or somebody entering.
The new voice…Kraznick’s double. Had to be. No Barry White, this one, but…Marvin Gaye. Close enough, anyway. “UPPCO is buying it as a lightning strike, Ted.”
“That surprises me. A little.”
“We humans see and hear what we expect to see and hear.” I could visualize the owner of the Gaye voice shrugging. “You taught me that.”
“I did, didn’t I? All right, then, you’re dismissed until they need to have me sign off on the completed work orders. Which will be well after dark. Paps, tell me one more time; exactly how many weres with decent sniffers do we have left?”
“Trackers?” There was a rustling of paper, the werewolf flipping pages in a notebook or some such. “Just three of us that count, Karl, Baxin, and me. None of the others could untangle a bunny trail.”
“So I’ve noticed.” That Barry White voice was distracting, smooth, mellow, deep, full of power without the slightest hint of nastiness. I was willing to bet Kraznick didn’t sound half as cool in his vamleopard form. If he did, he could make another billion doing voice overs for Disney. “All right; here’s the plan. The intercoms aren’t back online yet, so you get to stay in shape, running up and down stairs. Hustle your furry butt down to the break room, tell Cherie she’s catering supper for everybody–and I do mean everybody, all eleven twisted Souls in residence, including her–right here in my office at six p.m. sharp. UPPCO will still be all over the place at that time, so we won’t need to worry about any new attacks while we eat. Tell her to do herself proud; I want this to be a meal our people will remember. You let Karl and Baxin know they’ll be with you later; I want you three out there, unscrambling that trail, the second the UPPCO truck is out of sight. The rain is no excuse.”
Silence. I looked at Jack. “Lord Heartbite is alone in his office right now.”
Hill shrugged. “Which is when he’s likely at his most dangerous. Nobody to distract him from sensing our approach. Besides, here come our troops.”
Sissy had shifted to bear form after reaching the trees, most likely not wishing to tax the cougar’s endurance. The big cats are made for sprints, not marathons. Bears, however, are just plain…tough.
No tougher than seemingly delicate little Jewel, though. The girl had a nasty lump on the back of her head, but she was starting to come around. Jack took over as our medic; he’d seen more combat injuries than the rest of us put together. Jewel flinched a little when he lifted her eyelids to check her pupils; that had to be a good thing. A tiny moan escaped her lips, too, so she could at least tell she was hurting. Removing her sneakers, Jack asked, “Can you wiggle your toes?” She did, both feet. No paralysis.
She seemed to be having trouble getting all the way back into this world, though, trying to say something but not quite getting it out. That worried me some–until her eyes suddenly popped open and she whispered, “Chopper.”
Chilly never took his eyes off his girl’s face, but the rest of us shared a look. Chopper? “Helicopter?” Jack asked.
Again Jewel struggled to speak, but it didn’t take her as long this time. “Ultralight, but…helicopter. Yes. I think. Tiny. Hidden behind all that roof stuff.”
So. Big, bad, bold billionaire with vampire were leopard super powers had himself a mundane getaway machine, did he? If it was an ultralight, it wouldn’t be armored against rifle fire, but it wouldn’t take him more than a few seconds of flight to put a few dozen trees between his aircraft and anybody near the building with bad intentions. Had we stupidly fought our way up through those Stairwells of Death, somehow breached his inner sanctum, he’d have simply…split. I didn’t know whether to feel extremely stupid for not thinking of that or extremely lucky to have discovered it now, before he chose to put it to use.
Jewel kept on improving, eventually swallowing a couple of aspirin for her headache and swearing she felt fine other than that. We weren’t completely buying that, but it would do for now. We had a war to finish.
“Problem,” I said by way of kicking off the discussion. The guards had made their circuit of the building and disappeared inside, failing to notice anything out of order, precisely as Jack had predicted. “And opportunity.”
“Elucidate, my good man,” Hill advised, affecting an atrocious British accent. “Pray tell, do enlighten us.”
The old Wizard can get kind of silly at times like this.
“Well, I see it like this. Here we are, tucked away a good half mile from Heartbite HQ, but we can’t stay that way. We know they’re all chowing down at six–”
“Unless,” Sissy pointed out, “Kraznick knows we’re listening in and just said that to set us up. Set an ambush.”
I thought about that for two or three seconds. “No. Don’t believe he’s doing that. Can’t say why not for sure; it’s just my gut. Jack?”
“No sixth sense warnings at the moment. Which doesn’t mean a lot; I’ve been wrong before.”
“Okay, so if he sets an ambush, we shoot the crap out of it anyway. Like we did with the frontal assault. But for the moment, let’s go with my premise, that he doesn’t know he’s been bugged. They’re having supper at six. A couple of hours later, UPPCO will be done and pull out. Immediately thereafter, his three best tracker critters will be out hunting the woods, figuring out where we really went. And when they do that, which they likely would have accomplished already, they’re sooner or later going to figure out we retreated up here under the ridgeline at best. At worst, one of them will circle the building and pick up what those guards missed, a relatively fresh scent trail they can backtrack in a heartbeat. The rain’s quit, and I’m pretty sure there’s more than enough smell left for any were critter with half a nose.”
“Yeah?” Chilly raised his head, no longer focused solely on Jewel. “So what’s your point?”
Did the kid deserve slapping down for his tone? Hm…nah. That’s what Kraznick would have done, so I’d do the opposite. “Good question, Chill. My point is that we need to be ready to move really, really quickly once UPPCO leaves the driveway. I would say, hey, take out the three trackers, blind old Heartbite, whittle down the defenders around him just that much more. Classic strategy. Heck, old Sun Tzu would even approve–if it weren’t for that blasted escape helicopter. We can’t afford to miss nailing Kraznick this time out. If we do, you can bet he’ll lead the next attack on Rodeo Iron personally, and with him there on the spot, bossing the operation close up and personal, I’m betting even our Purple Fire Wizard would have his work cut out for him. So it’s got to be now, tonight. We’ve got to blast the bugger before Meeker and his posse can track us down, and we’ve got to keep him from getting to that ultralight. In other words, we need to either figure out a way to take him out so fast he has no time to react, or we need to take out that chopper and finish him off right there on the rooftop. I’m thinking, but I’m not coming up with anything wonderful. The floor is open.”
Jewel laughed softly, then grabbed her head when she realized that hadn’t been a great idea. “Ow.”
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, nothing, Mr. Jackson.”
“Treemin,” I reminded her, “or Tree.”
“Sorry.” She batted her lashes at me, the little Lolita thing did. That, apparently, she could do without aggravating her headache. She didn’t look the least bit sorry, either. “But have you looked that rooftop over? I mean really looked it over? There so much ductwork and air conditioning machinery and whatever, I mean, Treemin, Sir, he owns that building. I bet he could play hide-and-stab-you-with-his-tail all night long.”
I looked at the little blonde with newfound admiration. “You are not only one fantastic spy equipment placer, but you just reminded me…folks, if you need the toilet, find yourself a tree and take the shovel. Nap if you can, choke down another MRE or whatever, but basically get ready.
“Come showtime, we’re going to play a game of Flush the Weasel.”