At the State Guildmaster’s suggestion, we stopped into a men’s clothing store where I changed into a more respectable looking outfit. My jeans were replaced by tan slacks. An oxford blue button-up shirt and a tie were also his doing. I kept my boots, mostly so that I could easily carry my new back-up piece, a Glock 30, but I did have them shined so they didn’t look quite so rugged. My HK45 was at my waist, covered by a dark blue sports coat. As I looked in the mirror, I could hear Bradon laughing from the grave. It amused him anytime that he managed to get me dressed up.

I watched the city go by as the State Guildmaster drove me to my meeting. Thankfully, he let me ride in silence. I didn’t feel like talking. I thanked him for the ride as he let me out at the coffee shop. He just nodded, told me to call him when I was done, and then drove off with a wave. I stood in front of the building a moment before going in. The Java Spear was a hangout spot for the students of the nearby Florida State University. The rich smells of the various coffees and teas flooded me as I opened the door. The central walkway was bordered by two raised drinking/dining areas, each holding roughly ten tables. Large picture windows framed the areas. The walkway continued to the counter where three twenty-ish humans were waiting on customers. Off to the side of the counter the walkway continued into a back room. I could see Blackhawk standing next to the doorframe. I walked up to the counter, bought a cup of tea (I hate coffee, but tea is at least drinkable) and joined Blackhawk in the room.

Unlike the front areas that were heavily decorated with FSU paraphernalia, this room was devoid of any mention of the Seminoles. The walls were painted a strange green color and the only light emanated from the door and the small lights on the dozen tables of the room. There were a couple of humans in the room, heavily involved in their textbooks. In one corner sat another human, a female, about twenty-five or so. Blackhawk and I made our way through the maze of tables to where she sat. He sat next to her, as I took the chair opposite of her. She was attractive, but it would take a second glance to notice it. She wore her long, black hair in loose curls cascading down her back. Her face was a soft pale white, with a light amount of make-up placed about her. What caught me was the intelligence I could see in her startling deep blue eyes. She studied me as I sat down before speaking.

"So, Christopher, this is my blind date?" she asked Blackhawk in a playful tone as he sipped his coffee."He looks nothing like you warned me about."

"That’s because one of his colleagues managed to clean him up," Blackhawk said in the same playful tone, "Vanessa Hawthorne, may I present Marcus Badmoon, commonly called Ranger by his colleagues in the Guild." He produced a manila folder from a small attache case beside him on the floor and placed it in front of her. I was curious, but I pushed it to the back of my head as I sipped at my tea. She read what I assumed was a file on me, occasionally making an inquisitive noise, for about fifteen minutes before setting it down on the table. I could see her mentally preparing the questions she had for me.

"Did you really do all those things?" she asked, almost incredulously.

"That depends. I didn’t read that file, so I don’t know what exactly you’re referring to," I answered, trying to keep my voice nonchalant.

"A couple of highlights. Did you really walk into a coven of vampires with nothing but a pistol and wipe them out?" Vanessa asked, incredulously. I nodded casually. That job was a couple of years ago. The Guild found out about a group of independent leeches attacking our kin. The leeches killed three kin and critically wounded another two by the time the Guildmaster gave me the job. The Guildmaster made it clear I was expected to eliminate the entire coven as quickly as possible. Doing some basic recon, I found out the leeches were going after another kin that night. So, I intercepted the kin, knocked him out, and liberally laced his blood with a concoction provided to me by a somewhat decent shaman during an earlier job. When the leeches drank from the kin, the concoction paralyzed them like a good nerve agent. Then it was a matter of suppressing the three or four ghouls guarding them and executing the leeches. Hard on the kin, but that was sometimes the price of business. I was protecting all of the kin and the Peace. The Guildmaster, to his credit, made it sound much more difficult than it was, mostly to keep other lycanthropes from understanding how simply we operated.

"You also killed three vampires by smelling them?" she asked.

"Why does everyone keep bringing that up?" I asked in response, a little exasperated. Compared to all the crazy things I’ve done during my various jobs, that incident was pretty mundane. "The dumb bastards made a very bad mistake and landed upwind of me. Any hunter could have done that."

"Not every hunter would have put it together so fast as to where the leeches were," Blackhawk said quietly, "That’s what makes you so valuable, Ranger. You observe the world through all of your senses and act quickly on your observations." There was something in the way Blackhawk made the observation that sent my instincts roaring.

"I don’t think you understand hunters as well as you think you do. You’re making a bigger deal of that episode than it really deserves," I replied, "I’m good because I don’t think like most of the other hunters. A nasty flair of the dramatic and a habit of finding the odd solutions is what the Guildmaster told me."

"And this part about you hearing the assassin assembling his weapon the night Stephen Vollen was killed?" asked Vanessa. I looked up in surprise at the question.

"How the fuck did you know about that?" I demanded, my voice dropping to a threatening tone. Outside of a few hunters in the Hillsborough Guild, I didn’t think anyone knew about that. Vanessa’s eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say anything.

"The Society’s contact in your Guild was Skiff," Blackhawk interjected quickly, "He thought it was significant enough for us to know about. I have to agree with him. The question remains. How did you hear that?" Instincts screamed danger. Who the fuck were these Society wolves? And Skiff was a part of them?

"To be truthful, I’m not sure how I did that. I just did, and acted on it," I answered, a little guarded. The possibility of the Guildmaster being unaware of the Society was growing in my mind. "Stephen Vollen was the best lord of Hillsborough since I joined the Guild. I couldn’t let him be killed without doing something to stop it. In the end, I was ineffective." The two of them let that pass without comment. I pretended not to see the look that went between the two of them.

"How did you know the person assembling the weapon was hostile?" Vanessa pressed, "How did you know it wasn’t just one of the hunters or a Knight?"

"It sounded like a rifle being assembled. Most likely a bolt-action rifle," I answered, keeping my rising annoyance in check. I had to remember that Vanessa had no history with me. She was asking logical questions about the situation.

"How does the kind of weapon determine hostility?" Vanessa asked, clearly confused by my answer.

"During that kind of event, where the Knights and the Guild are providing the heavy security, the Knights don’t use rifles. They stick to subguns, pistols, and maybe a shotgun or two for heavy artillery. That’s because they are the inner ring of defense. Inside the warehouse, the Guild doesn’t use rifles," I answered, "During those kinds of events, our practice was for our sharpshooters to use semi-auto rifles. Bolt-action rifles are used for offensive sniper attacks – not protection details. There was no legitimate reason for anyone to be assembling a bolt-action rifle inside the warehouse."

"See what I mean?" Blackhawk asked Vanessa, with a triumphant smile. She nodded slowly and took a long sip from the cup in front of her.

"Do you know what you are doing here?" she asked, a sudden seriousness in her voice.

"Meeting a prospective partner and deciding on whether or not I want to join the Society," I answered, neutrally, "What are you doing here?" Vanessa was taken aback by my reply. I saw a glimpse of a weakness. Vanessa liked to be in control, and she didn’t recover quickly when that control was lost. That was something we’d have to work on. Assuming I decided to work with this Society.

"I’m trying to find out if the lycanthrope in front of me is capable of doing what I need done in the field," she asserted with a lot more force than necessary. I just shook my head.

"Sorry Blackhawk," I said, standing up, "I’m sure she’s a good analyst, but nothing has been said that makes me want to join your little playgroup."

"Wait, Ranger," Blackhawk said, holding up a hand, "Despite what you think, you are needed here, in the Society. A war is coming in this state. Hillsborough is just one front. The Society will be helping to get the state ready for the war. We’ll be doing operations to assist the war council once it decides on how to proceed. I need my people out in the field to get me the information that the war council will need. I need operators to protect my field assets, as well as conducting operations that will make the state stronger for the coming war. Including the re-taking of Hillsborough." I knew Blackhawk was punching my buttons – and doing it damn well. He could see it.

"I need Vanessa out in the field," Blackhawk said, "I need someone to keep her from getting killed, giving her help in analysis, and acting on the information she develops. In return for doing these tasks, I’m going to give you a mostly free reign of action in executing these tasks. In addition, I’ll make sure you’re part of the re-taking of Hillsborough." He saw that was enough to keep me from leaving, so he continued. "You’re a Badmoon. Do you think any war pack will want your help? Do you think you any of the war council will let a Badmoon anywhere near their army? They will – if I vouch for you." I knew Blackhawk was manipulating me into working for him. Worse of all, I was falling for it. I looked between Blackhawk and Vanessa.

"Okay, I can work with her," I said.

I retrieved my few belongings from the State Guild and was taken by Blackhawk to my new place. I was expecting a townhouse similar to what I had when I was with the Hillsborough County Guild, or maybe an apartment. Instead, the Society provided me with a small house on the outskirts of the university. It was a single-story, two-bedroom house in a neighborhood that mainly catered to college students. As I walked around the empty house, Blackhawk explained the locale.

"The Society does most of its admin and intel analysis on the campus of the university. Mainly, it’s hiding in plain sight. So, we try to keep our members close. Furnishings are selected by you and the Society pays for them. Same thing goes for your vehicle." My eyebrow arched at that. The Society was a hell of a lot better funded than I expected. Who was backing this group?

"When do I do all these things?" I asked, completing my inspection of the house.

"Over the next week and a half. We want you here during the Bone Moon. The Society always hunts together. May I make a suggestion?" Blackhawk asked.

"Go ahead," I answered, not really sure what he was going to say.

"Take Vanessa with you when you go shopping. She is much better at interior design than I suspect you are. We do want you to maintain appearances. It helps with the hidden nature of the Society. I have a feeling that if you do your own decorating, it will turn out looking like a barracks." I shrugged noncommittally.

"How good is she really?" I asked, "At her job, I mean."

"She is perhaps the finest intelligence analyst I have ever met. I won’t bore you with her accomplishments other than to say that she is quite capable of making excellent use of the fragmented reports we get here. I think if you two communicate freely she will surprise you with her conclusions."

"What about weapons and field training?" I continued.

"Vanessa knows how to spot a tail, because all of our people are taught that. Other than that, she has had only rudimentary training in weapons and field training. She was recruited under my predecessor. He failed to see the use in putting analysts out in the field. Of course, that was before Dade and Broward counties fell to the vampires."

"I’m going to have to train her myself then," I said, not really looking forward to it. I’ve never been a good teacher. I lack the patience. I usually do my best training refining the techniques someone was already using. Such as I had been doing with Hangman. Hunters never stop learning, and we learn the most from each other. Blackhawk nodded, seeing the annoyance on my face.

"She may surprise you," he offered, "I doubt that she will ever be as proficient as you are, but I think she will grasp what you are going to teach her fairly quickly. Now there’s only one question left."

"What’s that?" I asked suspiciously.

"What kind of car are you going to get?"

Hangman joined Vanessa and me as we searched through the kin-rated car dealerships. After wasting most of the day, I settled on a black Chevy Silverado pickup with an extended cab. It was a custom-order rig that the dealer was happy to get rid of because the person who ordered it then decided he couldn’t afford it. I had no such problem thanks to the Society’s deep pockets. The truck was big and loud, thanks to a big diesel engine, and it came loaded with a bunch of neat goodies. After a quick spin on a secluded driving range, I fell in love with it. Vanessa just grinned at us in a patient manner as Hangman and I poured over it back at my new house.

Blackhawk was right about Vanessa. She helped me go through the drudgery of decorating my new home. She responded well to my own tastes and helped me coordinate the rooms of the house. I had a modest master bedroom. The other bedroom I turned into an office, complete with a new computer and phone system. The living room looked better than average, and the kitchen was actually neatly put away. I wasn’t sure how long that would last, but it was nice to start out right. Most nights found Hangman, Vanessa, and me at my new house talking over dinner. Sometimes Hangman talked about some of the other hunters in the State Guild. Other times, we would regale Vanessa with stories about our lives in Hillsborough before the war. Vanessa later confided in me that interior decorating was what she was originally working towards, but her intellect and kin status brought her to the Society’s attention, and she never left. I learned a little of her background as we worked making my house habitable. Her brother and father were both lycanthropes. Her mother was a kin, but Vanessa didn’t say which members of her mother’s family were lycanthropes. She grew up knowing about the unseen world, and had even tried to find the elusive Pathwalkers in order to prove herself to her parents. Fortunately for everyone, she gave up that quest and decided to act like a normal human. She didn’t even become involved with the lycanthropes until her college years when she joined the Society.

"Mark, why are you still here?" Vanessa asked, out of the blue one night. It was a few weeks since Hangman and I arrived in Tallahassee. Vanessa was an outstanding cook, and she was demonstrating her skills as I cleaned my HK45. We were both waiting for Hangman to show up.

"What do you mean?" I asked, confused by the sudden question.

"I was talking to Sam last night, and he told me about you and Elizabeth Vollen," she answered. Anger raged inside me at Hangman’s betrayal of my secret and Vanessa’s casual reference to Elizabeth – no, the Lady-Apparent. Vanessa stepped out of the kitchen with a large pot of pasta and saw my expression.

"Mark, calm down," Vanessa said, with just the slight hint of command in her voice.

"Why?" I growled, "He had no right to tell you that!"

"He had every right," she answered with a calmness that pissed me off even more. I forced the slide back onto my pistol, trying to control my impending explosion. She drew her face into an annoyed expression. As I focused on my pistol, Vanessa walked over to me and slapped me upside the head.

"In case you never noticed, Sam doesn’t come over here just for you," Vanessa said as I glared at her, desperately restraining the urge to hit her. "He comes over here for me." That stopped me in my tracks. My mind went over every time Vanessa and Hangman were together with me. Hangman had shown up a lot, and yes, he did have a different look in his eyes when he looked at Vanessa. Was that how I looked when I thought of her?

"Sam’s worried about you," Vanessa explained, her annoyance melting into compassion, "He says you haven’t been acting normally since your county fell."

"So, why’d he tell you?" I asked, still angry. Or at least trying to be angry. Vanessa was making it hard at the moment.

"That’s what lovers do, you idiot," Vanessa answered, exasperated, "Good God, you’re such a newbie at this stuff. Unlike your dumb ass, Sam and I knew right away. After a few long talks, we were both sure. So, he confided in me what scares him. You not being your normal self scares him."

"So why ask why I’m still in Tallahassee?" I asked, returning to the original question.

"I want to know why you haven’t left to go find Elizabeth," Vanessa asked, "If what Sam’s been telling me is true, you’ve gone off the deep end for Elizabth, but you haven’t gone looking for her." I felt an unfamiliar pain as she talked.

"Why do you care?" I shot back, not knowing what else to say. I knew that was the wrong thing to say the moment the words left my mouth. Fortunately, Vanessa didn’t rise to the bait.

"One, because I like you Mark, and I hate to think of you in pain," she answered, "Two, because I want to know that my partner isn’t going to vanish in the middle of an operation to go chasing some phantom."

"Do you remember two nights ago when I kicked you and Hangman out early?" I asked. She nodded, a little lost, but willing to see where I was going, "The State Guildmaster arranged for me to sit down with a shaman." Vanessa’s eyes went wide at my admission. Considering how many times Hangman and I disparaged the shaman in front of her, her reaction didn’t surprise me.

"The State Guildmaster is worried about me too. So, he asked Melissa to come over and talk with me," I explained.

"What happened?" she asked, curiously.

"She and I talked about me a lot. About my professional side, and my personal side. It was fucking painful," I said.

"My God, I can only imagine. Did she help?"

"Yes and no. Although Melissa couldn’t find the Lady-Apparent among the Ancestors, she explained that the Lady-Apparent is probably dead. I don’t know. I still think the Lady-Apparent’s alive. The one thing Melissa did help me figure out is that I can help the Lady-Apparent better by my work in the Society. The county doesn’t need a single hunter right now. It needs the whole damn state to come charging in. I think the Society will accelerate that. It helped make the pain a bit more bearable." We both fell silent. It was uncomfortable. I only admitted this much because Vanessa was my partner. She needed to know why I was doing this. The Society wasn’t like the Guild. I didn’t work for the Society out of personal honor and pride. I did it for personal selfish reasons. After a long uncomfortable silence, Vanessa spoke.

"You could call her Elizabeth," Vanessa suggested, "It’s her name. It sounds so stilted when you call her the Lady-Apparent."

"I can’t, it just hurts too much," I admitted, "Calling her by her station lets my mind think without devolving into emotion."

"Okay," Vanessa answered. She didn’t push it any further. Neither of us mentioned anything about our conversation when Hangman finally joined us. It was a quiet meal. Now that I knew to look for them, there were a lot of meaningful looks between Hangman and Vanessa. I’d been so oblivious. Not good for a hunter. Finally, I kicked them both out to think. As I paced through my small house, the Lady-Apparent’s face haunted me. I felt guilty for letting the shaman push the Lady-Apparent to the back of my mind. I should be strong enough to deal with what was going on in my head. I wished for the thousandth time that Nick was with still in Florida. For some reason, I knew he could help, and he’d do it because he was my friend. The shaman tried to help me because my work was important to the state. I didn’t blame her for that – it was what shaman did. In lycanthrope society, the needs of the pack, in this case the state, outweighed the pain of the individual wolf. Pain could be dealt with after the pack was safe. When you got right down to it, that was the essential truth of the hunter. We bore the pain to protect the packs. We did the jobs, and bore the pain of those jobs, to make sure the packs were safe. We even did the most horrific jobs, and we did it without hesitation. I was ashamed of my earlier disdain for hunters who went through the emotional turmoil of watching their private lives die because of the Guild’s demands. Without warning, my old sarcasm flooded through me. If those bastards managed to struggle through and do what was necessary, then I could damn well do it. I was too good a fucking hunter. I began jotting down notes of things I needed to do to get Vanessa ready for the field.

Elizabeth still haunted my dreams that night.

As I started working with Vanessa, I noticed she was somewhat talented at many of the basic aspects of fieldcraft. She didn’t have any problem spotting tails, losing tails, covertly passing intel, and picking up dead drops. The one thing she was truly miserable at was shooting. After my house was set up, I took her to a pistol range. I brought several pistols with me, most of them borrowed from Hangman, who in turn, borrowed them from the State Guild. The range was an indoors range close to the State Guild. We took a place at one of the doubles booths that allowed two people to stand at the firing bench rather than one. I laid out the pistols I brought with me on the bench in front of us. While I loaded them, Vanessa put up the silhouette target.

"Alright, you had the standard firearms instruction, right? I asked her over the loud background of the range. She nodded.

"Okay, this is a Glock 19," I said, handing her the small black pistol. "Now what’s the first thing we’re going to do?"

"Keep my finger off the trigger until I’m ready to fire," she answered confidently, picking up the pistol.

"Nope," I answered, "I’m teaching you how to combat shoot. I just handed you an unfamiliar pistol. The first thing you need to do is to make sure the gun is loaded."

"But I saw you load the gun," she protested.

"Yes, but I’m trying to get you in the habit of checking any strange weapon’s ammo supply before shooting," I answered. "Will there be times that you can’t check it before shooting? Yes. Is this one of those times? No. Check to make sure the weapon is loaded."

She fumbled for a moment, until I showed her how to release the magazine. She looked at the casings glittering through the holes in the magazine. Satisfied, she slammed the magazine back into the Glock’s grip and brought the weapon up. I pushed it back down.

"What the hell?" she said with her eyes burning with fury. When Vanessa was sure she was right, she didn’t take correction very well. It was an annoying personality quirk, but one I would have to work around if we were to survive in the field.

"Is the chamber loaded?" I asked.

"What do you mean?" she asked, hotly, in response.

"You checked the magazine, but there needs to be a round chambered before the pistol will fire," I said, "Did you check if there was a round in the chamber?"

"How I do that?" she asked. At my motioning, she handed over the pistol.

"You can do a press-check," I said, demonstrating on the Glock. "In most situations, it’s best just to rack the slide and get a round from the magazine."

"I’ll lose a round that way!" Vanessa countered.

"Yeah, but you’ll know the chamber’s loaded. That’s worth a bullet," I said, handing Vanessa back the pistol. She nodded and yanked back the slide. She pointed the gun at the silhouette’s looming figure about ten yards away. She was holding the pistol wrong, but not dangerously so. I watched without comment as she yanked back the trigger. The gun bucked slightly up from the recoil and a hole appeared just above the silhouette’s right shoulder .

"You probably scared him," I commented as the two of us surveyed the target.

"Very funny, asshole," she said in her usual sweet voice, "Now show me how to hit the target."

"Place your feet about shoulder-width. Now outstretch both of your arms in front of you. Don’t lock your elbows, allow your arms to jump up a little to compensate for recoil. What you have now is the isosceles stance. Got it?" I asked. She nodded her head as she placed her arms like I was demonstrating. Her stance was mostly correct. I just needed to make some slight modifications. When I was satisfied that she the stance right, and that she wasn’t uncomfortable in that position, I began the next part.

"Can you see the front sight on the gun?" I asked.

"The white dot in the middle of the other two dots," she answered, slightly annoyed with all of my corrections. I kept my own frustration under check. Vanessa didn’t know how gentle I was being with her. Well, at least compared to the last group that I taught.

"Yup. Place the dot over the target’s center. Then line up the other two dots. Got it?" I asked, watching for her to nod, "Good, now relax. Gently squeeze the trigger. Don’t yank it and don’t jerk it. It should come as a surprise." I watched as she gently squeezed the trigger. The gun barked again as the bullet was thrown out of the chamber by the explosion of the powder within the brass casing. The bullet hit the target about two inches to the right of the center.

"Much better, Vanessa," I complimented her. She beamed at the hit.

"Pretty good, huh?" she asked. I might have agreed, but she was going to have to do much better before I could feel safe with her having a weapon in the field. The real world was a harsh test for the inexperienced.

"I said much better, but you still have a ways to go yet. You took about thirty seconds to get that hit. When we’re done, you should be able to hit the center of the target with less than a second to fire."

"Less than a second? Are you kidding me?" she asked. I picked up one of the other pistols on the bench. I hit the magazine release, inspected the rounds, and slipped the magazine back into the pistol. I pulled the slide back, loading the first round into the chamber.

"Time me," I said. She brought up a stopwatch on her phone. I waited with the pistol in a low-ready.

"Go," she said. I brought the pistol up. The sights came into line. My finger squeezed the trigger. The pistol roared once, then twice, and continued for another five times as I blew out a two-inch section of the target’s chest. The slide locked back on the empty magazine, signaling me to quit firing. I lowered the pistol and released the magazine.

"Less than five seconds for seven shots," she stated, looking at her watch.

"All of them placed in roughly the same area. That was a bad shooting set for me. The Guild expects better performance. Vanessa, I don’t expect you to match a Guild shooter, but I’m not going to lie to you. You’ve got a ways to go yet, and it’s going to take practice."

"You expect me to learn how to do that in a few hours?" she asked.

"Oh, hell no. Not even in a few weeks, although you could if I constantly drilled you. The first few sessions are going to be getting you to instinctively go into the right stance and hit a high center mass without a problem. We also need to a find a weapon that suits you. The Glock’s a good all-around pistol, but we need to find one that works best for you. Now, let’s get back to work, okay?" The shooting session went mostly well. Vanessa was a quick study. She went through all the guns that I brought with me and learned how they operated. By the end of the session, she knew the difference between a revolver and a semi-auto, the different types of semi-autos, and how all of them operated. She even had the stance down. Her accuracy, on the other hand, left a great deal to be desired. It looked like she was anticipating the shot, and I couldn’t think of how to deal with that. As I said, I’m not a good instructor. At least she was hitting the target with all of her rounds, but there was a good enough chance that the target would still be walking afterward. That was never a good thing in our line of work. I hoped I could help her get better before we were sent out on our first mission together.

I didn’t see or hear from Blackhawk during those first few weeks. It was just as well. I was busy as hell getting myself settled into my house and working with Vanessa to get her ready for field operations. I couldn’t bring myself to call whatever the Society wanted me to do jobs. That term was reserved for hunters, and I wasn’t working for the Guild anymore. I liked Vanessa, but my instincts were telling me something was wrong with the Society. It wasn’t anything I could put my finger on, but I definitely felt an ill-ease with the Society. Blackhawk’s sudden reappearance did nothing to lessen my suspicions.

A knock at my door woke me up before sunrise – a situation that didn’t make me all that happy to begin with. I was half-expecting Vanessa, but found Blackhawk standing impatiently on my front porch. Blackhawk was adjusting his grip on two brown bags. One bore the logo of a local pastry shop, which explained the smells emanating from it. The other was completely blank. That one piqued my interest. Blackhawk didn’t wait for me to invite him in. He just pushed past me. My mind was still trying to clear the haze of semi-consciousness, so instead of grabbing my interloping boss and throwing him out, my hand just sailed past his rushing body. He set down both bags on my table.

"Call Vanessa and get her over here, now," Blackhawk ordered curtly. I wondered exactly how much trouble I would get into if I scruffed my runt of a boss and punched him in the face. Instead of following through on my impulse, I snatched my phone off of the kitchen counter. I dialed Vanessa and after a couple of rings, I heard her mumble some sort of greeting. I smiled as I heard Hangman grumbling profanities in the background.

"Vanessa, it’s Ranger," I said in the most controlled voice I could manage.

"I knew that when I saw the phone number, you dickhead," she hissed into the phone, "This better be damned important for you to be calling me this early in the morning."

"Our fearless leader decided to show up at my place and decreed you come over here," I answered, lacing my words with as much false sincerity as I could, "Since he’s the one paying the bills, you might want to get over here. At least he was nice enough to bring breakfast stuff." I heard shuffling in the background.

"Tell Chris I’ll be there in an hour," Vanessa said. She must have turned to Hangman, because I heard her faint scolding voice, "This is what I get for staying over at your place." I stifled a chuckle and hung up the phone. I turned back to Blackhawk. His face was twisted in righteous indignation as he closed the distance between us.

"I do not appreciate my subordinates referring to me in mocking tones," Blackhawk said in measured tones. Gone was the smooth and collected façade Blackhawk exuded on the past two times I met him. In front of me was someone who reminded me heavily of my first boss when I joined the Hunters Guild. He was a tin god that I learned to hate. Fortunately, his deputy protected me before I did something incredibly impulsive. That deputy would continue protecting me before promoting me to be his personal hitter when he became the Guildmaster of Hillsborough County. I decided to follow the constant advice of my Guildmaster and ignore Blackhawk’s provocation. Almost.

"I don’t care if you don’t like it," I answered coolly, "Vanessa will be here in about an hour. I’m going to get dressed." As I turned towards my bedroom, Blackhawk grabbed my arm.

"I will not have you talking to me like that," Blackhawk spat, his body vibrating with anger at my insolence, "I am your leader, and you will give me the respect a leader deserves." My eyes narrowed at Blackhawk’s words. The term leader has a very specific connotation in the lycanthrope world. A leader was a lycanthrope who earned his position through skill and strength. A leader was someone who could protect his pack and assert its claims. Someone that strong deserved the respect his subordinates willingly gave. Blackhawk was not a leader. He was my boss, because I worked for him.

"You are not my leader," I replied with a coolness in my tone that amplified my words, "You are a means to an end. I am willing to work for you because I know the war council will need me when it goes back into Hillsborough, and you can secure my position there. Make no mistake about how far our relationship goes." He shrank back from me as I talked. Okay, maybe the Guildmaster was right and words could be more effective than outright violence. I quickly hid the smile as my mind clicked on a realization. Blackhawk didn’t understand who he recruited. If his contact was Skiff, then Blackhawk probably had no idea what happened to me during the war and the fall of Hillsborough. Blackhawk came to the same conclusion, because the anger was replaced by a calculating look. Was all of his anger an attempt to manipulate me? All of this double-thinking was hurting my head.

I walked into my bedroom as Blackhawk retreated back to my kitchen. My confrontation with Blackhawk did nothing to mitigate the warnings my instincts were blaring about the Society. Hell, for all I knew, Vanessa and I may be the Society’s only employees. From my talk with the State Guildmaster, I was fairly sure Blackhawk could deliver on his side of the bargain. Even being isolated from lycathrope society, I knew that the war council would form in less than a month, from what Hangman told me. Once the war council convened and a new leader for the state was selected, then an army of lycanthropes from all over the state could be raised. That army would take back Dade, Broward, and Hillsborough counties and install lords for those counties. For such an army to succeed, it would need the Society and the State Guild to do prep work such as gather strong, hard intelligence and surgically remove some of the obstacles. I was willing to do that to make sure that my county was liberated and the Vollens restored to power. Damn it, I knew she was still alive. I made a point to stay in my office until Vanessa showed up. I was going to need her to keep me restrained while dealing with this new Blackhawk. I trusted Vanessa to keep me from doing more damage to my position with Blackhawk. I heard Blackhawk and Vanessa speaking in low tones, so I walked out of to the kitchen. Vanessa shot me a frustrated look. Blackhawk pointedly ignored my entrance, and instead, focused on emptying the contents of the bags. Vanessa sat down next to me as Blackhawk looked askance at us from across the table.

"Your first assignment," Blackhawk announced as he shoved a foot high stack of paper at Vanessa and me. "You will need to get started on the information analysis as soon as possible to move quickly."

"Okay, so what is it?" I asked.

"I need you to locate and extract Lord Savik and his followers from the Disputed Territories," Blackhawk answered, casually.

"What the hell?" Vanessa demanded. She looked over at me, surprised that I wasn’t objecting as well. "Why are we doing this?"

"Because the war council will need those lycanthropes," I answered, startling Vanessa. "They need warriors with experience to help lead in a lycanthrope army. To re-take Hillsborough, Hangman, myself, and anyone else who managed to escape the county will be needed. For an army to survive any incursion into the Disputed Territories, it will need those lycanthropes with experience on the lay of the land and the enemies to expect."

"None of the State Guild hunters sent into the Disputed Territories have returned, nor any of the Society teams," Vanessa countered, "That place is a black hole. How do you expect us to survive long enough to pull out this Lord Savik, assuming he’s alive?"

"You, by providing the best analysis of the available intelligence," Blackhawk answered, jabbing a thin stub of a finger at Vanessa, "And you, protecting her and helping to scrounge up more intelligence for her to analyze. That’s why I put the two of you together – to handle these kinds of operations." Vanessa scowled, but she didn’t have any other arguments to make. I didn’t have any arguments against the operation. This was exactly the kind of operation I expected from the Society. A hint of smugness leaked through Blackhawk’s business facade. He knew the odds were against Vanessa and me on this operation, and he knew I could see the importance of it to the war council enough not to object.

"I’ll leave you two to discuss how you want to do this," Blackhawk said as he walked to the front door, "Just so that you know, this operation is vital to the state." He brusquely slipped through the front door. Vanessa shot me a ferocious look of betrayal.

"What?" I demanded as she stood with a sniff.

"Why the hell didn’t you say anything?" she countered, "Even you can tell going into the Disputed Territories is death." I looked at Vanessa for a moment without saying anything. Her body was slightly trembling and jerking her hand through her hand. When I didn’t say anything, Vanessa began to pace. Then, it finally occurred to me.

"Vanessa, does going into the Disputed Territories terrify you?" I asked softly.

"Yes! Doesn’t it scare you?" she answered, nearly screaming. I looked at her for a moment before answering. For once, I needed to be the calm one in our pair.

"No, not really," I answered, trying to keep my voice as even as possible, "The operation doesn’t scare me. I understand it’s dangerous, but not terrifying."

"I don’t believe you," Vanessa shot back, "I don’t care what your rep is, you have to have some fear in you."

"Yeah, but not like what you’re feeling," I said. Vanessa planted her fists into her hips. Her face plainly told me that she didn’t believe me, so I tried to explain. "Look, this isn’t exactly the first time that my superior has sent me on what would be called ‘a suicide mission.’ Hell, that’s partly how I made my professional rep. That said, I’ve had years of training and experience doing this kind of thing to fall back on."

"And I don’t," Vanessa concluded before I could finish, "I’m acting like a rookie, like a pup, is that it?" Her eyes flashed dangerously.

"No, you’re acting like someone who’s facing a completely unknown and dangerous situation," I answered, "Look, you’re just going to have to trust me that I know what I’m doing when it comes to this shit. Yes, you’re going to be in some danger. That’s the nature of field work, but I’m not going to risk you unnecessarily."

"That’s not exactly comforting, Mark," Vanessa said, her sarcasm returning with a vengeance.

"Listen, you signed up for a job that’s not exactly safe," I replied, "The trick is to maximize your results while minimizing your danger."

"Isn’t that supposed to be eliminating the danger?" she asked.

"Nope," I answered, "At the end of the day, you better be willing to lay down your life for the job if necessary."

"Sam is going to flip when I tell him what I have to do," Vanessa said, slumping into the chair next to me. She stared at the stack of paper.

"Hangman’s a professional," I said, "He knows the work."

"Yeah, because you would react so well if it was Elizabeth traipsing down to the Disputed Territories with only one bodyguard," Vanessa retorted. My body locked as the words hit me. I was frozen as a locked-away terror roared through me with pent-up power. Vanessa saw the effect her words had on me and quickly wrapped her arms around me like a warm blanket and murmured a low soothing tone. The fear smirked at my partner’s actions. Fear was a paralyzing thing, but this was stupid. Since I didn’t have to concentrate on the external world, I could pull all of my strength together and slam the fear back to the dark place in my mind where I kept it.

"Okay, that’s something that scares me," I said. I exhaled slowly, "Ancestors, it scares me."

"That’s not a normal reaction, Mark," Vanessa said, with the same low, soothing tone, "You’re going to have to deal with all those feelings you keep locked up. Preferably before it gets us killed." I nodded silently, not trusting words at the moment. "Are you going to be okay?"

"Get me on the operation, and I’ll be fine," I answered, "I know how to handle those." Vanessa seemed warily satisfied with my answer and excused herself. She wanted to get back to Hangman. I could understand her desire to curl up with Hangman and let him tell her everything was going to be all right. I wished desperately I could do the same thing with Elizabeth. Well, if there was any benefit to the episode, calling her by her name hurt less.

The dark sky was cloudless, which let me see the stars gleam in the night. The moon was a bright white disc in the sky, trickling light into the woods. The shadows from its dim light moved and danced as the light breeze came through where I was waiting. I tasted the breeze with my muzzle, smelling the quarry’s fear. My paws silently moved through the brush. My eyes hadn’t caught his image among the trees, but I could hear his crushing footsteps as he ran. My nose smelled his fear, his dank perspiration, the stains on his clothes from his last meal. The prey thought he’d escaped the worst of his life. I knew different. Soon, he would also.

I tracked him from where the prison bus tipped over. According to the scent on the crude knife in the body, my prey killed his guard before escaping with about ten or so other prisoners. They were being hunted this Bone Moon by other lycanthropes of the Society. I was only interested in this one. I lowered my head at one of his footprints. I could feel my instincts fighting me.

Run, chase, and kill. His scent is strong and the hunger grows, they beckoned in my head. I could see something was wrong. This wasn’t the path of an aimless run. The prey knew something was following him.

Good, it makes the hunt more exciting if the meat knows that his hunter is out there, the wolf inside beckoned. I could have shed my wolf form for true and lessened the voice, but I refused to let the primal animal in me win any small victory. That was another part of the hunt of the Bone Moon. The human knew he was being hunted, and that made him dangerous. Well, possibly dangerous. I very much doubted he realized what was hunting him. I ran parallel to the tracks, hoping to find any traps the prey set. I tasted the wind again, hoping to find his familiar scent among the background of the forest. I couldn’t smell him at all. He was moving downwind of me. The bastard – meat – was smart. I tasted the wind again. This time, I listened to it instead of smelled it. The birds upwind were chirping wildly. They were defending their territory. The birds downwind were coming this way because the human startled them out. After listening to the sounds of the calls for a few minutes, I figured out where the human was and in what direction he was moving.

I ran through the brush. The dead leaves, fallen branches, and dirt were mashed together under my paws, making a unique noise that the other animals in the forest knew and understood. A predator was chasing his prey and everything else had best move out of the way. The trees began to thin out as I chased the human, and in the distance I could see the end of the forest. A wide open clearing of tall grass awaited me. The poor fool. I could now make him out. He wasn’t very tall, but he was fast. He knew how to run through tall grass. I ran out of the forest into the grass, swishing through the tall strands. I was close enough now that I no longer needed the wind to smell him. I could smell the sweet stench of fear all on my own. I could feel his heavy footsteps pounding through the ground as he ran.

Yes! Run him into the ground! Pounce and tear him apart! I let the primal me take over. My pace quickened. The prey had no chance. Against a normal wolf, he might have escaped with his life. Against a lycanthrope, there was no hope. I was only about two yards from him when I attacked, springing well over ten feet into the air. My front legs grew as the paws articulated themselves into clawed hands. My neck shortened as my chest broadened. My body elongated itself, with my tail growing also. My legs stretched and fleshed out. My prey grew smaller as my perspective changed. The subdued night colors sprang into my vision as the wolf’s gray-scale vision transformed into the enhanced eyes of the true form.

His spinal column shattered as I slammed into his back. We crashed into the ground. I rolled off him and crouched in front of his paralyzed body. He whimpered and cried, desperately trying to pull himself along the ground with his arms. His legs dragged behind him uselessly. He did not seen me in front of him. I reached out and grasped his hair. I pulled up his head from the ground until he was staring me in the eyes. Pain fell from his eyes as it was replaced with stark fear. My other hand swept his neck, the razor-sharp claws slicing his throat open. A rasping wind came out, then the blood from his veins filled the air pipe. A pathetic gurgling came out as the body tried to save itself. The human was not aware of this. His cognitive mind was gone, already deep within itself as the catatonia set in. The gurgling of his last breaths pumping out of his mutilated throat lasted over a minute before it ceased. The prey was dead. The hunt was finished. The Bone Moon beamed happily down on me as the Ancestors gave their approval of my hunt.

Perhaps the most boring part of an operation is the intelligence analysis. Not the gathering of intelligence. That can be kind of fun, or at least interesting, if you’re doing it right. It was just fucking boring plowing through the available intelligence to glean out the useful bits of information from the useless details. At least it was for me. Vanessa, on the other hand, hummed happily to the song on her earbuds as she sat at my dining room table and read through the stack of paper. The rapid clicking of her laptop’s keys was grating on my nerves. I hated her at the moment. I was still staring at the same scrap of paper for the past ten minutes. Granted, part of her happiness and part of my grumpiness was because of the Bone Moon. The hunt was good, but it was the first time in my life I felt an empty pit afterwards. For most lycanthropes, after returning from the hunt, they burned off the remaining energy with their mates. There was a good reason for that. Most lycanthrope females were fertile during the Bone Moon, which led to an odd cultural ritual of hunting followed by sex. Badmoons were never considered good sires, so I never had to worry about doing the mating dance. This Bone Moon was the first time I felt loneliness and envy. I wanted Elizabeth, and there was no substitute. Part of me wanted to leave all of the work to Vanessa and go shooting, or do something else to take my mind off my frustration. My professional side knew better. I had no doubt Vanessa would give me an excellent intelligence summary, but sometimes I needed to see the hard data myself. The raw data could give you a feel for the situation that a summary just couldn’t. I tried again to focus on the work.

Part of the problem with dealing with the Disputed Territories was the damn place was a black hole – for hunters, spies, and intelligence. Nothing came out of there, not even on the vampire side of the conflict. Bradon confided in me one time that the place scared the vampires almost as much as it scared the lycanthropes. Something about the council running things down there. Vanessa and I had plenty of information, but it was all before the surprise attack by the vampires that started the war. Hell, we didn’t even know what happened during the attack. Like I said, the damn place was a black hole.

Every lycanthrope in Florida knew the basics. About six years ago, the aristocracies of Broward and [Miami-Dade](, _Florida) went missing in what was assumed a massive surprise attack by the Gold Coast Council. This was followed by the extermination of the packs in a furious series of attacks. A few lycanthropes managed to escape. None of them could give a coherent account of what happened. The State Guild immediately dispatched two hit packs to investigate and extract any lycanthropes. They just vanished shortly after crossing the border into Broward. According to the papers Blackhawk supplied, the Society also lost an asset who infiltrated into Miami-Dade. The Prince ordered the sealing of the borders between the state and the two counties. Supposedly it was to investigate what happened and come up with a plan for retaking the Disputed Territories. The surrounding counties were charged with maintaining the border with some assistance from the state. The Society set up a few listening posts, but neither the Society, nor the State Guild, sent in any additional forces. The Prince suffered politically for his decision. The few times I heard my Guildmaster speak of the situation, it was with unadulterated disgust. From what he said, Lord Vollen was of a similar opinion. I don’t know how the Prince managed to avoid a war council being convened when those two counties fell. I didn’t pay attention to state-wide politics beyond the occasional grumblings of my boss. Hell, county politics were annoying enough to me that I only paid attention to them when I was forced to. The only good point was that the vampires didn’t have a state-wide structure. The individual councils were too busy fighting for advantage to band together. Even with one of them gaining control of two of Florida’s richest counties, there was no move to band together against the lycanthropes of the state.

From just the basic facts, the mission Blackhawk gave Vanessa and me looked impossible. What changed the mission from impossible to improbable happened about the time that tensions started to rise between the TCV and Lord Vollen. There was only a tersely worded memo talking about an "emissary" from the Disputed Territories who showed up in Jacksonville. There was no information about what the emissary said in the memo or anything else Blackhawk gave us. From what I was reading, the whole incident was swept behind the curtain by the Prince. My instincts were telling me Blackhawk had something to do with it, but I was being very careful with that theory. I wanted it to be true too much, and that meant it would be too easy to ignore information that disproved it. I learned that lesson the hard way a long time ago. It damn near cost another hunter his life. You tend to remember those kinds of lessons.

"Vanessa, have you managed to find anything on what the emissary told Lord Janis from Duval?" I asked. The emissary’s message was the focus of Vanessa’s research while I reviewed the basic background to get a feel for the Disputed Territories. When Vanessa didn’t even move her head at my question, I fished a coin out of my pocket and threw it at her.

"What the fuck?" she asked as the coin audibly slapped against her neck. She took one look at me and pulled her earbuds out. "Sorry, what did you ask me?"

"The emissary?"

"Not a thing," she answered, "I chased down a few leads, but they all came up empty." Vanessa surprised me. I expected her to be frustrated, but she wasn’t. If anything, Vanessa was more excited about the hunt for the information she was searching. "I hoped to find the emissary, but he died shortly after talking with Lord Janis. Lord Janis made a report to the Prince, but so far that’s the extent of what we know."

"Great," I groused, "Any other ideas?"

"A couple," Vanessa said, "Whoever didn’t want the contents of the emissary’s report known couldn’t destroy the actual report. Not once it was entered into the official record. According to our memo, Lord Janis’s report was entered. So, the only options would be to hide its existence and where it ended up."

"Okay, I’m following you so far," I said.

"Well, we already know the report exists, so now we only need to find where it ended up," Vanessa explained, "How familiar are you with the the Prince’s court records?"

"I’m not," I answered, "At the county level, the aristocracy leaves that duty in the hands of the Keeper. I don’t know what that old bastard did with them."

"I’ve never even heard of a Keeper," Vanessa said, "At the State level, the keeping of the Prince’s court record is kept by the kin of the Prince."

"I didn’t see any kin in the Manor."

"I don’t know all of the specifics, but the kin transcribe the records from audio recordings," Vanessa answered. Okay, that shouldn’t be surprising. The hunters kept audio recordings anytime the Guildmaster met with any of the pack leaders. It kept them honest if we did something they asked for in a manner they didn’t like.

"Now, from what I’ve been researching, the court records aren’t kept in the State Manor," Vanessa continued, "The records are distributed to safe places throughout the state, using the state university system to protect them."

"Okay, so what does that mean for our search?" I asked, trying to get to the point.

"It means that instead of looking for the actual report, I’m looking to see where the kin sent the records for the day Lord Janis reported to the Prince," Vanessa answered, "I’m making some headway on this track, but there’s a lot of disparate data that needs to be mapped and analyzed."

"Time estimate?" I asked, internally reviewing my building list of to-do items.

"I can’t give you one," she said, "I could find it in the next ten minutes, the next two hours, or tomorrow. There’s just a ton of raw data I have to sift through."

"Yeah, okay. You don’t have to sound so damn happy about it," I grumbled.

"Can’t help it. This is the kind of thing I love doing." Vanessa was beaming with anticipation. I needed her for some of things that needed to get done before we left, but we needed the emissary’s report more. I stood up from the table. There really wasn’t anything else I could really contribute on the intel side.

"Okay, you continue to work here. I’ve got to go to the Guild and get some of the gear that we’re going to need."

"Say hi to Sam for me," Vanessa said as she immersed herself in her music and the glowing display on her laptop.

I learned Tallahassee’s streets just enough to get to the few places I needed to go. One of those was the State Guild. Most of the time I was meeting with Hangman for lunches, but there were occasional discussions with the State Guildmaster and some of his hunters. Those discussions were informal briefings on what happened in Hillsborough. I got the distinct feeling the State Guildmaster was planning something in Hillsborough, but he wasn’t giving out any details – at least to me or to Hangman. As soon as I arrived at the State Guild, the guard directed me to the State Guildmaster’s office. That was fine, because I needed to ask the State Guildmaster for stuff.

"Ranger, we need to talk," the State Guildmaster growled as I walked into his office. We were alone, which surprised me. The State Guildmaster hadn’t met with me alone since the day I joined the Society.

"What about?" I asked in response.

"Why in the hell is Blackhawk sending you down to the Disputed Territories?" The State Guildmaster gave me a severe look that I recognized. It was the same look my Guildmaster gave me when he wanted an answer from me without any of my normal bullshit.

"How did you know that?" I asked, neutrally. From the earlier conversations with the State Guildmaster and some of his hunters, I had the impression the State Guild knew very little about the Society and its activities. I wasn’t expecting the State Guildmaster to be privy to what the Society was doing.

"Your partner needs a refresher on operational security," the State Guildmaster answered, "She confided in her lover, and of course –"

"He told you," I finished. I was annoyed, but Hangman didn’t do anything wrong. He did exactly as hunters were taught since we first walked into the training camp.

"So?" the State Guildmaster asked, "Why are you going to the Disputed Territories?"

"I’m not sure that I can tell you that," I answered. The State Guildmaster’s face darkened. "Listen, I’m not trying to make trouble for you, but that may be information that’s too sensitive for me to hand over to you." The State Guildmaster’s face continued its scowling countenance.

"Look, I don’t know what you’ll do with that information, and I don’t want anything that can be traced back to me," I said, trying a new tack. I needed to keep my good relationship with the State Guildmaster. I wasn’t about to trust only in Blackhawk getting me on the assault back into Hillsborough. "That wouldn’t do either of us a bit of good."

"So why are you here?" the State Guildmaster asked, slightly less scowling.

"Actually, I need some stuff for this upcoming jaunt," I said with a straight face. The State Guildmaster just gave me a blank look. I could see the incredulous thoughts running through his head, so I plowed on before he had time to recover. "I brought a list of things that I can’t procure on my own. I kind of figured you might be willing to give me a hand."

"Why, in the Ancestors’ names, should I do that?" the State Guildmaster asked, finally recovering from my impudence.

"Because you don’t want me dead," I answered, dropping my voice from its normal irreverent tone to one of deadly earnest, "Because neither of us trusts Blackhawk, and we both know it’s better to have someone on the inside."

"For a non-political lycanthrope, you seem to know how to play the game well," the State Guildmaster commented as he reached for the paper list in my hand.

"Politics, no. Survival, yes."

Like the Hillsborough chapter, the State Guild maintained its armory inside a legitimate gun store. Most chapters did so, because a gun store was such an excellent cover for a depository of a vast quantity of guns and ammunition. The State Guild armorer was, surprisingly, a kin by the name of Rube Simmons. Kin were hired and used by lycanthropes for a variety of reasons, but the Guild never used them for anything but intelligence gathering and occasionally staffing some outside offices. My momentary surprise was quickly swept away by the gruff, efficient manner Simmons put together my package – including offering some very helpful suggestions. My gear was simple because I knew what worked for me. Getting things for Vanessa on the other hand, was to say the very least, challenging. I returned back to the house and began laying out the gear I planned taking on into the Disputed Territories. When it got down to brass tacks, the mission was locate-and-extract, since the lycanthropes I was looking for already sent for help from the rest of the state. My suspicion was that once Vanessa and I managed to find out exactly what the messenger told the Lord of Duval County, we would know where to find the remaining lycanthropes in the Disputed Territories. I called Vanessa and asked her to meet me back at my house.

"Hey Mark, what’s up?" Vanessa asked as she stepped through my door.

"We need to get you equipped before we have to leave," I answered, "First, did you manage to make any progress on the search?" She pulled her laptop out of her satchel bag and laid it out on my table. She quickly keyed in some commands.

"I’ve got one of my custom search bots working on it," Vanessa said, "Nothing yet, but the more negative hits, the better I can refine the parameters."

"So the answer is you’re making some progress, but no real definitive idea of when we’ll find what we’re looking for," I said. She nodded with an exasperated look on her face. I ignored it and continued on the main purpose of the meeting. "First, you have a nine a.m. appointment at the State Guild to have a vest fitted. I’m not taking you into the field without one. The other thing is to get you equipped with a sidearm and a field weapon."

"You’re kidding, right?" she asked, "You’ve seen me shoot." I laid out a few handguns on my coffee table. Vanessa could hit something, but only after some intense drilling, which we didn’t have time to do. Vanessa also got flubbed by the controls of some of the semi-automatic pistols.

"Try this one," I said handing her a small pistol.

"Isn’t this your back-up piece?" Vanessa asked handling the tiny Glock 26.

"Similar, but this one is chambered in nine millimeter, " I answered, "You should be able to handle it without too much problem." Vanessa hemmed and hawed, but in the end, she preferred the Glock over others she tried. Personally, I was glad she liked the Glock. It used the same ammo as the two MP5’s and would take all of the abuse a new owner was going to put it through. Simmons was kind enough to give me a used one, so I wouldn’t have to worry about breaking it in. Simmons also threw in a bunch of different gun leathers. Vanessa found a pocket holster and a purse holster that she liked. I was about to turn to let her start choosing a long gun when her laptop toned.

Vanessa’s jaw dropped as she looked at the screen. She tapped furiously as I waited patiently for her to confirm the findings. I knew she was shocked at the results her computer generated, but there wasn’t anything I could do. I would more than likely just get in her way.

"Mark, we’ve found the emissary’s report," Vanessa said with a hushed voice.

"Great, where is it?" I asked. That report would hopefully give us strong intelligence on the current situation in the Disputed Territories.

"It’s in Tampa."

Chapter 16 – Laying The Groundwork