“What the fuck do you mean it’s in Tampa?” I asked, straining to keep from stammering out my words.
“According to these tracking documents, the emissary’s report was part of a batch of documents sent to the University of South Florida, for storage,” Vanessa explained, motioning to the display on her laptop, “From the address, the university is in Tampa.”
“Yeah, it is,” I confirmed, “I’ve worked the school plenty of times.” My mind was racing in several different directions at once, and I couldn’t keep focused on any of them. I closed my eyes to pull my thoughts together. Elizabeth just haunted the sudden darkness. I pushed her aside – I needed to concentrate on the task at hand. “Do you know where exactly the records are? That campus is huge.”
“According to this, the records are stored in the main library,” Vanessa answered, “Mark, what are you thinking?”
“How the hell we’re going to get in there without causing a problem,” I answered. My mind started dealing with the hurdles that needed to be overcome. The main highways were bound to be watched, if not by the vampires and their minions, then by the lycanthropes of the surrounding counties enforcing the border. That would be tricky, but not impossible. The big question was how would I find her once I was back in Hillsborough?
“Mark, stop thinking about her for a minute,” Vanessa said, sharply, “We’ve got to concentrate on our mission.”
“What are you talking about?” I shot back, a little too defensively.
“You get the same look on your face anytime you think hard about Elizabeth. Focus.” Vanessa waited with a patient look as I organized the barrage of thoughts and emotions running through me. Chagrined, I nodded for her to continue. “First, we’ve got to let Blackhawk know what we’ve found. He needs to know why we’re going to Hillsborough, and what we expect to find.”
“Yeah, okay,” I murmured, fighting against my dislike for Blackhawk. Vanessa was right. As our employer, Blackhawk needed to know what we were going to do, both in case he could provide additional details and in case he needed to be able to cover himself if we were about to cause problems. “As soon as we’ve advised Blackhawk on what’s happening, I need to start doing some more mission planning. Things have taken an odd turn.”
“Do you always have this gift for stating the obvious?” Vanessa asked.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I quipped. She just glared at me. “For the record, when I’m doing mission planning, I will state things that may or may not be obvious. It helps cut down on confusion.” I pulled up the map of Florida on my computer.
“Originally, I was going to have us skirt the east coast before heading inland to meet Blackhawk’s contact on the northern border of the Disputed Territories, here.” I said, highlighting the location Blackhawk gave us as part of the data dump. Since this was a covert mission, Vanessa and I would not be allowed to make contact with any county-level lycanthropes. That requirement alone made planning difficult. Lycanthropes didn’t allow foreigners on their territory without permission. If the county lord was being lenient, getting caught meant a only bad beating as punishment and a strong escort to the border with instructions to never come back. Closer to the Disputed Territories, they were known for executing wayward lycanthropes.
“Now, all of that work just hit the circular file,” I said, “On the plus side, I’m more familiar with the west coast of Florida. It shouldn’t take me nearly as long to pick our way down. The tricky part will be cutting across the state to get into the Disputed Territories.”
“Why?” Vanessa asked. “It looks like a lot of these counties have small populations. Wouldn’t that mean less lycanthropes looking for us?”
“Yeah, but there are fewer ways to get across those counties quickly,” I answered. “Those packs have a fewer number of routes to watch for wayward souls, like us.”
“I suppose Google Maps doesn’t have a routing for avoiding lycanthrope packs?” Vanessa asked. I chuckled.
“That would be useful right about now,” I answered, looking at the map. Maybe if we blew through the towns in the dead of night. It would make it harder.
“Okay, you figure out how to get us into Hillsborough, how to get the emissary’s report from the university, maybe see your girlfriend, and then get us into the Disputed Territories,” Vanessa said. “I’ll go talk to Chris and tell him what we’ve found. Maybe he can scare up some resources to help us.” It wasn’t until she was out the door that I fully parsed her sentence. Every time I thought I had Vanessa figured out, she went and said something like that.
The ringing of my cell phone caught me by surprise. Annoyed at myself for being startled, I looked down at the display. My scowl deepened. I didn’t know why Blackhawk was calling me, but I damn sure didn’t want to talk to him at the moment. I had Vanessa for that. Unfortunately, if he was calling me, then it was probably something important. Or at least, something I couldn’t just ignore.
“Ranger,” I said, tersely.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Blackhawk growled into the phone, “I do not like my operatives abusing my trust.” My first reaction was someone in the State Guild was talking to Blackhawk about my meetings with the State Guildmaster. I kept quiet and was rewarded for my patience.
“I told you that I would make sure that you would be part of the retaking of Hillsborough. Why are you coming up with some bizarre story to get yourself down there now?” Blackhawk demanded. Oh, so that was what this was about.
“I need to know what the emissary from the Disputed Territories told the Prince,” I replied, finally understanding what Blackhawk was going off about. I made sure to keep the relief out of my voice. “You want me to traipse down into the most dangerous part of Florida and complete an operation, then I need good intel. An emissary from the folks I’m supposed to be contacting sounds like pretty good intel.” I heard Blackhawk take a few controlled breaths before he began again.
“I’m going to tell you the same thing I just told Vanessa. There is nothing in that report that will help you. Forget about it and get on with your mission,” Blackhawk ordered. There was something wrong about the tone in his voice. Blackhawk was being too forceful in his dismissal of the report. He could’ve just been clumsily trying to keep my focus on the job, but that’s not what my instincts were telling me. If he knew that there was nothing in the emissary’s report that would help us, he should have included the report in the intel he gave us. Or at least mentioned it. Blackhawk was trying to keep me away from the report, or from Hillsborough, or both.
“I understand,” I told Blackhawk. He disconnected without any further words. I dialed Vanessa. There were a few things I needed to confirm. Vanessa was waiting for my call.
“Hi Mark,” she answered weakly, like she was expecting me to erupt at her.
“Hey Vanessa. I just got a call from Blackhawk,” I said in as a pleasant voice as I could muster. I could barely hear the intake of breath as she waited for the expected torrent from me.
“What exactly did he tell you?” I asked.
“When I told him that we located the emissary’s report and were going to go get it, he just kind of exploded,” Vanessa said, “He wanted to know where we heard about it and how we found it. Then, Chris told me there was nothing in that report that would help us. We were just to forget it and get back to doing our job.” Vanessa’s story confirmed a few things in my mind.
“That’s pretty much what he just told me. I need you to continue to prep for our trip to Hillsborough,” I told her, “I’ve got to go back to the State Guild. Make sure you keep your appointment with the tailor. I may be out of contact for a bit. If Blackhawk asks, tell him we’ll be leaving day after tomorrow.”
“Mark, if there’s nothing in that report that can help us, there’s no reason to go to Tampa,” Vanessa said, warning tone in her voice, “At least not in terms of the mission we were given by Blackhawk.” I knew Vanessa was thinking I was using this as a reason to get back into Hillsborough. She was right, but not for the reasons she thought I was doing this. Vanessa was still too trusting of Blackhawk. I didn’t share that particular attitude. I needed to set things in motion in case my suspicions were correct.
“Vanessa listen to me, this has nothing to do with me trying to find the Lady-Apparent,” I told her. That was true. Mostly. “If there was nothing in the report from the emissary that could help us, why didn’t Blackhawk tell us about it so we wouldn’t waste time? Why wasn’t it included in our packets, at least as background? That’s something that would be perfectly logical for us to at least know about, even if there was no actionable intel. So, does Blackhawk admit that he overlooked it and told us what was in the report? No. Instead he exploded at us. Can’t you see that there’s something wrong with that?” Vanessa didn’t have a good answer for that. There was a long pause before she gave me an absentminded goodbye and hung up. I knew that tone in her voice. She needed some time to think. I just hoped she didn’t decide to ask Blackhawk for clarification. If my suspicions were right, I needed Blackhawk in the dark about what we were doing. At the moment, I needed to line up my real alliances.
The State Guildmaster was holding a meeting with his lieutenants when I barged into his office. The State Guild section leaders gave me a variety of evil looks for the effrontery, but waited for their leader to rebuke me. Most of them had sat in on my conversations with the State Guildmaster. Most intel operatives would have called them debriefings. I got the distinct impression that half of them respected me, while the others thought I was an abomination. Ignoring their venom, I looked directly at the State Guildmaster.
“We need to talk. Alone,” I said, curtly. He gave me an appraising look.
“I see,” he murmured. He turned to his lieutenants and wordlessly ordered them out. The six lycanthropes traded confused looks. I understood their position. They were the leaders of the different sections of the State chapter. They’d sat in on enough of my talks with the State Guildmaster. What could I need to talk to the State Guildmaster about that they shouldn’t be privy to? The State Guildmaster was extending me a great deal of trust. He waited until the last of them closed the door before asking.
“What is so important to drag you over here again so soon?” the State Guildmaster asked, clearly curious.
“I think Blackhawk is setting me up to get killed,” I answered, flatly, “I also think I found a legitimate reason for you to send hunters into Hillsborough now instead of waiting for the war council.” The office fell silent save for the slight hum of office electronics. The curious expression on the State Guildmaster’s face evaporated, and a neutral expression appeared. I didn’t know the State Guildmaster well enough to find the slight facial signals that would tell me what he was thinking. The State Guildmaster said nothing for an eternally long and silent minute.
“Perhaps you should explain a bit further,” he said, giving me a short efficient wave of his hand to punctuate his statement.
“Okay,” I said, drawing my breath, “Blackhawk ordered Vanessa and me to infiltrate the Disputed Territories. Supposedly, we’re supposed to try to find and extract the remaining lycanthropes. Blackhawk hinted they were supposed to be the backbone of the war council’s liberation army.” The State Guildmaster nodded as I said this. “Doing our background research for the mission, we came across reference to an emissary from the Disputed Territories.”
“Yes, I remember,” the State Guildmaster, “I was busy dealing with a possible pathwalker in Orange County when the emissary reported to the prince. The Prince told me that the emissary was little more than a half-crazed lycanthrope who couldn’t put together a coherent sentence, much less tell us what was happening in the Disputed Territories. Are you saying I should have pursued the matter further?”
“Well, that’s very interesting,” I murmured, ignoring the State Guildmaster’s question. “First, everything we saw said that the lord from Duvall did the report, not the emissary. Once we found out about it, Vanessa tried to hunt up the report. Most of the references to the emissary were scoured from the normal databases. Even if what the Prince told you about the emissary was correct, why would the Prince’s archivists do that?”
“I don’t know,” the State Guildmaster answered, clearly unsure of where I was going, “It could have been a simple clerical error. Mistakes do happen. What does this have to do with Blackhawk trying to kill you or getting my hunters into Hillsborough?”
“Because I think the emissary gave a much more detailed report than you were told, and Blackhawk is trying to make sure that the Guild is completely unaware of it,” I answered
“Why?” the State Guildmaster asked, unconvinced.
“That I don’t know for sure. At least I don’t have any evidence that would tell us,” I answered, “Here’s the thing, Blackhawk was just a bit too forceful telling us not to go after a physical copy of the emissary’s report. My instincts are telling me there’s something in that report that he doesn’t want you to know about. Blackhawk knows I would tell you if it was something important to the State Guild. I may be working for him, but I’m a hunter first.”
“I think you’re letting your dislike of Blackhawk color your interpretation of events Ranger,” the State Guildmaster said, sounding eerily similar like my Guildmaster when he was “mentoring” me from doing something stupid. “It was the Prince who told me about the emissary, not Blackhawk.”
“What if Blackhawk convinced the Prince to tell you that?” I asked in response, “You’ve told me enough times that Blackhawk has the Prince’s ear, or am I wrong about that?”
“No, but what is the end game of all these machinations?” the State Guildmaster.
“Again, I don’t know for certain, but I’m pretty damn sure it has something to do with the the war council.” The State Guildmaster leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully.
“You may be right, there,” the State Guildmaster said, “I can see Blackhawk trying to manipulate the war council to put who he wants on the throne. What’s the point of sending you down to the Disputed Territories and killing you?”
“Not sure about that either,” I said, “I think I’m supposed to disappear like every other hunter who has gone in. I have this feeling like he’s trying to wrap up a loose end, but I don’t know how that could be me. How can a Badmoon have any effect on the war council?”
“What if it isn’t you, but your partner?” the State Guildmaster asked. I stopped and thought about that for a long moment. Well, that’s why he was was the State Guildmaster.
“That’s certainly a possibility,” I conceded. “I guess I’m so used to people trying to kill me, that it’s my default. If Blackhawk is trying to kill Vanessa, I’ll bet you she doesn’t even know why. She still trusts him way too much. Whatever the reason, I am going to complete my mission. Blackhawk was right about them being needed, even if it was bullshit on his end. So, in order to do my job, I’ll need the emissary’s report. Which leads to how to get your hunters into Hillsborough.” The State Guildmaster’s eyes shot over to me with a burning intensity. I was a little taken aback. I didn’t know how angry the State Guildmaster was over the fact he was forbidden to send in his hunters into Hillsborough. I took his smoldering glare as a cue to continue.
“The emissary’s report is in Hillsborough,” I told him, “If I found something important in the report, something that could have an effect on the war council, wouldn’t you have to send hunters down to secure the information?” The State Guildmaster’s face scrunched down in thought.
“That’s dangerously skirting the edge of my authority,” the State Guildmaster admitted after a brief moment of hard internal debate. “Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t push it so hard. With the war council, I might be able to without being forced from the State Guild.” A Guildmaster – at the state or county level – was removed only for the strongest of infractions. I wasn’t aware the Prince was enforcing such a strict blockade around Hillsborough.
“So, could I take Hangman along?” I ventured.
“Not a chance in hell,” the State Guildmaster snapped. I held my hands out to show I didn’t really expect to be able to snag Hangman, but I had to try. He smiled briefly to acknowledge the point before continuing. “I won’t be able to send in any of my hunters until I have reasonable evidence there’s something that needs to be secured by my hunters. Once I’m made aware of such an item, then it would be foolish not to include the hunter with the most local experience in the team tasked with securing whatever needs to be secured.” Our eyes met. The agreement was made. If I could provide the something important, the State Guildmaster would send down state hunters to “secure” it, and provide the remaining Hillsborough lycanthropes some much needed support. I got a bonus with the State Guildmaster tacitly agreeing Hangman would be part of the securing team. I just hoped there were lycanthropes left in Hillsborough to be supported.
“One more thing Marcus,” the State Guildmaster said as I reached the door, “Don’t tell Vanessa or Samuel that she might be the one Blackhawk wants dead. You and I both know what would happen next. That young hunter is too valuable to me right now.”
“That young hunter is one of my few friends,” I said, “I’m not about to send him on some mission of vengeance.”
“Good. Now get out of here and get to work. I need to reconvene the meeting you interrupted and go over all of these new revelations,” the State Guildmaster said. “And Marcus, try not to get dead during this mission for Blackhawk. You are also too valuable to me to lose this early in the game.” For some reason, that comment felt satisfying.
Vanessa came to my house after her appointment with the tailor carrying a large hanging bag. I spread a map of Hillsborough County and the surrounding area on my table. Her annoyed expression let me know how she felt about the tailoring session. I returned her annoyance with bland indifference. Vanessa wouldn’t have had to go through the indignity of a rush tailoring job if she’d taken the time to properly procure a vest when she knew she was going out into the field. Sensing my apathy for her predicament, Vanessa turned her attention to the map that dominated my kitchen table.
“So, what’s the plan, Mark?” Vanessa asked, hanging her bag in a closet.
“The plan is in general stages, at the moment,” I replied, fixing the two of us glasses of iced tea. We both sat down at the table. “The good news is Hillsborough is too big and there are too few lycanthropes – especially hunters – to properly seal the border. What they can do is patrol the common routes into the county and randomly patrol the rest of the border. They will most likely be relying on the fact they can spot a lycanthrope with just a look. Then they can hunt that lycanthrope down. We’re limited in that we can’t do anything that might seriously injure one of those lycanthropes. So, we’re going to have to be sneaky getting back into the county.”
“Sneaky, how?” Vanessa asked, suspiciously. I wondered exactly what Hangman was telling her about my previous jobs.
“It shouldn’t be too bad,” I answered, “It does mean that it will take more time than just a straight shot. Truthfully, the actual odds of us being seen on anything but the main roads is slim. The problem is if we are detected, we’re going to be in a bad situation. Those lycanthropes will do anything to stop us from crossing the border, up to, and including, killing us.” Vanessa shuddered.
“And there’s nothing we can do to them,” she replied flatly.
“Yep,” I answered. I tilted my head and looked her in the eyes. “Those lycanthropes are doing what their lords told them. They have faith that their lords have a damn good reason for it, even if they don’t see it. More importantly, we are going to need these lycanthropes when the war council convenes and the lycanthrope army is sent into Hillsborough. I don’t want any bad blood between us if I have to work with them. There’s too much at stake.”
“For someone who claims complete ignorance of state politics, you sure seem to understand a lot,” Vanessa chided, the smile on her face reassuring me that she understood my explanation, and accepted it.
“The State Guildmaster said something similar today,” I answered, “To use a human phrase, I never had a dog in the hunt before.”
“You still think she’s alive,” Vanessa said softly.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said, “Everything says she is probably dead, but I Just Can’t Believe That. I need to do everything in my power to get as much help into Hillsborough as I can, including doing this mission for the Society.”
“I actually do understand. From everything Sam told me about Elizabeth and you, I’m starting to believe she might be alive,” Vanessa said. I was stunned into silence. She just shrugged and continued.
“So how are we going to do this?” she asked, bringing me back to the mission.
“I was thinking on this while going through the gear we’re taking down,” I said, “The incursion into Hillsborough needs to be brief, or at least appear that we meant it to be brief. Again, a matter of state politics, which I’m really fucking hating. The whole idea of getting state hunters into Hillsborough to find and rally any surviving lycanthropes – and killing as many vampires as they can in the process – is based on the premise that we made a quick, completely unauthorized incursion that just happened to turn up something important enough that it needs to be secured immediately. The first few members of the war council should be showing up in Tallahassee while we’re in Hillsborough. Their presence should be enough to shield the State Guildmaster. At least, that’s the plan.” Vanessa nodded understanding.
“I have the idea, but I’m going to need you to do pretty much all the phone work for this,” I told her, “Also, you’re going to have to use your personal money to do this. If any Society funds get used, Blackhawk will get wind of it, and he might pull us off the operation.”
“Okay, what?” she asked, annoyed I was beating around the bush instead of just telling her what the plan was.
“What the fuck?” Vanessa screeched, “Why in the Ancestors’ names do we need a limo for this? Do you know how expensive that’s going to be?” I held up my hands, silently asking her to calm down. The Society didn’t exactly pay its operatives as well as the Guild paid its hunters. Instead, the Society gave large allowances for items such as home and vehicle. The personal expense I was asking Vanessa to undertake was considerable for her. I slid a check across the table to her.
“A thousand dollars to help defray the costs, but you can’t cash that until we get back,” I told her, “I have a feeling Blackhawk has our accounts tapped. We can’t do anything that will tip him off, or the entire mission will be screwed.” Vanessa’s trust in me and her trust in Blackhawk was warring across her face. We’d spent a lot of time together since I turned up in Tallahassee. I’d trusted her with many of my dark secrets, and that was a big thing for Vanessa. I had a nasty feeling it was Hangman that put me over the top, or she would’ve already turned me over to Blackhawk. She trusted her lover implicitly, and he trusted me implicitly. Her internal debate quelled for the moment, she nodded.
“Now, the reason we need the limo is because it’s so flamboyant,” I explained, “The lycanthropes patrolling the border are not going to be looking for lycanthropes in limos. The moment they see a limo, it will be automatically dismissed. Oh sure, some of the hunters might consider it, but the tint will prevent them from seeing me, and they’re damn sure not going to stop someone in a limo unless they have proof positive that a lycanthrope is in there.”
“So why not rent a cargo van?” Vanessa countered.
“Who’s going to drive it?” I asked, “Limo services provide a driver. More importantly, they’re used to providing drivers for unusual requests. A cargo vehicle would be more inconspicuous, but that’s not necessarily what we need to get into the county.”
“And when we get on campus?” Vanessa asked, “Won’t that big limo attract notice? If there are ghouls on campus or someone else looking for lycanthropes like you, it could cause a problem.”
“Depending on where we get dropped off,” I answered. Vanessa looked confused until I explained further. She wasn’t fully convinced, but she didn’t seem to have any further objections. She opened up her laptop and started working on the details. I needed to finish my own preparations. My truck would be loaded with gear I would need, plus enough room for items I expected to retrieve from Hillsborough. One of my secondary goals while in Hillsborough was to get to my townhouse and retrieve my personal stock of weapons. I missed my Commando. I was pretty sure I was going to need it when I did head down to the Disputed Territories.
There was another item that needed to be figured out, and I was hoping that Vanessa might be able to lend a hand. Hillsborough was overrun with vampires. I still didn’t have a clue as to how the TCV managed to get that many vampires in undetected by our intelligence specialists. The TCV would have had to “recruit” them from inside Hillsborough or managed to acquire assistance from another council. As to the former, we would have known if that many humans suddenly went missing. Hell, the human authorities would have noticed it, and more than likely, so would have the pathwalkers. The TCV wouldn’t have been that suicidal. As to getting more vampires into the county from another council? That possibility was more likely. I still don’t know how we would have missed the influx of vampires from outside the county. Simply put, your basic vampire would not have the experience or training to avoid all of the common entrances into the county. We should have seen a few of them coming in, and then found out about the rest of the bastards. That we didn’t meant that there was something new and evil going on amongst the undead. I was hoping Vanessa could figure it out. This lead back to why we were still going to the the Disputed Territories, even with my suspicions of Blackhawk. Because of the sheer numbers of vampires in the county, any attempt to take back Hillsborough was going to require extensive training for the army that the war council would authorize. That kind of training needed to come from lycanthropes experienced in constant, tiring, and nasty warfare. The kind of lycanthropes we would find in the Disputed Territories.
As I looked at the map spread out on the table, my mind plotted our moves beyond retrieving the emissary’s letter. I intended to call in the State Guild no matter what the letter said. If we found lycanthropes in Hillsborough, the State boys would help organize and train them. If not – my heart seized as I contemplated the thought – then the State hunters would be able to collect priceless intelligence. Especially if Hangman was among their number. Once I was sure the State Guild was sending a team in, Vanessa and I would have to move to the Disputed Territories. I knew I was putting a lot of faith that the emissary letter contained crucial information. If not, this mission had all the trappings of a suicidal run into vampire-held Florida. At least I knew the ground in Hillsborough and knew enough people to help me. The Disputed Territories, on the other hand, were completely foreign to me. I had a few ideas of how to contact the lycanthropes still running around down there, but I wasn’t really thrilled about any of them. This rumination brought my nagging suspicions to the forefront. Why was Blackhawk only sending two operatives on a mission that should require at least two hit packs? Was he trying to kill one or the both of us off in some acceptable manner, or did he truly believe that Vanessa and I would extract these lycanthropes out? What were the Society’s ultimate goals for the war council and the inevitable campaign to retake the territories the lycanthropes lost to the vampire? There were too many questions. I put those aside for the moment.
Elizabeth taunted me in my dreams that night. I kept running towards her, to save her, and she kept disappearing the moment I nearly caught up to her. I woke in a sweat. My phone buzzed. I reached over and looked at the text message from Vanessa.
“All arrangements made. Ready to go.”
One of the oddest sensations when doing a job – or in this case, an operation – is the strange combination of excitement and boredom. The actual drive down to the hotel was dull. Florida can be a pretty state, but Interstate 75 doesn’t go through the most spectacular parts of the state. Mostly it’s sparse grasslands, farms, and then the edges of the Tampa sprawl. I looked across the cab of the truck. Vanessa spent the entire drive from Tallahassee immersed in the data on her laptop. Barely audible pop music drifted over from her earbuds as she drowned out the outside noise. She didn’t speak to me the entire trip. Her body language was oddly neutral. I couldn’t tell if she was just immersed in her studies, or if she was making a concerted effort to ignore me. Hangman mentioned to me as we were leaving that my plan was costing Vanessa a good portion of her savings. He understood why I was asking her to do it, but Hangman also made it perfectly clear that her outlay wasn’t something to be taken for granted. I knew he was right, but I didn’t know how to talk to Vanessa about it – so I didn’t say anything. I was hoping to have some inspiration during the trip. It didn’t exactly work out that way. To be perfectly honest, I had my own problems as we got closer and closer to Hillsborough. It was getting harder for me to put away all of those unfamiliar emotion blasting through me as I thought about what Elizabeth must be going through. Assuming she was still alive. Intellectually, I knew she was most likely dead. If only my brain could get through to the rest of me. It was taking more and more of my willpower to continue on to the hotel. Everything in me screamed to blaze into Hillsborough and violently search for her – even if it meant bringing in the pathwalkers. Once my mind hit that revelation, I knew my judgment was getting seriously fucked up. I was going to need some serious time to get into mission-mode once we got to the hotel. That was not going to help my repair my relationship with Vanessa if she decided we needed to talk.
The hotel was your basic chain hotel. Vanessa retreated to her room, leaving me alone with my traitorous thoughts. I concentrated on mission preparations, such as properly rigging one of the MP5Ks into a nondescript satchel. It wasn’t as good as a dedicated bag, but the satchel would blend into the university scene. The blending was for the humans, not the vampires or ghouls. The last thing Vanessa and I needed was for some stupid human to catch sight of a weapon and panic. Four spare magazines slipped into another pouch. I wasn’t expecting a fight during the mission. If we made contact with the vampires forces, which during the day would be ghouls and a few stupid humans, then Vanessa and I would run. Maybe with just enough gunfire to cover our escape, if I didn’t have any other option. I was there to find the emissary report, not trying to take back the county on my own. I couldn’t even think about searching for Elizabeth until after we secured the report. There was a soft rap on the door. I peered through the peephole and saw Vanessa pacing back and forth indecisively in front of my door. Damn it, she looked too conspicuous doing that in the hallway. I jerked the door open and yanked my partner inside. Vanessa let out a stifled yelp. I flinched as Vanessa slammed a surprisingly strong fist into my side. Hangman must have been giving her lessons. The two of us glared at each other for a brief, but eternal moment.
“Sorry,” I murmured, looking down at the floor, “My mind’s kind of fucked up right now.” Vanessa’s expression softened slightly, but her annoyance was still there. She rubbed her arm and walked into my room.
“I understand Mark,” Vanessa answered, her voice seasoned with an unexpected uncertainty. She sat down on one of the beds and stared at blank television screen. Her stillness was unnerving. I waited for her to speak.
“You know, being this close to Tampa, I’m scared,” Vanessa said, a slight tremor in her soft voice, “No, I’m fucking terrified. I thought as we got closer to the mission, all of those fears would just fall away, but they haven’t.” She slowly turned and looked at me. Vanessa’s eyes were pleading with me. I walked over and put my arms around her. It was uncomfortable for me, but Vanessa needed the physical reassurance. It also reminded me that I needed to concentrate on the mission. This delicate little kin, the beloved of my friend and protégé, needed me to keep focused. If I didn’t, there was a damned good chance she wouldn’t make it out alive. She needed to know that I was with her on this mission. Vanessa gently pushed me away and sat back down on the bed. She gave me an appraising look. That was unexpected.
“Hangman said you liked hugs,” I answered meekly, “He told me it might be necessary to give you one before we went in.” Vanessa laughed long and loud as the tension inside of her finally found a release.
“That sounds like Sam,” Vanessa said, finally getting control. She gave me an odd look and leaned into me, “You know Mark, you give good hugs. Reminds me of my brothers.” Vanessa stared at the blank television screen, almost as if she were looking through it. I waited as she collected her thoughts. Vanessa almost never mentioned her family. The few times she let something slip in conversation, she just stopped and stared off for a bit.
“Are you sure this plan is going to work?” Vanessa asked without taking her eyes off the television.
“About as sure as I am about most of my plans,” I answered confidently. Vanessa giggled at the comment.
“Considering some of the stories that Sam told me, that doesn’t exactly comfort me, Mark,” Vanessa replied.
“I’m still alive, and I promised Hangman that I would make sure that you stayed alive too,” I told her.
“Now that is comforting,” Vanessa said before getting up and walking back to her room.
The curtains in the front window moved ever so slightly as the limousine pulled up to the curb. I stepped out from the back, my eyes sweeping the street for possible threats. Vanessa stepped out behind me after tipping the driver. I looked up at the house as the limousine quietly pulled off. Right now, Vanessa and I were in the most dangerous part of our mission, even if she didn’t know it. I slipped the strap of the messenger bag over my head. I felt the comforting weight of the MP5K. We walked up to the front door. The house was a simple nondescript home in Riverview, one of the many suburbs of Tampa. Like most of Hillsborough County, Riverview had been farmland until it was taken over by the creeping urban sprawl. The subdivision was similar to so many that were quickly constructed in the nineties. I couldn’t even remember the name of it. The varying blues of the house’s exteriors could have been any house in a twenty mile radius. Two nice, but unimpressive sedans were parked in the driveway. A rusty and worn sports car was parked on the curb. I smiled. At least part of my grand plan was working. Now, if the occupants in the house would cooperate. I gently knocked on the door.
The door swung open. A disheveled man in his early forties stood in the doorway. From the look of his black hair and growing beard, not to mention the smell of stale sweat and beer, it had been a few days since the man shaved or showered. His eyes, although bloodshot, were clear and focused on Vanessa and me as he visually inspected us. He was wearing a faded black t-shirt and black sweatpants. There was a familiar bulge on his right side at the waist. The man looked like he was leaning into the left side of the doorway, but I could see the signs that his annoyed nonchalance was a charade. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from one of Mrs. Werstand’s finest security consultants.
“Can I help you?” the deep voice drawled, betraying a childhood firmly in the Southern states. I heard Vanessa take a step back as the alcohol tainted breath floated across us.
“I hope so Mr. Williams,” I answered. Williams perked up when I said his name. His hand slid down to the bulge, but his eyes never left mine. “My name is Marcus Smith. I worked for Mr. Werstand.” The reaction was almost instantaneous.
“Get in here,” Williams ordered, grabbing my arm and jerking me into the house. I was barely in the foyer before Williams was grabbing Vanessa and dragging her into the house. There was a small Glock in Williams’ hand as the door shut. I pushed down my instinct to either draw my sidearm or yank the MP5 out of the messenger bag. Williams was scared, but he wasn’t threatening us. He was trying to protect us.
“What in the hell are you doing here?” Williams demanded as soon as the door was securely shut.
“We need your help,” I said, “More to the point, we need your son’s help, Mr. Williams.” Williams’ arm jerked as he almost brought his weapon up to me before his conscious mind caught up.
“Who is we?” Williams asked suspiciously, “Your whole operation was rolled up. Your boss and mine are dead.” Williams had every right to be suspicious of me. Williams worked for Mrs. Werstand’s security company, and the employees helped out the Guild on a semi-regular basis. The employees weren’t stupid. They needed something to explain why they occasionally escorted individuals toting fully automatic weapons and did surveillance on individuals who acted like criminals and terrorists. The few kin in Mrs. Werstand’s company knew the whole story. Unfortunately, they were a small minority of the company. There just weren’t that many kin with the necessary skill set for an upper-tier security firm. For those individuals with the necessary skill set, but not the heritage, it was quietly known that the firm contracted out to clandestine intelligence operations. As far as Williams knew, the local spy ring in Tampa just fought a nasty clandestine war with a new foe and got thrashed. Many, if not most, of the local operatives were killed or in the wind. Now, I was showing up and telling him I needed him and his son to get back into the game.
“Yeah, the locals are underground,” I answered, silently thanking Vanessa for being smart enough to just play along, “I work for the next level up. There are records here in town that we need before they can fall into opposition hands. We need to get to their location and extract from their location without being seen.”
“What does this have to do with my son?” Williams asked.
“The records are at USF,” I answered, “Your son is a student. He can get us on to the campus with a minimal amount of fuss. We get the records and he brings us back here. Then we leave. Minimal danger to your family.”
“Fuck you,” Williams hissed, “I’m not risking my family for this. For all I know, your bad guys are waiting there to kill you and anyone around you. Hell, they could be watching this house.” I took a moment before answering and looked at Williams. The aging in his face and graying in his hair was recent. This was a man who watched his world explode in his face. He was terrified that it followed him home to his family. I doubted that Williams managed a good night sleep since Mrs. Werstand was killed by the Bleeders.
“I can tell you that the firm’s relationship to our work was not revealed,” I told Williams, “We lost because the opposition flooded the area with limited duration operatives that focused on us. We had already eliminated their main operatives. There wasn’t anyone to make the connection.” Williams looked at me askance. It went against all of his professional experience, but he knew I was telling him the truth. Not all of it, but enough for him to believe me. “Our organization needs these records if we’re ever going to retake this area. Yes, there is some risk. If there wasn’t, I would just go to the university myself and not involve you or your son at all. But, I will be there, and I will protect your son.” Williams turned away from us and walked into the kitchen. Vanessa and I silently followed him. Vanessa gave me a worried look, but I just gave her a reassuring smile. I spent some hard time researching my mark. Williams was going to agree – and so would his son. He just needed enough time for his mind to come to that forgone conclusion. I just hoped he would do it before his son’s afternoon class.
The younger Williams eagerly agreed to help us out. Part of that was probably ingrained family tradition. Most likely, it came from a teenager’s excitement for doing what he considered “Epic Shit.” I heard the capital letters in his voice as the young man bubbled on how exciting it would be to be doing a covert operation. Vanessa gave me a concerned look, but I just smiled and waved her worries away. Williams wasn’t the only employee of Mrs. Werstand’s company with a child at USF, but the younger Williams had been profiled as a “possible asset” for the Guild. One of the perks of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter was sitting in on those evaluations. The young human’s performance confirmed my suspicions. As we drove onto the campus, any outward sign of eagerness or excitement faded away as Williams Jr. became just another student. He was just giving some friends of his parents a ride onto the campus. He even wore the strained sneer of being put upon. He was his father’s son.
The younger Williams dropped us off in front of the massive six-story library. The beige-bricked and gray concrete structure was taller than most of the other buildings on the expansive campus, with the notable exception of the Sun Dome arena. As I made sure the messenger bag was hanging properly, Vanessa confirmed cell numbers with Willams Jr. I scanned the surrounding area. In front of the library was a courtyard area dotted with green metal tables and crammed with humans. Behind us was a small cul-de-sac that acted as an access road. Beyond that was a small parking lot and one of the parking garages. To the left of the library was Cooper Hall, the main liberal arts building and the College of Education. On the right was the main entrance loop of the university, starting from Fowler Avenue to the main administrative building. Across the loop was the College of Engineering. My instincts were screaming that something was wrong, but I couldn’t see the danger. My hand reflexively slipped into the messenger bag. Vanessa notice the motion.
“Something wrong Mark?” Vanessa asked with a strained casual tone.
“Nothing I can see, but there’s something’s wrong,” I answered, searching around. “I can feel it.”
“Do we need to leave?” Vanessa asked with a hint of fear in her voice. Her hand lightly grabbed my left arm.
“No, but I think we need to be careful,” I answered, taking the first steps toward the library. She kept a casual pace next to me, but she was darting looks all over the crowd of people. I doubted any of the students noticed, but a professional would.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I asked.
“I know what we’re looking for,” Vanessa replied, “I’ll find out the where once I get on one of the computers inside.” We entered the sliding glass doors, through an airlock, and into the lobby of the library. Just on the other side of the airlock was a wide entrance way with a Starbucks to the right and the checkout desk on the right. The entrance way dumped into a common area crammed with students at tables. Vanessa stopped one of the milling students and asked where the common use computers were located.
I jerked my head around as my instincts screamed warnings. My eyes scanned the area around us. We were being watched, but I couldn’t see who. My hand gripped the MP5 in the bag. Vanessa’s conversation with the other girl came to a screeching halt. Both of them gave me wary looks. I didn’t care. This was not me being paranoid. Someone with a bit of training was tracking Vanessa and me. My protective side told me to extract Vanessa and hunt down the bastard on my own. My professional side reminded me that the job needed to be done. I shook my head. A vague threat was something to be cautious about, but nothing so far was enough for me to cancel the operation. I fully believed that the information was too important to Vanessa and my overall mission.
“Let’s get this done, and get out of here,” I murmured to Vanessa. She nodded and warmly thanked the still-spooked coed. I followed my partner back to a bank of computers. It was primarily set up for the students to check their email, but the computers also let Vanessa access the library’s catalogue. I let her tap away on the keyboard as I searched again for whoever was following us.
“Are you sure you’re not just being paranoid about being back in town, Mark? Vanessa asked in a low voice.
“We are being followed,” I told her, “I just can’t find who’s following us.” Vanessa went pale and swallowed hard. I smiled down at her. “Relax. I’d scrub the operation if I thought you were in serious danger. Hangman would kill me if he find out I risked you recklessly.”
“Somehow that’s not making me feel better, today,” Vanessa replied tartly. She turned back to the computer and copied down some information onto her phone. Then she looked up at me and told me what she’d found. “The emissary’s report is on the fourth floor.” I grimaced at that. I was hoping that it was close to the ground. The library’s main elevators and staircase emptied onto a common area on each floor. Rooms surrounded the common areas, and most of those were the stacks. If a fight broke out, the exits were limited. Hostiles could easily block the common area, which meant any exit would mean using very noisy means. Either an emergency exit, which would pinpoint our location for any bad guys, or we would have to go out the window. I could survive a forty foot fall, but Vanessa couldn’t. With this many humans, I really didn’t want to have to pull out weapons. I spent a moment weighing the risks and rewards before nodding to Vanessa.
“Okay, let’s do this,” I told her, “We’ll take the stairs up. I don’t want to get trapped in an elevator.” Vanessa nodded in agreement. The two of us walked as casually as possible up the stairs to the fourth floor. Vanessa kept a happy smile on her face as we passed the smattering of students in the common area. My instincts weren’t screaming as we went through the glass doors to the library’s stacks. It was possible that whoever was following us had given up. More likely, our tail was calling for backup. Vanessa went in search of the court records while I cleared out one of the studying corrals. My glower was scary enough to do the job, because the two humans quickly grabbed their materials and skittered out of the stacks after a moment or two of me standing over them. Vanessa was oblivious to the matter as she plopped down half a dozen thick books. From the look on her face, Vanessa was annoyed. More than likely the scowl was because she had to actually sort through paper instead of scrolling through electronic records. Vanessa hated paper records. Antiquated and obsolete, were among her many complaints. She slid the first book in front of her and cracked it open. The book’s binding actually audibly cracked from never being opened since it was printed and bound. As Vanessa settled down in her chair and began reading, I focused on watching the glass door. If our stalker decided to sneak in here, I was damn sure going to intercept him and make sure he had a nasty surprise. Quietly, of course.
“Mark, what are you doing?” Vanessa asked, her voice tight with annoyance.
“Guarding you,” I answered, keeping my focus on the door.
“Mark, we’ve got over two thousand pages of text to get through,” Vanessa laid out, “We won’t get anything out of these before dark if you don’t help me. Now pick up one of those books and get to work.”
“Can’t you just find the date of the envoy’s report and look it up in that volume?” I asked.
“If there was any sort of order to these reports,” Vanessa answered, “The Prince’s court recorders don’t put everything in a nice, neat, chronological order. They have some bizarre indexing system that I don’t understand.”
“Ancestors,” I swore, “Okay, but move over here.” I gestured to the seat I was currently occupying.
“Why?” Vanessa asked, looking back at the door, “If anyone comes through the doors, they’ll see me first.”
“I’m counting on it,” I answered. Vanessa gave me an evil look before complying. I picked up one of the books. Vanessa was right about two things. First, the system for listing entries in the court records was bizarre. I couldn’t make rhyme or reason on how the recorders decided to list the various transcripts in the books. The transcripts went from subject to subject with no theme. Even the date was irrelevant. Some passages had transcripts from the same day, other times one day would be spread out over several passages. It was enough to drive anyone trying to gather information from the books to near madness. The second thing was that Vanessa was easily spotted where she was sitting. After a few hours of trying to decipher the books, I heard the glass door open. I’d heard it open several times since we started looking for the emissary’s report. This time my instincts started screaming again. I slid out from the study corral into the stacks. I left the messenger bag, but my HK45 was drawn and out of sight. The stalker walked almost noiselessly across the carpet. He had some training, but the stalker wasn’t a professional. He could be a ghoul, but I didn’t think so. They were usually too task-oriented to do things stealthily and subtly. The ones who could were usually personal servants to the vampires. He walked up to Vanessa. I heard the distinctive sound of metal against leather as he pulled out a weapon. Stupid fucker.
“Where’s the lycanthrope?” an angry voice whispered. Vanessa gasped. I stepped up behind – the lycanthrope? What the fuck? I didn’t recognize him, but he was definitely a lycanthrope. He was holding a small revolver at Vanessa and didn’t sense me as I placed the barrel of my HK45 right behind his ear.
“Very carefully pup, hand your weapon to my partner,” I told him. He hesitated and his muscles tensed, prepping for a counter against me. I slapped my pistol into his temple. “I really don’t want to kill you, but it wouldn’t be my first time.” His muscles went slack at my words. He quickly handed the revolver to a wide-eyed Vanessa.
“Good,” I told him, “Now sit down.” The lycanthrope quietly complied. I finally got a look at his face. The dark brown eyes and similarly colored hair was almost a trademark of the lycanthrope population. His face was lean and angular. There were faint scars on his chin and a more prominent one splitting his right eyebrow. He looked at me in fear and surprise. He swallowed as I towered over him. I holstered my pistol.
“Ancestors,” the lycanthrope whispered with a disquieting awe, “You’re the Badmoon.” The lycanthrope knowing me caught me off guard. I gave him another hard look. I didn’t know him, but I recognized him. The lycanthrope was a pack warrior. I’d seen him before at one of the Rites.
“Ancestors, I thought you were dead,” he said.
“Well, I’m not,” I said, “What are you doing here?” My heart tensed. If she was alive, did she think I was dead? Had she found another? I pushed those thoughts aside as I concentrated on the warrior in front of me.
“The Guildmaster sent me,” the warrior said, “Blue Blade saw you and the human come in and reported it. Guildmaster told me to go in and find you.” My hand shot out and slapped the young warrior. I hit him harder than I wanted to, but I wasn’t about to apologize.
“The Guildmaster’s dead. I saw him die,” I whispered dangerously, “So you better tell me who the imposter is, and who damn well gave him the idea he could take that title.”
“That would be me,” murmured a familiar voice from behind me. I whirled around, drawing my pistol. Farmer kept his pistol aimed at my eye as I place mine firmly into his gut. “And as to your second question, the Lady-Apparent made me this county’s new Guildmaster.”