In the thirteen years Erik had been working for Blackguard, he’d developed a sense for when he could chalk up adverse events up to bad luck or to enemy action. It was a useful thing for an intelligence operative to possess. It didn’t make those adverse events any less frustrating.

The hassle getting the reservation at the restaurant was simply a matter of bad luck. Lady Maritza was less than pleased to hear from Erik so soon, much less for the task of setting up a simple brunch reservation. Erik wasn’t going to leverage his Blackguard status with Lady Maritza this time, so he’d been forced to haggle. So, for the price of setting up the reservation, he owed the American Chief of Station one favor to be named later. It was annoying, but Erik could hardly blame the Dark Towers for Lady Maritza’s actions. By contrast, the accident backing up traffic in front of Samantha and him was pinging his “enemy action” instincts.

“Stay here,” Erik told Samantha as he stepped out of the car. He’d asked Samantha to drive because he had a hard time wrapping his mind around driving on the right side of the road. Bloody Americans. Why couldn’t they drive on the proper side of the street like civilized people? Samantha, for some reason, could do it smoothly.

“Where are you going?” Samantha asked, concern in her voice.

“I need to see the holdup,” Erik answered. “I don’t think this accident was chance.”

“Cool! Do you want me to back you up?” Veronica asked from the backseat. Erik gave the sorceress a stern look. Why had the Saint forced Erik to take her through the gate? Granted, the young woman was more than a fair magic slinger, but she was still so new to Blackguard that the shine hadn’t worn off. Add to that her fascination with his old exploits.

“If I wanted your assistance, I would have told you so,” Erik said, “Your orders stand. Protect Samantha.” Veronica nodded, her enthusiasm not diminished a whit. Samantha shot him a warning look. Erik ignored it and walked down the sidewalk. After all, Samantha was surprisingly good at tamping down Veronica and giving the young woman much needed nudges.

About thirty meters down the street, the intersection was crowded with cars. He wasn’t even sure how the ambulance and two police cars had managed to squeeze in. In the center of the commotion was an overturned lorry and at least three cars that hadn’t been able to stop fast enough. Erik turned to the man next to him. From the man’s emotions, he was dying to tell someone of his account of the accident.

“What happened?” Erik asked, remembering to use his American accent.

“Oh man, you should have seen it,” the short man said excitedly, “I was standing on the corner waiting for the light to change when this huge-ass dog comes barreling through the street. Biggest dog I’d ever seen. And then it stopped in front of that truck. Like it was waiting to get hit or make the truck crash. Well, the truck driver stood on his brakes and slid that rig around. I guess the driver misjudged, because then the truck tipped over and slid for like twenty feet. when I looked back, that dog was gone. Just gone.”

“Wow, that sounds insane,” Erik said, before turning back to the street. Erik reached out with his power. The raw emotions of everyone in the intersection went from a dull hum to a roar in an instant. Erik sifted through the morass of emotions, looking for the tell-tale feel of a Dark Towers minion. He felt a whiff of Dark Towers’ scent and focused. He found the psi-scent, but there was something very wrong. The psi-scent had a shade of the Dark Towers, like a summoner or a bargainer, but the underlying psi-scent wasn’t human. It had some hints of human, much like it had hints of the Dark Towers, but the base psi-scent wasn’t human. It wasn’t like anything Erik had encountered on Earth or Avalon. With the psi-scent fixed firmly in his mind, Erik started hunting around the people in the intersection. His eyes locked onto a tall, dark-haired man who looked back at Erik with a knowing grin on his bearded face. Erik fixed the man’s face and psi-scent firmly in his mind. He couldn’t chase the man – or whatever that person was – at the moment, but there would be other ways to find him later. Almost as if his job was done, the man tapped his fingers to his forehead in a mocking salute and vanished. Erik fished the small cell phone out of his pocket. Okay, there were somethings they had here on Earth that made his job easier.

“Sam, tell Kurt to stay close to Anne. This accident was a set-up,” Erik said, as he walked back to the car. He closed the phone without waiting for a response. Was that man part of Arem’s forces trying to snatch Anne, or was there another faction operating in the city? After this morning’s session with Anne, Erik was going to have Sam and Veronica yank that man out of his mind and try to find him. He probably should also talk to Lady Maritza and see if she knew anything about the man.

“Erik, get in the car!” Sam yelled as Erik approached, “Kurt was forced to leave Anne alone at the restaurant.” Erik sprinted the last twenty feet and bounded through the open car door. Samantha wheeled the car onto the sidewalk. Honking at the few pedestrians to get out of her way, Samantha drove for half a block and then dropped onto a side street. Two fast turns and Sam smoothly merged into traffic.

“What about the cops?” Veronica said, looking back.

“Stop that,” Erik told her, “We’re driving a silver nondescript sedan. Hard to pick us out of all the cars that the Americans drive.”

“Careful Erik, your prejudices are showing,” Samantha chided him. “Now, what’s going on?”

“That accident was staged to delay us,” Erik answered, “I think I saw the person responsible. He was odd.”

“What do you mean odd?” Samantha asked.

“After we finish this morning’s adventures, I’ll need to sit down with you and the sorceress back there to yank the man out of my head. It’s hard for me to explain. Whoever he is, I’m not sure if he’s working for, with, or against Arem.”

“How the hell could they have set that up?” Veronica asked.

“We’re being watched,” Erik answered, a hint of anger and frustration in his voice.

“That’s impossible,” Veronica said,”I put up wards against the Dark Towers detecting our presence. We should’ve been essentially invisible to any that might have tailed you or Kurt last night.”

“Magic’s weak on this side of the gate,” Erik said, “Maybe your wards just aren’t strong enough in this environment. I know my own abilities are more limited.”

“If I used normal wards, that would be true,” Veronica said, “But that wasn’t how the wards I used work. Mine were designed to work by subtly shifting our auras to something the Dark Towers wouldn’t be able to see properly. Imagine if Dark Towers were colorblind. I shifted us to a color they can’t see clearly.”

“Then that means a local faction,” Erik said.

“Restaurant coming up on the right,” Samantha said, pointing at the building. “I haven’t heard from Kurt and I can’t park in front of the building.”

“Okay, just drop Veronica and me at the curb,” Erik said, “Veronica, we will approach quickly, as if we are late. Do not do anything that would unduly draw attention, but prep for a fight.”

“Don’t worry, Erik, I’ve got just the thing,” the small sorceress said, with a wicked grin spreading across her face.

“Follow my lead, and don’t do anything until I give you the signal,” Erik said.

“What’s the signal?” Veronica asked.

“Either gunfire or me dropping dead,” Erik said, “You can never tell.” Veronica’s smile became wary, as if she couldn’t tell if Erik was being serious.

Samantha paused the car just long enough for the pair to hit the sidewalk before she sped off in search of a parking spot. Erik strode up to the restaurant with Veronica struggling to keep up. The maitre d intercepted them as they stepped inside. Erik gave the man the name of the reservation and opened up his powers. The stench of Dark Towers filled the restaurant. Seeing Erik’s expression, the maitre d quickly led them to the table.

“Arem,” Erik growled as he stepped into the alcove’s entrance. Thankfully, Anne was still in her seat. The detective spun around to look at Erik. The woman radiated extreme frustration.

“Jaegar, you always have the most annoying timing,” Arem said, and then looked at Anne, “Detective, we’ll talk again.” Before Erik could draw his weapon, Arem slashed a line in the air and vanished.