Dear Hattie By Helen Bishop
July 1, 2017
Jodie’s Blog
July 1, 2017

Demolition Man: Lash

CHAPTER 9

Suspecting another dead end, Dieter and Sol returned to Hayden, while Darwin, Joe and I went to the field, an acre patch of scrub grass with a clearing in the middle, old charred wood marking a circle likely used in the past summer for some kind of ritual. There were no signs in the muddied earth that anyone had been there more recently than that. Dusk was setting in fast. Damn these short autumn days. “Darwin, are you getting anything?”

My empath shook his head. “There’s nothing supernatural here.”

“No one’s been here,” Joe interjected. “There’s a rabbit warren over the property boundary to the north with fresh scent, and that’s it, Lash.”

Another fucking dead end. Angry at the wasted time, I ordered everyone back to Hayden.

When we arrived home, Torren pulled me aside as the others left for their rooms. “I know that this was a special occurrence, asking me to work today in the daylight.”

I nodded, not sure if he was after a bonus, or assurance that I wasn’t going to accidentally burn him.

He looked at me. I waited.

“I just don’t want to do that very often,” he finally added. “Yes, I won’t get burned if my skin is covered, but my eyes still feel the effects, which takes a few hours to heal.”

“You won’t have to,” I assured him. “In fact, from now on, don’t come unless it’s a night job.” I cracked a smile. “I keep forgetting you’re a vampire; I just think of you as part of the team. Sorry about that.”

He shifted uneasily. “I’m not saying I won’t work in the daylight. Just that it enacts a toll on me.”

“Which Lash will give you a bonus for, if he decides that he needs you again during the daytime,” Devlin interrupted smoothly, regaling Torren with a cool glance. “As he will for today, as well.”

“And I will of course answer his call,” Torren assured him with a grateful smile. “A good night to you, My Lord.” With a deep bow to Devlin, and a nod to me, he quickly turned and headed for his dark car parked to the side of the garage.

I wasn’t sure how to take Devlin’s intercession, so I decided to ignore it. Hell, I should probably just thank him. “Did you want me to offer to have him reside here?” I asked, as we watched Torren’s headlights wind down the long driveway to Hayden’s gates. “He’s the only member of the team now who doesn’t.”

“No, we have enough dark practitioners onsite,” Devlin responded distantly. “Speaking of which, Titus and Shaker went back to gather up that human meat you found at the cult site. Shaker says he’ll be able to discern the relative age of the victims. And if a demon was involved, which to me seems most likely.”

I grimaced, but nodded. “They were butchered, not killed.”

“Yet you said there was no evil feeling?”

I shrugged. “If the demon was long gone, there wouldn’t be one.”

Devlin ran his tongue up one of his delicate fangs, as if tasting my offered explanation. “It’s reasonable, but not practical. No demon would bother to do all that prep to just leave the meat behind. It’s like someone wanted to make it look like a demon.”

“You’re seeing intrigue where the simplest explanation is usually the right one,” I argued. “The demon might have been sent back to Hell, or just stepped out for a moment.”

Devlin shook his head. “You know better. If a demon or several were staying therewhich is the only reason for bothering to prepare an elaborate feast like thatat least one would have been left behind to guard it. You are known to associate with demons, Lash, not destroy them. The demon could have just explained what had happened there.”

“If the girl we are looking for was among the dead, maybe not. I still think the cult members were worshipping a demon, and summoned one, maybe even killed a few people as a sacrifice. Something went wrong, and they either got more demons than they wanted, or the wrong demons. It would be nothing to the demon to use them as meat, and invite a few friends over for an impromptu party.”

“Perhaps.”

Wanting to change the subject, I related to him what I had learned of my father, Jared’s upbringing, and Joe’s reaction. “I had no idea he was so sheltered.”

“A few more months of your company, and I’m sure he’ll be an expert in debauchery,” Devlin replied with a jovial grin. “What about Jared?”

“What about him?”

“Do you have unfinished business with him?”

“No, we’re done. I doubt I’ll see him again.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to see him again.”

“Why?”

“Because there he is.”

I whipped around. Shaker was just coming into view with Jared. My half-brother was a pasty white hue, his fear of the demon beside him tangible as a surrounding cloud. Yet he faced me head on, resolute, as he kept moving forward. “Stay away from my mother. You want to fuck Maryanne, fine. But stay away from her and keep your hands off my son.”

As much as I wanted to bait him just so I could kick his ass, it had been a long day. I was also conscious of Devlin, Shaker, and now Titus, who had appeared out of thin air next to Devlin like the good little unholy protector he was. “I needed answers only your mother could give me. She did, and she won’t see me again.” I paused. “I’m sorry you didn’t grow up with more of your snake family. Your life might have been very different.” And we might have been real brothers.

“I have a family, and I mean to protect it.”

I partially shifted to snake, with the desired result; he recoiled, taking a step back. “This is what you are, a weresnake. Face it. You’ve been denying it all your life.”

He shook his head. “You must know that most weresyes, I know the slangaren’t educated? We reach sexual maturity too fast from our animal side. So we’re grunts of the human world and the supernatural world. They use us for labor and guard duty because we heal fast, we’re cheap to maintain, and we’re easily replaced. We aren’t scholars and we don’t write books, or contemplate the huge problems of the universe, much less do shit to solve them. We fight as soon as we get the first stirrings to mate, and we mate young and breed young. And most of us die young, too.”

His impassioned speech stopped me cold, because everything he said was true. And it bothered me that I had known all of it, hell, remarked on pieces of it sometimes, but never put it all together…or wanted anything more. “This is all true for weres. But it’s not true for me. It doesn’t have to be true for you.”

“Nothing good lasts,” Jared said bitterly. “I want no part of your world.”

“You can’t change your genetic makeup. You can change how you live. Eat more meat, especially fish, for your animal side. Change daily for a while. I’ll bet your aging process reverses so you appear younger.”

“I want a different solution. I didn’t ask to be this…creature.”

“Then ask a different question…brother.”

His head whipped around. “That’s not true.”

“Yes, it is. I’m a few decades younger, but not much.”

“You don’t look it.”

And I’m not about to tell you why. “I don’t wish you dead,” I said, letting out a breath. “I just liked Maryanne. You had to know it wouldn’t work between her and Stan for long.”

“She would have come to me eventually for sex, as animal. Stan would have treated her well.”

“Until he found out what she is, and that she’d been humping you,” I stated crossly. “Fathers shouldn’t share lovers with sons, except for prostitutes. If you’d have known our father, you’d have heard the same from him.”

“What was he like?”

“Harsh, but a good man. Faithful. If it’s any consolation, if he’d have known of you, he’d have brought you into the family.” I paused. “And then you’d have gotten killed when the men that murdered him killed my mother, my sisters, and my brother and his entire family.”

“So they’re all dead?” Jared asked.

I nodded, not about to tell him about my two surviving sisters and Samantha’s kids. They didn’t know I was alive, and it needed to stay that way.

“I thought he must be,” he murmured, then stared at me pointedly. “You’ve got your answers, and I’ve got mine. Now please let me and mine be.” He turned and walked away, back toward the gates. Shaker followed him, at a distance.

“Are you going to let him go?” Devlin asked.

“Yes. He’s right, he doesn’t belong in our world. His place is with humans.”

***

The following week stretched into two, then three, and I kept finding reasons for putting off dealing with Maryanne. Hayden was preparing for winter at full tilt, the bears stockpiling winter food, making necessary repairs to every building, and cutting firewood. There was the normal amount of accidents that always took place in fall, the vampire hunters’ customary purge of newbie vampires on the week leading up to Halloween, plus Devlin’s usual tiff with his brother Danial over performing Hallow’s Eve ritual, the yearly vampire custom where all vampires were expected to pay Devlin homage as their master. Add in that this year for the first time I had parental duties, something I enjoyed but still had to balance with both Darwin and Morwen. In short, everyone was busy with a long list of things that needed to be done yesterday, putting the entire household in a perpetual bad mood. Still, Dieter, Sol, and I got everyone working together. Hayden was snug and ready when the first winter squall hit us in the face with snow, ice, and freezing wind that lasted a full five days.

With the first week of November past, temperatures warmed up, and I was finally able get a half day to myself to spend with Morwen and the kids. Just as I was preparing to quit for the day, Maryanne called, asking to see me.

I answered. “I can’t see you today. But my offer still stands, if you’ve made a decision.”

Maryanne initially acted coy, then tried a mixture of flirting and guilt to barter a better offer. When none was forthcoming, she tried anger. “You need to see me right now. If you don’t, you’ll regret it!”

My morning had already been a disaster by then. The kids were bouncing off the walls, high on sugar and fighting about what they wanted to do first: movie, sledding, snowball fight, or Snake and Prey, a version of hide and seek where I hunted them in snake form. I was desperately hoping they’d chose a movie, so I didn’t have to venture outside into the cold. I’d lost my few written notes on the current cases, in spite of looking everywhere for them I could think of. Morwen was again acting distant and secretive. Even the men were annoying the fuck out of me. They’d had one of their bear orgies last night, and two of my most reliable guards had shown up late, a few others drunk, and several were still unaccounted for. I was going to have to spend the evening making examples, something I wasn’t in the mood for. I was irritated and fast becoming furious.

“I just can’t promise that I can be just yours, if you’re not going to come home to me every night, Lash.”

My last fingertip that had been grasping for hold slipped, plunging me headfirst into a free fall of pure white-hot rage. “Until you make up your mind, I won’t see you, Sweetfang. Take care of yourself.” I hung up the phone.

“That could have gone better,” Dieter remarked from the door.

“Don’t fucking start,” I barked at him. “Do you have any other suggestions for leads on the MIA girl?”

He nodded, then tossed me a crumpled paper. “I looked over your notes, and I think you’re onto something. Whomever killed and dismembered the humans had to have a way to do it in the backyard without attracting notice. I agree that that’s got to mean magic.”

I shook my head. “Torren checked and he said there were no signs of demons. I concur.”

Dieter’s eyes narrowed. “I said magic, not demons. Remember that thing that killed those college kids? Torren supposedly put it back in some kind of prison. We never found out if it really was a demon, or even saw it. All we’ve got is his word that he even took care of the problem.”

His forceful tone was jumping up and down on my last nerve like a pack of toddlers on a splintered seesaw. “Do you have something against Torren? I mean, what the fuck is this, Dieter?”

He loomed over me, pissing me off further. “I have a problem with someone just saying that a demon beast is contained. I really have a problem when there’s a murder a few months later that’s unexplained that fits that same beast.”

I jumped up. “You and Devlin, always looking for all these elaborate explanations for everything, seeing ghosts where there’s only fog. Darwin was also there, remember? He would have sensed if there was some kind of supernatural residue at the murder site.”

Unlike Jared, he didn’t step back, he leaned in closer, challenging me. “Maybe. Maybe not. I’m taking Titus there later today to verify it. You can come, if you aren’t too busy.”

‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I hissed. “I am always right there”

“No, you aren’t! You’re either getting your rocks off, saving children, or chasing down your past! You started this team to handle cases, and you aren’t doing a damn thing, Lash. Now either get moving on this case, or disband the team. Because I’m fucking not doing this on my own anymore.” He stalked away, slamming the door in my face. The bottom door hinges gave way, pulling out of the wall, the door tilting as it came to rest.

“And stop breaking goddamn doors!” I shouted after him. Furious, I grabbed my notes, coat, and keys, cursing as I started my truck.

Dieter was right, I had to get back to work, I had been fucking off, and it was time I got my head out of the past and into the present. He could check out the murder scene again. I would head to the field, and see if my snake eyes could find something my wolves had missed.

“Where are you going?” Morwen asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said, turning to her. “I have to check out a lead. It shouldn’t take long, and I’ll be back by dinner.”

I expected a fight, but she just nodded, and gave me a brief kiss on the cheek. “Be careful.”

Unsure if I should be miffed she didn’t seem to care I was leaving, or grateful she was okay with a last minute change of plans, I reached out and touched her neck gently, running my hand down to squeeze her shoulder. “Thanks.”

***

I stopped at the front gate, reluctantly letting the two guards there know my specific destination to pass onto Dieter and Sol. I had made enough mistakes in the past not letting anyone know where I was, or why. Much as it hurt my pride, I couldn’t afford to be a liability to my team any more.

As I drove, I considered why I found it so hard to work with other people. Some of it was authority; I had done so much and had pretty significant status, it irked me to have to report to anyone but Devlin. I had to work on this, not just for my team, but for myself. I was getting older, and I would have to rely on others to do some of the grunt work of working cases. Hell, that was one of the reasons I’d formed this team in the first place, if I was honest about it. The other part was, shit…I didn’t like being wrong about anything. I really didn’t like people telling me I was wrong when I was pretty sure they were wrong instead, like both Devlin and Dieter had. But that was the strength of the team, and something I sorely needed in cases like these: other points of view. I had to let go of my ego, and stop being stupid.

I arrived at the field, gratefully leaving my coat in the car. The morning snow was fast melting, sunshine turning the grass green. Resolved to enjoy the unusual warmth, I made my search of the field in a matter of minutes. Joe had been right, there was nothing there.

I looked back over my notes. The cult had access to this land because one of their members had originally owned it. I had no facts for why, but my guess was for hunting. A forest lay to the north across another field, and the only road was to the south. To the west were more fields, these stubbled with the remnants of corn that had been harvested months ago. To the east was another field, this dotted with pumpkins that hadn’t made the cut. Spider-webbed over with dead brown vines, their broken and rotting bodies littered the earth, waiting to be plowed under in the spring. The rabbit warren Joe had mentioned was there, but the scent was old, and the holes partially filled in with decaying sticks and leaves. Joe said it was fresh when we were here three weeks ago. Had something made them leave?

Curious, I widened the search as a last resort, walking through the cornfield, then the forest edge, then finally the pumpkins. At first, I thought was I smelled was their rotting carcasses in the sun, which was now quite hot. Curious, I got down closer to the ground, scenting with my snake tongue. The scent of death was stronger there. Something was indeed rotting under the earth. The missing rabbits?

I dug around, and felt the edges of a huge metal sheet. With effort, I slid it off, revealing a wide earth hole leading down.

I leaned in close, my gun drawn and ready for a surprise attack. There was no noise of anything either living there, or lying in wait. The scent of death and rotting flesh was much stronger now.

Caution told me not to go in with my gun drawn. I’d have to crawl on my hands and knees. It would be hard to turn around, or back up. Reluctantly, I instead slipped out of my clothes, and shifted to snake. In this form, I could easily navigate the tunnel, and handle anyone that was down there with my poison. But to be safe against a possible demon attack, I curled the end of my tail around my blessed knife and doused my head with holy water. I would sacrifice some speed, but that was all. Thank God it’s a fucking warm day.

I followed the tunnel leading slowly down. There were no twists and turns. The sides of the hollowed out track were much wider than my body, able to easily accept my passage. There was no sign on what had made them of claws, so I figured what had dug the tunnel to be mechanical in origin. The smell of death grew ever stronger. This has to be a cache of more cult bodies, possibly including the missing girl.

I had gone just about fifty feet when a barred steel wall suddenly came down after me, slamming into my tail with enough force to sever it. I let out a sharp hiss of pain and coiled up quickly, ready to strike in case someone should attack. But all was still. My way back had just been cut off. But a new opening to the side of me had revealed itself at the same time: an inky black hole. The smell of death and decay was overpowering now.

I waited motionless, feeling the now shortened tail heal over the end. The severed last foot was on the other side of the gate, still holding my knife, the muscles clenched tight in death.

After ten minutes, when I determined that no one was going to appear and come for me I uncoiled, and began to investigate. The way forward, which appeared to be an open tunnel, was blocked: just rock that had been painted to resemble the continuation of the tunnel. I headed into the darkness of the new opening, tongue flickering. The scent of decay was disgustingly overpowering. But as I moved I began to pick up the scents of excrement, and very old scent of were-something. Wolf or snake, and rotten.

The opening that I’d hoped was a cavern was only a room about fifteen feet wide by fifteen feet long and eight foot tall: a prison if ever there was one. In that small space I found the source of the death smell: Jace. His remains were laying in mummified fashion, as if he’d stretched out in the sun with paws splayed to enjoy himself. He had starved to death, probably close to six months ago, when he’d first gone missing. But more terrible were the remains of Jared lying over him. His death was fresh, his body still decomposing. He had also starved to death, though his last attempts to preserve himself by eating the long dead werewolf had likely lengthened his life. The head, tail, and limbs were gone, only the torso remaining.

I had seen many horrors in war, even eaten fellow weres in time of need. But the hopelessness of the remains before me was chilling. I hurried back to the door barring my escape, changed form to human, and tried to lever it open. But even my great strength was no match for the reinforced steel. I then changed back to snake form, and tried to use my coils to push against the walls of the tunnel, to widen them. With earth it would have worked easily, as most of my snake body was solid muscle. But the small part of the tunnel that wasn’t metal was rock, and I could not budge it.

My weapons were on the other side of that damned gate, but seeing the state of the werewolf corpse, I knew that a blade lay somewhere inside the prison. So I scoured every inch of the prison, even using my long body to “stand up” to investigate the ceiling. I found some air holes there in the rock, which let me get a fresh breath of relief from the stink, which by now I had added to after twenty-four hours of being locked in here. But there was nothing else above.

The blade, finally located under a rotting piece of material, was a pitiful rusted Swiss army knife, which snapped at my first attempt to dig at the rock abound the metal gate. Furious, I shouted for a few minutes, cursing my enemies, and their cowardice to lay a trap instead of fight me. Then I reluctantly curled up near the metal gate, and dozed.

A day passed, then another, then another. My thirst grew, but like my hunger it was controllable. I was snake, and used to eating large meals, then nothing. I was also no stranger to hibernation, much as I had never actually done it before. But now seemed as good a time as any. It was cool here, but deep enough underground that I wasn’t cold; there was no danger of me freezing to death as I slept. Disgusting as it was, I forced myself to swallow the remains of both Jared and Jace whole. The protein and water in their carcasses might mean the difference of a few weeks. I was not getting out of here except through a rescue attempt, so I had to last as long as I could.

Scared that in my torpor, someone would open the gate and end me with a swipe of a knife, I moved back into the far corner, curled up, and went into hibernation.

I’m not sure how long it was. I’m told it was close to three weeks. I lost all track of time. But I awakened to the clang of that hated metal gate slamming down amidst the clatter of claws on stone and Morwen’s sharp bark of fright.

Rousing myself, I uncoiled and moved forward stiffly. Morwen and Darwin were there in wolf form, whining at the gate, scrabbling at it with their claws.

With difficulty, I changed form. “It’s’ no use,” I rasped, my voice like dusty paper unfurling.

Darwin and she changed form, then Morwen threw her arms around me. I hugged her back, even as I felt tears of despair on my cheeks.

“Please tell me someone else is with you,” I whispered. “That you told someone you were coming here.”

“No,” she said. “We came back because Darwin said he thought he had seen your tracks here when you went missing. We’ve been back here over and over these last two weeks, but didn’t see any sign you had even made it this far. Dieter, Devlin, and Sol thought you’d been ambushed on the way, or somehow grabbed and teleported via demon. Darwin said they were wrong, and kept insisting you were here when you’d been ambushed. So I agreed to come back with him one last time.”

I wanted to scream at her, tell her how stupid she’d been. But there was no point.

The three of us tried over the next day to lever open the gate. We were almost strong enough, with our combined power. The metal groaned, but it held, in spite of repeated attempts. Like me, both of them had come in with no supplies in their animal form. Morwen joked that when we got out she would have herself fitted with a collar with a locator, maybe an emergency kit. None of us laughed, though. They had seen the digested remains of Jace and Jared by then, and knew what fate awaited us if we weren’t rescued in time.

A few days passed. We lay in animal form to conserve strength, hoping against hope for any sound to break the oppressive silence. But no one came.

***

Darwin had become a strong warrior in the years he had spent with me. Under my tutelage, he had grown into a fearsome fighter, though he always retained his empathic abilities. The white wolf was no child. But he was the first to crack from thirst.

Being mammals, neither Darwin nor Morwen could go into a torpor, or hibernate to wait for salvation. When he first mounted her before me, my urge was to go after him, to stop him. But her cries soon matched his in intensity, and it was obvious she welcomed his attentions. Over and over they mated, frenzied.

I turned to face the wall, but that did not shut out the noise of their coupling. Finally I masturbated furiously, my own cries unheard under their howls of climax.

A week passed this way, then another. Everything seemed surreal. I was getting weaker, and stayed coiled in place, unmoved by the coupling that still went on only feet from me. It was not until I heard Darwin’s growl and Morwen’s shriek of pain as he bit into her that I stirred.

He was attacking her, and no longer to mate, but from mad thirst. Over and over he bit her, then they separated, then again he would launch himself at her. Claws digging for purchase, fangs flashing, they would fight, until she would manage to throw him off her. I hissed at them to stop, and received a warning growl from Darwin, who had never so much as glared at me until then.

With effort, I bared my fangs at him. He snarled at me, then went again after Morwen.

I listened to her shriek, and sometimes him, when she got in a lucky bite. But mostly it was her, over and over, continuous, fighting and fighting, hour after hour, day after day. The wounds would heal, only to be re-inflicted, until finally both wolves were covered with half-healed scars. I huddled in my corner, telling myself not to act, that to stop him I’d have to bite him, and that if I did, I would certainly devour him. The feel of live prey in my coils would spark my instinct. And once I had eaten one wolf, how long would it be before I ate the other, as well?

This hell lasted until I sank back into an involuntary torpor. The sound of Morwen keening awakened me sometime after. Darwin was again on top of her, but he was not mounting her, he was killing her. His snout was buried in her throat, greedily drinking her blood.

Rage enfolded me, my desire to protect her overriding everything else. I went for him, lunging at him with fangs extended. He let her go, then faced me, his jaws dripping her blood. The scent of it was intoxicating, sharpening all my senses and bringing me fully awake.

The snake part of me took over, my single thought to kill him and eat him as fast as possible. I feinted, then struck at him. He evaded me the first time, and the second. But I had conserved my strength these past weeks, while he had spent all of his on Morwen. After chasing him around the room for only a few moments, I brought him down, wrapping my length around his struggling body.

I squeezed, feeling some of his ribs crack under the pressure of my coils. His horrified cry of pain was music to my ears. I bared my fangs ready to bite him, and still his suffering forever. Then I can eat his sweet, red flesh…

There was a sharp pain in my side. I whipped my head around to see Morwen biting a chunk out of me. She backed away into a corner, watching me and chewing. I hissed at her, and she bared her crimson-stained teeth.

There was a sudden cracking and groaning above us. The ground shuddered. And then rock rained down on all of us, burying us under its weight.

***

I was the first to make my way out into the harsh daylight. It blinded me, and I hissed out my pain, blinking. The scent of snow and bearmen was overpowering, and I lay shuddering, breathing in deep breaths over and over. The sudden sensory perception of the snowflakes striking my face, the winter birds calling above, the traffic to the north miles away was overwhelming.

“Are you alright?” a familiar voice asked.

It was Sol. But in my state, all I saw was food. I hissed at him, then lunged. He drew back, then appeared with a cooler. Opening the top, he stepped back.

The scent of dead raw fish came on the breeze, like some wonderful providence of God. I slithered fast to the cooler, then gorged myself, eating the ice as well, not caring that it froze some of my intestines, causing intense pain before they began to heal. When the cooler was empty, I lay gorged, trying not to be sick.

I watched Darwin and Morwen emerge. She fled from both of us, and ran under the nearest car, where Sol fed her by tossing meat near a wheel. Darwin flailed, paws scrabbling, then took two steps and fell into the last of a melting snow bank. He gobbled the snow, pushing forward, until his entire body was enveloped in the snow. Then he pushed forward and through it, bounding out the other side and shaking his body. He hopped around the field, running in circles, sometimes falling, sometimes trying to dig, sometimes flailing only to regain his feet and hop about some more. He returned twice to the snow bank to eat more snow, then finally collapsed in it, panting heavily.

“Look for more of these underground prisons in this field,” I rasped out to Sol, who had sat down beside me. “Open them all.”

‘What happened to you?” Sol asked me.

“Imprisoned in a living hell, where we came to believe we were going to die,” I said tiredly. “Please take us home, but be careful of all of us. We are not ourselves yet.”

“Are you hurt?”

“Yes. Keep your distance. We all have wounds which aren’t going to heal anytime soon.”

***

Days passed, while we healed. When I was mobile enough to walk on two legs, I went to visit Morwen. She had also recovered, though livid red scars still marred her throat, her face, and her arms. Darwin.

“I’m glad you’re better,” I murmured, moving to her side to carefully clasp her hand. “Titus said that Darwin is awake and healing, but that it will be a few more days”

“Tell me you wouldn’t have eaten me,” she whispered.

“I would have,” I said, my voice cracking. “Just as you would have eaten me, if you could have. We’re part animal. Nothing I have ever been through brought that fact home to me, before now.”

“You say that like the human part is better,” she sniffed, angry. “They’ve also eaten their own.”

“Not without a moral quandary,” I replied, wondering why she was agitated. “And a lot of recrimination. But the animal side only sees survival.” I went to hug her. “Why are you upset? I don’t blame you for taking a chunk out of me.” Though it would be nice if you said sorry anyway.

“Because this is just another reminder of how different we are,” she managed, moving out of my reach.

“Your own kind was the one killing you,” I reminded none too gently, angry myself now. “And he would have, Morwen, if I hadn’t attacked him to defend you.”

She didn’t answer.

I moved to walk away, figuring she wanted to be alone.

“I didn’t change back to human after we were rescued,” she whispered, as I turned the doorknob. “I thought there was a chance I might be pregnant.”

I turned to her, gambling at what she wanted me to say. “You weren’t, though.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, brushing away tears. “I wanted to be. It would have made something good out of all this horror.”

I leaned against the door, floored and unsure what to say. Everything racing through my brain would be sure to infuriate her…or infect me with despair, if she answered how I feared she would.

“Darwin must be sterile,” she continued. “Or I am.”

Why the hell were women always wanting something from me that I was unable to provide, no matter how much I wanted to make them happy? “If you want a child, we could have one,” I said quickly. “I mean, you could have one. I won’t stand in the way.”

Morwen looked at me with tear-filled eyes, then lunged for me, her sudden hard hug startling me so I fell sitting onto the bed. Then she was sobbing. I gave up talking and just held her. There would be time enough for talking this through later, God help us.

Demolition Man: Lash

CHAPTER 8

I met up with Maryanne later that week at her place. Before I said a word or laid a hand on her, Stan came bursting in, a gun in his hand. Bemused at his daring, I knocked it out of his grip, and grabbed hold of the front of his shirt, hauling him up off his feet like a kitten. “Well, look who grew some balls finally…”

“Lash, don’t hurt him please—”

The prick spit in my face.

My affable humor became sudden focused rage. “You spit in my face again and I’ll knock your teeth in.”

He promptly spit in my face again. I punched him in the mouth hard, and he went down and stayed down.

“I appreciate that finding me and your former girl getting together isn’t what you’d call good news,” I stated with no apology. “But accept it like a man. Now get out, Stan. You come against me again, I’ll kill you, kin or no kin.”

Stan got to his feet and staggered out, a bloody tooth in the doorway the only proof of his passing.

“Maybe you should leave,” Maryanne said uneasily. “He might come back with some men from the construction site. Or Jared.”

I snorted. “Not unless he thinks he’s Superman.”

“That’s one of those comic book guys, right?” Maryanne snorted. “I never understood the human attraction to superheroes. Making up all these fake people with powers while being oblivious to all the dangerous non-humans around them.”

I nodded, wondering if her change of subject meant she’d asked me here for some reason other than the obvious one I’d had in mind. Maybe someone is hassling her. “I hate the new superheroes, too. There’s no best man, only men that fight and whomever is left standing at the end.”

“How can you say that?” she cooed appreciatively, licking my earlobe with her forked tongue. “You’re number one in the Ranking, Lash. And you have been for at least ten years.”

More like thirty, but I wasn’t going to say that and admit my age. Maryanne’s aroused scent was rising off her skin: my fight with Stan had turned her on. “I got lucky years ago against someone really good, and he nearly killed me before I killed him. He would have killed me, if Dev hadn’t been there.”

“I’m sure you’re just being modest.”

No. No one’s invincible. “Don’t worry, I’ve not going to be planted just yet, Sweetfang.” I traced her jawline, then brought her in for a powerful kiss, molding her body to mine. “I’ve got too much to do.”

“Be careful of Jared,” Maryanne warned, pushing me away.

“Stan is going to tell him about this. He’s clever, he might set up a trap for you, some kind of ambush with his men.”

“I have my own men,” I reminded her, pulling her back into my embrace as she wriggled. “And they are all killers like me. No one is going to go up against a group of assassins if they have another option. Jared is smart, smart enough to know he’d lose in a fight with me. He’s not going to enlist help from Stan, the boy’s brave, but he’s human. Jared’s men are all human, too, because he’s ashamed of his snake nature. So don’t worry about it, babe.” I laughed, enticed by her attempts to get away from me. “Stan probably wouldn’t admit to his dad that he got beat up anyway, but maybe he’ll go crying to his momma.”

“She’s dead,” Maryanne supplied, a little too sadly for my taste. “But maybe his grandmother.”

My single-minded focus on another round of sex promptly switched gears. Stan’s grandmother, Jared’s father’s mother: the human woman who’d been my father’s lover, after he’d left my mother. Finally, a way to get the answers I wanted. “His maternal grandmother?”

She shook her head. “Jared’s mother, Georgina. She was helping me arrange the wedding.”

“I don’t supposed you know her address?”

***

Maryanne needed about an hour’s worth of reassurance that I wasn’t going to hurt her former mother-in-law-to-be. Once I promised on my honor that I wouldn’t hurt Georgina, she gave me the information I wanted: a nursing home just outside New York City, in a small coastal town called Cedar Cove.

The trip would be relatively easy and fast, but it was still one I didn’t want to take alone. As much as I would have felt safer with Darwin, Sol, or Dieter, I chose Joe instead, knowing he could learn from the experience.

We arrived at the Cedar Cove Rest Home around dinnertime, and were escorted to see Ms. Georgina Peich after she finished her supper.

She knew what we were, at once. “Why did you come? Jared?”

“In part,” I said honestly. “I believe I’m a relation to his father, who had the same name.”

Georgina looked me over, then wiped at the oxygen tubes in her nose with a fistful of tissues. “You have his looks. What’s your name?”

“Reynold Waters,” I answered, making the name up out of thin air. “I was born down in Florida, and I still have family there.” I paused. “I’m sorry if you didn’t know, but Jared’s father is dead.”

The old woman trembled, and gripped her wadded up tissues. “I thought he probably was. He had a bad temper. Even though he always tried to do what was right, he still made more enemies than friends.”

I know, I’m just like him. “Can you tell me about how you knew him?” I kicked Joe with my foot, to tell him to start taking notes. He shifted in his chair, and I heard the soft sound of pencil scratching across paper.

“I don’t supposed there’s any harm now,” she sighed. “He and I met just before the turn of the century. He lived with his family in a shack in the swamp, and I lived in town. My father was the local butcher, and he would come in with his family to get what scraps we had left that were close to rotting, or left over. His was a large family.”

“What did they do? Any details that you have would be appreciated.”

“I think maybe his father was a fisherman? He would bring in really big fish sometimes, ones that my father would resell to richer families. But he didn’t do very much. Their home really was a shack.”

Sounds like a drunk. “And his mother?”

“His wife was a seamstress, she worked in town in the main store. But she didn’t make much money; most of the mending that needed to be done was done in house back then. She worked nights as a barmaid at the local tavern.” She paused. “She made a good living to support her kids, I believe. As I said, she had a lot of children.”

In the way she said the words, it came through loud and clear that my grandmother had been a prostitute. But that’s not a surprise, if she married a drunk. Yet the drunk must have been the one siring the kids, if he was the only snake in town. “Um…did all the kids look like the husband?”

Georgina blinked, then nodded. “All dark hair and dark eyes, like their mother.”

Okay, you’ve made your point, lady. “So how did you two come together? Seems like you two were from very different worlds. You can’t have struck up a relationship over rotting meat under your father’s watchful eyes.”

Georgina smiled for the first time. “He was kind to me, Jared was. He liked books, like I did. He got a part time job at the library in town to help out with his family, and that’s where we met. I volunteered there on weekends.”

“And?”

“And we fell in love.” She sighed longingly. “Those were good days. He’d pick me flowers and sometimes leave one in books I was re-shelving, between the pages. At least, until the other assistant boy found out and complained he was staining the pages. So the head librarian made him stop.”

“What happened?” I asked gently, worried she’d gloss over whatever prompted Jared to leave.

“We got older, and less careful. My father found out about us, and put a stop to it.” Georgina sighed again, this time with regret. “He said I needed to think about college and finding someone to make a good husband. He hated Jared, thought that he was trash because of his mother.”

Delicately, now. “Were you already pregnant then?”

The old woman cast me a disdainful eye. “No, I was not. I was good girl. I went to Jared and told him I wouldn’t be seeing him anymore. He was a gentleman, as he always was with me, and said he understood, that he cared for me, and he wanted me to be happy.”

And then you fucked, as a goodbye. “Did he know you were pregnant when he left?”

“Certainly not, or he would not have left,” she said sharply.

“I wasn’t supposed to get pregnant. We took precautions, and I was…it was when I had the curse.”

Why can’t women say the word period to strangers? It’s the fucking late 50’s! “But you did.”

“Yes. I didn’t realize until I went to college. Jared had already left town by that time, and I never saw him again.” She paused, again with a sad sigh for emphasis. “I was a beauty back then, and caught the attention of several young men my freshman year. I dropped out of college to marry my husband Richard, when I told him I was pregnant. He went to work, and we went on to have several other children.”

“He didn’t mind when you named the baby Jared?” Joe interrupted.

“I told him about my childhood friend, and said that he’d died,” Georgina said defensively. “We did name our second child Richard.”

Almost done. “And Jared Jr.? It must have been hard for him to adjust to life with, um…”

“Humans?” Georgina supplied. “Yes, it was. He changed for the first time as a toddler. Thank God I was home alone when it happened. I kept my cool and told him that we’d go to the park if he’d be a little boy again, and he changed back. After he did, I beat him until he cried. Then I told him if he ever changed again like that, that I’d beat him just as bad.”

I wanted to backhand the bitch but I stopped myself, then put a restraining hand on Joe, whose fury was coming off him like heat. Georgina was already cringing back from us.

“I had to!” she said shrilly. “People would have said he was possessed, or some kind of monster! Richard might have suspected the child wasn’t his! Jared was gone, and I had no way to find him. You weren’t there, you don’t know how hard it is raising a child who is like that!”

“You could have looked up his family in the swamp,” Joe growled, his eyes the beady black of a bear. “Or did that slip your mind?”

“They got burned out right after Jared left,” Georgina sniffled. “Something about Jared’s father having blackmailed someone his wife had slept with. There was nothing left.”

“That’s bullshit,” I hissed softly, changing a little so that scales appeared on my face, and my tongue forked. I flicked it at her, enjoying making her cringe farther back in her chair. “You know what we are, you knew Jared for years, you saw his child grow up: you know how hard we are to hurt, much less kill.”

“I know,” she whispered fearfully. “I wondered if maybe some of them got out and just fled town, got a new start. But like I said, the place was a rattrap, and the fire was set from all four sides, with no escape route. Jared’s mother and father, and ten of his siblings were buried. That was all of them, as far as I know.”

Fuck. I wanted to know if I had any more relations, and Georgina’s a dead end. But I might have nieces or nephews, if one of my father’s siblings made it out. This explains my father’s extra precautions to always leave us an escape route, all his safety net strategy that he put in place, my training, his distrust of humans, all of it. “Did anyone show up for the funeral?”

“No one. They didn’t have friends in town, and were buried in a mass grave.” She paused. “My Jared was a good boy, like his father. He was always polite, and he never hurt anyone.”

I found that hard to believe, remembering him knocking heads at the construction site. But that made sense now, too. He had never had anyone instruct him on how to handle the snake within him. He’d spent his life with humans, denying he was anything other than human. I might have too, if my mother beat me every time I’d changed form. And probably that’s why he looks so old: he ages like a human, from not having too little meat in his diet. “Didn’t your son ever ask about his father?”

“He doesn’t know,” Georgina whispered. “We never talked about it.”

Joe growled, then stood. “I wouldn’t bring it up either, if I didn’t want a beating. You should be ashamed of yourself. I’ll wait for you in the car.” He strode away, growling softly.

Georgina sniffled, blinked back tears, and looked hopefully at me for pity.

“I’m as disgusted as he is about how you treated your son,” I hissed softly to her. “But I also know how much was different then. The police never did anything about the murders, did they? That’s what it was, Georgina, murder. Because everyone knew Jared and his family were different, and they wanted to be rid of them. Your father worked late that night, right? Except he wasn’t at the butcher shop, he led the men that murdered Jared’s family. Your father murdered his own grandson’s family.”

Georgina began to cry quietly.

“You knew your lover well enough to know that he had a bad temper. I’m guessing you got some letters from him that you hid and never answered, because you knew if you did, if you told your lover about the child, he would have come back for both of you. Nothing would have stood in his way, not your new husband or your father. And you knew if that happened, both of them were going to die.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “I knew it.”

I got to my feet. “I’m not going to tell you what you did was right. What you did paved the path that led your son to be ashamed his whole life of what he is. But I won’t tell you that in your shoes I’d have made a different choice. Goodbye, Georgina.”

Joe was leaning against the car chain-smoking when I emerged.

“What the hell are you doing?” I said, grabbing the smoke and flicking it away, registering as I did that it wasn’t tobacco. “That’s a goddamn reefer, Joe. Your father will shit a brick if he sees you smoking, much less this shit.”

“I had to do something to calm down,” Joe said grumpily. “She hit her kid for something he couldn’t help doing, something she should have been congratulating him on.”

“Get in the passenger seat, there’s no way in hell I’m letting you drive stoned,” I ordered curtly. “And please keep quiet, so I can think.”

Joe moved over and shut his mouth, but either he was rattled by Georgina’s story or he’d smoked a handful of joints back to back, because he only stayed silent for a few minutes. “I can’t believe she did that, Lash. Tell me you at least put the fear of the snake into her.”

“Fuck no, she’s in the middle of a bunch of humans in broad daylight,” I snarled at him, annoyed. “I wanted information, not her going hysterical on me.”

“I just thought that you’d do something to her.”

I spun the wheel and slammed on the brakes, pulling the car to the side of the highway. Taking a deep breath, I turned in the seat to face him, glaring. “Why would you think that?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled.

“Answer me Joe, or I fucking will do something to you, here and now. Why would you think I would hurt her?”

“Because she hurt a child,” he admitted finally. “She hurt a snake-child for just being a snake-child.”

His words cut through all my rationale, the instant guilt making my nerves sing with simmering resentment. I pushed it down, with difficulty. “She did what she thought was best to protect the child from being either killed or made into a sideshow freak.”

“She had to know what she was going to be mother to,” Joe argued. “Why not end the pregnancy?”

His words brought back painful memories, some of the worst of my life. “It’s not so easy with humans as it is with weres,” I got out somehow. “Where females can change form and the baby aborts in the change. Humans have to have an operation, or take drugs. Both right now aren’t either safe or foolproof.” I paused. “Your father probably already warned you about human females, how easily they can get pregnant with a were male of any species. All it takes is once, Joe.”

He was silent, so I looked up, ready to read him the riot act for not paying attention. He was looking at me, horrified.

All the shit of the day smashed up into a ball behind my eyes, and I lost my temper in a rush. “Fucking spit it out!” I shouted at him. “Have you fucked some human?”

He jumped in the seat, eyes widening. “No! No one told me,” he stammered.

“Told you what?”

“About humans. About how they are.” Joe wasn’t flushed at all, but his scent radiated embarrassment. “What you said. No one told me.”

“You know several humans on our payroll. You work with O’Malley.”

“He tells stories about bar fights, not screwing women.” Joe shifted again, sheepish. “I don’t have much experience with humans. And I don’t know any human females.”

I let out a breath slowly. “You mean you didn’t realize that humans hate us for being different from them.”

“Yeah.”

God, if you’re there, give me the right words here. “They hate us, Joe. They don’t usually know why, just that something’s off. That black feeling that you get when Titus is around, or Shaker? They feel something like that, something that registers as dangerous. Some females like it, but most don’t. Males will either be terrified or pick a fight.”

“Then why does O’Malley work with us?”

“Because there’s something in him that’s like us. Sometimes you don’t want your own kind, because they’re like you on the outside, but not the inside. Do you understand?”

“No.”

“Then you’ll have to talk to your father,” I said, shoving the car into gear and pealing out into traffic. “Maybe he can explain it better.”

***

When I got back, I headed up to my room, intending to stop first to curse out Sol for not telling his kid the facts of life. But he wasn’t in his room. I finally found him in Devlin’s throne room, standing watch with Dieter as Shaker and Devlin talked to two rough-looking men in leather jackets. Labels on the jackets labeled them as being in some kind of club. So these are the Hell’s Angels.

I headed for Sol, but Dieter saw me, and came towards me, heading me off. “Jace was gay.”

His remark was so out of the blue that I just looked at him for a moment.

The army’s position in WWII had been that there were no gay men in the ranks. And of course there were, and everyone knew it. I’d seen great guys who fought bravely that were gay or bi, and others who got their friends killed because their nature was too delicate for war and they quailed and ran instead of holding their ground. I’d never had a problem personally or cared if a person preferred his or her own sex to the opposite sex. I only cared if they could fight, and if they took orders. “So? We had queers and gays in our platoon, just like we have them here in our guard ranks.”

“I’m not saying that was a bad thing,” Dieter replied crossly. “But he didn’t tell anyone when he was hired. You know that the standard application Devlin issues asks all guards if they are in a relationship, and if they’ll have a spouse/lover living onsite. He uses that in calculating final salary offers based on what living expenses would add up to for a couple or family, versus a single person. Jace said no, but his boyfriend has come forward looking for him.”

“And?”

“And this guy was the last to see him. He said Jace was at his place, and left briefly, saying he was going to score some drugs.”

“That animal anesthetic you told me about?”

“Yes, the PCP. Anyway, Jace never came back.”

“So you were right, this might have nothing to do with Devlin or us, just drugs. Still, if Jace got shot or knifed in a drug deal gone wrong, he would have healed and went home to his lover, likely with a larger score than he could have bought for his trouble.”

“That’s what I was thinking, too. Jace wouldn’t have shied away from killing someone who tried to kill him; he had the training, and the extra speed. But he didn’t. I’ve got a bad feeling this is more, especially as we haven’t found the body.”

The meeting with Hell’s Angels was ending, Devlin was bidding them goodnight, though he didn’t look pleased. Sol and Shaker walked them out, and Devlin motioned me over.

“You don’t look thrilled,” I mentioned, as Dieter and I approached.

“I’m not, but this was a necessary meeting, one that required Shaker’s expertise.” Devlin rubbed his temples with one delicate hand.

Shaker came back through the door, grinning like a shark. “I dreamed I took all the kings and queens and lordlings from the earth and slew them, for the common people prayed and sacrificed to me to do so. All that were left were sheep before me, with only one shepherd. Yet in one generation, the bowels of the earth and straw begat man tribes that sought to rule other tribes and it all began again, the endless struggle for dominance.”

“Spare me your endless tales of man’s stupidity,” Devlin said sharply.

“How about a tale of vampire stupidity?” Shaker stated, his flagrant disrespect shocking Dieter and I into silence. “I have a fresh one, it just happened.”

“Spare me that, too.”

“Their leader doesn’t want to make a bargain with anyone in the establishment,” Sol explained, hurrying in. “He refused Devlin’s offer of alliance.”

“As I told you he would,” Shaker decreed rudely. “Give them time to become a power, and to understand that allies come in all forms.”

“Yes, yes, so you said,” Devlin said grumpily. “Leave us, Shaker.” He turned to me. “Have you worked at all in finding that girl? Her father has been calling almost every hour for an update.”

“Yes, we have a lead,” Dieter supplied before I could even remember what girl Devlin was referring to. “A house in suburbs, where the cult has its headquarters. There’s an auction tomorrow at the house whose backyard adjoins their house. The team will attend, the auction will give us cover to investigate if she’s being held there.”

“Human banker, lives just south of us on a large estate,” Sol murmured to me. “Daughter went missing last month, may have eloped with a drug-dealing cult boyfriend. Ten mil.”

“Good,” Devlin said approvingly to Dieter, casting me a reproving glance. “I’m glad at least one of my lead men is doing what they’re supposed to. Report back as soon as you have her. Dismissed.”

I stifled my customary retort, and nodded. He’s right. I’ve come to the end of the road with Jared. It’s time to let the past go, and get back to work.

***

The next morning, Sol, Darwin, Joe, Dieter and I prepared to infiltrate the cult house. We would all arrive separately, and keep our distance, communicating via radio. The plan was to wait until the bidding begun. Joe was to bid randomly on things for the whole of the auction, leaving Darwin and Dieter as lookout guards on both back and front, while I went in and looked around the property, which Dieter maintained was deserted.

“Radio if there’s anything out of the ordinary,” Torren warned as we prepped our weapons. “I’ll be on standby.”

“This is just a human cult,” I replied, taking a clip from him. “I brought you in because there’s going to be a lot of people nearby, and we may been something to block sounds or disguise the team, if she is there and we need to extract her. But I don’t expect a real fight.”

“I know,” Torren agreed, handing me my whip. “But don’t underestimate humans. They can be just as dangerous, Lash.”

His warning unsettled me for some reason. I shook it off. “I’ll be careful.”

Darwin and Dieter were already in position when I arrived on schedule. I parked a few houses down from my intended target, walked the two blocks to the auction house, just ascending the steps as Joe drove past, studiously ignoring me as he looked for a spot to park.

I walked around inside, pretending to look at first, then actually looking at some pieces out of boredom. But most of the furniture were huge couches in a floral pattern I didn’t think Morwen would like. The beds of all kinds in multiple rooms were of more interest, just from the sheer variety. I debated asking Joe to bid on one I liked, but the bidding had already begun in another room and the bed was oddly already marked as sold.

Grumpy, I headed outside and into the backyard, using the shrubbery for cover. The first touch of autumn lay in thick frost in shadows, the grass wet where the weak sunlight had broken its hold. I scaled the small chain-link fence, the plastic strips woven between cracking with my weight. Beyond the fence was an odd-looking square building surrounded by ragged frozen weeds. Pathways lead in the front on both sides, and also through the back. Pews were set up on both sides with the altar of some kind in front. A makeshift church. But dedicated to what?

Instead of a pulpit or religious figure, a fire burned in a pit just beyond the blank altar, meat cooking on a complicated spit. A hell of a lot of meat, in long filets. More meat was being smoked beyond that, in a wooden construction against the back wall of the house. Large bloody filets lay on some of the pews, as if waiting to be cooked.

“Dieter,” I said via radio. “I’ve got a party setup with no people. Any activity?”

“Negative. No activity.”

“Darwin?”

“Negative. No one left or arrived this way.”

The whole scene held an aura of creepiness, in spite of the good smells. Flies were buzzing, though not many. There was an odd scent of dankness and damp, in spite of the fire. There was also a large cauldron near the fire, where some kind of soup was simmering.

“Call in Torren, and send him in.”

Torren and I searched the house, anyplace large enough to hide the missing girl, and found nothing. There were no secret hiding spaces he could locate. I called in my team, and they also searched, even Darwin with his empathic ability. “There’s no one here,” he said with finality. “But people did die here, Lash, and not long ago. That’s human meat cooking out there in that cauldron, and sizzling on that fire.”

“They were dismembered in the backyard, and someone removed their bones,” Torren supplied. “The blood’s been covered over with earth.”

“What were they praying to?”

“I know of a lot of ancient deities, but there’s no sign in the house or out here of any specific one,” the vampire replied. “No signs of magic, so I doubt that these people teleported, Lash. I think we’re looking at the remains of the cult, all of them.”

“Let’s hope it’s not our girl in that pot.” I turned to Dieter. “Any ideas?”

“There’s another parcel of land that the cult has ties to, a field not too far from here.”

“Then let’s go,” I hissed to my team. “Daylight’s wasting.”

Lash 5: Demolition Man

CHAPTER 7

Titus closed the tome he was holding silently, his expression neutral.

“What do you mean?” Devlin said worriedly. He glided over in an instant, looking me over. “You don’t look your age at all.”

“My sense of smell is gone.” Say it. “And my sex drive went with it.”

“What? Just now?”

My thoughts slid frantically through the last months, a pattern unseen until now quickly taking shape. “I haven’t initiated sex with Morwen since before the kids came to live with us. Whatever’s wrong, it’s been happening for a while.”

“Titus, have you changed the formula, used something else? Substituted some ingredient?”

“It’s the vampire blood we’re using,” Titus answered, as if it should have been obvious. “It’s from vampires that are newly turned, only a few days or weeks old. They have the absolute minimum amount of your blood in them, Devlin. There’s little residual power; the demon blood’s been doing most of the work to keep Lash young. ”

“God damn it! What age is the vampire supposed to be?” Devlin and I yelled together.

“Probably at least a decade or two. As always, when you’re talking about blood in terms of magic, older is better.”

Devlin turned to me, then gave a slight nod. “Then you will use my blood from now on.”

“That is ill-advised,” Titus stated at once, his expression uncharacteristically alarmed. “You’ll be weakened, Devlin. I’ll need about a fourth of a cup. Every month.”

“That’s less than I’d lose fighting a rival,” Devlin said with a forced smile. “And much less than I lost fighting hunters, and other would be assassins over the years. Take it now, Titus, and brew Lash another potion immediately. I’ll make a point to feed more heavily from now on.”

“You don’t have to do this,” I protested weakly. But please, don’t change your mind.

“Of course, I do. You’re my friend.” Devlin rested his taloned hand on my shoulder. “You have done more for me than anyone, Lash. I’d do almost anything for you.”

I am not and had never been a man accustomed to displays of affection. But I gave him the first spontaneous hug of my life. Devlin embraced me back, my bones shifting a little under his tremendous strength.

Titus came close, a small knife in his hand. Devlin held out his wrist, and let Titus take the blood. “I will need a few hours to brew this. Come back at daylight.”

“That’s fine,” I said tiredly. “I need some rest.”

I went to my room, unsure if I would find Dieter there pining after Nancy. He was there on my deck, but reading a book, his back to the forest, which was oddly dark.

“I’m going to sleep,” I announced, hating the strain in my voice but hoping he’d notice it and leave.

Dieter looked up at once. “You ok?”

I sat down on my bed, and everything came spilling out about Morwen and Darwin. “Christ, for all I know, he’s there now in her bed.”

“If she wanted him in her bed, he’d have been there before now instead of you.”

“She could have fucking told me herself.”

“Did you ever think that she might have known what was happening, and just didn’t want to hurt you, or make you feel old?”

I made a disgusted face. “No.”

“That’s why I said nothing to you about what was going on.”

A fresh new feeling enveloped me: embarrassment. “Did everyone know but me?”

“I believe they meet in the forest as wolves on the nights you’re away, every few weeks. I’m not sure who knows and who doesn’t. But it wasn’t a conspiracy, Lash.”

“I know that,” I murmured, getting up to pace.

“I’m sorry, but I’m here on other business tonight,” Dieter said reluctantly. “I know you’re tired, but I’ve needed to talk to you for a while, and I can’t put it off any longer.”

Fuck, what now? “What is it?”

“Nancy’s gone, I’m not sure where. I need to go after her, and make sure that wherever she is, she’s okay.”

Something else I didn’t know. “When did she leave? No one said anything.”

“Devlin didn’t say anything to me. But the light’s been out for several months. Initially, I believed she was just going to bed earlier, or…hell, I don’t know what I thought. I finally went there earlier this week, though, and the place is empty. I asked Devlin, he says she’s still on the grounds, and safe.”

Fuck, that could mean she was dead and buried in the cemetery. Christ, don’t fucking say that, though. “Devlin doesn’t lie, so she’s still here. Hayden is a thousand acres, she might be in another cabin, maybe closer to Titus’s home.”

Dieter nodded. “I trust Devlin. Nancy can wait, anyway.”

“Why, what else is wrong?”

“After months of nothing, we have three job offers.” He passed me a photo clipped to some papers. “This is one from a human banker, lives just south of us on a large estate. His daughter went missing last month. She may have eloped with a drug-dealing boyfriend she knew that’s in some kind of cult. He’s cashed in his life insurance and put his house on triple mortgage to offer us ten million for her safe return.”

“If she’s still alive, it sounds like an easy enough job. We’ll call in the entire team for this one, cults do all kinds of weird shit. Next?”

Dieter passed me a second photo of a goofy looking but muscular guy. “This is Jace, our newest hire. You don’t remember him because we hired him last month while you were out on a job. He’s missing as of a week ago.”

“And we suspect what?”

“PCP,” he said heavily. “The drug was used as an animal anesthetic most of this decade, and Jace is apparently a sometimes addict, or at least he used to be a few years ago. He went through a detox program, and his references said it stuck. His mother only reluctantly told me about the drugs because she’s worried.”

“How did you miss that in the vetting process?” I commented irately. “I’ve never heard of this drug. What are the side effects?”

“Paranoia, numbness, psychosis, violence, amnesia, and schizophrenia,” he replied. “Yes, he might be on a long bender, but this is out of character from what little we know. And yes, drugs are a new thing we must check any new hires for. But I don’t think this is drugs, Lash. Jace showed up to work every day, did a good job.”

“No enemies, I take it.”

“None. I told Devlin I would take this on as part of my regular duties. I can partner with you, or one of the other guys.”

More than fair. “Okay, we’ll assemble the team as soon as Ares is back off vacation next week to go after the missing girl. We should utilize Darwin, use his empath ability in the last places Jace was seen. What’s the third?”

“Back in 1947, there was an incident with some veterans who’d formed a club. They ride motorcycles and call themselves the ‘Pissed off Bastards.’”

“You’re shitting me.”

Dieter laughed, the unfamiliar sound startling me. “No, that’s their club name. They’re based in California, originally. Anyway, last year they took part in a riot, and one of them, a guy named Otto, split off and formed his own club, the Hell’s Angels. They’ve been denounced by the American Motorcycle Association as degenerates, the one percent of the cyclist population that aren’t good people. They have begun sporting ‘1%’ tattoos in response.”

“And?”

“Devlin wants to send you as an ambassador to meet with their leader. He wants to make allies with them. He said that a rebellion is starting, and that they are the first sign.”

Devlin has done this over the years, and the groups he’d picked, from the werebats to mafia, have always been people that in time we were glad to know. It’s almost like he has a sixth sense. “I can do that. When?”

“He’s sent an official letter, and is waiting for a reply.”

“Then that’s not really a job. Neither is our missing werebear.”

“Jace was a wolf, actually.”

Then I’m glad he’s missing. “I’ve got to get some shuteye,” I said, glad the skyline outside was still dark. “Anything else will have to wait until morning, Dieter. And don’t hire any more wolves, okay?”

Good man that he was, he didn’t ask why. “Okay.”

***

Titus pounded on my door at dawn and I groggily got up, opened the door, downed the proffered potion, and staggered back to bed. I awoke again later to more pounding on my door.

I bolted up, took a deep breath to shout curse words, and stopped. I feel amazing. “What is it?”

There was no answer. Hell. I must have been dreaming.

I swung my legs out of bed, and stood easily, stretching my arms above my head with a wide yawn. Nothing creaked or cracked. Can’t remember the last time I felt so great waking up.

I hurried and got dressed, then slipped out to the garage. There was one thing on my mind this morning. Fain was just coming in with Darwin from nightshift when I passed them backing out.

“Hey Lash, I was just telling Fain that there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’.”

“But there is an ‘I’ in ‘idiot’,” I quipped back with a smirk.

Both of them gaped at me.

“There’s a ‘demon’ in ‘demolition’, too,” I added, not wanting them to think I was calling them idiots. “I’m not sure if Dieter told you both, but we do have a job for the team. He’s just waiting for Ares to return, then we’ll begin. It’s a missing girl. Ten mil. Paycheck to be split evenly. Even with taxes, we’ll each make a million.”

“Good,” Fain said quickly. “I’ve had my eye on a new truck.”

“But for that kind of money, we’ll have to bring her back alive,” Darwin grumbled. “What if she’s already dead?”

Darwin had come to the same conclusion I had, just as fast. But instead of being pleased at his intelligence, his negativity strangely aggravated me instead. For a youth, he’s a real bringdown. “We’ll hope for the best, that’s all we can do. Enjoy your sleep. I’ll be back tonight.”

“Where are you headed?” Darwin asked.

“I have to see a girl about a guy,” I replied vaguely, then drove off.

***

Lamont was easy to find. I went over the speed limit on and off for the sheer thrill of it, laughing for no reason. But it was a beautiful summer day, the air hummed with the threat of storms to come, and I felt ALIVE.

I found Bright Dawn’s work site. Stan was there looking harried, Jared bitching at him about something as the work crew excavated holes for basements and poured concrete for footers. I caught sight of Maryanne leaving at lunchtime, and followed her in my truck. She went into a butcher shop, and I parked nearby, then lay in wait just outside the door. When she came out, she paused and tasted the air discreetly, a smile coming to her lips.

I slipped up behind her, cupping her breast in my right hand as my left arm went around her, pulling her back against my chest with a soft cry of surprise. I squeezed gently, rubbing her nipple with my thumb and forefinger through her shirt.

“Mmm, I thought I’d seen the last of you,” Maryanne whispered coyly.

I pinched her nipple lightly, then kissed her throat just below her ear as I felt the warm nub tighten under my fingertips. “You want me to leave?”

“You should, before Jared sees you.”

I ran my hand down to her pussy, cupping it gently. “No. And I don’t give a fuck who sees me touching you.”

Maryanne took a ragged breath, then turned in my arms, her arms going around me, kissing me deeply. I opened my mouth on hers, my snake tongue delving deep to taste her and tangle with hers. I brought her right hand down between us with my left to feel my bulging erection. “Where can we go where we won’t be disturbed for the rest of the day?”

She blinked at me, then gave me a lazy, sexy smile. “We won’t need that long, honey. We’re both raring to go here.”

I cupped her face in my hands, then brought her close enough to kiss. Yet instead of kissing her, I just barely brushed her lips with mine. She shivered in my arms, and sighed, her snake tongue coming out to tease my lips.

“I’m going to possess you every way there is,” I hissed seductively. “That’s going to take hours, Sweetfang. Now get in your car and show me the way.”

Maryanne shivered again, her lust coming off her in waves. She hurried to her car, and me to my truck, to follow her.

The drive took about ten minutes. It seemed forever, my hard-on throbbing uncomfortably. I lost her temporarily at a red light, but found her car just down the road, and caught the flash of her long legs as she unlocked the front door.

Even in my burgeoning need to rut I was careful, parking my car down the street at a restaurant before walking back up to her house. I slipped in the door, locking it behind me.

Maryanne was in the bedroom, looking at several lacy tops. “Which do you prefer?”

“You need to be taking your clothes off, darlin, not putting any more on,” I murmured, again pulling her hard against me, and kissing her throat. She struggled slightly, trying to turn to kiss me. “No,” I purred to her, holding her still. “Now be a good girl and spread your legs for me.”

Maryanne shivered again, but did as I asked. I ran my hand down her legs, then up the inside of her thigh, slipping inside her panties. God, they’re soaked! I slipped a finger between her swollen lips, stroking her.

“Fuck me, Lash,” Maryanne moaned.

“Then unbuckle my pants, darlin’.”

Maryanne reached back, and fumbled with my belt, undoing it and pushing my pants down. I kicked off my shoes, then turned with her in my arms, easing down to sit on the edge of the bed. Gripping her breast tight with my right hand while supporting her with my arm, I used my left to slide her down on my rigid cock. She gave a deep moan as the head and shaft slid home. I paused an instant to enjoy the feeling of her soft wet channel around me like a warm glove, then began moving in purposeful strokes. Maryanne groaned deeply, pushing her hips back to meet my thrusts as she became even wetter. Possessively, I lay my hand over her moist thatch, rubbing her swollen clit with my index finger. “Feel that, Maryanne? That’s me taking you. Tell me you want me to.”

She moaned softly, her breaths quickening as I increased my rhythm. “I want you to. I want you.”

“And I wanted you, too, since the first day I saw you.” I thrust deeply, making her shudder. “I wanted to be just like this, my cock inside you, filling you up and making you moan.”

Maryanne shivered again, her breathing now rapid panting. I moved faster, plunging in and out of her as I stroked her clit, wanting us to come together.

“Come for me, Sweetfang,” I commanded. “Tell me you can’t wait for my prick to spurt inside you.”

Maryanne took a breath, then screamed, her orgasm abrupt and powerful. The tightening of her body around mine brought me to a guttural roar, my body hammering into hers as I spent myself.

We lay there catching our breath, still connected. When she went to move, I stopped her, again bringing her hand down to rest on the base of my hard cock still sheathed inside her. “See, this is why I needed hours, darlin,” I murmured, again kissing her throat. “I’ve got a lot to give you yet before I’m dry.” I thrust up gently with my hips, bringing a gasp from her parted lips. “I can’t wait to hear you scream for me again.”

***

“That was incredible,” Maryanne hissed lightly. “You’re incredible, Lash.”

She is right, I am. We lay coiled as snakes, twined around one another, utterly spent. We’d done positions I hadn’t done in years, most of them taught to me by the rattlesnake nightclub singer Cassandra Nile, my former flame back in my thirties. I’d had other snake lovers since her, but somewhere in there I’d lost my desire for adventuresome sex. Or maybe that was when my lust first began to cool. Who gave a fuck, it was back in full force now.

With reluctance, I shifted form back to human, bringing her with me. She clung to me, as if reading my intent to leave. “When will I see you again?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On you, Sweetfang.” I gave her a soft lingering kiss, the pulled on my pants. “I know you’re engaged. I’ll understand if you want me to stay away.”

Maryanne looked crestfallen, then switched to angry. “Why did you do this, Lash? You wouldn’t say that if you cared about me.”

I buckled my pants’ belt, then slid on my shirt. “I do care for you, that’s why I’m saying this. I can’t offer you stability, or a family life. I am more than willing to set you up as my woman near Hayden, with money to enjoy most of what life has to offer. Your time would be your own when we weren’t together.”

“Sounds lonely,” she griped.

“I’m being honest. If you want a family and to be married, go with Stan. He won’t hurt you. I can offer a lot more luxury, but he can offer you security and status that I can’t.”

Maryanne bit her lip. “Do you not want me anymore?”

I went over and hugged her. “I can definitely say I’ll always want you,” I hissed tenderly. “There wouldn’t be anyone else but you.”

“You told me before you were with someone,” she said carefully. “Is that over?”

“Yes,” I said heavily, moving away from her. “Even if your answer is no.”

Maryanne twirled a bit of her dark hair around her slender fingers. “Will you give me time to decide?”

“Of course. Take this month to think it over.” I wrote my phone number on a slip of paper. “Call Hayden if your decision is yes, or if you need anything in the meantime, Sweetfang.” I walked to her side, brushed her cheek with my lips, then took her hand and kissed that, too. She giggled, making me smile.

I left by the front door, keeping a careful eye around for attack. Now that my lust had been quelled, my reason told me I’d been foolish to do this, even if the sex with Maryanne had been the best in years.

I started the car, and drove back to the highway, only letting my thoughts wander when I’d put some miles between Lamont and me.

I hadn’t been this horny since...hell, since I’d been in my twenties, more than forty years ago. And I’d never been good at seducing women. Yet I’d just seduced Maryanne like a master. The difference had to lie in Devlin’s blood. There had to be something of his endless unquenchable desire in those few scarlet drops. Fuck, it’s probably good that the potion doesn’t call for more of his blood.

I drove home happy.

***

When I returned that evening, Devlin was waiting for me, watching some old movie.

“Who’s that hot Girl?”

“A French actress,” Dev replied. “Mila.”

“What’s it about?”

“You know enough French to figure it out.”

“Well, she’s dressed like a pirate, but I think she just said Jesus?”

Dev snorted. “Etoile Sans Lumiere. See that plain woman? That’s her voice playing; she’s singing the role. Mila can’t sing, but she’s beautiful and popular. She can’t make the transition to talking movies. So, they duped this other woman into singing for her.”

I looked over, arching an eyebrow. “I sense some revenge is coming?”

“Of course,” Dev purred. “One’s voice is important. Worth dying for.” He clicked off the show.

“So why stop in the middle?”

“The ending is unpleasant. And I’d much rather hear about your mission today. Dieter said he told you about the jobs. I assumed when you left with no word and were gone all day, you were working on one of them.”

“It wasn’t a mission. I went to see a weresnake woman. The new potion Titus brewed for me…well, it brought back my desire. I feel like I did in my twenties. And it’s been years since I was with another snake.”

Devlin nodded, but his smile was brief. “I’m glad to hear this, and gladder still that you had someone to go to. But several people came looking for you, Lash. Next time leave word with Dieter or Sol that you’ll be out, I don’t care what excuse you give, so long as they can find you if you or Hayden were in danger.”

Guilt crashed into me, both because I knew by “several people” he meant Morwen and likely one of the boys. And I had acted irresponsibly. I will have to make a point of having a woman nearby for sex, when I take the potion from now on. If Maryanne says no, I’ll have to consider someone else. “I’m sorry. I will.” I paused. “Were you going to tell me that Nancy had left?”

“It’s been years since you mentioned her. I didn’t think it mattered to you if she were here or elsewhere.”

“She’s just safer here. I’m not going on another rescue mission for her, ever. Dieter says you told him that she’s still here on the grounds.”

“She is on lands I own, and well protected,” he said vaguely. “I know you felt guilty every time you looked at her. She wants a new start. And that meant somewhere far away from both you and Dieter.”

Devlin owns land in other countries. Nancy had gone to Europe to get a new start after breaking up with me years ago. Her doing it again made sense. But it hurt, too. “I get that, Dev. For all the years I’d spent to find her and suffered greatly in the process, a hug and thanks would have been nice on her way out.”

“It wasn’t her fault you couldn’t be the man she wanted you to be. And it’s not her fault now that what she went through changed her. I still have hope she’ll come out, in time.”

I didn’t want to spoil this day with any more talk of Nancy. “Did you hear back from the Hell’s Angels? And what makes you think there’s a rebellion coming?”

“Movies reflect the values and political ideas of the times. Take The Wild One from ’53: a rebel in search of a cause, looking for something to rebel against. These motorcycle clubs are forming because of the subculture of the WW2 vets who came back from war burned out and traumatized. There’s always been pressure to domesticity for females. But during the war, women did men’s jobs for years. Now they appear unhappy to be relegated back to the kitchen and the bedroom with no say in their lives.”

I thought for a moment about the movies I’d seen lately. “Giant seemed like a normal drama to me.”

“That’s because Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t a string-you-up-by-your-balls feminist, but a greatly moderated version. But her daughter and son rebelled against their father. There is some undercurrent now stating that kids can’t trust their parents. And some other odd notion, that kids aren’t delinquent, just sick.”

“There was that movie, Anatomy of a Murder, where that woman is raped,” I said slowly. “Her army husband kills the rapist, and goes on trial. His wife is viewed as “slut,” because she has bare legs, and no girdle. That scene of the laughing courtroom when the judge goes on about her panties…I thought it was ridiculous. But then I haven’t liked any of the movies this decade. They all seem to be dumb, with no point.”

“That’s because the points they are making is that our world is changing drastically,” Devlin stated. “The victim in the movie you mention is the woman version of the antihero in The Wild One, but girls can’t be rebels, or they’re sluts.” He paused. “You have just come from laying a woman you neither love nor are committed to in any way. Men admire and look up to you for that. But what was your first thought when Darwin told you Morwen and he were intimate? That she had betrayed you.”

“I thought we were talking about films,” I hissed angrily, standing up so fast the chair fell backward. “And for the record, I’m not angry at Morwen for what she did. But she should have told me.”

“Did you tell her where you were going today?”

She fucked around first! “I’m thinking we have an open relationship now. I plan to talk to her about that tonight. Was there anything else?”

“Beautiful flowers we love fall to decay too soon, and unloved weeds grow full and strong,” Devlin intoned. “Something for you to remember, Lash. But no, we are finished. I’m delighted you are back to your old self, my friend.”

“Thank you again,” I said gruffly, then left.

As I walked upstairs, I considered what he said. Devlin has never been wrong about such things. I had better pay more attention to what’s going on in the world from now on.

Morwen was tucking in the kids with Darwin, when I opened the door. I joined them, helping Tyler into bed. “Can we go this weekend to see The Mummy?” he asked. “There’s a triple feature! Dracula and Frankenstein are playing, too.”

“Yes,” I said instantly. “We can go.” I looked up at Morwen and Darwin. “Should we all go?”

In the way I said it, I told her I knew about she and him…and that it was okay with me.

Darwin nodded. “I’m in.”

Morwen’s look of surprise faded in a faint flush, but she smiled. “Yes, that sounds good. Will it just be the three of us?”

She smells Maryanne, and is asking if she’s joining us. “Yes, just us three.”

The kids were all babbling, excited about the outing. They hadn’t been off the grounds of Hayden since the night Darwin and I’d brought them home.

“Go to sleep, or we won’t go to the movies this weekend,” Darwin warned.

Immediately, the children settled into bed, feigning sleep.

We filed out, and Darwin immediately excused himself. I followed Morwen to her room. “Were you going to tell me, ever?”

“I thought you would smell his scent on me, and ask. You never did, so I assumed it was okay.” She paused. “Who is this woman you’re fucking?”

“That started today. I gave her an offer for a regular relationship, but unless she accepts it, you don’t need to know.”

Morwen was visibly taken aback by my coldness, but shook it off. “Do you care about her?”

“Yes.”

My response seemed to stagger her. Her voice broke when she asked, “Is she coming to live here?”

“No,” I said gently, coming to her and hugging her. “I needed a snake female. It was just sex.”

Morwen hugged me back. “That’s all it is with Darwin and me, too. I needed his wolf, and he needed mine.” She slid her hand down to rub my dick, which should have been overtired, yet sprang instantly to life. “Did she suck you dry, or just lie there passively?”

Morwen had never talked dirty to me; we usually didn’t talk at all. Is this from jealousy? What does she want to hear? “She tried her best.”

Her hand went to work, massaging my rapidly swelling penis. “Looks like you’re still horny. You’re in luck though, sweet snake. This wolf knows how to milk that thick cock of yours dry.”

I grabbed her in my arms and kissed her. Then we were all over each other, pulling off clothes, ripping them when they wouldn’t come off fast enough. I pushed her back on the bed, spread her legs, then pushed between them, thrusting hard and fast almost immediately. She was wet for me, her cries eager. And for the first time, she told me to fuck her in guttural tones, her coarse words of lust bringing me to climax in a liquid rush.

After, we lay together panting.

“I don’t want to lose what we’ve had all these years,” she whispered.

“Neither do I,” I said tenderly, kissing her cheek.

“Are you okay with threesomes,” she said tentatively. “As in are you going to want one with me, and this other girl?”

Taken aback, I rolled off her to lie nearby. “Why would you say that?”

“We have to go to other people for animal sex. Usually that leads to human sex, in time,” she said plainly. “I know Devlin, and from things you and he said over the years, that you shared women before.” She paused. “I expected that you would ask for that eventually. You never did, and it surprised me.”

Had she hoped for that? Better to find out now. “Devlin wouldn’t ask, but if I had offered, he wouldn’t turn it down. Do you want to have sex with him?”

Morwen shook her head slightly. “He reminds me of…I think he would like things I wouldn’t want to do.”

She’s remembering the asshole who raped her. I should have killed that bastard more slowly. I hugged her. “Then you don’t have to do it. Are you going to want a threesome with Darwin?”

Now it was her turn to look askew at me.

“Isn’t that every woman’s fantasy?”

“Two pairs of balls are one pair too many,” Morwen said with a snort. “I think Darwin is a great guy, and he’s, um…sensitive to my needs. But we’re just friends.”

You’re not just friends anymore, or I wouldn’t be smelling your desire for him. “He’s been a good father to the kids.”

“He is, and I appreciate that,” she said quickly. “I know they’re human, but I love them.” She paused. “The only hard part is they’re starting to notice we’re different than they are.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing?” I offered. “I like them, too, and I want them to stay in our world with us.”

“Do you think they’ll want to?”

I stroked her bare shoulder, then hugged her close. “Yes, I do.”

***

The movie marathon that weekend of The Mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein was a blast. The kids overloaded on popcorn and candy, shrieking with fear at the movie monsters. Darwin and I got eyefuls of scantily clad vixens, eliciting wolf whistles from us both. Morwen also enjoyed being the center of attention. She had never looked happier, shepherding the kids to the bathrooms or out for more sweets. We all changed seats for each successive flick, so each child got to spend time with each of us, and both Darwin and I got some time with Morwen. That night, I stayed behind after tucking the children in to let Darwin know he was welcome to join us in Morwen’s room.

The mortified look on his face would have been comical, if I were only a bystander. “I, uh, um, no. No, thank you.”

The jealous part of me enjoyed his discomfort. “Why not?”

“I respect you,” he blurted out, then flushed a deep red. “I don’t think it’s appropriate. You’re…you’re my boss.”

“Devlin is my boss, but I shared women with him before, Darwin.”

His nervousness visibly calmed as if he were drawing on some new inner strength. “I heard.” In his tone was repugnant knowledge. “If something changes, I’ll tell you.” He walked away with a stiff back.

Grumpy with myself for trying to get a rise out of him coupled with my embarrassment, then dismay. He’s disgusted, not just embarrassed…who told him? Likely Titus, who’d witnessed the depths I’d once been capable of. Depths that Devlin is still capable of.

Instead of going in to Morwen, I headed out for a brief walk, maybe to beat sense into that demon to keep his mouth shut. Instead I ran into Sol and Joe.

“How are you feeling?” I asked Joe, before Sol could speak.

“I’m completely healed,” Joe said proudly. “Dad...um, Sol told me that the team’s going out again on a job. I want in.”

I resisted looking at Sol. “Then you’re in.”

Joe shook my hand, then left whistling. I turned to Sol, and braced for his verbal assault. But none was forthcoming.

“I accept that he’s going to follow in my footsteps, and probably get killed,” the werebear murmured. “And that trying to stop him is just making him want to do it more.”

“He’s a man now. He’s got to find out for himself what his limitations are.

“I just hope he survives long enough to see them expand,” Sol replied, walking away. “By the way, there’s a message for you from someone named Maryanne. Goodnight.”

Lash 5: Demolition Man

CHAPTER 6

Darwin ignored my instructions to leave, and parked across the street from the Hellman building. Rolling my eyes, I walked up to his window, keeping an eye out for any security presence. “I told you to head home.”

“Lash, you shouldn’t go in alone. If there really is something in that safe, it’s got to be well guarded.”

Joe already got hurt tonight. I don’t want you to get hurt, too. I bit down on the thought, knowing saying it wouldn’t give the result I wanted. “I give you an order, I need you to follow it, Darwin.” I paused. “But I respect your ability as an empath. If you’re here because of that, or if you ever have a bad feeling about a job, you need to tell me, as soon as it happens. I mean that.”

Dieter watched silent from the backseat with no comment.

“You formed a team so you wouldn’t have to go in alone,” Darwin argued. “You don’t want me at your back, that’s fine. But you need someone.”

My eyes met Darwin’s resolute gaze, then flicked to Dieter. “You okay driving?”

Dieter nodded, then moved up to the front seat, as Darwin got out. “Radio as soon as you want pickup. I’ll give Shaker a heads up.”

I hit the side of the vehicle lightly. “Thanks.”

Dieter and the others sped away, as Darwin and I headed toward the Hellman building. “What’s the plan?” he asked.

“You tell me, you’re supposed to be in training,” I said with a faint smile. “How would you go in?”

“Look for an open ground floor window?”

“Sure, but it won’t be that easy.” I walked with him around the base of the building. “There’s no windows until the second floor, except the front glass in the lobby. Do you feel anything?”

Darwin shook his head. “There’s no feeling of any magic or anything spiritual. Only smells besides ours are human.”

I checked near the door, and saw a basic alarm panel, nothing fancy. Carefully I picked the lock, then opened the door. Darwin and I hurried through, then shut the door, the panel beeping softly. Racing to the desk, I ran my hand under it, as he rifled through the drawers.

“Here!” He passed me a piece of paper, and I sprinted back to the panel, punching in a simple 5-digit code. The alarm went quiet.

I shot him a grin. “Now let’s see what’s in that safe.”

***

The ride to the eleventh floor was uneventful, but we got a surprise when we stepped out of the elevator into darkness. “Smell that?” Partially changing to snake, I flicked out my tongue a few times, tasting the air.

Darwin’s nose elongated slightly, his face growing some fur as his eyes changed to the yellow of a wolf. “Human male, fresh.”

The presence of a guard made Reichter’s story more plausible. “We’ll have to be on our toes. You lead, your night vision is better than mine.”

We approached the corner office. The door was locked, as expected. I had Darwin pick the lock while I kept a lookout, knowing the guard’s flashlight would be visible before he had any inkling we were there. Once we were in, I closed the door after us, then turned on the light.

The painting came down easily, though the safe behind it was a very expensive new model, all but impenetrable. Or would have been, if the combination hadn’t been written in scrawled pencil on the back on the canvas. Thanks, Reichter.

It took us three tries to get the fucker open, because one scribbled number we took for a three was really a five. But once we had, the money was all there in stacks of hundred and fifties, just like Reichter had said. It was in that moment that I realized I’d forgotten to bring a bag. I turned to Dieter. His smirk said clearly that I might be a master assassin, but I hadn’t thought of everything.

I shoved the remaining files at him, irritated. “Read these, and find out which one of them’s worth the most. We can’t leave the damn thing empty. I’ll go look for a briefcase or something.”

Darwin nodded, already scanning the first document.

With a curse, I hurried out, shutting the door behind me. A bobbing light at the end of the hallway startled me, and I ducked into an alcove. That’s the guard. What are my odds for staying here and him missing me in the dark? Zero to none. I tried the door behind me, the knob turning with no resistance. I slipped inside and shut it behind me, to promptly have a flashlight illuminate my back. I spun around, reaching for my gun, coming face to face with a human child.

The little boy stared at me. I looked back, wondering what the hell I should say.

“What are you doing?”

The truth was right out. Lie, and make it a good one. I cast my eyes around the room, taking in the nearby machine and a briefcase to the side of it. “I’m in here making sure this copier works okay.”

“What’s a copier?”

Why hadn’t I said I was a janitor emptying trash? “It works just fine. See you.” I grabbed the briefcase I’d come to steal, then walked out the door back into darkness. The damn kid followed, still holding the flashlight on me.

I kept walking, sure he’d turn around. Instead he followed me to the elevator.

“Where are you going?”

I couldn’t change form with him watching…or sneak back to Darwin past the guard with him in tow. I turned to him, letting out a breath. With him having seen me, it was expedient to silence him, permanently. Tying him up would just cause more of a commotion.

He stood looking at me with guileless eyes, serious and curious.

I hadn’t ever hurt a child. I wasn’t going to start tonight. I crouched down, so I was at eye level with him. “I need your help. Can you help me?”

The kid nodded earnestly. “What do I do?”

“I need a distraction.”

“What’s that?”

We were going to be here all night. And the seconds of my window between guard sweeps were ticking by. “If anyone finds me here, they’ll hurt me. I need to get out of here without anyone seeing me.”

“Hurt you how? Beat you up?”

Proud as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to nod. “I need you to run screaming to the guards. Tell them you saw a man up here, and that he ran upstairs. Tell them he was blond with light-colored eyes, and tall.”

“You aren’t tall. You’re short.”

I closed my eyes and counted to five. “I need you to lie.”

“I’m not supposed to lie.”

“Even if someone’s life depends on it?” I said as emotively as I could manage.

“You’re a stranger.”

“I’m your friend,” I said. “If you want one.”

The kid looked dubious.

What the hell to say? I had never been good with talking to kids, ever. “Did you ever have a bad day? Well, tonight’s been a bad night. I could not have screwed this night up more if I tried.”

“What?”

This is useless. “I promised a man I would get something,” I said tiredly. “One of my friends got hurt tonight. And another’s going to get hurt if I don’t get out of here without being seen.”

To my surprise, the boy straightened up and nodded. “I’ll help.”

No time to waste. “Good.” I stood, then opened the door a crack. No guard was in evidence. “Stay here.”

I ran back to Darwin, helped him stuff the money and a few choice papers in the case. “Use the stairs, go all the way to the bottom. Wait for me in the stairwell.”

Darwin nodded, and took off for the stairs. Hoping I hadn’t sealed my fate, I went back to the child. “Come with me.” We got into the elevator, and I pushed the ground floor.

The boy reached his hand out to touch the hilt of my knife at my hip. I whirled at once, hand raised to deflect his. But the kid had already shrunk back, his own arm thrown across his face, an arm with bruises both new and healing from his elbow up. “Don’t!”

I could guess where those bruises had come from, just by his reaction. “I’m not going to hurt you,” I said gruffly.

The kid looked at me incredulously then leaned against the wall, watching me nervously until the car stopped.

The elevator doors opened, then the kid started out. I reached out and grabbed him back, needing insurance for later. “What’s your name?”

“Melvin. Malcolm Melvin.”

Poor kid. “Where do you live?”

The boy recited an address, a tenement apartment in Brooklyn by the sounds. Then he added, “But you can’t go there. My mom’s boyfriend Eddie gets angry if I have friends over. He’s angry most of the time.”

“I know,” I replied darkly. “Now run. Make the distraction.”

The kid couldn’t have been a better actor, his high screech deafening my human hearing as he ran towards the front doors.

“What the hell are you doing?” one of the guards shouted, running after him. The kid evaded him, his eyes flashing fear, then darting towards the elevators in a dead giveaway, yelling about a man upstairs.

Another man ran for the elevators, gun drawn. But Darwin and I were already across the lobby near the emergency exit. The sickening thud of flesh striking flesh, followed by the boy’s howl of pain stopped me in my tracks.

“I told you to stay in the lobby and play, you little bastard. Now stay here and don’t move. When I get back you’re going to be sorry.” The guard—likely Malcolm’s mom’s boyfriend Eddie—drew his gun and headed for the stairs. The other guard had already taken the elevator to the top floor.

My face tightened in anger. In a week, Eddie, you’re getting a visit from me. I slipped out the exit unnoticed, then realized I was alone. Catching the door before it closed, I stepped back inside. The kid was sitting on the floor crying, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth, eyes shut tight. Darwin had sprinted after Eddie, his audible growl cut off as the stairway door slammed shut behind him.

Clusterfuck with a capital C. I went to Malcolm and picked him up. He clung to me strangely, still crying. “You’re okay,” I said gruffly. “You’re safe.”

The stairwell door slammed open. Darwin appeared flexing his hand, the wolf gold of his eyes fading back to bright blue.

“Do you need white fire?” I asked, meaning had he killed Eddie.

“He fell down the stairs,” Darwin growled. “Total accident. But he won’t be getting up.” He took the boy from me. “Don’t be afraid, Malcolm. You don’t have to be afraid ever again.”

***

“Saved by a little boy?” Devlin purred at me, as he leafed through the stolen paperwork. “That’s a new low, even for you.”

“Fuck you,” I said good-naturedly, as he was only ribbing me. “Seriously, the kid was getting beaten, Dev. Pull some strings if you must or pay a bribe, but don’t send him back to his mom.”

“Alas, children can’t be reassigned like guards.” He paused at a diagram. “Well, this is interesting, Lash. It’s a diagram for a new kind of machine that copies. Something that transmits the image through a phone line.”

“That’s impossible. You must be reading it wrong.”

“Nothing’s impossible,” my employer amended, rubbing his temples with his fingers. “I admit, I’m no scientist. I can’t tell if these plans have flaws. But I’m guessing even if they do, any kinks could be worked out.” He grinned. “These are indeed worth money, a lot of money. I’ll send them to Hachett in Los Angeles. He can get some of his tech people in northern California to work on them, and develop this idea to fruition, if no one else is already working on it. I will make sure that a percentage of the money kicks back to you and Darwin.”

“Fine, but what about the boy?”

Devlin nodded. “You want my authorization to kill his abuser, you have it. But his mother will likely only find another man who does the same. I have seen it before.” He paused, delicate brows knitting together in consternation. “You’re not asking my permission to bring him home, are you?”

Darwin already has. “I took in an orphan boy years ago when I worked for Abraham, Dev. He made a good guard, and was my right-hand man for years.”

“Who turned on you. Spied on you, and on Abraham for another vampire. You killed him, Lash.”

“There were extenuating circumstances. That kid was already living on the streets.”

“And this kid has been knocked around by people that were supposed to protect him. He’ll likely be violent himself in time.”

“Is that a bad thing, though, for a guard? I can teach him to control his violent tendencies, if they emerge. We either need to recruit more females and set up a breeding program for the werebears, or we need to bring in more young.”

“What’s wrong with hiring, when the need arises? We’ve done that before, Lash.”

“What’s wrong is that we have an aging elite that don’t want to extend their useful years,” I said harshly. “I’m near sixty, Dev. I hopefully will retain my speed with the potion, but”

“Darwin and Joe are young males in their prime,” Devlin interrupted. “Dieter and Sol can change from active duty to training, if they choose to step down from active duty at all.”

“They have trained men, and those men aren’t as good as we three. What makes you good is experience…or the kind of training I had, where you’re not just fighting, you’re practicing dying.”

“Can you give them that training?” Devlin said coolly. “Is that in part why you formed your Demolition Men Team, to give Joe, Darwin and others that experience, to weed out the chaff from the wheat?”

“Maybe,” I admitted slowly, shifting uneasily. Then I forced my shoulders to relax, stretching in the chair. “Hell, I think it’s just knowing there’s always going to be enemies out there gunning for us, some we won’t know about, like this relation of mine Jared. I spent a lot of years on my guard almost all the time. That constant tension wore me down, but it also gave me instant response to threats. Dieter has that too, from the years he was a soldier. Sol has it from experience, from all his Ranked fights, and years of attacks here, but it’s a bit less.”

“Solomon and Dieter will come in time to want the potion you currently take,” Devlin said, cutting through my excuses like putty. His tone held both understanding and sorrow. “You had just taken the stake for me when you agreed to the potion. It was your brush with true death that prompted you to agree. You might not have, otherwise.”

I was silent, irritated he knew me so well yet also oddly comforted, that I didn’t have to tell him how I felt, because he already knew.

“But back to the child, Malcolm. As he means so much to you and Darwin, go ahead, bring him here. Children disappear every year, and many are never found; he will just be one that will be better off in his new life. If someone comes looking for Malcolm, I will make arrangements.” He paused. “Do you want him listed as your son?”

I shook my head. “No, there’s too much danger. List him as Darwin’s son.” I handed him the sack of cash from Reichter’s safe. “But put this into a trust fund for him, saving some out to cover his room and board, until he can work for you as a guard.”

Devlin nodded. “Consider it done. Now do you want to send in Malcolm and Darwin, so I can meet this progeny?”

I flushed slightly, then called out, “Darwin.”

Darwin entered with Malcolm, who looked at Devlin with wide eyes while clinging to Darwin’s hand.

“I am Devlin Dalcon. I understand your name is Malcolm?”

“Yes. Um, yes, sir. Malcolm Melvin.”

“You will be known just as Malcolm, from now on. Your past is over, and your future will be a good one. Darwin will be your acting guardian, with Lash here as his backup. As you might have guessed, I am their master.” He bared his fangs in a large smile, making the boy gasp and grab Darwin’s leg. “I’m a vampire, but you have nothing to fear from me, if you behave and follow the rules.”

“I’ll watch him,” Darwin said quickly. “He won’t get in the way or act up.” He patted Malcolm’s back. “Right?”

“I’ll be good,” the boy said softly.

“Very good, Malcolm. Do you have any questions?” Devlin said gently.

“Yes. Can my sister and brother come here, too?”

Devlin didn’t hesitate. “Of course. Darwin and Lash were just going to get them.”

His golden eyes flicked to us. “I’m sure you two already know the address?”

***

Later that night, I helped Darwin get Malcolm and his younger brother Tyler into my bed. “Now Lash is going to be in the next room,” Darwin said, kissing the boys on the forehead in turn. “You need something, just come and knock on his door, and he’ll help you.”

“Where will you be?” Malcolm asked, his blue eyes wide.

“I’m in the guard barracks,” Darwin said with a quick smile. “This is only for tonight, Malcolm. We’ll get you a room of your own soon.”

“I don’t mind,” Tyler said with a yawn. “It’s nice and quiet here with no one screaming or throwing stuff.”

Darwin hugged him. “Get some sleep.”

The door opened and little Brynna appeared with Morwen. We helped her climb into bed, and Darwin kissed her forehead, too. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I patted each of their hands, and told them to get a good night’s sleep. Then we turned out the light and left, Darwin leaving for his bed, and I and Morwen for her bedroom next door.

“I’m glad you’re on board with this,” I mentioned as we got into bed. “You weren’t enthused at first, exactly.”

Morwen had been shocked to see Darwin and I appear with Malcolm. She’d thrown down her book, and gotten in his face. “What are you doing, bringing home human children?”

Darwin hadn’t backed down an inch, his eyes yellowing. “You told me years ago that some fights you can’t win, but you have to fight anyway. These kids are safer here than where they were.”

“I meant fighting evil, Darwin, not”

“This is evil,” he’d growled. “One me and my sister Killy went through. Now either help or get the fuck out of the way.”

Shocked by his vehemence, Morwen had not only moved, she’d gone with us to get Brynna and Tyler. Their mother hadn’t protested, she’d been passed out in her bed, surrounded by various drugs and empty liquor bottles. Collecting the children and their few toys unobtrusively had been easy.

“I hadn’t known Darwin had been abused as a child,” Morwen whispered, snapping me back to the present. “He and Killy just showed up one day, and we took them into our hunter group. I thought they’d been trying to deal with their powers, not physical injury.”

“I’d forgotton he’d ever had a sister,” I admitted guiltily.

“I’m fine with this. It’ll be good having young here. I’m just surprised that you agreed.” “I didn’t. The guy hit the boy and Darwin just went for him, no warning.” I sighed. “I would have gone back for the boy later.”

Morwen hugged me under the covers. “You couldn’t have known, Lash.”

“I did know,” I admitted, hugging her back. “I saw bruises on his arms. But we have attacks here all the time. Bringing a child to Hayden seemed like endangering him more.”

“We could always bring them over,” Morwen said, after a moment. “Young are safer if they can heal injuries immediately.”

I shot her a dark look. “They’re children, Morwen, ill-equipped to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives. Even that one human on my team, O’Mally, can’t decide if he’d rather be a bear or a wolf. We can’t make that decision for them. They have to make it themselves when they’re old enough.”

“How could anyone want to be anything but wolf?” she teased, squeezing me. “But you’re right, they should decide, in time.”

***

Malcolm, Brynna, and Tyler settled in faster than expected. A large room at the end of the hall, which had been an extra study of Devlin’s, was refurbished into their bedroom/playroom, but they had the roam of Devlin’s home, with only the basement, attic, and individual bedrooms off limits. They also stayed out of the barracks, on Darwin’s command.

“You’re really good with them,” I mentioned to him one evening, as the three kids played outside on the lawn, catching fireflies. Fall had become winter, and winter had edged into spring of 1959. Soon it would be summer. Where does the time go?

“They’re good kids,” Darwin said proudly. “But you already know that, you spend almost as much time with them as I do.”

Mostly Tyler. Malcolm’s still a bit leery of me, and Brynna likes Morwen best. “You’re right, they’re good kids.”

“We haven’t gone on any more jobs. Are you going to disband the team?”

“Is that the rumor?”

“C’mon Lash, just answer me.”

Joe had recovered with no aftereffects of his potentially lethal injury. He’d been cleared by the local Dr. Abrams, which serviced our kind. But Solomon and Klara had been furious. She still wasn’t talking to me, and Sol remained distant. “No jobs for the team have come in since that one.”

“That can’t be true. You’ve gone on jobs regularly.”

I glowered at him. “Look, there’re waves to this kind of thing, Darwin. I’m always in demand, because I’m well known after killing people for the last forty odd years. But most people don’t need a team to kill one person. They just need one guy.”

Darwin grunted, and leaned back in his chair.

“Remember that movie, ‘The Town that Dreaded Sundown’, about that killer in Texarkana?”

“That’s the one that had a bag on his head with eyeholes cut out, right? He killed with knife attached to trombone, along with other weirdness.”

“Right. That was the 1946 killing spree, with the attacks on lover’s lanes, and the killer was never caught publicly, because I killed him.”

“I thought a Texas Ranger got him?”

“Yeah, he was called in, and helped me bury the body. But you’re missing the point. The point is that it doesn’t usually take a team of people to kill someone.” I paused. “Look, if its money…”

“No, it’s just I want to get off the grounds, see more of the world,” Darwin said with a sigh. “Every few weeks you’re off in your truck, or heading with Torren or Titus to a job. Hayden is beautiful, but ”

“Fine, then I have a job for you. I haven’t heard a peep from the boys at Brightdawn. The chance that they left and aren’t plotting reprisal is slim. Find out what Jared and his human son Stan are up to. That’s worth a few grand to me, and it’s something I can’t do, because they’ll be watching for me.”

“You got it, daddy-o.”

“And stop it with that slang, it annoys the fuck out of me.”

“Hey, I’m booted! Don’t be a drag, or blow your top. No need for a dark mood or to wig out, it’s cool. Thanks for the gig! Any more crumbs you want me to look into? How ‘bout that weresnake chick Maryanne?”

“Lame, Darwin. Really lame. Now take five, and split. You’re bugging me.”

***

A few weeks later I came home in the evening from a job. “Your witch-doctor wrote you a letter, Mor,” I said, handing her the mail. “I’m surprised you keep in touch with that priest.”

“He meant well,” she said, forcing a smile. “He just wanted to make sure I was safe.”

“You are,” I said possessively, wondering if she’d take offense. But instead she was nodding as she got the kids to brush their teeth, and get into bed.

Darwin also hurried in, a relieved look on his face when he saw me. Then his eyes turned to Malcolm, who was hurrying up to him. “Glad I’m in time for a hug.” He swung the boy into his arms, then carried him to bed, tucking him beneath the covers with his customary forehead kiss.

I tucked Tyler in, giving him a quick hug. All these years and it’s still hard to casually touch someone I care for of the same sex. “Have good dreams. We’ll have breakfast in the morning.”

“Can I have pancakes?”

“Yes, I’ll make them,” Morwen said, nodding. “Now go to sleep. You’re loved.”

“Yes, you are,” I added.

After turning out the light, Darwin followed me. “Lash, I need to talk to you.”

“I’ll be in in a minute,” I said to Morwen.

“We need to go to Davy’s for this,” Darwin added.

“Sounds like an excuse to drink all night at the bar,” Morwen said snidely, then her tone softened. “Go ahead, Lash. Like you said, we’re safe.”

***

We were en route to the bar when Darwin pulled over and stopped the car.

“What is it that you couldn’t tell me back at Hayden?” I barked, my anxiety heightened by his mysterious behavior.

“I didn’t want Morwen to overhear me talk about Maryanne,” he retorted. “Did you?”

My protective instinct flared. “What is it? Is she hurt?”

“I did a little digging. Bear in mind there’s no supernatural files, only human files. But that Jared from Brightdawn? Well, he had a human mother. Jared Valeras is listed on his birth certificate as his father, but there’s no record of a marriage, or”

I let out a guttural scream, and slammed the back of my fist into the passenger window, shattering the glass in a shower and denting the metal of the door with the force of my blow. Darwin shut up, watching me with apprehension.

All that bullshit about never having sex with a human woman, all my father’s warnings about how Mara had become a weresnake, how she couldn’t stay human if I married her, how a man honored his word to his mate. All my careful behavior all these years to make sure that I never had a baby out of wedlock to grow up without a father. And my own fucking father had done exactly that!

“Do you want me to go on?”

“Yes. How many other half siblings do I have?”

“There’s no way to tell, Lash. I looked through the births for the surrounding years in Virginia, and Jared wasn’t listed on any of them. But if your father travelled up and down the coast, there could be any number of”

I would have to ask Jared, and hope he knew. “Is he my older brother, or younger brother?”

“Jared was born in 1899, in a small town in Virginia. He’s your older brother.”

Relief that at least my father hadn’t been a total asshole soaked into me.

“What he did before he married Stan’s mother, I don’t know. But he pays his taxes, and he built up Brightdawn from nothing. The company turns a good profit now. He’s not rich, but definitely middle class.”

“What are he and Stan up to?”

“They’re putting in a subdivision outside New York City, which is going to last for another several months. A place called Greenlawn Acres.”

Insipid name. Humans come up with such dreck. “And Maryanne?”

“She’s there.”

“And?”

“And engaged to Stan.”

My mouth fell open almost comically. “That cowardly twit? She was Jared’s girl, I thought?”

Darwin shrugged.

There was some consolation that a human male would never sire any offspring on Maryanne; Stan the Idiot just wouldn’t be fertile enough. Werewomen needed repeated sex with longevity to get pregnant. That human women got pregnant easily from weremen was the reverse, and why Jared was walking around in the first place. I rubbed my temples, gathering my thoughts.

“There’s something else, too, Lash. I wanted to talk to you alone, man to man.”

He’s nervous and…embarrassed? I turned to Darwin, expectant.

“Morwen and I…for a while now we’ve been getting together as wolves, to sate our needs. I thought she had said something to you. I should have said something when it began, but I didn’t. I’m sorry for that.”

I had always known that Morwen went to Darwin for wolf sex, even if we hadn’t ever talked about it. I’d tried it years ago, getting a potion to change to wolf for her. It had worked in physical form: I was able to do anything a male of her species could. But I couldn’t do anything about my scent, which remained snake. And so, I had let it go, figuring that was part of the deal, to let her go to him. But the way he said it made me think that something had changed. “What made you decide to tell me?”

“Because we’re having sex as humans now, too.”

I stared at him, floored.

“I know you must smell my scent on her, and hers on me, sometimes. But you’ve never said anything. I thought I should.”

Cold sweat broke out over my body. I hadn’t smelled a damn thing! What was happening to me?

Darwin sniffed suddenly, his eyes widening before he dropped them guiltily.

I forced myself to stay calm. You’ve got to get to Titus, RIGHT NOW. “Thank you for telling me. I always suspected she sated her animal side with you, after Apex was killed and you were old enough. I’m not angry.”

“Then I have your permission?”

I bit back my sarcastic remark about how it was a little late to be asking. That he had asked meant a lot, and spoke exactly to the kind of man he was becoming. Fuck, had already become. Instead I took a deep breath, choosing my words carefully. “Being frank and honest about everything is a fatal mistake most of the time, Darwin. That you had the guts to tell me this makes me respect you more.” I paused. “No, I didn’t know. But Morwen never took any vows to me. You don’t need my permission to fuck her. And she doesn’t need mine to fuck you.”

Darwin’s eyes narrowed at my choice of words, but he nodded.

“Are you done?” I asked curtly.

“Yes.”

“Good, drive us home, please. I’ve lost my taste for beer tonight.”

***

Darwin didn’t talk as we drove home, but he stopped me as I left the garage. “Please don’t hurt her.”

The mood I was in, I almost hit him. With effort, I kept my balled fist as my side. So, you’re protective of your lover already? “I respect you. But don’t think I won’t knife you if you stand in my way.”

“I’m asking because I do know you,” Darwin said softly. “I’ll be in my room until it’s my turn at the gatehouse at dawn.” He walked off.

Instead of going upstairs to Morwenthat argument could fucking wait until laterI headed down the basement to see Titus. Devlin was there with him, discussing of all things, his feeding schedule.

“I can arrange two for you later this month,” Devlin said. “Thane and Tony have several jobs for Lash, and he can easily bring the marks in alive” He cut off, turning to me. “That won’t be a problem, right?”

“No, but I do have a problem, a big one.” I stood there, and made myself utter the words. “That potion that keeps me young? I don’t think it’s working anymore.”

Lash

CHAPTER 5

I breathed a sigh of relief, the clinked my glass against those of my men. My demolition men. “Everyone did well today,” I said loudly. “The cash payment from today’s job will be in a separate envelope when you collect your paycheck from Devlin, as this particular job was for him. Any future jobs for him over and above will be paid the same way. Any other job, see either Sol or Dieter if you don’t get a direct cash payment from me up front.”

“Will all side jobs be paid in cash?” Sardona asked, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He still had his rifle sling over his shoulder. “In advance?”

“Likely, yes,” I answered. “Remember, though, if we get a check or a direct bank deposit, that money has to be declared on taxes.” There was a collective grumble from my troops, who didn’t want to lose any of their extra dough. “Yes, I agree it’s the shit.” I raised a hand for quiet. “I will request cash. But keep in mind that most jobs we do are going to come with a five-figure salary, some maybe six figures, if all of us are required. Most clients aren’t going to be able to withdraw that as a lump sum, especially if they are businesses; they’ll need to pay us in installments. This is better for us in regards to the IRS, as well, so that the work looks legit. But I will get half for you in advance. Most of the time all of it.”

There was more grumbling, but this was less irate.

“Get some sleep, men,” Dieter stated. “Report back here in the morning ready to go, Sol will be giving his report. Darwin is due back, also. Dismissed.”

My demolition team walked off, leaving just Morwen, Dieter, and myself.

“The first job went well,” Morwen mused, giving me a look that said she was going to yell at me as soon as we were alone. “That’s something.”

“That’s nothing,” Dieter said dismissively. “We took them on a reconnaissance mission to make sure that Bright Dawn Construction really had left town. They had. There wasn’t anything to find, and no one to fight with, unless you count that drunk squatter who startled Hudson during the initial sweep.”

“While I agree today’s excursion held no real danger, none of these men are untested, Dieter, except for Sol’s son,” Morwen retorted. “This team is willing to work together as a team and take orders. We made a plan to follow and they followed it. That’s a good beginning.”

“But can they improvise when they need to?” Dieter challenged. “And they will need to, sooner or later. I still think we should take them out on a job involving some supernatural or at least non-human targets, Lash, preferably with at least one enemy in the fray that will use magic as a defense.”

“Not all demons resort to magic,” Shaker intoned, as he walked into the room, Darwin following. “Some just have brute strength and impeccable charm, like me.”

Dieter chuckled, Morwen narrowed her eyes, and Darwin cleared his throat, looking at me for a sign he could begin his daily report. While that likely constituted just a 5-minute rehash of Hayden’s current guard listing, I needed to give him my full attention. He’d been left in charge solo for the first time, and it mattered that I recognize that he’d maintained Hayden’s defenses, no matter that I’d been just across the street.

“Please leave, Shaker,” I said bluntly, indicating the door. “We have demolition work to discuss.”

“I know, and I’ll leave you to it,” Shaker said. “After I give you this.” He did an elaborate twist of his wrist, a plain envelope addressed to me appearing in his black taloned fingers.

I made no move to take it. “Who is that from?”

Shaker smiled widely, baring his shark teeth. “I could pretend that I know nothing of your impending job, but I have a fair maiden to visit tonight, along with an old friend, and time is passing.” He flipped his wrist and the envelope shredded, the letter unfolding, words brightening unnaturally from within one by one as an unknown male voice echoed in the room.

“Lash, you agreed recently to a job involving several young people that died. This is my counteroffer that I will double whatever fee you asked for if you and your men will stand down. Contact me at the following number with your answer. -Torren.”

The letter fell to the ground, where Morwen snatched it up. “Who in the hell is Torren?”

“One of the sorcerers that I put in a call to,” Darwin supplied uneasily, casting a look at Shaker. “He’s also a vampire, relatively young.”

“Never heard of him,” I commented, taking the letter from Morwen’s hand, before passing it to Dieter. “Shaker, is this a threat?”

“And is it a threat Torren will make good on if we ignore him?” Dieter added, as Sol came in.

“Torren is not someone I would cross, given an option to be his ally instead,” Shaker said, after musing for a moment. “But what he didn’t include in the letter is that he was involved with the being that broke out of Jargen Cove in the first place. He intends to go after it, and contain it again, likely with Earth. He has a skill with rock”

“That doesn’t matter,” I interrupted without malice. “I don’t want to contain it, I want to kill it.”

“It’s only easy for men to kill gods and demons in stories,” Shaker warned, as he left. “You of all people should know death is not always an option, Lash.”

Fucker, to bring up Hex yet again. I shut the door after him, then turned to Darwin. “Leave the report for now, unless something really bad happened, and skip to your objective. Were you able to get us any sorcerous help?”

“All defenses are solid and unbreached,” Darwin nodded, yet his face was glum. “I contacted a fae witch, but she’s already linked to a group of hunters. The same for the two sorcerers I tried. Torren was the only one I hadn’t heard back from.”

“Then who’s signing on?” Morwen asked.

“I called in a favor,” Devlin said, as he opened the door and walked in.

“Cheyenne, a sorceress Danial knows, has agreed to assist for this mission.” A familiar beautiful Native American woman with long hair braided with purple ribbons came in behind him, and nodded to me and Morwen.

Cheyenne was very powerful, the only mortal I knew who was the equivalent of Titus when it came to magic, with none of his evil tendencies. She had assisted both Morwen and me when we had sustained injuries from Hellfire fighting an army of demons...and helped to imprison Hex, the main demon behind it all. “Thank you,” I said immediately. “We are grateful for your help, and will reimburse you for your time.”

“I appreciate that,” Cheyenne said with her normal frankness. “As do my people. Tell me what you know.”

“Sol?” I prompted.

The werebear cleared his throat. “I’m not sure what…”

A cloaked man suddenly appeared in our midst. Morwen let out a yell, shifting to wolf, Dieter drew his gun and fired, and I pushed Darwin behind me as I reached for my blessed knife. The bullet passed harmlessly through the man as he went transparent, then solidified again. It hit the wall, shattering an antique mirror.

“Stop,” the man said, holding up his hand as he threw back his hood, revealing his face and reddish eyes. The vampire brought out the severed head of a red-scaled monster with the other, tossing it at my feet as Morwen leapt in front of me growling and sniffing. “I didn’t come to fight, only to tell you the beast is dead.”

“Torren,” I pronounced, narrowing my eyes at the blond sorcerer. “I’m not a man that likes bullshit, especially when it appears in my home.”

“I’m not here to bullshit,” he shot back, baring vampire fangs. “It’s my charge to see that this beast was taken care of, and I have done so. Whomever hired you, give them the head, and collect your money.”

“This isn’t about money, it’s personal,” I hissed back, baring my own viper fangs. “You can’t buy me off once I’ve given my word. And I have.”

Morwen whined at me, insistent. “This head isn’t real,” Cheyenne interjected coldly, translating for the others her wolfspeech.

Torren straightened, his silhouette becoming darker and more menacing. “The beast is contained, Lash. It will not be coming back. But your client needs a life for a life, so I created the mock head to sate their need for vengeance.”

“I don’t do fakes,” I stated.

“And I don’t threaten,” Torren stated more coldly, holding up one taloned finger. “But I do make bargains. You put in a call for a sorcerer, Lash. I will answer that call, if you let this matter go.”

I went to make a crack, then paused, letting my snake tongue flick out, tasting his words for truth.

“Lash, you can’t be considering this,” Darwin said with a growl.

“Very well.” Cheyenne came forward, grasping the heavy head by one long black horn. “I will take the head to the family, and tell them their daughter was avenged.”

“No, I didn’t agree to that,” Dieter said, taking a step to stop her.

“I planned to tell Lash, and the rest of you that the beast you were trying to kill couldn’t be killed, only contained,” Cheyenne explained, not releasing her grip or backing down. She looked directly at me. “This girl Lyrica who died wasn’t innocent, Lash. The magic keeping the beast contained could only be broken by a willing sacrifice. She went there to be that sacrifice, knowing that breaking the seal would mean the death of her friends by fire and water. At best, she’s a murderess.”

“No female would kill their friends and themselves in that manner,” Dieter said skeptically. “Even a human one.”

“I don’t believe that the girl intended to die,” Torren interjected. “Lyrica researched Jargen’s Cove as a project for one of her college classes, and figured out something was contained at what most believed to be an altar. She probably thought breaking the containment spell would give her power. Maybe she didn’t intend for anyone to die. But when something that big comes out of the earth after being buried that deep, there’s collateral damage.”

“What is this being?” I asked him. “You keep using the word beast, but not monster or demon, which I find strange. And who put it there? No bullshit.”

“I put it there,” Titus rumbled, appearing in our midst opposite Torren. “It’s called Magicbane.” He folded his arms across his chest, facing the sorcerer with a bafeful glare. “Better known as She Who Waits. I contained her because she was young, just coming into her power, and had no respect for life. It doesn’t seem she learned anything those years in the rock.”

“I have contained her,” Torren grated out. “She is buried again in the rock, Titus.”

“Is that so?” Titus rumbled with a sneer.

“I give you my word as a sorcerer that no one else will die.” Torren went to one knee before the demon. “I failed before in the task I agreed to, and I will not fail again. This is my charge. If I fail again, my soul is forfeit to you.”

I expected Titus to jeer, or say that wasn’t good enough. Instead he nodded. “Very well. But Satan will hold you to your word, sorcerer. And so will I.”

Titus turned to Cheyenne, ignoring me. “Take the head. I will confirm that the prison will hold.”

Both of them disappeared.

“You’re just going to let them go?” Dieter said incredulously, still holding his gun on Torren. “What the hell, Lash!”

I turned to Torren. “I trust Cheyenne, that she wouldn’t let this slide if this Magicbane was still a danger. But I won’t stop Titus from killing you if that thing breaks free again, either. And I expect you to work for us for free for the next year, Torren, in exchange for my team standing down.”

“Agreed,” Torren said, to my surprise going to one knee again. “You have my word, Lash.”

“Leave us,” Dieter said to him. “Come back at dawn, Torren.”

Torren nodded, then disappeared.

“What the fuck are you doing, Lash?” Dieter yelled at me. “So much for your word!” Morwen, who had shifted back to human, also stood there stark naked glaring at me.

“I got us a sorcerer, and for free.”

“The money isn’t an issue,” he hissed, his eyes reptilian in his anger.

“You will need an expensive potion, or you’re going to begin aging,” I said curtly. Why the fuck not, might was well get everything all out in the open. “You too, Morwen. Besides, I do trust Cheyenne, she wouldn’t have agreed to Torren’s plan if there was any danger…or if he was dishonorable. Titus also said he imprisoned the thing, and was clearly pissed at Torren. I believe he will kill him, if Torren’s story doesn’t check out.”

“We can’t trust a demon.”

“I don’t. But I trust Cheyenne, and you should, too. Sometimes vengeance has to be prison, instead of death.” I steeled myself. “I need to know right now if you’re willing to take the potion.”

“I don’t know,” Dieter admitted. “I know it’s helped you, but I’m aware of the side effects.”

“Which are what?” Morwen asked, her eyes on me.

“Sterility,” Dieter said with finality. “Growing more demon-like the longer you take it, until you finally are demon in everything but the power.”

I stared at him, uncomfortably aware I couldn’t contradict his words. “You never mentioned you wanted kids.”

“I did,” Dieter said gruffly. “And I haven’t given up hope.”

“Maybe you should,” I said just as gruff. “Or else pick someone else.”

“What do you know about love?” Dieter hissed at me, enraged. “About making someone forget how much they’ve suffered?”

“A lot,” Morwen said, coming to stand shoulder to shoulder with me. “He knows a lot, Dieter.”

Dieter glared at the both of us, then slammed out of the room. One of the door hinges gave way, pulling out of the wall, the door tilting as it came to rest.

“Thanks for that,” I murmured, turning to hug her.

She pushed me away. “Tell me the truth. Why didn’t you want me to join the team?”

My thoughts raced frantically, but I knew better that to speak.

“Did you think I’d mess up and compromise the mission?”

“No. I just wanted you not to have to kill except in defense.”

“Do you think I can’t kill?”

Be ruthless. “I know you can kill. But assassination is something else, it’s fucking cold as ice, Morwen. Murder deadens part of your soul.” I advanced, and she backed up a step. “You remember those men I killed at the church, how horrified you were? Those were soldiers, if shitty ones. They at least had the inkling they might die. Some of marks are going to be civilians who never picked up a gun in their lives. They aren’t going to wake up the morning of their death with any idea that I’m coming with my boys to take everything they have.” I leaned in close. “They aren’t going to wake up at all, Mor. Because murdering someone as they lay sleeping is the easiest kill of all.”

My lover shuddered, even as she refused to back away another inch.

“I need you here at Hayden,” I said more gently, resting my hand lightly on her arm. “You won’t hesitate if you’re protecting our home. At least this time, stay behind.”

Her eyes met mine, her face pale. “All right.”

***

Devlin put the word out to his vampire subjects and network of contacts that my team and me were available for hire as long as no vampires were targeted. “I must sanction any vampire killing,” he told us, as we prepped for our first real mission. “It would be too easy for a wealthy vampire to ask for a rival to be killed which he could not best himself.”

Vampire fights over titles like who managed a state or a city were becoming more common now in the years since the war. Europe had repopulated its vampires, with some of the older ones who had fled returning to their homelands to pick up the pieces. Kicked out by the elders, the younger ones were coming to our shores to try their luck. Many were destroyed by vampires in the coastal cities. Others fell victim to me, at Devlin’s request. “Of course. You will have final say, as you always have had over my solitary jobs.”

“Good luck tonight,” Devlin said, with a trace of concern. “Wear your armor.”

I donned a heavy metal breastplate reluctantly, buckling the leather straps around my shoulders and torso. Several American companies formerly supplying armor for the war had shifted to making armor and more effective weapons for police. Devlin had gotten a few prototypes to try. “This is heavier than fuck, Dev.”

“They are making more bulletproof armor from plastic now, but there’ve been no tests on it yet that prove it will stop a blow struck with superhuman strength,” Devlin reminded me. “You’re strong enough to carry this weight, or do you want another stake through your heart?”

I shifted uncomfortably, remembering the stake I had taken for him. Bastard had hurt like a motherfucker and I’d been months healing in bed. “And these work? I’ve never worn armor into a fight, much less an assassination where I’m probably not even going to get shot at.”

“I have worn these on and off through the years, when I had enemies gunning for me,” Devlin remarked, straightening one of the straps. “There are so many straps on purpose, for extra stability. You can lose over half without the metal shifting. That plate will stop anything headed for your heart.”

“Barring a plane to ground missile, maybe.” I loaded up my knife, freshly blessed, the blade laced with poison good for any werecreature, and snapped on my coiled whip. My gun was already in a quick draw holster at my side.

“Weapon industrialists are concentrating on new technology based on what was used in the war,” Devlin continued. “I will make sure that I reach out to all the manufacturers here in the States, so that you can have access to the latest weaponry. I have already received a missive from Samuel, saying that he will share all information on new weapons created in Europe that will affect vampires. I have agreed to do the same, as long as the information shared includes anything that will also affect werekind.”

About time the Vampire Lord of Europe was good for something. I slipped on my trench coat, and shot Dev a grateful smile. “Good. There were a lot of weapons used in the war lethal to us both, just because they separated the head from the body, or made a hole so big that regeneration wasn’t possible.”

“He’s right,” Dieter said from the doorway. Sol was behind him. “I appreciate your including us very much, sir.”

“Before you leave,” Devlin said to him. “I know that you and Solomon are likely aware of the potion Lash takes monthly to extend his life and keep his regenerative powers strong. Both of you have served me well for over a decade. I am willing to arrange this for you, if you come up with half of the cost. I will pay the remainder myself.”

This was not the same deal I had with Devlin; he paid the entire cost. But then neither of them had taken a stake for him…yet.

“I’ve considered it, and at this time I’m not ready,” Dieter said politely. “If that changes, I will come to you, Mr. Dalcon.”

“The same goes for me,” Sol added. “Klara still would like another child, she says. So I want to give it a few years.”

Devlin nodded. “Very well. Be safe.”

I left with my team, my thoughts conflicted over their answers and obvious reluctance. Do they think I’m slowly becoming some kind of monster?

***

The mark for our first “demolition” was a Nazi war criminal living in hiding in California. A former lieutenant who’d previously been a decorated tank operator before moving into Nazi research, Herkimer Reichter was a careful man who’d managed to get out of Germany ahead of Patton while also bringing his fortune with him. He had ties to a few prominent Swiss businessmen, which is how he evaded capture, and was some relation to the top shit at the US Czech embassy, which is how he kept under the radar in America. From research, Reichter had adapted well to civilian life under the alias Hank Renman, and was working with some new technology for automation. I’d initially thought that meant robots or weapons of some kind, but the pictures Sol dug up seem to be something used in offices, not a battle zone. The man seemed to have changed his focus from war to peace, in short. But that didn’t mean anything to our client Frank Lourd.

“He killed my entire family in one of his concentration camp labs,” Frank stated at our meet-up. “I don’t care that the bastard is now a humanitarian and philanthropist. I want him dead.”

“Any special instructions?” I asked. “If so, that is extra, but we offer this with revenge jobs. Most likely he will be taken out from a distance with sniper fire. Headshot.”

“Won’t he just disappear?”

“Yes, but if you want a token, say his balls, etc., that’s an option.”

Dieter glanced at me with curiosity, but his face didn’t betray his surprise.

“Bring me his SS ring, if he still has it,” Frank said bitterly.

“Done. If it’s there, you’ll get it, 5K extra.”

“Agreed, when I have the ring.” He handed me 60K in an envelope.

“Agreed.”

Frank turned to leave, then paused. “This is for your best men, right, Lash?”

“I have a crack team of men,” I assured. “All were handpicked.”

“But the guy beside you will be with you, right? He looks capable.”

Dieter never missed a beat. “Yes, sir.”

Frank tilted his head a bit at the small remnant of Dieter’s German accent, but only nodded, then walked away. He drove out of the deserted parking lot.

“You’re okay with going?” I hissed to Dieter in snake-speech, as we walked back to our truck where Darwin waited. “You wanted one of us to be with Devlin while the other was on jobs.”

“For this, yes,” he hissed back. “Reichter is SS, Lash, our former brother in arms. Even human, he’ll be smart enough to have some considerable defenses in place. You need your best men for it, which includes me.” He paused, as we both got in. “You didn’t say anything to the group about ball cutting.”

“I said it out of habit,” I admitted. “When I worked alone, more than half the jobs were for revenge. You remember what I told you about Burn, the snake I took down to get in the top 5 of the Ranking?”

Dieter nodded. “That your four hour epic fight came to a draw when you got half his head sliced off and he temporarily blinded you, but a bear got him as he was crawling to his car.”

Darwin began laughing.

“Not that part,” I replied, annoyed. “That I found his tongue that I’d sliced off, and took it for a trophy.”

“It must have been like jerky,” Darwin said, making a face. “Why not just eat it fresh?”

“I didn’t eat it. My point it, people who pay for someone to be killed usually hate that someone a lot. They will pay extra for a token that reminds them of that death, hell, some clients demand it. Most bodies will be incinerated with blue fire, so what we take won’t matter.”

“I’m surprised the demons didn’t ask for some flesh,” Darwin griped. “Hayden’s dungeons are empty at the moment.”

“Devlin may ask for that, at some point,” I granted. “Or blood. But we’ll get additional pay for that from them. Live capture is a lot harder.”

“There are exceptions to every rule,” Dieter agreed, looking out the window. “We’ll work on a case to case basis, and go from there.”

***

Sol was irate to be excluded, but agreed to stay behind with Hudson and O’Malley. Dieter, Fain, Ares, Darwin, Joe, and me assembled just north of Reichter’s estate in a wealthy suburb close to 3am.

“Fain and Ares, take up positions on the roofs of the garage and the neighbor’s garage,” I instructed. “If you have a clear kill shot, take it, don’t wait. Dieter will go in the back with Joe, Darwin’s with me through the front. There’s no alarm system per the phone company, but there might be a homemade one. We want it a quiet kill, no cops, no witnesses. Any questions?”

There were none.

Darwin covered me as I picked the lock on the front door, while Dieter did the same at the back with Joe. We no sooner opened the front door than two Alsatians attacked from the black interior, silent as ghosts.

Darwin got knocked backward, one Alsatian going for his throat as the other attacked me, sinking his teeth into my leg. I steeled myself against the pain, and shouted in German, “Desist! Heel!”

Both dogs paused for a split second, letting Dieter and I administer right hooks. The dogs dropped to the grass, unconscious.

“What did you say to them?” Darwin whispered, inspecting his chest.

“Tell you later, Reichter had to have heard me,” I replied, feeling my leg healing as I rubbed the bite. We moved inside, Darwin shutting the door after us. “Stay here and man the door.” I headed deeper into the house, my gun out and ready.

There was a burst of automatic fire from the rear of the house. Cursing, I hurried to the back. Dieter had Reichter on the ground, a gun to his head. An unfamiliar rifle was out of reach, still smoking. And Joe was lying in a pool of blood, cut in half, his limbs moving feebly.

“Help me quick!” I holstered my gun, then hurried to Joe, Darwin grabbing his upper torso as I grabbed his lower. We pushed him together, shoving his clothes out of the way. Immediately the flesh connected, and Joe shuddered as his body began healing the horrific wound.

“We won’t be able to move him for at least an hour, or we risk internal organs not being in the right place. Fuck.” I got on my radio. “Fain, Ares, hold your position. Notify us if you see police. Joe is down, but healing. Mark is down.”

“Who are you?” Reichter said in German to me. “I heard you, I know you understand me.”

“We’re the past that just caught up with you, brother,” Dieter said softly in German. “Loyal, Valiant, Obedient.”

The motto of the SS. “Dieter, do it.”

“Don’t kill me, brother.” Reichter’s tone held no trace of pleading, only calmness. “You see that rifle? The StG 44 is a new kind of rifle.”

“Sturmgewehr. Storm Assault rifle, circa 1944,” Dieter said, still in German. “Not new, its fifteen years old practically. You have something real to offer, now’s the time.”

Reichter was unfazed. “I do. Downtown, Hellman building, eleventh floor corner office. Back of the desk under the painting in a hidden safe is close to a million dollars. Take it, and the plans. They’re worth easily ten times that.”

I stopped myself from telling Dieter this wasn’t about money. This kill, its just about the money. We’ve got police on the way, and bullet holes to explain.

My radio crackled. “Lash, we’ve got a line of police cars heading for the house. ETA five minutes.”

“Hold position. Torren, you copy?”

The radio crackled, but there was no reply.

“Is there anyone else in this country from the SS?” Dieter asked Reichter. “Realize that not telling me will only lead to their deaths, if we are called on to eliminate them.”

“Why should I trust you?”

I understood Dieter’s line of questioning now, but we had to hurry it up. “Because you tried to atone for your war crimes by being a good man now,” I said in German. “We aren’t going to let you live, Reichter. But we will warn others to leave the country, if you give us their names now.” My eyes met Dieter’s. “We know many SS weren’t given a choice, it was serve or be executed.”

“We all went separate ways. Most were caught. There is no one else I know of.”

That might be truth or fiction. Either way, it didn’t matter. I looked at Joe, who was still unconscious. “Darwin, we’re going to have to move him. Go get the van and bring it around the back.”

Darwin ran off, but Dieter was frozen, his gun still at Reichter’s temple. “Shoot him already,” I said, then ran inside, looking for a blanket or sheet. I grabbed a blanket off a rack only to find it was crochet and full of holes. Throwing it aside in disgust, I grabbed the other, which was wool. Good, it should hold in everything that might fall out.

I loaded Joe on the makeshift stretcher. “Torren, damn you, answer me!”

“That man should be dead,” Reichter said. “Who are you?”

What the fuck was with Dieter, he shouldn’t hesitate like this. I got up and drew my gun, intending to take care of Reichter.

“You’re German, like me,” Reichter sputtered, suddenly losing his composure. “You can’t kill me.”

“No,” Dieter said. “We’re Americans.” He pulled the trigger, and Reichter’s head ricocheted back, the light already fading from his dead eyes.

“What happened,” I asked as we picked up Joe, the headlights of the van illuminating us. “Took you long enough.”

“I wanted to know if there were others,” Dieter grunted, as we muscled Joe into the rear. “I don’t want to kill Germans, Lash.” He switched to German. “He’s right, I’m the same as him.”

“You’re not,” I stated, knowing he was right. “Fain, Ares, retreat to the meet up several streets over. Go now!”

Torren appeared before me in his customary cloak. “Sorry, I…”

“Animate him, and have him attack the police,” I interrupted, gesturing to the fallen Richter. “If possible have them shoot him where he fell.”

Torren nodded, to my relief, and turned to the body, murmuring words of power.

Darwin peeled out, the van’s bumper just clearing the corner as the first police car roared in. There was a burst of automatic fire, and then a brief pause, then several shots rang out as another burst from the StG 44 let loose.

“Your ass is covered,” Torren said via radio. “I’ll be by for my pay tomorrow evening. Out.”

“Agreed and thanks,” I said back. “Out.”

“I thought we were screwed,” Ares said in relief.

“That’s why we had to have a sorcerer,” Darwin supplied sarcastically. “For those times that everything goes to shit.”

“Joe’s doing fine,” Dieter said to me, after looking the kid over. “That’s not true about moving a healing body. Most of the time the organs form up just fine where they’re supposed to.”

“Most of the time,” I snorted, looking out the window. “But Joe doesn’t want his prostate where his liver’s supposed to be. We’ll get him examined tomorrow, to be sure.” I caught the lights of the city skyscrapers coming up fast. “Drop me here, Darwin. I’ll call Shaker for pickup or take a taxi, depending on what I find.”

Darwin pulled to a stop, and I got out.

Dieter rolled down the window. “Five grand isn’t worth it. Forget the stupid ring.”

“This isn’t about a ring, its about something so valuable that Reichter thought it was worth trading for his life,” I hissed back. “I want whatever’s in that safe.”

Due to unforeseen illness, there will be no new Lash this month. However, tune back in during July for the next installment. You don't want to miss that!!!
Lash-Tara Fox Hall CHAPTER 4

The morning went okay. I’d worked with the dozer pushing some clear cut trees off an old fence line, being careful not to tangle the machinery up in piles of rusty barbed wire. It was lunch time, and I had some cooked meat in my pail to eat that I was starving for. Running a dozer wasn’t heavy lifting, but it was “100%-attention-or-you-might-get-someone-killed” work, the kind of shit that usually made me hungry.

I sat on an old stump, glad of the sunlight above, and ate my sandwich, considering my options.

I’d already caused several accidents on the site the week before. None had been obvious or severe, because I wasn’t going for kills, just to test Stan and his father, Jared. I needed to know how they handled things, and what they were capable of. Stan had fired the man suspected of digging a substandard foundation footing hole—I had weakened the sides and caved it in, nearly burying alive two coworkers—and he had given a day off to a man who’d snapped an axle on his forklift by driving it into a hole which I had deepened, then covered. Both of those punishments made sense to me, and fit the crimes. But there was a third that stymied me, somewhat in part because the cause wasn’t of my making.

A man had gotten into a fight with one of his coworkers over some money that was owed to him. It was a small debt, but these were coarse men who were quick with their fists in the faces of excuses. Stan had tried to break it up, but he’d been ignored. Then Jared had waded in and knocked their skulls together, ordering the rest to get back to work. The two men were dazed, but had stumbled to their feet once their wits were regained. Jared had given them a warning, then walked away.

This might seem like nothing, or even deserved, given that one of the men had been about to pull a knife. But Jared had used some of his superhuman strength to best the human men; he’d needed to, at his age. And that went against every protocol my father had ever spoken of for behaving around humans. We snakes did not risk ourselves for humans, not in front of a human audience, not for anything less than our own lives. Certainly not for business. So why had he struck out so casually?

I was musing on that when I saw her. I stared, then blinked slowly, then stared again, because the image was not changing. Jasmine.

I blinked again, this time keeping my eyes shut an extra full ten seconds. When I opened them, she was still there. I took a long breath, then let it out. As she walked by me, I saw the subtle differences in her face, the way she walked, the way she held her head up with a dazzling smile, the way Jasmine never had except when we walked on the beach alone, so many years ago.

Not Jasmine, just close enough to be her sister. Bitterly, I told myself it made sense. My father had been one of Jasmine’s lovers, years ago. That spoke to chemical attraction. There had also been some resemblance between Jasmine and my mother, in their slight builds, their long dark hair, delicate features, and stern way of speaking. It made sense that his son would seek out the same kind of woman, at least physically. She was “his type”. That she was also my type went without saying. I shifted, uncomfortable, then walked away, telling myself not to be an idiot. This was extra trouble I didn’t need. And I had a job to do.

***

Sex with Morwen that night was incredible. Hell, I experienced my first “double orgasm”, something I hadn’t known was even fucking possible. I was in the midst of coming the first time when I suddenly ascended to another layer and a second orgasm hit, making my normal shout a crescendo of screaming. Morwen’s cry had also changed, her usual moan shifting to a wolf’s screech of attack along with some of her body as she lost control. It basically sounded like someone was killing us. That I had guards pounding on the door by the end was annoying, but my thrill of a brand new sexual high at my age had my mood so high that I was blissfully pleasant as I told them to “fucking go away”.

Of course, I immediately wanted to know if what I’d experienced had been a fluke or not. So I tried for two…and got there. As Morwen and I were coming down the second time, I knew I was going to try for another and another until I was certain no more were possible. Besides, practice made perfect, right? I wanted to be absolutely sure I could do this again anytime I wanted. It had something to do with Morwen inverting her hips at a key moment…

I got to five orgasms in under an hour, until finally I was too numb to climax. She was also exhausted, her eyelids fluttering as she trembled and twitched. I lay there and smoked a cig, thinking, enjoyed a few post coital shakes myself, and wondering if I had discovered some wondrous new way of having sex that would make me not only famous for something besides killing, but also have the ladies lining up outside my door. Later on, I learned about the G-spot, and figured out that was what I’d found for both of us. Right then, I was sure it was something else with a darker origin, as I’d been thinking about that woman who looked like Jasmine when I’d begun with Morwen. Guilt slid around my shoulders and pressed down. I shifted, uneasy.

We’d been together a while. It was normal to fantasize about others in a long-term relationship, at least that was the latest word in the magazines. But if that WAS the reason the sex had been so good for both of us, then who was Morwen thinking of, if it wasn’t me?

I lay there for a while thinking about the possible guards she knew and acted friendly with, then decided I preferred not to know.

***

I saw the woman again the next day at the construction site. She was dressed in tight pants—bell bottoms were just on the cusp of being fashionable thenand a midriff shirt that accentuated her ample bosom and rounded belly. In short everything was on display, and it was impossible for me not to notice. But when she went by, her eyes flicked past me as if I weren’t there, as she sought out my half-brother, her smile for him unforced and inviting. I wasn’t jealous, not exactly. I didn’t even know her. But the part of me that remembered Jasmine and what we’d shared felt pain seeing this woman who looked so much like her. And the more she hung on her guy and he patted her bottom, the more it bothered me.

That Friday, I went by myself to the pond at Hayden, knowing that Morwen would not come looking for me, for fear of somehow seeing Nancy. I needed some time alone to sort out my feelings, because all I wanted to do was find a way for this woman and I to meet. I wanted to know her name, to know how much like Jasmine she was. But I also knew if I did that I was opening a door that might well destroy the easy life I had enjoyed for the past decade. Because what would happen, if she was as much like Jasmine as I was hoping she was? Only one thing.

I skipped a few rocks into the pond, searching my snake side for motivations.

It’s a lie, that the animal side of a were is simple. Animals can have complex reasons for doing things, even if there isn’t any planned deceit. I thought that maybe my snake lust, for want of a better word, was making itself known after all these years of suppressing it. Because I hadn’t suppressed it really, I’d just gotten old enough not to need to mate in animal form. That was what I’d surmised anyway. But had it just been that I hadn’t been around any snake woman, and so hadn’t felt the urge? Maybe. Or maybe you’re just feeling old and grasping at straws, trying to recapture your youth?

My summers with Jasmine years ago had been my coming of age. Terrible things had happened back then, but she had been a friend until her last breath. Of all the women I’d bedded, except for Morwen, she had been the only one I called friend. She had also been the only woman of my life who had ever said she loved me that I had believed.

Just admitting my true feelings gave me enough reason to stay clear of her. Resemblance was not reality. And I did not want to hurt Morwen, or jeopardize what we had. She was worth more to me than my best youthful memory, however much I cherished it.

I resolved to stay away, do my job, and leave well enough alone. And that stayed the plan until the next day at quitting time, when I ran into the weresnake woman again behind the shed, crying.

***

If there had been a clear sign she was crying about a beating, I probably would have either avoided her, or…hell, I would have avoided her. If my half brother was anything like meand he was, from what little I saw of him on the jobsitehe would either have had a good reason to hit her, or more likely, would have hit her upon request. Now I know that sounds like bullshit, a man saying that about a woman. But remember, I am talking about weresnakes here, not humans. More than one female weresnake I’d known in my life had liked it violent, and berated me for not going in for that kind of sex. Yet my familyspecifically my father and motherhad never been like that, and Jasmine had not, either. I myself steered clear of women who enjoyed pain, because I didn’t enjoy giving it. But I’m digressing. This woman showed no sign of a beating, which meant whatever she was crying about was something more complex than a wound. And she was hiding here to cry, which meant the cause, whatever it was, was shameful in some way.

I knew better. Every part of me told me ignore her and walk away. Instead I went over to her, changing enough so my forked tongue and fangs were present.

“What’s wrong?” I hissed in snake speech.

She blinked, bit her lip, and considered me. I waited for the response of “nothing”, so I could walk away. She surprised me instead by being candid. “I just feel lonely,” she hissed, changing a little to make her hiss better understood. “Jake’s not home much, because he’s working so many hours. So I come here to see him, but he doesn’t like that. He’s jealous.”

I would be, too, if Morwen put her ass on display the way you do. “Are you his mate?”

She bit her lip and looked away. “There are no plans for that,” she hissed, clearly reluctant.

My interest flared, and I shoved it down, warning it to stay there. “Do you want there to be?”

She shrugged, still not meeting my eyes. “I don’t want it if he’s not sure.” She forced a smile. “I don’t want a breakup after pledging. I want it to last.” She offered her hand. “I’m Maryanne.”

Her tone had been bitter, but it had changed to humorous, as if she was trying to make light of it.

It suddenly hit me what she was doing. Trying to make the best of things, to hide her hurt. It brought back acutely the night I had left Jasmine for my then fiancée Mara, and how Jasmine had driven me away with her words, rather than admit she cared about me.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted out, instead of stringing together some cool line.

She looked at me oddly. “For what? You didn’t tell me to go to hell and not come back.”

Christ, don’t fucking say another word! You’re going to make things worse!

She stepped closer. “Do you know me? You look at me like you do.”

“No,” I said in a rusty tone. “I’d remember, believe me.”

She smiled. “You’re sweet.”

Emboldened, I stumbled on. “Do you want to get some coffee or something?”

“Hell no,” she said scornfully. “But I’d love a drink. Maybe several.”

Overly eager, I tilted my head toward my truck. “Let’s go.”

***

As much as it had been an invite to drink, Maryanne didn’t go wild at the bar. She sipped her whiskey, and told jokes, and talked about her life, most of which had been on the Florida coast, where she had grown up. Like Jasmine she was a child of the sun and sand, and missed the ocean, describing the little house she had once lived at so beautifully I could imagine it completely.

The first time our eyes met, and I saw her longing, I knew I’d taken one step off the cliff. They were the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen, deep hazel brown green, with flecks of gold, her dark brows arched delicately.

It took me ten minutes to fall all the way in love with her. The feeling was so powerful it eclipsed everything that had come before in a tidal wave of emotion, from Mara all the way to Morwen. I know that makes me seem an asshole. Especially as I knew this wasn’t Jasmine down deep, just as I knew there was no way in hell that this young thing I was gaga over felt any of that in return for me. I had no intentions of acting on how I felt. But I also wasn’t going to leave her with her abuser. She would be back in the sand in the life she wanted, before this was all over. That I promised myself, even as I helped her put on her coat to take her home.

She paused as we parted, as if she expected me to try to kiss her, and was leaving an opening as an offering. But I just nodded a polite goodbye, and went back to my car.

By the time I was halfway home I was berating myself for how I’d acted, and not for my inaction on her virtue. You know she’s not Jasmine. What are you doing? Getting involved is the worst thing you can do, especially during a job. Every moment you’re distracted by her is a moment that you’re vulnerable, that the facade you’re supposed to be working for Devlin could come down like a pile of bricks.

I had wonderful memories of Jasmine…and that was where that all had to stay, in the past. Loving the dead didn’t jeopardize the future. And was this really love anyway, or infatuation? It was hard to tell. All I knew was I hadn’t felt anything like it in a hell of a long time, if ever.

I couldn’t work like this, not and be effective. Ignoring Maryanne wasn’t possible. So my plan of attack had to change. I had a week to wipe out Bright Dawn and scrap their project. To do that, I was going to have to enlist help.

I headed home, feeling better.

***

All my best laid plans went to hell that next morning, when Maryanne came to see me at lunch. I was uneasy watching her walk up to me, seeing the way that the other men were watching us.

She held out a sack to me. “Here. I made you some cutlets. They’re venison.”

I made no move to take them. “Not necessary.”

“Please forgive me,” she said politely. “I was upset and I shouldn’t have unloaded on you, Ash.”

I was conscious of the audience. Jared hadn’t seen us yet, but if I didn’t get her away from me, he would. I reached out and snagged the bag. “Thanks. But it’s really no problem.”

“Thank you anyway,” she said sincerely, then sashayed away.

I hurried to finish my lunch, and get back to work. But I hadn’t been working for ten minutes when Stan called me to his office.

I went like it was no big deal, appearing nonchalant if a little curious. My knife was in a back sheath, ready to go.

Stan was sitting behind his desk when I got there. “Close the office door,” he commanded.

I did as he asked, still appearing nonchalant.

“What was Maryanne talking to you about earlier?”

He didn’t care, really. This was just the beginning of a lesson to stay away from her. But I hadn’t come here to his office to take a lesson. I’d come because his office was the perfect cover to give him one.

I strode over to him, and belted him in the jaw. He had the chance to look confused, then he was on the floor. I shoved the desk against the door, knocking his papers and shit all over in the process. Then I drew the knife and came back toward him.

He already had his hands up, pansy that he was. Very human fear rolled off him in a sickening wave, stinking up the small space. I grimaced, inadvertently showing him a little fang. Surprisingly, his eyes got huge.

“What the hell are you?” he stammered, cringing back.

This was going to be more fun that I thought. “The same thing your daddy is, boy. I’m a weresnake. But you’re not, you’re human. How did that happen?”

“My father’s not—”

I stepped on his hand, interrupting him with the crack of his own fingers breaking. He let out a short cry before my hand was over his mouth. I crouched in front of his sitting form, brandishing the knife.

“He is. You’re adopted, aren’t you? Nod for yes, shake for no.”

He nodded.

“How old were you when Jared came into your life?”

“Less than a year,” he whimpered. “Mom married him when I was a couple years old.”

“Tell me everything he told you about himself, everything you know.”

Stan couldn’t get the words out fast enough. “He said he came from the south. He was good to mom. She died in childbirth when I was only three. He raised me, and when I was old enough he made me the boss of his company, Bright Dawn. He’s a good man—”

“He’s not,” I hissed at him. “He’s like me, Stan. We’re related, in fact.”

His eyes widened again. “Are you my brother?”

I wanted to laugh, but it seemed too sad suddenly. So instead I cut him slightly on his throat, making him cry out again. “Not you, you shit; your daddy and me. Don’t you notice the family resemblance?”

“No,” he whispered.

“How old are you?”

“I’ll be twenty-five this January.”

My father Jared had been gone since my mother and he were sixteen or so, approximately 1905, the year of my birth. I was sixteen when he came back, in 1921. That was sixteen years gone, when Jared would have been seventeen to thirty six. Jared Jr—just thinking my father had given him his name rankled me—had been born in that time my father had been away. But for my half-brother to come on the scene 22 years ago would mean he met Stan’s mother in 1938 or 39, when I’d been going through the hell of Abraham’s death, Cassy’s betrayal, and fleeing North from Ramirez and Valerian to work for Devlin. Which meant he’d have been somewhere between 22 and 33 years old, depending on how fast my father had forgotten his promise to my mother.

Yet that didn’t fit. Jared looked seventy, not a badly aged mid-fifties. Which meant that he had to be my older brother, somehow. Just how that was possible would be something to think on later. I had other business at hand.

“Do you want to see twenty-five?” I hissed at him, baring my fangs.

He nodded frantically.

“Then convince your father that he should give up this project. Use whatever rationale you want to, but get him to do it.” I slit him again, near the throat shallowly. He winced, but didn’t cry out this time.

“I’ll be here until you fold the project,” I hissed at him. “When you leave, you’ll never see me again. Do you agree?”

Stan nodded. I got up, and sheathed my knife, after cleaning it off on the bottom of his chair.

“Who are you?” he said again. Then he added, “Do you work for that local boss?”

I had no idea if he was talking about Carrera or Devlin. It didn’t matter, as neither would want me to admit to it. My impulse was to say it was about Maryanne, but that would just cause more trouble for her. “This is about revenge,” I said ominously. “I’ll consider the debt paid if you leave my territory, Stan. So leave.” I walked out of the door, leaving his office a shambles and him sitting on the floor.

Why did I do such a base attack, after all my careful planning? Because Stan was the weak link. Jared might have been weresnake out of a human mother and my father—there was no other way he’d have such a desire to wed a human and not change her and the son, much less have to screw the woman for 3 years before she caught with his child—but he was also my father in temperament and action. He would push back if pushed, possibly lethally. But his son was a weakling when it came to supernatural, because his father was so ashamed of his true nature he’d never even told his adopted son. And if Stan tried to grow some balls at this late date in his life, and mentioned it to his father, Jared Jr. would think it was purely a weresnake territory dispute. He would also tie it to Maryanne, most likely.

I thought about warning her as I finished out my shift, but there wasn’t a way to talk to her without drawing more attention. So I left it as is, and headed home.

By the end of that week, I had heard nothing, and was beginning to think that I’d have to do another visit to Stan at the close of the day. But then he called for a meeting at closing time.

I attended with the rest, feigning curiosity.

There was no preamble or lead up to it. “We’re closing this site,” Stan said.

There was immediate outcry from the men, who had been sure they’d be working here for the rest of the summer.

Stan held up his hands. “We’re moving downstate, closer to New York City. We’ve been offered a better contract there, but we have to do it now, men.”

He looked straight at me. “The opportunity won’t wait.”

I looked straight back at him, unsmiling.

“Any of you that signed contracts for the summer for apartments or other lodging, see Maryanne today before you leave,” he said. “She’ll help set you up with new lodging, and we’ll help you work on moving this coming week. We want to be able to start at the new jobsite in one week, which is several hours from here.” He rattled off an unfamiliar address. “Thank you.”

The men broke into two groups. One group headed grumbling for the office, presumably to speak to Maryanne or Stan, and the others happily headed to their cars, talking loudly about their good fortune to having their commute decreased by anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. I joined neither, instead slipping outside the gates to check around the perimeter. I thought it very strange that Jared had not been at the meeting, or shown his face at all to me after threatening his son. While it might mean that Stan hadn’t told him of what happened, I thought it was also possible that he had, and Jared was busy making plans and preparations.

I wasn’t afraid so much as curious. Now that Devlin had effectively won, I wanted more answers about my older brother…and to know for certain if any more relations were out there. But that had to wait, as I had another job to do. A letter had come to me by courier this morning, and needed my immediate attention.

***

I gathered together Dieter and Solomon that night, leaving Darwin and Joe in charge of Hayden. “I’m putting together a team ,” I said to them without preamble. “I get offered jobs from time to time from the mob. If you haven’t both done side jobs for them or others, you will be; you’re both Ranked like I am. But with the way the government is in everyone’s business now, we have to hide the money.”

I held out the letter, and Dieter snatched it, Sol reading over his shoulder.

“This guy’s daughter, Lyrica, got herself burnt to death along with a group of her friends and some random bystanders. Witnesses say it was a huge dragon that came out of that cavern, but I’m guessing it was a demon or sorcerer who used the dragon shape to hide their identity. Whatever it is, I’m going to need some help to put it down so it stays down.”

“How can we help with that?” Dieter said, relinquishing the letter to Sol reluctantly. “We don’t know magic.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I agreed. “We need to recruit someone. Shaker would be good, but he’s betrayed us before, and there’s no guarantee he won’t again, if his brother was on the line”

“I don’t see how we can do this,” Sol echoed.

I switched on my radio. “Joe, Darwin, come back to the main house.”

Once the boys were there, I passed the letter to Darwin. “Do you know anyone we could recruit to join us who works magic, the way Apex did?”

I hadn’t mentioned his dead former packmate in more than ten years. The corner of Darwin’s mouth tightened, but that was all. “I can call a few people, see if they are still practicing,” he said slowly.

“Are we going to be included?” Joe asked.

“Yes,” I stated, before Sol could say no. “You’re both men, and you would both bring something to the table. But you need to know that this isn’t like guard duty. We’ll spend little time defending. Mostly, we’ll be attacking. Unprovoked, probably by ambush, so there is the least risk of being hurt or killed. You have to be able to kill because it’s your job, not just in defense.”

“Who will decide if we take a job?” Sol said. “I don’t know this guy who wrote you, Lash.”

“He’s the adopted son of a friend I knew a long time ago,” I said fondly, remembering the sweet smile of the woman who’d saved my life in Germany, when I’d been stranded in the middle of winter with no food or shelter. “She saved my life.” I paused. “This is personal, and I need to help him. But most jobs won’t be like this; we’ll decide together if we should do them or not, and anyone who doesn’t want to sign on for a particular job isn’t going to be pressured into it.”

“How big of a job are we talking?” Dieter said. “We can’t leave Devlin undefended while we’re out avenging the wrongs of the world.”

I glowered at him. “That’s why I called this meeting. I don’t trust most people, and I don’t want to hire outside Hayden for this. Sol, you hired additional men while I was gone in WWII. Most stayed on, and have been with us for the last ten years. Some now have families here, and young. Invite the youth to train to take their father’s places here as guards, and then pick at least four possibles for our group.”

“How is this going to work?” Darwin interjected. “We go as a posse, like I used to with my hunter group, and get the pay half up front and half at the end?”

“We get half up front, always, and sometimes the rest before as well,” I rasped coldly. “I’ve been in this a long time, and my word is good enough. I have never not gotten someone I said I would.”

“There’s always a first time,” Sol growled snidely.

“Then we’ll refund their deposit,” I retorted, not wanting to argue.

“Will it be just men in our group?” Darwin said. “You know why I’m asking.”

Morwen. “Yes,” I affirmed. “Morwen will not be coming with us on jobs. Not because I think her weak, but because I want her here as a rear guard whenever any of us are out working.”

“You’re saying we’ll be killing whomever we get money to kill,” Sol stated. “And whomever gets in our way.”

“There’s always collateral damage,” Dieter commented with a trace of sorrow. “We also have to face that one or more of us may be killed eventually doing this. Hell, we could all be killed on the very first job.”

“That’s true.”

“I’m in,” Joe said eagerly.

“So am I,” Darwin said with a nod. “Let me go make a few calls.”

Joe and Darwin left. Sol shot me an angry look. “You knew he wouldn’t refuse you.”

“Boys are boys,” Dieter said neutrally. “They all dream of being men. But they can’t become men until they take risks. You can’t protect him forever, Sol. Joe follows Lash because his own self-respect would erode if he didn’t step up when his idoland his fathertold him it was time to.” Sol opened his mouth to retort, but Dieter talked over him. “Now I have a few choices, Lash, that I’ll mention. Sol can give you his opinion on them, too.”

“Will they join?” I asked. “There’s no point bringing them up unless you’re already sure of their answer.”

“The Guard of Hayden honor you, Lash,” Dieter assured. “You’ve demonstrated your dedication, courage, intelligence, and strategy for years, with all the fighting we’ve done.”

“As have you and Sol.”

“You are their leader. They will not disappoint you. And you are not sending them in to die on a fools errand; we are to be a group that works as a team. If any of them say no, I’ll be surprised.”

“He’s right,” Sol said. “Not all the men like you, but they all respect you immensely.”

“Now that you’ve swelled my head, let’s get to it,” I said gruffly, even as I hid my satisfaction at their praise.

“Ares Sandona, Hank Hudson, Joshua Fain, and Neal O’Mally,” Dieter said. “We’ll need snipers and long distance shooters for this, something we three are fair at, but we’re all out of practice. Sandona is a good shot, but Hudson is better. Fain is the best we have. Those three are all werebears. O’Mally likes his booze, but he’s fine when he’s on duty. He’s also got more experience than the other three put together.”

“Is he an alcoholic?” I asked, thinking of my own battle years ago with drinking and drugs.

“He’s a four year veteran of the war, like us,” Dieter said. “And he was in other wars and skirmishes, as well. He was a Navy man, until his discharge.” He got on his radio. “Send me O”Mally.”

After a few minutes, an older man with a grizzled countenance came striding in. To my shock, he was 100% human. When he saw Sol, Dieter and I, he snapped to attention and gave us a salute. If anyone else had done that, I’d have grinned and told him to knock it off. But I found myself nodding to him, just as Dieter was.

“Lash would like you to join a special group of men we are assembling,” Dieter said to him. “Are you willing?”

“Describe the scent of war,” O’Mally said to me.

“Spent explosives, blood and bodies rotting, and burnt rubber and metal,” I said, remembering the war. “You don’t forget.”

“No, you don’t,” he said, shaking my hand. “I’m with you. What’s our objective?”

“Demolition,” I said. “We’re demolition men.”

“How did you come to be here at Hayden, in Devlin’s employ?” Sol asked him. “You’ll excuse me for stating it, but you’re human. You’ve worked here for ten years, and you must know we are not.”

“I’m the kind of man that doesn’t fit in civilian life,” O’Mally replied. “I knew that early, I just didn’t know what to do about it. Then I found out about your world, that was there all along, just invisible to most humans. I fit better here than with my own kind.”

“That’s fine, but you need to make a decision before we begin,” I said firmly. “We all have accelerated healing, but you don’t. If you’re injured and you survive, turning is usually offered. I’m snake, as is Dieter. Sol is bear, and Darwin is wolf. All of us have turned others before. Pick your animal, and let us know choice, with awareness if you’re dying with only one of us nearby, that’s what you’re going to be.”

“Understood,” the man said, saluting again.

Sandona, Hudson, and Fain also were called in by Dieter, one by one. Each of them agreed to join our team. When Fain had left, Dieter turned to Sol and me. “One of us should go to where the beast was last sighted, find out where it is now if possible.” While he didn’t order Sol to do it, the implication was there.

Sol snorted, then stood, clutching the letter in his hand. “I’ll report back as soon as possible.” He strode out.

“You probably should have asked him,” I murmured.

“He gripes about taking orders from me, but you know that Hayden runs better when that’s protocol, instead of the reverse,” Dieter replied.

He was right. Sol was a great fighter, but he wasn’t much of a big picture planner. I hadn’t been myself, until the war, when I’d been forced to work as a team. Dieter was better than both of us though. “Hayden runs well under your leadership,” I agreed.

“Our leadership,” he amended. “Its not often we don’t agree, Lash. Which is why I have to tell you that I think your decision to exclude Morwen from the team is short-sighted.”

“I meant what I said, Deiter: she’s one of the best fighters we have. I’d want her here to make the hard decisions, if you or I weren’t here.”

“I think you or I should always be here, alternating lead on jobs so that Hayden remains safe,” he countered. “Morwen isn’t going to want to be left out, Lash. I admit, I am looking forward to a little excitement myself. I’ve enjoyed peace these last years, but I’m not hoary enough to put out to pasture just yet.”

His words gave me pause, and shut my mouth. I had been about to broach the subject of the potion I currently took that extended my life, to ask him if he thought he wanted to get some for himself. Neither of us were poor, but the kind of money we would be getting for our new business would make that option for him a possibility. Dieter was a good twenty years younger than me, but he was nearing forty now, if not slightly past it. For the potion to do him any good, he’d have to start taking it now. The same is true for Solomon, too. “I’m not going to tell her she can’t come, Dieter. I just was pretty sure that she would choose not to.”

“And why is that,” Morwen growled from the doorway, a yellow cast to her eyes. “I’m not too old to want some excitement, too.” She waved the letter at me. “Besides, this involves a demon. I want in, Lash.”

Dieter cast me a knowing look of smugness, but said nothing.

“Okay,” I said, knowing saying anything else would get me cut off, if not cut up.

LASH 5: DEMOLITION MEN

By

Tara Fox Hall

LASH 5: DEMOLITION MEN Chapter 3 Tara Fox Hall ***

I made it across the street on autopilot. In retrospect, if I had to go any farther than that, I wasn’t sure I’d have made it. All that kept running through my brain was that I’d known this day would come, that stuff would go to hell again. The last 11 years had been too calm, too peaceful. Sure, I’d planted a few bastards in the ground each of those years, hell, sometimes more than a few. But compared to the decades previous, especially those 5 years of Hell called WWII, this last decade and a half had been a cakewalk. Some of that had been the time period, that seemingly ideal era of the 1950s. Everyone wanted peace. Yes, people still sought out hits, and murders still took place, but everyone had been through so much, it was like the world had called a truce on violence, if only for a brief global minute. Now, like a curse, the same paternal bloodline that had set me on my course as a killer had slithered back into my life and brought friends. There was nothing to do but face it head on, like always.

“Lash?”

I blinked, startled out of my introspection. “Hi, Darwin. What is it?”

“Joe and I are heading into the woods. Titus thinks that there might have been someone out there, maybe several people.”

I looked back at the young adult werewolf, proud of the way he’d turned into a man. “Hunters?”

When we’d met, Darwin had been a scared teen, reeling from recent bloody tragedy. He’d found more of the same by my side, his packmate and good friend Apex dying before all was said and done. But he’d found a friend in Joe, the werebear son of my good friend Sol. Joe and Darwin had a few years’ difference between them, and Darwin had seen a hell of a lot more action. But they were best friends; had been since the night they met practically. In these years of peace, they had grown up strong, trained by not only Solomon and myself, but also by Dieter, another weresnake friend of mine.

Darwin shifted uneasily. “Possible vampire hunters, Titus said. But more likely just a couple out to use our back 40 to lose their virginity.”

I smiled. “Take a camera, then, and don’t interrupt until they’re done.”

The younger Darwin would have been appalled, maybe have looked the other way and pretended he hadn’t heard. The eagerness in my words alone would have been too much for him, as strong and untrained an empath as he’d been then. But Darwin had learned to control his power, honing his skills to lose the weakness while retaining his ability to read between the lines on just about any situation. Instead of uneasiness, he smirked, then laughed. “Sure. You got it.”

“Watch your ass,” I said in parting, more out of habit than any real fear for him. Hayden had not been attacked since the demon Hex had come seeking revenge more than a decade before. That unholy scum was long contained, for lack of a better word, and all our defenses were strong as they could be. While the former was my handiwork, that latter accomplishment could only be laid at Dieter’s feet.

I went in search of my weresnake friend and found him on my deck, sipping a scotch and looking out into the forest.

I didn’t ask him what he was looking at, that tiny light that beckoned out in the dark expanse of trees. I already knew who waited there, and that she wanted no part of either of us. “You shouldn’t sit there and look at it,” I said mildly, as I poured myself a scotch. “You know it just makes you feel bad.”

“You can’t know what I feel,” Dieter said coldly, letting the rest of the malt slip down his throat. He gripped the empty glass tightly, his back still to me.

“You’re right,” I said, trying to stay amicable. “But I know how it makes me feel. I wish to God she had decided on another spot, or left—”

“You know that I couldn’t let her leave,” Dieter, uttered, tortured. “Something else might happen to her.”

I didn’t answer. Everything that could happen to a woman has already happened to Nancy, Dieter. The doctors did what they could, but even a weresnake’s mind could only heal so much.

In World War II, there had been a woman Dieter had loved by the name of Nancy. She—my ex-fiancée—was also the reason I’d gone to war in the first place. Instead of my actions saving her, she’d gone through hell, because of what she’d been to me, and to him. We’d gotten her out by the war’s end, and back home to the U.S., but Nancy had been held captive for years, tortured by various Nazis and their demons. She was speaking now and out of the hospital, but she didn’t want us anywhere near her. She didn’t want anyone near her, really. She had moved into a small one-room cabin in the woods that Devlin had ordered built for her and stayed there in solitary, with only sometimes Darwin for company. He reported to me that she never said much, but that she took care of herself, and seemed to be content.

Dieter had taken it harder than me, because she’d been pregnant with his child at the time they’d been captured, trying to escape the Reich. There wasn’t anything else he could have done, nor even done differently. Still, he blamed himself.

We’d both hurried to the hospital when we heard Nancy was talking again. That the very sight of us shut her up made me keep my distance. Dieter hadn’t had the previous experience of dealing with women who’d been through assaults. He grabbed her in his arms, telling her that he loved her, that she was his mate, that now they could be together. Nancy had gone crazy, screaming, then morphing to snake to try to bite him. She was only garter, with no poison, so there was no real danger. But Dieter had been so shocked and hurt by her attack that she had gotten in several deep bites before the orderlies had managed to pull her away from him.

I had not gone back again to visit, after that. But he had made the trip several times, trying to reach her. Each time had been the same, from the little he had told me, and his evident mounting despair. Finally, he had left her alone, and asked Devlin to intercede, on my suggestion.

Of all the Nazi supernatural forces that might have hurt her, vampires were not on the list. I had never figured out why, exactly, only that the Reich had determined that they were undesirables, too. I had met none in my crisscross of war-torn Europe, and later concluded that they had been “dusted” on sight, though that never had been verified. The why of it didn’t matter now. What mattered was that Nancy had no reason to fear Devlin, especially as she had only known of him through his letter, when he had first found her for me at the start of the war. Nancy had also known my previous vampire employer Abraham well, in the years she had lived with me, and called him a friend as I had.

My desperate gamble had paid off. Nancy agreed to leave the hospital and live at Hayden, with Devlin’s assurance of her safety. She asked only to be left alone, that no one cohabit with her, or come to her unannounced. I was still not sure how Darwin had wrangled an invite to speak with her, or become her friend. What mattered to me was that she had someone to talk to, even if she wanted nothing to do with me. But Dieter had been crushed utterly by her rejection. And the more time that went by, the worst he was getting.

What had happened between the three of us during the war wasn’t idyllic. It wasn’t fair, or good, or anything but a crappy situation that had been made worse.

But that was how life was. Sometimes you didn’t get forgiveness, even if the pain wasn’t something you caused. The problem wasn’t Nancy, in my opinion; she had found a way to get through her catatonia. No, the problem was Dieter. He was still torn up about everything like it had happened yesterday, and refused to move on. But I knew better than to bring that up. “Darwin said that Titus saw some teens out for a screw?” I mentioned.

Dieter let out a long breath, then finally turned away from the light. “Yes. I’m sure it’s nothing. It was more to keep the boys busy. They’re both bored with manning the house. Both want to run the front gate, or go with you on your jobs for the Italians—”

“Then maybe we should let them,” I said casually, feeling him out. “They aren’t boys anymore, Dieter. They’re men.”

“They’re fine cleaning up humans out for a fuck,” he said, his uncharacteristic coarseness making me fumble and almost spill my scotch. “They aren’t going to be fine if you and they go up against someone with experience. You and I both know that, Lash. So does Sol. You know he didn’t want Joe in this life at all.”

“Neither does Klara,” I agreed, thinking of the angry words I’d heard Sol’s mate having with him in the kitchen a few mornings ago. “But you know boys tend to follow in their father’s footsteps. Joe’s old enough to try his hand at this, and then still go onto school in a year or so.”

“He runs up against someone like you or I, and he won’t be getting that chance,” Dieter said ominously. “He’ll be under a headstone up in Devlin’s cemetery.”

“So, what is your solution?” I said, losing my patience. “Keep his ass safe until he’s our age? Sooner or later he will have to step up, Dieter. We might as well know now if he can hack it or not.”

Dieter didn’t answer. His attention was again focused out on the light.

It was time to concede my room to him for yet another night. I picked up my scotch and left, closing the door behind me without a sound.

I stood there a moment after it closed, wondering if I should go back in and push the issue, tell him he had to see some other woman, move on. Don’t, it will just lead to a fight.

Dieter was the cold soldier and commander of Hayden’s security from sunup to sundown, from the moment he went on duty to the moment he left. If I went back in there and told him there was an emergency, he would snap out of his mood immediately, and be all tactics and action. But Nancy’s state was haunting him, eating away at his soul. How long can this continue until it leaks out into his duties, or affects his judgment?

I shook my head at my moroseness, and headed to see Morwen. She would welcome me to her bed, as she had so many nights lately, when Dieter was occupying mine.

Morwen was something like a girlfriend, but less. Yet she was more than a mistress; she was a friend. Part of the problem with defining it was her reluctance to ever explain the “thing” we had together. Yes, I had never come right out and asked her to give us an official label. But Christ, it had been close to 13 years now.

Didn’t that mean it was probably time to talk about what both of us wanted for the future, or if we even had one?

When we had met, I’d been 40, fresh out of the war, and just looking to pick up the pieces of my life so I could be who I’d used to be, before I’d ever stepped foot on European soil, or worn the black of the SS. I didn’t want anything more than that, and to forget the last 5 years ever happened. I was too stupid to know there was no going back.

The change in who I was hadn’t happened suddenly. I’d just woken up one day, middle aged. When I’d tried to be who I was in my youththat hotheaded one-man superman who could take on hordes and be the only one left standing at the endI nearly died. I’d been rescued by Morwen, an embarrassment high on my list of life-cringe moments. Sure, I’d saved her ass only a few months later, when she did something stupid and got shot in the head at close range, along with Darwin.

But that didn’t erase what she’d done for me, or how close I’d come to death.

Dying mattered to me now, as in it not happening to me anytime soon. I loved living here at Hayden, doing my odd jobs for the mob as well as for guarding Devlin’s ass along with his assets. I loved my friends and I loved Morwen, as much as she allowed. This was a good life, worth protecting. I wanted it not to change, for things to always be like this. But there was a familiar coldness in my chest that told me a big change was coming, and fast. And like usual, there would be nothing I could do.

CHAPTER 3

I knocked on Morwen’s bedroom door, more as a courtesy than anything else. She knew it had to be me. Any of the other males would have announced themselves without touching the door, just in case I was inside with her. Everyone that lived at Hayden knew what she was to me.

Without waiting for an answer, I opened the door, expecting to find her reading in bed. But she wasn’t there.

That wasn’t unusual, that she might have gone down to the training room to workout, or even out for a brief run in the forest, maybe a late-night snack. But with everything else that had happened tonight, I already had a bad feeling.

I headed downstairs, scenting the air with my forked tongue, looking for some sign of her.

So much had changed in our thirteen years together. They had been peaceful ones to be sure, but they’d had a high cost as well. Roles I’d taken for granted my whole life ‘til now had been redefined for me, not least of all by the shewolf I was currently missing.

There was much Morwen and I didn’t talk about. That was fine with me. We were comfortable in our relationship, which had now lasted halfway into a second decade. I had with her what I’d always wanted with a woman—a lasting if not still at this stage mind-blowing sex life, a person to discuss my favorite movies and books with, and a true fighter to watch my back in tough spots. Those last had been sparse in the last seven years, but we’d kept in shape, training together a good 3 days out of every week.

I lifted my lip off my left fang in an irritated hiss, opening yet another door to an empty room, then continued deeper into the levels of Hayden, my thoughts turning from the brightness of satisfaction to the grey of old questions I was for the most part able to keep at bay.

So, what if we never told each other that we were in love, or did the romantic flowers and shit that I’d done years ago with the other major relationships in my life? What had that ever gotten me, besides someone bitching at me, if not a knife in the side? This was better, because it was real. It had stood the test of time.

At this point in my life—I might have looked only late 30s still, but that was a lie, I was past fifty years old, and sixty was a fast looming shadow on the horizon grinning at me with yellow teethhaving a partner mattered to me much more than an exciting fuck. I might have wished for Morwen to look at me with the dewy look of longing she had worn once or twice in our first year, but it was okay if she didn’t. We were beyond that, onto some other level, something stronger and better.

That’s what I told myself, anyways.

Another few doors: more empty rooms. My irritation rising, I skipped the dungeon where I was sure Morwen was not, and also Devlin’s study, where a melodic voice barely audible through the door told me that my sometimes melancholy best friend and vampire had retreated to his study and portrait of his long lost love Anna, to quote her poetry, as was his wont. That she was cold bones—hell, more like dust after more than a hundred yearslying under weathered stone yards away out near the forest never fazed him. The love and longing in his tone was undiminished, as if she stood before him in all her mortal naked glory, beckoning him to greater heights of worship.

How can he feel love so strongly with all those years not smelling the scent of her, touching her skin, or even seeing her face, save for those damned paintings Danial did? And why don’t I feel that same inspiration? Why haven’t I EVER felt it?

Annoyed, I headed back upstairs. Sooner or later Morwen would come to bed, and our paths would cross. I was done looking for her tonight.

As I came up from the cellar, I passed some of the werebears and their mates, sitting in the living room, watching a movie on television. While the werebears had a TV in their own quarters, that usually had so many watching in there that it was hard to find a good seat. As Devlin rarely watched television, many of them snuck over here evenings to catch some of their favorite shows, like The Honeymooners. The television then was a new invention with just a few shows, nowhere near the behemoth of entertainment it would someday become, but already it had an eager audience. I was no exception. My own personal TV would be here soon, for my room.

The bears looked up at me in apprehension as I passed by the doorway, but when I made no move to yell at them to get back to their part of the house, their attention drifted back to the screen.

The kitchen was empty. I was about to go tearing out the back door, when I scented Morwen.

I gave a sigh of relief to see her sitting at the dining room table, reading a book and eating some raw salmon.

“I take it you like this fresh caught fish better than the farmed,” I said from the doorway.

She nodded without turning. “I told you I did, when you first suggested it.”

“Because I know the way to a woman’s heart,” I teased. “At least if she’s got a taste for fish.”

Morwen shot me a frown, but her eyes were smiling. “Maybe. Don’t count your wolves before they’re snared.”

Why did she always say things like that? Was it to encourage me to say more, or to discourage me from going further? Why did women have to be so damned cryptic? “I wouldn’t think of it.”

Though her expressions didn’t change the slightest, her scent shifted from one of slight apprehension to happy/content.

Taking that for a good sign, I moved closer, sitting near her in the chair and helping myself to a piece of fish. I had bought it for both of us, after all. “Must be a good book, to have you reading it down here.”

“Okay so far,” she said, sliding in a bookmark, and setting it aside. “I’m not sure I like the protagonist.”

“Why not?”

“She’s too much of a crybaby. She should have torn the throat out of her philandering husband, not gone crying to the goatherd for sympathy.”

The way she said it made it sound like the goatherd was giving the wife a little more than his sympathetic ear. “What book is this?”

Morwen colored a little. “Highland Ecstasy. One I borrowed from Devlin’s library.”

Smut for sure. Should have known just from the damned title. “Make sure not to mark the front, like you have been with mine. He’ll get pissy.”

“He said I could keep it,” Morwen said, then made a face. “I’m guessing it will only get a plus, just for that fact.”

Morwen had been making her way through my book collection since her first year with me, when I had first shared my love of the written word with her. For a woman who hadn’t been into reading at first, she now devoured books like they were filet mignon, and was steadily working her way through my library. It had taken me a while to notice that as her way to keep track of books she had read and those she had not, she put a plus in the front. Really good tales she accented with an additional “Good story!” Only once had I seen more than one exclamation point, or a variation, for a book she had thought amazing.

She and I did not always agree on a book’s merit, but more often than not, we concurred. The only thing I couldn’t understand was why a woman that had no trouble writing in the front of a book refused to crease a page and always used a bookmark.

“Are you warm enough? Do you need a blanket?”

“No,” she answered, not looking up. “How about you?”

“I prefer body heat,” I said, putting the question if she was going to offer me any into my tone.

“I should have known you were after tail,” she said with mock-aloofness, her eye flicking to mine. “Why don’t you read more of these romances, if sex enthralls you so?”

There was some angle here I was not seeing. She was usually not so playful with her words, not when I was being so obvious. Yet if she wasn’t randy herself, she’d have already said no. “If you tell me it’s worth reading, I’ll take a look.” I leaned back in my chair. “But why are you down here? Hungry?”

Morwen shook her head, “I went to your room, but Dieter was there. He makes me uneasy, the way he pines for Nancy.” She rearranged her book on the table.

“It brings back what she was to you and to him.”

Was she jealous? “Does it bother you?” I asked gently. “You know that she doesn’t want to see either of us. We have no contact with her at all.”

“I know that,” she said haltingly, as if she had to drag each word out of her by force. “I’m not jealous. I just feel awkward. Suppose she does decide to come here one day, or I run into her on the grounds? What am I supposed to say?”

“That you’re living here because you want to,” I said carefully, feeling like I was stepping in a minefield. “And because I want you to. Don’t say anything else, if you don’t want to. You don’t have to say anything at all, though, Morwen. Nancy was something to me once, but that’s long over. She’s got no claim on me now. She was Dieter’s mate, but that’s over, with her refusal to see him all this time.”

“Do you not want her to know that I’m your lover?”

I considered her for a moment, wondering what she was really asking…and what answer she hoped to hear. “I’m fine with her knowing what you are to me. Tell her you took the role she didn’t want, if you like. That’s true.”

She put aside her book, laying it down open on the table. “As your mistress,” she finished neutrally. Yet there was nothing neutral about that resignation in her eyes when her gaze met mine.

If this was finally the night we were going to have our Big Talk, I did not want to have it here, where practically everyone living at Hayden would be sure to overhear. I stood, then extended a hand that was more as a peace offering than an offer of assistance. “Come upstairs, please.”

To her credit, Morwen neither demanded an answer then and there, nor refused to my request. She got up and preceded me up the stairs to her bedroom. I followed her in and shut the door, then turned to face her. She had put her book down beside the bed, and was removing her earrings.

I watched her put down the sparkling studs. Diamonds they were, a half carat apiece, given to her on our third Christmas. I’d given her earrings every year, precious stones in plain gold or silver stud form. With all the birthdays and Christmas’s, Morwen now had one set for every color of the rainbow. I was either going to have to come up with new presents soon, or switch to bracelets or some other trinkets. As I watched her take off the jewelry, it occurred to me just how much those kind of gifts made her just what I had been about to swear up and down she was not: a kept woman. “You are my lover,” I said affectionately, coming to stand close to her. “But you’re also my friend.” I rubbed her shoulders, then hugged her back against my chest. “You’re far more than a mistress, Mor.”

“Then why don’t I feel like more?” she said, her voice rough with unshed tears. She looked over her shoulder at me, from beneath lowered eyes. “Why don’t I feel like I have a place here, if not for you?”

“I gave you a place here years ago,” I murmured, kissing her shoulder, then her neck. I was tempted to run my hands over her, push my cheek to her hair and lose myself in the scent of her. But I knew it would only add fuel to the fire of her anger, which was lurking just under her despair. “You’ve long since earned your own place here in Devlin’s service. You have your own bed, and you draw your own salary”

“Which would end if I stopped…if you and I weren’t lovers anymore.”

Her tone was still tremulous, upset and non-threatening, but I still stopped in mid-kiss. Carefully, I turned her to face me. “Are you saying you want to end with me?”

Morwen shook her head, then hugged me, to my abject relief. “No, Lash. I’m just feeling off lately.” She moved away from me, and began taking off her clothes.

I tore my eyes from her bare skin with difficulty. “Off how?”

She tossed her pants and her shirt into the hamper in the bathroom with her bra and underwear, then climbed into bed. I followed suit, then repeated my question.

She frowned, then shrugged. “Older. Worried about the future.”

“Worried about what?” I asked, taking her in my arms.

She ran her hands up my left arm, rubbing some of my scars that crisscrossed the skin. I’d sustained a lot of wounds in my life, some of them deep, and more than a few broken bones. My weresnake healing ability ensured my survival, and made the scarring minimal, in those rare cases it did happen. But my arms were the worst, bearing the brunt of the scars, especially the ragged tears of claws. “We’re both getting older.” She snorted. “Well, I am anyway”

I kissed her forehead. “You look as good as you did the day we met.”

She managed a half smile. “How long can we do this? How long can you?”

Why did one dreaded conversation always have to evolve into another? And I wasn’t even sure that we were done with the mistress issue yet. Grumble. “The potion I take will keep me young for decades yet, Mor”

“Are you sure it’s safe? Titus alluded to some bad side effects.”

Fucking demon asshole prick! I had never told Morwen about the potion’s possible side effects. Titus’s savoring statement years ago, that in time and enough exposure to the demon blood in the serum that extended my youthful vitality that I would take on aspects of a demon, including the hankering for human flesh and blood, had been something I agonized over in private. I had not shared it with anyone, least of all Morwen. Tonight, was NOT the night for that conversation, not when there was no way for me to conceal my fear. I forced my tone to be calm. “There are side effects, Mor. The main one is my sterility, which you already know about.”

She nodded. “I know. But I can’t help worrying there is something worse that demon isn’t telling you.”

“He would get a fucking thrill from telling me anything bad he could,” I uttered with dark truth. “That he hasn’t told me anything definitive is probably proof there’s nothing to tell.” I kissed her lips, then reluctantly pulled away. “Please don’t worry. Remember, Devlin initially requested this potion for me, after I saved him from that assassin’s stake years ago. He ordered Titus to use the one with the least side effects. If I experience anything as time goes along, you’ll be the first to know.” I kissed her again, harder this time.

“Back to that one thought always on your mind,” she said lightly.

“I always want you,” I said pulling her body tight to mine. Morwen let out a little sigh when she felt my erection pressing tight to her hip. The sound was familiar and soothing, her way of welcome eagerness in lieu of words. I’d always found that more than sufficient to get down to business. But tonight, after all that had been said, I wanted more.

“Tell me you want me,” I whispered, trailing kisses down her bare shoulder. I cupped her breasts, then rubbed her large nipples, enjoying her swift intake of breath as the sensitive skin tightened under my hands.

Morwen didn’t answer. She just took hold of my stiff organ in her hands, and began to work it, slipping the tight circle of her small hand up and down over the head. I grunted, then flexed in her hand, drops of seminal fluid leaking out in a steady stream to lubricate my hot flesh.

I bent my head to her breast and took first her right nipple, then the left into my mouth, sucking and nibbling, then tickling with my long-forked tongue. She jerked and moaned as I worked on her, the contractions of my hips as I rubbed my rock-hard organ against her thigh involuntary.

A younger me would have taken her right then and pumped my way to a quick conclusion. The older me loved her moans and wanted them to last. Kissing my way lower, I settled my face between her thighs and put my long-forked tongue to good use.

While Morwen could resist my other foreplayand often did, citing she was tired, etc.oral sex always got her in the mood. In moments, she was coming up off the bed, crying out, her hands in my hair, her sweet juices flowing to wet my mouth in her excitement.

Her passion escalated my own, making my dick feel like it would burst if it wasn’t sheathed, and soon. But I resisted, wanting that lust to be fever pitch before I gave in to it. The best way for that to happen was Morwen’s first orgasm. With a few more deep curling thrusts of my tongue it happened. She let out a soft cry and shook, her hips jerking up hard, then in weakening thrusts as she finished.

I stroked her gently with my tongue in the same manner, wanting every last remnant of her climax and the sweet taste of her come, then uncurled my tongue and began a soft undulation, penetrating her deeply a few times before I focused solely on her now super-sensitive clit, fresh from orgasm.

Morwen moaned sharply, then began to claw the bed frantically, as if she couldn’t get enough. “It’s too much,” she groaned. “Please, Lash, please, take me.”

“Tell me first,” I said roughly, knowing I was going to do it anyway no matter if she said it or not, because I couldn’t stand to be one more second outside her body, throbbing with need of her.

She reached for me, desperate, the nails on her hands partially grown to her wolf claws. “Put it inside, please, please, I want you inside me”

I moved up, putting the head of my cock against her vaginal lips. She was so wet the head of me slipped in like nothing. There was no resisting after that. I sank into her with a low moan and began pumping in deep possessive strokes. She clasped me to her, her thrusts matching mine.

“Deeper!”

I sat back and brought her onto me as I rolled onto my back, thrusting up, filling her completely. She ground down, growling softly, her hips working hard on mine.

I clasped her hips possessively, letting her bring us both to orgasm, our cries mingling as I finally got my release.

I hugged her to me in the few moments it took us to catch our breath. Morwen sat up with a sly smile. She brought her hard wolf claws down my chest, leaving red lines but not breaking the skin, then began to move again. I gave a contented sigh, feeling my slightly soft penis come back to life within her.

Twice more Morwen came, bringing me along with her. For the finale, I rolled her over on her back and ripped off one final last come, sagging spent onto her hot form, clutching her like she was trying to flee.

“Done?” she teased.

She knew I was done. This was just more of our nightly ritual. But instead of my usual reply, I said my thoughts, not caring to keep them hidden tonight of all nights. “I love making love with you, Mor.”

She didn’t answer right away. Alarmed at her silence, I looked up at her just in time to catch a tender look over her shoulder at me as she murmured, “I love it, too.”

I had seen that look on her face too few times in my years with her. Morwen was a woman who had had to be hard so much in her life that she found it difficult to be soft, as most females were naturally. Just for that, I treasured this brief glimpse into her heart even more. I hugged her close. “I never want anyone else,” I whispered, hugging her as tight as I dared to. “You know that, right?”

She hugged me back. “I know that.”

LASH 5: DEMOLITION MEN

By

Tara Fox Hall

PROLOGUE & Chapter 1

Lyrica’s gaze swept over the mottled grey and blue limestone walls of the cavern, tracing down the many curves worn by dripping water to the full and racing stream a good hundred feet below. The recent rain had gotten the old riverbed flowing again; there were even pools of water in some places. A good sign, one that held promise.

A tingle went through her; it was all Lyrica could do just to stand still, to not run down the path. But she had to wait for Alberta, her close friend. This half of the cave formation has the altar a good hour’s walk down that slippery worn rock face. The sacrifice must be perfect the first time. There’ll be no second chance.

Lyrica sighed, then with a last longing look at the beckoning path, she turned back, her long white skirt swishing her ankles as she walked out of the cave, and back into the parking lot. The wind blew her long dark curly hair across her eyes. With irritation, she pushed it back, then scanned the parking lot again. There was no use waiting; it was already dusk, and the bed and breakfast across the street had her information and the message she’d left. Alberta wasn’t here. She would need to go on to her campsite and meet her other friends, and delay one more night.

I’ve waited this long. I can wait another night.

She trudged to her car, then started it, slowly driving out of the lot and back onto the long winding road.

Maybe this way is better. It’s a good hour to the camp. Besides, Thomas said he might come in early.

Alberta wasn’t the only one Lyrica was waiting for: seven university students had jumped to explore Jargen Cove, when she’d proposed the idea to her fellow aspiring geologists as an alternative to the beach. Alberta had been first to agree, and would be here today or tomorrow morning. Clara and Sandy would be here tomorrow morning. Robert, Javier, and Nick were coming in tomorrow afternoon, as they had basketball practice tonight. Thomas was the only one who wasn’t on the team, and he’d asked to stay at her campsite, something Lyrica had readily agreed to. Thomas was also Clara’s boyfriend, not that his supposed allegiance meant anything to Lyrica.

It’s only one more night. Well, two more. But its going to be worth it. I have to put my faith in that.

The dark country road with no streetlights stretched ahead of her. Lyrica focused on that, even as her thoughts drifted back to the caverns…and what the legends promised that they contained. Jargen Cove had been found a good fifty years before by a farmer out looking for an errant sheep. He’d sold the cave for a pittance to an aristocrat Howard Jargen, who had enlarged the opening and had arranged for rich tourists to walk the path near the underground stream as a new diversion from their privileged pursuits. That select group had been the only ones to view the wonders of Jargen’s Cove until Jargen’s death and the sale of his property to a private spelunker who had invested a small fortune making the site a commercial stop.

Lyrica didn’t approve of the cartoonish signs “Keep a lookout for cave trolls!” or the gift shop selling bits of the actual cave along with dollar store junk. Still, if Jargen had maintained control, I’d never been allowed in. She wasn’t high society, only working class. The spelunker had done more than just let anybody with an interest in; he’d further enlarged the existing tunnel to its end. Laying bare the true secret of the cavern…

A deer ran in front of her car, making Lyrica swerve and curse. She gritted her teeth, then resumed driving. The rental cabin was near. As she drove up, the site of Thomas’s car parked in the drive sent a flutter through her stomach. She unpacked her suitcase, then hurried to the door and knocked. “Come in” a male voice called.

Lyrica entered, her tone inquisitive. The main room was bare bones—woodstove, bare wood floor, simple sink with drain and no faucets—table and chairs, and a light above with a pull chain—and no sign of habitation. “Thomas?”

“In here,” he called back from an adjoining room. “I took the bunk in here. You can have the other one. They’re the same size: small.”

Lyrica went into the other room and turned on the pull chain above her head. A rough wooden bunk to lay out her sleeping bag on, a shelf for her personal items and a few hooks on the wall. It was only a few nights. She dumped her suitcase on the floor, then hurriedly laid down her pillow and sleeping bag, her pajamas, and hung up her purse and jacket. Smoothing her skirt, she went into see Thomas.

He was already in his sleeping bag, a small flashlight set up near him. When he

saw her, his welcoming smile was genuine, though he looked tired. “I about gave up on you.” He yawned, stretching both arms over his head. “I thought you might have decided to stay at the bed and breakfast.” “I can’t afford it,” Lyrica answered with a shrug.

“You and me both,” he affirmed with a nod. “It must be nice to he affluent.”

Lyrica said nothing, watching him hungrily. What would he do if I went to him, and drew back the sleeping bag and climbed in with him? Would he stop me? Or would he welcome me?

“Lyrica?” Thomas said, his tone odd.

Lyrica forced a smile on her face. “Sorry, I’m just tired. I’ll see you in the morning, Tom.”

“Sure,” he said, something like relief in his tone. “Sleep well.”

Lyrica turned and headed to her room. Mechanically, she got ready for bed, slipping into the cold hard berth, her one burning desire to be in Thomas’s arms. Guilt touched her briefly, but she pushed it away. I can think about it if I want to.

***

In the morning Lyrica and Tom departed for Jargen’s Cove early. They arrived before it opened and treated themselves to a danish and coffee in the small café.

“This was a good idea of yours,” Thomas said, sipping his coffee. “Having seen this for ourselves will give us some firsthand experience for our final papers”

Lyrica sipped her own coffee, ignoring Thomas. Today the lust for him that had almost overwhelmed her good sense last night was absent. Instead she was going over her plans, making sure they were foolproof. God knew Alberta was a fool. But she was here at least. That was her small car parked in the left corner of the small lot. There was no sign of the others yet.

“Lyrica?”

Lyrica blinked, then forced her attention back to Thomas. “Sorry?”

“You must know a little more about the caverns,” Tom prodded. “No one else is here yet. They’re opening the doors. Would you mind coming in with me, maybe telling me a little background information on the twin tunnels? I know the left one is much longer, that they are still excavating”

Not this morning. No, she had to wait for Alberta. It was she that was important, not Tom. “I’m sorry,” Lyrica said again. “But I’ve got to go see where Alberta is. I don’t want her to feel left out, which she will if we go in without her.”

Tom stammered some apology, but Lyrica was already up and walking toward the counter to pay the tab. Then she ran across the parking lot to the bed and breakfast, the cool air kissing the tops of her bare shoulders. She walked past the vacant desk and up the stairs, peering into open doors until she caught sight of Alberta sobbing on her bed.

“What is it?” Lyrica said, a trace of real worry in her tone.

“Just a nightmare,” Alberta said, wiping at her red eyes. “It doesn’t matter now.” She hugged Lyrica, then drew back. “Say, you look like a gypsy princess, all dressed in white. Don’t you think you should put on other clothes before we head into the cave?”

If only that were possible. Lyrica stood then twirled, setting the ruffles of the long peasant skirt and blouse fluttering. “I wanted something special, Berta. I’ve waited months to see these caverns.” She tugged at her friend’s hand. “Now hurry up!”

“I know,” Alberta laughed. “Okay I’m hurrying.”

***

It was late morning when Alberta, Tom, and Lyrica entered the left tunnel of Jargen’s Cove. The trio took their time walking the three-hour long path in underground cave to its end at a large crack in the rock.

“This is it?” Tom said, snapping a Polaroid. He took out the instant picture, then fanned the square in the damp air, waiting for it to develop. “I expected, I don’t know, something grander.”

“That’s the other tunnel,” Alberta said patiently. “There’s an alter at that one, Lyrica says.”

“We should head back,” Lyrica said, checking her watch. “The others should be here by now. It’s late afternoon.”

The trio headed back with much more speed than they had come, eager to see their friends. Tom took several more pictures with his camera of various waterfalls and odd formations, ignoring Lyrica’s urging to move faster.

They emerged at the entrance near six p.m. Candy and the others were there, waiting for them.

Lyrica smiled at them, but let the others welcome them and relate the day’s activities. Her attention was all on the right fork of the tunnel. She cast a glance at the entrance hours. The gate would be shut at 8 p.m. There was just enough time, if she hurried. She turned to Alberta. “Come with me. I want to see the right tunnel, before it closes.”

Alberta shifted her weight, biting her lip. “I’m kind of hungry, Lyrica. We walked hours today. Why don’t we get some dinner with the others and come back tomorrow morning?”

Because I must do the first part tonight. “Come on. You know how long I’ve waited to see this.”

Alberta opened her mouth to protest, but the ringing slap of Clara’s hard palm against Tom’s left cheek stopped her words. “I’m going down the left tunnel,”

Clara said icily. “The rest of you can go wherever you want.” She stalked away with Sandy. Robert followed, after a smirk at Thomas. Javier and Nick were already gone, their small figures a good 100 yards down the left cave trail.

“Come on,” Lyrica called to Tom. “You might as well come with us. Give her some time.”

Tom shook his head, sullen, but he pushed past Lyrica and headed down the right tunnel. Lyrica shot a meaningful glance at Alberta, then went after him. With relief, Alberta came right after her, calling for her to wait. The threesome stopped fast at a fork in the trail, where the cavern opened before them.

“It’s like an underground paradise,” Tom said in a hushed tone.

The right tunnel was much more beautiful than the left had been; it was breathtaking. That made sense, as this was the original one that had been developed commercially. Crystals captured the pockets of light from small holes in the ceiling and reflected them back down onto the waterfalls and more underwater crystals below.

“They call it The Crystal Cavern,” Lyrica murmured.

“I should have brought more film,” Tom said in a pained tone, rummaging in his backpack.

Lyrica tugged Alberta onward, leaving Tom behind. “Come on.”

“What is it?” Alberta said. “We should wait for Tom.”

“He probably needs some time alone,” Lyrica shot back, her eyes focused ahead. There!

Ahead, the trail took a sharp dip downward, then the rock narrowed to a ledge. A manmade barrier stood there at the end with a rope and sign DO NOT ENTER. Beyond was a small rock bridge with no railings over the end of the stream which entered from the right and disappeared underground into the rock wall to the left. On the other side of the bridge, a wall of rock stood. Like the left tunnel, this also had a large crack at its face. But this wall had a ledge of stone with a cut altar in the center, the chips of crystal embedded in the black rock shining a rainbow of colors. A stone ladder stood against the wall, offering access.

“What is it?” Alberta said slowly.

“No one knows for sure,” Lyrica said, pointing absently to the sign that offered facts. “They think this was a place of worship for the Nivertians, a local indigenous people that lived near here a few hundred years ago.”

“What did they worship?” Alberta asked. “Crystals?”

“Something they thought lived in the crystals,” Lyrica said, heading to the barrier and pushing it aside. She moved onto the bridge and carefully began edging across.

“Wait! What are you doing!” Alberta called anxiously. “Come back!”

Lyrica reached the other side of the bridge with relief, then ran to the stone ladder. She gripped it with both hands, and felt an electrical charge run the length of her. A grin of wonder and joy brought a yell of triumph from her throat. “Yes!”

“Come back!” Alberta yelled. She cast about her, but no one was near. Tom was not in sight. “Tom!”

Lyrica started up the ladder. With each new rung, the crack in the rock face split wider, small crystals spilling forth to form a glistening pile. But these were not white, as the rest of the crystals in Jargen’s Cove. These were black, with glints of deep red. The rush of water intensified, the trickle of the stream becoming a torrent as water poured in suddenly from all sides as new cracks appeared in the rock all over the cave.

Lyrica passed the halfway point. The cavern rumbled, the ladder shook, and fire burst from the center of the crack in an eerie yellow, the flames licking her feet. She let out an involuntary shriek, then stopped in awe, clinging to the ladder. It’s not burning me, not my legs or my skirt. I’m a worthy sacrifice! If I can just make it to the top!

“Lyrica!” Alberta shouted. Resolute, she stepped beyond the barrier and moved out onto the bridge, scared eyes watching the rushing water beneath her.

Lyrica reached the top of the ladder, and staggered onto the rock ledge as another shockwave rocked the cavern. Flames were now burning at either side of the altar, and a light was shining from within it upwards. Lyrica reached for the light with both hands, her expression exultant. I’m a virgin, I’m worthy. It’s going to work! There was a cry of pain from behind her. Lyrica turned to see Alberta pushing herself up from where she had fallen, her pants ripped, her face and palms bloody. She reached out a pleading hand toward Lyrica. “Don’t!

Lyrica turned away, back to the altar light that was pulsating. She put both hands in, the electrical current flowing into her, the power and pure joy bringing a moan from her throat.

There was a low rumble, then the left wall of the cavern split, the water pushing aside the breaking wall. In a wave, it crashed into the left tunnel, sweeping over Candy and the others, their flailing forms swept away into the now gaping crack of the left tunnel’s end. An inhuman screech sounded, then two talons of a scaly red claw gripped the edge of the crack and pulled, widening it.

Alberta was halfway up the ladder when the flame that had passed so harmlessly over Lyrica intensified, charring her with a single scream. Her blackened form fell down into the ever growing pile of red-black crystals.

Lyrica was screaming now, too, her pleasure turned to pain. She threw herself backward repeatedly, trying to bring her dissolving hands out of the burning light to no avail.

Red claws appeared on the ledge, then a cavernous maw opened behind her. Lyrica let out a final scream of terror as the beast enfolded her in its embrace, red black flames engulfing them.

CHAPTER 1

“What now?” I hissed with narrow eyes at the handsome blonde man standing in front of me with crossed arms.

Devlin’s expression was livid. “We have a major problem to solve.”

My vampire boss’s normally golden eyes were a solid blood red, proof enough of his rage even without the killing cold tone in his words. Devlin had never been the placid agreeable sort, but it had easily been a decade since I’d seen him this mad, if not more. “Go on.”

“That income tax problem I told you about? It has come back with a vengeance.” Devlin grabbed a piece of paper, handing it to me.

Son of a bitch. This paper said I owed close to a million dollars in back taxes. That wasn’t a problem; I could pay it easy. The trouble was I had been summoned to appear in court, or face arrest. Oh, shit.

“All for not paying fucking withholding tax?” I said, incredulous. I turned on him. “Why the hell isn’t that taken out of my salary along with all the other fucking taxes?”

“Because that income you declared had nothing to do with me,” Devlin said with more than a trace of smugness. “Those were for side jobs for the Italians. Didn’t I tell you that they were being a lot more careful after the war? None of them wants to end up like Capone, but they don’t want to pay more than they have to in income tax. That they were going to try to write off what they could, including your services, was expected.”

“What kind of idiot writes off a hit?” I said sarcastically.

“One that simply calls it something else that is believable in terms of the dollar amount,” Devlin said, raising his eyebrows. “And you might take a lesson from this, my weresnake friend. The later in the century it gets, the more that paperwork is going to be the exposure and eventual death of ones such as you and I. Too much of what we are and do must be hidden, and believable lies told to camouflage the truth.”

“And what lesson is that?”

“To work with our lawyer, and overpay what is owed,” Devlin said patiently. “The government does not care about a few of its lesser citizens coming to bad ends, most of which are not unexpected. They do mind not getting their fair share of all the buying and selling within their borders.”

I looked bitterly at the paper. It said I had not paid withholding tax on various transactions I’d made money from the years 1946 to 1958. Nothing was detailed out, but I was guessing Devlin had to be right. Yet it still seemed ludicrous that I should pay tax on money made from killing people—and that others would report those payments to me on their business income taxes as valid expenditures. “You’re saying this will all go away with just a payment? That they don’t care about the killing itself?”

Devlin smiled, and it was not one of his happy expressions—or what passed for happy for him. “Yes.”

“I’ll call the lawyer today then, and set up an appointment. Maybe I can just pay by check and not have to appear”

“Didn’t I tell you just to pay the money when this began?” Devlin prodded. “Why the hell didn’t you? A million is pocket change with what you got paid for—” “It was principle,” I said angrily. “What gives them the right to say they can tax my income to this extent? I never paid taxes like this in my first sixty years. I’m fucking not about to start now.”

“Why don’t you apply for senior citizen status?” Devlin quipped. “They’ll take a smaller cut.”

“Fuck you, you ancient asshole. You apply for it. Do they give you extra discounts for being over 300 years old?”

Devlin smiled momentarily, then scowled again. “No, regrettably. But you must pay the money, and show up on time. I’ve arranged a lawyer for you—”

“I have one,” I said, thinking of a big shot lawyer I’d done a hit for last year, some pretentious asshole with a III after his name. I’d kept his card someplace in my room. “But you didn’t get this pissed off over paperwork, so what’s really biting your ass?”

Devlin walked to the nearest open window, then pointed. “That.”

I looked outside into the rapidly falling dusk, just barely able to see the end of the driveway. There was a low rumble my snake hearing was just able to detect, and also some lights where I knew there should be none. “What’s going on in Forman’s field?”

“Construction,” Devlin said bitterly. “Forman has had enough of farming, and sold his thousand acres to an entrepreneur who specializes in subdivisions. A new suburb is going in right across the driveway from Hayden. They are already clearing the land.”

I grimaced. “I don’t need to ask if you tried the normal means of getting the property?”

Devlin’s eyes glittered. “I had asked Forman again and again to sell, and he refused, saying he wanted to keep the orchards in the family. But after his wife and son died in that auto accident last year, he was becoming…amenable to the idea. Why he did this without asking me for a counteroffer is infuriating, especially when I would have paid double the highest offer, no matter what it was.”

“So, you want him dead?”

Devlin shook his head. “Titus has already arranged a fitting reprisal for Forman. Other than that, he is irrelevant, the ownership of the land already having passed out of his hands. What I need from you is an abrupt stop to the construction before it goes any further. I have already sent entreaties to the entrepreneur, whom I’m sure I can persuade to look elsewhere for his perfect rows of suburbia bliss.”

“You want the men stopped, or their master?”

Devlin waved his hand indifferently. “Whichever you find more effective. I leave the particulars up to you, as always.”

I nodded, then headed to the door. There was no point delaying.

***

I watched through infrared binoculars, looking down the list of cars as I made careful notes detailing each one’s license plate, make, and model. I couldn’t follow them all when I left, but a friend I had could easily give me addresses and names, with the slip of a few bills across his palm.

Completing the last one, I stashed the binoculars and headed closer. While there was no way I’d kill this close to home, I might be able to find out who best to be first victim with just a little conversation to point the way. I crouched behind a pile of earth, trying to listen over the throaty roar of machines. I caught snatches of conversation, but nothing to give me any pointers.

Casting one last look at the torn-up earth, I melted back into the darkness unseen.

***

By noon the next day, I had a list of names and addresses to go with the vehicles from last night. I also had a name to go on of the owner of the construction company: Stan Lopez. He was some prick from PA who had recently moved up here to capitalize on all the development, especially shopping malls. There was more info listed, but all I needed was his home address and his age, so I knew going in how much fight would be in him, if it came to that.

Stan was twenty-five, which meant a hell of a lot of fight, most likely. So I went in armed, hoping to catch him alone in the trailer after his workers left. My attire of work boots, jeans, and shirt were all worn-enough looking. What pissed me off was having to give in and wear blue jeans. But this was one time my usual solid black wardrobe was not going to make me blend in.

Stan motioned me closer, when he noticed me walking toward him. “Can I help you?”

I nodded. “Looking for work, Stan. I heard from a buddy that this was a good place to be. I want something that’ll last more than a few months.”

“What’s your buddy’s name?”

His tone was suspicious, something I thought odd. “Bruce Finney,” I supplied, thinking back to my list of names.

“How do you know Bruce?” he said, staring at me.

“Is this the Inquisition?” I replied boldly. “If you aren’t hiring, just say so.”

Stan nodded once, then said, “Sorry, but we can’t be too careful. Word came down that we are not wanted by the local King Shit across the road. He has a bad reputation of not taking no for an answer. A moratorium on all new hires came down today, in fact.”

So that entrepreneur Dev was so sure he was going to win over was wise to what he was capable of. Smart, but that still wouldn’t save him from me. “I understand.”

What can you do?” Stan asked. “We still need a couple men certified to run dozers.”

I had run various tanks decades ago in WWII, but since then, nothing heavier than a car. But I knew diesel trucks well enough. “I can use power tools, and handle machinery, though I might need a refresher on your specific equipment.”

Stan stood. “Come outside, and let’s see what you can do.”

I followed him out, wondering if this was a good time to give the ultimatum. CEOs were all the same; if you took their power from them, they usually were willing to bend rather than stand and fight, especially if they didn’t stand to lose much face or cash. But with blue collar men, more often than not they wouldn’t bend, either from stubborn pride or just because they’d been fighting so long to build themselves up that they didn’t know how not to fight when they were challenged. I was usually able to make white collars see Dev’s way as the right one. Blue collars had to die more than half the time. I wasn’t going to lose sleep over killing Stan, but it still seemed a waste.

He took me over to a huge dozer, then stood, expectant.

I climbed up in the cab, sat down, and looked over the controls. I understood the shift, and how to raise and lower the blade, as well as tilt. But there were still a few levers I wasn’t sure of.

I cranked her up, then moved her out, trying out the various levers to familiarize myself. Since I had the opportunity, I should practice a little. If I did have to kill Stan, it might be meaningful to bury him right here at the construction site as a message. Hell, I could plant him feet first, with his hands up out of the ground, like the earth had opened up and swallowed him…

The mental picture made me chuckle, then I looked back at Stan and realized that another man had joined him. There was a pickup near mine now.

All traces of humor evaporated. Who was this? I circled the machine, and went back towards him, irritated. I’d have to kill them both, now.

I parked the dozer, shut it off, then got out, walking over to them. When I got close, I received the shock of my life. The man standing in front of me was easily seventy, his black hair heavily peppered with grey, his skin darkened with sun. Yet there was something about the face that was strikingly familiar.

“This is my father,” Stan said. “His name is Jared.” His forehead creased. “Sorry, I forgot to ask your name?”

The resemblance to my own weresnake father of the same name was striking. Jared could have been my father, if he had lived to be seventy and not been murdered. But what really threw me for a loop was that I felt like I was looking into a mirror which saw through the demon magic that kept me young, revealing the truth of my age. This is how old I would look, if I looked my age. Fuck.

“Good to meet you,” I managed, extending my hand. “I’m Ashford, but people just call me Ash.”

Jared looked at me as if he didn’t buy a word. “Good to meet you. My son tells me that you want a job. You’re qualified, if not expert. So, when can you start?” My killer instinct told me to draw my gun and fire, to kill them both. But my nose was already taking in the musty scent of snake.

Jared is a weresnake. If I hadn’t been so overcome by his appearance, I’d have noticed sooner. Yet his son, Stan, smells human. What is going on? I shook his hand. “Two weeks, if that’s okay? I’ve got to give notice to my brother.” I forced a smile. “Been helping him with his septic business.”

Jared’s cold expression thawed just an inch. “A crappy job, was it?”

“It was the shit,” I said amicably

.

“See you in two weeks, then,” Stan said, his face impassive. “First shift begins at 6am.”

“I’ll be here,” I said, then turned away

.

***

DO THE RIGHT THING
by Tara Fox Hall
“There’s no streetlights here, so it’s pretty dark at night…”

The front windows should have been dark, faint lights from across the lake should have just been visible. Instead there appeared to be a multitude of flashing lights. “Wait, hold on a minute.”

I got up from my chair and hurried across the living room to the porch window, looking down at the shoreline a good 100ft away where men were disembarking from a police boat, its lights illuminating the water with flashing red and blue. Dressed like firefighters, they snapped on high-powered flashlights, and waded onto my shoreline.

Something is wrong. The feeling intensified when another boat joined the one already waiting. its lights flashing red. “Listen, I’m gonna have to call you back. Something’s going on down in front of my cabin. Men are combing the shore searching for someone.” Or several someone’s.

            “Be careful!”

“I’ll call you back, soon as I get back in. Bye.” I frantically searched for my keys, hoping I hadn’t left them in a pocket of my jeans when I’d gone in swimming. Breathing a sigh of relief as I grabbed them from the microwave, I locked the door after me, flipped on my phone flashlight, and headed for the shore.

The men were already on my neighbors’ land, looking in bushes, but I caught up to a man in a bright neon yellow shirt. “Hi, I live here, can you tell me what’s going on?”

The man was obviously distressed, yet resolute. “A missing boater, Ma’am. We aren’t sure when he went missing in the last 24hrs, but his kayak washed ashore down on the point.”

They’re looking for a dead body. I blinked, bit my lip lightly, and assured myself this was really happening.

“We aren’t going door to door because we don’t want to disturb anyone.”

“It’s past season. There’s no one home at most of these summer cottages down this end of the road, anyway,” I answered. “Most have already closed up for the winter. But I will let my neighbors know via email.”

“Thank you, we’d appreciate it.”
“What do we do if we find…anything?” I stumbled over the words.

“Tell them to call 911.”

“I will.” I watched him hurry off after his colleagues, then turned to go back to the house, glad of the neighbor’s huge house that was ablaze with light. My own cabin was much smaller, and had no outside lights. The police boats had left, following the team heading down the shore.

I hurried back inside, locked my door, and then sent out an email to the neighbors, telling them what had happened. Then I called my friend back, still unnerved by the idea of swimming and possibly discovering a body.

“Does that happen often, that boaters go missing?”

“I’m not sure. At least one a year, I’d guess. Most wash up on the shore.”

“Did you ever find anyone?”

“No!” My answer was more explosive than I planned it to be. Calm down, it’s ridiculous letting yourself get all rattled. I took a breath, and let it out.  “The wind current usually pulls them down to the far end of the lake, to the beach. Some never get found, I guess. Can we change the subject, this conversation is freaking me out.”

“Sure, sorry. Did you go swimming today?”

I had, and suddenly the thought that I might have run into a floating corpse in my inner tube made me shudder. Bloated, seaweed wrapped dead body right up against my bare skin. “Yeah, but I didn’t stay in long. This time of year, it’s frigid. The water was murky, too, lots of algae. I don’t like it when I can’t see to the bottom.”

“You might have stepped¾.”

Another shudder wracked me. “Hey, I’m really tired. I’m going to head off. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I hardly listened to his reply as I hurried to the TV, and turned it on, jamming my thumb down on the play button. With a happy sigh, I lost myself.

***

I blinked, and then opened my eyes wide to blackness. With a start, I realized that the movie had ended. I reached for the light, and flicked it on, but nothing happened. In disbelief, I flicked it a few more times, then with a curse, fumbled for my phone. I switched on the flashlight, illuminating the room. Has to be a fuse.

            A walk to the electrical box under the stairs left me stymied. Everything looks fine?

There was a piercing shriek from just outside the window. I let out a small scream myself, before I clamped down on it. Damned rabbits. The fox must have gotten another one.

            I listened for rustling, but there was nothing.

Wait a minute. Why is the fox so close to the house hunting tonight, with all the lights on next door? A quick glance out the window showed only blackness. The power’s out.

            There came a rumble of a vehicle approaching down the dirt road, then the bright lights of an electric service truck. With a sigh of relief, I unbolted the front door and shot through, running fast to intercept the truck, waving my phone flashlight like a madwoman. The truck stopped, in lieu of running me over, but didn’t shut off its engine. A friendly looking man opened the window, his expression concerned. “Evening Ma’am. Everything all right?”

“What’s happened,” I practically shouted. “There wasn’t any storm today.”

“Some fella digging a road over, he hit a buried line. It’s almost all set, give it another half hour or so.”

I sagged with relief, resisting the urge to hug him. Power’s still out, after all. It might be out for hours yet.

            “Go back inside, Ma’am. Things will be okay shortly.”

“Thank you,” I mustered, knowing it was too late to salvage his summary of me as anything but a hysterical lonely woman with an overactive imagination. He probably feels sorry for me, spending the week before Halloween here at a summer place, no matter the fabulous weather.

            I headed back to the house, as his truck drove on down the road, mentally thanking my neighbor who still had a landline for calling in the cavalry. I came to a dead stop, in front of my door, which was closed.

All my instincts told me to bolt inside, that inside was safe, inside was light, and out here was just solid blackness. But I knew I’d left the door standing open. Someone had shut it. And whomever that was might well be in there, waiting for me.

I gathered my courage, and then tried the door. It refused to open.

You’re an idiot, you forgot the damp up here, and how this door often shuts on its own. I let out a chuckle at my own stupidity, and then tried it again, my humor turning fast to fury. No, this cannot happen, it can’t happen, I can’t be locked out of my fucking house! I rattled the door handle, but it refused to budge.

Hoping to God I wouldn’t step on a skunk¾or something worse¾I moved around to the front of the house. I’d left one window open, the bathroom window. I reached up to shove it open.

Another piercing scream rang out. But this one was unequivocally human.

I clamped my hand over my mouth to stop my own rising scream, and flattened myself against the side of the house. That’s Andy.

            More screams rent the moist night air, falling like writhing tendrils from the sky to wrap me tight in coils of ever-rising terror. I huddled in the damp grass, unable to do anything but listen.

Finally, the screams stopped. There was the sound of a door slamming.

I stayed huddled right where I was, trying to form a coherent thought that made any kind of sense. There are two of them? There was only one guy in the truck!

            There came the sound of a pissed off person striding towards the cabin door, then a gentle knock. Also, the almost inaudible click of a safety being released.

I held my breath.

“Ma’am? We need to check your electric.”

Something shifted slightly inside the cabin. The smell of seaweed rose out of the open window, the one I’d been going to go in.

The knock sounded again, this time more insistent. “Ma’am there’s a danger. I’m sorry to disturb you, but we really need to check you’re safe.”

From right on the other side of the wall, something staggered up from where it had been waiting¾for me¾and lumbered out to the door. There was a creak of the front door opening, and then a shout of surprise. A tidal roar groaned out into the damp air, then a wet chomp cut off the scream. It resumed as a low keening of terrible pain.

I saw nothing, but I felt and heard the thing¾creature from the deep, lake monster, boater zombie, lagoon horror, whatever¾hobble off with its feebly struggling prey back to the lake’s edge. When I was sure they were gone, I went back to the front door, looking around with wide eyes. The power was back on now, flooding the murder scene with light.

Gore stained the front steps, an arc of arterial spray marking the door like an omen. The door stood open, showing a trail of water and seaweed on the floor, smudgy footsteps in a line both coming and going.

I locked the door, then carefully checked the inside trail of wet footprints. It led only to the bathroom, and back out again. With a sigh of relief, I checked the entire house, locking windows as I went along. Finally, I sat down, my internal struggle still undecided.

Sure you could call the police. And say what? That someone pretending to be an electrician cut the power, then came to assassinate your neighbors? That they would have killed you for being a witness, except a zombie got them first? No one will believe you, just like they never believed you when you said you could hear a ghost walking around up here years ago.

            Maybe this is some kind of practical joke? Damn it, even if it is, I have to do the right thing.

            Reluctantly, I called 911, and waited on hold as I was transferred to the sheriff. The officer obviously didn’t believe my story¾the little of it I shared¾and said they would send a car out when they could. “But probably not until morning. We have a lot of activity tonight. It’s almost like Halloween.”

Yeah, I’m getting that feeling myself. I gritted my teeth, thanked him, and hung up. Uneasy, I went up to bed, and turned out the light. I was just drifting off when a rustle came from under my bed.

My breath caught in my throat as a dark shape climbed up the side of my bed, it’s quick hand clamping over my mouth to stifle my scream.

“Shh,” it hissed to me in the voice of dead leaves and rotten earth. “You’re a good girl, Jodie. You always do the right thing. Now…just…hold…still.”

 

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