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Authors: Rob Preece

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BOOK: In the Werewolf's Den
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"Perhaps we would be more comfortable if we went to the zone first, where they're used to dealing with the impaired."

Carl looked at his hands. “It's strange, but I don't feel impaired. I feel like I always did, except I have a capability now. I'm quicker, more aware of scents and sounds. And tastes, which was why I was looking forward to a well-cooked meal."

"The onset of magic is a legal impairment,” Danielle reminded him. “Impaired individuals have limited self-control and need to be properly restrained. It's serious, all right."

"Let's stop by a super-store,” Carl suggested. “I'll pick up some steaks and grill them myself. And I've got to get some clothes that don't make it obvious that I'm, uh, different."

Danielle shook her head. “Under Public Law 1627, it is unlawful to attempt to disguise your condition. Tell you what. Let's decide what you need and I'll order it on my computer. It'll be at your new lab by the time you get there."

If she'd needed the reminder of Carl's condition, his snarl gave it to her. “I've devoted the past ten years of my life looking for a cure, a way to bring life back to nature and away from the bizarrely supernatural. And for that, I've got to walk around with the sign of the beast on me. It isn't right."

"Let's go, Harriman,” Danielle ordered.

Carl climbed into her warder-provided vehicle and stared straight ahead as Danielle pulled away from the curb and headed into traffic.

Her vehicle's tiny hydrogen motor provided enough power to climb Dallas's small hills and not much more. She made a quick U-turn and headed south.

The Trinity River had swelled with the warmer climate and melting icecaps. Where it had once been a trickle a child could jump over, it was now an impressive barrier between the north side of the city and the south. A barrier made more formidable by electric fencing, dynamited bridges, guard towers, and signs indicating that land mines had been laid.

Danielle stopped at a guard post and presented her credentials.

The guard looked at them closely, then glanced into the car. “Werewolf?” His voice held nothing but contempt.

Danielle glared at him. “Yeah."

The guard spat, the thick glob landing on the windshield in front of Carl's face. “Who'd you piss off to get stuck with it?"

"My first assignment out of the Academy."

The guard raised the barrier, then laughed. “You're an Academy grad and you're doing that? It usually takes years even for us unblessed to screw up bad enough to get stuck on herder duty. I got busted for drunk driving and this is as bad as they got to me. Another couple of weeks and I'm back to chasing."

Danielle sighed. Elf chasing. The guard was fat, probably slow, and if he was smart, he sure didn't look it. So why was he an elf chaser when Danielle was stuck herding? Admittedly, a chaser was not in the same class as a vampire hunter. Even so, Danielle would have given six months of salary to trade jobs with the guard.

She flipped on the windshield wiper to clean off the guard's goober and headed into the Dallas zone.

"Are they all like this?” For the first time, Carl's voice sounded tentative.

"Are what?"

"The zones. I've never been in one before."

Late onset impairment was rare. For the most part, those who would receive the magical curse got it within months of the return of magic. Some in the government even held that late onset was a myth—that a few of the impaired were able to hide themselves for long periods of time, working surreptitiously to destroy normal humanity. Carl's ignorance would have cured Danielle of that theory, if she'd ever believed in it.

For the first time, Danielle really looked at the Dallas zone.

It felt quiet. A few beat-up hydrogen-fueled cars roamed the streets, but mostly the residents traveled by foot or bicycle. The hum of air conditioning, ever-present in the north side of Dallas where normal humans lived, was missing here. Beyond that, the general air of dilapidation was impossible to ignore. Buildings leaned to the side, curtains blew in and out of broken windows, and huge potholes turned the streets into an obstacle course that challenged the limited horsepower in her official vehicle.

Hunters, she teased herself, got to drive gasoline-powered vehicles. They, unlike herders, spent most of their time outside the zones because vampires often used their magical talents to escape the ever-expanding defensive rings guarding the normals from the evils of the zone.

An elf woman with a missing arm pressed against the thin plastic of Danielle's car, her remaining hand held out in supplication.

Danielle fought down her reflexive sympathy. They have no pride, she reminded herself, mentally reciting one of the thousands of creeds that had been drilled into her head in the Academy.

Although the zone lacked normal sounds of machinery, the quiet was not complete. Screams of happy children sounded from a lot where an aging strip mall had deteriorated into a dangerous-but-fun-looking playground. A vendor pedaled by on a three-wheeled bicycle selling frozen fruit bars from an insulated box. Two old men whispered to each other as they played a slow game of chess and drank aromatic black coffee in front of what Danielle would have guessed to be an abandoned diner. If she hadn't seen the hint of a tail hanging below one's coat, they could have passed as normal.

"This one looks a bit nicer than the Los Angeles zone,” she said. “In the return-of-magic riots there, the impaired burned about a third of the entire zone. Doesn't look like you had that kind of problem."

"Riots?"

Damn. Danielle had forgotten that the censors had decided the L.A. riots had never taken place. She backpedaled quickly. “A few rowdy kids got carried away. Did some damage to the zone before the warders could intervene."

Carl eyed her suspiciously. “I'd always heard that city services are fully available in zones. Doesn't look like the street crews have been out here lately."

Danielle maneuvered her car around another huge pothole.

"It's hard to offer services to the impaired,” she gave the explanation she'd always heard. “They attack city workers, refuse to pay their taxes. You know things have been tough since the return, and since the ice caps started melting."

Carl nodded grimly. “That's what I've been telling the courts for the past six months. If we could just get a grip on the virus, we could dedicate all of our efforts to getting the country back on its feet. Magic is just another disease. We whipped smallpox when the bioterrorists re-introduced it. We finally controlled AIDS and SARS. We were even making progress against cancer before all this started.

"Do you have any idea how much of our resources are wasted in controlling the magical outbreak?” he continued, warming to his topic. “Not even including the ten percent of our population directly affected, how many thousands of warders do we have? Not to mention the concrete and steel we pour into the walls we built around the zones. It's worse than the war on drugs back in the twentieth century. The war on magic is ruining our economy. But unless my research results were anomalous, we can whip this."

When he spoke, Danielle felt herself carried away in the excitement of his vision. Carl truly believed he could eliminate the curse of magic's return, and his personal magnetism made him persuasive. His was the kind of message that could transform the world. Best, he sounded like he knew what he was talking about rather than simply spouting a pipe dream. Except the number of warders wasn't measured in the thousands. It was millions. The nation, the world, was bankrupting itself to control the return of magic. If Carl could pull off a complete cure, returning the impaired to productive life, he could write his own ticket—including getting back into that fancy restaurant.

She pulled onto a residential street and pushed the remote to open the radio-controlled gate.

"I didn't think they had electricity here."

"Your place has its own fuel cell,” she explained. “Many of your tools are electronic so, when they equipped your lab, they made sure they would run."

Carl nodded. “Got it. Well, why don't you drop me off and you can get back to whatever warders do when they're not playing chauffeur to local scientists?"

The thought had crossed Danielle's mind—repeatedly. Once Carl was in the zone with all of the other impaired, why would he need a full-time herder? What happened inside was normally a matter for whatever local mob ran a particular section of the zone. If the impaired wanted to kill each other, not many normal humans would complain and, while it might be technically illegal, the warders had more important things to do than look into an impaired getting killed.

After hearing Carl speak, however, she knew her answer. Carl's work was important enough to make protecting him a priority. Important enough that she was stuck in the zone, stuck with a dangerous
Were
, for the duration.

She forced herself to look at the bright side. Joe hadn't assigned her to a trivial case. Its importance meant he trusted her abilities. If she didn't screw this job up, she just might get the promotion she craved.

"You don't understand, Dr. Harriman, I'm part of the package. The government wants what you're working on and I'm here to make sure you keep your nose to the grindstone.” And to make sure he really was doing what he'd promised. How many impaired had promised wonderful things, only to disappear once they'd gotten what they wanted from normal human society?

"You're going to be with me for months?"

Months? Living in the zone? Danielle took a deep breath and forced herself to relax. Maybe it would be faster than months. For sure, she would hold Harriman's feet to the fire and make him work his tail off.

"However long it takes."

* * * *

Danielle wished she knew more about the technical equipment Carl used in his work. If she could believe Carl, the government had provided him with outdated and inefficient equipment. She suspected that he was telling the truth. The return of magic plague had made everyone tighten their belts and nobody was about to give the best equipment to an impaired, even if he did promise to work miracles.

"But they're not
giving
me anything,” Carl argued when she explained that to him. “They've charged my account for the most current equipment and given me this dreck."

"At least you're out of prison."

He didn't seem grateful. “It'll take me twice as long to get the job done if I have to work with this stuff. And I'll need twice the staff."

She hadn't thought about staff. Somehow she'd had the idea of Carl working alone in his lab with her, weapons in hand, making sure that he didn't try anything. Reality was getting in the way again.

One thing for sure, she wanted him to get the job done quickly. “Get me a list of what you need; I'll see what I can do."

That seemed to cheer him up some. “Right."

While Carl calibrated his equipment, checked out his supplies, and did whatever scientific things people like him did, Danielle checked out the rest of the facility.

She suspected that Joe must have helped specify the requirements, because there were two rooms for bedrooms, one for a gym, and another for a kitchen. She'd be able to maintain her training and not fall too much behind her peers when she finally had a chance to make Vampire Hunter.

Since Carl looked like he would be messing with refrigeration units, DNA sequencers, and fermenting vats for hours, Danielle switched from the stiff and ugly brown uniform of a warder-herder to a pair of running shorts and sports bra to get some exercise in.

"I'll be in the gym,” she told him. “Don't leave here without letting me know."

"Fine,” he told her. “Want to go for a run afterwards?"

"In the zone?” Any time she'd been in the zone before, she'd been in a vehicle with her weapons ready.

"Can we run in the normal side of the city?"

She shook her head. “Only if I put you on a leash."

He gave her a half-smile as if he thought she was joking. But she wasn't. Before his transformation, Carl had obviously kept his eyes firmly closed. Which meant she was stuck explaining reality to him.

His smile faded slowly as the truth sunk in.

"The zone it is, then."

She hit the weight machines in the gym, pushing herself to failure on every set. Some of her fellow-students had been lackadaisical about their strength and unarmed combat training exercises, but every time she thought about slacking, memories of the vampire stooped over her mother surged.

Carl puttered around outside and she used his presence to motivate herself further. She couldn't stay awake all the time. Yet Carl needed to be certain she could handle anything he could throw at her.

She'd finished her three sets for each muscle group and was running through a Kata, one of her martial arts routines, when Carl appeared, dressed in a pair of shorts, an M.I.T. T-shirt, and running shoes.

He grinned, cocky and full of confidence. “Ready for that run?"

"Think you can keep up?"

He laughed. “Trust me, I can keep up with anything you throw my way. Anything."

Chapter 2

Danielle eased into a lope as they strode away from Carl's new home and onto the street. During the past few weeks of final exams, detailed briefings on the situation in Dallas, and endless bureaucratic paperwork as the courts transferred Carl into her herding, she hadn't had a decent workout. Her body ached from the lack.

She snuck a glance at Carl to see how he was holding up.

Looking was a mistake. He seemed to be holding up fine. Lean muscled legs that had been discreetly hidden beneath prison coveralls were now on full display. His running shorts showed off tight-muscled buns. If he hadn't been impaired, he would have been sexy as anything. Fortunately, her stepfather had cured her of that kind of attraction forever.

She upped the pace and tried to keep her attention on the dangers of the Dallas Zone.
Here there be monsters
, she reminded herself. More quotes from the Academy.

The zone was deceptively quiet. Male and female impaired wandered the streets, apparently going about their business. Few gave Danielle and Carl a second glance, as if a jogging
Were
and his keeper were part of their daily life.

BOOK: In the Werewolf's Den
3.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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