Authors: Rob Preece
"I understand, sir,” she told him.
"I'm still Joe,” he urged her. He rang his admin and called for coffee, then got down to business.
"Headquarters is always willing to try some scheme that's guaranteed to end the return forever. Of course, they make darned sure some remote district office is stuck holding the bag with any failure. And guess what? It's been ten years and we still have the impaired. Every single plan has failed. They just don't seem to get it that we're stretched thin out here. We need you hunting, not babysitting a tame werewolf.
"I'd like to do what I'm trained for,” she admitted.
"The Academy trained you for anything. What I figure is, if they're going to let an impaired do research, at least we'd give him a herder that he couldn't shake off. Can you imagine what would happen if he was untended? Hell, he might just decide that the magic plague hadn't gone far enough. I'm no scientist, but I'm willing to bet that it would be easier to infect the rest of us than it would be to cure those already impaired."
Joe was right. Danielle nodded grimly. She'd needed this warning.
"I won't let you down, Joe."
"I know.” He paused, then rushed ahead. “I'd like to get you out of herding and into something worthwhile right away, but Washington insists on this project and you're my best hope to keep it from blowing up.” He took a sip of his coffee and leaned forward across the table. “Once the job is over, then we'll get to work on your career.” He chuckled. “Hell, with your grades from the Academy, I won't be surprised to wake up one morning and find out I'm working for you."
Danielle shook her head. She didn't see that happening.
His smile faded. “But first, we've got to get through this mess. If you see any danger, it would be your job to blow the whistle and bring it to a premature end. Any danger at all."
"Yes, sir. I'll keep that in mind."
The weight that had settled on her chest when Joe had told her that Carl was a Washington directive lifted. She had her ticket out. At any time, she could simply call Joe, tell him there was a danger, and she'd be wearing her informal dress Hunter uniform to the next Warder cocktail party. Cool.
He grasped her biceps and squeezed. “I hope you've kept your training up, Agent Goodman. Because if you decide to cancel the project, I'm ordering that you also terminate Harriman immediately. And be careful. Harriman may only be a
, but he was a third-degree black belt before his impairment. And now he's got wolf reflexes to go with his skill. Don't underestimate your opponent, Goodman."
Her momentary elation evaporated like a mirage. She could have her dream job, but only by killing the man she'd learned to like and admire. Still, Danielle was a warder. She'd do her duty.
"I've been continuing with my training, sir,” she ansWered honestly. “And I have no concerns about my ability to take Harriman and any mob he assembles."
Joe pulled a red bandana from his pocked, wiped his sweating forehead, and peered at her. “Assembling a mob. Is that what Harriman is doing?"
"He's hired some lab assistants and gofers,” she said. “He wouldn't call it a mob, but you know the law."
The law made it illegal for more than four impaired to gather together in one place. It was a law that made absolutely no sense in the zone, but that provided warders legal justification for any activity they deemed necessary. Not that the courts had bothered to question the warders legal abilities since the Supreme Court handed down the People vs. Delaware Impaired decision.
Joe nodded. “It's a mob when we need it to be. Good work, Danielle. I knew I could count on you."
She nodded, torn between her pride at Joe's confidence in her and the empty certainty that killing Carl would be the most difficult thing she would do in her life.
Danielle returned to Carl's compound filled with a grim determination to keep Carl in line—and to make sure she wasn't forced into terminating him. She expanded her bugging to the entire lab complex, spent late nights reviewing every questionable computer file, and battled down any temptation to see Carl as a man rather than as an impaired.
Then she worked on integrating herself more closely into his activities. Like helping with security.
A few days after her meeting with Joe, an outlaw gang's attempt to extort one of Carl's lab assistants created an opportunity to do just that.
She and Mike tried to keep Carl out of it, but he insisted on going along when they told him they were going to spike a shakedown on Dean, a lab tech.
It ended up with Mike, Danielle, Carl, the two dwarves, and a troll all trying to look inconspicuous on a narrow zone street.
"Perfect. We can see his apartment from here.” Mike the Vampire plopped down on at a little cafe-style table outside a small bar.
Danielle joined Mike, Carl, and the dwarves at the table, but kept her eyes busy looking for Dean. Snori, the troll whom Carl had hired that morning, stood across the street, blocking the intersection like a statue.
The waitress, a little fairy-like creature with non-functional wings that flapped at hummingbird speeds and merely stirred the moist Dallas air around them, made sure she stayed a good six feet away when she took their orders.
She squealed when Mike ordered a Bloody Mary.
The two dwarves wanted coffee, but settled for beer when Mike shot them a glare.
"You don't want to see dwarves hyper on coffee,” he explained to Danielle.
Danielle nodded and asked for bottled water from across the zone line.
That got more attention than everything else put together, including the vampire.
The waitress fled, not even waiting to take Carl's order, and returned with the beer, the Bloody Mary, and a gnome. She dumped off the drinks and left.
The gnome tapped a small club against his palm. “No magics in normal shops, no normals in mine."
"She's with me,” Mike said.
"Yeah? Well, then maybe you're not welcome here either. I had a nice place in Lewisville before they passed the zone laws. Know what they did? Had the health inspectors out every day for a month. I ended up with no customers. Had to shut down. Wasn't doing anything illegal. Just pure nastiness."
Carl sighed. “We're trying to change that, sir. I understand your anger. But retaliating just makes things worse. Besides, Danielle is different. She's one of the few who can see how silly these distinctions are. She's one of the normal who will treat you like a human rather than some sort of inferior."
Danielle kept her mouth shut. Carl was right. She had been heading down that road before Joe had given her the warning and brought her back to the warder path. A warder protects the humans from the magical. That is the whole of the job.
"I don't serve normals,” the gnome repeated as if Carl had said nothing. “And I don't serve normal drinks. You think I'm going to go to the barriers and haggle for bottled water when we get perfectly good water here?"
Carl reached into his wallet, probably looking for a cash means of resolving this argument but Mike held up a hand. “The dwarves and I will sit and enjoy our drinks. The human and the
will simply keep us company. Is that a problem?"
Mike never raised his voice, never changed his tone, but that last question carried a load of menace that would have sent most normals into convulsions of fear.
The gnome was no coward, but neither was he a fool. “The zone is still a free country,” he observed. “Not like the outside. Sit where you like. Finish your drinks. Then go somewhere else.” He stomped back into his bar.
"He won't be back,” Mike told Carl. “And we definitely won't see that waitress again. Just leave three dollars on the table."
"Three dollars is plenty. In the zone, your money goes a long way."
They sat silently for a while, watching the alleyway entrances to the courtyard where they sat, and where Dean would soon be returning from his day in Carl's lab.
Danielle wouldn't have thought it possible, but both Mike and Carl blended into the background looking completely at home, completely nondescript, and completely harmless. The two dwarves didn't look harmless, but everyone knew that dwarves will leave you alone if you leave them alone—and if you didn't mess with anything they lay a property claim to.
Which left her standing out like a giant in a normal kindergarten.
Tough. Running interference with impaired gangs was exactly what she needed to be doing.
She slouched in her chair, but Carl laughed at her.
"You look about as natural as a catfish trying to dance."
"So, what should I do?"
"Look bored and disdainful. Like you're a rich normal looking for kinky pleasures. You can't help standing out in the crowd so let them see what you want them to see, not someone who's obviously faking it."
"But I'm not some pervert looking for kinky pleasure. I wouldn't know how to begin acting like one."
"You've got the bored and disdainful down. That should do it."
As compliments went, she could have done without that one. Still, she pulled out her compact, powdered her nose, adjusted her lipstick, and thought she did a decent job at the disdain. Boredom was easy. She'd barely passed her stakeout exams at the Academy.
Carl's research assistant, Dean, squirreled through the near alley a good hour later. The little imp wore a short-sleeved white shirt with a clip-on tie that had lost one of his clips. His face dripped with sweat and he clutched his plastic briefcase like a lifesaver. To Danielle's surprise, the imp's glasses-covered eyes glanced over her and moved on without a hint of recognition. Either he was so afraid he wasn't seeing straight, or her disguise was better than she'd thought.
Dean was halfway across the courtyard when the doors of three nearby shops opened and an assortment of elves,
, and trolls surrounded the imp.
"I guess you missed your rendezvous point, Mr. Dean,” one of the elves observed. “Perhaps you forgot that we had a meeting scheduled. But you didn't forget to bring us the research report, did you?” The tall elf wore black jeans and a western-styled shirt covered, despite the heat, by a long coat. Her warder training practically shouted out the warning. Strangely, the elf's face was serene, calm, and beautiful.
She could barely see Dean but she couldn't miss the stark fear that filled his eyes. Even more fear than when she'd caught him rifling Carl's files that morning.
"I, uh, thought I saw someone at the rendezvous,” the imp explained. “Naturally I knew you would track me down."
"But I did get the papers, Mr. Arenesol,” Dean said. The imp could have won an Oscar if the impaired were eligible. They weren't, of course. “It wasn't easy,” the imp explained, possibly gilding the lily. “But I was able to make a copy when the others were at lunch. They'll never notice it was touched. Exactly as you ordered."
The elf reached for the briefcase the imp clutched under his arm. “Good. So you never told anyone about our meeting?"
"Of course not.” Dean let go with a sign of reluctance.
"Excellent.” The elf laughed, an almost silent exhalation, then tossed the case to one of the
"I guess we'll just have to give him his reward, then Rocky."
She pressed the detonator as she jumped from her chair, suppressing the urge to duck at the sharp slap of explosion.
She was prepared for the noise and the bits of
that landed around her. The mob that had attacked Dean wasn't so lucky. Several ducked. One ran, cutting down on the number that she was left to deal with. The troll, Rocky, barely flinched.
But that flinch was enough to let her close the distance from the cafe. She blocked the troll's knife inches from Dean's throat, slapped a finger strike at Rocky's eyes, and then brought a hundred and twenty pounds of angry woman straight down onto the troll's instep.
Rocky howled, but earned his name, keeping to his feet as he swung the knife at Danielle. Dean had the sense to drop to the ground and start crawling away from the fight, which had expanded with the arrival of Mike the Vampire, Carl, Snori, and the two dwarves.
Rocky was strong enough to be dangerous. If one of his grasping hands caught her, he could pick her up and snap her spine before she had a chance to do much. On the other hand, he was so slow that Danielle could have evaded his grasps even without warder training. So she had the chance to watch the others in her impromptu mob as they waded into the battle.
After only a little training from her, the dwarves, Billy and Willie, had perfected street fighting as an art form. The two worked together, one distracting while the other pounded rock-hard punches into any body part they could reach.
Snori seemed clumsy even for a troll, but somehow managed to knock down two of the trolls in the mob and then picked up a gnome by the ears.
The troll and dwarves concentrated, Danielle noticed, on the lower-ranking members of the mob that had surrounded Carl's research assistant, leaving the core of the organization to herself, Mike the Vampire, and Carl.
Mike was a martial arts machine. With an economy of movement that would have made any of Danielle's instructors green with envy, he reached through ineffectual blocks to touch pressure points, sending his opponents reeling in pain or temporary paralysis.Carl had half-shifted. He'd kept enough of his human form to deliver powerful kicks and punches, but fought low to the ground, threatening his enemies with powerful wolf jaws. While Mike and the dwarves kept the elf's bodyguards from coming into play, Carl attacked Arenesol.
Thanks to Joe's warning, Danielle could see the art in Carl's attack. Perhaps in those six months of solitary confinement, he'd developed a scheme to integrate martial arts designed for humans into his new form. Or perhaps his style of Kung Fu was one of those already based on animal movement.
Still, the elf was good. All elves had a grace and economy of motion that would make a human ballet dancer look clumsy, and this elf clearly practiced. He blocked Carl's attack and landed a raking straight-fingered thrust that nearly took Carl's eyes out.