I stopped and leaned back against the brick wall, peering through the moonless darkness at the man in the courtyard, standing ramrod straight under the only lit lamppost. Ruddy wolf messenger. Always have to show up first to a meeting, show who's boss. The tip of the rapier peeking out under the hem of his long, expensive coat made a statement, too. I scoffed a little under my breath - not too loud, of course - I needed this job. Stupid, how much I needed this job really.
I slunk out of the alleyway, adjusted my very-much-less-expensive coat around my broad frame, and strode confidently up to the messenger.
"Hullo." I nodded to him and placed my hands in my coat pockets, my left hand instinctively closing around the small revolver inside.
"Hunter," he smirked at his glowing watch. "You're actually on time."
I waited. No point rising to every barb he'd be sure to throw. Barbs only stick if you let them penetrate.
"Got a job for you," he said, becoming businesslike and important.
Again, I hid my scoff. And my sneer. And my gag reflex: the cologne coming off this stiff was intense.
"You mean what. A wolf gang in the south end. Here are the details." He handed me a sheet of paper with a couple mug shots and descriptions. I studied it for a moment and held it back out to him.
"Keep it," he said. "You might need the reminder."
How long had I been doing this? Don't let it penetrate, I told myself, and forced a smile – more like a grimace, I’ll admit. "Thanks."
Idiot, I thought. Who gives official paperwork to a Hunter? Leave that stuff lying around and humans might get wind. This bloke was really getting on my nerves.
"Why?" I asked casually, folding the paper and putting it in my right pocket.
"Need to clean house. They're causing trouble for us."
Carnivores, I thought in disgust. Always turning on their own kind.
"Is it sanctioned?" I asked through my teeth.
He laughed. "Like you ever cared before."
I glared at him. He held up his hands, still smirking, and then reached inside his coat to pull out the scroll with the Fates seal. "It's sanctioned, Hunter. Happy?"
“Rendezvous?” I ground out, fingering my revolver.
“It’s included,” he said, pointing to my pocket.
I turned on my heel and left the courtyard. This job required more weaponry - and less sleaze. Sometimes I wished I was a werewolf myself, just so I could bite that smarmy jackal.
Several blocks down, I glanced casually around to be positive I wasn’t followed, though of course I’d taken every precaution and kept my ears and nose sharp. Assured, I ducked into a black alleyway headed by the sign, “Desertous,” and trotted down the concrete steps leading to the boarded up door that appeared to be broken and ramshackle but instead opened to a double steel door with a retina scan. I checked the alleyway once more before pressing against the door and holding my eyelid open before the little red box. Piece of junk. Why did I apprentice to such a paranoid Hunter in my youth? Now this out-of-date hardware hardly worked, and I couldn’t afford to replace it. I jogged my foot in place, waiting for the scan to complete, compute, and trip the lock on the inside. My left eye was dry as a bone when I finally heard the clunk that welcomed me home every night.
I shoved the doors in and stepped across the threshold, letting them swing back behind me and latch back into place with a dull thunk. I punched the worn button on the wall to my left that set off a series of chemical reactions that lit the gas lamps lining the walls. I wrinkled my nose. It must be about time to replace the chemicals and refill the gas. Glancing around the silent, shabby room, I felt a bit of relief. Isla must be asleep. No questions to answer.
I strode across the wood floor to the closet tucked behind the rather out-of-place bookcase. Bending over almost double, I pushed aside The Downfall of the Maugi and tripped the lever behind Lycans: Study of the Moon Beasts. I had to help the bookcase grind its way forward to reveal the steel coated gap behind it. Picturing the job paper in my mind, I tapped my finger against my thigh for just a moment, then gently lifted my best cutlass off its hangings and attached it to my belt, caressing the worn leather on the handle and affectionately feeling the way it melded to my closed fist. Next, I shook several bullets that glinted silver in the dim light into my left pocket. I’d keep the revolver. I double checked its cylinder to make sure the six rounds were still safely encased therein. For a moment, I let my imagination roam to a beautiful place where there were only four bullets because I’d put two in that messenger’s smirking face. I allowed myself a small smile, then clicked the cylinder back in place and gently lowered the revolver back inside its holster.
No time like the present, I thought with a grim sigh. After a quick raid of the steel icebox, I left my sturdy apartment and reentered the thick night.
From the alleyway that hid my cheerless abode, I turned west to the river. The wolves would be at the docks, filthy creatures. I let out an involuntary snort. I hated the docks. Also water. Especially dark, smelly, flotsam-thick water like the west river.
Hitching a rather illegal ride on the boot of a passing taxicab, I hopped off a block before the docks and stepped behind a dumpster, listening to the retreating clop-clop of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones. When all was silent – as silent as a dirty city can be at night – I made my way toward the docks, revolver at the ready, eyes peeled for movement or the white gleam of wolf eyes.
There they were: two burly blokes in oilskin coats. They were pacing the riverbank, watching for…a shipment? For trespassers? Whatever it was they were eyeing, they didn’t see me. I crouched behind a large wooden box and narrowed my eyes. One, two, three more were sitting around a barrel, smoking something that dribbled sparks and white smoke onto their pants. As I watched, one of them swatted the embers off his lap and snubbed out the stump left in his mouth with a grunt. One of the others huffed a mouthful of sparks at him, and he swore as they laughed throatily at him. Idiots. All their weapons lay behind their seats, barely within reach. My eyes switched back to the river watchers and took in the Uzis in the guards’ hands and the combat knives tucked in their belts. When I looked even closer, I could make out the claws clutching the gun. Great. One of them was in his moon-rise phase. I squinted but couldn’t tell if his canines were elongated past his lips yet. Oh well. I’d just avoid getting close to that one.
I rolled my shoulders back and cricked my neck side to side. Bullets – ready. Revolver – in hand. Cutlass – in hand. Coat – thrown back. I rose and silently sprinted toward the barrel smokers. Raising my revolver, I fired once, twice, at the river watchers. One fell instantly, the other spun and tripped – I must have clipped his shoulder. I grunted impatiently, but there was no time. I shot the first barrel smoker in the back of the head and slit his laughing partner’s throat with a quick swipe. By this time, the one facing me was whipping his gun out from his backside and snarling, almost on his feet. I deflected his shotgun with my trusty cutlass and shot him in the forehead. Expecting the spray of bullets, but still frustrated when it came, I ducked behind the barrel and poked my head out to the left of it to take aim and – pop pop – shoot my last two rounds into the last guard. His Uzi clattered to the pebbly ground as his body gyrated and fell.
I heard the anticipated shout from inside the warehouse behind me. I whipped open my revolver and darted toward the sheeted metal building. Shoving more silver bullets into the cylinder in two swift movements, I reached the doorway and crouched with my back to the side left of it. My steady breaths were loud in my own ears, augmented by the thumping of my heartbeat. The metal against my back was cold, and I frowned up at the clouds overhead. Surely it wouldn’t rain tonight along with everything else souring my mood. Licking my lips for confirmation, I sighed. Hopefully I wouldn’t get too soaked on the way home.
I chanced a quick look inside, then dashed in, weaving between the hanging plastic sheets, peering about for the maker of the shout. There – in the back corner – a dark form, smaller than the others, stumbled over what looked like medical equipment, racing for a back door, probably. I pushed aside a sheet and made chase, firing when I got within twenty feet, just before he reached the large door. Poor fool. He looked like a medical orderly or a nurse. He never could have opened that chain-locked monstrosity in time. I looked down pityingly as I stepped around him. Oh. Her, actually. I felt a little niggle of guilt that I promptly snuffed. If you hang with the wrong crowd, my mum always said…
I listened for a moment. It wouldn’t do to be caught unawares by a straggler with a penchant for sneakiness. But not a sound came to my ears. I kept my cutlass at the ready just in case and hefted my gun. Allowing myself a look around for something other than strategic placement, I glanced around the strange room.
Plastic sheeting hung, not randomly, as it had seemed at first, but in squares, around metal tables on wheels. Shelves lined one wall. I stepped closer to one and immediately regretted that choice: jars covered the metals shelves, jars with revolting contents like silver eyes, massive paws, organs of some type (I’m not exactly a medical student), hands with moon-risen claws, and a whole set of teeth with fangs. I stopped, wary. Surely not…vampire fangs? Wolf experimentation on their own kind was disgusting enough, but…surely not…
A humid wind gusted through the room through the open door and wafted the sheeting in the air, revealing two bodies, prone on the tables. I tensed, looked around, then used the cutlass to push aside the plastic sheets, drawn to exploration by a grisly curiosity – and stupidity. Quite a bit of stupidity as it turned out.
As I poked around that dank night, I made the discovery that set my story into motion.
He was one of the bodies on a table, and he was young. He was emaciated; I could clearly see his ribcage protruding from his torso. His features were contorted, and not just the normal haughty sneer of a vampire either. Pain and rage were written on his face, and he was decidedly dead.
Now, this may not come as much of a shock, but to me it was. See, I don’t find a lot of dead vampires lying around. If they’re dead, it’s usually by my hand and usually very well deserved. It’s also usually a very close call. Some would say we Hunters live for the adrenaline rush because fighting vampires is certainly not your every day job like bagging groceries or selling top hats. Anyway, the sight of a dead vampire lying on a table in werewolf mafia territory struck a very ominous tone with me – shook me up a bit. When I took a closer peek, it got even worse.
He wasn’t just young and dead; he was young and dead and experimented on, poor blighter. I don’t feel sentimental for vampires much (or at all really), but tonight I felt pity rise with the disgust in my throat as I took in the obvious signs that led to my layman conclusion.
His limbs were shackled to the table – not usually something one does to already dead victims. I felt my lip curl. A silver knife stained with blood lay ominously on the table beside the corpse. My sense of foreboding coiling like a snake in my belly, I noticed the dog-like claws protruding from his high class, soft fingers, and the presence of coarse hair sprouting from his pale chest. When I leaned in closer to verify that those were indeed wolf hairs coming from the chest of a vampire, I noticed a silver moon etched into the hard skin over his heart. Glancing quickly in recognition at the knife beside him, I couldn’t help it: I crossed myself. What were these wolves up to?
The rustling that suddenly came to my ears set off my years of honed reflexes: I jumped around in a crouch, cutlass and revolver pointed out. The nurse who had almost reached the backdoor was crawling her way up to a lever right beside the metallic door. I hadn’t checked closely enough for death signs in her. This is what comes of pity, I thought disgustedly, taking aim. The bullet hit her shoulder, but she reached ever more determinedly upwards and yanked the lever. A square hole in the wall opened beside her shaking fingers, and she slammed her fist on the black button inside just as my final shot pierced her heart through her back. She slumped to the ground, but my instincts roared in me: the damage was done. The rumbling began, and I had just enough time to grab the knife from the table and make a run for one of the two windows in the place. I pulled my hood up and shattered the glass with my shoulder, tumbling through the opening as an explosion brought the entire warehouse to the ground.
Ears ringing, I rolled till I could haul myself upright and run for the street. Batting sparks from my cloak, I darted into an alleyway, cursing.
That’s one way to bury evidence. I’d never trust nurses again.