Authors: Joseph Nassise
Dmitri settled down in front of the door without a word.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Playing guard dog,” he said.
Denise was a smart gal; she didn’t need him to spell it all out for her. But I’d forgotten about her quick wit.
“Nice to see that you know your place,” she said over her shoulder as she slipped into the bathroom. I could imagine the mischievous grin she was wearing as she closed it behind her.
“Laugh away, sweetheart, laugh away,” he called after her. “But when a pack of ravenous zombies bursts through the door, you’ll be happy that there’s a food source between you and them.”
I thought it was a pretty good comeback, but Denise obviously didn’t. She yanked open the door and said, “Sweet Gaia, Dmitri! Zombies are nothing to joke about. Especially here in New Orleans. What’s wrong with you?”
At which point she shut the door again, leaving the two of us to wonder if she was serious or having another joke at our expense.
As I settled down to catch some sleep, I hoped like hell it was the latter.
Dmitri woke me just after midnight for my turn to stand watch. The room was dark and so I had no difficulty seeing him there, crouched over me where I slept on the mattress he’d tossed on the floor earlier.
I kept my voice low, not wanting to wake Denise.
He shook his head. “Some shouting from down the hall earlier, but nothing that concerns us,” he said.
I climbed to my feet as he slid into the bed I’d just vacated. I knew he’d be asleep in seconds; at some point in his life he’d learned the old soldier’s trick of snatching sleep whenever he could get it. In our months on the run I’d seen him sleep through noise that could wake the dead.
In the end, the night passed without incident; the marauding packs of ravenous zombies must have gone elsewhere for the evening. We took turns using the shower to freshen up from our cross-country odyssey. With my hair still damp and a fresh set of clothes on my six-foot frame, I was ready to play psychic detective and track down whatever Denise’s vision had meant her to find.
Provided I got a cup of coffee in me first, of course.
We asked at the front desk where we might grab a bite to eat, and the clerk directed us to a quaint old place a few blocks from the hotel. It wasn’t much to look at from the outside; the window from the street was intentionally soaped over in big white circles, preventing you from seeing in, and the sign on the door simply read
. But once inside I was overwhelmed by the rich, thick smell of roasted coffee and crisp bacon. My stomach grumbled hungrily in response.
It was too bright inside for me to see much of anything, but the presence of the ghost in the corner was as clear as a light in the darkness. He was a grizzled old man, dressed in the whites of a short-order cook, complete with a spatula in his hand. He watched us the way the dead always do, his gaze full of such longing that I had to turn away and pointedly ignore him.
We chose a table in the back and were halfway through our meal when I felt Dmitri stiffen. We’d been together long enough that I didn’t need to be told that someone had suddenly taken an interest in us.
“How many?” I asked, without turning my head or giving any other indication that I’d noticed the newcomers’ approach.
“Three,” he said, sotto voce, and then, louder, “If you’re looking for trouble, I’d reconsider if I were you.”
There was a brief snatch of laughter, as if the newcomers weren’t worried by Dmitri’s confidence. That meant they were either the size of small elephants themselves or stupidly overconfident.
My guess was the latter. If they wanted a fight, we could give them one.
I reached out to the old ghost sitting in the corner and, with the flick of a mental switch inside my head, borrowed his sight.
There was a flash of pain and a deep roar that swept through my consciousness like a runaway freight train and then I could see again.
I turned my head to look.
All three of them were large muscular men in their midtwenties with that disciplined sense about them that suggested a good deal of training, possibly even military in nature. Their hair was cropped short; they were dressed similarly in jerseys, jeans, and hiking boots; and they fanned out in front of us in an inverted V shape that, if things got ugly, would provide them with the best fields of fire without endangering each other. It was clear from how easily they fell into their roles that they had done this kind of thing before. The confidence in their stance told me that whatever was about to happen, they weren’t expecting us to put up much resistance.
We’d see about that.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that the one in front had a thick goatee I might not have been able to tell them apart; all three looked like they’d been popped out of the same mold. I found myself wondering if they were brothers or even cousins, maybe.
Through the veil of the ghostsight I could see a bright silver glow flickering around the edge of each of their auras. I’d never seen that particular manifestation before. It made me wonder. Were they human or something else?
I didn’t know. That, along with their body language so far, made me a bit nervous.
Goatee looked us over, his gaze settling briefly on me and Dmitri before turning his attention to Clearwater. “The Lord Marshal would like to see you,” he said to her.
Now I didn’t know who, or what, the Lord Marshal was and frankly I didn’t really care. The way these guys came in, full of confidence and expecting us to follow orders like a bunch of trained dogs, pissed me off.
“That’s nice and all, but I don’t particularly care what…”
I never finished my sentence. Denise laid her hand on my arm, squeezing just hard enough to cut me off before I was through. I looked at her, the question plain on my face.
Into the silence she said, “We’d be happy to accompany you to see the Lord Marshal,” she said, “provided you give us your word as his representative that we will not come to any harm, intentional or otherwise, while under his care and hospitality.”
Her words had a certain ritual sound to them. I wasn’t the only one who noticed, either, for Goatee raised one eyebrow before answering in a similar fashion.
“So swear I,” he replied.
Apparently we’d left twenty-first-century America behind in favor of an afternoon romp through the Renaissance. Any minute now I expected them to start spouting “wherefore art thou’s” and “by your leave’s.”
Denise smiled primly in Goatee’s direction, and I had the clear impression that the score was Clearwater one, Goatee zero, but that could change pretty quickly. Especially since we didn’t have any idea what this was all about.
We paid the check and got our coats. The old fry cook followed me to the door, so I was able to see the Expedition idling at the curb. A second vehicle waited behind it.
I snagged the sleeve of Denise’s coat. “Are you sure about this?” I whispered. Agreeing to a meeting was one thing. Letting them take us to that meeting under their control was something else entirely.
Denise shrugged off my concerns.
“They’ve given their word under oath,” she said. “We’ll be perfectly safe.”
I stared at her. Given their word? Hadn’t she ever heard of lying?
Apparently not, it seemed, for she left me standing there alone and marched over to the lead vehicle. I looked over at Dmitri, but he simply stared blankly back at me. Was I the only one who saw a problem with this?
I’m gonna regret this. I know it
, I told myself and then followed her into the Expedition, Dmitri at my heels.
The driver was cut from the same mold as the other three. He glanced up in the mirror as the three of us slid into the seat behind him, but he didn’t say anything. Goatee climbed into the passenger seat, riding shotgun, while the other two rode in the second vehicle behind us.
No sooner had we buckled up than the driver pulled away from the curb and headed east, toward the Quarter. My connection with the fry cook faded, and I was left in the light, unable to see anything more for the time being.
The ride passed in silence. I was burning with questions, but I didn’t want to ask any of them in front of Goatee and his companion for fear of revealing my ignorance. Knowledge is power, they say, and they were already quite a bit ahead of me in that department. No need to give them any more of an edge.
We drove for something in the neighborhood of fifteen, maybe twenty minutes before the Expedition slowed and then pulled to a stop.
“Wait here, please,” Goatee said, and then both he and the driver proceeded to get out of the vehicle, leaving the three of us alone.
It seemed a good time to ask Denise what the hell was going on, something I did with more than a bit of fervency.
“Want to fill me in?”
She laughed. “You really are in the dark this time, aren’t you?”
“And will continue to be unless you spill what the heck has been going on. We’ve probably got a minute, maybe two, so stick to the highlight reel, okay?”
She thought for a moment. “Okay. I probably don’t have to tell you that cities like this attract all manner of creatures—Gifted and Preternaturals alike. They come for all the same reasons that normal folks do—better jobs, better opportunities, better chances to reach out and seize the American dream for themselves and their families.
“At least, the good ones do. The others have different things in mind, like hunting and feeding off of the one thing they are strictly forbidden to hunt—the Mundanes.
“To help prevent this, a system was set up to keep the overly aggressive species in check, complete with a means of imposing control over those who refused to abide by the rules. Around the turn of the century, a High Council was established in each of the major American cities, a group of elected officials who are in charge of making sure that those who choose to live and hunt and exist within its boundaries keep to the rules without violating them. Are you with me so far?”
I nodded my understanding.
“Each Council appoints someone to act as the Lord Marshal in the area under their control, a kind of mystical equivalent of the local sheriff in the Old West. It is the Marshal’s job to maintain order within the city limits, see that the Council’s edicts are obeyed, that kind of stuff. He has a team of wardens who carry out his requirements.”
Now things were starting to make sense. It was the Marshal’s job to vet any newcomers to be certain that they weren’t involved in whatever mischief might be going on, hence our “invitation” to pay him a visit. It was the old “I’m the only sheriff in town” routine. He’d sent some of his wardens to collect us, knowing that they could handle any problems that might arise in the process, perhaps even to intimidate a bit if necessary.
Trouble was, I didn’t intimidate easily.
As this so-called Marshal was about to find out.
“When we get inside, just let me handle it,” Denise said.
, I thought.
Right up until the moment they piss me off again.
A few minutes later Denise got fed up with waiting. I felt her stir beside me and then the door opened. “Come on, I’m done sitting on my ass. Let’s go find the Marshal ourselves.”
See why I like her?
Denise took my arm and led me across what I took to be a parking lot and inside a building where it was only a few degrees cooler inside than out; it seemed the Marshal didn’t believe in air conditioning. Dmitri followed close behind.
We hadn’t gone five steps across the lobby before a voice spoke from a doorway to our right.
“Where the hell do you three think you’re going?”
I recognized the voice as Goatee’s, and from the sound of it, he was more than a bit pissed that we hadn’t done what he’d told us to do.
“To see the Marshal. Isn’t that why you brought us here?”
Denise’s tone was equally clear: we’ll do what we damn well please.
Goatee wasn’t done trying to impose order on the situation, however.
“The Marshal is tied up at the moment. You’re going to have to wait.”
“Oh, no we’re not!” she snapped, her anger finally spilling free. In response, Dmitri moved closer, ready to intervene if it became necessary.
“The Marshal asked to see us and we’ve honored that request. But my patience has limits, and I’m not waiting around all day until he deigns to entertain us. I’ve got better things to do. So he can either see us while we’re standing here or come find us later when it’s more ‘convenient.’ Either way, I don’t really give a shit.”
And not just a little chuckle either. From the sound of it, he threw back his head and guffawed at the ceiling like a crazy man.
I thought Denise was going to blow a gasket. She wasn’t someone who enjoyed being the butt of anyone’s humor, intentionally or otherwise. I waited for the explosion, but she must have pulled an extra helping of patience today because it never came.
Finally, Goatee got himself back under control.
“Aren’t you the little spitfire?” he said to Denise.
That did it.
Denise’s voice got very soft, something that was never a good sign.
“What did you call me?” she asked, and I felt the air around us stir with her anger.
Goatee began to look a bit nervous, but his ringing cell phone saved the day.
“Yes?” he said into it, then, “We’re on our way.”
Hanging up, he said, “The Marshal will see you now.”
Saved by the bell.
He’s out there.
Special Agent Dale Robertson stared out the window at the rain-swept Washington streets, his thoughts on Jeremiah Hunt, the man he’d been pursuing for the last several months. Wanted for the murder of a Massachusetts police detective, as well as at least a dozen civilians in just as many states, Hunt was considered a cold-blooded killer, and Robertson had every intention of bringing him to justice.
But he had to find him in order to do that and it was turning out to be more difficult than he’d anticipated.