Luke concentrated on the road for a moment, not letting his thoughts wander to the news Gwen had just read out loud. After a nice lunch with his ward, he was looking forward to some time at home so he could finally rest for a while. He’d hoped for a bit of respite after the weeks of near constant action and fighting—time to reset mentally and prepare for the next stage of their campaign against Cassius and his horde of vampires. Instead, annoyance and anxiety warred within as he tried to focus on driving instead of planning his next campaign.
Luke looked over at the preteen girl in the passenger seat of his old, black 1989 Volvo 240DL wagon. “Read the message to me again, please.”
“I think we found Cassius.”
“Anything else?” Luke asked.
“Not on this message.” She scrolled through the other texts that had come in at the same time. “Want me to read this one from Sam?”
“Yeah, pick whichever one has the most information.”
“One of the people from the tracking teams thinks they saw Cassius last night. They’ve been staking out the area and don’t think he’s left yet. He wants to know what to do now that we’re all back in town. What do you think?” Gwen read.
Luke looked at the radio to check the time. It wasn’t too long until dark, and they still had to stop and pick up Alfred from the pet hotel. They were about forty-five minutes from his house.
“Gwen, can you text Sam back? Tell her to gather Pablo, Delilah, and Pieter at my house in ninety minutes. See if they can get some extra shotgun shells.”
“OK.” Gwen typed the message and sent it. “She says, ‘Okie dokie.’ ”
“Alright, let’s go pick up Alfred then.” Luke sighed.
“How are you doing, Luke?”
“Fine, I guess. I was just hoping for some time to rest. Well, maybe later. I need some music, I think. Mind picking something?” The kid was entirely too perceptive and probably had guessed he wasn’t actually fine. He needed to compartmentalize his feelings until he had time and space to examine them.
“Can do.” She set Luke’s phone on the shelf under the radio and took out her phone.
He wasn’t paying attention to whatever Gwen had picked until the eerie vibe, heavy tones, and aggressive female vocals pulled him out of his brooding. “This is good, what is it?”
Gwen looked at her screen. “It’s called ‘Like Blood.’”
“What’s the band?”
“I like it. Where’d you find them?”
“Um, they were on a playlist I was checking out, and I liked them, so I saved them to my list.”
The song ended, advancing to the next.
“Can you play that again? I wasn’t paying attention for the first part.”
Gwen complied. Soon, the witchy sounds of the song had them both bobbing their heads as they cruised down I-84. When the song ended, Luke had her find the album, the metal band matching his mood. The album lasted until they pulled off the freeway to pick up Alfred at the pet hotel. Gwen, enjoying the band as much as Luke, put on another of their EPs.
When they stopped at the hotel, Alfred was sitting on the counter like he owned the place. The person behind the counter stood up when they walked through the door. Alfred meowed when he saw them, hopping down to greet Gwen.
“I’m here to pick up this guy.” Luke bent over and scratched Alfie behind the ears as he purred.
“Sorry, we had him out. Everyone here loves him so much. He’s kind of the boss around here,” the woman replied.
Luke chuckled. “That sounds like Alfie. Can you please grab his carrier?”
“Sure thing.” The clerk got up and walked into the backroom, reemerging a minute later with a large pet carrier.
She handed it to Luke. Setting it on the ground tipped on its back so the opening faced the ceiling, Luke scooped up Alfred, grabbing his back legs and tail in one hand, and dropped him into the carrier butt first, closing the door as the cat’s head disappeared inside. When he stood up, the clerk had his paperwork ready.
“Looks like you’re all paid up. We’ll see you next time!”
Luke nodded. “Thanks!”
Gwen held the door for Luke as he exited.
“Bye, Alfred,” the attendant called just before the door shut behind them.
When Luke and Gwen got home, Sam, Delilah, and Pablo were already parked out front, their cars lined up in front of the house, waiting. As soon as Luke pulled into the driveway, they exited their vehicles and stood by the front door. A smile tugged at the corner of his lips at the sight of his friends, even though he’d seen them only hours earlier. It had been too long since there’d been people in his life he cared about this much. But that was a different time and place.
Luke, finding his house key, said, “Hmm, I should probably get a few spare key made for you all so you don’t have to wait outside. Where’s Pieter?”
“We’ll pick him up on the way from the pack guest house.” Pablo patted Luke on the back. “How was the drive in your fancy car?”
“Excellent! I can’t wait to see what it can really do. So far it responds nicely.”
After the door closed, Luke set down Alfie’s carrier and let the giant orange tabby out. The team followed Luke into the living room and grabbed a seat.
“I need to send a quick message.” Luke pulled out his phone. Hey, Maggie. I hate to impose on you, but can you watch Gwen tonight? We may have found Cassius, and everyone wants to take the shot.
He walked into the kitchen to grab a sparkling water for Gwen and himself; no one else wanted anything. When his phone vibrated in his pocket, he pulled it out.
Sure. Mind if she stays here though?
Luke found Gwen sitting in a chair along the wall. “Gwen, I’m going to have Maggie watch you tonight, do you mind if I drop you off there?”
Gwen crossed her arms. “I guess so. Can’t she come here?”
“I think she would like to spend some time with her partner. I’m sure they’re very nice.” He looked down as his phone vibrated again.
There are fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.
“Maggie says there are fresh cookies.” Luke tipped his head to the side and raised his eyebrows.
Gwen looked uncertain. She liked Maggie, but she’d never met her partner and was still wary of werewolves other than the few she accepted. Of course, Luke didn’t even know if Maggie’s partner was a wolf. He’d been told there were a lot of human members in the pack, partners and other family members.
Gwen narrowed her eyes. “Well, if there are cookies…”
I’ll drop her off shortly, but Gwen has made it clear this is conditional on the cookies. I think she’s nervous about meeting someone new.
I’m sure she’ll love my partner. They’re very sweet and make the best cookies. We’ll make her dinner and watch a movie or two, Maggie texted back.
Thanks. What’s your address?
“Hey, Luke, what’s got you smiling like that?” Delilah asked.
“What? I’m just making arrangements.” He hadn’t realized he was smiling.
When he looked around the room, Gwen was snickering but trying to hide it. Sam looked as serene as ever while Pablo had both his lips pulled in between his teeth as he forced himself to keep something in—probably laughter or jokes knowing Pablo.
Luke chose to ignore the question for the moment. “Any updates since the first flurry of messages?”
Sam raised her hand. “I sent out another of one of our sweepers to relieve Joe; he’s been there since last night. So far no changes. No vehicles have pulled up and no one has left, vampire or thrall. I did have a thought, though. Or rather a question. Is it really Cassius?”
“What do you mean?” Luke asked, narrowing his eyes.
“When we left him, he was motoring away in the Coast Guard life boat.”
“Well, they’re not fast, but if he headed straight for Astoria, he probably could have beat us in. We were going pretty slow to conserve fuel and had to go further south. They had a straight line back into the Columbia. Also, we spent time out at the farm.” Delilah looked like she was about to say something before Luke continued, “Besides, it’s too good of an opportunity to pass up. At worst, we’ll root out another nest. But, if it is him, this is the break we need. I’m not saying killing Cassius is going to solve all our vampire problems, but it’ll buy us some breathing room.”
Luke took a drink from the can of sparkling water. “There’s definitely something bigger going on. We got hints of that last fall on the St. Johns Bridge. That bearded man who took Cassius’s body is still out there and probably calling the shots. And now we have to worry about Commissioner Bealer and his connection to the vampires and the upcoming mayoral race.”
“Could it be a trap?” Pablo shifted nervously. “I’m not in the mood to get blown up again.”
“We’ll have to be wary of that,” Luke said. “But if I sense vampires there, then it’s unlikely to be explosives. We should see if there’s anyone else available to back us up in case they’ve got a gang of vamps ready to stomp us.
“All good points,” Pablo conceded. “What’s the plan?”
“Put out the word for volunteers. I don’t want to force anyone else into duty after everything we’ve been through the last several weeks. We’ll even take some non-trained people from the sign up list. All they’ll need to do is sit back and keep an eye on various escape routes, nothing too dangerous.”
“Right, can I borrow your laptop so I can access my lists easier?” Sam asked, her tone shifting to “business Sam.”
Luke looked at Gwen. “Could you grab my laptop out of the office, please? And when you’re done, you’ll probably want a fresh change of clothes and your overnight bag.”
Gwen nodded and walked toward the office. While Gwen fetched the computer, Luke cast a quick glance toward Delilah. Her face was a riot of emotions as she tried to force her face into a calm, cool expression. She failed repeatedly, anger and worry fighting for dominance when she lost control.
Pablo stood up and went to the kitchen, opening the fridge and returning with a bottle of beer. “Figured if we’re going to be planning for a bit, I’ve got time for one.” He took a sip. “I put the word out to have everyone drop their guns and excess shells at the pack guest house with Pieter. I’m not sure who all is back in town yet. Some people took the opportunity to take some time off at the coast since everyone was already there.”
Luke nodded, his anxiety rising. He’d settle in when they got closer to action, as he always did, but right now, the what ifs were making their presence known. “That’s good. We have enough M12s since we all threw ours in your pickup, but we’ll need more shells. Our supply was looking pretty thin when we loaded up.”
Pablo, shifting in his seat, pulled out his phone. “Well, Archie wants to know if he can help out.”
“Yeah, tell him we could use him. I’d like more people when we go in. Have him meet us at the pack guest house.” Luke dropped into an arm chair.
Delilah cleared her throat. “So, we just gonna carry shotguns down a street out in the open?”
Sam looked up from Luke’s laptop with a furrowed brow. “Yeah, that might not be the best idea. The whole city is hyper vigilant after two buildings blew up downtown. We’d have the police called on us super-fast.”
“They’re already in the duffel bags we used to haul them up to the freighter,” Pablo said. “It’s just luggage, so we’ll look natural enough.” He shrugged before taking another drink of beer.
“I guess I didn’t think of that,” Delilah replied, crossing her legs, then uncrossing them and adjusting in her seat.
They sat quietly, the nervous energy in the room palpable, while Sam worked her text and email chains.
Closing Luke’s laptop, Sam stood up. “OK. That’s done, we’ll see who can help. I’m going to use the restroom.”
“Alright, when you’re done there,” Luke said, “I want to head over to the pack guest house so we can get prepped, plus I need to drop Gwen off at Maggie’s.”
Satisfied they’d accomplished everything they could at his house, Luke, Gwen, and Sam—volunteering to direct him to Maggie’s house—got into Luke’s Volvo while Delilah went with Pablo. When they parked on the street outside Maggie’s bungalow-style house, Pablo parked behind him.
Luke knew Gwen was nervous about meeting someone new, but now that it was time to meet Maggie’s partner, his own nerves kicked in. It wasn’t the first time he’d been involved with someone involved with someone else, nor was it the first time he’d met the other person. But that was a long time ago, and a lot had changed in the world, not least of which included Luke. Trust Maggie. That had become his motto the last couple of days in regards to all that had changed.
He hadn’t expected to meet Maggie’s partner this soon in…whatever this was. It was too early to call it anything other than an attractive woman he liked had invited him to her bed and that she wanted to see him again in an intimate manner. Oh well, it was too late to do anything about it now.
He pushed the doorbell. A few moments later, a short person, maybe five-two, of south Asian heritage with dark brown skin opened the door. They had one of the sides and the back of their head shaved with the hair on top long and swept to the side, landing at the top of their shoulder.
“Ah, hello. You must be Luke and Gwen. Come in, Magdalena will be down in a moment,” they said through a mild London accent. “I’m Zel, by the way.”
Luke extended his hand, and Zel took it, shaking it. “It’s nice to meet you, Zel. Thanks for letting me impose on you, but it’s kind of an emergency.”
Zel smiled warmly. “No worries. I’ve been wanting to meet you and Gwen. We’ll take good care of her. I’ve made up the spare bedroom for her, plus I have warm cookies in the kitchen.”
Gwen perked up at the word cookies, sniffing deeper and looking for the telltale cookie smell. She was standing a little behind Luke and to the side, the place she usually stood when she was nervous—close to him for protection but curious enough to not hide entirely behind him.
Luke’s gaze drifted to the stairs when he heard footsteps coming down. His face split into a smile when Maggie came into view. The blond Polish doctor had her hair pulled back in a ponytail. The black yoga pants she wore highlighted her curvy hips. She rounded out her comfy look with a baggy sweatshirt. When she saw them, she smiled and walked over, hugging Gwen then Luke.
“Come on, Gwen. Let’s go see about those cookies.” Zel gestured toward the back of the house with their head. “Luke, it was very nice to meet you. Good luck tonight.”
“Thanks, Zel. It was good meeting you too.” Luke smiled and nodded at Maggie’s partner. He hugged Gwen then guided her after Zel.
When they disappeared through the door leading to what he assumed was the kitchen, he was left alone with Maggie. Not sure what to do, he put his hands in his jean pockets. “You have a very nice home, Maggie.”
“Thanks.” She stepped forward and pulled Luke into a more intimate hug.
He responded stiffly until her warmth and pleasant scent won over his nervousness. He loosened up, sinking into her arms.
Maggie pulled back, holding him at arm’s length. “A little nervous?”
He chuckled. “Yeah. This is all…new.”
She smiled and rubbed his arm. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, I should get going. We’re meeting up with Pieter before heading out and still need to check that all the shotguns are ready.”
“OK, I’ll walk you out.” She held the door and followed him out onto her porch. “Luke?”
Maggie stepped into him, wrapping her arms around him and looking up. He looked deep into her blue eyes, the world around them disappearing and narrowing to just them. When she tipped her lips up toward him, he responded. The gentle and lingering kiss caused his heart rate to spike as warmth spread over his body. When they parted, she ran her hand along his cheek.
“Good luck, Luke.”
“Thank you, Maggie.”
She let him go with a final squeeze of his hand. He watched Maggie walk back into her house and shut the door before turning around. When he saw three sets of eyes staring back at him from his car and Pablo’s truck, he froze, nearly missing his step. He caught himself, stumbling down the steps to the sidewalk. Pablo grinned from ear to ear. Sam looked amused. He wasn’t sure about the look on Delilah’s face. He sighed. At least he’d have a few minutes to get himself together before Delilah interrogated him. On the positive side, it distracted him from his thoughts about the upcoming mission.
When he got back into his Volvo, Sam looked over and patted his knee. “Good for you two. I knew she was interested in you. I’m glad she did something about it.”
“Um, thanks. How do you know it wasn’t me who did something?”
Sam stared at him, one eyebrow rising. “Luke. Come on. It’s you.”
Luke sighed, shaking his head as he put the car in drive and pulled out onto the street. “You’re right.”
“She wasn’t terribly subtle about it, at least around the people who know her best.”
Once they got to the guest house, Pablo let them in, punching in the code to the lock. Delilah kept flicking her eyes toward Luke, curiosity mixing in with the other array of emotions that had been playing across her face all evening.
As soon as they closed the door, Luke sat to take his shoes off. She grabbed the chair next to his as they pulled off their shoes. “Soooo, Luke.” She drew out the syllables of his name as well. “What’s going on with you and Maggie?”
“Um, I’m not sure.” He knew the answer sounded pathetic as soon as it left his mouth, but it was mostly true. It had been just twenty-four hours.
“That kiss looked pretty serious for ‘not sure.’”
Pablo laughed nearby.
“You hush, Pablo,” Luke said, causing Pablo to laugh harder.
“Are you two seeing each other?” Delilah leaned away from him so she could properly stare at him.
“I don’t know, I guess?” Luke, already discombobulated, was growing increasingly uncomfortable under Delilah’s scrutiny.
“When did this happen?” she asked.
“At the farm,” Luke mumbled, looking down at the floor.
Delilah’s eyebrows shot up. “That was yesterday. I was there.”
“But you weren’t paying attention,” Pablo chimed in.
“Hush, wolfboy!” Delilah extended her hand toward Pablo and brought her fingers to her thumb in the “close your lips” gesture.
Luke, pulling off his second boot and setting it down, stood. “Delilah. It’s new and confusing and that’s probably about all the answer I have for you.” He walked into the other room, leaning up against the wall out of eyesight but still within earshot.
“I didn’t mean to upset him,” Delilah said to no one specific.
“I don’t think you really upset him,” Sam said, her voice calm and filled with kind understanding. “I think he’s sincere when he says he doesn’t know and that it’s confusing for him.”
Delilah sighed. “Yeah, I shouldn’t have grilled him so hard. Well, I’m glad someone took pity on him.”
Luke’s stomach dropped, the comment cutting him deeper than he thought it would have.
“Hey,” Pablo said, sounding indigent.
“Pablo.” Sam’s tone warning. “Delilah, that was uncharitable of you. Luke is a sweet man and handsome. It’s perfectly understandable that Maggie would find him attractive and want to do something about it.”
Delilah sighed. “You’re right. That was not cool. I’m just so fucking keyed up about tonight. I let my anxiety get the better of me.” She paused for a moment. “Luke?”
“Yeah?” It felt weird to hear them talking about him so openly, but the pack was more open than he was. He didn’t dislike it. It felt good to be cared about, even if it was awkward.
“I’m sorry. That was rude,” Delilah said.
He popped his head back through the door. “That’s OK. It’s all…new.”
“Speaking of kissing pretty werewolves, Rosa OK with canceling your date after not seeing you for weeks?” Sam asked.
Delilah’s face slipped into a neutral expression. “Yeah. She understands.”
Sam nodded. Delilah finished pulling her boots off and followed Luke through the door to the back end of the house. When she saw him leaning against a wall, she smiled softly, her expression losing some of its hard edges. She offered a hug.
Stepping away from the wall, he accepted the embrace. He needed to get his emotions under control before they went into action, but he was finding it hard to manage with so much happening. Dating and having friends who cared about his well-being were all new and, added on top of their impending confrontation with his ancient and former friend Cassius, created a maelstrom of feelings Luke was struggling to manage.
Delilah sighed, shaking her head. “Luke. I’m sorry.” She swallowed and looked down. “I’m just… I’m so fucking angry all the time.” She looked up and into Luke’s eyes, a note of pleading in her dark brown eyes. “All I can think about is killing that piece of shit.” Breathing deeply, she shifted on her feet anxiously. “I shouldn’t take it out on my friends.”
Luke nodded wobbly. “I know, Delilah. I know. Cassius is like a piece of unfinished business niggling at the front of my mind incessantly.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Gods, I wish he’d stayed dead. At least then he was a memory of a friend, not a monster who orchestrates the killing of innocents. I need to put him down just as much as you. We’ll do this.”
Delilah clenched her jaw and exhaled sharply through her nostrils. “We’ll do this.”
Squeezing her shoulder, he turned to face Sam and Pablo. “Ready to go find Pieter?”
The four of them found Pieter, the son of Flanders’s packleader, in the basement, hunched over a table full of shotguns. The tall, trim man was dressed down in a pair of jeans and a tight fitting black t-shirt. He was inspecting them all, ensuring everything was clean and in working order, a pile of ammo boxes stacked to one side.
“How’s everything looking, Pieter?” Luke asked.
“Pretty good. We’re only down one shotgun. We’ll need to get some parts for it. How many will we need tonight?”
“Just the hit team will need them. So us five and one for Archie.” Luke picked up a gun, inspecting it.
Pieter looked up from the shotgun he was cleaning. “Six people enough?”
“Yeah, too many in the tight confines of a house would be almost more dangerous than too few. Plus, we don’t have many trained assets available right now. People are taking time off after the freighter. We weren’t expecting to go back into action immediately. We’ve got some volunteers to stake out escape routes for non-engagement and following, but the six of us will have to do.”
Pieter held his gaze for a moment then nodded, returning to his work on the shotgun. Luke’s team was confident in their leader, but he was still unsure of what waited for them. He hoped the severe blow they’d dealt Cassius on the freighter would keep him from preparing a response this quickly. Once they got to Cassius’s new hideout, they’d
make do a final check in with the packmembers watching the house before making a final decision.
All the volunteers were stationed around the neighborhood in cars. Sam had sent out the best photos they had of Cassius, mostly screen shots from the few press conferences he attended, lurking in the background near Commissioner Bealer. He hadn’t done anything significant to change his appearance since washing up in Portland when Luke first discovered who was pulling the strings last fall.
Luke, Pablo, Pieter, Delilah, Sam, and Archie, split up between Luke’s and Pablo’s vehicles, parked several blocks away before moving to closer positions. They used the FRS radios Luke had acquired to communicate with each other, Sam sending out orders via text to the outlying teams.
“You read there, team Pablo?” Luke asked through his radio.
“Oh shit, forgot about something,” Pablo said over his radio. The heavy whump of his door closing announced he’d stepped out of his truck.
Luke watched as Pablo walked around back, opened the canopy top, and pulled out a bag. Bending over, he slapped something over his license plate, repeating it at the front of his truck then the front and back of Luke’s Volvo.
When he got back into his Toyota Tacoma, he spoke through his radio, “Forgot I had Jorge make us some magnetic license plate dummies. Thought it might be good to have fake plates in case they tried to track us down via our vehicles.”
“I hope the numbers aren’t attached to civilian vehicles,” Luke responded.
“No, he made sure all the numbers weren’t in use.”
Sam joined in. “When we’re done, we should see if we can get into the DMV system and register them to some fake aliases. That way if cops run the plates, they won’t come up as void.”
“Great idea,” Luke said. “We ready?”
Pablo called back that his car was ready. Luke looked in the rear view mirror and got the nod from Archie. Sam nodded from the passenger seat. He took a slow, deep breath through his nose, letting it out his mouth. If they could get Cassius, they might be able to halt the vampire invasion, at least for a while. Tired of reacting to Cassius’s machinations, today presented the first opportunity to get ahead of the bastard, and Luke didn’t want it to go sideways. He tamped his nerves down, hoping they had enough plan in place to get the job done.
Licking his lips, Luke keyed in the radio. “Alright. We’ll come in from opposite sides. See you there.”
Luke put the car in drive and pulled onto the side road, about to roll out onto Northeast Glisan so they could wind their way through the Laurelhurst neighborhood with its swankier old Portland houses.
“Crap,” Sam said.
“What?” Luke asked, keeping his eyes on the road.
“One of the watchers says a bunch of cops just came through, looks like they’re heading toward our house.”
“Alright, let everyone know. We’ll go in slow and stop if we need to,” Luke replied.
When they made the first turn, they had to pull over as another wave of cop cars passed them, lights on. Jaw clenched, Luke squinted, his brow[cT3] furrowing. It was likely a coincidence but having an armada of cop cars and their accompanying police officers near the house they’d planned to raid and potentially use their shotguns in wasn’t good. They’d have to go in without the firearms. There’s only so many times neighbors can play “gun or firework?” before they call the cops, and with them this close, there’d be no time to escape. He needed to acquire land closer to town so he could set up a training spot. Hand-to-hand combat training was going to be a desperate priority.
He was sure Delilah was fuming, potentially missing yet another opportunity to end Cassius. Luke keyed in his radio, switching over to the call signs they’d been using since their raid on Wapato jail last fall. “Hey Pooch, what’s the word where you’re at?”
“Lots of cops, they’ve got streets blocked off,” Pablo replied.
. I’m not sure we can get through at all.”
“Well, fuck.” Luke kept that just for those in the car.
As they rounded the corner, Luke saw the blockade ahead and pulled over, throwing the Volvo into park. “Any thoughts?”
“Well, we’re not getting through in a car,” Archie said.
Sam turned toward Luke. “I can try walking through, say I live in the neighborhood If they block me, we’ll know it’s serious. But If I can get through, I can work my way over and try to see what’s up.”
Luke turned to Sam. “I don’t know…”
“I’m probably the best candidate. They’re not going to pay much attention to a short, chubby, Asian woman. I’m wearing stretchy pants and a sweatshirt. I look like I was out for a walk or something.”
Sam was probably right. Between four men, one of whom was Latino and two others with accents, and a tall Black woman, Sam was probably the best choice to slide past Portland’s police if it was going to work.
“OK, go. I’ll tell them to hold up.”
Sam nodded and pulled up a map on her phone. “Need to get a house number by the target house so I sound like I belong.”
When she found what she was looking for, she hopped out of the car and walked toward the police barricade, looking like a neighborhood lookie-loo. They waited in silence, trying to look casual by playing on their phones. Luke wasn’t sure how long Sam was gone, but he was starting to wonder if he’d need to go in after her. Fortunately, he was relieved of the decision when he received a text from Sam.
On my way back now. The cops are switching their lights off and getting back in their cars. Bad news, but I’ll relay that in the car.
“Sam’s coming back,” Luke said, informing Archie, his finger tapping out a staccato beat on the steering wheel.
Soon, the cops making up the blockade around the neighborhood turned their lights off and turned around so they could leave the neighborhood. Luke lost count of how many cop cars passed before Sam jumped in the car, startling him.
“Sorry about that,” she said, buckling in. “We gonna try to follow them?”
Luke turned to
Samher. “What are we following?”
“A larger, unmarked, black SUV. Cassius got into it with that city commissioner, Bealer.”
“Well, shit.” He added to his curse when a string of unmarked vehicles went by.
Sam keyed in her radio. “Any unmarked SUVs coming your way, Pooch?”
“Yeah, a handful,” Pablo replied.
Luke hit the steering will, unleashing another string of creative invectives. “Fucking hell! We’ve been out-fucking-maneuvered again.”
“I wasn’t able to get the license plate and they all look the same with those tinted windows,” Sam replied. “Do we try?”
“No, we’ll just waste our time. I’m sure as soon as they get to some major crossroads they’ll split up. We don’t have enough cars to follow and I don’t want our vehicles marked by the authorities. You win another round, Cassius.”
Luke huffed then keyed in the radio. “Spartacus to Pooch. Abort mission. Debrief over dinner at the usual spot. Everything’s on me.”
Sam reached out and patted his leg. “Sorry, Luke.”
Archie leaned forward and squeezed Luke’s shoulder from the backseat. “We’ll get him next time, mate.”
Luke shook his head. “I’m more worried about Delilah. Two near misses in a couple weeks is going to be hard on her.”
Sam nodded, frowning. “Yeah. She’ll need a hug.”
“Or a punching bag,” Luke mumbled.
Luke turned the engine back on, making sure the cops had all disappeared before pulling back into the street. Once he got out of Laurelhurst, he headed toward the Howling Moon Brewpub, taking the shortest route. He wanted to go over everything with the crew and enjoy a bite of dinner.
After they arrived at Pablo’s brewpub, they took their normal back booth with its many noise-canceling features. As expected, Delilah was furious at yet another failed attempt at Cassius, but Luke, Sam, and Pablo were able to calm her down in the parking lot while Pieter and Archie and a couple of the watchers went inside to start on drinks.
Delilah remained silent, not really touching her food. When the plates were cleared, and Delilah’s food was boxed up, they ordered another round, sending the watchers to another table so the leadership team, as Luke was coming to think of it, could discuss things privately. Although the werewolves who joined them were trustworthy, they were too new to be integrated into the inner circle.
Archie, a former WWII tank driver, had earned Luke’s trust over the last several weeks while preparing for their assault on the freighter, his old military training coming to the fore. The English ginger would be a welcome addition to planning and leading their expanded teams as they built them.
Luke waited until he had everyone’s attention before starting. “I guess we now have confirmation of what we’ve only suspected. Cassius is directly tied to Commissioner Bealer and the Portland Police Bureau.”
“Remind me who this commissioner is?” Pieter asked.
“Oh, yeah. That happened before you landed,” Pablo said.
Sam turned to Pieter. “Bealer is one of the five city commissioners and the one in charge of Portland’s police. We raided a house with a vampire nest a few days before you arrived and found a very interesting setup.”
Luke set his beer glass down. “It was basically a vampire party house. Sex upstairs and drugs in the basement. It’s a good way to recruit thralls and get some fun meals.”
Pieter looked confused. “Fun meals?”
“Yeah. Vamps can’t take drugs directly to get high, so they let their humans do them then drink the blood. I’m guessing they were using cheap or free drugs to lure people in. Also, there are those who are attracted to the vampire lifestyle, especially as portrayed through a lot of modern pop culture. I half suspect that vampires are heavily involved in some of it, creating an image they can use that’ll make it easier to exploit modern people.”
Several people perked up, looking around the table.
Luke continued, “We can have that chat later. Anyway, we found Bealer down there with a needle in his arm, passed out and high as a kite.”
Luke looked toward Sam, indicating she should take it from there.
Sam nodded, looking around the table. “We have no idea if he’s an addict from before he was involved or if it’s a new development. We don’t know him well, although Holly isn’t a fan. He’s a weak police commissioner. The cops and the police union run rough shod over him. They’re pretty out of control, although it seems someone is exerting some control or at least creating some cooperation since Bealer used a lot of cops to pick up Cassius. That was a pretty good plan to move him.”
“At least we know that was Cassius. I highly doubt they’d use that kind of resource flex for some foot soldier.” Luke took a sip of his beer, settling back in the booth.
“What do we do now?” Pablo asked.
“Well, nothing for the moment. We need to let people get back into town. We’ll step up training more sweeper teams. If we keep busy on the streets, we might get lucky again. If nothing else, we’ll disrupt their plans the more nests we root out.” Luke turned to Pablo. “Pablo, get my number to your pack real estate agents. We need some dirt to build a training facility on. Also, I want to improve training on hand-to-hand combat. I want everyone to be able to fight and defend themselves properly.”
“I have an idea,” Pablo said. “We could use that lot where we unloaded the trucks. I mean, we can’t fire off guns in the city, but if we put up a large tent and some temporary flooring, it’ll at least give us a space for some hand-to-hand training.”
“That’s not a bad idea. Also, we should start acquiring some more shotguns. I’ll keep an eye out for more combat oriented weapons, but I think some basic double barrels we can turn into sawed-offs might be nice. They’re smaller and easier to hide when moving about in the city.” Luke shook his head. “And I hate to even suggest this, but should we get some loud fire crackers? If we’re going to be popping off guns in the city, we might need some distractions to lull civilians into thinking it’s just more fireworks.”
“Ugh, that’s so fucking annoying.” Sam shook her head. “But it’s probably not a bad idea to take advantage of what’s happening already.”
“If we’re going to be buying more shotguns, I’ll keep pack production up on those fancy shells,” Pablo added. “We’re going to want a bigger supply on hand. It would be nice to have a large stockpile in case we have a bigger operation crop up. Do you think we should add in some other gauges on the shells?”
Luke thought about it for a moment then shook his head. “No. I want to keep the load as big as possible, otherwise it gets dicey. It’s not the most reliable method, as is. Besides, twelve gauges are common enough. This may be up your alley, Pieter.” He looked toward his Belgian friend. “I’d like to get some higher end surveillance equipment and communication equipment. Our family radios are doing OK, but I’d like to upgrade to some real equipment. Maybe something with a central hub that we can scramble our bands on.”
“Ja, I can do that,” Pieter replied. “I have plenty of connections in Europe where I can source some top-quality gear.”
“You’re welcome to stay here with us. Your skills and commando training have been invaluable, if your father doesn’t need you, at least for a while.”
“This has been very interesting. I’ll see what father has to say. Jan is more than competent enough to finish wiping out the vampires in the south.” Pieter nodded, mulling over the invitation over.
Sam stretched, wiggling side to side. “That would be very helpful training our new recruits. If that’s it, I think I’d like to get going. Not sure we have much to add to the list after our meeting up at the farm, and I’m tired and miss Holly.”
“Yeah. I think we can wrap it up. We’ll all keep in touch, but I think we should all take a few days off. We need it, and there’s not a lot to be done until we can get more gear and people.”
“But…” Delilah said, leaning forward onto the table.
Luke captured Delilah’s gaze. “We lost him, Delilah. For now. That’s our only focus at this point. We’ll sweep Portland clean and see where he turns up, but I want to get some better surveillance gear to help us out. Go home, see if Rosa is still available for your date. You could use some relaxation. It’ll keep you sharp and ready to go when we track that fucker down. ‘K?”
Delilah took a couple deep breaths before sitting back and sighing. “I guess. I just wanted this so bad.”
“I know, but a couple good night’s rest will get you ready for when our next shot comes. Anyone have anything to add?” Luke looked around the table, seeing nothing but shaking heads. “In that case, let’s wrap this up so everyone can get back to their evenings. Delilah, mind if I hold you up for a moment more?”
Delilah nodded. Everyone got up and headed out.
“I won’t keep you long,” Luke said.
“Can I check in with Rosa first?”
“Go ahead.” Luke waited while Delilah texted with the pretty Honduran woman she’d been seeing. He hoped canceling tonight’s plans hadn’t thrown a wrench in their dating, but he knew from experience that hyper fixation could cost aspects of a personal life. The small smile on his friend’s face hinted that things might be OK. “All good?”
“Yeah, she said I could make it up to her by bringing dinner over to her place.” Delilah relaxed some, looking warily at Luke.
“I just wanted to say, I’m sorry we didn’t get him tonight. This looked like a great opportunity… But, we’ll get him. You and me, we’ll work together to make this happen. My only goal right now is to help you dust him. It’s the least I can do after all you’ve done to help me.” He reached out and took her hand, squeezing it.
She smiled weakly. “Thanks, Luke. That means a lot. I’ll try to be patient. I want to do this right and not get anyone hurt.”
“Good. Go have fun with Rosa, take a few days to relax and we’ll come at this fresh and ready to kick ass.”
“I’ll talk to you soon.” Delilah stood up and took off, leaving Luke alone in the booth.
Deciding to free it up for customers, he moved up to the bar, ordered another Kenton Brown Ale, and pulled out his phone.
Hey, Maggie. Raid was a dud. Is it too late to swing by and pick up the kid?
Yeah. She was tired and went up to bed. I can bring her by in the morning.
There was a break, then three dots appeared, indicating she was typing something else. I’m going up to the farm for a few days. Some of the wounded are being moved there for recovery after their surgeries at the Coast Pack’s clinic. I want to assist and make sure our supplies are good. Would you like to accompany me? If you don’t have a bunch of stuff going on…
Luke smiled, butterflies invading his stomach. He didn’t have anything that needed doing. With clean litter boxes and plenty of food, Alfie would do fine on his own for a few days as he had many times before. He’d get a chance to talk with Maggie some and see if he could clear up some of his confusion.
That sounds like a good plan. I’d like to spend more time with you. There’s nothing I can’t do here with a phone and a laptop I can’t do up there. Let’s do it. He looked at the message he’d just sent, adding, Sorry. Looks like I was pep talking for a mission. I’d love to spend a few more days up at the farm with you.
He grabbed his beer and took a drink, enjoying Pablo’s excellent interpretation of an English Brown Ale. He was looking forward to seeing Maggie again, even if he’d just seen her a few hours ago. To be fair, he hadn’t known what was going on for most of the time she’d been flirting with him until she’d been more direct. He’d like to spend some intentional time with her. But, she’d been away from home for a while, floating out with the refuel ships until her medical skills were needed after the freighter assault.
Luke texted, You just got home though. Is this OK with your partner? I don’t want to cause friction.
They understand I’m a doctor and the pack’s medical needs are important. But if it makes you feel better, Zel’s themfriend was out of town while I was gone, so Zel is going to use the couple days to spend it with them. It works out for everyone, Maggie replied.
Smiling, Luke ordered a crowler of the brown ale and paid the squad’s tab. Since he had the night to himself, he’d go home and watch a movie. Alfie would appreciate the quality time. It would be nice to get a solid night’s sleep in a bed that was his own and didn’t rock up and down in the ocean swell. Then, he was going to spend some time with a beautiful woman.
Since Luke and Gwen had been bonding over sharing music on their car rides, they continued the trend as they drove up the windy highways and small roads leading up Birkenfeld to the pack’s retreat with its huge house and property. Since they’d both liked Kitchen Witch, Luke thought Tool might be a good one to listen to while eating up the miles in his souped up Volvo 240DL wagon.
The kid seemed to be enjoying it, head banging along with the music, asking to listen to Sober a second and third time. After the album finished, Gwen paused, letting silence take over for a moment.
Eventually, she said, “So why are we not letting Doctor Maggie ride up with us? I could drive and you two could smooch in the backseat.”
Luke wasn’t sure if he should laugh or what, guessing she was using the opportunity to tease him. He was glad she found the situation humorous. Her being silly lightened his mood. “Well, you’re not really old enough to drive for one. Also, we figured separate cars would be better in case an emergency cropped up and one of us had leave quickly. Besides, you have your appointment in a few days, and I don’t know how long Maggie is going to need to be up at the farm.”
She snickered, probably enjoying the flush of his cheeks. He shook his head, trying to keep a smile from tugging the corner of his lips up. The afterglow of their mutual decision to make their situation permanent still kept her mood light and happy. Even though he decided to become her permanent guardian only a few days ago, the situation still hadn’t really hit home. He liked that it was settled, removing an uncertainty that had been initially a safety valve but had transformed into an uncomfortable anxiety at the thought of the preteen not being in his life. He needed to sit down with her though and figure out how they wanted to proceed. He wasn’t sure “father” was the right term or relationship—maybe uncle or godfather?
Those thoughts were tucked into the back of his mind when they reached Birkenfeld. They pulled off the road onto the long gravel road leading through the woods toward the Nehalem River and up to the “farm,” as it was called by the pack. At the end of the road, Maggie was waiting.
After Luke punched the code into the gate and pulled through, he parked next to Maggie’s car. As soon as he stepped out, Maggie popped out of the front door of the farm house. Gwen grabbed her backpack and jogged up for a hug before disappearing into the house.
Maggie looked lovely in a pair of brown knee-high boots and jeans that highlighted her nice hips. She wore a thick sweater and a scarf, the spring air of the Cascade Range chilly and misty.
“She went inside fast,” Luke said, standing awkwardly, still unsure of how to proceed.
Maggie solved the problem by pulling him in for a hug and kiss that left him short on breath, his heart racing. “I told her there were fresh cookies in the house.”
“You sure know how to bribe her.” Luke grabbed his bag from the back of the Volvo.
Maggie took his hand and walked with him as they strolled toward the house. “I love cookies, and it makes me feel good to fill a home with their smell. It’s comforting. Calming.” She stopped him for another kiss before walking in the door. “Go put your stuff in my room.”
Luke swallowed and nodded nervously. “OK.”
“When you’re done, I could use some help moving some medical supplies out to the storage cabin.” She walked through the large opening into the kitchen and grabbed a cookie with Gwen.
Luke met Maggie on the porch then followed her out into the large field next to the farmhouse where the pack held events. They turned toward the cluster of small cabins that housed the pack during gatherings, or as was becoming more common, wounded packmates or the houseless victims they’d rescued from the vampires. Luke waved at a couple people he’d freed during his ill-advised solo raid. He enjoyed the domesticity of the work he was helping Maggie with as they prepared for the few wounded werewolves they were moving from the coast. Just being with her brought a smile to his face.
Luke enjoyed his first day at the farm. After helping Maggie replenish the supplies, he made rounds with her, acting as her assistant. When they finished with the few patients, they played cards with Gwen before driving up to The Birk for dinner, the evening growing too rainy for the long walk. Gwen, seeking solitude after a day in the company of others, went to her room with some books, leaving Luke and Maggie to enjoy some time alone.
They found a fluffy blanket and retired to the couch on the wraparound porch, a bottle of whiskey and a couple glasses joining them. The soft warmth of Maggie leaning against him, his arm around her, shut out everything except their little sphere, dimly illuminated from a lamp inside a nearby window. The patter of rain on the porch’s roof made for a relaxing soundtrack.
They sank into the silence and simple sounds together as Luke kept getting lost in the subtle scent of Maggie’s perfume—spice and light citrus.
“Hmm?” He took a sip of whiskey.
“What’s your real name?”
“Do you mean my current legal name or my birth name?” Luke asked.
“Lucius was the name my mother gave me. When my father returned from the legions, we added Silvanius to it. Ferrata I earned later.”
“Lucius Silvanius Ferrata?”
“That’s how I got my current name. Luke Irontree. Silvanius means woods, Ferrata—iron willed.”
“I like it.” She tipped her head up, looking for a kiss. “It’s very Roman sounding. Were you born in Italy?”
“No. I’m not Roman by ethnicity. I’m from the Nervii tribe, a Belgic Celt. I was born near where Brussels is today.”
“Why do you have a Roman name? Why didn’t your mom give you a Celtic name?”
“I don’t know. I never thought to ask her why when she was alive. Maybe she was just trying to help us blend in like some colonized peoples do. Maybe my dad asked her to, though he didn’t know she was pregnant and that I existed until well after I was born. It took a long time for news to travel then, and my mother had to find someone to write to him. She couldn’t read then.”
“Did she learn?”
Luke nodded. “Yes. My father taught us both to read and write Latin when he retired from the legions. She wrote to me regularly when I was away, which was most of the time. I only got to see her a handful of times after I enlisted in the legions.” Even after all this time, he still missed his mother. At times like these, when her face drifted through his mind, he could still hear her laughter. “I was away in Pannonia when she passed.”
“When was that?” Maggie sat up and kissed his cheek, wiping the tear off his cheek.
“I did the math once. She was sixty-five. It was a year before the Bar Kokhba revolt started, so 131CE, I think.”
“Did you fight against Shimon Ben-Colzba?” Maggie asked.
Luke raised an eyebrow. “I’ve always just known the name as Simon Bar Kokhba, when I’ve researched it later. I wasn’t involved in putting down that revolt, so I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time.”
“My maternal grandfather was a rabbi, and I liked old books, so he taught me Jewish history. That’s why I picked Rabinowitz for my current surname. It was his name.”
“Ah. No. By then, I commanded my own legion, and I was busy rooting out a horde of vampires raiding the border, although units were pulled from Pannonia and surrounding provinces since I’d hold the border while I was there. By agreement with Hadrian, I received a lot of autonomy due to my mission but was to never side with anyone in civil wars, and I rarely participated in putting down revolts unless they involved vampires.”
“Were you…” She hesitated for minute. “Immortal—is that how you’d term it?—by then?”
“Yes. I’d achieved that when Hadrian dedicated the Pantheon six years earlier. I was in Rome at the time and stumbled on a nest of vampires up to something. I guess immortal works. As long as there are vampires to kill and drain, I won’t age.”
“You say that all so casually.” She nestled into his side, her hand on his chest.
“I don’t know. It’s just what it is I guess.” He kissed the top of her head. “Is that OK? Kissing you like that?”
“Mmhmm. I like that. How do you remember it all so clearly? I’m almost hundred and eight, and I have trouble remembering things from my childhood.”
“I think it’s part of my whole deal. Maybe it’s just how my brain naturally works augmented by my transformation. I have to be sharper to fight vampires, but that also means I can’t forget the things I want to. I can picture so many horrors too clearly.”
Maggie sat up and caressed his cheek, pulling him in for a kiss. “Maybe this will help you forget them for a moment.”
It did, as soon as his eyes closed and Maggie’s lips touched his, all the memories fighting to surface disappeared into a wonderful haze of just the two of them—their lips and tongues entwined, their hands warm on each other’s bodies. Luke lost all time sitting on the couch, kissing Maggie until she pulled back, looking deep into his eyes, his heart pounding and his body feeling warm and alive, tingling.
“I would like to retire to my bed if you’re willing?” she asked.
Luke leaned forward and kissed her quickly. “I’d like that, Magdalena Rabinowitz.”
Luke and Maggie were having a late morning in bed, lying nude in each other’s arms. Luke needed to head back to town to get Gwen into her therapist appointment, and he needed to check in with his crew. He’d thoroughly enjoyed his time with Maggie.
They’d taken walks through the woods when the rain permitted, finding out-of-the-way logs to sit on so they could kiss. They worked together in the kitchen to make a few meals for Gwen, the pack nurse covering the hours with the patients when Maggie was relaxing, and the patients. They also played cards with Gwen, keeping up her cribbage studies. It had been three of the most restful nights of sleep he’d had in ages, lying next to Maggie with only a few nightmares imposing on his peace.
It was the first real joy in companionship he’d experienced in a long while. Pablo’s and Delilah’s friendship had gone a long way in returning Luke to the world of the living, but most of their time was spent either talking about vamp business or executing it. He needed to suggest they do something together, as friends, that wasn’t slaying related. Also, he needed to figure out some dating related things that Maggie and he could enjoy, assuming they kept seeing each other when time permitted.
He had no delusions about the last few days being the pattern going forward. Maggie had a partner she lived with, and Luke had too much in life to do right now, but he’d make time for this, once he figured out their short term future. He kept meaning to ask her those questions, but he was always distracted by her soulful eyes and lips, always eager to press against his.
“I keep meaning to ask you about this, but always get distracted. Um, what are the rules of…” He gestured over the two of them. “This? Us?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you and your partner are ethically non-monogamous. How do I fit into that? I want to respect your relationship, and I don’t want to make any stupid blunders.”
“Ah, well, Zel and I both see other people. Zel has a full time romantic themfriend.”
Luke chuckled. “I like that. Is Zel’s partner also non-binary?”
“Mmhmm, and ace. ‘Themfriend’ is a term they came up with, although I don’t know if they picked it up from somewhere out in the world or just thought it up. It’s very cute. I like Zel’s partner, they’re very funny. We all hang out periodically, and I consider them a friend.”
“Are you seeing someone else?” He was curious; this was the first they’d really gotten into the nitty gritty of relationship stuff. He figured she didn’t need to ask about his dating life since it was common knowledge that it didn’t exist. He wondered what an even more extreme term for “non-existent” might be.
“No, I haven’t dated anyone in a while until you, I mean, not to put the cart in front of the horse…” She seemed nervous, as if she were afraid by being too forward she might scare Luke off since the whole thing had been a shock to his system. And it still was. “It’s still early, but I enjoy spending time with you, Luke. You’re sweet and kind, and pleasant to be around, and a good kisser.”
“I like you too. It feels good to be with you.” He wasn’t sure how much more to say, or even sure what he felt. He liked her as more than a friend and didn’t want to stop seeing her, but he wasn’t sure how much she wanted or how much he could provide or even was capable of. This didn’t feel like a ship in the night situation like so many of his past dalliances, but like Maggie, he didn’t want to get ahead of himself.
Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. He smiled to himself; he kind of did. He was feeling a little giddy, something that felt uniquely out of place in his normally dour disposition. He needed to get in with that therapist he’d been recommended. He’d call during the kid’s appointment.
Luke decided to follow Pablo’s advice and pursue what was making him feel some joy. Besides, he wasn’t some inexperienced teenager with his first crush—that had happened centuries ago. He was an experienced man, if wildly out of practice, and Maggie was an experienced woman who had pursued what she wanted—Luke.
“Maggie, I’m just going to say it. I would like to keep seeing you when our schedules allow.”
Maggie propped herself up on her elbow, looking down at Luke, her face splitting into a warm, closed-mouth smile. She lowered her lips to Luke’s, seeking an intense kiss from him and getting it. When she lifted her head, she placed her hand on his cheek, a smile returning. “I’d like that. I’d like to keep seeing you too.”
She reached across Luke and picked up her cellphone from the nightstand, checking the time, a mischievous expression spreading across her face. “We have plenty of time before you have to get on the road, if you’re feeling up to it…”
Luke reached up, winding his hands through her hair and pulled her head into range, kissing her. Maggie was an exceptionally good kisser, and he’d use as much of his remaining time to be intimate with her. He could always grab a pastry for the road and test the new capabilities of his car, if need be.