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Tanned Hide

Copyright © 2016 by R. A. Meenan

All rights reserved. No part of this publication maybe reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator” at the email address below.

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www.zyearth.com

Cover art by K. M. Carroll

Cover typography, and interior art by Omni Jacala, A.K.A. Artsy Omni.

Copy Edited by Beth Cantwell

Discover other titles by R. A. Meenan:

- The Stolen Guardian

- White Assassin

LICENSE NOTES

This book is licensed for personal use only and may not be re-distributed. If you would like to share this book, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Published by Shakespir

Dedications

To my awesome writing group for all the great suggestions and the unbridled confidence you displayed when telling me how wrong I was. This story would be a load of nonsense without you!

Table of Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Title Page

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

About the Author

Glossary

The Zyearth Chronicles

Tanned Hide

From the Color Collection

By R. A. Meenan

Starcrest Fox Press

Tanned Hide

One

There is nothing noble about being an assassin.

Entertainment media likes to pretend there is. Video games will put out stories about the “noble assassin” fighting for the greater good. Movies make it look like assassins are necessary to “cull the species” or that somehow assassinating the Enemy-That-Is-Not-You makes your deeds “noble.”

It’s not. Nothing about assassination is noble. Only fools believe that.

But some assholes don’t get that. Trecheon Omnir, for example. He entered the profession, shed a couple of fake crocodile tears, all “woe-is-me”, complaining about his second hit like it was worst goddamned thing ever. Then he goes off becoming this White Assassin as if that suddenly makes him noble.

But that’s not what being an assassin is all about. It’s about pain. And he doesn’t know pain. Not really. Not like I do.

Let me tell you what pain is really like.

It had started with a visit to Red’s Garage. I pulled up in my battered old chopper motorcycle and ambled through the open doors of the Trecheon’s barely-afloat business, clutching a manila envelope. The manila envelope. The envelope that would change everything. If I could only get Trecheon’s help on it.

I walked through the hot, smelly workroom, counting two cars up on lifts and as many mechanics working on them, both humans. A third car was still on the floor, with a third mechanic buried under the hood. It was the busiest I had ever seen the place in all the years I had known Trech, which was both good and bad. Good, since Trecheon was perpetually considering leaving the “business” as an assassin and he could use all the cash he could get. Bad, since good mechanic business meant he’d be less likely to team up with me on a job.

And I really needed him to team up with me on this job.

The third mechanic swore as I walked by, giving up his identity; a twenty-seven-year old named Christian, one of Trecheon’s better employees. He stood up fully to set his ratchet down. I grinned at him, twitching my puma tail. He grinned back.

“How’s it goin’, Neil?” The tanned human asked. He moved with a practiced grace as he grabbed a magnetic pull rod. “I see your tail’s still in one piece.”

“Not for lack of trying,” I shot back. “Choppers don’t really lend themselves to zyfaunos. Is the boss man in today? I need to talk with him about something.”

“Yeah, he’s in the office,” Christian replied, looking at the blackened tip of a spark plug before tossing it into a trash can. “Should be finished up with that blonde in a minute, so your timing’s pretty good.”

I snickered. “His favorite customer is in today, huh?”

“Yup,” Christian said, grinning. “Watch out, Trecheon might not be in the best of moods because of that.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks, Christian.” I bounced two fingers off my black, rounded ears in a mock salute to the young mechanic, who absently waved back, already lowering his head under the hood of the car. He was nothing if not dedicated. Trecheon had a knack for finding good talent in his workers. Only way he was actually able to stay afloat on the outskirts of the grand bayside city of El Dorado.

I stepped into the small office and leaned against the wall, sizing up Trecheon’s “favorite” customer. The human customer, a woman, apparently refused the chairs, instead more content to lean over the desk. On the other side of the desk sat the proprietor of this establishment, Trecheon Omnir. The red, black-streaked quilar typed in a few last keystrokes before printing out a repair order. His catlike ears were slightly splayed out, though the woman didn’t seem to notice his irritation.

“So, we went ahead and replaced the fluid for the transmission and the differential, and that’s on top of the spark plugs and the usual oil change.” Trecheon looked up from the computer’s screen and looked directly into the human woman’s eyes, ignoring the obvious sway of her hips as he went through the RO. She appeared satisfied with the work, but to any straight man with a pair of eyes, it looked like she wanted more.

“Mr. Red, I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate your help.” She produced a credit card and handed it to Trecheon, who slid the card through a reader and processed the payment. She had her elbows on the desk now, and turned her head slightly to one side. “May I ask when the shop closes?”

“We close at six, so if you notice anything off with the car before then, bring it back and I’ll take a look at it.” He held out the card with a receipt, not even meeting the woman’s eyes.

I smirked. Damn, Trech. That’s cold as ice as always.

The woman gave a slim smile and narrowed her eyes slightly. “Oh, I’ll let you know. Thank you!” She took her keys and turned to leave, walking out into the garage, her hips swaying with every step.

Trecheon put a hand to his face as he leaned back in his office chair. “Will this chick ever learn? I. Am. Not. Interested. I’ve made that abundantly clear, but the flirting and borderline innuendo comes up every time she visits.”

“Just tell her to take a hike, Trachea,” I put in with a grin.

Trecheon shot me a glare for the use of the hated nickname, then shrugged, his metal bionic arms catching a glint of sunlight from the windows. The prosthetic replacements were a constant reminder of the cost of our time in the War of Eons, though these particular arms were also souvenirs from Trecheon’s last assassination hit. Something he wasn’t proud of.

“She’s a reliable customer, what with that expensive Mobiüs coupe,” Trecheon said. “The last thing I need to do is alienate steadfast paychecks.”

“Y’know, I don’t get you.” I tracked the woman’s lower half as she crossed the garage to her car still swaying her hips and chancing a few glances back toward the office. “She’s very clearly interested in performing ahem acts upon your person, but you’ve turned her down every time I’ve seen her here. You’ve got to admit, she’s pretty cute for a human. She has an ass like an onion.”

Trecheon turned up a confused eyebrow and splayed an ear. “The hell do you mean by that?”

“It makes you wanna cry,” I said smirking. Trecheon rolled his eyes at me. “Seriously, I gotta know. What’s the deal?”

“Eh. Not my type.”

“Not so hot for blondes?”

“Not so hot for humans, at least not anymore. Not since high school, really.” Trecheon printed out a second copy of the RO and placed it into a file folder behind him. “Besides which, I’m not really looking.”

“Well, I’ve got a hot date for us,” I looked to the door. “Mind if we speak behind closed doors?”

Trecheon pressed his lips together, then waved a hand.

I shut the door, making a point to lock it. “Got a hit that I need your help with.”

“Why am I not surprised,” Trecheon said, flattening both ears. But then one perked up. “Wait, hit? You never call them hits. They’re always ‘jobs’ with you. What gives?”

“This isn’t a paying gig,” I said, trying to keep the tone light.

Trecheon raised a cautious eyebrow. “I’ve never known you to take a hit for free.”

“Special circumstances, Trech.”

Trecheon glared at me. “Don’t call me Trech.”

Ugh, so sensitive. “Sorry. But trust me, you’ll want in on this.” I leaned over the desk with a mocking hint of the sensual human customer Trecheon had just been dealing with and slid the manila envelope across the battered desk. “I’ve got my magic hit.”

Trecheon perked both ears with a shocked look crawling across his face. He knew what I was talking about. That magic hit. It was somewhat of a hopeful rumor in assassin circles – that one hit that would actually save thousands of lives. Killing for the greater good. The idea that we might be taking out the next dictator or mass murderer and save millions from suffering. That, somehow, developing our skills had a purpose.

It was faulty logic though, and we all knew it. We were paid killers. Paid killers don’t take out future dictators. They work for politicians, businessmen, and spurned lovers, taking out rivals that slowed or halted their climbs to the top.

But we can dream, can’t we? We had to. We needed to. It was the only way to stay sane in this business. Dream of the magic hit or fall into despair. Dream of that hit, or lose your humanity, for lack of a better term.

Or take the easy route and kill yourself. Plenty of assassins took the easy route.

But not me. And not Trecheon. We needed that magic hit. And if I could provide it, I’d catch Trecheon hook, line, and sinker. And I needed to catch him. This magic hit couldn’t happen without him.

Trecheon’s metal fingers gingerly caressed the envelope. “How’d you manage this?”

“I’ve been doing research for ages,” I told him. “And I finally found a hit I can handle. And one that I think will do this town some good.”

“As if anything could do this town some good,” Trecheon muttered, shifting the envelope between his hands. “Let’s see what you got.” He lifted the envelope’s flap and slid the papers out. His eyes widened. “You’re kidding me.”

I frowned. “What?”

“The Fawn Family?” Trecheon gaped. “Are you mad?”

“Possibly, but hear me out—”

“No. Hell, no,” Trecheon said, and he pushed the paper and envelope away as if it’d catch fire at any moment. “I’m putting myself and my business in danger just looking at these things. This is suicide, Neil. Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“It’s not so bad as all that,” I growled, glaring at him. “If you’d just hear me out—”

“Neil, you’re talking about going after one of the city’s top mobs. People have died just breathing wrong on these people. And to my knowledge you’ve never tackled anything bigger than company rivals and ex-boyfriends. People that talk big, but can’t really back things up. These people,” he tapped the envelope. “They can back things up. And they will. You’re on your own.”

“Will you stop playing the fatalist for a moment and just listen?” I spat. “I have a plan. You think I’d tackle this without a plan?”

“Yes.” Trecheon sneered. “Because you’re a special kind of crazy.”

He was probably right, but admitting that would mean admitting defeat. “Damn it, Trecheon, you’re supposed to be my friend. Can’t you just listen for six minutes?”

Trecheon pasted both ears back and narrowed his eyes at me. “Six minutes. That’s all you get.”

I took a deep breath. “Good. Thanks.” I pulled the papers out of the envelope and passed a picture to him. A slim, golden doe with green eyes and silver earrings lining both ears eyed the camera with a dark suspicion. “My target.”

“You’re going after Matron Fawn,” Trecheon said. “The Draso-damned leader.”

“Yes.” I shook my head. “Look, Trech, everyone knows she’s a hard bitch.”

“For lack of a better word.”

I snickered. “Yeah. But her three top underlings, her sisters—”

“The Triple Danger,” Trecheon recited. “Her personal hitmen, Neil. Not hired assassins, but hardened, experienced killers. The sisters’ experiences make us look like first-day-hires and their morals make us look like we’re saintly Draso monks.”

“Shut your damn mouth and listen for a moment,” I snarled. “Despite their reputation, my research suggests that they’re wanting to leave the business. They want to settle down, start their own families, and do so without the fear of rival mobs. But they won’t as long as Matron Fawn is in charge. They feel a family obligation to protect her. But there’s rumors going through the Family that once the Matron is gone, they’ll disband and settle.” I grinned. “I just want to accelerate their plans.”

“And you think they won’t retaliate if you kill their sister.”

“I think they won’t know who did it,” I said. “I’m a relatively unknown assassin, and a sniper to boot. They won’t even know where to look.”

“And you need me because. . .?”

“I need a spotter,” Neil said.

“You want me to sit with you on some roof, with all my red fur and quills, broadcasting to the entire Fawn Family that not only do I know you, but I’m helping you take out their Matron.”

I narrowed my eyes. “No, I want you to sit at a nearby café, pretend you’re my boss, and yell at me over the phone. We’ve done it before. That way you can keep your distance and still give me directions. And you get to yell at me.”

“I should be yelling at you right now,” Trecheon said. “What’s in it for me?”

“The magic hit.”

“I don’t want my magic hit to be the last thing I do on this Earth, Neil.”

Damn it, he was slipping out from under me. “Trecheon, I need you. I can’t do it without you.”

“Well, you’re going to have to, because I refuse.” He stood up and moved to leave his office. “Sorry.”

I gripped his shoulder as he walked by. “Trech, please. I need this.”

“Don’t call me Trech.” He brushed my hand off and headed for the door.

I had one more card to pull. Trecheon’s honor. He doesn’t have a clue that I knew his hidden weakness, but I knew he felt an obligation to help me. Some promise he made ages ago to Carter, a fellow soldier from our troop that went MIA in the War of Eons. I don’t know why he made that promise, but I was going to milk it for all it was worth. I slid between him and the door and looked him in the eye.

“Trecheon. Please. I can’t do this anymore. I need the magic hit before I go insane. Please.”

Trecheon narrowed his eyes, and stared for what seemed like ages, but then sighed. “I’m signing my death warrant by helping you, aren’t I?”

I grinned. Hook, line, and sinker. “Thanks, Trecheon. You won’t regret it.”

“I keep hearing those words, and every time, I regret it.”

“Gotta keep that winning streak,” I said. I slipped a copy of my plan into his hands. He snatched up the sheet and stuffed it in his pocket, glancing all around like a kid stealing candy.

“Neil,” he eyed me. “Don’t make me regret this. Okay?”

“You got it, boss man,” I said with a salute, and headed out the door.

Hook, line, and sinker.

Two

Two weeks later, in battered coveralls and carrying a tool box and backpack, I approached the Diamond Dust Towers, a ritzy high rise apartment building downtown. The doorman, a young Asian human, gave me a strange look, but I smiled as if I belonged there.

“Here to fix the AC unit on the roof,” I said. I held up an official looking piece of paper. “The one affecting apartment 42?”

The doorman hesitated, but looked over his guest list. “Name, sir?”

“Whiskers HVAC Repairs,” I said pointing at the list. “I got the call yesterday, I should be there.”

He glanced a moment longer, then nodded. “Yes, here you are.” He reached behind his tiny podium and pulled out a card. “Here’s the code for the roof access.”

“Awesome.” I pocketed the card. “Now, I’m working with some dangerous electricity up there. Can I be assured that none of your lovely residents will be venturing onto the roof?”

“They’ll be informed,” the doorman said.

“Thank you, my good man,” I said, taking a bow. “I shan’t be long.” I entered the building and started climbing the steps of the twenty-five story tall building. No one took the stairs anymore, so I was fairly confident I wouldn’t be seen. Gotta limit the witnesses.

The problem with going after a top notch mob boss was the vagueness they exuded around their person. I knew the Matron was in the area, doing some sort of business deal, but the details were hazy. After nearly six months of research, all I really knew was that she was “downtown” and in one of four possible buildings in six block area about a mile to a mile and a half from my perch. It wasn’t ideal for my effective range, but it was better than nothing.

I got to the roof entrance and tapped in the code without looking at the card. Six months may not have given me all the info I needed, but it did give me plenty of time to drop a courtesy card for Whiskers at the front desk and sabotage the AC unit for the apartment I needed. Mom had always wanted me to go into some kind of steady business, but school never settled well with me, especially after the war. She suggested HVAC instead, and to please her, I begrudgingly got the certification. Who knew that it’d make such a great front for my real job?

I walked to the edge of the roof and sat down the tool kit, frowning. Mom could never know what I was doing now. It would kill her. HVAC wasn’t great, but at least she could pretend to be proud of me. She and Dad were never very good at emotions, so their occasional pleased calls to my business to ask for help was the closest I ever got to “I love you” as an adult.

Besides that, they were more focused on my brother anyway. To be honest, I was too. And who wouldn’t be? Philip was only six, and as cute as any six-year-old puma could be.

Mom and Dad had him unexpectedly late in life, supposedly, long after I had already enlisted and toured overseas. Part of me always wondered if they had had him unconsciously as a replacement in case I died in war.

I shuddered. Not a good time for family thoughts.

I dug through my tool box and pulled out the components for my high powered Bruugermeiser sniper rifle and assembled them, willing my mind to focus on the job at hand. Rifle armature and bolt. Butt stock. Long sniper barrel. Scope. Bipod. And finally the magazine. Ten rounds of .338 Lapua magnum. Ten rounds were far too many -- if I didn’t do this in one, I wouldn’t get a second chance -- but I wanted a full magazine to balance the thing. After I finished setting up, I checked my watch. 2:34PM. Roughly six minutes until I could expect Trecheon’s call.

To pass the time, I double checked the earpiece buried out of sight in my ear, then the tap tracing the call to apartment 42, then the sabotage job on the AC unit. A two-minute job if I was quick. I disconnected the electricity, fixed the part, and dug into my backpack for the last components needed for this job. A smoke bomb and sound card designed to make it look like a part of the unit burst. With luck, the smoke and sound would muffle the sound of the rifle. I embedded the bomb and card, then walked to the rifle and pressed the tiny trigger mechanism behind the rifle’s trigger. Satisfied, I settled next to the gun, checking street names near my four possibilities.

This was the worst part of being an assassin. The waiting. My heart raced, no matter how much I told it to slow down. I nearly jumped when Trecheon’s call went through.

This is it. No backing down. I pressed the earpiece button.

“Uh, hello?”

“Brett Vernon, you simple minded idiot, where the hell have you been?” Trecheon’s angry voice came up through the earpiece. I pictured him sitting at the tiny outdoor café near my target buildings, probably sipping a black coffee to keep his own nerves down.

I searched his speech for a hint. Vernon. There was a street named Mt. Vernon. I scanned street names through the scope, but I needed time.

“What?”

“Work, you asshole,” Trecheon growled. “I haven’t seen you in twelve days.”

Twelve. Floor numbers. That eliminated two of the buildings. Another second of searching and I found Mt. Vernon. Both possibilities sat on the street. I needed a cross street. I eyed the two streets left. Lincoln or Weir. Last names. Good.

“Sorry, Mr. Lincoln.”

“It’s Weir, you moron,” Trecheon said, finally narrowing down the building. “Don’t you know the name of your own employer?”

“Yes, Mr. Weir,” I confirmed. “Sorry, I’ve been busy.” I eyed the building. The farthest one on my list. Of course. This wouldn’t be an easy hit.

“Busy doesn’t cut it, son,” Trecheon said. “You can’t just come and go as you please. I ain’t running a country club, you know.”

The code words and phrases bounced around in my brain. “Son” meant small party – limited witnesses. Restricted comings and goings meant high inner security. Unwanted guests would not be allowed in. But it was the use of “country club” that lifted some hope in my chest. Relaxed guests. No one suspected anything. No rooftop guards. In other words, no one to check the bullet’s trajectory and pin it on me, at least not if I got off the roof fast enough.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “When should I come in next?”

“The third,” Trecheon said. “6PM. I’ve got a hell of a job for you.”

Shit. Third floor, sixth window from the right, difficult to see. I checked the window, but I didn’t see anything. “6PM, sir?”

“Hmm, maybe 5PM,” Trecheon said. “Six might not give you enough time.”

I checked the fifth window. There she was. Laughing quietly, sitting in a big plush red chair, drinking a glass of some variety of mixed drink. Her earrings caught the low sunlight. “Gotcha.”

“Don’t be late,” Trecheon said. “This is your last chance before I just flat out terminate you.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry sir.” I double checked my magazine, tested the relative wind speed, confirmed my math on the Coriolis effect with my phone, and prayed the window wouldn’t send the bullet tumbling. One ear pointed forward and one pointed backward, covering all angles. “I’ll be there.”

“You better.” Trecheon hung up.

I waited a breath, then squeezed the trigger.

The bullet flew, triggering the smoke bomb and explosion sounds behind me, successfully muffling the rifle’s report. The glass window disintegrated in my scope, and found its mark.

The Matron’s head exploded. Just exploded. I allowed myself half a heartbeat of disgust and shock before backing off the rifle.

Quickly, but calmly, I disassembled the rifle and packed it up. Grabbing the spent casing, I waved the smoke away from 42’s AC unit and started the electricity through it. A second later, the remains of the smoke bomb and sound card were also packed. I allowed myself a smirk as the unit started up and then headed for the door.

My earpiece vibrated. Breathless, I answered it. “Mr. Weir?”

“One more thing, Brett,” Trecheon said. “Make sure you come okay? You do good work. I’d hate to lose you.”

I pressed back the smile building on my lips. Target eliminated. Magic hit acquired. Now it was just time to bask in the glory and watch the dominos fall. “Yes, sir.”

Three

“Oh, Neil, honey, it’s so good to hear your voice.” Mom’s relief was thick, like honey in the ear, even through the phone. “I was so worried for you when I saw the paper this morning.”

I entered my scruffy apartment, careful not to dislodge the earphone from my ear. Mail in one hand, a paper in the other, I swung my body around the cheap, particle board desk that Trecheon had assembled for me last year. I collapsed into the shredded chair, tossing the paper on the desk.

A handsome picture of Matron Fawn placed next to a censored picture of the crime scene took up the full top half of the front page. The words “Felicity Fawn, CEO of Fawn Inc. Murdered” blazed above the pictures. It had been a week since the hit itself, but I suspected that her presumed mob affiliation delayed the papers’ reports.

“I don’t know why you were worried, Mom,” I said, sorting through the variety of bills and junk mail. “It’s not like I would be a target.”

“I know, sweetie, but I also know your business frequently does work downtown,” Mom said. “You could have been hurt!”

“The killer obviously had a specific target,” I said, consciously reminding myself to be vague. “She was the CEO of a big company. I’m a piddly HVAC man.”

“You’re a CEO too,” she said with a huff.

“Only by default,” I said, laughing. I tossed two bills into the bills owing file on my desk. “And I don’t run a multi-million-dollar corporation.”

“Give yourself more credit, hon,” Mom said. “You’re doing okay for yourself.”

The “okay” instead of an expected “well” stung, but as I glanced around at the scratched couches, stained carpet, and cheap desk, I knew she was right. “I suppose, Mom.”

“Speaking of that, sweetie, your father wants to know if you can visit this weekend,” Mom continued. “The air conditioning unit is acting up again.”

I rolled my eyes before turning my attention back to my mail. A small card in a cream colored envelope caught my attention. I unsheathed a claw and ripped through it. “Mom, when are you guys going to let me just replace that old thing?”

“When you’re well off enough that the frequent repairs won’t be necessary for you to make ends meet,” Mom said. “Or when you learn to come visit without the incentive of a job.”

I frowned. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Come this weekend, okay?”

“I’m kind of busy this weekend,” I said, sliding the card out of the envelope. I lifted an eyebrow and twitched my tail. It was a funeral invitation. “Mom, did someone in the family die recently?”

“Not that I know of, though it could be argued that your Uncle Zander has been trying most of his life,” Mom said. “Why?”

I flipped open the card. Black letters with pink accents danced across the cardstock.

Dear Mr. Neil Black,

We formally require the pleasure of your company at St. Buck’s Cathedral on the fifth of May to honor the passing of Matron Felicity Fawn.

An RSVP card has been attached, but will not be required to attend.

Reception to follow.

Sincerely,

Triple Fawn Inc.

My heart stopped. Completely. The world melted away. Impossible. Impossible. How did they find me? How did they figure out where I had been? My name? My address? And the words they used. . . Require your presence. Using the term Matron, which would only be used in reference to her mob status. Triple Fawn Inc.

The Triple Danger. They meant business.

Oh, hell. Oh, shit. I was a dead man. What should I do? What could I do?

“Honey?” Mom said, “Are you still there?”

No. . . Mom. If they knew my address, what was to stop them from tapping my phones? She could be in danger. And so was Trecheon, and Dad, and. . . and Philip. “On second thought, Mom, I think I could squeeze you in this weekend.” How I managed to speak without cracking my voice, I have no idea. “I’ll be there. Okay?”

Mom went quiet, and for a brief, terrifying moment, I pictured The Triple Danger invading her home, cutting her down, pulling out a pistol and-- “Okay, Honey,” she finally said. “I’ll see you soon.”

Sooner than you think, Mom. I hung up the phone without a goodbye, not trusting my own voice. I stared at the floor, willing my body to do something, anything, but my mind just stopped.

Where did I go wrong?

“Okay, Neil,” I told myself. “Panicking won’t do any good. Work through the problem. Think.”

I thought.

Okay, my brain said. The Triple Danger probably wouldn’t do anything until after the funeral. That was what they implied in their message to me. I could get to my family before that and get them out. But what else?

Trecheon. He needed warning. But how could I warn him? What if they were following my every move? Tapping my phones, listening in on my conversations? I’d have to instigate a coded message, like we used for the hit. But how could I do that without the preplanning that went into it? More than that, what if The Triple Danger knew all our standard code words from listening in?

But I had to do something.

Snatching up my coat, I ran out the door and headed downstairs. Like usual, my street was busy, full of pedestrians. Most people had their phones out, either listening to music, texting, or on the rare occasion, talking. But that was good. Excellent, in fact. They were distracted. I inserted myself into the crowd, hoping my sleight of hand skills might save me.

After about half an hour of walking, probably the most agonizing thirty minutes of my life, I managed to pilfer a phone from a lady’s open purse. With shaking fingers, I typed in the number for Red’s Garage.

Trecheon picked up after two rings. “Red’s Garage.”

“Good evening Mr. Red,” I said, dropping my voice two octaves, hoping to disguise myself enough that Trecheon wouldn’t stupidly say my name. “My name’s Vet, and I’ve got an issue with an old car that I hope you can take care of. She’s a special old doe, but she’s on her last legs, and I’m hoping you can work some magic and save her.”

I prayed that I got enough code words in that he’d pick up the message. Vet was a modification of the nickname I had earned in the army, so he’d know it was me. The rest of the message was a little more convoluted, but Trecheon was smart. He might get it.

There was a long pause on his end. “Ah, certainly sir,” he finally said, drawing out every word. “We open tomorrow at, ah—” Four taps on the phone, “—seven tomorrow. Can you bring it in then?”

7AM with four taps. Trecheon meant to meet me at 3AM. Seems he got the message. “Thank you, that’d be just fine. Are you still at your listed address?”

“Exactly that,” Trecheon said. I could only hope that the usual meeting place would be left unmolested. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Vet.”

“Thank you, and goodbye.” I hung up, the feeling of relief only mild considering the success of the call. I ducked into the nearest alley, smashed the phone and removed the sim card, then tossed the remains into a dumpster. It took a long time to convince myself to go home, and sleep never came to me that night.

Four

“Okay, Neil,” Trecheon glared at me from the darkness. “Talk.”

The panic I had felt must have come through my voice during the call, because both Trecheon and I were early to our meeting place, a remote cave deep in the canyons outside of town, accessible only by walking. We had both taken great pains to keep the local wildlife out of it, while encouraging the frequent hikers to stifle their own curiosity. I kicked around one of the chicken bones we had used as a prop to make the cave look occupied.

“It speaks for itself,” I told Trecheon, handing him the invite. He snatched it up, and pulled out a small pen light. He only needed a moment before his eyes widened. He met mine.

“Neil, this is deep shit,” he said.

“I know!” I said, trying to keep my volume under control. “But I don’t know how much they know. Were they tapping phones? Listening in on our conversation? Are my parents in danger?” I paused, pressing my ears back and letting my whiskers droop. “Are you? And. . .” I could hardly bring myself to say it, but it had to come out. “. . .Philip.”

Trecheon frowned. “Everything in my head is screaming at me to buy a train ticket to anywhere but here and leave you. But I can’t do that.” He crossed his arms, shaking his head. “Where do your parents live? I’ll close up shop for a while and keep an eye on them. You might be a good sniper, Neil, but you’ve never been good at stakeouts.”

Trecheon’s sudden and unsolicited kindness stunned me like a deer in headlights. “You’re serious. . .?”

“We’re partners, right?” Trecheon said, though I could hear the strain in his voice. “We work together. You’d do the same for me.”

“You don’t have any family, Trecheon.”

“Christian and the other guys I employ are as good as,” Trecheon said.

“Trech—”

Trecheon rolled his eyes. “Don’t call me Trech, dammit, and just let me help. Okay?”

I pressed my lips together and pulled my tail into my hands, rubbing the fur. “You said you were going to regret helping me. And yet, you’re still helping me.”

Trecheon’s features stiffened. “I’m not going to abandon you. Not now. Not ever. I threw my lot into this situation and I’m going to stick with it. Now let me help.”

I didn’t deserve Trecheon’s loyalty. “Fine. Okay.”

“Good,” Trecheon said. “Write the address in the dirt here and I’ll just memorize it. No paper right now.”

“What should I do about this?” I lifted the invitation.

Trecheon frowned at it. “Honestly, Neil. . .” he paused. “I think you should go.”

Both ears flattened. “You know this is just an invitation to die.”

“Well, check out the obituaries first,” Trecheon said. “But if it checks out, you should go. They’re not likely to make a spectacle of you in public. Who knows? They may want to just thank you for freeing them up. Right?”

I snorted. “That’s wishful thinking.”

“You might at least learn about their plans,” Trecheon said. “Besides, if you don’t go, it might end up worse for your family. Unless you can convince them to lay low for a while?”

I sat hard on a rock. Mom would never believe that. He had a point. “Damnit.”

Trecheon stood next to me and squeezed my shoulder. “Neil, we’ll get through this. We’ve done well so far, haven’t we?”

I stared at the dirt. Why did I think this was a good idea? How’d I let myself get this far? How’d Trecheon let his conscience get him into this? I suddenly regretted milking Trecheon’s promise to Carter. It wasn’t worth if it if we both ended up dead.

“I’m sorry, Trecheon. For dragging you into this.”

“What’s done is done,” Trecheon said. He leaned down, picked up a bone prop, and handed it to me. “Get writing and let’s get out of here.”

I gingerly took the bone from his hand.

“Besides, you have a funeral to get ready for,” Trecheon said. “Let me know if you need a suit. I’ve got just the thing.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and started writing.

__________

Early the next morning I donned my coveralls, tossed my tools in the back of my van, and headed for home. Mom was more than shocked to see me.

“Neil! What are you doing here?” She stepped aside to let me in.

I grinned at her and took a short bow, trying to keep natural. “I was in the area. An appointment canceled, and my next one isn’t for hours, so I might as well use the time to take care of that AC unit. Are Philip and Dad here?”

“Neil!” Philip, with all the energy of a six-year-old, ran across the room and vaulted into my arms. He smelled faintly of dirt and he clung to me with foot and hand claws like an untrained kitten. “You came home, you came home!”

I squeezed my little brother. I had to. It could be the last time, if things didn’t work out. “Hey, squirt. Whatcha been up to?”

“I’m building!” Philip said, wiggling out of my arms. “Wanna see? It’s in the backyard!”

“I’ll be right out, kiddo,” I told him. “Go on out and I’ll be right behind ya.”

Philip ran outside, whooping all the way. I snickered. “You let him play in the dirt in his PJ bottoms?”

“Better that than his good jeans,” Mom said. “So you know, your dad’s out grocery shopping.”

“This early?”

“He’s always been an early riser. I’m grateful. It’s easier to pass kid responsibilities to him when I need to sleep in.”

I grinned. “Another reason Philip’s in PJs I suspect.”

“Right as rain.”

I paused, pressing both ears back. “Look, Mom, is there somewhere you guys can stay for a while? Maybe go on vacation or something?”

Mom eyed me with one ear splayed. “Is something wrong, Neil?”

“I, ah.” I had spent most of the night and morning trying I figure out the best way to broach the subject. Mom wouldn’t believe the truth, and most lies would still make me look bad. There was no helping it. “I got into some gambling debts and, ah, the man I owe is a bit ruthless. I just don’t want him to come around and bothering you while I’m getting the debts settled.”

Mom crossed her arms and glared at me, tail twitching. “Neil Maxwell Black. You did not do something that would put your brother in danger.”

I frowned. “I honestly didn’t mean to, Mom. It’s nothing too serious, but I’m behind in payments.”

“How much do you owe? I’ll write a check.”

I waved both hands. “More than I can ask from you, Mom.”

“Neil, if this is going to put our family in danger—”

“It won’t,” I lied. “It would just be better to avoid harassment. He doesn’t give up.”

“Neil,” Mom looked deep into my eyes. “You know we can’t leave. Your father’s job wouldn’t put up with it.”

“But—”

“We can’t leave,” Mom said. “Unless it’s really big enough that we need to.”

I was torn. Do I tell her the truth and hope she believes me? Do I face eternal shame and the possibility of never seeing my brother again? Mom would never let me near him if she knew the truth. But if they were all killed, I’d face that anyway. Could I really trust Trecheon to protect them the way I would protect them?

“Hon,” Mom said. “Go see your brother. Then talk to me while you fix the AC unit. I’ll go make some tea in the meantime. Okay?”

Enough time to really think. Damn, Mom was good. “Okay.” I dragged my tail behind me and went outside.

Philip was in the sandbox in the back, staring intently at a sloppy sand castle as he dripped more sloppy sand on top of it. I stood on the patio, taking everything in. The backyard was huge, even bigger in my childhood mind. Massive trees towered by the back fence, covering most of the weedy lawn in shadow. A small, three-foot-deep pool stood unused and dirty near the patio, and the plastic turtle sandbox blended neatly into the background by the trees. The trees themselves had always been a special place for me. As a kid, I had built a rough camouflage shelter buried deep behind the two redwoods out of leftover wood from dad’s building projects. It was so well hidden that Mom never figured out where it was. I used it to hide when Mom bothered me.

I had never told Philip about it, but I kept it cleaned and maintained, tending to it whenever I had a moment alone in the house, usually during Philip’s naptimes when I babysat him. I planned to show it to him when he was older so it could be a secret place for him as well, and when he was old enough that secrets were easier to keep. But now. . . Now it might be more of a savior than I ever thought possible. I approached the sandbox.

“Hey bud,” I said. “Whatcha making?”

“A poopy castle,” Philip said, still staring at the sand.

I tried not to laugh. “A poopy castle?”

“Duh,” Philip said. “Can’t you tell?”

I tilted my head and splayed an ear. “I suppose?”

Philip grinned. “I’m just pulling your tail. Watch this!” He suddenly scooped a bunch of the wet sand and mixed it with a handful of dry sand, then dropped it in a shaped bucket. With careful patting and measuring, he filled the bucket, then in a swift moment, he flipped it over and slowly lifted it, revealing a perfectly shaped castle turret. “Ha ha! It worked!”

“That’s great, Philip,” I said, then leaned down. “Wanna see something even greater?”

“Oooh, yes!” Philip said.

“Follow me.” I chanced a glance at the house, saw the windows empty, then led Philip to the trees. He frowned when we got to the edge.

“Mom says we’re not allowed in the woods.”

I had to laugh. “Buddy, it’s five trees a bunch of underbrush. It’s not woods.”

“That’s what mom calls them,” Philip said. “She says there’s bears in there!”

I leaned down and gave him a skeptical look. “We’re pumas. No bear is going to hurt us. Okay? I say it’s okay, so don’t worry.”

Philip looked reluctant, but eventually agreed. He glanced back and forth through the walk, but he seemed satisfied when he found the back fence. After a brief trek through the brush, I found my shelter, still deeply hidden behind the redwoods.

“Watch this.” I pressed on the hidden branch and opened the door to a tiny shelter. Two benches lined the walls, both just short enough for Philip to sit on. He gaped, his ears perky.

“Whoa! That’s so cool!”

“You have to keep your voice down,” I said. “Or the magic can’t protect you.”

“Ooh, there’s magic?”

“Yes,” I said. “Special protection magic. As long as you come in here and stay perfectly still and quiet, no one can find you. I used it to hide from Mom all the time.”

Philip giggled. “And I can use it?”

“You can,” I said. I slowed my speech and looked Philip right in the eye. This next part was important. “In fact, if you ever see someone in the house that you don’t know, you should run straight for this place and hide here until I come find you. Okay?”

Philip got really quiet, staring at the hideaway. Rotting leaves still lined the floor, despite my best efforts, and everything had a musty, earthy smell. Tiny rays of light made their way through the cracks in the wood. But among these bushes, behind these trees, it was essentially invisible. Philip ran a finger over a splintering wood.

“Are strangers going to visit our house?”

I frowned. “Maybe.”

“Is that why I saw Uncle Trecheon watching me in the backyard?”

My body stiffened. Trecheon was already here? Watching them? How did Philip even see him? For that matter, how did Philip even remember him? Trecheon’s probably seen him maybe six times in his entire lifetime.

Philip pressed both ears back frowning. “Sorry if I wasn’t supposed to see him.”

“No, no, it’s fine,” I said. “But don’t tell him you saw him, okay? He’s going to be your guardian angel for a while.”

“Can he see me in the magic box?”

“No,” I said. “Only you and I know it exists. Don’t come out from the magic box, even if I call for you. Wait for me to come directly to you. Okay?”

“Neil,” Philip said, suddenly huddling next to me and speaking in a hushed whisper. “I’m scared.”

I’ve always thought it was amazing how easily kids picked up a sense of danger. We don’t give them enough credit. I’m scared too, pal. But I couldn’t say that out loud. Instead I hugged him. “Uncle Trecheon will protect you. That’s his job. Alright?”

“And you’ll protect me too, right?”

I squeezed tighter. “Always.”

We closed up the hideout, and headed back out into the main yard. I casually glanced around the area for Trecheon, but I couldn’t spot him. Perhaps he had moved on, or maybe Philip was simply better than I was.

But if Trecheon was already watching. . . if Philip had a safe place to hide. . . Maybe my family would be okay after all. I elected not to tell Mom the truth. I just couldn’t bear the disappointment and anger and the very real possibility that I’d be barred from seeing my little brother ever again. We could handle it. They’d be safe.

And what Mom didn’t know couldn’t hurt her. Right?

Five

I stared at the two options before me. Trecheon’s borrowed suit or my Marine dress blues. I had to pick carefully. My choice could be the very last thing I ever wear.

After an hour of deliberation, I went with the dress blues. The suit might make me more anonymous, assuming I’d be anonymous at all, but the dress blues had an added advantage. I had an excuse to carry the Mameluke saber. And unlike many of my fellow soldiers, I knew how to use it in combat and not just for show.

I chewed my lip as I attached it to my belt. The only reason I had any knowledge of how to use the sword was because Carter was so good at it. He had taught me during our rare spare moments on the battlefield. I kept my skills up as a memorial to him.

Mind you, it wouldn’t do me a damn bit of good if they put a bullet through my head before I got to it. But at least it was a weapon, and one that at least pretended to show some kind of respect for the woman I’d killed.

A distant, but intense feeling of shock still ran through my veins. Like my body was feeding me a constant stream of adrenaline in preparation for this.

This was it. This could be my last day on Earth. Hell.

I didn’t own a car, so I hired a taxi to take me to St. Buck’s Cathedral to keep the blues nice and clean. The driver eyed the sword at my side, but said nothing.

We drove on to the Cathedral, a lofty building in the center of the quieter residential areas in El Dorado. Despite being in a quiet area, the Cathedral was the largest in the state, all tall towers, ancient wood and stone, hundreds of stained glass windows, and more pews than anyone other than a monk would be willing to count. A monument to Draso and all his supposed goodness.

I was never a religious person. Mom and Dad leaned more toward Christianity, despite the fact that most zyfaunos followed Draso. My religions teacher had told me that Draso and God were actually the same person though, even if the religions were technically different. Still, my swearing habits tended toward profaning God rather than Draso. Call it my own form of adoration.

I let out a shuddering breath as we entered the parking lot. Part relief and part fear. Relief to see the lot nearly full of cars and a few bikes, with lines of people, human and zyfaunos in their best mourning clothes headed for the church. I wasn’t alone. Fear because that could only mean that The Triple Danger were around somewhere.

I paid the cabbie and walked out into the sunlight. The tension in my body grew, making my fingers and tail twitch. My ears wouldn’t keep steady. They spun, listening for any tiny sound, desperate to keep me alive in any way they could. Breathing was hard and I know I was blinking too fast and too often.

I had to calm myself. Trecheon was right. They wouldn’t take me in a crowded public setting. Would they?

I forced one foot forward. Than the other. Willing my body to calm, I crossed the parking lot and entered the church.

A tall black man in a suit waited in the foyer. He glanced over me with a frown. “Name, sir?”

Oh, shit. They were taking names? Good thing I went with the blues. No being anonymous here. “Ah, Neil Black. I came at the personal invitation of Ms. Fawn’s sisters.”

“Yes, sir,” the man said. “Please find a seat.”

As if my nerves would let me sit still on a pew. “Thank you.” I entered the cavernous church and glanced around. A lot of seats were taken already, with their occupants making quiet conversation. I watched them a moment, looking around the room, when I spied an open door leading to a prayer alcove.

That’s what I needed. Prayer. I crossed the room to the alcove and entered it.

A statue of Mona, the mother of Draso’s son, Kai, stood at the end of the room. Traditionally, Mona was a bighorn sheep, as she was portrayed now. Small horns, delicate face with short snout, and tiny, compared to most zyfaunos. She wore a dramatic outfit, made of long, flowy fabrics of white and gold, and was lying at the foot of a cross, looking up to the top with this odd mix of fear, sadness, and reverence. The skylight above her head bathed the whole statuary in colored light. Very heavenly, if one believed in that sort of thing.

At least everything was peaceful. Soft light, the smell of burning candle wax and incense, the quiet sounds of conversation and monk plainsong behind me. One last moment of peace. Maybe I could calm my nerves.

I sat down in the second pew from the front, pulled the kneeler down, and positioned myself in what I hoped was a worshipful pose. Draso, if you’re really real, if you really hear me, please, please, protect my family. Protect me. I paused, thinking about how Mom prayed. But your will be done. Amen.

The door behind me shut.

It took all my willpower to freeze my joints in place and keep myself from turning around.

The unmistakable click-clack of deer hooves on stone echoed in the room. My ears twitched. Two sets from the left. One from the right. I slid further into the pew and dropped my hands, fumbling for the saber, eyes still shut against the threat I knew approached me.

If this was how I went, here and now, I’d fight. Maybe I’d take one or two of them down before I go down myself. I gripped the saber’s hilt.

The one on the right entered my pew. I counted one heartbeat, then stood facing her, whipping my saber from the scabbard.

But I never stood a chance. Before I ever got the sword out far enough to do damage, the doe in front of me grabbed my hand with both of hers and ripped the weapon from me, tossing it aside with a clang. The two behind me gripped my arms and held me tight. I opened my mouth to scream, but the doe in front covered my snout, pressing an almost seductive finger to her black lips with a tiny smile.

“Quiet, Mr. Black,” the doe said. “Wouldn’t want to invite unfriendly guests here, would you?”

Panic gripped me. I tugged, pulled, tried to bite her hand, claw someone, anything that might get me free or at least tell my brain that I was trying to escape and I needed more adrenaline.

“Calm yourself, Mr. Black,” one of the does behind me said. She snuck her face by my left shoulder and I saw a calm ice blue eye staring at me. “We’re not here to hurt you.”

The words should have been comforting, but they felt like a punch to the gut. I stopped squirming and forced myself to be still.

The doe in front loosened her grip on my snout. “There, there. See? It’s fine.”

I took in the sight before me. The doe wore a floor length, slim black dress, sleeveless, with a choker of expensive pearls around her neck. Each ear had five pearl studs lining it. She was pale gold, much like the Matron, but with pale blue eyes and a much darker nose. I could almost call her beautiful if she wasn’t so damn dangerous.

“What do you want with me if you don’t want to kill me?” I snarled, baring my teeth.

“We only wanted to thank you,” the doe said.

I frowned, unable to comprehend. Trecheon’s optimistic thought about thanking me floated through my head. “Thank me?”

“Certainly,” the doe on my right breathed into my ear with a disturbing sensuality. “You took all the information and bait just perfectly. We never would have been able to take down the Matron without your help.”

Electricity burst from my chest and shocked all my muscles at once. Bait? “Wait, you planted all that information?”

“Once we saw your initial interest, yes,” the doe in front said. “It wasn’t difficult.”

“Researching other assassins—”

“Paying the right people to spread information—”

“Setting up the business deal with the Matron—”

“Completing the deal in the right building—”

“Recommendations about your business to the right apartment complexes—”

“And, of course, making sure you had the right partner. . .”

I cursed internally. They knew about Trecheon. “How did you do all that without getting caught by your own Matron?”

“We’ve been doing this a long time, Mr. Black,” the doe on the right said. “We are very, very good at our jobs.”

“But. . . but why?”

“For the same reason you told the White Assassin,” the doe on the left said. “We want out. We want to settle. We want to stop this pointless game of cat and mouse. If you’ll pardon the expression, sir puma.” She pressed her cold nose on the inside of my ear, stunning me. I tried to pull away, but her grip was too strong.

“With the Matron out of the way, dissolving the Family will be easy,” the doe in front said. “Then we can settle and use this corporation for something useful. Just as you wanted. Aren’t you proud? You got that famed magic hit.”

Not if I didn’t survive this. “If you wanted that, you could have just hired me rather than played around.”

“And leave a trail?” the doe on the right said. “We may be an extension of the Matron’s own limbs and highly respected in the Family, but even we have our limits. If word got out that we ordered her death, we’d be instant targets. Much simpler this way.”

“And you aren’t going to kill me.”

“Certainly not!” the doe in front said. “In fact, we’d like to pay you. Discreetly of course.” She reached into the clutch purse sitting on the pew next to her and pulled out a tiny envelope. She walked up to me, pulled back the front of my jacket and pressed the envelope into my inner pocket, running a finger across my chest. “A good assassin deserves good pay, yes? And you were a good assassin.”

I didn’t allow myself to relax. “From one assassin to another?”

She touched noses with me. “Now you understand.”

I pulled my face away. “So that’s it then? An elaborate set up, pay off, and I just go free?”

“Go free?” the doe said, with a false shocked look. “Now who said anything about that?”

Fresh panic ran through my spine.

“You will be fine,” the doe on the right said. “That’s how we operate.”

The doe to the left breathed in my ear. “But your family may not fare so well.”

I flattened my ears and pulled on the does’ grip. Mom, Dad, Philip! “No. No, not my family. Please. Kill me instead!”

“Oh, sweetie, that’s not how it works with The Triple Danger,” the doe in front said, running a hand under my chin. “We take from you what you took from us.”

“Thus,” the doe on the left said. “You take our family. We take your family.”

“No!” I tugged hard, marveling at how strong a pair of doe could be. “No, please, I’m begging you! You can’t do this!”

“Oh, but we can,” the doe on the left said. “And we will. Sorry, sweetheart.”

I opened my mouth to yell, shout, scream, whatever, but a hand pressed a wet rag to my face. Everything went blurry.

“Take a little nap. You could use it,” one doe said, though her voice was faint in my ringing ears. “But hurry fast if you hope to save them.”

Before I could say anything, the world went numb and faded away completely.

Six

By the time I woke up, it was already dark. Mona’s statue blurred into focus, a haunting image against the moonlit stained glass. My limbs were stiff and sore, probably from the fall. The grogginess stayed, but I forced myself to focus.

Wake up, brain. Focus. Be alert. Your family depends on it.

But my family was probably already dead.

I pushed myself up and shook my head, stumbling to my feet. Some distant part of myself reminded me to check my inner pocket. I didn’t know what was in that envelope, but it could be a bomb or a tracking device just as much as a payoff.

The envelope contained only cash. A level ten payment, in big bills, the highest level I have ever taken.

But it wasn’t important. Wasn’t worth it. I forced my body to move, snatched up my saber, and stumbled out of the prayer room. I dropped the cash in the offering box on my way out of the cathedral.

Mom. Dad. Philip. I needed to get to them. Now.

As I floundered out, I briefly considered calling Trecheon and warning him. I reached into my pockets, and was only half surprised to find them completely empty.

Damn, they took my phone. There was no helping it. I had to save them myself.

A lone motorbike stood in the back of the lot, a sports bike of some kind. I swaggered over to it, practically drunk with fear, and didn’t even question why the key was still in it. I straddled the bike and turned the key, then raced as fast as my mind would let me.

Nothing would be fast enough. Nothing would get me there in time.

I don’t know how long it took me to get there, but it felt like a century. Mom’s old banger was in the driveway next to Dad’s ancient chopper, as innocent as could be. I pulled up into the lawn, dropped the bike on the grass and ran for the door.

The door opened, which in itself wasn’t a good sign. Mom kept the door locked obsessively to keep Philip from doing anything stupid. And it felt heavy too. And there was some scraping sound that followed when I opened it.

“Ugh. . .”

Trecheon. I slipped in the house and saw him on the floor behind the door. His clothes were battered and he had a swollen eye. I didn’t see any blood, but his bionic hands had been nailed to the door like some sci-fi Jesus.

“Christ, Trecheon!” I leaned down in front of him.

He kicked at me. “Not me,” he coughed. “I’m fine. Your parents. Down the hall. Hurry!”

I left Trecheon where he was without a second thought and ran down the hall.

I had always hated movie scenes showing the aftermath of an assassination. They portrayed them as messy. Fallen vases, broken picture frames, trails of blood, all leading to some climactic end scene, usually in the bedroom or bathroom, where the victim barely clung to life in order to impart some final words to the discoverer, either to lead him to the next scene or make him feel horrible for what happened.

Real assassins don’t do that. Not if they’re any good. A real assassin would leave no trails and death would come as fast and clean as possible, leaving no chance that the victim might be able to name his killer. Bloodless deaths were preferred because blood opened the potential for fingerprints, footprints, evidences stuck to drying plasma. Blood was an assassin’s enemy.

It was an insult to our skills, and our profession.

So as I ran down the perfectly ordered hallway, I didn’t expect to hear a quiet moan for help.

“Mom!” Mom was in Philip’s room sitting on the floor under the window. She looked relatively unhurt, except for the fact that her hands were tied together and hanging off a nail on the windowsill.

Oh, and the puddle of blood under her.

I ran to her and pulled her hands down, looking over her person for the wound. “Where is it? Where’d they hurt you?”

Mom looked at me blankly, only a faint moan escaping her lips. I shook my head and continued searching. No dice. Mom continued moaning and eventually I caught the word “leg.” I examined her legs and sure enough, there were three large cuts on the undersides of both legs.

Shit. Shit. Mom was in deep trouble. I pulled the ropes off her hands and snatched the blanket off Philip’s bed, wrapping her legs in it, desperately trying to stop the bleeding.

“. . .Your. . . your father is dead.”

I pressed my eyes shut a moment, but then applied myself to my task. “Don’t talk, Mom. Let me help you.”

“I’m. . . dying.”

“You’ll be fine,” I said, my voice cracking, but looking at the size of the puddle, watching the blanket gorge itself on Mom’s blood, I knew it was too late. “Just stay quiet. I. . . I have to help.”

Suddenly she gripped my arm with a surprising amount of strength. I looked her in the eye.

I never knew people could look at you with pity, anger, and fear all at the same time. How she managed to put all those emotions into one expression, with her sad eyes, hanging jaw, splayed ears, and furrowed brow, I don’t know.

“Philip ran. He’s. . . out there. . . somewhere.” She paused to take a deep breath. “Leave me. Find your brother.”

I frowned. “Mom—”

“If you don’t. . .” she whispered, tears running down her cheeks. “I will die. . . hating you.”

My muscles locked into place. The shock was so powerful it blurred my vision and made my ears ring. “Mom. . .?”

“Find. Philip. Now.” She leaned back against the wall and stared at the ceiling.

What could I do? How does one respond to their own mother threatening something like that? I took one more look at Mom, staring and blinking slowly, then stood up and walked out the door.

I should have been worried. I should have run. But Mom’s words. They just. . . broke me.

What the hell was I doing with my life?

I shook my head. No matter. Philip was more important. I ran out into the living room.

“Neil?” Trecheon’s voice sounded from the front door.

“Can’t talk,” I said and ran out the back door.

Though darkness had descended on my home, my puma instincts and knowledge of the backyard let me run at full speed through the grass. I picked my way through the trees toward our secret place.

It troubled me that I didn’t see any new sign of disturbance among the brush. No broken branches, no footprints, nothing. Did Philip actually come this way? Or did he run out into the street? What if The Triple Danger saw him leave and cut him down before he ever got to the trees? What if I had completely missed his body in the dark?

Suddenly a desperate need to find him exploded in my chest. I thrashed through the brush toward the hideout, praying that almighty Draso spared at least one of my family members.

I got to the hideout and threw open the door. “Philip? Philip, you here?”

I felt his embrace before I saw him. He threw himself at me, pawing at my jacket, claws out. “Neil, they hurt Mom and Dad! I ran like you said. I. . . I. . .” He dissolved into tears.

I gripped him like I never had before. Thank God. Thank Draso.

Maybe I could fix at least one thing that I screwed up.

“It’s okay now, Philip. Really. Everything’s fine.” I still couldn’t let him go. But I had to. I had to get to Mom. “Just. . . just stay here for a little while longer. I have to go help Mom, but I’ll be back.”

“Dad is dead, isn’t he?” Philip sobbed. “I saw that deer lady take her knife and—”

“Don’t think about it,” I said. “I need to help Mom. Stay here. Just a moment longer.”

Philip nodded and crawled back into the hideout. I watched him a moment, then ran back for Mom.

God, just give me five more minutes with her.

Seven

When I got back into the house, Trecheon had managed to get one hand free and was working on the other one. He met my eyes. “Philip?”

“He’s fine,” I said, the numbness starting to wear off. I jogged over to the phone on the kitchen wall. Maybe I could call for help. Maybe I could save Mom. But when I picked up the receiver, it was completely dead. A quick examination showed me that the Triple Danger had cut the phone wires. Damn it. “Where’s your phone?”

“They took it from me after they crucified me on your door.”

Dad didn’t carry a phone. He hated the things. And Mom’s purse wasn’t hanging by the door, so I could only assume it was missing too. Damn it! The only means for saving Mom. “Watch the door and. . . I’m going to spend a few minutes with Mom.”

“I’ll try and fix the wires and call for help as soon as I get free. You take care of your mom.” Trecheon frowned. “Neil, you have to know I tried. I didn’t—”

“First-day-hire, right?” I said. It wasn’t his fault. I knew it wasn’t. “Can’t compete with CEOs.” I turned my back on Trecheon and paused. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this, Trech.”

I called him Trech on purpose. I needed to hear him berate me for it, if just for the normalcy of it. But he didn’t.

“Go see your mom,” he said.

Somehow that hurt more than if he had just yelled at me. Trecheon once told me that only close friends were allowed to call him Trech. I continued to call him that because I always thought we were close friends. Or maybe I was trying to make him my close friend.

The fact that it took this kind of tragedy to allow me to call him by a nickname. . . I just shook my head and padded down the hall.

Mom was still staring at the ceiling, but she stirred when I entered the room.

“He’s fine, Mom,” I said. “He’s safe.”

“Neil. . .”

I sat next to her. “Mom, don’t talk. You’ll. . .” A lump grew in my chest and throat and cut off my words. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t speak when I needed to speak, now more than ever. All I could do was look at my dying Mom, unable to do anything. She probably had seconds left. And it was my fault. I didn’t even deserve to be with her while she died.

And then I felt her arms wrap around me. She drew me to her shoulder and just held me there. Her grip was so weak. It was a wonder she could move at all.

I broke. Just broke. The lump made its way to my face and sobs racked my shoulders. I gripped her back. Memories of growing up flashed through my mind. Mom seeing me off to school. Tutoring me after class. Teaching me to swim and ride a bike. Holding me before Trecheon and I were shipped out after boot. Pushing me through HVAC certification when college didn’t work.

Mom gave me everything. This was how I had paid her back.

“I don’t hate you,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. . . I shouldn’t have said that.”

“You have every right to,” I said. “I’m a horrible person.”

“Neil—”

“Don’t,” I said. “Just don’t. I am.” And it all came out. “This. . . this is my fault.”

“Because of gambling debts?”

“I don’t have gambling debts,” I said. “I. . . I’m an assassin. For hire. I used the skills I learned in war to become one because it’s the only thing I’m good at.” I took a deep breath. “I was trying to use my abilities to help people for once. Trecheon and I went after a mob boss. I didn’t think they’d find me, but they actually set me up and. . . and they went after all of you as revenge. It’s my fault you’re sitting here. . . dying.”

Mom sat there, patiently and silently, to her credit. She never loosened her grip on me. She took a deep breath.

“You dragged Trecheon into this?”

I nodded. “Yes. I’m not proud of it.”

“That’s. . . that’s why he came to help.”

“Yes.”

“Neil,” she said. “Just. . . get out of that life. Get Trecheon out. Please. Get out and protect your brother. You’re his only family now. I’m begging you.”

I stared at the floor. She was right. I had to. But could I? Could I actually escape after everything that had happened? I didn’t know. I still had too much to work out in my head. But I could protect Philip. “I’ll take care of Philip, Mom. I promise.”

“Good,” she said. Her eyes fluttered and started losing their light. She tried to speak, but she could only mouth the words before her grip loosened and her arms fell at her sides.

I fought the tears threatening to rip my eyes out. “I love you too, Mom.” I carefully leaned her lifeless body against the wall and pressed her eyes closed. “I’m sorry.”

I don’t know how long I sat there staring at Mom, but when I finally got up and headed back out, Trecheon had gotten himself free and was in the kitchen, messing with wires on the phone, muttering about the Triple Danger’s destruction. Philip sat at the kitchen table, ears pinned back, frowning, eyes dry from crying. I splayed my ears.

“Philip, I told you to wait until I came back to get you!”

“Uncle Trecheon is here,” Philip said. “I’m fine. Where’s Mom?” Trecheon lifted his head and glanced at me.

I sat hard on one of the kitchen chairs. I couldn’t even speak.

Philip just looked at me, wide eyed. “Oh no.”

“I. . . I’m sorry, buddy,” I said. “I did all I could.”

Philip blinked and stared at the carpet. Somehow, that was worse than if he had just cried.

Trecheon’s hands paused at the wires, splaying an ear. He glanced at the phone a moment, then turned to me and handed me a piece of paper. “They gave me this before they left.”

I unfolded the thing and glanced at it. Just a few simple words, but they threatened to unhinge me.

Your parents are the cost. Your brother is the bargaining chip.

What the hell had I gotten my family into? 

Eight

“So you can’t think of anyone who would want to kill your parents?” A policeman, a mongoose specifically, sat on the other side of the table, calmly taking my statement with all the indifference of a law enforcer that had seen too much.

I stared at the table, holding my hands in my lap, trying to fight down the lump that still hadn’t completely worked its way out of my throat.

After I had had a moment to let the shock calm down, Trecheon managed to get the phones working and called 911. The police were there instantly, but of course, both my parents were pronounced dead at the scene. Trecheon had the sense to tell Philip not to tell anyone about what he had witnessed. He also kept him as isolated as possible from everything while I reluctantly assisted the police.

That was hours ago. Now dawn was approaching and I sat in a small room in a local station with a dispassionate policeman, still wearing my dress blues.

I shook my head. “No. I have no idea.”

“Did they have any gambling debts or gang connections?”

I raised an eyebrow. “My parents? Are you kidding?”

“You never know.”

“No way,” I said. “My parents were too straight laced.”

“What about you?”

I shook my head, letting the grief show as much as possible. If I was lucky, it’d hide my guilt. “No. Nothing.”

“Hmmm.” The policeman dragged out the word, then wrote something down.

I looked at him. What was that?

“I suppose that’s all the questions for now, Mr. Black,” the policeman said, an obvious edge in his voice. He flipped his notebook closed. “We’ll be in touch, certainly.”

“Thank you,” I said. I stood up. “I’ll be taking my brother and going home now.” I would not let Philip be some bargaining chip. I had to get him and get out of town, lay low for a while. If I was lucky, I could start anew somewhere and drop some anonymous tip about my parent’s true murderers. I wouldn’t let them get away with this.

The policeman didn’t stand. “Sorry, Mr. Black, but Philip won’t be going with you.”

I paused, splaying my ears. My stomach churned. “What?”

“I said Philip won’t be going with you,” he repeated. “As of right now, until further notice, he is a ward of the state.”

A sudden anger boiled inside me, melting away the lump in my throat. “What do you mean he’s a ward of the state? He’s my brother! I’m taking him home.”

The policeman leaned over the table, glaring at me. “Tell me, Mr. Black. What were you doing at Matron Fawn’s funeral earlier today?”

I froze. Oh. Shit. He knew. He even used the term Matron. He knew something was up. “I, ah, was invited.”

“Why?” the policeman asked. “From what we can gather, you have absolutely no important connections with Ms. Fawn. And trust me, Mr. Black, we can gather a lot about their connections.” He lowered his gaze. “Yet you received a personal invitation from her three siblings and you went. The CCTV cameras didn’t catch you leaving until long after the funeral.”

Were the police watching me too? “I fell asleep in the prayer room.”

“Then you groggily wandered out of the cathedral and stole a bike?”

How does one answer that? I sat back down in the seat.

“The bike was registered to Fawn Inc.,” the policeman said. “When asked about it, they said no harm done and they won’t press charges. Though CCTV footage revealed that the bike had its key. Can you tell me why they would leave a bike there for you? When you took a cab to get to the funeral and you have no connection with them?”

I pressed my hands into my lap. “This has nothing to do with my parents’ murders.”

“Depending on how you answer, it could have everything to do with your parents’ murders,” the policemen said. “I’ll ask again, Mr. Black. Why were you at Matron Fawn’s funeral?”

“Would you believe that her sisters threatened me?” I said quietly.

“Absolutely,” the policeman said. “But then I would ask why.”

I said nothing.

“The Fawn Family threaten a lot of people,” the policeman said. “But they have reasons. They threaten business rivals. But they’re a major corporation dealing in foreign imports. You,” he looked over a paper. “Are the owner of a small HVAC company. You don’t even hire additional employees, according to our research.”

I frowned, but still said nothing.

“They also threaten their various ‘protection’ clients,” he continued. “But they would be fools to invite them to the Matron’s funeral. The FBI have been involved with the Matron’s activities for years. They knew we’d be watching them and checking up on all the guests. Surely one of the protection clients would break and confess under pressure, so why take that risk?”

Again, I said nothing.

“They will also threaten those who hurt them.” The policeman paused, supposedly for effect, as he leaned over the table. He eyed my uniform, tracing his gaze over my campaign ribbons and various metals and honors. “A Marine from the War of Eons, yes?”

I pressed my lips together. “Yes, sir.”

“A special task force, yes?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And your role,” he looked over the paper in front of him. “Was designated marksman.”

I stared at the table. “Yes, sir.”

“Your exploits in war are rather famous, Mr. Black,” the policeman said. “A sniper of considerable skill. And as the papers said, The Matron was killed by a .338 Lapua Magnum round. Likely from a gun very similar to the one you used in war.” He eyed me. “Do you still practice sniping?”

“No, sir.”

The policeman slapped an open palm on the table, causing me to jump. “Bullshit, Mr. Black.” He leaned back in his chair. “If it were up to me, we’d be searching your apartment right now. And I bet we’d find the murder weapon and evidences of your connections with the Fawn Family. We would find every reason for them to target your family, even if they left no evidence at the crime scene.”

I lifted my gaze, hardening my features. “Why do you even care? She was the boss of a mob. She ruined businesses and used her corporation to smuggle drugs and weapons into this country. She killed left and right without discretion.”

“She was a living, breathing, sentient creature. Just like your parents,” the policeman said. “And murder is still against the law.”

I pasted my ears back. His message was clear. By killing her, I was no better than she was. I was responsible for my parents’ deaths.

“I’m not sure what your connection is in all this yet, Mr. Black,” the policeman continued. “But take comfort in the fact that I’m not going to let it go. So until we know more about what happened, and we will learn more about what happened, you can be sure of that, Philip is a ward of the state. Talk with his social worker to arrange meetings. I’ll make sure you have her information before you leave today.” The policeman stood up and walked out of the room.

I don’t know how long I sat at that table, stewing in guilt. I took a life. I essentially killed my parents. I lost my brother.

I lost everything. I couldn’t even get my brother to safety and avenge our parents’ deaths. He was stuck as a bargaining chip and I couldn’t fix it.

As I stood, the horrible, awful truth hit me. There was no such thing as a magic hit.

When I left the room, Philip came out of another room down the way with his new social worker, a pale colored housecat in a gray business suit and red high heels. I tried to avoid scowling at her. It wasn’t her fault that they were taking Philip away from me.

Philip ran over to me and I fell to one knee to pull him into my arms. He gripped back and the tears that had been missing at the news of Mom’s death finally appeared in his eyes.

“Neil, they’re taking me away! They won’t even let me into the house to get my stuff!” He sobbed.

I clutched him tight. “It’s just for a little while, kiddo. Just until we get things settled. I’ll come see you all the time, okay?”

Philip looked at me with tear stained fur and splayed ears. “I’m scared.”

I ruffed the fur between his ears. “I know, Philip, but this woman will take care of you.” I gave her a quick look. She lifted her gaze, folded her arms and frowned. The contemptible look she threw at me stung, but I probably deserved it. I shook my head and looked back at Philip. “I’ll get you soon. I promise. I’m not going to leave you.” I smiled. “But now I need you to be a big boy and do what she says. Okay?”

Philip sniffled and nodded. “Okay.”

“It’s time to go, Philip,” the social worker said.

I gripped him one more time. “I promise I’ll see you soon.”

Philip didn’t say goodbye. He just hugged me and dragged himself back to his social worker. I stood and she gave me her card with no smile. I stared after them as they disappeared around the corner.

Trecheon was waiting for me in the lobby, poking at the hole in his left mechanical hand with a small screwdriver.

I frowned and splayed an ear. “Are they salvageable?”

“They’ll be fine,” Trecheon said. “No major damage.” He stood and patted my shoulder. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

I nodded. It took all my willpower to make my legs move and leave my brother behind.

Nine

“I’m sorry, Mr. Black, but I can’t in good conscience approve this application.” The pale housecat stamped the papers in front of her with a huge red “REJECTED” stamp.

I held in a snarl. This had been the fourth time in ten months since my parents’ deaths that I had saved up and worked through the supposed issues to apply to adopt Philip. This social worker had it in for me. “Tell me, Miss Piper. What’s wrong this time?”

“I never said anything was wrong,” Miss Piper said, half-glaring at me from across her oak desk.

“You have every other time you’ve rejected my applications,” I growled. “First it was my location—”

“You lived in one of the highest crime areas of El Dorado, Mr. Black.”

“So I moved,” I said. “I packed everything up and picked up a nice place in one of the suburban areas. But then you complained about the state of my furniture and apartment.”

“Your apartment wasn’t fit for a feral pig.”

“So I fixed that too,” Neil said. “It’s sparkling clean. It just smells of perfection. You could probably eat off the carpet. But that wasn’t good enough either. You complained about my business.”

“You make next to nothing in your pathetic business, Mr. Black.”

“So, then I changed that,” I said. “My business has grown now. I’ve got employees and a reputation to match. Heck, I’m thinking about buying a house.” I leaned over her desk. “I’m in perfect standing now. So tell me. What’s wrong?”

Miss Piper narrowed her eyes at me. “Did the FBI ever clear your name?”

I flattened both ears. “The FBI never dirtied it. Where are you going with this?”

“I was there the day Officer Wilde accused you of being involved with the Fawn Family,” Miss Piper said. “I know you’re a suspect in Miss Fawn’s murder. And I know that you’re likely responsible for your parents’ deaths. So forgive me if I repeat myself, but I cannot, in good conscience, let you adopt Philip.”

I snarled. “That evidence was circumstantial. They never even followed up on it. You can’t deny me the chance to adopt my brother on a hunch. There are laws that prevent that.”

“I can, and I will,” Miss Piper said. She leaned forward with an angry frown. “There are always ways around the laws when it means protecting innocent children from murderers, Mr. Black.”

I stood, slamming a fist on her desk. “You little—”

She leaned back and flipped open my case file. “Displays unprovoked bouts of anger and aggression,” she recited, while writing. “Worries about possible abuse and neglect. . .” She glanced at me over the file. “Anything else you want to add to that, Mr. Black?”

“You’re a horrible monster, Miss Piper.”

“No, Mr. Black,” she said. “You are the horrible monster.” She passed me the rejected application. “Better luck next time. Assuming there will be a next time.” She waved me out of her office.

I walked out with the application in hand, consciously closing the door slowly so she couldn’t add “violence” to my case file. God dammit. Damn it all to hell. How the hell did this happen?

And yet, I couldn’t really get mad. I knew she was right. I was a monster. But I was working on it. I had spent the last ten months cutting all my assassin connections. I was getting out of the business, like Mom asked. Trecheon with me. We’d finally be clean, even if it meant I was stuck with the slow life of an HVAC man for the rest of my life.

But I couldn’t prove that to Miss Piper. It wasn’t like I could show up and say “Hey! Remember how I was a horrible assassin? Well I’ve been clean for ten months! Here’s my rehab records!”

If only life worked that way.

The only thing I could do is somehow “prove” my innocence to the FBI and let them tell Miss Piper that I was clean. Only I couldn’t think of a single way to do that.

“Need help with something, Mr. Black?” a cooing voice beckoned to me.

I glanced up and nearly froze in place. The three doe of the Triple Danger stood in the parking lot near a limo. They wore matching dark green dresses and pearls. All of them eyed me with disturbing half-smiles.

My first thought was to run, but I couldn’t get my legs to work. I tried speaking instead. “What do you want?”

“We want to help, Mr. Black,” one of the doe said, pacing toward me. I noticed as she walked that she was heavily pregnant. She stopped in front of me and held out a hand. “If you’d just come with us. This won’t take long.”

“I imagine it wouldn’t,” I said, but I didn’t take her hand.

She lifted an ear and her smile widened. “Oh come now, Mr. Black. Don’t be so nervous. We want to help. I’m sure you’re curious.”

“Curiosity killed the cat,” I muttered.

“But you’re as skittish as a newborn fawn,” the doe said. She reached down and gently took my hand. “I promise, Mr. Black, we only want to help. Give us a chance.”

Everything screamed at me to get away, but I allowed her to lead me to the limo. The four of us got in and the driver drove off. One doe pressed a button and raised the privacy glass between us and the driver. As I settled myself, I noticed a car seat with a baby fawn in it. She couldn’t have been more than two months old.

“One of you jumped the gun before I ever got the Matron, huh?”

“We were pretty confident.”

One of the doe handed me a glass of champagne. I took it gingerly, but I didn’t drink it. “I never did get your names.”

The doe who took me by the hand giggled. “Logos,” she said.

I lifted an eyebrow. “What?”

“My name. Logos.”

“I’m Pathos,” another said.

“Ethos,” the last one nodded.

I blinked a moment, until my mind drudged up an old English lesson. I rolled my eyes. “I get it. Clever.”

“The Matron thought so,” Logos said. “Now, Mr. Black. We understand you’re trying to adopt your brother.”

I tried not to flatten my ears. “Yes, I am.”

“No luck so far,” Pathos said. “After four tries. Yes?”

Lightning ran up my body, but I didn’t let it show. “No.”

“All because Miss Piper believes you’re Matron Fawn’s killer,” Ethos said. She shook her head. “Tsk, tsk. Speculation can really turn a person.”

I ground my teeth. “Just get to the point of this conversation.”

“We want to help you get your brother back.”

I froze in my seat. “Why?”

Logos rubbed her pregnant belly and Ethos patted the head of the sleeping fawn in the car seat. “It’s always a shame to see families torn apart.”

I tilted an ear. “Motherhood has mellowed you.”

“Nonsense, Mr. Black,” Pathos said. “We’ll help you, but it’s not as if this service comes for free.”

I tiled the other ear now. “What do you want?”

“Assurance,” Logos said. She dug a piece of paper out of her clutch purse. “And payment.” She handed the paper to me.

I glanced over it. It was a very official looking invoice for a “bargaining chip.” I skimmed the legal stuff, then caught the price listed. My jaw dropped.

One million dollars.

I looked over the paper at the girls. All three of them smiled at me.

“You want one million dollars. For Philip.”

“Certainly, Mr. Black,” Ethos said. “You pay us one million dollars, and we’ll make sure the FBI finds the ‘true’ culprit responsible for Matron Fawn’s death.”

“And who’s this poor sap you’re going to frame for me?” I asked with a snarl.

“Oh, it’d be easy to frame a rival mob assassin,” Ethos said with a sly grin. “Consider it a bonus magic hit. Your name is cleared, Miss Piper will apologize, and you’ll be free to adopt your brother.” She leaned on one hand. “I’m sure with your skills, getting that money will be a dawdle.”

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “HVAC doesn’t pay near enough. I couldn’t make this kind of money in my lifetime!”

Ethos frowned and lifted one eyebrow. “You have more than one skill, you know.”

I paused and my ears started ringing. No. They weren’t suggesting that.

“You’ve got a reputation now, Mr. Black,” Pathos said. “A few level ten jobs and you’d have the money in no time.”

“I just spent the last ten months getting out of that business,” I snarled.

“Oh come now, sweetie,” Logos said. “No one really leaves the business. It’s just not possible. You could get right back into it.”

“Why are you so determined to get me back in?”

“It’s a simple trade, Mr. Black,” Ethos said. “You go back into the business. You take a few level ten hits. You give us the money and get Philip back. Meanwhile, we track your movements, tap your calls, and gather enough evidence against you to ensure you won’t go to the police about your parents’ deaths. Simple as that.”

I felt the warmth drain from my face. “You want to exchange Philip for assassin guilt. You want me to hand you evidence of my crimes.”

“Absolutely,” Pathos said. “A bargain if you ask me.”

“And what’s to keep you from continuing to use me? Should I expect to come under your pay and become your personal assassin?”

“Certainly not,” Ethos said. “This is assurance, as we said. It’s just tying up loose ends.”

“Killing me would tie them up a whole lot neater.”

“But there’s no fun in that, sir puma,” Ethos said. “And as we said, we’d rather not break families up. That’s happened too much of late, wouldn’t you agree?”

I glanced over the paper. What could I do? Was it really worth it to trade one bargaining chip for another? Could I really do this? I closed my eyes. Images of Mom’s final moments passed through my head. The promises I made to her about protecting Philip. That was more important than the promise to leave the business. I knew I had no choice. I had to do this. I opened my eyes again.

“Fine. Deal.”

Ethos grinned. “I knew you’d see things our way.” She took the invoice from me the three of them signed it with their codenames.

“How long do I have?”

“Long as you like,” Pathos said. “Though you might want to get it done before Miss Piper finds a new family for your dear brother.” She passed the invoice back to me.

At that point, the limo stopped. “Well, here’s your stop, Mr. Black,” Logos said. “A pleasure doing business with you. I’m sure we’ll be in touch. Have a wonderful day.” She opened the door and I walked out, still holding the invoice and champagne. She shut the door, and the limo sped away. I glanced around.

Across the street was Philip’s foster home. I took a long look at the white shutters and brown picket fence. The sound of children running and playing danced across the tarmac. Then I took a deep breath and walked up to the house. Might as well tell him the news.

Ten

The next day I sauntered into Trecheon’s office. He glanced up at me with a curious eyebrow. “Any luck with that social worker?”

I shrugged. “In a weird off-hand way, kinda.” I handed him the Fawn’s invoice.

Trecheon glanced over it, frowning. “It’s. . . an invoice. For a bargaining chip.” He shook his head. “One million dollars? What the hell does that even mean, Neil?”

I took a deep breath. “That’s the price the Triple Danger gave me. For Philip.” I gave him a summary of all that had happened yesterday. “If I pay them one million dollars and they’ll pin Matron Fawn’s murder on someone rival mob and clear my name sufficiently for the social worker.”

Trecheon frowned. “Why that much? They’re a multi-million-dollar corporation. They don’t need your money.”

“It’s not about the money, Trech,” I said, dragging the words out, trying to calm myself. “It’s about the number. It’s way too high for me to get legitimately.”

Trecheon frowned and dropped the paper. “Neil, please don’t tell me what I think you’re going to tell me.”

“I don’t have a choice.” I took a deep breath, preparing myself to say it. I had to say it or it wouldn’t feel real. “I need to get back into the business.”

The color on the inside of Trecheon’s ears faded and he furrowed his brow. “They can’t really expect you to do that.”

“That’s exactly what they expect me to do,” I said. “They told me themselves. If I start up in the business again to get that money, they can record all of my hits. My guilt as an assassin becomes their bargaining chip.”

Trecheon frowned, taking it all in. “So you’re just trading one bargaining chip for another.”

“Essentially, yes,” I said. “But I’ll get Philip back.”

“Why would they do that?”

I shrugged. “They said something about not wanting to break up families. I think motherhood changed their perspective more than they want to believe.”

Trecheon stood and glared at me. “Neil, you spent the last ten months trying to cut your connections and get out of the business. Don’t make the same mistake again. Don’t do this to yourself.” He shook his head. “Let me help. I’ll donate all my profits to you. We’ll get that number for them.”

I scoffed. “Will we?” I countered. “Trecheon, we’re just skilled labor. Combined we couldn’t make that number in our lifetimes.”

“Maybe we can take out loans.”

“Do you really think any bank is going to loan us that kind of cash? On my income? On yours?”

Trecheon frowned. He sat back in his chair.

“It’s an uncomfortable truth, Trech.”

“Don’t call me Trech.”

I bit my lip. Back to this again. “The fact of the matter is, killing is my only good skill. I’ll get back into for a few years, earn the money. And trade bargaining chips. I’ll finally get Philip back.”

“You’ll still be just as much a prisoner,” Trecheon said.

“But I’ll have Philip. That’s all that matters.” I sighed. “I can live with them monitoring us.”

Trecheon pressed his ears back. “When you came to me with this hit last year, you told me you were on the verge of going insane. You needed that magic hit in order to keep yourself from taking the easy way out.”

I waved a hand. “Magic hits aren’t real.”

“Neil—”

“They aren’t,” I snarled. “They can’t be real. How could it be real when doing that magic hit means I lost everything?”

Trecheon tapped his desk. “This isn’t the same thing as before. This isn’t working for yourself and taking only the hits you feel comfortable doing. This is leading to pure, cold-blooded killing. No hope. No magic hit. Nothing to hold on to. How am I going to keep you from insanity?”

“You won’t,” I said, trying to ignore the truth in his statement. “But Philip will. Magic hits aren’t real, but Philip. . . Philip is real.” I took a deep breath. “I can do this for him.”

Trecheon closed his eyes. He sat in that pose for almost a minute before opening his eyes again. “This is against my better judgement, but. . . I’m in too.”

I frowned, splaying my ears. This was not where I wanted it to go. “What? Why? I dragged you unwillingly into this profession and you were more than happy to get out. Why go back in?”

“Because you need a partner,” Trecheon said. “And I’ll happily donate my job money to you if it means you’ll get out of this business and get Philip faster.”

I paused, stunned. “Trech, I. . . I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t.” He held a hand out. “Just say you’ll let me help you.”

I pressed my lips together, ears still splayed. “I don’t deserve your loyalty.”

“We rarely deserve the loyalties we’re given, Neil,” he said. “Just let me help you.”

I glanced at the floor a moment, then stood. I held my hand out to him. He took it without hesitation.

“Thank you, Trecheon.”

“It’s what friends are for.”

I wasn’t sure that that’s what friends were for. Agreeing to do unpleasant jobs to help them attain impossible goals. But I wouldn’t turn down his help. It would be an insult to do so. As I released his hand, I realized I had been wrong.

He was a noble assassin.

There was no magic hit. Not really. And that was a disappointment. A hurt that would likely turn me insane if I didn’t get out of this quickly enough. But there were magic partnerships, apparently. Friendships. I clung to that.

I could only hope that I could live up to that friendship, and that perhaps some of Trecheon’s noble loyalty and kindness might rub off on me. And Philip.

About the Author

R. A. Meenan was born in London during the golden age of science fiction, but somehow time traveled to the Modern Era (some say a mad man with a blue box was involved). She was dropped on the doorstep of a house owned by anthropomorphic cats and though they were disappointed she didn’t have furry ears and a tail, they took her in to teach her the ways of elemental magic. After setting fire to her furry cat friends’ tails one too many times (final score – fire: 2612, cat’s tails: 0) they called an exterminator and sent her out on her way.

Now an adult (physically, not mentally), she ride-hops intergalactic military spacecraft, combing the outer reaches of space and time, writing science fiction and urban fantasy stories based on her experiences. She’s also hoping to find the perfect cup of coffee and a better way to grow dinosaurs. Humans kind of look at her funny, but she’s managed to make herself an honorary ambassador for furry and anthropomorphic aliens and space dragons.

She carefully feeds and brushes her wonderful husband Joe and the pair have four furry children (which are really cats, but don’t tell them that). She also spends her spare time teaching essay-writing haters, molding them into people resembling Actual Students and Lovers of English.

She may not win the hearts of stiff military men or students who want good grades for no effort, but she certainly captures the spirit and imagination of time travelers, magic users, nerds, Students-In-Training, and fantasy lovers. Welcome to her nonsensical world. We hope you like it here.

 

You can email R. A. Meenan at [email protected] or [email protected]. Check out more of her works at www.zyearth.com. Sign up for her newsletter! You can also follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/zyearthchronicles or on Twitter at @r_a_meenan.

 

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Glossary

Faunos: Anthropomorphic creatures, usually based off of Earth animals, either real or legendary. Scientists on Earth and Zyearth believe that faunos probably evolved from feral animals with the help of Draso, the creator god, though nonbelievers have different opinions on the matter. All faunos have similar DNA and genetic structures and many species can interbreed, though hybrids are extremely rare. All faunos, regardless of the Earth animal they evolved from, give live birth, though not all infant faunos suckle milk.

Zyfaunos: Zyfaunos are a specially defined subspecies of faunos. All zyfaunos have similar characteristics – plantigrade or near plantigrade legs, human stance structure in the spine, humanlike eyes and sometimes lips, generally short snouts, and have humanlike, five fingered hands. Zyfaunos range in height between about 4’5” to 7’ tall. All zyfaunos can interbreed regardless of the individual’s species. Unlike most faunos, zyfaunos are not always “traditionally” colored, and often have unnatural colors in their fur, such as red, blue, green, purple, and others. Zyfaunos are the most human of all faunos and even share some human DNA. Though relationships are rare, humans and zyfaunos can produce children. Zyfaunos are named as such because the DNA strain originated from the planet Zyearth and Zyearth has the most pure forms of this species.

Quilar: Quilar are perhaps the most unusual of all zyfaunos, as it is unclear what Earth animal they evolved from. They have several key characteristics – catlike ears and snout, including wet noses, slightly humanlike lips, though usually black or dark pink, humanlike feet and hands, tails, and quills of various lengths on their head in place of hair. They range in height from about 5’4” to 6’ for shorthair quilar and 6’ to 7’ for longhair quilar. Quilar quills are hard, though not usually sharp like a porcupine or hedgehog. Instead of fingernails, quilar have tiny retractable claws on each hand. These claws are not very sharp and are mainly used for scratching. Quilar also do not have any “traditional” colors. Their fur and quills tend to have very vibrant colors, such as blue, green, purple, and others. Some quilar are two toned and have a mixed of different colors, but this is a rare anomaly. Longhaired quilar and shorthaired quilar have differing characteristics.

Longhair Quilar: Longhair quilar have slightly longer, coarser fur and shorter quills on the head. These quilar also have slightly more catlike feet and a long, bent, rigid tail. Their ears are also slightly different, as they are bent slightly backwards and cannot perk up the same way a normal cat’s ears can. Longhaired quilar are rarer than shorthaired quilar and are almost exclusively limited to the Athánatos population.

Shorthair Quilar: Shorthair quilar have very short, very soft fur and generally longer, thicker quills on their heads. Quilar are the most humanlike of all faunos. Human-faunos relationships usually involve a quilar.

Focus Jewels: Focus jewels are found on many different planets throughout the universe. The term refers to any jewel that can be bound to a user’s skin, soul, or lifeforce that grants supernatural powers. Sometimes focus jewel power only grants simple powers, such as long life, but others exhibit more extravagant powers, such as elemental power, cloaking (the ability to hide a user from view) or healing.

Lexi Gems: Lexi Gems are focus jewels bound to the user’s soul and grants users several powers. Average Gem users are granted long life (up to four hundred Zyearth years), basic shielding, which is used mainly for cooking and preventing injury from heat and sharp objects, and slow aging. Advanced users develop “Gem Specialties.” There are a variety of specialties that users develop. The most common specialty is healing, followed by elemental fabricators and manipulators, and a select few specialize in cloaking. Users are usually granted only one specialty, though a rare few have two. In the case of a duel specialist, both specialties are significantly weaker than those in a single specialist.

Lexi Gems are usually about the size of a user’s fist. Gems often take on the colors of their users in one of several forms, but they lose their color when their user dies.

Ei-Ei Jewels: Ei-Ei Jewels, like Lexi Gems, are focus jewels and are the source of magic and power for a member of the Athánatos tribe. Ei-Ei jewels are small and they are fused to the skin of the user just around the edge of their eyes. Ei-Ei jewels also come in pairs. Each eye has one set of the pairs. There are three jewels, but all of them work together to properly function.

The first jewel, the Mind Jewel, is yellow, representing the sophia flower, a symbol of wisdom. This jewel set keeps the user’s mind fresh and free of deterioration. They even protect against mind aging issues like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The second set, the Body Jewel, is red, representing the purity of blood and flesh. This jewel set keeps the body from deterioration. Athánatos tribe members are immortal because of this jewel, but they are not invincible.

The final set, the Soul Jewel, is the color of the users eyes, representing the user’s soul. This jewel set keeps the soul pinned to the body. Together the three sets make the user immortal.

Defender: The Defenders are a military group run by a small country called Zedric on the continent of Yelar on the plant Zyearth. The Defenders were originally created as a small private military designed to protect those who need protecting, but after a large scale war broke up the continent into smaller countries, the Defenders attached themselves to a new and neutral country. They still help defend the defenseless, though they also run international and intergalactic missions designed to protect their assets as well as the defenseless. Since the country is small, the army is small, and they generally try to avoid war or fighting as much as possible.

Guardian: Guardians are an essential part of the Defender army. Guardians are high ranking, highly trained individuals that perform tasks that average Defenders aren’t trained for. There are two important types of Guardians.

Master Guardian: The role of Master Guardian is usually held by two people at the same time, often a former Golden Guardian pair. Master Guardians have a duel task – he or she is both the head of the Defender army and the leader of the country of Zedric. Master Guardians are chosen by the lawmakers, called the Assembly, a group of thirty zyfaunos that have been voted into office by the general population. The Assembly can vote anyone in, but they typically vote for high ranking army personnel, such as the Golden Guardians. Master Guardians must be smart, strong, courageous, and influential. Master Guardians are usually in office for life, though there are checks and balances that can remove a Master Guardian if the assembly feels like he or she is not properly performing duties, and some Master Guardians choose to retire. Master Guardians are generally considered by most Defenders to be the most powerful zyfaunos of their time.

Golden Guardian: Golden Guardians are a team of two Defenders specially trained to handle delicate situations and attempt to prevent all-out war that would make an intervention necessary. They are typically the first people to visit unsettled countries or groups of people. Golden Guardians are selected by the Master Guardian of their era, and are given an extra five years of special training beyond typical Defender training. Traditionally, Golden Guardian teams have always been composed of a member of the Azure family and a member of the Gildspine family, with few exceptions. There is a belief that there is something special in their line that makes them especially adept at being Guardians. Usually the team has one healer and one elemental user, and the two Guardians usually share the same gender, but sometimes these conditions differ.

Defender Pendant: Defender pendants are worn by all Defenders, regardless of their position in the army or Academy. They carry holographic identification cards and are the most common means of communication among Defenders. The pendant also carries several symbols. On Zyearth, a legless dragon is a sign of peace, so the Defenders made the legless dragon the center of their pendant. The dragon’s neck is tucked under, a classic move that prevents strangulation in battle. This represents defense. The outstretched wings are a sign of openness and welcome. Finally, the Gem at the dragon’s side represents the world of Zyearth, since all native Zyearthlings are bound to Gems.


Tanned Hide

Neil Black is a run-down assassin desperately looking for his magic hit - the one hit on a drug lord or a dictator that might save thousands from addiction and oppression. So when he glimpses that magic hit in the form of a big time mob boss, he takes the chance and gets his dream hit. He doesn’t, however, predict the horrific cost that his parents and younger brother may have to pay after he succeeds. Now it’s up to Neil and his fellow assassin Trecheon Omnir to use all their skills and knowledge to fight the coming storm – before Neil’s family become the mob’s next victims.

  • ISBN: 9781311153883
  • Author: R. A. Meenan
  • Published: 2016-07-06 00:51:16
  • Words: 18534
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