Chapter 1 – The assignment

I am in awe of Aschure. I wonder if she notices my stares, my glances, the way I perk up when it’s her turn to report on her missions. I don’t think she does. She is a rotten asshole after all.

I want to be her.

An XXL-bowl of spicy chicken wings is just enough distraction to keep a group of murderers from killing each other. Colton, our beloved leader, has learned this fact the hard way, and he never misses an opportunity to avoid a repeat lesson. I, personally, like toasted paninis better, but I’m not the person to watch out for at the table. Not even the second or third most dangerous. No, I rank somewhere down at the bottom of the pack, and I couldn’t care less.

My clan doesn’t gather in full strength as often as one would think, so this special occasion warrants the use of the big room with the equally big round table, instead of the smaller offices downstairs. The walls are gray and windowless, the floor tiled for ease of cleaning, and if a missile hits our headquarters, we’ll be snug and comfy here. And the room—the table—offer a lot of space between the seats. More empty air between the members means more time to tear them away from each other, should they decide to go at it instead of just glaring. But that’s Hunters for you. We’re uncivilized beasts.

All thirteen of us make quite the picture. Men, women, all young enough to pass for college students or old enough to pass as our parents. Nothing in between, because you’re either too young to have gotten a chance to die, or you’ve survived so much shit death has simply given up on chasing you. We’re dressed in our sunday bests, a plethora of leathers, fatigues, and biking gear, and we’re all slouching in a way that resembles tightly coiled springs on casual Friday. All eying each other as if at any moment one of them could jump over the table and start a massacre.

It’s not even that we don’t like each other. There haven’t been any infights or assassination attempts since the introduction of the Hunter’s mark, and I wasn’t even a glint in my parents’ eyes when that happened. But Hunters simply don’t like company. We’re so used to seeing our comrades die that it’s hard to accept friendships, fleeting as they would be. Death is what we were made for, trained for, chosen for. And I have no illusions that any of us will survive long enough to think about a pension. Except for Colton. By Hunter standards, he’s antediluvian. Even has the beginnings of a silver fox going.

Aschure is something else, though. Undisclosed age, but I’d guesstimate something closer to thirty than twenty, five ten, skin the kind of bronzed that makes racists nervous, thick, black hair that never seems to do what she wants, and a glare that would send a brown bear running. She wears weapons like they’re pretty accessories, but damn, does she know how to use them, it’s frightening. And she’s the reason I realized that I’m not quite gay. Gay enough to keep my hands off girlfriends, that’s for sure, but she’s the one lady I get hot and bothered over. Never to her face, because holy shit, she’d stomp my giblets into the ground if I tried to come on to her. In the quiet solitude of my room, though? Many a paper hanky have found their deaths in my bed. It’s damn pitiful.

“Ladies, gents, assignments,” Colton snaps from the head of the table, fingers tapping a rhythm on the stack of tablets beneath his hand. “I need six teams, four for major breaches of Contract on the west coast, two for the East,…”

Breaches of Contract, that’s what a Hunter’s existence is about. That and nothing else. As Colton thunders on, I slide deeper into my seat, closing my eyes behind my blue shades as I let my mind drift. It’s not like I’ll get picked for anything important and my mind has learned its lesson, sliding into daydreams as the grizzled man at the end of the table throws tablets at the crowd, Oprah style. When I was young, new, with no choice in the matter but live as a Hunter or die as an obstacle, I thought the Hunt would be exciting. Or at least not boring. I had boring before my freedom was taken from me and it seems such a waste to have your world turned upside down just to end up exactly where you’ve been before. Hunting supernaturals, killing monsters, upholding some ancient codex of secrecy, I mean, who wouldn’t think that’s an exciting job? Life or death decisions in the field, shooting guns and having stakeouts, hunting after clues, yadda yadda. But no, not for me. I end up with guard duty, or some kind of escorting job, or maybe another stint in the library, sorting unloved books into dusty shelves until my brain leaks out of my ears. I never get picked for the real jobs. Never.

“…on. Gideon!”

A fist slams the table in front of me, scaring me upright. The single chicken bone I gnawed at before I remembered my dislike for spicy wings tumbles from the spinning plate and into my lap as I blink at Colton wide-eyed. He hasn’t left his place at the table, but he stares at me with a chink in his eyebrow. And now that I’m wide awake, I notice how quiet the room has gotten. Crap. How much have I missed? Was he talking to me? I clear my throat quietly as my mind races. And comes up with jack squat.

“Got your attention now, have I?” Aschure murmurs with barely contained disdain, right against my earlobe. Licking-distance-like. For a moment I’m not sure if I want to hear her growl my name again or just go ahead and pee myself. I never would have guessed she’d even know my name. And to have her snarl at me when she finally remembers I exist… I fight down the shudder threatening to shake me and nod.

“Good. Don’t let it happen again. Dreaming ‘ll get you killed, and I’m not willing to take responsibility for that,” she says quietly through clenched teeth.

Colton grunts and slides another tablet towards us, nodding his chin at it. “Congratulations, your first field mission. Here’s your assignment. Try not to make Ash regret picking you before you’re even out the door,” he says, but his face says it all. I’ve already fucked up and it’ll just get worse from here. I stare down at the shiny tablet in front of me and take in the few details the headers offer me.

Babylon city. Vampires and a stack of dead bodies. A breach of Contract.

Holy shit, an actual mission. Wait, did he say Aschure chose me? Voluntarily?

Life returns to the bodies around the table and the low murmuring of a dozen voices fills the room. The Hunters file out, one after the other, but I stay where I am, frozen to the spot and afraid I’ll wake up if I move. First she knows my name, then she chooses me for a mission. I know this dream and I really don’t want to miss the next part where we end up naked and she—

Aschure’s hand lands on my shoulder. “Up, puppy,” she orders and throws me a joyless grin. “We leave in twenty.”

I’m still not sure this isn’t a practical joke when we reach the highway. Aschure’s car is nice, a minivan that somehow manages to look sleek and modern and still be roomy. Black, of course, but the leather seats are a nice surprise. Must be hard to clean, what with all the blood and guts someone like Aschure wades through on a weekly basis. My stuff, meager as it is, takes up more half of the back seats, all shiny, unused, and new. Aschure’s well-used bags take up the remainder of space. She has less baggage than me. How did that happen?

“Give me the quick and dirty,” Aschure says, her eyes fixed on the road. Her fingernails are painted brown, tapping the wheel in rhythm with a nondescript pop song. She hasn’t changed clothes and done nothing to her wild pony tail, but her demeanor has changed somehow. Less threatening, like she’s actually a person. Or maybe it’s just the reflection of the dashboard lights on her face. It softens her features.

I bite down whatever sexual innuendo threatens to come out of my mouth, tap the tablet to wake the screen, and scan the case files. The police probably have way more than this, but it’s enough. “Shortest version: Looks like some supe has developed a taste for theology students. There’ve been a few corpses,” I count just to be sure, because damn, “seven at the moment, so the police has turned it into a serial killer case. Meaning feds, criminal profilers, and way too many eyes. We’re supposed to take out the supe and make sure the case gets closed.”

Aschure interrupts me. “How do you know it’s a supe?”

Blinking, I watch her profile for a moment. Blueish highlights dance across her cheeks, hitting her eyes when cars speed by and painting them black. I’d see more if I leaned closer, but she’d probably bite my nose off out of instinct. “I assumed. Why else would we get handed this case?”

“Sure, someone’s already done the thinking for you. But on occasion, we are required to actually look before we kill. Make sure our being there and intervening is valid. Never assume. Look at what you’ve got and make an educated guess. Then go and prove yourself wrong, because you better make damn sure you don’t off the wrong person just because you got cocky.”

Proving myself wrong feels counterproductive, but the longer I think about it, the more sense it makes. The theory of killing supernatural creatures is all nice and good, but killing is still killing. It can’t be taken back, no matter how sorry I am. I look back down at the display and flip through the pathology reports. They aren’t as straight forward as I expected them to be. My mind totters over the pictures of dead people, doing its best to look without looking too hard, because ewww. Two corpses have a broken neck, the other strangle marks, three were found with a dagger stuck in their chests, one with a cut throat, and nothing seems to connect them except for their choice in majors. And a dangerously low amount of blood in their bodies. Low enough that the pathologist made a note of it, because at least three of them wouldn’t have survived even without the other injuries. I flip through the pictures, angle them this way and that, just to be sure. All fair-haired, similar height, though with widely differing weights. None of them is skinny.

Ah. I snort.

Aschure throws me a quick glance, then her eyes are back on the road. “What’s so funny?”

“You know how in romance novels vampires always go for the spunky, pretty ones?” I ask, grinning. “I think this one broke the mold.”

She actually smiles and I swoon silently. The way her face lights up when she’s happy, it’s almost like she becomes another person. “Please tell me you read the Hunters’ manual and not just cheap romance novellas.”

“Of course. Inexplicable blood loss followed by faux killings, a victim type, no flashy mutilations, no traces of magic; it all points to a vampire. Older, but not too old, because that’s some sloppy cleanup-job if I ever saw one.” I know I’m preening, but I can’t stop myself. That little bit of detective work cracked the moss on my underused brain, and if all goes well, this case will drag out over a few days. Offer a few more challenges to kill the boredom that has me on the brink of being comatose.

“Good. Puppy has a head on his shoulders, that’s a relief,” Aschure mutters, but she’s still smiling faintly. “Now that we’ve established that it’s a supe, what’s next?”

She sounds like she’s either testing me, or teaching me, and I’m not sure what to think about that. I’m a rookie, but not that much of a rookie. “Contact the locals, announce our presence, shake a few trees and see what falls out.”

Another smile flutters across her lips, strangely wistful. It could be the dark though, so I try not to interpret anything into it. Aschure overtakes a semi, frowning in concentration, and only picks up our conversation when she’s safely back on the right lane. It’s weird, especially for a hunter. “You drive like my grandma,” I say.

“And driving like that is why she got to be a grandma,” Aschure deadpans. “Now, this is your first stint in Babylon City, so shut up and listen. We’re gonna meet all the leaders first and they’ll do their usual ritualistic ‘it wasn’t me’ dance. When that’s done and everyone feels safe in the knowledge that we already know it was one of the fangers, we’ll wait for the Vampire envoy to contact us and ‘shake the tree’, as you so eloquently put it. If we’re lucky, that’ll be enough to snap into action and get this over with. If not, we’ll have to do some grunt work. Since Colton assured me you like poking at holes to see what happens, the follow-up will be your part of the job. Questions? Smartypants quips? Remarks?”

Was that a dig at my sexual orientation or am I being too paranoid? I glare at her out of the corner of my eye, but her grin gives me nothing. But could I—, should I—, …

I take the plunge. “So what got you and Colton talking about me and my holes? Are you being sweet on me?”

Silence, followed by a snort and then a braying laugh. Aschure even takes one hand off the wheel to slap my shoulder and call me a ‘bad puppy’, but whatever tension was left is gone. By the time the highway signs proclaim 80 miles to Babylon City, I’m feeling pretty good about myself.

The motel is a bust. Aschure doesn’t seem to think so, though. She drops her bags next to one of the queen-sized beds, pulls out her beauty case, towels and sleeping gear, and has everything stowed away before I fully digest the disaster of golden sixties wallpaper, orange carpeting, and sand beige bedsheets. My parents wouldn’t have been caught dead in a room like this and I’m starting to understand why.

“Don’t make a face, puppy. It’s clean, quiet, and we have our own parking space,” Aschure admonishes lightly and disappears into the bathroom. The door falls shut with a wobbly clack and I get to experience first hand how flimsy the walls are. I can hear everything. Which means I’ll be celibate for however long this stint is going to take. The idea of her hearing me jacking off under the shower is just… eww.

I throw the door a dark glare and start unpacking. My suit jackets and dress shirts go into the dresser, as do my two additional pairs of shoes. My two pairs of sunglasses go into the safe, right next to Aschure’s IDs and passport, though I bet that all of those are fake and are just there in case someone breaks into it. On the other hand, her real name probably isn’t even Aschure, so it doesn’t really matter. The sports bag full of weapons goes under the bed, minus my favorite Glock semi-auto. It’s the one thing I splurged on besides my shades, and I haven’t regretted it so far. Can’t be too stingy when it comes to personal safety. Aschure starts to yowl some indistinguishable pop song in the shower and I snicker as I tuck and tighten my shoulder holster. She’ll tease me when she sees I’m going visibly armed to a meet and greet. She’ll tease even more when she sees I’m hipster-suited up, and I don’t care. Her smile is addictive.

And whatever my mind conjures will never happen. I’m star-struck and that’s all there is to it.

With the sleek pistol safely tucked away and resting against my ribs, I sit down to study the tablet again. Going on a murder spree and getting caught doing it is a glaring breach of Contract, with a capital C for impact. The Contract’s rules may have been introduced by the supernaturals, but it’s the Hunters who took it upon themselves—ourselves—to enforce it. Violently. Most of the supernaturals know that showing the world they exist will sooner or later result in a very unhappy meet with Hunters, and those who don’t, get schooled by their regional leaders at the first hint of a fuck-up. They usually know shit has gone down before we do, and if they can help it, they will take care of things before we even arrive. It took me ten minutes to see the vampire connection and my clan dispatchers about a month to put it all together, and we’re far away from Babylon. So how come the local vampire kiss hasn’t taken the fanger out already? Or maybe they have and we’ll pack up and go back home in a few hours. I’m torn about what I would like more.

Aschure saunters out of the bathroom buck-naked and I almost drop the tablet. Something weird and shivery worms through my stomach and my face gets hot, no matter how many calming thoughts I mentally yell at myself. She throws me a kind of weirded out sideways look as she rummages through her go-bag, but thankfully doesn’t laugh. Maybe she forgot I was there. Or she thinks I don’t care about casual nudity because I’m gay, but we’re really not that close. I think. I’ve never had the chance to find out how coworkers or friends act around each other, so what do I know?

“You armed?”

I nod, begging the powers that be to stop my blush before I faint from the blood pooling in my head. And crotch.

“Good. I’ve got a strange feeling about this case. Better to be safe than polite.” Aschure pulls on a black turtleneck shirt and grabs her olive green jeans jacket, then makes a shooing gesture at me. Her heels are both sensible and hot, black and elegant military chique. “You’ve gotta pick up the pace, puppy. The sooner we get this sorted out, the sooner we can go home.”

I sigh and turn off the tablet, dropping it on the bed as I get up. I want to stay as long as possible, she wants to go home yesterday. Of course things wouldn’t go like I hoped, but there’s still time. Things could still happen. Exciting things.