Chapter 2 – Shaking the Tree

The meeting room is swanky, but that was to be expected of a penthouse floor in a skyscraper. A little less expected are the people awaiting us: a biker, complete with sweat stains and patches on his greasy leather vest, a business lady in a pencil dress, two guys who couldn’t be more polar opposites and are still obviously a thing, going by the way they chase each other’s tonsils, and a… thing. I think it’s a man, but he has on some kind of robe-y kimono and looks like he belongs onto a morgue slab. When his watery eyes meet mine, I shudder and roll my shoulders to chase away the cold rush creeping down my back. “Creep,” I mutter.

Aschure shoots me a deathly glare and more than half of the room snickers, with the exception of the downtrodden, junkie-looking part of the kissing duo, and Mr. Kimono. Supernatural hearing for the win. At least now I know that I’m not the only human in the room. Not that being basically human means a lot when there are witches, warlocks, mages, seers, and god only knows what else strolling around.

“Welcome,” says the business skirt and shoots us a professional smile. It’s a good one, although tight-lipped, probably to hide her teeth. That would be the vampire leader then. She’s pretty in that 40-ish fitness trainer way, with dark red hair and a nondescript face. Chocolate brown eyes, medium full lips, natural make-up, the whole innocent package. If I didn’t know about the powers her kind has, I wouldn’t even look twice at her, which is probably the exact reason for her to dress like that. Her ash gray skirt whispers against her thighs as she steps forward and I quickly tear my eyes off her legs. Nothing quite like being accused of leering when you’re a gay man in a diplomatic meeting.

If she has noticed my ogling, she doesn’t react to it. “I’m Loreley Griffon, Lady of the Black Roses. Welcome to Babylon.” Loreley doesn’t offer a hand and keeps us at a little more than an arm’s length. She knows the deal, no matter how much polite smiling she does. “We were notified about your arrival,” she says to Aschure, then her eyes do that little flick towards me that say ‘I don’t know if you’re important’, “but two Hunters are quite unusual.” Then she falls quiet and stares expectantly.

Aschure glares back. Usually, people love to fill a void like this with blabbering, but not this time. Aschure has been around the block enough times to know the games vampires love to play, and she’s playing them well. All of them, by the way Loreley ceases all movement. The silence stretches way past the limit of awkwardness, but now that they’re committed, I can’t bring myself to break the standoff. Having the combined attention of two angry women would probably combust me on the spot.

A loud sigh from the back of the room jerks me out of my panic freeze and I want to kiss my saviors feet until I realize it’s the biker guy. “Sweet baby Jesus, Loreley, just give up already and ask your damn question like a normal person,” he drawls, eyes rolling with annoyance. Now that I’m taking a closer look, I realize he isn’t that old. Well below forty, maybe even thirty, neither thin nor fat, just the happy meaty middle. The way his dirty blond hair is flattened into a stripe, I get the notion he’d prefer a mohawk and just couldn’t bring himself to risk it tonight. He’s a nice medium pretty, rugged but trim, and I wonder why I didn’t notice sooner. He makes a big show of rearranging himself, then looks at Aschure, eyes wandering from her heels upward. And here I was worried I might come across as leering.

“You must be the werewolf leader,” says Aschure dryly. She steps to the side and walks around Loreley as if she wasn’t the most powerful vampire in the city and heads straight for the biker.

The biker beams at her, all surprisingly straight teeth and flickering eyes. “Todd,” he introduces himself and wiggles deeper into his love seat, manspreading so Aschure gets an in-depth look at the goods. He can’t help it, so he doesn’t even try. Werewolves are animals.

Satisfied with her discovery, she turns to stare at the other three people in the room, but I lose sight of her when Loreley steps into my line of sight. She smiles, but her eyes flick all over me, scrutinizing every last detail of all that is little ol’ me. We’re eye to eye, thanks to her heels, but as most women in power, she makes me feel small and gangly and ten years younger. And I’m nowhere near as hardcore as Aschure.

“I’m Gideon,” I blurt. I instantly feel like I’ve ruined some kind of game, and something in the room changes. Loreley smiles wider, Todd sighs, and Aschure grunts and sits down on the couch next to the kissing couple. “Might as well get the introductions over with,” she mutters and stares at the couple. They don’t even bother looking up. Loreley winks at me and beckons me with her, so I follow. We join the others at the seating arrangement and sit.

“Don’t mind them,” says Todd and scratches his cheek languidly. “The scraggly one is the newly appointed local witchmaster, Alaric Creutz. And that there—,” Todd points at the giant mountain of muscles trying to eat the smaller man by ways of his lips, ”—is his familiar, Rook. I thought it’d be a good idea to make him come tonight, what with him being the newbie and all that. I should’ve known the’d go full-out on the PDA, though. Sorry, but you know how newly-weds are.”

Aschure smirks and leans forward to examine the kimono man. As soon as their eyes meet, he gets up and does a very traditional looking half-bow. “I am Arzel, my lady Huntress. Envoy to my master’s synode.” He waits a moment, then rearranges himself and sinks back down on his ottoman, still all cadavery and creepy. Him being well-behaved makes it even worse.

Aschure tenses up and turns her eyes back to Loreley and Todd. “You didn’t think it prudent to inform the Hunters there’s a demon cult in your city?” she asks, her voice scalpel sharp.

“They have been here for many months and never misbehaved in any way,” Loreley sneers. Meaning, they haven’t been caught sacrificing people or summoning demons. Yet.

“We are but a small group, my lady Huntress. We mean no harm to the Contract,” Arzel pipes in, unctuous as fuck.

A hard line appears around Aschure’s mouth and she opens her mouth as if to say something unfortunate, and I reach out to touch her arm. She twitches, turns her eyes to me, and blinks. The murderous expression slides off her face and she sighs, then shakes off my hand.

“Fine, we’ll talk about the cult thing another time,” she says. “Now, who’s ready to take the blame so I can go home?”

I casually scoot over a little and give Loreley more space. Or myself, I’m not sure. Not that Loreley cares. Her eyes are on Aschure, her smile dimming into a more brittle, professional version of itself. “I assume you’re talking about the deaths?”
Aschure doesn’t bat an eye. “Murders. But since you sound so unsure as to why hunters are visiting your home, is there anything else you want us to have a look at? Since we’re here already.”

Bland words, but the threat is unmistakable. Loreley seems to think so, too, and quickly waves the question off. “Murders then. What makes you think it wasn’t a mortal who did the deed? Just because the deaths are gruesome, doesn’t mean it has to be a breach of Contract.”

Aschure gives me a nod and I spring to action. As I explain the general reasoning, the tablet makes its rounds through the group, except for Arzel, who politely declines and tells us that he’s already come to the same conclusion. He must not know the game, because even the kissy facers disconnect long enough to shoot him a glare.

“So, in conclusion, it’s a vampire,” Todd says and smiles, leaning back with a sigh. He must have known that already, but as Aschure predicted, the relief over us focusing on someone else is palpable. Especially in Loreley, who has gotten very quiet and uptight.

“I agree,” says the vampire overlord evenly. “But since none of my kiss did it, this means you will have to hunt after a rogue.” At Aschure’s sharp glare, she quickly—if calmly—adds, “I will send an envoy to you tomorrow with what information I can gather.”

“Wonderful. And when all is said and done, we can discuss the fine you lot will have to pay for letting it get this far.” Ah, the tact. I stand up when Aschure does, fumbling for the tablet to pocket it, and offer the group a polite nod. I have heard of fines. Every Hunter has. I’ve been living off the fruits of fines forever. Nobody but Hunters could pull off going somewhere to execute someone and then demand compensation from the relatives. It’s basically blackmail, but if you’re past morals, pity, humanity, or mortality, there aren’t many things that still hurt. Money does. As does the loss of property. The simple concept is, if the supes don’t want to feed, clothe, and house Hunters, they’d better clean up their own messes. Works most of the time.

When we reach the door, Arzel’s creepily mild voice rings out. “My lady Huntress, if you could spare a moment for me?” He has stepped through the penthouse doors but keeps his distance, either out of politeness or because he noticed the gun Aschure has on her hip. His gray-blue kimono thing hangs like a rag off his fleshless, skeletal body and paints his pale skin even paler. Were he wearing a hawaii shirt, I’d call an ambulance, but somehow, he pulls it off to look both malnourished and powerful. It just adds to the grotesqueness that he impersonates.

Shuddering, I turn to Aschure and raise a brow at her clenched jaw. Her fists work at her sides, open and close, open and close, but other than that, she looks settled, calm. Like a chess player right before the big move.

“Go on, I’ll meet you at the car,” she murmurs and claps my shoulder, almost turning me towards the elevator with the gesture. “You sure?” I ask, but she’s already turned away and approaches Arzel. Alrighty then.

I wait almost ten minutes, fiddling with the car radio to fill the silence. When the elevator door finally opens to spit out a ruffled looking Aschure, I readjust the radio channels quickly and pull my hands back, trying to look unperturbed instead of guilty.

“What was that all about?” I ask as soon as she’s inside.

Aschure hesitates, fingers frozen at the ignition as she mulls over something. Sighing, she starts the car and reverses out of the parking spot. “Arzel wanted to make sure I know how committed he and his synode are to upholding the Contract and… helping hunters,” she grumbles, swerving into the exit lane elegantly. When we leave the parking garage, she slips into traffic and frowns at her back mirror. “He also gave me a hint. Something about a local supe bar down in Cat’s Cradle Penninsula, ‘The Lunar Café’. Sounds like the perfect place to get your puppy paws wet and gather information, so we’re going there now.”

“We’re not waiting for the vampire envoy?” I ask, superfluously, and blush again. Fuck. Sometimes I can’t seem to shut my mouth in time. Duh. We’re obviously not waiting.

Something harsh tugs at Aschure’s lips. “We’re not. Whatever he tells us will be spun in a way that makes Loreley look innocent and helpful. Which would be totally unhelpful if she was a part of the murder spree, so no, thanks. We’ll do our recon and then see what the envoy says. If it matches, we know where we stand. If it doesn’t…”

She trails off and smiles unhappily. Yeah. If it doesn’t, Loreley will be the first to die.