Taz Bell #2: Dark Horse

Chapter One

With the fight with the ifrit over, people were moving freely through the hotel lobby again. I got to sit in my chair long enough that some of the pain I felt began to lessen, and then one of Allison French's people came over with the clothes and things I'd dropped in order to fight.

Allison French worked for the state of Georgia, and at the moment my teammates and I worked for Allison. We'd been in Atlanta protecting a vampire scientist named Zachary Boughton, but as of a few minutes ago the job had ended. Definitely ended, before the good Dr. Boughton decided not to take my refusal to be his permanent bodyguard and made another scene.

"Taz, if you're able to stand and walk, now would be a good time for us to leave," George said, suddenly appearing next to the chair to my right. Free-roaming ghosts can do that, making the appearance look effortless. "Let's go before Dr. Boughton works up the nerve to come over here again. Eric has already called for the car, and you and he could use a doctor looking you over."

"I should be fine soon without a doctor." As I spoke I gathered up my removable skirt, hung the shoulder bag on my shoulder, carried rather than wore the sling-back heels, and forced myself to my feet. "Since Eric is also a shapeshifter, he'll soon be just as fine."

"I think Eric has broken ribs," George murmured as we moved toward the front doors of the hotel. "That ifrit hit him really hard more than once, and if Eric had been human he'd probably be dead now. And as soon as we get back to the suite, you and I and Freemont have to talk."

Since I knew what George wanted to talk about, I didn't say anything as we approached the place where Eric stood waiting for the limo. Grail, one of the leaders of the Federal Task Force trying to get my teammates and me to join them, had demanded that I fire Eric so I'd obliged. It hadn't been the demand that had made me do it, but even so I wasn't looking forward to the upcoming discussion.

Eric glanced at us but didn't say anything, and neither did the staring doorman. The doorman must have been close to shock over the way I carried my skirt and shoes - not to mention the blood all over me - but that was too bad about him. The skirt would have made walking harder right now, and the high-heeled shoes would have made walking impossible. Movement still provided too much pain, so the tender sensibilities of those around me would just have to suffer.

Williams, our driver, brought the limo to a stop right in front of us, and Eric opened the door without waiting for the doorman to do it for him. But he did just stand there waiting for me to get in the car first, a real, honest-to-gosh, gentlemanly gesture. I didn't actually hesitate before accepting the silent gesture, and not because of the pain I felt. It would have been stupid to argue about which of us was hurting more, and there had been enough stupidity committed tonight.

As soon as Eric got in and closed the door Williams drove off, and a tightness inside me eased up just a little. Boughton hadn't made the effort to approach me again, and I really hoped he'd given up his ideas about me being his permanent bodyguard. During the last fifty years he might not have used the power his being a vampire gave him, but that didn't mean the power level was puny.

The silent ride lasted until we reached the Zealin House, our own hotel. We made a slow parade through the lobby to the elevators, and it was a good thing the lobby was almost empty. We got enough stares from the clerks behind the registration desk, even though the stares were on the restrained side. Going up to the eleventh floor where our suite was located was just as silent, but as soon as we reached the door Freemont, our other partner and a sensitive, was there to end the silence.

"A doctor is on the way, so both of you come in here and sit down," Freemont said as he held the door open for us. He also looked really worried, which meant he definitely knew what had happened. "And I want you to sit in the chairs because they're easier to get out of."

"Good idea," I said as I walked past him, and some of the heavy thinking I'd done during the trip here gave me an answer I hadn't had sooner. "Now we know why there was a shadow over what you saw about the trouble. The first bit involving those religious fanatics was overshadowed by the thing with the ifrit."

"Not just overshadowed," Freemont corrected as he followed behind Eric after closing the door. "Someone was trying to hide the involvement of the ifrit, but I still managed to break through part way. Not that it helped…"

"You can't possibly consider the incident a total loss," George said to Freemont as I moved to the chair farthest from the door, dropped the stuff I carried on the floor, then eased my way to sitting. There was also a cup of coffee on the table between the chair and the couch, so I picked up the cup before leaning back. By that time Eric had taken the closer chair and had also appropriated his own cup of coffee before hunching over one arm of the chair.

"You're missing the point of what happened, Freemont," George said, sitting on the couch with Freemont following to sit next to him. "Whoever our enemy is, he, she, or it wanted you to know nothing at all about the ifrit. But you managed to get that shadow, and if - or when - it happens again we'll know what the shadow means. Some kind of ambush involving more than ordinary trouble."

"George is right, Freemont, so stop looking as if you think he's just trying to comfort you," I said after having taken a good swallow of coffee. "It isn't always possible to spot the first ambush, but if you live through the time you use it as a learning tool. And you damned well ought to be proud instead of depressed. Our enemy is disgustingly strong, but you managed to break through anyway."

"I did, didn't I?" Freemont said, the depression starting to lift as he smiled. "I hated being completely blocked, so I … did something to get through. I can't explain what I did, but it worked in a small way. Now all I have to do is make it work in a bigger way."

"Don't get too crazy if you can't," George said, his words calming Freemont's growing excitement just the way they usually did. "Even if we'd known that ifrit was going to appear, I can't think of anything we might have done about it beyond not showing up. And if Taz and Eric hadn't been there, those fanatics might just have managed to do Dr. Boughton some lasting harm."

"Even if we were the ones who pointed out the target for the fanatics," I put in, remembering my thoughts on the subject. "Allison needs to be told that at least one of her people leaked information to the fanatics, but probably wasn't the one who screwed up and let Boughton come down to the lobby. If the two were the same, they wouldn't have needed us to show the fanatics who to go after."

"That's true," George said, faint surprise on his face. "If one of the guards was responsible for the leak, he could have gone up to Dr. Boughton himself and done the pointing out before you and Eric got there. We'll definitely have to pass that on, but first there's something else we need to discuss."

"You're right, George, but not in the way you think," I said, turning my head to look at Eric. "I used the ride here to do some thinking of my own, and I have a question I want to put. Eric, did Grail and Jaril assign you to joining our team? To keep an eye on us and maybe even to break us up so we'd be available to join the task force?"

"Are you crazy?" Eric blurted, looking up from his coffee cup to stare at me. "If they'd ever tried to give me an assignment like that I would have refused and quit on the spot. When it comes to rogues I'll do anything necessary to take them down, but you people aren't rogues. Or hadn't you noticed?"

"Yeah, I picked up on the clues," I agreed. "But I also noticed something else. Grail is nothing if not subtle, but he still demanded that I fire you. If he'd sent you he would have known he was going too far, but that wasn't the impression I got from his behavior. And when I did fire you, he was just short of delighted. I got the impression he had something personal against you."

"I have no idea what that could possibly be," Eric said, and the slow way he shifted in the chair said he was still in quite a bit of pain. "I may have worked for him and Jaril, but that doesn't mean we were close… Are you saying now that you weren't serious about firing me?"

"No, I wasn't kidding," I assured him after taking another swallow of coffee. "Just as I wasn't kidding about what you did. Can you tell me honestly that you're being unjustly accused?"

Eric parted his lips to say something, paused before any words came out, then shook his head just a little.

"Okay, it's true I messed up with that female fanatic," he admitted, almost with a sigh. "I have a thing about hitting women, but I should have taken the situation into account and gotten past the problem. Forcing you to take out six other fanatics alone was wrong, and if you - or Boughton - had gotten hurt it would have been my fault. All I can do is give you my word that it won't happen again."

"Great," I said with what was a very neutral nod. "Now I'd like the same kind of oath about the other point I mentioned. That was the one that got me too short-tempered to do anything but fire you."

"You're talking about what you call 'shapeshifter crap,'" he said, now doing nothing to avoid my gaze. "If you expect me to apologize about that part of it, that's not going to happen. If Freemont was walking around with a gaping wound in his side, would you just pretend that the wound wasn't there or would you try to get him to a doctor? It could mean his life if the wound isn't taken care of, so tell me what you'd do, Taz. Just smile and go along with his prejudices because he hates doctors and hospitals?"

There was a lot of silence after Eric asked his question, three pairs of eyes staring at no one but me. If I hadn't believed Eric about not being a plant I would have had no trouble answering him, but now…

"We need to put this topic on hold for a little while," Freemont suddenly announced as he stood up. "The doctor will be here in another minute, and Allison French is bringing him."

"Saved by the knock," George muttered, making his position in the argument plain - as if I didn't already know where he stood. George didn't approve of my avoiding the topic of being a shapeshifter, and neither did Freemont. I almost made a nasty comment to all of them, but the knock George had been talking about came and Freemont hurried to the door.

"This is Dr. Arthur Lamdell," Allison said as soon as she and the man following her walked through the door. "I'm sorry it took so long to get him here, but it didn't make much sense to bring in just any doctor."

"What Ms. French means is that I'm also a shapeshifter," the man Lamdell said, amusement in his dark eyes. He was about six feet tall and husky, with thick dark hair and broad shoulders. He looked more like a construction worker than a doctor despite the bag he carried, something his smile said he knew. "So which of you needs to be looked at first?"

"Eric," I said before Eric himself could nominate me. "I'm not hurting as badly as I was, but I think he is."

"You're probably right," Lamdell agreed as he moved closer to where Eric sat, his eyes beginning to narrow. "The smell of pain-sweat is coming more heavily from his direction… Am I wrong to think you're trying to protect those ribs?"

"No, you're not wrong," Eric said with a very faint smile. "My right side took something of a beating, so I'd be surprised if I wasn't bruised."

"Bruised, my eye," Lamdell said with a snort. "If you're still hurting you probably broke those ribs, so we need to bind them before they heal wrong. Let's go to your bedroom to do that."

Eric nodded just a little, then paid attention to putting down his coffee cup before getting slowly to his feet. By the time he and Lamdell disappeared into Eric's bedroom, Allison had gotten herself a cup of coffee and was sitting with it on the couch near George. Freemont had moved his own coffee cup, and now sat in the chair Eric had vacated.

"We have some information for you," George said to Allison as soon as she was settled and Lamdell was behind a closed door. "Taz figured out that one or more of your people leaked information to the fanatics, and one of the men assigned as guards in the hotel is a fool. Dr. Boughton was allowed to come down to the lobby all alone, and as soon as Taz and Eric arrived Boughton was identified."

"Of course," Allison said, the tone of revelation clear in spite of her frown. "I should have seen that myself, and probably would have as soon as things settled down. I'll certainly take care of both matters, but first I want to tell you all what an incredible job you did. My people are ecstatic with delight over the marvelous way you protected Dr. Boughton, and not just from the fanatics. And you don't have to worry about the demands Dr. Boughton made. We've already politely refused after explaining that it wasn't our call."

"What demands?" George asked, taking his turn at frowning. "The man - vampire - tried to insist that Taz go to work for him, but by the time we left he seemed to have accepted her refusal."

"He tried to have her officially assigned to him," Allison answered, her expression now wry. "My boss was told that Dr. Boughton would exert every bit of influence he had to make trouble for our state government if Taz wasn't at his door first thing in the morning. My boss took great pleasure in answering that the matter was out of our hands and had never been in our hands. Your team was employed for a specific matter only, and that matter has been more than adequately seen to. Anything beyond that was his business and yours, none of ours."

"And he already has our refusal," George said, his nod oozing satisfaction. "And if he thought Taz would put herself in the way of his power again, he can't possibly be as bright as everyone claims he is."

"But he is persistent, so we'll want to leave this area as soon as possible," Freemont put in. "Right now we don't know how long it will be before Eric and Taz are able to move without pain, so we'll stay here tomorrow at least and pick up the tab for the accommodations ourselves."

"No, you won't," Allison said with a wide smile. "I'm authorized to tell you that this suite is yours for the next few days, definitely with our compliments. If anyone but your teammates had had to face that thing after the fanatics were taken care of, we'd be paying for funerals instead of suites. Do I actually have to say that we prefer paying for the suite?"

Freemont thanked her profusely while George and I exchanged a glance. I wasn't completely convinced that that ifrit was after me instead of Boughton, but commenting about the matter didn't seem like a good idea. I still didn't know what our suite cost per night, but I had the feeling our entire income for this job would disappear if we had to pay for the accommodations ourselves.

Allison pulled out a cell phone from her pocket and made a call, directing someone to find out who had been responsible for covering Boughton at the hotel. She told the man she spoke to that she wanted an immediate report from that individual, a report that was complete with names and assignments. When she was told she'd have the report as soon as possible, she ended the call and smiled at us.

"That was the easy part," she said, her smile turning rueful. "When I get back to my office on Monday I'll have to check every single person on my team, to see which of them leaked information to the fanatics. If the leak was accidental, meaning the person involved just thought they were selling information to the media, the guilty one will simply be fired. If it was done on purpose, the one I find will be on trial right along with his or her friends."

"People who think they're right just because they want to be right are the hardest to deal with," George commented, his sigh only a suggestion. "They're incapable of adjusting to the world as it is, instead they insist that the world conform to their prejudices. But to them it isn't prejudice, it's simply right."

"We'll know the human race is getting somewhere if the day ever comes that we all use the same definition of things," Allison said, her expression almost the same as George's. "Until that day comes, though, people will continue to be outraged that others aren't seeing matters in the correct way. So… Do you folks know yet where you'll be going from here?"

"I get the impression we won't be going all that far," Freemont answered without that distracted expression he usually wore. It looked like Freemont was being careful not to spook Allison with something that would most likely frighten her, like his staring at something the rest of us couldn't see. "I don't have any details yet, probably because we aren't close enough to the time we'll be getting the job."

Allison added something in the way of conversation, but I'd stopped listening. I was definitely feeling better than I had, which meant I could start on an agenda. My main objective right now was to put as much distance between me and Zachary Boughton - and the task force - as I could as fast as I could. The thought of the vampire scientist or Grail coming near me again was one that made me want to find out how a full clip of silver nitrate ammunition would do against vampires of different ages. That or find a corner to huddle in…

The conversation involving Allison, Freemont, and George went on for a few minutes, and then the door to Eric's room opened and Dr. Lamdell came out. When he closed the door again before walking toward us, it was clear that Eric would not be joining us for more talk.

"Eric needs to rest now, but by tomorrow he'll be well on the way to full recovery," Lamdell said with a smile as he stopped near my chair. "Now it's your turn, Taz."

I was tempted to tell him I'd pass, but that would have been childish. I did still hurt quite a bit, and it was possible Lamdell would have something to make the thought of sleep more … possible.

"Right this way, Doctor," I said, putting my cup down on the coffee table before getting out of the chair. "I can finish the coffee later, after you're done."

"I'd guess you're one of those who can drink coffee right before bed and have no trouble falling asleep," Lamdell said as he followed me toward my bedroom. "I can do the same now, of course, but never could before. Since I really enjoy coffee, I consider the change a definite bonus. Do you miss the effect alcohol used to have?"

"Not normally," I said, stepping into the room and leaving it to Lamdell to close the door once he followed me inside. "When I first got out of the hospital the loss was close to devastating."

"Yes, that's when those of our kind feel the lack most strongly," he agreed, and I turned in time to see the bleakness in his expression as he closed the door. "I was never one for doing much drinking, but after I recovered from the attack… I also considered hiding what I'd become, but my stiff-necked pride refused to allow it. Some of my patients did desert me, but the rest insisted on staying. I also picked up assignments like this one, treating other shapeshifters who couldn't be seen to adequately by ordinary doctors. Can you take off the top part of that outfit?"

The request came while he set down his bag and opened it, most of his attention now on the shredded flesh that could be seen through the shredded material. The top of the outfit closed behind my neck, so I lifted my arms carefully and opened the hooks, then just as carefully peeled the material down until it was at my waist. The blood had dried to the point of making the material stick to the wounds in a few places, but pulling the material away didn't start the wounds bleeding again. Happily.

Lamdell pulled out a few paper-covered gauze pads, and he used them one at a time after opening the paper covers to wash away the blood around the claw wounds. When he was finally able to see the wounds clearly, he nodded.

"You're definitely healing, but at a slower rate than is normal," he said, using the word "normal" in a way I never would have. "Whatever caused those wounds, it wasn't the usual kind of shapeshifter. How much pain are you feeling?"

"A lot less than I did earlier," I answered honestly. "But I haven't yet reached the point where my nerve endings stop screaming."

"As soon as the wounds close far enough the screaming will stop," he said, still on the distracted side. "I'm going to use a numbing agent that will hopefully last long enough for you to reach that necessary point, and I'm also going to cover the wounds. As soon as you wake up you're to take the bandage off, and if the wounds haven't healed almost completely you're to call me. Understood?"

I smiled and nodded when he looked up, feeling the next thing to pleased sadness. It had been a long time since I'd last been treated as if I were ordinary, and the experience brought a wave of nostalgia.

Lamdell sprayed my middle with something that felt cold, but as the something dried it took the pain away with the wetness. I was asked to hold one end of a gauze roll as Lamdell used the rest to cover the wounds, and it didn't take long before he was finished. He also noticed the silver burns on the fingers of my left hand, and put something on the burns that took care of that lesser pain as well.

"You can wash around the bandage tonight, leaving the rest for tomorrow," he said as he packed up the things he'd used on me. He also handed me a small tube of the stuff he'd put on my fingers, something I was really glad to have. "I know you won't be happy with that arrangement but it's definitely necessary. Now… How's your strength doing?"

"My strength?" I echoed, distracted from the intrusive feel of the bandage around my body. "Physical strength always suffers when you're wounded, but most of mine has already come back."

"No, not your physical strength," he said, his glance almost impatient. "I'm talking about your inner strength, your power."

"What power?" I demanded, feeling like an echo. "You make me sound like a vampire, and I can give you my word that I'm not a vampire."

"Please don't tell me you've never felt the power we have," Lamdell stated, straightening up from closing his bag to stare at me. "The power is part of our inner strength, and acts as the basis for pack positions. Most often the best fighter has the most inner strength, and if a challenge is made, the stronger individual comes out almost literally on top."

His explanation reminded me about what had happened in Chattanooga, when a police lieutenant and I went to question the head of the shapeshifter group. The shapeshifter had somehow … attacked me on the inside, and I'd reacted automatically to meet the attack.

"Oh, that power," I said in a lame kind of way, for some reason reluctant to mention how recent my knowledge of that sort of power was. "Since I don't get involved much with other shapeshifters unless they happen to be rogues, I … forgot about that. Why is it important in a situation like this one?"

"I can see you really don't get involved much in our kind of politics," he answered, studying me. "Most of us can tell when another of us has been wounded, and some of our kind will use the opportunity in an attempt to establish dominance. The more inner strength you retain even when you're physically less than at your best, the less trouble you can expect. Shall we check on what level you're at?"

"I suppose," I said, not particularly enthusiastic at the suggestion. I really did hate shapeshifter crap, but lately I found myself stepping in it almost every time I turned around.

Lamdell directed me to a chair, then took a second chair himself. He studied me again for a moment, and then I felt the kind of smothering attack I'd felt once before. Only this time the attack was more … general than personalized, I guess you could say. It was at least as strong as the first time, though, which brought an immediate response from my own inner workings. When Lamdell gasped and raised his hand as if trying to ward me off, I cut the power.

"Wow," Lamdell said once he'd caught his breath and was sitting straight again. "I'm glad I didn't try that standing up. And I thought your friend Eric was strong… I'd love to know how you acquired that much strength."

"You're asking me?" I countered with a snort. "When it comes to being a shapeshifter, I don't … know much of anything. And I never thought I'd actually say that out loud."

"You're working on an extension of the saying, 'Out of sight, out of mind,'" he responded with a nod. "If you don't find out about what's going on, you can pretend you're the same as you used to be. A lot of us react to the situation in that way, and I even tried it myself for a short while. Then I realized that what you don't know can hurt you, and I've been studying and doing research ever since. When you reach the point of needing someone to give you a few answers, I'd like you to feel free to call me. Here's my card with my cell phone number on it and the best times to call with a non-emergency."

He'd pulled out a wallet from his pocket, and the card came from the wallet. I took the card and glanced at it before putting it on the table next to my chair, and then I got to my feet.

"I need to do some washing before I get into normal clothes," I told him. "I very much appreciate the help you gave, and I appreciate the offer even more. The way things are going, there's a good chance you'll hear from me sooner rather than later. If you can stay a little longer, help yourself to the coffee in the sitting area."

"Thanks, but I have to be on my way," he said as he also stood. "If I sat down with a cup of coffee, I'd probably get an emergency call even before I took the first sip. Life tends to be like that… Don't sit around long with your own coffee. Sleep will help you heal more than caffeine will. And next time try to keep more distance between you and things with claws."

He smiled when he said that last, so I knew he understood that in my line of work the choice wasn't usually mine. I matched his smile as I nodded my agreement, then left him to go into my bathroom. I moved slowly as I got out of the body suit, pantyhose and bra, but only because I didn't want to wake up the pain again. I also sat down to wash the blood off my legs, feeling the pull of tiredness more than usual. I did want one last cup of coffee, but right after that I'd follow doctor's orders and fall into bed.

Instead of finding clean clothes to wear, I slipped into the pants and shirt and underwear I'd worn before dressing up for the bodyguard job and then went out to the sitting area barefoot. Bending over to tie shoelaces was a chore I'd decided against performing, most especially since I'd expected all our company to be gone. I hadn't even reached the door of my bedroom when I realized that Allison was still in the suite, and when I walked out I found out why.

"Oh, that's much better," she said when she looked at me, and I realized she was more relieved than joking. "All that blood was very upsetting, but Dr. Lamdell said you're doing fine. I wanted to make sure of that personally, and now I'll just finish my coffee and get out of your way."

"Take your time," I said as I went back to the chair I'd used earlier, finding that Freemont had been his usual efficient self and had put a fresh cup of coffee in place of the one I'd left. Freemont smiled at me when I thanked him, but his smile looked a bit on the distracted side. As I raised the cup and took the first, delicious sip, Allison's phone chimed.

"Where did George go?" I asked Freemont once I'd swallowed. Allison was busy answering her call, so I kept my voice low.

"George said he had some questions for Dr. Lamdell, so he went down to the doctor's car with him," Freemont answered, still looking distracted. "Taz, that call Allison is getting… Someone is passing on a message for you, and the message is important."

By that time I didn't need Freemont to tell me about the message. I could hear the voice on the other end of the line clearly, especially when he added the name of the person who had left the message.

The name was Aurella Lees, George's wife. George's widow…