Taz Bell #5: Double Trouble

Chapter One

It wasn't all that early when I woke up the next day, but one look out the window said I hadn't missed a chance to laze in the sun. The sun was hidden behind clouds and rain, the steady kind of rain that said it was going to last most of the day. Well, we'd have a full week to do the sun-lazing bit, so one rainy day wasn't going to spoil our vacation. Instead of muttering nasty things under my breath I got out of bed, then went into the bathroom to wash and dress. My dreams had also been very ordinary, which meant there was nothing to bring me completely awake.

When I came out of the bathroom it was to find Freemont in the living room-kitchen area, already having made a pot of coffee. My partner smiled his usual smile in greeting, then gestured toward the windows.

"Looks like we'll be able to play lazy indoors today, Taz," he said, his smile showing satisfaction instead of disappointment. "I don't know about you, but I love the idea of staying in when it's raining. We don't often get to do this kind of lazy."

"I thought I'd mind, but strangely enough I don't," I answered, heading for the coffee. "Lately we haven't had much laying around time no matter what the weather was like, so this break is exactly what we need. How long will we have to wait until our teammates are up and ready for breakfast?"

"Not long," Freemont answered, showing me another smile. "Amiol and Eric will be out here in another few minutes, which is why I've already ordered breakfast. Now that it's safe for us to use room service there was no reason not to."

I nodded to show that I understood and agreed while I fixed up my coffee. Some of the vampires had checked over every person working in the hotel, no matter what shift they were on. The now-permanently-dead Verna had gotten to some of the hotel staff, but with her gone it hadn't been hard to free the humans — and vampires - from her control. For the moment there wasn't anyone out for our blood, a very welcome addition to the vacation idea. And, of course, Freemont had learned by now what we all preferred for breakfast, so he'd been able to order it.

The next minute Eric and Amiol appeared, both of them looking as fuzzy as I felt. We'd all slept as late as we needed to, but that only meant we weren't completely awake yet. I moved away from the coffee pot to give my teammates access to it, then sat down in a chair to sip my own lifeblood.

"Your breakfast will be here in about five minutes," George reported as he appeared near a couch before he sat down. "I'm also delighted to say that no one seems bent on attacking you this morning, which means it doesn't matter that only Freemont is alive all the way."

"I'm glad to hear we aren't about to be attacked," Amiol said as he fixed his coffee. "If I ever had to use magic quickly right now, I hate to think how the spell would come out."

"In that case I'd rather take my chances on fighting without the magic," Eric said from where he stood behind Amiol. "If I get hit in a fight I know I'll get over it, but getting hit with blurry magic… Nope, thanks anyway."

We all said something to show we agreed with Eric, even Amiol joining the effort, and a couple of minutes later we all had coffee to sit with and drink. The caffeine in my cup was starting to do its usual good job of waking me up when Freemont left his chair and headed for the door. A knock came a moment before Freemont reached his objective, and when my partner opened the door we could see the waiter with our breakfast on his cart.

It didn't take long before the food dishes were on the table in front of the terrace doors, but when we tried to tip the waiter he shook his head with a smile.

"Thank you anyway, but my tip's already been taken care of," he said to all of us. "The staff has been told that all your expenses are taken care of, so please just relax and enjoy your stay here. When you're through with your meal, just call down to have someone come and get the dirty dishes."

He nodded to us before heading for the door, and once he was gone George chuckled.

"Looks like the vampires are really pleased with our efforts," he said from where he still sat on the couch. "Not only are they paying for this suite, they've obviously decided to pay for everything else as well. Before now only the people in Atlanta thought to include the matter of tips."

"Not to mention that we'll also be getting a bonus in cash," Freemont added as he joined the rest of us in heading for the table. "But they also talked about giving us something special. I don't believe they've decided on what that should be, so I haven't a clue about what it will end up being."

"I'll save my enthusiasm and thanks until we do find out," I said, putting my coffee down before sitting in a chair. "It's not that I don't trust our former employers, I just tend to be…"

"Suspicious and paranoid," George finished when I just let the words trail off. "In our business that's not necessarily a bad way to be, especially since you're willing to wait before deciding we'll hate their gift. I'm hoping you'll turn out to be wrong to be suspicious, but…"

"But you're also waiting to see," Freemont said, taking his turn to finish the sentence George let trail off. "Are all ghosts as untrusting as you are, George?"

"That probably depends on what they were like before they became ghosts," Eric suggested when George just smiled and shrugged. "If nothing bad or disturbing happens to you during your life, you're not likely to start expecting bad stuff once you're dead."

"And many people and beings do go through life without facing anything unpleasant," Amiol put in, choosing his own chair along with Eric and Freemont. "At one point I tried to decide if I envied them or felt sorry for them, and I haven't come to a decision about that yet."

We all nodded to show we agreed, then got down to serious breakfast-choosing. People who have had to survive unpleasant or painful happenings might envy those who don't have to face the same, but those other people never get to experience the full spectrum of being human. Pain and loss are part of living, but whether or not those things should be a part of life is another question entirely.

My teammates and I enjoyed our meal thoroughly, and there wasn't anything left by the time we sat back with our refilled coffee cups. We'd been brought a large pitcher of coffee and extra cups along with the food, and you'll never see my team ignore coffee. But then Freemont looked as if he was seeing something the rest of us didn't, after which he got up and headed for the door.

"We're about to have company, but it isn't anything to worry about," he told us over his shoulder as he moved. "In fact we should enjoy the time."

None of us knew what he was talking about, of course, but our questions were answered as soon as the knock came and Freemont opened the door. Elaine Graubec, from Hunters, Inc. stood there with a man I didn't know, and they both smiled and came into the suite when Freemont welcomed them.

"Hi, Taz," Elaine said, nodding to me where I sat. "My partner Todd and I weren't in the mood to nap the way the rest of our team decided to do, so we came visiting instead. Todd is the one who looks around for hunts for the team, and he also does the negotiating when it's time to talk money."

"You're both very welcome," I said, standing up to move a little closer to the pair. "Elaine and I have already introduced ourselves, and now we get to extend the introductions. Nice to meet you, Todd."

Todd Millner smiled and took the hand I offered after adding his last name, and then I gave them the names of the rest of the team. As soon as everyone had been named we offered our guests coffee, and they accepted without the least hesitation.

"Now, that's something we don't do," Todd said once he and Elaine were sitting down on a couch with their cups. "I saw a coffeemaker when we first walked in, and that means these folks get to have coffee whenever they want it. We'd need two of the things, but I still think the investment would be worth the end result."

"Okay, okay, I surrender," Elaine said with very obvious pretend reluctance. "We do end up going into caffeine withdrawal too often, so as soon as we get back to the States we'll indulge ourselves. Most hotels and motels do offer the supplies, after all."

"Oh, you can't use the motel supplies," Freemont said at once, his amusement clear only in his eyes. "The coffee you get that way is barely drinkable, so you have to carry your own supplies the way we do."

"And you carry Folgers," Elaine said after taking a sip of what her cup held. "This is hotel coffee you gave us, but I saw the can near your own coffeemaker. I also tend to prefer Folgers, so we'll definitely do the same as you. And we were wondering… Would you be willing to share some of the details behind what happened last night? We were given only a sketchy idea after all the commotion died down."

"I think the vampires want to keep the matter as quiet as possible, maybe to keep others from getting the same idea," I said slowly, first looking at Elaine and then at Todd. "We'll be glad to share what we know, but I would suggest that the story stops with you two."

"If it's that touchy a subject, I'd say she's right," Todd told Elaine at once. "The rest of our teammates don't have to know the details unless and until a situation comes up where they need to know."

"Yeah, I agree," Elaine said after a slight hesitation that showed she was considering the point. "As long as two of us have the info, that should be enough. So what did happen?"

"The vampire Verna had a special talent, and she used that talent to put other vampires under her control," I said, aware of the fact that no one on my own team was suggesting I keep quiet. "She was behind that attack against Atlanta a couple of days ago, an attack that was meant as a warning about what might be done again and again — with information released proving vampires were behind the effort — if the bigshots didn't come up with billions to keep it from happening."

"Damn," Todd breathed while Elaine looked more than a little shocked. "And we were told she just went crazy and had to be put down. But at that she had to be crazy, to think she could get away with something like that. The other vampires would have spent all their time searching for the one behind all the bullshit."

"Maybe she had that covered," Elaine said with a shake of her head. "If the other vampires didn't know who they were looking for, how could they have found her?"

"That's probably just what she was thinking," George agreed. "No one would know who she was so she'd be free to enjoy the money. Personally, I'd hate to depend on that idea to keep me safe."

"Especially since there would have been hundreds of humans and vampires trying to find out who she was," I added with my own agreement. "I don't think anyone would argue the fact that the woman was seriously disturbed."

"That's for sure," Elaine put in, her expression showing she was definitely not one who would argue. "How did you guys figure out what was happening and who was behind it?"

"We got lucky, but we also got some very effective help," I told her. "The vampire Oldon worked with us in Atlanta before he invited us down here, and he's really good. He does investigations for the other high-level vampires, and calling him well organized is like saying the ocean is wet. A lot of people would have died if not for him."

"And he didn't mind being … firm with his own kind to get the information we all needed," Eric put in. "He was a lot more gentle with the humans, treating them like the victims they were instead of as villains."

"He sounds like a vampire who's actually worth knowing," Todd said with a slow nod. "Too often vampires aren't easy to get along with even if they aren't rogues, but Oldon doesn't feel like the same. Am I wrong?"

"Actually, no," I said after a minute and an exchange of glances with my teammates. "Oldon is … different, but I don't know why that is."

"His difference probably lies in the way he looks at the world," Amiol suggested slowly after a moment. "Oldon doesn't consider those around him inferior just because they aren't like him and can't do what he does. And he doesn't mind sharing, unlike other vampires we could mention."

Most of the team made sounds of wry agreement with that statement, all of us probably thinking about Grail. As one of the leaders of the Federal Rogue Task Force, Grail expected everyone in the world to tell him what he wanted to know without his having to return the favor even in a small way.

"And now that you know the truth, I have a question," I said with a smile. "How did you guys locate that nest of ghouls and then take them down? We might need the information personally some day."

"Suppose we swap information," Elaine countered with a deliberately sly smile after exchanging a glance with Todd. "We'll tell you about the ghouls, and you can tell us the best way to face a harpy."

"Good idea," I said, adding my own chuckling to what was coming from everyone else. "The more we all know, the better chance of survival we have. Here's what happened with the harpy."

I ran through the episode in Chattanooga, putting in all the details I would have left out if I hadn't been talking to other rogue hunters. Elaine and Todd listened carefully, clearly taking mental notes, and then Elaine told us about the ghouls. Finding the nest hadn't been hard, but cleaning it out was another matter entirely…

From there we went on to discuss other jobs we'd done in various places, taking turns supplying information on tactics and strategy. We went through all the coffee we'd gotten with our breakfast, and then made a couple of pots from our own supplies before we ran out of what to talk about. By then more than two hours had gone by, so when we hit a lull in the conversation our guests emptied what was in their cups and then stood up.

"I think it's time we went back to our own suite," Elaine said with a really warm smile. "It was great talking to you guys, and we'll definitely have to do it again sometime. Meanwhile, we expect to be able to swim and sun bathe tomorrow during the day, so maybe we'll see you at the pool."

"Even if we do, why don't you folks think about joining us tomorrow night?" Todd put in. "We're going out to Senor Frog's for dinner, and if both of our teams go we ought to be able to finish the meal without rogues ruining the time. Considering the reputations of our teams, no rogue would have the nerve to show its face."

"That sounds like a good idea," Freemont put in with a grin while the rest of us chuckled. "Eric has already mentioned how good that restaurant is, and I've been looking forward to trying its food."

Amiol and Eric didn't look any more reluctant than I felt, so we agreed we'd join the expedition. We all nodded or waved as our company left, and then we went back to what was left of our own coffee.

"Now that our guests are gone, I can tell all of you something I meant to mention earlier," George said once we were all sitting down. "When our company showed up I was glad I wasn't in the middle of the story."

"That sounds ominous, George," Freemont remarked, a feeling I was able to share. "What's wrong now?"

"It's not a matter of something being wrong," George said with the … ghost of a sigh. "The vampires here made some calls last night after the action was over, sending some of their people to check on the vampire Chabin. He's the one Verna worked for, the one who hasn't been to a meeting in almost a year."

"I'd hate having to be one of those who went," Eric remarked, clearly sharing what the rest of us felt. "Just how bad off was Chabin?"

"He was fine until they freed him of Verna's control, and then he freaked out," George said with another of those sighs. "It was a good thing they took him somewhere private before releasing him, otherwise I have the impression there would have been a lot of destruction of all kinds. They're keeping him locked up for now, most of them probably hoping the being will pull out of the rage. Which is certainly possible. I think we can all understand why he exploded."

"And if he doesn't pull out of it, his name will be added to the list of destruction Verna caused," I said with my own sigh. "You were right, George. That isn't a story to be passed around, not even to underline the idea that some people, like Verna, ought to be treated by the shrinks as soon as they're found. The problem humans have is that we don't make any effort to find people like that."

No one seemed able to argue the contention, or at least they weren't in the mood to try. We all sat in silence for a minute or two, and then Freemont stirred.

"I think we'd better use hotel coffee as much as we can from now on," Freemont commented as he looked down into his cup. "We're not about to run out of our own supplies yet, but that could change before we get to go home. And are we ordering in lunch or going somewhere for the food?"

"I don't know about the rest of you, but I have to visit the hotel's clothing shop," I said before a discussion about food could start. "I'd also like to spend some time in the pool and the sun tomorrow, but I don't have a bathing suit. Going skinny-dipping isn't likely to bother me very much, but I'd hate to send the wrong signal to anyone who saw me."

"I'm delighted to hear that you're not into starting riots, Taz," Amiol said with a laugh that the others joined. "It so happens I'm in the same predicament, so I'll also be buying swimwear."

When Eric and Freemont admitted they shared the same lack of bathing attire, the proposed shopping trip became a team effort.

"But let's go down to the restaurant to have lunch first," Freemont said as the rest of us worked at emptying our coffee cups. "If I'm not starving to death, I won't feel the need to rush through the shopping."

The rest of us showed a lot of self control when we refrained from teasing Freemont about skinny guys who out-ate everyone else. Instead of the teasing we got our breakfast dishes put back on the cart that had brought them, put the cart outside, then called to have it picked up. Once that was done we were able to head down to the restaurant.

There were more filled tables in the restaurant than there had been the last time we ate in the place, but that didn't mean we had to stand around. We were seated right away, coffee and menus were brought to us, and a short while later we put in our orders. We chatted until the food was brought, ate the very tasty meals, then sat for a short time with final cups of coffee. Once those cups were done we left to visit the hotel gift shop, a place we hadn't been to before.

The term "gift shop" sometimes makes you think of a small place with postcards and knickknacks, but that picture doesn't match what we found. The fairly large store had all kinds of things including clothing, not to mention a wide variety of bathing suits. We all spent a few minutes looking at what was available, but the guys made their choices before I did.

"What's wrong, Taz?" George asked from where he stood next to me. "Can't you make up your mind?"

"It's more a matter of talking myself into making the right choice," I told him, swallowing a bit of annoyance. "I thought about going with a bikini, something I've always wanted to do, but I'm going to buy this white one-piece suit instead. In spite of the opinion of a large number of people, I don't really enjoy looking for trouble."

"I think that's very wise of you," George said, an odd tone to his voice. "With the number of shapeshifters now in this hotel, there's no sense in drawing them closer than they already are. There is a limit to how much self control men can exert."

Since I didn't want to hear any more talk on that particular subject, I took the white suit to the clerk who was eagerly waiting to exchange the suit for money. A lot of money, more than I would have had to spend back home, but that wasn't unexpected. If you come to a resort without everything you'll need, you can expect to pay through the nose for what you forgot.

All of us but George had small bags to carry, and we headed back toward the elevators with our purchases. It was still raining out, which meant we'd be able to lounge around and nap until we decided what we wanted to do for dinner. That was the plan, but for some reason plans like that rarely worked for me.

"Taz, Eric, just a minute," we heard, and turning showed us Dan Czarek, head of the shapeshifters who were in charge of security at the hotel. Dan was hurrying in our direction, so we waited until he reached us.

"What's wrong, Dan?" Eric asked, showing that Eric had noticed the same disturbance in Dan that I had. "Don't tell me there's even more trouble scheduled for the conference."

"Scheduled, no," Dan answered, something of a smile appearing briefly on his face. "What's happened is completely unexpected and has nothing to do with the conference, only with us. Will you take a look and tell me what you think?"

Since he was talking to Eric and me, he had to mean there was shapeshifter trouble. If there was anything we didn't need it was more shapeshifter crap, but there was no decent way to refuse our help.

"Sure we'll take a look," I agreed, trying not to sound weary or resentful. "Where do we have to go?"

"Down to our level," Dan answered, reaching past us to hit the down button for the elevators. "And thanks for doing this. We'd take care of the thing ourselves, only we don't know where to start."

Eric and I exchanged a glance over that, but there was nothing else to do until we saw what Dan was concerned about. An elevator came, turning off the down signal, and we all got into the car. Dan may not have noticed that the rest of the team joined us, but I certainly did and just as certainly didn't complain. Depending on what the problem was, the entire team just might be needed…