Taz Bell #3: Down and Dirty

Chapter One

By the time I woke up, Freemont already had a pot of coffee going. We'd spent the balance of the day yesterday and the following night in a motel after finishing our latest job in Florida, and the first thing I noticed when my eyes opened was how hungry I was.

"I know," Freemont said as soon as I sat up and stretched. "I'm also starving, and I'm sure Eric and Amiol are the same. All we had to eat yesterday was breakfast, so it's not surprising that we're empty… Are we going someplace in particular today, Taz? I have the feeling that there's another job for us somewhere."

"Right as usual, Freemont," I answered, giving him as much of a smile as early morning let me produce. "I talked to Art — Dr. Lamdell, from Atlanta — before I fell over into sleep, and it seems he's in the middle of some kind of mess. He says there are shapeshifters who need our help, but I didn't ask for any details. No sense in wasting time hearing things I'd have to ask him to repeat now that I'm alive again."

"Yes, that feels like what we're supposed to be doing," Freemont agreed, distantly thinking about what I'd said. Freemont's blond hair had already been combed, and his blue eyes looked more alert than mine probably did.

"I wonder what kind of trouble he has," George put in from the chair he sat in. "I know you were too tired to go into details with him, Taz, but how did he sound?"

"He sounded seriously worried," I answered, having already gotten into my sleep shirt and out of bed. "You remember what he's like, George. You went to his car with him after he tended Eric and me. Did he strike you as someone who lets his worries show to anyone who might be looking?"

"Definitely not," George agreed with a faint smile. "He didn't even seem nervous to be questioned by a black ghost like me. If he let you know how disturbed he is, he must need our help badly. Have you decided that we should give him our help?"

"I guess I've decided we have no choice," I grudged as I took a clean outfit from my suitcase. "I still don't like the idea of getting involved with shapeshifters, but at the very least we ought to go back to Atlanta and find out what the problem is. And to see if Art has had the chance to look into having a silver headband made."

As I headed for the bathroom I caught a glimpse of Freemont's expression, which showed that he hadn't understood everything I'd said. But George was already beginning an explanation as I closed the bathroom door, so I didn't have to stop and do the explaining as well as apologize to Freemont. I hadn't realized that Freemont might not have picked up on the silver headband thing, otherwise I would have told him all about it myself.

I'd been a shapeshifter for almost a year before the things that happened to all shapeshifters started to happen to me. I really hate having to be an animal every month, and that might be why I'd managed to keep the dreams from starting. But once Eric, another shapeshifter, joined the team, I started to dream every night just the way others did it. The dreams were about the lives of those shifters who had come before me, starting from the time they were infected to the time they passed on the infection to me — or to my direct ancestor, so to speak.

The dreams went back in time, of course, covering the lives of those in my direct line. A couple of the dreams hadn't taken long at all, showing that the ones involved hadn't taken long to pass on the infection, but then the night came when I reached someone who hadn't been infected against his will.

The someone came from what appeared to be a community of shapeshifters, and although I had no idea where the community had been I knew what I saw had happened a long time ago. All adults in the community were shapeshifters, and their children were deliberately infected once those children passed through puberty. And that was the way the children wanted it, willing to go through the pain of attack and serious wounding in order to become adults of the community themselves.

My first contact with that community had been cut short because of tragedy, but I picked up the thread again through the elder of the community who had turned the boy I'd reached first. But the elder was a boy himself when he was first turned, so I had to go through his life a little at a time to learn as much as possible — about things we now knew nothing about. Like the possibility that we might be able to stop the change…

I paused at that point to let the eagerness flare inside me and then die again. I'd finished with washing and brushing my teeth and was in the middle of getting dressed, so once the excitement faded back some I was able to get on with dressing. I'd learned that a headband made of pure silver — completely covered by cloth, of course — might be able to keep a shapeshifter from shifting at the full moon. It still wasn't clear if using the headband really was the way to keep from becoming an animal, but something else I'd learned gave me quite a lot of hope.

It was generally believed that it wasn't possible for shapeshifters to shift completely without the presence of the full moon in the sky. Oh, some shifters were able to change parts of their bodies when it wasn't full moon, like growing claws at the ends of their fingers, but in general it was believed that a full change was impossible. I'd learned — and had proven myself — that full change was possible, and that was why I had such high hopes for the silver headband thing. I hadn't learned anything new last night, but that left a lot of nights to continue dreaming.

Once I finished up with combing my hair, I was able to leave the bathroom with my nightshirt and other things to be packed up again. I felt the urge to just dump everything on top of my luggage and go for the cup of coffee Freemont had fixed for me, but that would have meant double work. I put everything away, closed the bag, then went for the coffee.

"Eric and Amiol will be here in a minute or so," Freemont said with an amused smile. "I think Eric can smell the coffee, and he must have mentioned the fact to Amiol. I don't usually make coffee when we're about to leave, but today we all need it."

"That's for sure," I muttered in answer after taking a good swallow of lifeblood. "We can have breakfast in that Waffle House near the highway, and then we can get on our way. I take it neither of you disagrees about helping out with Art's problem."

"Freemont doesn't see any reason why we shouldn't, and I feel the same," George answered for the two of them. "I liked Art Lamdell the one time he and I spoke, and that bonus the vampires gave us ought to cover your expenses for quite a while."

"Not to mention the glowing recommendation you said we were going to be getting from those same vampires," Freemont put in with a nod. "There's something that will come from the recommendation, but I can't yet see what it will involve."

"Something like what, a job?" I started to ask, but the answer was interrupted by the arrival of our teammates. A knock on the door brought an immediate response from Freemont, who had started for that door even before the knock.

"Coffee, quick!" Eric gasped out as he staggered into the room, pretending that he was dying. Eric is big and blond with light eyes while Amiol is tall, more slender, exotic, and dark with light eyes, but they seemed to have a lot of the same tastes. Amiol followed him in with a big grin, obviously ready to wait his turn at the coffee, but then all amusement left the dark elf.

"Why am I sensing magic in here?" Amiol asked, his head turning from side to side like a security camera checking for intruders. When it came to magic Amiol claimed he was only fairly good, but we didn't know what scale he was using. So far his "fairly good" had gotten us out of more than one tight corner.

"That's where it is," Amiol announced, staring at the waste basket as he stalked toward it. "The resonance is so strong I'm surprised you and Freemont didn't sense it yourselves, Taz."

"There's something magical in here?" Freemont said, watching as Amiol picked up the waste basket and carried it toward where the rest of us stood. "How can that possibly be?"

"I know how it can be," I answered, my tone pure growl when I glimpsed the paper I'd crumpled up and thrown away the day before. "That was a note written by Grail, one he somehow slipped into my pocket without my noticing. When I opened it to see what it was, it tried to … grab me by the throat. If I hadn't been too tired to get really hot for a vampire, even if I'd ever be hot for him normally… But how can there be magic involved? Grail isn't the magic user, his twin Jaril is."

"But Grail had enough time to call Jaril and have his brother overnight what he needed," Eric put in with the same kind of growl I'd used, no longer concentrating on the coffee. "Of all the dirty, lowdown, stinking things to do…"

"We haven't agreed to join their Federal task force, so Grail is starting to play dirty," George said, no happier about what had been done than the rest of us. "I can understand why he'd want us, but did he really think doing something like this would make it happen?"

"That doesn't sound like Grail," Freemont said, looking thoughtful again. "Maybe he's so taken with the attraction he feels for Taz that his better judgment is being affected. I didn't want to mention this while he was still with us, but it felt as if it was all he could do to keep his hands off Taz. Spending time with her was helping out in some way, but the time was something of a two-edged sword."

"Which has to be why he kept pressing you, Taz," George added. "I heard him trying to get you to accept him every time he raised the issue, but I also decided not to say anything because you were handling the matter as well as possible."

"Too well as far as Grail was concerned," I agreed, staring balefully at the letter in the waste basket. "That has to be why he tried using magic on me at a time when he was still around. I wonder if he spent any time hanging around outside this room last night… Well, that doesn't matter now. Amiol, can we just leave that thing in the waste basket, or does it need to be gotten rid of in a different way?"

"It needs to be burned, but not immediately," Amiol answered. "Let's have our coffee, and once we get the luggage in the car I'll stay behind and burn this thing in the bathtub. Flushing the residue down the drain will get rid of everything, but I don't think it's wise to have you too close when I do it, Taz."

"If she's too close, the magic may be able to affect her again," Freemont said, more a statement than a question. "That means Jaril is very strong, doesn't it, Amiol? If I remember correctly, you once said that lingering effects weren't possible without a large amount of strength behind the spell."

Amiol nodded as he put the waste basket down near the bathroom door, ending the discussion for the moment. Eric hadn't said anything else, but as he fixed his coffee it was perfectly clear how bent out of shape he was. I'd been wondering if Eric had lost his interest in me, the interest he'd tried to press in the beginning, but it looked like he'd simply decided to be circumspect. I could almost feel the growl of anger inside him, but saying anything about that anger would have been stupid.

Once Amiol had his own cup of coffee, Freemont turned off the coffeemaker, rinsed it out in the bathroom, then dried it before packing it away. By that time I'd already packed up our ancillary coffee supplies, so as soon as our cups were empty we were able to carry the luggage out to the car. Eric got his and Amiol's luggage from their room, and as soon as Amiol came out of our room he and Freemont went to check out. George, Eric, and I waited in the car for them, and once they'd rejoined us we headed for the Waffle House.

George didn't join us in going into the Waffle House, but he might as well have. There was only one other customer when we walked in, and he sat at a counter booth just the way we did. We all ordered coffee, of course, but we also ordered double portions of our breakfasts. We all felt hollow from missing two meals, so we made sure to fix the problem. There wasn't the least amount of food left on any of our plates, and once our coffee cups had been refilled I took out my cell phone.

"I might as well ask how to find Art while he's telling us about the trouble," I said softly to my teammates. "And let's try to remember to buy a GPS unit when we reach Atlanta. I'm tired of having to rely on other people's directions."

"We can do that when I buy myself some new clothes," Amiol said with an agreeable smile. "I intend to take advantage of being in Atlanta, since there's no knowing where we'll be going after that."

"We might also want to consider getting our own ear-piece communication system," Freemont put in. "Listening to what's happening isn't as good as being there to see it going on, but it's better than sitting around worrying."

"Good point," I agreed, knowing Freemont would not be the only one to benefit from a system like that. "It would work for any of us who had to stay behind for one reason or another — or if we had to split up - but I'm almost afraid to ask how much the system would cost. It can't possibly be cheap."

"There's a difference between throwing money away and eliminating unnecessary risks in an already risky situation," Eric suggested, his expression saying it was only a suggestion, not a criticism. "The system we'd want wouldn't be cheap, but if it's too expensive I'm willing to ante up some of my share of the earnings. After all, it's my own neck I'd be looking out for."

"And it would hardly be like buying another pair of shoes that we don't need," Freemont pointed out as Amiol agreed about adding money of his own. "It would be a legitimate business expense, and we do need some deductibles for our tax return. Or returns."

Those were all arguments I couldn't disagree with, so I just nodded as I chose Art's number and initiated the call. It looked like our team would be going higher-tech than just a GPS unit…

"Hi, Art, it's Taz Bell," I said when I heard Art's voice. "We've all gotten our beauty sleep and we've also eaten, so we're ready to hear what your problem is. And to get directions to wherever you happen to be."

"Taz, I can't tell you how relieved I am to hear your voice again," Art responded, and I hated that he did sound indecently relieved. "Our problem here is a nasty one, and none of the people involved can handle it themselves in spite of being shapeshifters. Just being stronger than average doesn't do much if you don't know what to do with that strength."

"I know how that works, Art," I said, holding the cell phone in a way that both Freemont and Amiol could hear the other end of the conversation as well as Eric and I could. "Tell me what's going on."

"I'm sure you know that most of our people are … not open about their situation," Art said, the words slow as if he were searching out the best of them. "People don't trust our kind, so staying under the radar lets a lot of us live without being … harassed. But that works only if there isn't someone around both willing and able to tell the truth about them."

"Someone's threatening to out them?" I asked, disliking the sound of that. "I'm surprised the someone hasn't already met with a fatal accident. After all, you may not know how to fight well if at all, but killing someone threatening your life is usually considered self defense."

"That might have happened if the someone was acting alone," Art countered. "It's a group that's involved, and even though one man seems to be behind the group the rest have to be ready to defend him and themselves. They're not nice people at all, Taz, and they're blackmailing our people into paying them to keep quiet. They've already proven that if you refuse to pay, everyone finds out what your secret is."

"So going to the police is out of the question," Eric said, anger in his light eyes to match what must have been in mine. "Turning in those slugs might end their good time, but a lot of innocent people will be hurt right along with them."

"To say the least," Art told us with a sigh. "The woman they exposed for not paying their blackmail demand ended up killing herself when all her friends turned their backs on her. Her family said they would support her, but they were trembling with fear when they said the words. They didn't want to be near her any more than her former friends. I tried to assure her that things would work out, but she was too despondent to listen."

"I can remember what that feels like," I said, now seeing a ghost of the feeling in Eric's eyes. "If no one had known what had been done to me, I never would have admitted it myself. We'll see what we can do to discourage that slime, Art, but first we have to find you. Freemont is ready to write down driving instructions."

I handed the phone to Freemont, who had brought his pad and a pen into the restaurant. My partner wrote for a number of minutes, occasionally asking questions, then said goodbye and ended the call before handing back my phone.

"What are we going to do about this?" Eric asked as we all finished our coffee before getting ready to leave. "Even if we scare that group into leaving, they can always come back or even expose everyone from wherever they go. I hate to think that our only option will be to … solve the problem the easy way."

"At this point I have no idea what we'll do," I said, knowing Eric meant killing the members of the blackmail group. "Let's get there and take a look around, at the same time thinking up other options. And I'd also like to know how many of the group have the actual blackmail information that the leader does. Letting the others know would let those others set up shop for themselves, so the leader might not be into sharing."

"Which would make things easier if we have to resort to … extreme measures," Amiol put in, sounding not in the least reluctant about those extreme measures. "My people look at these things differently, my friends. If someone makes the deliberate decision to hurt others, whatever happens to him is no one's fault but his own. I do know how your own people look at the matter, though, so whatever we do will have to be your choice and decision."

The rest of us nodded at that as we walked outside after I paid the bill, and the way George looked at me when we got into the car said he'd heard what we'd been talking about. That added another untroubled expression to the set, showing that we all felt the same way.

We'd try to settle the problem peacefully, but if that proved to be impossible…