Taz Bell #4: Down and Dirty Part 2

Chapter Twenty-Four *
* Please note that the first chapter of Down and Dirty Part 2 (which is a continuation of Down and Dirty) begins with Chapter 24.

None of us said anything as we got back to the car and drove to the hotel, but the silence didn't last beyond that. When we were near our suites, I looked at the others.

"Let's take five minutes before we head to bed," I said. "I want one more cup of coffee, and we need to know what we're supposed to think about."

"That's a very good idea," Freemont said as he took out his keycard and used it. "The coffee is all ready, so there won't be a delay in having it."

We followed him into the suite, Eric and Amiol looking faintly disturbed, and I was able to see that the coffeepot really was already full. So I went over and helped myself, Amiol right behind me with Eric behind him, Freemont standing back to add himself to the end of the line. I took a chair to wait for the others, and once they all had their cups and had found where to sit, I looked around.

"I don't know if George will join us again tonight, so we'll have to wait to get his input anyway," I began. "What we have to consider is whether or not to accept this newest offer, the one Oldon made. We know the job needs to be done, but the question is whether we want to be the ones to do it. Freemont, are you able to give us a clue or two?"

"A little bit more than a clue," Freemont answered, his expression faintly disturbed. "I know there will be trouble if we take the job, but I also have the impression there will be even more trouble, of a different kind, if we don't. We were the ones who stopped the difficulty this time, don't forget, and the one or ones behind it won't like that. He, she, or they could decide to eliminate us before going on to the next step in their plan, and we may not be able to avoid what they have in mind. And even if we do…"

"Even if we do, we'll then have to hope we learn what they intend to do next," Eric finished when Freemont didn't, his voice filled with weariness. "Yes, those are definitely points to keep in mind."

"Not to mention that walking away won't be easy for any of us," Amiol added, sounding just as tired. "Even if we know for certain that we can protect ourselves from payback, what about the targets of the next plan? Will they end up just as safe? If they don't, will we end up blaming ourselves for not acting?"

"Okay, I think we all know what our choices are now," I said. "I'm fighting to keep my eyes open, and I know the rest of you feel the same way. Let's go get the sleep we need, and then we can talk about this again. Good night, teammates, and if I didn't say it before now, incredibly great job."

Freemont smiled to show he agreed, so Eric and Amiol got up and headed for the door. They now looked slightly happier, but there was still a drag in their steps and a kind of roundness to their shoulders. They were as wiped out as I felt, physically if not mentally. With that in mind I spoke again just as they reached the door.

"Amiol, are you too tired to set some sort of protection around us tonight?" I asked. "If you are we can do without it, but — "

"No, you're right, Taz," Amiol objected, holding up one hand. "I should have thought of that myself, but my body is too tired to let my mind work properly. I'll make sure no one can find our rooms, so if the enemy tries that payback idea they won't find us dead asleep and helpless. Rest easy, and we'll speak again tomorrow."

"Thanks, friend," I said, then watched them leave the suite before looking at Freemont. "My dear partner, my friend, my family, I need to ask a big favor…"

"Yes, Taz, I'll start a bath for you," Freemont said with a small laugh as he got to his feet. "I think if I ever tried to do the physical stuff the rest of you get involved with you'd probably lock me up."

"Just to protect you," I countered, making sure I sounded prim and virtuous. "Certainly not from any personal needs or for selfish reasons. I'm sure you know the truth when you hear it."

"I certainly do," he agreed before disappearing into the bathroom. But he'd also laughed again, showing he sure did know what was true.

I finished off the coffee before going for my bath, and when I finally dropped into bed it was about three seconds before I fell asleep. When I woke up again it was to find that I'd slept a really long time, and more than that my dreams had been filled with nothing of any importance. For that reason I really did feel rested, so I got up, took some clothes into the bathroom, and got ready for the day that was waiting for us.

"Morning, Taz," Freemont said when I came out and headed for the coffeemaker. "I've already told George what he missed last night."

"Apparently there's a limit to how long you can keep going even if you're a ghost," George said while I filled a cup for myself. "I didn't know that, so the … need took me by surprise. I'm not sure if I could have stayed around if I'd known you'd be called by Oldon, but I probably would have tried. So… Now that you've had your sleep, what do you think?"

"One thing I think is that Oldon probably doesn't need to use all that power he's developed, or not very often," I said, now able to carry my cup to a chair near the couch George sat on. "The check we were given was generous but not over the top, but that isn't all we were given. That bounty will be here in a couple of weeks, and it's been handed over to us without argument. Seventy-five grand, all ours."

"Along with a reason to consider the new offer with an eye toward gratitude," George said, nodding his understanding. "Not to mention that what he said about the one or ones really behind the attack needing to be found is true. I don't doubt that Oldon will go looking for the guilty by himself, so the only thing left to ask is if we'll be going looking with him."

"I'd love to thank him politely and then turn and walk away, but I don't know if we can," I said after a small hesitation. "As Amiol said last night, even if we can keep ourselves safe from retaliation, what about the victims of the next attack? And there will be a next attack, I'm willing to bet that seventy-five grand on the point."

"Even if we don't know the reason behind the attacks," Freemont said with a slow nod. "If the one behind the whole thing is a vampire, and that's almost certainly the case, we might not understand the reason even if we knew it. The old ones tend to look at the world differently."

"Especially if they don't live in the world," George added with obvious agreement. "Some of the older vamps tend to … withdraw from the world, but we humans don't know what they substitute for the contact. That's probably because we don't want to know."

"You can bet that I don't want to know," I agreed. "But I think we'll be finding out more about that than we like, unless I'm misinterpreting Freemont's expression. He went into trance mode as soon as you mentioned that bit about the vampires' hidden world."

"It's not trance mode, Taz, that's silly," Freemont protested mildly while still looking at things George and I couldn't see. "I'm just studying the hit I got from the idea George mentioned, a vague kind of hit but rife with nasty possibilities. The scene is too far off to be more than a suggestion, but I think it shows that we've decided to agree with taking the job."

"I suppose we have," I said with a sigh after exchanging a glance with George. "Now we have to find out how Eric and Amiol look at the matter. They may work for us instead of being partners, but when it's their life that may be on the line they should have a say in what puts their life in that position."

"And be allowed to bow out if they don't care to risk that life," George agreed with his own sigh. "I can't see either of our teammates refusing to join in, but they really should have the chance to do it. No matter how long it takes them to get here."

"It should be about another fifteen seconds," Freemont said as he got up and headed for the door. "They're coming now for their coffee, and then we can go get breakfast."

I had heard the sound of footsteps outside in the hall, the scent of our teammates coming only after the sound. But that sound "sounded" different somehow, and I didn't find out why until the two were in the door.

"Oh, that was really weird," Eric groaned as he took his hand from Amiol's shoulder, looking as if he'd stumbled in rather than walked. "I had no idea where I was or where I was going, and if I hadn't been holding onto Amiol I would have … I don't know, floated away, maybe."

"In other words, I haven't cancelled my spell yet," Amiol said with soft laughter as he gently guided Eric to the coffeepot. "In case you're wondering why, you might want to check the local news."

Freemont picked up the remote and aimed it at the television set at the side of the room, his faint smile suggesting he already knew what we'd see and hear.

"… Mall is still closed down, but the authorities say the mall will be able to reopen later," a woman with a microphone was saying into the camera. "As we've already reported, countless lives were saved last night by the heroic actions of area vampires and shapeshifters, led by the team of Rogues, Inc.

"The rogue hunters were called in to investigate odd behavior by a number of human workers in the city, and they discovered that the odd behavior was caused by the people having been taken over by a rogue. The team alerted the state government, then discovered where the terrible attack those victims were planning would take place before leading the two groups into the mall to save as many of the people inside as they could.

"It hasn't yet proven possible to interview the rogue hunters, but we're still trying to get them in front of our cameras. Stay tuned — "

At that point Freemont turned the set off again, but we really didn't need to see anymore.

"They're saying the same thing on most of the local channels," Amiol told us while filling a cup with coffee. "They also tracked us down here, but for some reason they can't come pounding on our doors to demand an interview. Are we going to breakfast once we finish this coffee? In spite of that great meal we had last night, I've been feeling hollow ever since I woke up."

"You're not the only one with that hollow feeling," I assured him, already having seen Eric's wry agreement. "The only question I have is, how do we get to that breakfast without having to kill every reporter lying in wait for us?"

"I have the strangest feeling that no one will notice us when we walk out of here," Amiol answered with a very bland smile as he paid attention to sipping his coffee. "I really don't know why that will happen, but I can guarantee it will."

"I'm sorry, Amiol, but there's someone with magic in that bunch of reporters now," Freemont put in, banishing the dark elf's amusement. "She just showed up and she's aware of magic being used, but I can't see what she'll be able to do with the knowledge."

"Let me check," Amiol said, then spoke some words in a language I couldn't even place, let alone translate. After that it was Amiol's turn to look at something the rest of us couldn't see, and then he smiled again and shook his head.

"The woman's talent is a lot smaller than she believes it is," our teammate assured us. "She can tell I'm using magic to protect our privacy, but she can't penetrate my spell and certainly can't get around it. When we leave here she won't notice us any more than the others will."

We all made sounds of satisfaction, then gave our attention to the coffee for a minute. After the minute I decided it was time to mention the big blue elephant in the middle of the room.

"George, Freemont, and I have talked about our latest job offer," I said to Eric and Amiol. "We decided that we have to accept, but Freemont tells us the job won't be easy. Really old vamps who are also rogues… If either of you don't care to join us in our decision, we've also decided not to hold it against you."

"I appreciate that, but the out isn't one I'll be taking," Eric said at once, his wry smile showing he'd already made up his mind. "If I ever decide to live the safe life, I'll leave the team and find a job somewhere else."

"And I," Amiol agreed with a better smile. "To make a difference is to live, not just exist, and I want to live. But thank you for considering me as something other than a mere employee. It means a lot."

"All right, that makes it unanimous," Freemont said as he looked at our teammates with affection. "Now let's finish this coffee so we can get to the food. If you think I'm not just as hungry as the rest of you…"

"You always have to watch out for the skinny ones," Eric said, exactly what I'd been thinking. "They'll out-eat you every day of the week."

"And twice on Sunday," George put in, which made all of us start to laugh. It was hard to finish the coffee while laughing, but somehow we managed it.

Going down to the restaurant was no harder than it had been before now. No one stared at us or pointed fingers in our direction, so we were able to take a table and give the waitress our orders. George was with us but not visible to anyone, which helped with disguising our presence. We were all able to fix our newest cups of coffee and then my phone rang.

"Hi, Allison, how are things going with the people who were at the mall?" I said after checking the caller ID and then accepting the call. "I'd ask about the casualty figures, but I don't really have the nerve."

"Thanks to you and your team and all your friends, the casualty figures are only eleven dead against what might have been thousands," Allison answered, her tone not quite happy. "Part of that luck came about by the way some of the shapeshifters were able to stop all the gas from being released. Except for that, we'd have a lot more than eleven people to bury. We're holding a ceremony this afternoon to thank you and the others formally, and this is your invitation to attend. I've also arranged for an interview session with the press for you, and if you can get to the address I give you without being attacked and waylaid you'll probably be off the hook in a little while."

"Off the publicity hook," I said, knowing what she meant. We'd be knocked out of the news as soon as something else happened to take everyone's attention, especially if we made ourselves available for interviews before then.

"But there's something you should know, if there's any way you can arrange it," I added. "A number of the shapeshifters would like to join the local police force, and if you're wondering how well they'd do — "

"Really?" Allison exclaimed, now more than just a little bit happy. "We've been trying to figure out a way to entice some of them to join the department, so your news will make my bosses ecstatic! If you're absolutely sure. I'd hate to jump the gun and mess things up…"

"No, I'm positive," I reassured her. "I don't know how many of them want to join, but I do know that some of them do."

"Wonderful," she said with a relieved sigh. "If you'd speak to them before the ceremony and get a count of heads for me, we'll be able to work in the news about our new police officers and introduce them to the audience."

"That sounds good," I agreed. "You might also want to put out an idea one of my teammates had. If you warn home invaders that some shapeshifters are living quietly among those who can't change shape, you should convince those felons to choose a different line of work. After all, it might be the home of a shapeshifter they invade next, which would definitely be the last time for them."

"Oh, I love that!" Allison told me with laughter in her voice while I heard the sound of scribbling. "As soon as people hear that we'll probably get demands from various neighborhoods that we move in shapeshifters to protect them. If we say, 'What makes you think you don't already have a shapeshifter neighbor…' And, 'Advertising the location of a shapeshifter won't help the rest of you…' Yes, that would take care of a lot of the nonsense."

"If only to make them think about their own attitudes," I said. "But what about the vampires? They were at least as much help, not to mention the fact that they got us involved in the first place."

"We know that, and they'll be at the ceremony later too," Allison said. "Meanwhile, let me give you the address of where the interview will take place. Most of the press will be there, and they'll want to ask questions."

"And we'll be glad to answer those questions," I told her in a prim voice. "As long as the questions are legitimate and not a matter of 'when did you stop beating your wife.' Hold on, I have a paper and pen now."

The paper and pen were courtesy of Freemont, of course. I took down the address Allison supplied along with the time they needed us, then gave the pen and paper back to my partner.

"You still have some time before you have to be at the press conference," Allison finished up with. "I'll be there too, so I'll see you folks later."

"Sounds good," I told her. "See you later."

We both disconnected with that, Eric already having started to fill in Freemont and Amiol about what he'd heard Allison say. When he was finished, Freemont looked at me.

"So… Which of us will do the answering of the questions?" my partner asked very blandly. "Assuming the various questions are addressed to all of us, that is, and not to one of us in particular?"

"I'd say that depends on the question," I answered with a mild little smile that should have matched his blandness. "General questions should probably be answered by you, but George and I will handle the other kind. Right, George?"

"Absolutely," a soft whisper came from the empty chair at our table. "That's what partners are for. And I think you ought to call Art to tell him about the police thing. If he passes the word to his people, they won't be caught by surprise."

"Good idea," I agreed, but didn't reach for my phone again. "I'll take care of that as soon as I take care of the food that's now being brought. Where's the maple syrup?"