When in doubt, punt
“Where the fuck are you, Patrick?” Ingrid Ortega asked the plaque etched with the names of the “missing in action” hunters. Scenario after scenario had run through her head since the day Patrick McGilvrey’s name appeared on the list of “lost and presumed dead” in the League for the Preservation of Humanity’s newsletter. She’d gone from sick with worry that he’d been changed into a vampire or a werewolf, to sad when another article related a sanitized version of what had occurred on his last mission, to so flipping angry she’d gladly dig up his dead or undead body so she could kill him all over again.
I’m being unreasonable. Which didn’t make a lick of difference. Her gaze jerked to Patrick’s sister’s name engraved on the plaque commemorating the hunters who had died in the League’s seemingly never-ending war against the paranormals. Shannon?
“They died for the good of humankind,” Mr. Corning, one of the founders and current leader of the League, stated. “They gave their lives so neither you nor I have to worry about a vampire sucking the life from us, or worse, altering our genome.”
Yeah. Yeah. Like we’re making a dent. Working in the vital statistics department, it was Ingrid’s job to keep track of how many mortals were changed or infected every year. The League’s propaganda might say they were making headway in the war, but she knew better. She was privy to information that often floored the man standing a few feet from her.
A shiver skittered up her spine when Mr. Corning moved closer. “Was there something you wanted, Mr. Corning?” Her gaze returned to Patrick’s name rather than stare at the man who always sported the expression of a mad badger and had the charm of a wealthy snake-oil salesman.
“You loved him.”
Reading into Mr. Corning’s statement and the note of censure tingeing his words, Ingrid shook her head. “We were friends.”
Which was the undiluted truth. At one time she’d considered dating Patrick but had pushed the attraction away. First and foremost, they both worked for the League and she had a strict, no-dating-co-workers ideology. She’d watched way too many people get burned via office romance antics and theatrics. Second, there wasn’t any hope for a future if she engaged a white man in a sexual relationship.
Even though she wasn’t as dark as night—she was colored. And I’m Italian, Japanese and Creole. Talk about a veritable mutt.
She peeked at her watch. Lunchtime’s almost over. “I better get back to my desk.” Just the thought of sifting through the stacks of newspapers and missing person reports made her head spin. It was a thankless job where she filled in spread sheets every day, and hunted through every newsworthy website, paper or what-have-you for confirmation the person might have been altered or killed by a paranormal. Suck it up. It’s not as if I wasn't warned about working in the least appreciated division in the League.
“We have a mission for you.”
“What?” She spun around to stare at the man. Her heart thudded hard in her chest. “I’m not a field agent.” Hell no and no way. I’m a glorified data entry operator.
“When you originally came to work for us you were trained in hospitality, weren’t you?” He motioned for her to sit with a nod. “Please,” he prompted when she hesitated.
Her stare followed him as he pulled a barrel-back chair from its spot and waved at it. A nervous tension infused every inch of her body when he sat down in the chair next to the one he offered her. She bit her lower lip when the aging man leaned back in his chair, propped his elbows on the leather-covered arms and steepled his fingers. “Please,” he said again when she remained rooted to her spot.
“Okay.” The sound of her heels clipping on the stone floor echoed in the palatial room. She smoothed her skirt over her butt before sitting. Her wool skirt tightened on her thighs when she crossed her legs. Well, it’s not like I can lie, she stated silently when Mr. Corning pulled her personnel file toward him. “Yes, I was trained in hospitality, but I failed the final exam.”
Hospitality worker was a coveted position for female hunters and those who aspired to eradicate the paranormal threat from the face of the planet. Technically, any man or woman who gained a spot in the renowned and infamous division was little more than a well-paid prostitute.
Considering she’d grown up in the projects, she’d dreamed of going to college, but understood she’d probably end up in the same dire situation as her mom. The notion of higher education dimmed the older she became. Dreams are for those who can afford them and those who found or stole a golden ticket. It didn’t hurt to have parents who gave a good goddamn about their kids either.
A realist by nature and the circumstances of her early childhood, she hadn’t had a problem with the sex and receiving a paycheck was why someone took a job, but knowing the person who’d just fucked her would soon meet the deadly end of a gun didn’t sit well with her at all.
For the first time since she’d gotten kicked out of her mother’s apartment at eighteen years old, Ingrid had grown a conscience. She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t screw some schlep, paranormal or not, to set him up for murder. It’s wrong on so many levels. No matter what her instructors did to lecture her out of her mind-set, it was a lost cause. The truth her grades were good stood like a monstrous mountain she either climbed over or not.
It was an easy way out for her. She’d failed the final just to get the hell out of the moral quandary. “Go … on,” she whispered.
The ether thickened with a foreboding tension. Clenching her hands in her lap, she suffered Mr. Corning’s long, thorough visual inspection of her clothed body. In the back of her mind, she imagined him picturing her naked. She nearly gagged.
“Your file tells me a lot about you,” he said once he returned his leer to her face. “Unlike most women who work in hospitality, you aren’t morally bankrupt.”
Gee, thanks. She opened her mouth to speak but clamped her lips shut. How do you respond to that? Recollections of the hospitality staff telling her about their sexual exploits started a fire in her belly. Yes, the diatribe of getting fucked made her hot for a single go with a paranormal. The way her co-workers went on and on about big, thick cocks, orgies and a slew of sexual positions—some of which Ingrid had never heard of—had gained her full interest. She’d spent most of her classes wiggling in her chair.
The renditions were the stuff she’d collected for hot fantasies with her vibrator and a fresh set of batteries. She clenched her thighs together to keep from squirming. Stop. “So?” she responded after a brief pause.
“This is a different type of mission. Heavy on the reconnaissance, shall we say.” Corning picked up a stiff-backed folder and handed it to her. He opened the cover of another and took out an envelope addressed to her in bold script. “It seems you’ve attracted the attention of a paranormal.”
“I beg your pardon?” Cynical laughter rumbled in her chest. Corning’s scowl stopped the humorless mirth almost immediately.
“This is not something to laugh about, Ingrid.”
This is bad. This is very bad. She took the envelope from his hand. Reading the bold script, she recognized the funky “I” as coming from a man who was supposedly dead, or maybe he was undead. “This is Patrick’s handwriting.” Shut up. Shut up. Shut the fuck up! “Are you trying to tell me Patrick is alive?”
“The best we can figure, and this is pure conjecture, is he was altered by a half-caste.”
“As good as dead in the eyes of the League,” she thought aloud. “The predator is now the prey.” Realizing that she’d just opened her mouth and inserted her foot in the leader of the League’s presence, she exhaled sharply. “You know what I mean.”
“It’s all right, Ingrid. We all believed Patrick would rather die than be changed.” Corning scowled. “The invitation is for a ball being held at Falstaff Manor.”
“Are you sure this is from him. I mean, paranormals can do a lot of things.”
“We’re positive. Patrick was spotted near the manor house by a member of the Western Europe hunters. He’s alive.”
“Maybe he needed a break.” Her throat tightened when Corning sent her a withering glare. What part of keep my mouth closed don’t I understand? Rather than wilt beneath Corning’s steady stare, Ingrid pulled the heavy, expensive card from its envelope. “Please, I need to see you,” she read. “This doesn’t sound like Patrick.”
“You have to remember, he’s been changed. He’s probably not thinking straight or is under a paranormal’s influence.”
Sickeningly, that makes too much sense. She skimmed the invite’s interior. “This is in the UK. It’s also on Saturday. I don’t have a passport.”
“Your traveling papers and travel arrangements have been taken care of.”
“What’s the mission?”
“We want you to accept the invitation. Go to Falstaff Manor and discover its secrets.”
“That’s it?” She didn’t believe him.
“Whoever controls him will expect a trap.” God knew she would.
“Another member of the hospitality department will be with you the entire time.”
Right, and I’m the Queen of England. “Great, that won’t make Patrick or his handler suspicious.” It also brought home why she’d flunked her final exam. “And what happens if I refuse.”
“That wouldn’t be a very wise idea.” Corning took the invitation and envelope from her hand. He slapped it down on the sheath of papers bound into the file case and slammed the cover closed.
Narrowing her gaze on the old man, Ingrid tamped down on her knee-jerk reaction to tell him to go fuck himself. “Are you threatening me?”
“Of course not.” He opened her personnel file and gave her the rundown on her current financial status. “It would be a shame if you lost your job for insubordination, though. Seems you appreciate the finer things in life and have managed to get yourself into twenty thousand dollars worth of credit card debt.” He shook his nearly bald head. “Tsk. Tsk.”
“I…” Tears stung at the corners of her eyes. The debt she carried wasn’t so she could live high on the hog but to give her baby sister a proper funeral. Her mood tumbled to the soles of her shoes when she recalled the wake, ceremony and internment. “My sister…”
“Yes, I know. Such a tragedy. Drive by shooting, wasn’t it?” He nodded. A glimmer of a smile raised the corners of his lips. No sooner had the grin appeared than it vanished. “If you go on this mission, I’ll give you the twenty thousand dollars to pay off your debts.”
Weighing her options, Ingrid fought with herself for a moment. There’s no way out. Lose your job and lose everything. “All I have to do is go in and look around.”
“If someone wants to taste your favors, I’d accept their advances.”
“I’m not expected to kill anybody, or the guy I just fucked isn’t going to get his brains blown out while I’m still in the room, right?” She came back to the sticking point.
“Fine.” Not like you gave me a choice.
“Ms. Smythe has your plane ticket and passport. Just stop by her desk on your way out,” Corning announced, referencing his personal secretary. “Your plane lands in Heathrow tonight.” He held up his hand for silence as he stood. “You’ll need time to buy clothes and get acquainted with your partner.” He strode for the exit. “Have a good trip.”
Ingrid watched him strut out, Corning’s pompous attitude on display for every worker to see and be intimidated by.
She stared at the folder he’d left on the semi-circular table top. The invitation sat innocently inside the file. The bang of the rear door closing brought her back to reality. Now I know what it feels like to meet the Devil and have Satan claim a chunk of your soul.
* * * *
“We’re almost there.”
Ingrid gritted her teeth when the pale as paper white narcissus Rebekah Hoffman clapped her hands. So far, her supposed partner had been as sweet as Grandma Tutu’s tea had tasted on a hot summer’s night, but Ingrid doubted Rebekah was showing her true self.
Whether her suspicion rose from the woman’s flighty, “it’s all about me” attitude or she just grated on everybody’s nerves, Ingrid wasn’t sure. What she did know was Rebekah was a redheaded princess who thought the whole world revolved around her. The latter was shockingly apparent when Rebekah admitted she’d taken this mission because her husband was boring in bed and she was sick to death of having to take care for her three children.
That Rebekah had both a husband and children set Ingrid off from the very first. When Rebekah laughed over how she had a sappy mother who raced to her aid whenever her daughter cried about her piss-poor experience, Ingrid understood the two of them would never mesh on any level.
“Come on, Ingrid. This is it. What we’ve been trained for.” Rebekah could barely contain her excitement.
“Shh,” Ingrid shushed the woman. “Put a lid on it.” She slid her gaze to the limousine driver, then back to where Rebekah sat opposite of her. “You’ve had enough to drink too,” she commented when Rebekah poured more champagne into the crystal flute clutched in her hand. My God, she drinks more than a fish. Already, Rebekah was showing every sign of drunkenness.
Ingrid rubbed her tired eyes with her fingertips—not that she didn’t have a reason to feel worn to the bone. The past three days had been exhausting. They’d been to every posh shop in London, trying on haute couture gowns with pricey undergarments and shoes that were equal to the cost of her monthly rent, building wardrobes that would make most trust fund princesses cry. By comparison to Rebekah’s tally, Ingrid had gone cheap. The total she’d kept in her head was closing in on fifty thousand pounds. Her partner had spent almost five times the amount.
“Are you sure you don’t want a glass. It’s the good stuff. Imported from France.”
“No thanks,” Ingrid said for the tenth time since they’d entered the limo two hours ago. Another 750ml. bottle of champagne reached its end as Rebekah shook the last drop into her glass.
She couldn’t figure her partner out, but then again, she wasn’t Rebekah’s mother or therapist. They had to work together. In the redhead’s current state of inebriation, it appeared Ingrid was going to be doing a lot more of the surveillance while Rebekah waffled between praying to the porcelain god and sleeping off her hangover.
“Ladies, we’re entering the grounds of Falstaff Manor,” their driver stated in his crisp British accent.
Ingrid peeked out the window to catch a glimpse of the immense manor house. “Oh my.”
Rebekah spun around and nearly fell off the lush, gray upholstered seat. “Whoa.” She gripped the back to steady herself. “Where?”
“Hang on a second.” Ingrid couldn’t believe what she’d seen. If her eyes were to be believed there were Georgian-style manor houses and then there was Falstaff Manor. The place was enormous. “There.” She pointed to the brick facade. Her eyes widened as the car traveled closer to the mansion. Counting the number of windows, she gaped. Fourteen on the top floor. She filed the information away. It was stupid to add such a little piece of information to the report she’d write once the mission was over, but she needed to get her head in the game.
Nervous tension filled the cabin. The crunch of gravel beneath the tires rang in her head. They were fifty feet from the circular driveway when Rebekah suddenly shifted her upper half away from the window.
Ingrid saw Rebekah’s shoulder’s jerk. Uh-oh. “Do not throw up on me,” Ingrid warned when Rebekah’s complexion went from porcelain to a ghastly shade of green-gray. “Do you hear me, Rebekah?” Already the taste of bile burned the back of Ingrid’s throat. She’d always been super-sensitive to situations such as this. A single whiff of vomit and she was sicker than a dog.
“I…” Rebekah slapped her hand across her mouth.
Ingrid’s head clanged in time with her heart, hoping and praying the redhead could make it out of the car before she tossed her cookies. Her stomach clenched. Licking her suddenly dry lips, Ingrid closed her eyes. A cold, clammy sweat broke across her brow. “Stop the car.” Ah, hell.
Amazed she could move so fast considering her stomach was about go crazy, Ingrid managed to get the door open before Rebekah moaned. The sound of retching followed Ingrid out of the vehicle.
Sucking down huge lungfuls of air, Ingrid shivered when a stiff breeze stroked her skin. Relieved when the bout of nausea passed, she laid her hand over her thriving heart. Disaster averted.
“Ma’am.” The driver’s voice broke the stilted silence. “Are you all right?”
“Better, thanks,” Ingrid managed to say even though her mouth still felt as if it was stuffed with cotton. “Sorry about that.” She was about turn around, fully intent on apologizing for Rebekah, when she caught a glimpse of a man out of the corner of her eye. Damn. They grow the men handsome in this country. Well over six feet tall, the guy was really stunning with his raven-black hair and broad shoulders. The sound of more vomiting stopped Ingrid’s inspection of the guy. His good looks left an impression on her, though. “My friend…”
“No worries, ma’am.”
“Thanks for understanding.” She gave the handsome chauffeur a shaky smile. “I’m not good around sick people.” At least that much was the truth. Get your head back in the game, for God’s sake.
“I’ll have a member of the staff help her to her room,” the chauffeur stated.
“That would be great.” Leaning in, she added, trying to ease the driver’s intense frown with a little friendly whispering. “She wasn’t feeling well on the plane, and I guess all the excitement has gotten the better of her.” First rule of hospitality, stick as close to the truth as possible. “I’m afraid she’s had too much to drink to steady her nerves.”
“I see,” the driver muttered. He waved for a servant to join them. “I’ll leave you in Ashton’s capable hands.”
“Oh, just a minute…” Debating whether or not to grab her purse from the car to give the driver a tip and risk her tricky tummy, Ingrid nibbled on her lower lip. Best not to tempt fate. “Thank you,” she ended and shook his hand.
“You’re welcome, ma’am,” the driver responded.
“If you’d follow me, Ms. Ortega,” Ashton prompted. “Milord has set you up in a fine suite. I dare say it has a lovely view of the gardens.”
“Sure.” Act the part. Thankfully, her training took over and she didn’t begin blabbering idiotic questions that would cast suspicion on her cover. She did wonder how Ashton knew her name. Vampire? Maybe. Doubts flitted through her thoughts. I’m not trained for this. I’m so out of my league.
Goosebumps rose on her arms when she walked up the brick steps to the front porch. She stared at the open doors as if she was about to enter Hell. How many people have you drunk from? How many have you killed? Holy hell, what the fuck am I doing here?
The better question was; how the hell am I going to get myself out of this mess?