TakeDown and I went to Vlad’s place just after sunset, but we were already late. We figured the Georgian strike force would hit after midnight, but we wanted to get into place to watch for them as soon as we could get there under cover of darkness. Apparently, the Georgians had the same idea.
We cut through from the undeveloped acreage next door to Vlad’s estate, coming in through the woods and brush in a light drizzling rain. I about jumped out of my skin every time my footsteps made a rustling sound. I didn’t know which one I was more scared of, Vlad’s security taking potshots at us with armor piercing rounds, or the Georgians getting us with some anti-dragon weapon. Walking into the middle of a war zone seemed like a good way to get dead, regardless of which side spotted us first.
Every leaf rustle sounded like a fire alarm to me, but we didn’t really make that much noise. The drought had finally broken with a gully-washer a week or so ago, so the vegetation wasn’t so brittle. And TakeDown moved pretty quietly for such a big guy.
We saw them before they saw us. A foot, wearing a combat boot, stuck out of a bush on a little hillock with a good view of the front of Vlad’s mansion. TakeDown and I snuck up really carefully, but we needn’t have bothered. I smelled blood as we got closer, and realized the guy wasn’t a threat anymore, to anyone.
TakeDown looked a little nauseated when we turned the guy in camo fatigues over. His throat had been slashed to the spine. TD’s been a hero a while, but toymakers just don’t see death nearly as often as EMT’s. I checked his pockets and found a wallet. I showed TD two things out of it, a plastic security badge for Tsovsky Holdings, and a picture of the guy’s smiling face with a pretty lady and a toddler. He’d been one of Vlad’s security guys, a regular normal human doing his job, and the Georgians killed him.
After hearing from Vlad how Georgians had slaughtered everyone in his village, it didn’t surprise me that Georgians would kill normals. What I still had a hard time buying was White Knight going along with something like this. I didn’t know enough about forensics to tell if the guy had been killed with a sword, or just a really big, sharp knife. I wouldn’t believe Knight had done it until I saw him standing over a bloody body, sword in hand. But even if White Knight didn’t kill this guy, someone with Knight did.
TakeDown whispered in my ear, “We’ve got to call the police in on this now. No choice.”
I nodded. “Call Detective Long. He knows about me. Tell him the people I’m afraid of are here. But they’re after Vlad, not me. And they’ve killed someone.” I looked at the mansion with walkways and turrets around it like a castle, and thought of it full of Georgians with blood on their hands, with Vlad in there somewhere. I saw another boot sticking out of brush in a pool of blood at the edge of the drop-off that overlooked Vlad’s front driveway. “They’ve killed more than one.”
“What about you?”
“I’m going in, TD. I’m taking a route you can’t. Stealth isn’t an option anymore. They’re ahead of us. We need speed.”
“Going in alone when they’re killing anyone who gets in their way is a really stupid idea, Dee.”
“Maybe. But they think they’ve cleared the threats from behind them. I couldn’t live with myself if this happened to Vlad and I could have stopped it.” I gripped his hand. “Catch up to me when you can.”
He gripped my hand back hard. “Good luck.”
I stripped off my jacket, and the plain black, long-sleeved turtleneck shirt underneath, I couldn’t stuff both in the back of my pants, so I left the jacket in the grass next to another dead guy who probably had pictures of his family in his wallet. The air was Texas December chili, and the rain was picking up, but I barely noticed. I paid a lot more attention to the gusty wind whipping the raindrops around. The forecast had been for clear skies. This storm came out of nowhere.
Flickers of lightning crawled from cloud to cloud and a soft rumbling marked their passage. Vlad told me never, under any circumstances, to fly during a storm. It was really good advice. I ignored it.
I excused it by telling myself it was just a short flight. I jumped off the little mini cliff and spread my wings, one flap to gain a little altitude. The crosswind tried to slam me into one of the turrets. Two extra frantic flaps adjusted for the crosswind, and I backwinged to a light landing on Vlad’s roof. Vlad was an excellent flying teacher, I thought, smugly. My foot slid on the slippery tile. I barely caught the peak of the roof with my claws to keep from falling.
The highest peak of Vlad’s place was a small observatory, complete with rotating silver metal dome. A section of the dome was open about 3 feet wide, so the telescope could take time lapse images of the stars the weatherman said would be out tonight. I folded my wings, ducked under the telescope and I was inside. No security here. Vlad told me once that if I ever wanted to visit him, I could come this way without anyone knowing. I think he was hoping for a midnight tryst.
I pulled my shirt back on as I crept carefully down the spiral staircase. I heard a tiny sound and froze, listening. I heard it again, a moan. Someone was hurt down there. It could be Vlad.
Forget careful. I jumped over the railing and landed two stories down on the balls of my feet on a tile floor. I’d tried to be silent, but my tennis shoes made a small sound as I landed. I froze again. Nothing for a few seconds, then another groan.
Shadows moved in the huge open entryway of Vlad’s house. Clouds scudded across the windows in the high dormers and the wind whistled. Nothing else moved. Dragon night vision let me clearly see why. Everyone in this room was dead. I’d nearly landed on a body. I tiptoed as silently as possible from body to body, mainly making sure none of them were Vlad. Or White Knight.
Yeah, I know it’s crazy, but I was still worried about the Georgian.
Some of the people had died by plain old-fashioned bullet wounds, some had short metal arrows in their vitals, and several were missing limbs as if slashed by a very sharp sword. Or maybe a big knife. I didn’t have any proof that it was a sword that killed them. Not yet.
I kept telling myself that.
I recognized a few of the faces, a couple of Vlad’s security guys that I’d met, and one of the Georgians. Bastard. At least, Vlad’s security guys took one of their murderers down with them.
I felt my guts jerk as I recognized a woman in a tailored suit clutching a .45 and staring with wide eyes at the ceiling. It was Vlad’s secretary who guarded him like a loyal pit bull. Her throat was slashed, like the first guard I’d found. I’m not sure why that made me want to cry when nothing else I’d seen had gotten to me that way. Loyalty like that shouldn’t be rewarded with an ugly death. I suspected she’d been in love with Vlad. But she was fully human, so she might as well have been invisible to him.
Another groan made me check behind the long granite counter that separated the living room from the kitchen. Vlad’s normally spotless kitchen looked like a pig had been slaughtered in it. Only two bodies lay on the tasteful Salado tile, one of the Georgians, the one who had practically drooled when he looked at Knight’s sword, and a guy in scuffed cowboy boots with a walkie talkie mike on his shoulder.
The Georgian clutched a big blade with a bend in the middle in his stiff hand. To my eyes, it glowed slightly with a greenish light, like a firefly, but I’d learned that most people couldn’t see that sort of light. Seeing that gore-covered blade unclenched something in my belly. I no longer suspected that White Knight killed Vlad’s guards. A bullet in his temple had splattered most of the contents of the Georgian knife-wielder’s head all over Vlad’s stainless steel appliances.
The guy in the scuffed cowboy boots was Vlad’s head of security, a native Texan who grew up on a cattle ranch. Even in Austin, that’s relatively rare these days. He’d shot me once, but I didn’t hold it against him. I just couldn’t remember his name. He was conscious, and he’d even managed to point his gun at me, although his hand shook. “Easy, Tex,” I whispered. “I’m on your side.”
The gun hand dropped back to his leg, and he let out an involuntary groan. “Tex is a stupid nickname to give someone in the middle of Texas,” he said. His belly was slashed open from hip to opposite rib. Internal organs and blood vessels were scrambled into a soupy mess and his intestines leaked onto the tile floor. He saw me looking, and waved the gun negligently. “You should see the other guy.”
“The other guy is pretty thoroughly dead.”
“Should’ve known better than to bring a knife to a gunfight.”
I didn’t bother to laugh at the old joke but he chuckled a little, then groaned when that hurt, a lot. “You’re going to be okay,” I whispered and started pushing his guts back in where they belonged with my gloved hand.
He groaned louder. A bloody hand gripped my wrist weakly. “Don’t bother. You know I’m just a dead man who hasn’t gotten around to noticing it yet.”
I grinned at him. “I’ll bet you fifty bucks you’ll be fine in a few days.”
He gave me a ghost of a grin back. “That’s a sucker’s bet. If I win, I won’t get to collect.”
I got his intestines back inside, held the slash wound shut as best I could, took a steadying breath, and said, “Give me your wrist.”
“Why?” he asked with narrowed eyes.
Some people are just born suspicious. “So I can win that bet. Seriously, what do you have to lose?”
He held his hand out, and I bit him on the wrist, injecting healing venom. He let me.
His eyes fluttered closed for a second, and I wondered if I’d gotten to him too late. The clean edges of his wound healed together where they touched. He opened dark eyes and said, “Wow. If you could bottle that, you’d make a fortune.”
I smiled a little, but since I’d done all I could for him, I had other things on my mind. “How far behind them am I? Where’s Vlad? Did they get him?”
“About 2 minutes. Elevator, behind the hot tub. Leads down to the boat dock. I told him to get out while we slowed them down.”
I shook my head. “Vlad won’t run.”
He shrugged, and looked a little surprised when that didn’t hurt much. “That’s all I know.”
“Thanks. Police are on their way. Just sit tight.”
When I’d visited his home the first time, Vlad gave me a full, and very detailed tour, and reviewed it each time I came back. I understood why when he showed me some of the nasty surprises waiting for the uninvited. Vlad’s place was a D & D player’s wet dream, riddled with secret passageways, traps, and hidden doors. I knew about the elevator that went from the top of the castle-like perimeter walkway to the basement, and further, fifty feet down into the solid rock of the cliff to a tunnel that led to the boat dock. It wasn’t accessible except via certain secret passages.
If Vlad planned on escaping, that was the logical way to go. But I knew he intended to fight the Georgians to the death, even if it was his.
So, where in this rat maze of a house would he go if not there?
Two minutes is an eternity in a fight. Somewhere in this house, White Knight and two remaining Georgians were trying to kill Vlad. If I guessed wrong, I’d be far too late to do anything but bury the bodies.
To be continued …D Dragon