The Construct Job
The Construct Job
The crate sat on the deck of the steamship, menacing in its stillness. It had come aboard in the deep watches under mysterious circumstances near a private island and the Captain was pleased to be leaving it at San Lorenzo.
He knew whose men, dark-suited and hard-eyed, had come aboard to take custody of the cargo. He swallowed hard and approached the red-haired man who waited on the dock.
“This is for your boss.” The Captain handed over the letter that had come with the crate. The man nodded and tucked it in his suit jacket. The captain noticed even these dangerous men kept away from the silent crate with the words “live” and “this side up” stenciled on it, as they got a pallet jack and took it off the ship. He was as happy to put this island behind him as he had been the other
The crate sat silent and still in the center of the courtyard of the Moreau villa. If it had a live animal in it, as the markings seemed to imply, it should have made noise. There should have been some indication that the creature was alive. If the pallet jack handler hadn’t felt a brief motion, as of something getting a better balance when he moved it, he would have said the thing was dead.
Damien Moreau came into the courtyard, skimming the letter his second had handed him. He sent the red-headed Chapman back into the house for an item. He stopped near the crate.
“Good evening,” he said to it. “Welcome to San Lorenzo. Grandfather says you are very special.”
The only sound from inside the crate was a faint sniffing, followed by a tiny noise of motion, as of bare feet on a padded floor.
“He made you just for me, this says, with strength and loyalty and hunting skills. I look forward to making your acquaintance.” Chapman returned and Moreau took the whip from him. He snapped it on the ground. “What is the law?”
From inside the crate, a rough voice, one that pleased Moreau immensely, answered. “Not to go on all fours. That is the Law. Not to suck up drink. That is the Law. Not to eat flesh or fish. That is the Law.”
Moreau cracked the whip again. “Grandfather’s is the House of Pain. Mine may also be, should you require it.”
“His is the hand that wounds. His is the hand that heals. His is the House of Pain.”
“All that you learned of my grandfather applies to me as well.” He turned to the guards who were watching with wonder on their faces. “Open the crate.”
The well-dressed older man with a cane was sitting on a bench, waiting as if he had known exactly where Nathan Ford would be at any given time and could intercept him at whichever point suited him best. Ford gave him an irritated glare and tried to not stop in his morning jog.
“I have a proposition of mutual interest for us.”
Ford pulled his mp3 player earbuds and jogged in place. “One minute.”
“I am Archie Leach. A certain valuable object of mine is missing. I’m told you have expertise in this area. I am prepared to pay you very well for its recovery.”
Ford stuck his earbuds back in. “I’m out of the biz.”
“There’s a young person in jeopardy, as well.”
“Nope.” He quit marking time and turned to continue his jog.
“We shall see.” Leach looked unperturbed as Ford jogged off.
Nathan Ford was well aware of his financial situation. He knew exactly how much money he had, which bills were outstanding, and which creditor he might be able to juggle if he needed extra booze. He had about five months left before he was completely broke. He didn’t like to think about what came after that. Maybe a nice swim...off the Longfellow bridge. He came home from his jog to find red-enveloped dunning notices from every creditor from his landlord to the liquor store.
He went about the rest of his day and after dinner, poured himself a drink, trying not to notice both the liquor store bill and the low level of alcohol in the bottle. He knew what this was. His electricity went off halfway through the drink. He looked out the door and window. Yep, only his.
He wasn’t going to cave just because Leach had pulled some strings to put him on everyone’s bad side. He finished the drink and went to bed.
The next morning, he woke to his phone ringing. The power company. He staggered to the bathroom, ducked a call from the phone company and flushed. Terrific, his water was off. That was intolerable on laundry day. The phone rang from the credit card company. Worse, he couldn’t even carry his ice trays to the nice girl across the hall and beg some freezer space. He looked in the fridge, ignoring the call from the water company. As he sniffed the milk, an unidentified call came up.
“Mr. Ford, I’m hoping you’ve given some thought to my offer of yesterday,” Leach began.
“I really dislike being bullied, Mr. Leach.”
“I’m sorry for the strong-arm tactics, but you are a difficult man to persuade. Say you’ll find Parker and all will return to ordinary life within the hour.”
“Parker? The Parker?” Nate demanded as a knock came on his front door. He opened it. Leach, accompanied by a thin, young black man, whom Nate thought he recognized, came in.
“The Parker. She is the missing property. And the possibly endangered young person.”
The legendary thief was missing. Nate had pursued her several times during his tenure as an insurance investigator. When it came to Parker, he was always three steps behind, even if he was the best in the business.
“And you’re her Fagin, hunh, wanting her back.”
“You still haven’t said yes, Mr. Ford. Your apartment is stifling. And a bit ripe. I suspect your groceries might have started going off.”
“Yeah, it’s hard to do laundry without water.” Nate settled into the sofa and poured himself a glass of whiskey. No ice of course.
Archie sat and stared. The young man hadn’t looked up from his phone.
Finally the soft tapping wore on him. “If I do find Parker, and I’m not saying I will or even can, what’s in it for me?”
“A good deal of money. My sources tell me you’re not exactly flush. And the knowledge you finally ran her down.” Archie smiled. “She is the best.”
“So why not hire someone better?”
“There isn’t anyone. You don’t have to go it alone. My associate here will give you all the computer aid you could require.”
“I work alone,” Nate said automatically. “And Alec Hardison is hardly my idea of the most reliable backup I could have.” He had finally recognized the young man.
Archie did the staring thing again. Nate wanted another drink but the bottle had one left and he suspected his bank account was frozen as well. Leach had him in a vise grip and he didn’t have too many options.
“All right. I will hunt for her, on the condition that you undo all this bibbity-bobbity-boo you committed on my finances and credit rating.”
“Very good, Mr. Ford.” Archie rose. “You have three weeks.”
“Three weeks? That’s impossible.”
“Parker is a construct, Mr. Ford, a human made especially for me and to my design specifications from a variety of animals. If she does not take her shots every month, she will begin to revert back to her animal form. She is not one animal, but an amalgamation. As there are several predators in the mix, this would be disastrous and highly lethal. Combine the strength and speed of a cheetah, the dexterity of a chimpanzee and the fearlessness of a flying squirrel and add human intelligence. She is dangerous enough in human form. Should the animal reassert itself, she will become unstoppable.” Archie stopped with his hand on the doorknob. “Good hunting.”
Nate poured the end of his drink and ignored Hardison, still sitting on his couch.
Parker prowled the death house. She probably should have told Archie where she was going but he would have said no and canceled her ability to travel. She had to check this one out too, as she had the others. It was the same as they had been.
Mother shot execution style, slumped over the counter and barely cool, the remains of her unfinished breakfast preparations on the counter beside her. Two teen boys, shot in their bed; they never woke up. But the father intrigued her most. He hadn’t been shot. He’d been torn apart and half-eaten. The police report would doubtless blame a cougar or bear or feral dogs. Again.
Memories rose in her. She remembered bodies like this. She knew the spoor in the air, heavy but neither cat nor wolf nor human, something of all three.
“You have forgotten the Law, my brother. Not to chase other men. Not to kill. Not to eat meat. Are we not men? Do you lap your drink as well?” She leaped easily to the rafters and vacated the scene as police cars began arriving.
Damien Moreau sat watching the sunset over the ocean in San Lorenzo. It had gone swimmingly, and the final loose ends of his U.S. operation had just been tied up. A soft barefoot tread made him turn.
“Eliot.” He smiled. He had chosen the name for his grandfather’s gift, and as long as the man answered to it, he was content. “Come, join me.”
The cat-like grace of the powerful man made him wonder exactly what Grandfather had used to make him. Alphonse Moreau, third of that name, had continued the family tradition of scientific experimentation and construct production. His father had dropped the title of vivisectionist as he perfected the transformations with much less pain than the first of the line who had worked within the limitations of his Victorian science. Damien’s Uncle Alphonse was set to take over the island when Grandfather passed. His own father had been the second son, much more interested in politics and weaponry than science.
Eliot sat at his feet, watching the sunset. Damien poured a bit of champagne into a glass for him. He sniffed it curiously and looked up. He didn’t talk often.
“It’s champagne, a sparkling wine. I am fond of it.”
Encouraged, Eliot took a drink and sneezed after he swallowed. “Thank you.”
“You don’t like it.” There was no anger or condemnation in the statement. “Why?”
“It tastes spoiled. Sour, and all the bubbles can’t hide it.”
Moreau nodded. “We will keep trying. You did well with your work. What troubles you?”
“I have broken the Law.”
“You did what I commanded of you. And my word is your law. There are no others of your sort here that need to be constrained by rules chanted like a religious litany. Your Law is one sentence, ∙’I do the will of my master, Damien Moreau’. Say it!” He didn’t want to be angry. The construct was simple, uneducated, after all, and he had forced it to violate the precepts that had governed it since creation. “What is the Law?”
“I do the will of my master, Damien Moreau.” The construct sounded unhappy. His happiness didn’t matter. His obedience did. Damien reached down and stroked his hair.
“That’s my good boy.” He stroked some more. “I’d like you to grow this out. You’ll be irresistible.” He looked into the man’s blue eyes and reminded himself that Eliot wasn’t truly human. “You’ll be due for a shot next week.”
Eliot nodded. The sun went down behind the water.
The lights were back on. The washer swished and ice was freezing. Nate had finished cleaning out the spoiled groceries and made a liquor store run. Alec Hardison hadn’t budged. Nate was slightly jealous of his phone’s battery power.
Nate ordered Chinese delivery for two. Over the food, Hardison finally looked at him. “I know where Parker is.”
“Then why didn’t you just tell Leach?”
“Because she’s doing something that’s important for her and he doesn’t see it that way. You know that series of killings that’s been happening the last few weeks, whole families being wiped out and one member always gets eaten?”
Nate shrugged. “I think I saw something about it on the news. I don’t pay much attention these days.”
“The pattern of killings looked random, but wasn’t.” Hardison activated his laptop. A map of the US came up on Nate’s TV and little red dots connected by a line wound their way across the country. “Ten murder sites. But they moved from west to east. It’s that north-south motion and the double back right there between Texas and Nebraska that threw the authorities. As far as I know this hasn’t hit the feds’ radar. The last killing was here in Boston.”
“Parker thinks she knows who or what is killing these people?”
“She says it’s another construct.” He shrugged. “Maybe.”
“So where is she now?”
Hardison brought up another map, Europe this time. He zeroed in on a tiny island country near Andorra and Monaco. A small green blip showed on it. He kept zooming. “San Lorenzo. Italian and English are the primary languages. Home to a corrupt government and some of the biggest gun running and money laundering operations in the world. One stop shopping for all your private little wars.” He gave Nate a grin. “My girl let me lo-jack her. Archie doesn’t know and we’ll keep it that way. It’s how we’re gonna find her.”
“Convenient. And lethal.” Nate was finally intrigued. He finished the food but didn’t pour a drink. “So some warlord is doing a mop-up of his undesirables. He’s got a family annihilator on staff and a construct to give the troublemaker a really ugly death.”
“With nasty big pointy teeth,” Hardison added automatically.
“We’re going to need some help on this one.” Nate picked up his phone.
Parker skulked the backstreets of San Lorenzo. It was a pretty country with a lot of working poor and a healthy middle class. She stole a change of clothing from a clothesline. She didn’t like sleeping in her clothes. Food was easy enough to find too, from myriad street vendors who never missed an apple or a small cluster of grapes.
She could smell the other construct, faint and far up in the hills. She saw the big white villa perched halfway up the mountain, looking down on all the ordinary people. Two days of sleep had countered her jet lag and now she was ready to pay her call. Tonight, after nightfall.
She hadn’t decided if she would kill her brother or not. Perhaps he could be saved. Many could not, after tasting blood.
The sun sank toward the ocean.
Eliot watched the sunset. He was pleased to be back in San Lorenzo. He hadn’t liked the work he’d done elsewhere. Here, was home. Here was safe. He had his room that smelled like safety and home, like him and like his master. The flying had been difficult and killing had been worse. But he had obeyed.
He looked at his hands, and saw the fingers were starting to revert. They were always the first to go. Hands had always been a problem, one the doctors had fixed by making sure to admix ape or monkey into the design. His own included orangutan. It gave him prodigious strength without the passivity of the gorilla. But he saw his nails getting long and thick, almost talon-like.
He didn’t growl when Chapman came out with the needle all prepared. He didn’t like his master’s second and lover, not even after sharing the lengthy assignment. Perhaps moreso because of it. Chapman had a fast hand with the whip, resorting to it at every opportunity. Moreau almost never struck him, but he had allowed Chapman the whip and the man used it. Eliot sniffed the needle.
“Let me,” he said after confirming it was indeed his serum and not something dangerous.
Chapman raised an eyebrow and offered him the tray it rested on. He checked for air bubbles and thrust it into the muscle of his arm before he could lose his nerve. The solution burned as it went in and his arm ached. Yes, the sensations were all right and there was no dilution.
“Surprised you had the dexterity.”
“I am a five-man.” Eliot waggled all his fingers and the opposable thumb in the air. The nails were already starting to shrink. Some of the older people had hands that were almost hooves or paws. Five fingers were rare.
Chapman went back in and Eliot kept watching the sea. He could hear Moreau say something and Chapman snap at him. They were quarreling again. His name came up. He listened more closely.
“He’s not even human. Did you see his hands tonight? Have you seen his teeth? You know what he can do. Yet you want him anyway!”
Moreau laughed softly. “He was made for me, Grandfather said. Grandfather knows all my tastes.”
“You’re a fool sometimes.” There, Chapman’s belt hit the floor. Eliot heard the wet sounds of kissing. Then Chapman added, “He’s still on the balcony, you know, listening.”
“What if I had him watch? Would that inflame you? Or pour cool water on your desire?”
“Don’t. Make him go to his room. I want you thinking about me and only me.”
Another laugh. “No, you grow presumptuous.” He called now, “Eliot, come in.”
Eliot hesitated, smelling something different on the night air, something he hadn’t smelled since before the crate. He smelled the sea, and the lust of the men inside, but there was another like him, and very near. He said nothing and went in before Moreau could call again.
Nate found her backstage, in a polo and pants, getting ready to go on. “Sophie, I have a job for you.”
She blinked at him, not all of the confusion her own. Method actress, he remembered, and this character wandered through the show, befuddled. “Oh, Nate. Catch me afterward. It’s only a half an hour.”
“I’ll be waiting.” He ushered Hardison to last row seats as the curtain went up on The Actor’s Nightmare, the first of four one-act plays that would run tonight. Sophie came out, looking bewildered, as George Spelvin, the hapless actor, trapped between four plays, Hamlet, A Man for All Seasons, Private Lives and an experimental Samuel Beckett show that took place in trash cans.
He amused himself by watching Hardison be horrified as the half-hour dragged toward the end of the play and the beheading of Sir Thomas More. “Think we can pay him not to miss?” Hardison asked as the ax thudded into the block.
“Behold the head of Sir Thomas More!” the executioner cried as he held up a plaster copy of Sophie’s head and the stage went dark. The other three actors, and the stage manager took their bows. They gestured for Sophie to take hers, but she appeared to be dead, so they bowed again and the curtains closed.
“Nate, I will make you pay for that. How is this crazy lady gonna be any help?”
“That is not her stage. On her stage, she is second to none,” Nate led him out the side door, “A true prima donna.”
Sophie stepped out of the stage door in time to hear. “My only fan. Hello, Nate. Why are you here? Do you miss Paris?”
Nate remembered pursuing her there and her shooting him. “From time to time. I’ll fill you in on the way to the plane.”
The other had gone inside. Parker waited. He would come back out. She had smelled the needle, the serum that kept him human. She would miss her own shot. That would be...bad. If she missed two, she might never be human again.
But he intrigued her. He smelled so hopeless, as if the great white villa was a huge trap and he could wander all the rooms of it and be no less trapped for the roominess. She didn’t think he wanted to be killing. She knew he didn’t want to be mating. She could smell the men at their rutting, and his discomfort with watching.
She missed her mate. Archie probably knew she had claimed Hardison as her human. He hadn’t said anything so they didn’t say anything. That was how things went with Archie. Hardison would be okay. He knew where she was. If she got into trouble, he would be there, hacking and cracking and getting her out. Another thing they hadn’t told Archie.
Now, she wanted to get the other out. On the Island, they had all been required to think of each other as siblings, to reduce conflict and the possibility of someone getting eaten. Her brother had forgotten the Law. And he needed help to get out of his trap. The humans he was with were not good. She knew from the death scenes that he only killed one of the humans at each. She smelled the other killer in the room, and a second human.
She would get him out. She would take him home to Hardison, who could surely get them both their shots. Maybe Archie could use him. She wasn’t sure. He might not be a thief.
Parker made herself comfortable in the shrubbery under the window, ignoring the light fur that had begun spreading on the backs of her fingers. It would all be all right. She would rescue her brother, and return to her mate, get her medicine and stay human. She could make it all happen.
Hardison watched in disbelief as Sophie sashayed into the presidential palace, completely confident, completely in her role. “That can’t be the same woman.”
“Her stage,” was all Nate said as they watched her finagle and cozen until she had all the access they needed.
Hardison glanced at his watch. The GPS told him Parker was very close. He wouldn’t go find her unless she needed him. She was working on something important, she had said before she left.
Sophie came back, smiling. “We’re UN election observers, from Nigeria, Turkmenistan and the U.S.” She handed them the ID badges. “We timed this fortuitously.”
Back in their hotel room, Hardison filled them in on Parker’s location. “She’s up near that big white villa overlooking the ocean. I think that’s where we’ll find the other construct too.”
Sophie looked about to say something but took a drink of wine instead.
“All right, what was that?” Nate asked.
“Uh oh.” Hardison looked up. “We just bit off all the bubblegum and I don’t think we can chew it.” Nate looked at him, and he could see frustration mounting in the man’s face. “The villa belongs to Damien Moreau.”
Very few people ever saw Nate Ford taken aback. But this time he blinked. “You’re kidding me. World-wide crime financier, supporter of dictators and coups, that Moreau?”
Sophie nodded. “San Lorenzo’s most prominent citizen. Donates heavily to civic causes in the interests of keeping the masses quiet and his puppet as president. San Lorenzo has a very high standard of living for a country with no natural resources except scenery. Tourism can’t account for all of it.”
Nate thought for a long moment. “We’re here to observe the election. Who’s running?”
“Ribera is Moreau’s man, and the current president. There isn’t an opposition party. Something about last time all his opponents were imprisoned and vanished from their cells.”
“Single party election. Any ballot measures or parliament seats?” Nate paced.
“No thing. Just a referendum on keeping Ribera as a president, which he is sure to win, since the constitution states that should a president fail to be elected, the country reverts to being a colony of Great Britain.” Sophie checked an incoming text. “And my sources say that Britain doesn’t want them back.”
“This is going to take some planning.” Nate sat down and poured a drink.
Hardison absolutely agreed. He checked on Parker again. She hadn’t moved from under the villa.
Eliot had slept more than his usual the next day. He could still smell the other construct, the female, near the villa. He had no assignment, no need to hunt for food. He stretched lazily, not opening his eyes, enjoying the sunbeam that washed the whole of his bed with light and warmth.
“That is a lovely sight to grace my morning.”
Eliot stood at once, fully awake. The whole villa smelled so much of Moreau that his sleep-fuddled nose had not detected the presence of the man himself.
“No, no, my friend.” Moreau came to where he stood. “I did not mean to disturb you.”
“What are my orders for the day?”
“There is little that needs doing today. I have carried out the few things that required my attention.” He ran a slow finger down the side of Eliot’s face. “You watched last night. What do you have to say about that lesson?”
“Master Alphonse had told me of the mating and let me know it would be required of me. I read a couple of books. Last night looked,” he paused, searching for the word, “uncomfortable for everyone.”
“Done right and with skill, it is very pleasant.” The hand stroked Eliot again. “I should like to show you.”
It was one more of his duties. If he could break the Law enough to eat other men, surely this, against which there was no prohibition, should not be so difficult. But the touches fired nothing in him, no desire and no arousal.
Not even the kiss moved him. He responded to it, for Moreau would expect that, his tongue slow and clumsy in the unknown action.
“As good as I had imagined. Not as delicious as you will become, but a sweet innocent on a lovely morning,” Moreau smiled and sat on the bed, tugging him down after.
Parker could smell the desire again, and the mating. This time, the construct was part of it and he did not wish to be. He did not have the words to refuse or the option to resist.
She paced in the underbrush, growing more angry. She could hear them now, her ears sharper than the should be. There were no sounds of pain, but only one voice made sounds of pleasure. She smelled when they rested and when they began again. The only reason she did not spring onto the balcony and then into the bedroom and tear out the man’s throat was that the construct had made no sound of pain.
Parker knew too well what it was to not have the words or the options, to make the sounds of pain and be disregarded. Hardison had been so good for her, teaching her of options, of consent and pleasure. She missed her mate. He was here, she knew that, but he had not come for her to take her home. Her Hardison would let her do what she had come to do.
She waited, hungry now and angry too.
“We need an opponent,” Sophie sighed. “This election is a mockery with only person on the ballot.”
“The election is a week away. Where are we going to find and groom a candidate on such short notice?” Hardison was keeping an eye on the country’s news with one window and its net traffic with the other. San Lorenzo, in keeping with its high standard of living, had made the internet was a public utility. Everyone had e-mail and everyone networked. He loved this country.
“No, we’re here to get Parker and go home.” Nate came in with take-out. They’d been keeping a very low profile, avoiding Moreau’s people and the UN election inspectors alike. “We’re here to steal a construct, maybe two, but not a country. Maybe someday, but not today.”
“She knows I’m here,” Hardison said, taking a bite of his flatbread wrap. “She can smell me in a crowd of a thousand people. If she was done with whatever she’s doing, she’d be walking through that door. She needs her shot. She’s overdue.” He studied the biometrics beside the indicator blip. “She’s not moving. She’s fine but all keyed up. Something is going on.”
“That may be the biggest understatement yet.” Sophie poked at her salad in a desultory fashion.
The day wore on. Eliot learned more than he wanted to know and waited for it to be over.
At length, food was brought and Moreau left him to his own devices. He swam for an hour in the great sunken tub, lap after lap, trying to be clean and himself once more. When he surfaced at the end of a lap, a blonde woman stood there. He could smell she wasn’t completely human, but a construct like himself. She was the one from last night, who had not made herself known then.
“Do you want to get out of here?” she asked without introduction or preamble.
Eliot blinked. He was clever and his responses were faster than a human’s but the question made no sense. There was nothing out there except work. Here there was food and a bed, a place to play and climb and stretch like the pool and gym. His master was here as well.
“Come on. You don’t want more of today, do you? And that one man, with the food, he’s super-jealous.”
That was no lie. Chapman had brought the food and Eliot could see and smell the hatred, jealousy and desire to kill all over the man. Nor did he want more of what he had been doing. It wasn’t unpleasant. It simply felt...not right. Not like something he should do.
She reached down a hand and pulled him out of the pool. “Get dressed. I have a mate and a safe place.”
“You think it’s that easy? A Moreau doesn’t let go of what is his, not money or reputation or people.”
“He’s bad for you. He makes you break the Law.” She looked at him. “What is the Law?”
“I do the will of my master, Damien Moreau, that is the Law.”
The woman shook her head and threw him a towel. “You need out and you need to learn again, my brother. Come on.”
He wrapped the towel around his waist and followed her out of the room.
Hardison paced. Parker was on the move. Unfortunately, it looked as if she had gone right into the Villa instead of heading back to him. “What’re you doing, girl?” he whispered, glad Nate and Sophie had been dragged out to a reception for observers. He’d feigned illness to stay behind and monitor everything.
He didn’t have a plan. Several times during the course of this mission, he’d been brought up short by that thought. He had no plan. He was a hacker, not a physical thief. And the idea of going into the lair of the biggest of big, bad men gave him the howling fantods.
There, she was on the move again. He could almost see her, lithe in her black bodysuit, her blonde hair tied back, the vaguely cat-like cast to her face only making her prettier. She was coming out and fast. He wondered if she was hot.
She was heading… upslope? He puzzled about it. Then again, she would instinctively head for the highest point she could find. She didn’t know he was here. He watched her until the signal winked out. He blinked at that.
Underground. Of course she was underground. High ground or underground, that was how she thought. Must be some serious rock in the hills if the signal couldn’t penetrate. He triangulated the last spot he had a signal and plotted it on a topo map of the island.
Nate and Sophie arrived back, Sophie still in a headscarf with her accent in place. Hardison looked up.
“There’s some big trouble and we have to get into the middle of it. My girl is on the move, but I think half of Moreau’s security force is after her. Been monitoring their frequencies and it sounds like she kidnapped someone.”
“The other construct,” Nate said.
“She’s gone to ground in the caves above the villa. I need to get her out and get us gone.” He caught an alert. “Aw hell. The airport is closed. They say it’s migratory birds.” He grinned “Which is funny if you think about it but a real pain in our necks.”
Nate vanished and Sophie began rummaging in her suitcase. “Are you wearing that?” she asked.
“It’s a rescue party, not a fashion...show,” Hardison finished as he realized the bright white agbada with gold trim that he still wore as the Nigerian inspector would show up at night. He found a black shirt and pants.
Parker led the male to a cave she’d scouted earlier. It would make her locator useless but that meant Hardison would come for her. They needed a place to be away from the other men. Just the two of them, alone for a time.
They sat on a sandy floor in an inner chamber, Parker keeping her ears strained for the sound of the men. Her companion looked at her hands and she wanted to hide them. His showed no signs of reversion.
“Your shot is late.”
She nodded. “My mate will get it for me before I go too far. He knows not to let me slide.” She looked more closely at him and sniffed him. “You never had a reversion.”
He shook his head.
“What’s your name? I’m Parker.”
“Eliot.” He knew humans, true humans had two names, but he only had the one. Apparently she did too.
“We’ll stay here for a while. You need to rest. You had a busy day and then tried to wear yourself out swimming.” Distantly, she heard wailing sirens and a helicopter. “They aren’t going to be happy you left.” She sniffed him again, moving in close this time. He sniffed her back.
A low purr in her throat startled them both. They sprang apart, eyeing each other. She pounced, biting lightly at his throat. He could feel the elongated canines and that she didn’t intend to hurt him. He let her knock him to the floor of the cave and was surprised when she laughed. The sound wasn’t alien, but her laugh didn’t sound like Moreau’s soft chuckle of superiority. Her laugh was soft, but it sounded wild and free. He didn’t object at all when she kissed him.
“You’re definitely reverting,” he said. “I can smell it.” He eased her off of him and sat up. “No. Not while we’re in danger. We are resting.” He sniffed out of the mouth of the cave. “Someone is coming. Not Moreau.”
She joined him at the mouth and sniffed. “Hear that?” A crinkling sound rattled loudly in the night. He could smell something like bread, and a lot of salt. “Pretzels!” She tugged him toward it.
“Could be bait.”
“Parker?” a voice coaxed. Then he said to someone else, “This is where I lost her”
She tugged him again. “My mate. Let’s go. We’re rescued.”
Eliot followed her out. Two men and a woman waited there. Parker flung herself on one of the men. He sniffed cautiously but not obviously. The shorter man reeked of alcohol, stronger and harsher than the champagne. The woman smelled of perfume and soap and luxury. Parker’s mate smelled like the pretzels and sweet orange soda and barely leashed desire as he petted Parker’s hair. She twined all around him affectionately.
“Girl, we were so worried.” He stroked her hands and frowned. “I got your shot back at the hotel. We gotta get our stuff and get out.” He consulted a small device. “Half the island is looking for you two.”
Parker extracted two small bags of pretzels from his person and threw one to Eliot. “I’m hungry and I bet you are too.” She poured the treats into her mouth and crunched loudly. Eliot opened his and ate more slowly. She tossed him a water bottle that had been clipped to Hardison’s belt.
“Divide our forces,” the drinking man said. “You get them to the docks. Sophie and I will get our bags and arrange...something.” He listened. The helicopter was audible even to human ears now. “Go.”
He took the other woman and vanished with more skill that Eliot would have credited him with. Hardison stowed the empty pretzel bags in his small pack and clipped the water bottle back to his belt. Eliot approved. Leaving the trash behind would have been a clear marker they had been there. He noticed the other man and Sophie had walked on rocks, not plants, where they could. Also professional.
Parker grabbed both their hands. “This is Alec, he’s my mate. This is Eliot. He’s going to be my mate. There, let’s go home.” She started down the mountain, on the side away from the Moreau Villa, towing them after her.
She ducked behind large rocks and occasionally swung from tree to tree. The men did their best to follow, Eliot’s own construct nature giving him the edge over the purely human Alec.
Halfway down, she led them to sit on a rock. Alec was breathing hard. Eliot could smell him almost as strongly as he could smell Parker. He liked their scents. He liked Parker. They shared the water around again. He tasted them on the bottle, and that was good too.
A rustle caught his ear and he took a deep sniff of the night. Before he could move, Parker had sprung from the rock at a bush just downwind of them. A man yelled as two bodies crashed to the ground.
Eliot was at her side at once as Alec straggled through the bush. “Chapman.”
Parker yanked the high-powered rifle out of his hands and tossed it to Alec. “I don’t think he was trying to bring us back alive.” She crouched over his chest, holding him on the ground. Her fangs seemed much larger than they had even in the cave. “Tell me the truth, man. What would you have done?”
Chapman gave her a death’s-head grin, one with no humor in it. “Shoot all three of you, and rearrange the bodies. Moreau would not grieve his pet if he thought the beast had betrayed him.” He looked at Eliot. “Made for loyalty and yet you betrayed him by running away.”
Parker sniffed him. “You did all the killing.” She took a deeper breath. “Even the ones that looked like Eliot had done them.”
“What do you expect? He wouldn’t kill. Wouldn’t even eat them when I killed them for him. I finally managed to convince him to rip them up some.”
Eliot was in too closely at that. He showed his own small fangs. “You hit me and when I still wouldn’t, you threatened me with much worse.” He spat. “If I didn’t hate the taste of human blood, I’d eat you right here.”
Parker almost snarled and leaned in as if to help and Hardison reached over and stroked her hair. “Easy, baby.”
Chapman finally noticed him and curled his lip. “Another bestialist. We should be rid of all of you.”
“I think leaving is less disloyalty than wishing to kill,” Eliot said quietly. He planted one fist in the middle of Chapman’s face and bounced the man’s head against a rock.
Hardison tapped at his phone. “That should stir things up. National broadcast of everything he said.” He glance up from his work and nearly dropped his phone. “Parker!”
She was rubbing her red-smeared face against Eliot’s and Chapman lay on the ground, his throat torn out.
“We gotta get you that shot, girl.” He pretended he didn’t see Eliot lick her cheek and ear. “We gotta go, right now.”
The constructs got to their feet, looking resentful and reluctant to separate. Eliot nuzzled her again and Hardison tried not to glare. His girl had laid claim to the new guy and that was that. He’d have to get over himself.
They started trying to find a way to the docks.
Nate and Sophie sat in the darkness outside of town, letting their eyes adjust. The hotel had been surrounded. There would be no getting the bags. At least Hardison carried his cell phone and laptop with him at all times, so that was safe. He and Sophie both knew not to travel with anything they couldn’t afford to leave behind. But damn, he was going to miss that red tie. And Parker’s shot. Three days back to civilization and then who knew how long while Hardison acquired the medication, was three days too many with a predator possibly off the leash.
Sophie seemed to be listening to something. “Nate, they think we’re dead, that Moreau’s hirelings killed us. The news is reporting the observers from Nigeria and Turkmenistan are presumed dead.”
He looked at her, confused. She had no phone out.
Sophie shrugged. “Sub-dermal radio receiver. Should be common enough in about five years. I can’t show my face, but you can brazen it out.”
Nate got up. “How do I look?”
“Rumpled. Have your story ready and get that case of Hardison’s. I have a pretty good idea what Parker is made of and I don’t want any of them winning the battle with her humanity. I’ll meet them at the docks.”
Nate hurried to a place about two blocks away from the hotel and then began lurching toward it, making a ruckus. The best way to avoid attention was, paradoxically, to make a scene. He sang rude songs in his father’s dialect, and clutched at passersby, calling them made-up names and demanding to know if they’d seen Leyla or Kalu, Sophie and Hardison’s cover names.
One of the presidential police officers who was guarding the hotel stopped him as he tried walking in. “Who are you?”
“I’m...” he leaned precariously and clutched the guard for balance. “I’m drunk. Is Leyla upstairs?” A lascivious grin at the guard and he steadied himself by leaning on the man. “Might be time for a little glasnost, you know? And if I can get her glasnost, I can perestroika everything else.” He helped himself to another drink.
“Go sleep it off. We’re still trying to find the other ambassadors.” The guard shoved him through the door. He reeled over to the fire exit and lurched about the lobby before a second took charge of him and hauled him to the elevator, pressing his floor number. Nate rode up alone.
All right, the front entrance was well-covered. The elevators were watched. But so far he wasn’t a suspect or anything difficult like that. The stairs weren’t really covered and he was willing to bet he could get out through the kitchen. He grabbed a few things, including the case Hardison had forgotten, and slipped out to the fire stairs.
So far, so good. Nate stepped quietly, trying to be as light-footed as a construct himself. Stealth did not come easily to him, and he was tense and sweating by the time he reached the bottom. He stole along the service corridor, following his nose to the kitchen. He pretended he was wallpaper, invisible, and the cooks seemed to follow the same idea.
One took a bucket of garbage out. Nate edged along the wall of the kitchen, avoiding anything that clattered or burnt. He made it to the garbage door and let himself out.
For all its touristy facade, San Lorenzo had not quite caught up to twenty-first century sanitation. The garbage yard was nothing more than a midden full of rotting food and other scraps. Nate tried for the fence, but the gate was padlocked. Probably against health inspectors, he decided sourly as he trod in the remains of last night’s tikka aloo appetizers mingling viscerally with the hummus and the barbecue cocktail franks.
He found a place where a large rock was still embedded in the ground. He climbed to the slippery, foul-smelling top and made it over the fence. Nate headed downhill, to where the docks lay below the city. He stank and wanted nothing more than to take a swim alongside the boat Sophie was hopefully procuring.
Hardison ducked back behind a shipping container. “No sign of Nate or Sophie yet,” he whispered. Parker, still slightly blood-stained, curled up with him.
“We’re ready to go home. Where are they?” she asked.
Eliot sniffed the air, turning in every direction. “I smell Sophie. I also smell my master coming. He’s farther away than she is.”
“Never gonna get used to having two of you around doing that,” Hardison said as Parker licked his nose. “Down girl. When we’re on the ship and you’ve had your shot.”
“Nate comes. He has been drinking more.”
Hardison sighed. “Yeah, he does that.”
“Sophie!” They heard Nate’s low call as he approached the dock.
She stepped out onto the deck of a boat and waved. The other three melted out of concealment and went toward her. Nate tossed a backpack to Hardison. “Her shot.” He climbed down the ladder and onto the deck.
Eliot hung back and Parker bristled. “No,” she said as Hardison tugged her.
“Come on. We’ll go below and sit down.” He held up the backpack. “There are more pretzels and some chocolate.”
Eliot growled, the most animalistic sound any of them had heard from him. “No. We’re not getting on that boat.”
At his tone, even Nate looked up. His nostrils twitched and his teeth were bared. Nate started up the ladder. “We can discuss this.”
“I’m afraid not,” came a smooth voice. Nate spun around and the others stared. Damien Moreau had come out of the cabin and had a gun to Sophie’s head. “The lovely Leyla is forfeit unless you all climb down that ladder at once.”
Nate dropped back to the deck at once. Hardison climbed down, his back to the ladder, keeping his eyes on Moreau. The constructs didn’t move. Eliot sniffed again. If Parker’s ears had been visible, they would have been laid flat against her skull. She gave that impression and bared her too-large fangs at Moreau.
“I’ll eat you, like I did the other,” she snarled, and the next sound was almost a roar.
Eliot laid a hand on her arm. “Parker. He wants me. I’ll go.”
She clutched his arm in both of hers. “He’s my mate and you can’t have him, human.” She let go and leaped to the deck, tumbling Sophie out of the way, well away from the gun. She slashed across Moreau’s face with her claws, raking four bloody tracks. “I will eat you!” she threatened again.
Moreau recovered quickly from the attack and brought his gun around on her. But Hardison intervened, catching his wrist.
“You’re not shooting my girl,” he said and brought one sharp knee up hard, cracking Moreau’s wrist with a sickening sound.
Eliot came in closer and looked over his former owner. “My mates have told you no. I have told you no. I am leaving with them.”
“What mates? You are mine. You were made for me. You do not take a mate without my approval. What is the law?” he demanded.
“Not to go on all fours. That is the law,” supplied Parker. “You made him break the rest of it.”
“And you broke it all yourself, as well, female.” He dismissed her with a look. “Eliot,” he said, his voice soft, as Eliot remembered it from before, the way he always talked when he was feeling very pleased with himself or Eliot. “Come home. I’ll let your friends go, under the condition they never come back.”
Eliot wavered, looking from Parker and Hardison to Moreau, and then to Nate and Sophie who had tried to rescue him for no reason he could determine. “No.”
“There is no place for you out there. You’re a monster, an animal. And unless you get your serum, you will become completely an animal. Will they want you when you are an orangutan with a leopard’s head?”
“I trust him to take care of that.” Eliot nodded at Hardison. “I only trust you to use the whip when we get back so I do not forget.”
A low purr and throbbing in the deck under their feet started. Nate was piloting the boat out of the dock. Moreau struggled, but Parker and Hardison had not let go.
“I think we’ll hit international waters in about ten minutes,” Sophie said. “I understand there is a Yemeni cruiser nearby. Seems they’re very anxious to get their hands on the man who sold them a truckload of defective mines.”
Hardison gave Moreau an exasperated look. “Oh, you didn’t cheat an Arab country, did you? That was beyond stupid. You know what they do to frauds in Yemen?”
Moreau’s pallor showed he most certainly did know what happened to frauds in Yemen.
Nate handed the wheel to Sophie. “You see, we have options. You’ve just run out of them. We can throw you overboard. We can hand you to the Yemeni. We can send you to Turkey, where, last I checked, you’ve still got an eight figure price on your head.”
Moreau struggled at each option. Finally, he succeeded in dislodging Parker and ran for the rail. With barely a glance to see how far they were from shore, he stepped on it and then off of it, into the sea.
“And that settles that,” Nate said. “I’ve alerted the Turkish ship where to pick him up. Let’s go home. How is this boat?”
“It’s all fueled and stocked for a couple of days. We should be all right to get to France,” Sophie reported.
* * *
Parker, fully human once more, sat between Eliot and Hardison and stared at Archie Leach. “I said no. They said no. I said no again. We’re not going back with you.”
“You fed her,” Archie said accusingly to Nate. He rolled his eyes.
“Kinda goes with the territory. We all eat or none of us eat.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it.” He gripped his cane more firmly and sighed. He was not a man who was beaten often but he did know how to lose gracefully. When two people in love made up their minds, there was no getting around them. “May I call on your services then?”
Parker and Hardison nodded. “Of course. Any time you need us.”
He put on his hat and laid a hand on the doorknob. “Good luck with the new crew. And the new mate.”
When he left, Nate looked at the three young people on his sofa. “And what am I going to do with you?” he asked them. “Two constructs and a hacker.”
Sophie handed him a drink and perched on the sofa next to the others. “We could rob the whole world blind if we wanted.”
A look came over Nate’s face. “We could at that.” He sipped the drink. “But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right and go after the people with the real money. The ones who didn’t get it honestly.”
Hardison raised his orange soda. “Sounds like the start of a beautiful team.”
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