Date: 6 May 2009
Disclaimer: I make no claim to any of the Nightlife characters, its storyline, or its overall universe conceived and owned by Rob Thurman. I do not write for compensation; this is purely a hobby. At the same time, please do not use, copy, or repost this story without my explicit permission. Thanks.
Author's note: This is my first story from the Cal Leandros universe, but I think it's a great series and I'm glad that Rob Thurman decided not the end it with Deathwish. This story is written from Cal's perspective (should be obvious from the beginning). Conservatively rated T for language.
Part 1: Principles
He wasn't a regular by any means, but I was sure I'd seen him around. A loner slouching with practiced nonchalance as he nursed a beer in one oversized, calloused hand. He had that schooled blasé attitude of someone trying a little too hard to blend in with the riffraff. But he paid for his drinks -- even tipped a nickel here and there -- and Ishiah hadn't thrown him head first out the door yet, so that was enough for me. In this line of work, any customer who pays his tab and doesn't snack on the other patrons earns a gold star for effort. Lowest common denominator. Makes me feel right at home.
At first I thought he was just another werewolf who took offense at my Auphe odor. Even half asleep on my feet in the wee hours of the morning I'd have to have been blind not to notice the long sideways glances he indulged in when he thought my back was turned. Didn't they teach the cubs at little wolfie school that it's poor form to stare at one's dinner? So naturally I swaggered over to him when he waved me over and hoped my best self-satisfied smirk was burning itself into his retinas. Wolves and their goddamned superiority complexes.
Surprisingly, he returned the favor with all the ferocity of a limp rag, and I kicked myself for concluding he was just another Auphe-hating fleabag out to pick an easy fight (not that I've ever been known to go down easy). Golden rounded eyes flittered across my face as his otherwise human features remained tellingly impassive. No, this one wasn't simply out for dinner.
"Yes," I drawled, fingers wrapping instinctively around my glock beneath the bar. "Another beer?"
He ignored the question just as well as he ignored the discarded half-finished bottle between us. "You." The word was a soft growl beneath the bar's ever-present background rumble. "You're for hire?"
That, in a place like this, was a loaded question. Could mean anything from mercenary killer to common thief to nighttime partner in circumstances that would make even the jaded Goodfellow blush. Naturally, I hedged. "That depends--" My eyes narrowed warily as I leaned forward on my elbows across the worn counter, "--on who's hiring."
Turns out it was a job, and a ridiculously easy one at that. Show up at a pre-arranged spot, watch some goods change hands, try not to be seen. Half the pay up front, the rest the day after. A simple in-out, watch and guard, no violence required affair. Boring as hell, but the money was decent, and the pickings had been slim lately. Guess even the supernatural world was feeling Wall Street's pain.
Niko, of course, was skeptical, but I think I would have died of shock if he'd been anything but. "This wolf," he protested, "is like a ghost." He was drinking some ghastly white chalky thing by the window as I sloshed milk across some protein-fortified cardboard the health store tried to pass off as cereal. It dissolved helplessly into mush under the awesomeness of real dairy. "Are you listening, Cal?"
Glancing up from the bowl and proving that even my brain could multitask before breakfast if pushed, I shrugged. "So he doesn't ring any bells with Promise's contacts. Could be from out of town." It was a stab in the dark but seemed plausible enough to me. "Or maybe he's just anti-social."
"Either way we'd be going in blind." Niko dislikes surprises -- takes then as a personal affront, and always blames himself for some unacceptable deficiency in planning. He'll never learn that there are some things in life you just can't plan for no matter how hard you try. "Still, it seems simple enough."
And that was that. Reservations aside, we were in.
I ignored Ishiah's disapproving glares when I collected the deposit for the job the next evening. He certainly wasn't one for mixing work and… well, work, though he seemed to have fewer qualms about work and play (especially if a certain unnamed puck was involved). But if I could turn a blind eye to his transparent attraction, he could very well do the same for the fat envelope of cash that disappeared beneath my apron. After all, I was paid to keep the customers happy, right?
Hours later Niko and I crouched side by side, our backs against the grimy, graffiti-splattered wall of some creepy deserted alley. A large metal dumpster provided sufficient cover from both sight and smell -- the thing reeked of odors foul enough to make even a reverant sick. Me, I just held my breath and hoped asphyxiation was the lesser of the two evils. The wolf had been exceptionally clear on the time and place but conspicuously lacking in other details of the transaction. So we waited with mixed curiosity and unease to see what kind of creatures would come slinking out of the woodwork.
Niko saw them first. Two thin figures no more than four feet tall, vaguely reptilian, deceptively strong: goblins. The ambient glow of city lights dissolved into their leathery skin, and only the whites of their eyes reflected the bare streetlamp overhead. The buyer it seemed was a large husky-colored werewolf who crept around the corner like a four-legged shadow. Niko tapped my shoulder and traced the letter "d" discretely in the air between us. Naturally, it was a drug sale.
The transaction was quick, routine, uneventful -- as though it had happened a thousand times before. The wolf, large wooden crate now held in human hands, began to return the way he'd come, while the goblins retreated in the opposite direction. Routine, that is, until it wasn't.
A brush of air past my ear, the soft hiss of metal unsheathed, and my name mouthed silently with a slight tilt of his head were all the warning given, all the warning I needed. The wolf wasn't as quick on the uptake and didn't even have a chance to turn before the cold touch of steel halted him in his tracks. With the buyer situation well under control, I took aim at the suppliers. One, two, three shots purposefully ricocheted off the metal trashcans beside them. As expected, they scattered like mice, and nowhere in our contract did it say running required (fine print be damned). Then again, we'd definitely agreed to see that the transaction was finished without interruption -- what the hell was Niko thinking?
The wolf glowered as I meandered over. Spine digging into the bricks, Niko's blade not quite drawing blood against his throat, he clenched his hands into fists at his sides and growled in almost tangible irritation. "Sheep." The accusation dripped with distain. "Bloody hell, of all things -- sheep." Though not inclined to move with steel kissing his jugular, he didn't seem scared of us at all. And that, I figured with an inward grin, would have to change.
"I let them run, you oversized mutt," I goaded. "Not worth the trouble." It wasn't actually a lie. I would have shot to kill if Niko hadn't been so chivalrously restrained. That's the problem with babysitters. Always looking over your shoulder. "You, on the other hand…" I let the sentence dangle as I neared the crate and kicked it hard enough to dislodge the lid. Up close, the jumble of dark squiggles inscribed in the side made no more sense than they had at a distance. Some exotic language perhaps.
My brother, for his part, barely seemed to notice the wolf's lack of clothing (always the unfortunate consequence to transforming) as he pressed closer, blade just starting to draw drops of blood. "You know what you're buying?" Half statement, half question, 100% business.
Even our wolf friend could see that. "You guess," he sneered, and with strength that caught even Niko by surprise, pushed him back in one smooth, practiced movement. Niko staggered for a moment at the impact, then the katana sliced through the air less than an inch from the now fur-covered head. Picking on my brother -- that was more than enough of an excuse for me. The first bullet embedded itself into the wall. The second grazed past one hunched white shoulder close to leave a streak of red through white fur but not inflict any real damage. Even Niko only managed to get in two more near misses before the wolf practically flew out of range around the corner and into the night with a mouthful of plastic-wrapped packages from the crushed, overturned crate.
"What the hell was that?" Niko, more or less immune to anything that could come of my mouth, spared me only a brief backward glance before squatting down next to the crate. "Don't count on ever seeing the rest of our money," I grumbled, putting the glock away as I shuffled over beside him. Knowing Niko, there was bound to be something more important than our payment, some crazy take the high ground moral dialog playing itself out in his head. Lousy for us. Pretty lousy for the wolf too.
"You don't have any idea what you're looking at, do you?" It was that tone. Chiding without being condescending, full on teacher mode now that any immediate threats to life or limb had passed.
"Really now…" Of course I didn't. Shoot first, check the details later, if ever was as good a motto as any. Still, a man has his pride. "It's, uh… medicine for orphaned children?"
"Drugs." The reply was dark, devoid of any of our usual brotherly teasing. "And not a kind I'd ever hoped to see." His fingers traced along the remnants of the black script printed onto the splintered wood. "Made with human blood."
"So a little pick-me-up for vampires who stray away from the straight and narrow?" I shifted restlessly from foot to foot in the chilly evening air, more than ready to just dispose of the stuff (whatever it was) and head home for the night. We'd obviously botched this job beyond repair, and I didn't see much use in standing around agonizing over the details when we could be comfortably unconscious in our beds instead.
"Highly addictive, popular among wolves and vampires plus some other crowds, requires blood from freshly killed human victims." He sounded like a textbook, but his face betrayed his disgust for the whole affair.
"Damn." It was pretty much a one-word summary of the whole evening from start to finish. Too bad humans always seemed to be at the bottom of the supernatural food chain. One step up from vermin and just as plentiful. "So… burn or dump?"
He thought for a moment before emphatically answering, "burn." So we torched the lot, box and all -- waiting a block away until Nick was certain the fumes had cleared. Only when the ashes had been examined to his satisfaction did we finally trudge home beneath the pre-dawn haze.
"So you'll break the news to our furry friend, right?" I tried not to sound too hopeful as we made our way up our building's stairs. "'Cause there's no way he's going to shrug this off as a simple misunderstanding. That crate must have been worth a fortune."
"Unless he's on our side," Niko replied, cryptic as usual.
"Our side?" I parroted, unsure if this was something even my sleep-deprived brain should have picked up on.
"Drug enforcement or whatnot." He ignored my sarcastic eye-rolling. "Anyhow, principles, Cal. No matter what, there are just certain things we can't support."
I understood, understood and appreciated his attempts to keep us in the realm of positive karma, but I couldn't resist yanking his chain (my unalienable right as the younger sibling). "So what, you tell him sorry but we're morally opposed to the job, and here's your deposit back, sincere apologies and so on and so forth?"
Halfway to his bedroom Niko paused, glanced over his shoulder, and straight-faced as ever retorted, "Principles or no, even a ninja's gotta eat." A hint of a smile, and he was gone, leaving me alone in the half-lit living room chuckling to myself as I sunk into the worn couch and propped my feet unabashedly on the coffee table. Well, at least our deposit was safe.
"I'm not convinced your food counts as eating," I called back, knowing without looking that he'd hear. Life's just too short for cardboard and soy milk.
End note: I'm actually not sure if I'm going to continue this as an ongoing story or as a collection of vignettes about the brothers. Either way, the next part will be from Niko's perspective. Oh, and personally I've nothing against soy milk (just for the record).