LAURA TAYLORFantasy and Romance Writer
An Unexpected Meeting
George pulled his old sedan up to the curb and stopped the engine. It was late at night, but the small convenience store on the corner would still be open for another fifteen minutes, and that was more than enough time for George to pick up the few odd bits he needed: milk, bread, and a frozen microwave meal for dinner.
He grimaced, forcing himself to get out of the car, trying not to think about the empty house and hollow feeling that was waiting for him at home. The thought of soft, overcooked vegetables and rubbery meat was not an encouraging one either, and George pondered the days gone by, when he’d been a chef in a small but successful restaurant up in Scotland. Cooking had been a passion long before it had become a job, and he could still recall the scents of the kitchen, the spices, the waft of cooking meat, the tang of curry and the homely smell of gravy.
Those days were long past, however, and when he’d retired, he and his wife had moved to Liverpool, and when she’d died just a year later, he’d all but given up cooking, even for himself. There was no pleasure in consuming a meal crafted with care when there was only him to appreciate it. And so now he subsisted on microwaved swill, nutritious enough, but an insult to the meat and vegetables it was made from.
Deliberately blanking the thoughts of the past, he ducked into the shop and made his selections, then forced a smile onto his face as he approached the checkout.
Baron swore as he ducked behind a dumpster, drawing his gun and flicking the safety off with the efficiency of long practice. Across the alley, Silas and Tank were in similar positions, and further down, Caroline was providing cover for them, cloaked in black and as silent as a shadow.
Up ahead, the three Noturatii men were readying their own weapons, and Baron cursed at the rare moment of carelessness that had led them to this point. He should have acted quicker when he’d first suspected there was something off about the men, should have trusted his gut when he’d got the first inkling that this mission was going to go sour.
But it was too late to do anything about that now. Their cover was blown, and before they could disappear back into the night like the ghosts they were, they would have to take care of these few loose ends.
The Noturatii shot first, the bullet a deafening crack against the night, and the thud of the bullet hitting the dumpster made Baron’s ears ring. Silas was returning fire a moment later, then Baron got his own shot in, a thrill of satisfaction shafting through him as one of the Noturatii men fell.
More bullets, shouts in the darkness, and one of the men darted off, taking cover at the side of the alley. But a shifter’s night vision was excellent, a benefit of their wolf sides, and Tank had the shot lined up perfectly, another crack echoing through the alley as enemy number two went down.
But the third man had disappeared somewhere during the fight, and Baron cast a wary glance around the alley, trying to tease out his location. The night was quiet, barely a whisper of sound now that the guns were quiet-
“Fuck!” Baron fell backwards as the man launched himself down on him from above. A knife was aimed at his throat, and though he was a seasoned fighter, the element of surprise meant that the Noturatii man had the advantage, Baron unable to get his arms into position to successfully repel the attack. But he still had one ace up his sleeve, and he didn’t hesitate to use it now. With a lithe twist, he shifted, his wolf slipping out of the man’s grasp, and a split second later, he’d sunk his teeth into that soft neck, the man letting out a scream, then a gurgle as he died.
Baron shook the man by the throat firmly, checking there was no further resistance, then let go, a snarl of distaste on his face as he tasted human blood in his mouth. He shifted back into human form, checking that Tank and Silas were both uninjured across the alley-
“Hey, Boss,” Silas murmured, and Baron turned to see that Silas’s attention was focused on something at the far end of the alley. His eyes searched though the evening gloom, and picked out the silhouette of the old man with ease. And a feeling of dread settled in his gut. Fuck. An innocent bystander, who had no doubt seen him shift and was therefore a liability.
Yet another fuck up on this night that seemed too full of them already. As a general rule, they avoided shifting in public places, but it was late at night, and the neighbourhood had been deserted before they’d engaged the Noturatii. Baron had thought it a small enough risk…
The man seemed to realise that he’d stumbled upon something he shouldn’t have seen, and he took a single step backwards…
“Don’t move,” he heard Caroline order, as she melted out of the shadows just a metre or two behind the man, and he froze, not even turning around to see who was behind him. The glint of Caroline’s gun in the distant streetlight seemed surreal for a moment, and Baron closed his eyes, feeling the weight of yet another soul on his conscience, another life fallen to the Endless War. The man could not be allowed to live…
Knowing they had little other choice, Baron opened his eyes and marched towards the man.
“Please don’t kill me,” the man said suddenly, as Baron approached him in the gloom. “I could be of use to you.” It was an unremarkable thing to say, hardly the first time an innocent had pleaded for their life when caught in circumstances beyond their control, but there was something in this man’s tone of voice that made Baron pause.
“You’re shape shifters, right?” the man went on, an unnerving lack of surprise in his voice. “I could help you. If you let me live.”
Baron resumed his stride, knowing that that wasn’t an option. Not when the survival of an entire species was at stake. But some strange instinct made him ask, regardless of the inner voice that said he was wasting his time, “Help us how?”
“I could cook for you,” the man said, and it was so unexpected that Baron actually paused mid-stride, one foot hovering above the ground in an almost comical jerk as his leg refused to obey his commands to step forward.
“You could what?”
“You’re warriors,” the man said, keeping his hands visible. “I don’t know who those men were, but a shape shifter has to have enemies, right?”
Baron shrugged, not at all certain where this conversation was going.
“So my guess is that you’d rather spend your time practising with your weapons and keeping tabs on your enemies. Which makes the daily task of preparing a hot meal a little on the dull side, doesn’t it? Well, I could help you with that. I could cook for you every day. And clean, and do laundry, if that’s what you need. It would free you up to focus on more important things and keep you and your soldiers fed and healthy. That’s got to be worth something, doesn’t it?”
“Where did you come from?” Baron finally got around to asking.
“The convenience store around the corner,” the man replied, with refreshing simplicity. “I heard the gunshots and thought perhaps someone was in trouble. I have no one to reveal your secrets to,” he went on quickly, perhaps sensing that Baron was running out of patience, “and nothing important to return home to. So I would humbly request to join you.” It was said with a gentlemanly dignity that was a rare thing in this modern world… but any further contemplation of the issue was suddenly cut off.
“Boss!” Tank hissed, from his post not far away. “The cops are coming.”
Baron turned his head, and sure enough, he could hear the first, faint wail of sirens. No doubt some conscientious citizen had called them in response to the gunshots.
“Into the van,” Baron ordered, knowing they had mere seconds to be clear of the site, with no opportunity to clean up the mess.
“What about him?” Caroline barked, her gun still pointed at the old man’s back.
“He comes with us,” Baron snapped, knowing the split second decision could easily come back to bite him later. They knew nothing about this man besides the story he’d given them himself, and there were a multitude of omissions and half-truths that could be buried in the simple tale.
The man wasn’t too nimble on his feet, and when they reached the van, parked just one street over, Baron grabbed him around the waist and lifted him bodily into the van, Tank and Silas leaping in beside him while Caroline took the wheel. They were off a moment later, their bodies thrown back against the door as Caroline put her foot down, but the man didn’t protest. Just winced and rubbed his head, before settling himself on the floor. Baron took out his gun again, and pointed it at the man, not willing to take any more foolish risks this evening.
“What’s your name?” he asked, knowing he needed to get some swift answers to more than a handful of pertinent questions.
It was after midnight when the van George was travelling in pulled up at a set of wide metal gates. The drive back had been nerve-wracking, that brute who called himself Baron keeping his gun on him the entire time. But the conversation they’d had had been civil enough, with George explaining about his old career, and his wife. They’d never had any children, he’d explained, and when she’d died so suddenly, he’d been left at rather a loose end, their plans to travel and try their hands at charity work suddenly meaningless without his partner of forty years. Though spontaneous, his offer to cook for these tough, no nonsense men and woman was an honest one, and George was a little surprised at himself that he hadn’t been more shocked to see a wolf turn into a man. But this was England, after all, a land rich with history and mythology, and it was no real surprise to find a couple of ancient spirits still wandering the place, disguising themselves as humans as they saw fit.
The van eased up a long gravel drive and stopped in front of a grand manor, and then Baron was ordering him out of the van, reminding him to keep his hands visible, and George calmly let himself be led through the house, down a dark passageway, and into a cage in what could only be rightly called a dungeon. But his cell was far from uncomfortable, he noted as he looked around, and the men seemed to have no immediate inclination to kill him, so all things considered, he fancied that the evening was turning out rather well.
A little less then twenty-four hours after they’d picked up their impromptu stray in Liverpool, Baron led George up out of the basement and toward the large kitchen on the ground floor.
The day had been an eventful one. Skip had spent the entire morning researching George online, eager to meet the challenge head on when Baron had told her what was required. Though she was only twenty years old, she was an expert hacker already, and had no trouble coming up with the information they needed. And she’d reported to Baron late that afternoon that George was exactly who he said he was.
Further questioning of the man himself had led to the tentative conclusion that he may well be of use to them, and now it was time to put him through his paces.
“This is the kitchen,” Baron said, leading him into the wide space. “There are eighteen of us living here. Nineteen, including you. So it’s time for you to prove yourself. You say you can cook? You have two hours to prepare a passable evening meal for the lot of us.” George’s offer to cook for them was far more of a blessing than he probably realised. Preparing an evening meal for eighteen hungry warriors was no small task, and the current arrangement was for each of them to take turns. Baron knew for a fact that most people hated the duty, dreading the night when it was their turn, and for someone to offer to take on the job permanently would ease a good portion of the tension around the estate.
George’s eye widened in surprise. “Two hours, for a full meal for near on twenty people?”
“I’m not looking for a gourmet, five star affair,” Baron snapped, entirely unsure whether this was going to be a colossal failure or not. “I just need edible food on plates so that I don’t have a pack of hungry wolves nipping at my heels.”
George visibly braced himself at the pronouncement, then nodded. “Right. I’ll get right on it, then.”
He strode over to the pantry, opening the doors and looking through the shelves. Then he started taking things out, three cans of tomatoes, a jar of herbs, a pot of salt… and Baron decided to leave him to it.
“Call if you need anything,” he told Tank, George’s designated guard for the evening, then he headed out the door, curious to see just how George would respond to this challenge.
Two and a half hours later, Baron sat back in his seat, feeling more at ease than he had in days. George had been as good as his word, and a plentiful meal of spaghetti bolognaise had appeared on the table, right on schedule. As far as meals went, it was a simple one, but he could tell that the man had made more than a token effort. The sauce had been flavoured with subtle spices, grated cheese presented to sprinkle on top – not parmesan, George had apologised, as he’d been unable to find any in their supplies, but plain old cheddar was better than nothing. And he’d somehow found time to bake a chocolate cake for dessert, which had vanished in two minutes flat when it had been presented to the table. Given more time and the freedom to purchase the right groceries, George had meekly explained, he’d be able to do a lot better, but he’d hoped that Baron would look favourably on this first effort, given the restrictions he was working with. And with no false sympathy whatsoever, Baron had to admit that he’d done an admirable job.
“Leave the washing up,” Baron said, as the rest of the shifters filed out of the room. “You and I need to have a chat.”
Minutes later, he, Caroline and George were seated in the library, ready to address the complicated question of George’s future.
“Your offer was to cook for us every day,” Baron reiterated, looking George in the eye. “Now that you’ve seen what that entails, are you willing to stand by that offer?”
“Oh, yes,” George said, with obvious enthusiasm. “Your warriors seemed to appreciate the meal very much, and that’s all the thanks I could ever ask for. It would be a pleasure to be your cook.”
“Good to hear it,” Baron replied. “Now, as you witnessed last night, we do indeed have enemies, who are both numerous and powerful. So there’s a mandatory two year training period to learn our history and culture before we could convert you into a shape shifter, but we’ve trained plenty of recruits in the past-”
“Oh, I have no desire to become a wolf,” George interrupted, apparently quite startled by the idea. “I wouldn’t know how, and I think I’m rather too old…” he trailed off, as he saw the grim frown appear on Baron’s face. “Is it absolutely required?” he asked meekly.
“It most certainly is,” Baron said, not taking his eyes off the man’s face. “We take loyalty very seriously here, the cohesion of the pack, the concept of teamwork. To understand our ways and truly embrace our lifestyle, you would most definitely need to become one of us.” He paused, to let the news sink in, then asked, “Is that something you could learn to deal with?”
George thought the question over, and Baron made no attempt to hurry him for an answer. It was too important a question for that. “Well, I suppose I could,” George answered finally. “If there’s a good, long training period, and if you teach me what I need to know… I know very little about the way wolves work, but I’m willing to learn. But I don’t see myself as much of a warrior,” he added firmly, and Baron had to admire his backbone in stating his opinions so bluntly. “I can learn to fire a gun, but I’m getting old – sixty eight last month – and wolf or not, I don’t have the strength or speed to be heading into battle the way you did last night. I don’t want to be a burden to you, but there are realistic limitations as to what I can do for you, battle-wise.”
“That’s perfectly reasonable,” Caroline agreed, before Baron could reply. Though he wouldn’t have contradicted her answer, anyway. “Not everyone here is a warrior. But we all have our part to play, one way or another.”
“Well, that sounds like a workable arrangement then,” George said, wrinkles creasing his face as he smiled. “So when should we start the lessons?”