Chelsea watched the crawl of traffic through the city from the roof of the haunt as the clouds rolled off the ocean. Bentley whined softly. She scratched at his ears; eyes still locked on the cars.
It was hard to feel claustrophobic in Seattle, with its wide-open spaces and the saltwater wind in the air. Being trapped in a hunt by a hedge doctor managed to make this clean city with its artwork and parks feel tiny and airless.
“You ready?” The impatient question came from Jacob, who was planning this hunt.
Bentley whined again and Chelsea held back a sigh and a retort as she turned to face her team. This was an obligation and being bitchy wouldn’t make the hunt any easier.
Jacob, scarred and somewhere between thirty and sixty years old; Heaven, a short, squat woman, with black braids and a filthy mouth, Timothy, who was even newer to hunting than herself, and Brian, young and athletic, in his mid-thirties. Only Brian had been close to friendly, and he hadn’t said a word to her.
Bentley pressed against her leg, and Chelsea found some comfort in the dog, as usual. “What’s the plan?”
Jacob snorted. “It seems to be just a single nightling, which is good. A nit would mean we’d need more time and people. A single nightling, we should be able to handle, if we’re lucky.”
Chelsea bit back her comments. She’d faced a nit twice before and lived. Granted, by the grace of hedge doctors the once, and because the vampires took off the second time. Regardless, she didn’t like the assumption that she was barely competent.
Not worth fighting over. I leave as soon as this is done.
Tim snorted. “That’s not a plan.”
Heaven cackled from her seat on a giant spool, and Jacob glowered. Chelsea snickered with Brian.
Jacob pointed around the circle. “Tim’s our getaway driver. We’re lucky this vampire is a late sleeper, so we can wait until full dark for cover. Heaven and I will focus on the nightling. We’ve worked together before, so we’re comfortable doing the hard work. Chelsea and Brian will have minion duty.”
She swallowed. She’d killed a minion before, but it never sat well with her. Minions were humans. They worked for vampires, but, they were people.
Brian’s mouth writhed before he crossed his arms. “Do we have to kill them?”
Jacob nodded, but Heaven shrugged. “Feel free to knock ‘em out, but make sure they stay knocked out. We don’t need them getting involved in the fight.”
Eyes rolling, Jacob waved a hand. “Look, nobody likes minion duty, but they serve vampires. They’ll kill us without a second thought.”
Chelsea found herself nodding. “When it’s kill or be killed, you can feel bad about it later, just be alive to feel that way.”
Jacob eyed her, a slight tinge of respect in the expression. “Exactly. Now, this nightling seems to like to sleep in. She rarely wakes up before full dark. There’s no basement, so we’ll have to sneak in through the back. I’ll text you all the address. Be there in three hours.”
He waved them all towards the door to the haunt. Chelsea followed eagerly, as did Bentley, who had been given a free run on the place by the owner, George. The slight man tended bar at the moment. He tossed Bentley a treat as they walked past.
The navy clouds were tinged with orange and gold as Chelsea and Bentley hit the street. Just a few blocks away, a young woman, blonde braid waving in the salt wind, sat on a fire escape.
She waved to Chelsea before disappearing into the building. She reappeared on the street, grabbing greedily at Chelsea’s duster. “You were gone so long.”
A giggle escaped Chelsea before she drew Tracey into a long kiss. They stumbled up the stairs, hands and eyes on each other and not their surroundings. Chelsea let herself relax and got lost in sensation, fingers, lips, and Tracey’s soft hair.
Bentley’s hunger whine roused them. Chelsea fed and walked him, reveling the domesticity of the moment.
The neighborhood was quiet and funky, with lots of murals and statues. As they wandered back to Tracey’s apartment, Chelsea entertained the idea of staying in Seattle, at least for a few more days.
Chinese takeout covered the table when she wandered in. Tracey, freshly showered and dressed, sat by the window, chopsticks in hand. “I have to get to work soon, so I ordered dinner.”
“What do I owe you?” Chelsea grabbed a few egg rolls, and some fried rice.
Tracey shrugged. “My treat.”
“It’s cool.” A touch of discomfort entered Tracey’s smile. “I know hunters don’t make much. Don’t sweat it.”
Chelsea held in a sigh. She’d always had money, and living as a hunter hadn’t put a dent in her trust fund. “Thank you.”
They ate in a strained silence for a while. Then Tracey cleared her throat. “So, when’s that hunt?”
“In about an hour.” Chelsea glanced over at Bentley, who was making big eyes at the General Tso’s. “Can I leave Bentley here? He seems twitchy today.” She knew from experience he wouldn’t stay in the car if she was in danger.
Tracey nodded. “Of course.”
That seemed to once again exhaust their topics of conversation. As Chelsea helped Tracey cleanup, she wondered at the awkward. Just a little while ago, she’d debated staying in this city.
You spun a fancy because it was pretty outside. You don’t even know this woman.
As Tracey slipped off to work, Chelsea settled on the couch. Bentley put his head in her lap. She scratched at his ears. “It’s time to leave, Bent. One last hunt, and we’re out of here. Any idea where we go now?”
Bentley snorted and Chelsea smiled. He always answered her.
“Good point. Where doesn’t matter. Let’s find a hunt and just go. No more plans.”
Chelsea held in a sigh as she sipped her coffee. Brian was a twitchy mess while they waited in the park. His legs shook as he bit his nails before he ran a hand through his dark hair.
“Brian.” When he didn’t respond she called his name until he looked at her. “Take a deep breath or two.”
He rubbed at his eyes. “I’ve never fought a nightling before.”
Chelsea snorted, once more staring at the house they were supposed to be watching. “If we’re lucky, we won’t have to tonight either. If we’re unlucky, remember that nightlings love to talk and they’re dramatic as hell. You might get in a hit if you can get it, monologuing.”
He studied her. “You fought one before?”
She nodded. “Almost died doing it too. Wouldn’t recommended it to anyone. Much happier to have minion duty.”
Any further conversation was cut short by Jacob and Heaven getting out of the car. Tim stayed seated, ready to get them all out when it was time.
Jacob eyed Brian while he spoke. “The minion seems to sleep on the first floor, the nightling is on the second. You two head in first. We’ll cover you until you get the minion sorted.”
Brian nodded for a moment or two past too long. “We don’t have to kill him, right?”
Heaven snorted. “Her, and no, you don’t. Just make sure she stays out of our way.”
“Her bedroom is right off the kitchen.” Jacob looked up and down the street. “Now, we’re going to mosey on around to the back on the house, one by one.” He nodded to Heaven. The two of them split in opposite directions, walking casually away.
Chelsea finished her coffee and stood. She almost walked away, but thought better of it. She held out a hand to Brian. “Walk with me.”
He shot her a grateful smile and his clammy hand gripped hers tightly. They wandered slowly around the block. Chelsea never let the gray house out of her sight. She kept the roof in the corner of her eye.
Eventually, they ended up behind the house. The ever-present clouds blocked the stars and gave them good cover as they snuck past windows to the backyard.
Jacob nodded to her and Brian, while Heaven picked the lock on the back door. Chelsea thanked the high hedges that blocked them all from view. Her legs were shaking by the time Heaven got the door open.
The kitchen had dirty dishes in the sink and food on the counter. Fruit flies buzzed thick in the air before crawling into Chelsea’s ears. The four of them moved as quietly as they could to the hallway.
A cheap wood door stood to their left. Jacob gestured to it as he and Heaven headed for the front of the house. Chelsea swallowed and nodded; her hand still locked on Brian’s.
She pulled a deep breath and released her partner. She didn’t bother to see if Brian was ready. He wasn’t.
She opened the door quietly. A pale, thin woman with greasy hair slept on a mat on the floor. Chelsea leapt on her, hands already reaching for the woman’s mouth.
The startled minion bit and screamed, legs kicking as she struggled. Chelsea barely held on. Brian grabbed at the woman’s legs and got a foot to the face for his trouble.
Hand still clamped on to the woman’s mouth, Chelsea adjusted her hold until her arms cut off the woman’s air.
Slowly, the minion’s struggles grew weak. Brian was able to get a hold of her legs and began binding them with the zip ties he had brought.
Good call, Brian.
By the time her legs were bound, the woman’s struggles weren’t more feeble wiggles. Chelsea waited until Brian had the minion’s hands bound to let up on her sleeper hold. Then she pulled out a handkerchief and gagged her.
She found a smile for her partner. “Good job.”
He hitched a breath before he could smile back. “Thanks. Now what?”
Chelsea shrugged. “You stay here. I’ll go see if Jacob and Heaven need any help.” Adrenaline pumping, she ignored Brian’s protests and pulled her axe off her belt.
The hallway opened into a dining room, the living room and front door visible beyond the wide doorway. Chelsea hurried past and up the stairs.
Voices, low and urgent, came from the dark hall above her. Instinct had her slow down and listen.
“Thank you, Jacob. This meal will do quite nicely. You may yet replace Lynn as my favorite minion.”
That rat bastard.
Thought and action came together. Chelsea ducked into an empty bedroom, breath coming gasps. Heaven was dead or would be soon. Likely, the nightling also planned on draining Chelsea and Brian.
I have exactly one shot at this.
She forced herself to breathe normally and held her axe ready, not listening to the sounds coming down the hall.
Eventually, the nightling spoke. “Go fetch me the others.”
Jacob rushed past. Chelsea let him. She had a bigger threat to deal with. Heart thudding against her ribs, Chelsea crept down the hall. One door stood open at the far end.
She stopped short and peered in. A woman sat her with back mostly to the door. The profile was round, double chin, apple cheeks. Heaven lay still and pale in the woman’s lap.
Chelsea took a deep breath and rushed through the door. The startled nightling flung Heaven aside, but not fast enough. Chelsea’s axe bit into the vampire’s neck.
The nightling got out a screech before Chelsea removed the head. She didn’t wait around, but rushed down the stairs, blood wet on her boots. Brian and Jacob stood in the kitchen.
Jacob’s hands were in fists. “What do you mean, she went upstairs?”
“He means I went after you and saw everything.” Chelsea forced herself to sheathe her axe. “I don’t know how justice works with hunters, but you sold us out, you fucker.”
Brian looked between them, confused. “He sold us out?”
Jacob paled, backing away from Chelsea.
She advanced, rage shaking her hands. “He’s a minion or wants to be. He fed Heaven to the nightling and was about to send us to her as well.”
Jacob spread his hands. “You’ve got it all wrong.”
Brian grabbed one of his arms. Chelsea darted in and grabbed the other. “Let’s go see a hedge doctor, shall we?”
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