“So,” said the man lounging on a folding chair in the center of the room. “What would make a lady like yourself want to join the army?”
“I’m not a lady,” I said.
Shadows cast by moonlight and dull fluorescents filled the empty warehouse, slithering over the cracked concrete floor. I'd driven for three hours straight after finishing my last job to make it to the nearest neutral meeting place. It was a half-occupied steel town that hadn't been absorbed into an Other territory and had no government ties, either. Another thirty minutes in either direction put us squarely over the boundaries of one territory or another, and they didn't appreciate having a hunter on their turf unless they'd hired me themselves.
The echoing space all around us made our meeting seem isolated, though I had no doubt there were cameras in convenient places and support soldiers ready to burst inside. Neutral ground or not, they'd arrived first, and it wouldn’t do to have a monster eat their cohort if things became unruly in our first face-to-face.
“Fine, what would make a vampire like yourself want to join the army—better?” He quirked a small, irritated smile. “I try to be polite and not call everybody out by species.”
“First, I was under the impression that this wasn’t technically the army. Second, you must have listened to my phone interviews,” I said. “You know why I’m willing to compete for a military contract.”
“Why don't you remind me?” he suggested. His expression seemed arrogant, but he kept his eyes safely on my chin.
I stalked closer. He leaned back in his chair so that when I stopped in front of him, our boots nearly touching, he still had some distance. Up close, I could see that his short-cropped brown hair held the faintest hint of curl. The thin line of his pressed-together lips detracted from his face but I was sure that when he relaxed he would be handsome. He was younger than I'd anticipated; not a wrinkle anywhere on his cheeks or around his eyes. If not for the status separating us and the fact that I wanted this job, he would have made a good snack.
Thinking of a meal made me notice my sluggish pulse, limping along at a slow, uneven rhythm. I needed to feed myself soon. Were I sated, I might not have noticed the rich smell of his flesh under the hint of cigarette smoke and aftershave.
“You contacted me first, and now you’re playing games?” I asked.
“I didn't set this meeting up, the big guys did. I don't know much about you.“ He lifted his hand between us to offer it to me, posture stiff. The slouch had disappeared. “My name’s Cal. You must be Hilde.”
I clasped his hand. When he loosened his grip as if to let go I held on and pressed my fingertips to his wrist, feeling his quickening pulse. He lifted his eyes to me, finally, and they held the heat of anger. I smiled wide enough to flash fang. He was a soldier and likely also a competent hunter, but I was treating him like food. The insult telegraphed where he stood with me, for now—a rude little upstart.
“It’s not just you who wants to vet your potential team-mate personally,” I said.
“You don’t trust I can keep up our end of the bargain?”
I locked my hand around his arm. He yanked against my grip. Tension ran up to his chest, bunching the muscles hidden under his fatigues, but his strength alone wasn’t enough to free him.
“The original offer implied that you were Other. I haven’t ever had a human partner. They can’t keep up,” I said.
“Oh, yeah?” he said, a dark excitement flashing across his face. “Well, none of them can keep up with me, either.”
I had no chance to ask what he meant. Flames flared to life around our entwined hands. I shrieked in surprise and instinctive, uncontrollable terror, jerking away so hard I stumbled back several steps. My skin was unmarked but I'd felt the heat. He kept the ring of fire braceleting his own wrist, his palm open and stare haughty. As he stood, the dancing heat grew, spread, until it stormed in a nimbus of blues and oranges around his body, though it never touched him.
“Think you can get through this, vampire?” he asked. The inferno flickered and spun, arcing off of his body in coils of flame that disappeared in the air. “I can melt bullets. One body is really not a challenge in comparison.”
I inhaled a measured breath to calm myself. Breathing wasn't a necessity unless I wanted to speak, but it was comforting. “Can you use it at a distance?”
Behind me, a fluorescent bulb shattered with a crash. I looked over my shoulder. Another cloud of nearly white flame wreathed one of the light fixtures hanging from the bare metal bones of the ceiling for a brief second, though it disappeared as quickly as it had leapt to life. He cut his power and the show ceased abruptly, leaving him standing pale and un-singed with a faint sheen of sweat on his brow. The chair behind him, on the other hand, was scorched.
”Quite the show,“ I said.
“So, you still think I can’t keep up with you?” he asked.
”Your point is proven,“ I said as I sketched a half-sarcastic bow in his direction. His lips twitched as if repressing a smile and his stance relaxed ever so slightly. Minuscule reactions, but he hadn't quite hidden them. He was pleased that he'd impressed me. “If we're going to continue, I'd like to hear in your words what this contract has to offer me. The recruiter was specific that they wanted an Other. Why? It's—unorthodox.”
Truthfully the curiosity was devouring me. The government and Others alike only hired hunters of the supernatural on a contract-to-contract basis, when there was unrest or dangerous elements that required our expertise. Long-term employment was unheard of. Ideally, we lived on neutral ground; we paid tithe to no Other leaders and didn't interact with the territories except on a professional basis, even if they tried to wrangle us under their power on occasion. All I'd had to do to become a hunter was escape my old territory and declare myself ready for business—it was as simple, and yet as difficult, as breaking all my political and personal ties.
“It was somebody else's idea. Higher up than I have clearance for. I got the news through my, uh, commanding officer that they had a job for me.“ Those words fit in his mouth like marbles. He paused, a shadow of a grimace flickering over his face. I didn't comment. ”Basically, the way I see it, we’re building a team that can go into the Other territories that need… restructuring.“
”Don't you think that's their business?“ I asked.
”No, I mean the ones that are getting so out of control they're starting to draw the mundanes' attention, and the territory leaders are part of the problem, not fixing it. Hunters can only handle the kills, so someone else needs to tackle the politics that come after. Why not us? You must be pretty well-adjusted if you got this interview, and I'd like to think I am.”
“What you mean is that you’ve encountered too many upheavals an execution can’t fix,” I said. Perhaps that should have been a sign that they needed to keep their noses out of supernatural business, but they’d never learn. “And you can't ask a glorified assassin to stay on hand and rule afterwards. Even if they agreed, most of them wouldn't know how to do it.“
That had never been a problem before the humans started policing us better than we did ourselves, but they had a vested interest in creating the occasional coup. An Other would never hire a hunter to take out the leader of a rival territory—they would do it themselves to claim the land. It came down to the fact that, while both sides cared most about secrecy, the mundanes seemed to be a bit more concerned with crime. After all, victims of supernatural violence so often tended to be human, and a few human deaths here or there weren't a huge concern to an Other community—but they were to the official authorities.
“Bingo, but I’m a human on their radar. If it was just me by myself and I killed one of the territory heads in combat, the Others there still wouldn't pledge their loyalty. It would just fall apart. Or, you know, someone would assassinate me in my sleep and claim the position for themselves,” he said. He spread his hands wide in a frustrated gesture. “But if I've got you, it's not disputable. We might lose a few groups who decide they'd rather forge their own little territory rather than declare loyalty, but it would hold together for long enough to stabilize the situation.”
“You're right,” I said. He shifted, patting his pocket, and drew out a pack of cigarettes. I waited while he put one to his mouth and, glancing at me, lit it theatrically with a tiny flame at the tip of his finger. “Why are you interested in this? You're not part of a territory. It doesn't affect you.”
“I could say the same to you. But—” he paused, blowing out a lungful of smoke. Contrasted with this easy conversation, his earlier rudeness was out of place. It must have been all nerves. That was a relief. “Really, I’m waiting for the revolution when we all get to come out of the fucking closet and the territories go away. Until then, this is the best I've got. Some of these leaders treat their citizens like slaves, and there's fuck-all they can do about it but leave, if another territory will even have them. No rights. I don't like that. We're people, too.”
The fact that he didn’t count himself as a human, and that he saw himself at war with the Others who abused their power more than anything else, raised my opinion of him.
“I agree,” I said. “Real freedom would be nice, if a revelation went well with the mundanes. Though I have my doubts about that.”
I felt wistful, and I let the emotion show in my voice. I had been born an American and died one. To be a citizen again and to legally serve my country was a fine dream, if they didn’t decide to burn us all when we revealed ourselves.
“But it's not just about the humans freaking out. The Others won't take an upheaval easily either,” he said, a touch defensive.
“The powerful benefit from being outside the law, certainly,” I said.
“How old are you?” he asked suddenly, tucking his hands in his pockets.
“One hundred and thirteen,” I said. “Give or take a year.”
“Jesus,” he sputtered. “I thought the only vamp hunters taking contracts from the government were babies. The old ones usually hate us too much. You really can play Queen wherever we go kick in doors.”
“I am the oldest to ever turn to your people for work,” I said, lowering my voice. “And the most powerful. I will be an asset.”
“Yeah, I kind of thought that,” he said. “But can you do teamwork?”
“We'll see,” I said.
“Damn, but I can’t turn you down,” he said. He thumped me on the back, grinning at the look I gave him, and walked past me toward the old bay doors. “Test run, first job together, me and you. Tomorrow night. My handler set it up. You in?”
“Of course,” I said. He didn't seem to notice that he'd switched from using the phrase commanding officer to handler, but I had.
At the door, he paused to call back to me, “Hey, what’s your special vampire trick?”
I smiled at him, and he left when it became clear I wasn’t going to answer.