The last rays of sunlight were just vanishing behind the skyline as Walker stepped out of the AllChem lobby onto the concrete sidewalk, but his eyes were on the illuminated panel of the cell phone he held in front of him, his thumb fidgeting with the buttons like an electronic rosary. He held it to his ear as he started walking, then jerked it away and snapped closed the lid before jamming it back into his pocket. Half a block later, he had it back in his hand, irritably jabbing the redial button. His head snapped around this way and that, glancing at faces in the crowds around him but avoiding the eyes of others as he marched to the parking garage.
Parson was late. That alone wouldn’t have worried Walker; they’d all been on difficult assignments in the past, and he knew the hunter could handle himself in the wilderness. He knew Parson wouldn’t have his phone on him if he was actually in the field, either, which made the lack of contact all the more reasonable. Thinking about it, Walker could easily come up with half a dozen other reasons why Parson might not have called yet, from his battery dying to his car getting towed with the phone inside. None of those stopped him from hitting redial for the sixth time and then hanging up in frustration as he crossed the street.
It was, Kinney admitted to himself, the nature of the assignment that bothered him. Werewolves and the like were solitary creatures, which was both a blessing and a curse. It made them harder to find, but when they could be found, it made them easy targets. The ones that claimed some kind of territory were even simpler; he and his associates didn’t even have to go after those. One industrial accident and their beliefs would kill them, their damned devotion to the land driving them insane from an easily-managed chemical spill. That trick worked like no other; he’d seen what it had done to Watcher’s mate.
This time, though, the one he’d found in that park had managed to survive the first strike long enough to get that damned wolf, Watcher, involved. He, in turn, had gotten others involved to help clean up the mess. That was a bad sign. Solitary hunters they could eliminate at their leisure; an organized group would take more visible means to resolve, and that kind of publicity neither of them wanted. He’d tried to finish the job himself, using some of the wolf’s own tricks to mask his scent, but the rabbit had let out a scream the like of which he had never heard as soon as he’d touched her, sending him running to try to outrun the rest of their little ragtag “pack.”
Parson had a reputation for efficiency and stealth, which is why Walker had called him in to finish the job he’d started. However, each minute of silence past when the hunter had said he would call made Kinney that much more irritable, that much more certain that something had gone horribly wrong. He had no proof, but the longer he waited for the confirmation call, or even an admission of failure, the more sure he was that the time had come to take more drastic measures.
As he rounded the corner into the parking garage, something thick and heavy impacted the side of his head, sending him staggering and stars shooting across his vision. His hands went to cover his face as he fell, sprawling on the pavement, his phone smashing on the concrete. As he struggled to sit upright, he blinked frantically to clear his head, squinting to focus his eyes despite the pain. Standing just beside where he had fallen was a mountain of a man, his face hidden in a tangle of grey-brown beard and lanky hair, roughly tied back with a leather strap. His button-down shirt was ragged at the hem and half the buttons were missing, and his jeans were almost shiny with caked-on grime.
The figure squatted over his heels and held up a small object. “Tom’s not available to take your call.”
The voice was unfamiliar, but at the words Kinney froze. “Who?”
Walker’s assailant shook his head. “Try again.” His voice carried anger and amusement in equal measure. “Maybe you just know him as Parson.”
That got Walker’s attention, but his head was still swimming from pain. “Stalking. Assault. Kidnapping.”
“Arson. Conspiracy. Attempted murder.” The figure rose and approached, looming over him. “I think we’re even. Get up.” A massive hand grabbed Walker’s arm under the shoulder, hauling him to his feet.
Walker tried to jerk his arm away, but the man’s grip might as well have been a bear trap. “Let go. I swear, I’ll call the police.”
The man grinned. “You do that. I’ll be glad to tell them I caught the guy who planted the bomb in my apartment three weeks ago. Your move.”
The two men stared at each other in stony silence. “How did you find me?” Walker finally asked, his voice a low growl.
At that, the man tapped his nose with his free hand. “Not literally, of course, but I knew AllChem was involved, I had a rough sense for what you looked like, and I had a pretty good sense how I’d feel when you got close. Given that, it wasn’t hard to track you.”
Walker nodded, keeping his face carefully neutral. “So what do you want?”
The other man responded by tugging him forward, marching him further into the garage. “I want to hear about your girlfriend.”
That brought a snarl to Walker’s face. “You bastard. How dare you talk to me about Lisa. You and the rest of your—”
The man’s other meaty paw slammed into the back of his head, kicking off a fresh flood of stars. “I didn’t ask you about your religion. I told you I wanted to hear about your girlfriend.” He kept walking, leading Walker towards the back of the garage and a weatherbeaten truck. “You said Lisa was her name?”
Walker scowled. “Lisa Ginney. She died… five years ago.” Despite his anger, he couldn’t keep the nostalgia out of his voice, the desperate yearning that he still felt, even after all this time. “She was my life.”
The man nodded, opening the passenger door to the truck and helping Walker, almost cautiously, into the seat. Walker squirmed against seatbelt as his kidnapper buckled it around his arms, pinning them to his sides, then wrapped the nylon around him before shutting the door and running around to the driver’s side, hopping in before Walker could work an arm free. The locks dropped and the engine started, but the truck remained parked. “Tell me about her,” the man said, wrapping one hand around the claw hanging from his neck.
“I’m not about to sully her memory by sharing her with the likes of you,” Walker spit in a sudden burst of defiance. “We’ll win in the end, you know. You’re outnumbered and outclassed. Your days are numbered. You may have gotten Parson, but you can’t get all of us.”
“Maybe,” the man agreed, nodding, “but I’m not interested in all of them. I’m interested in you, and in Lisa. Tell me, Walker. Do you dream about her?”
The use of his name and the question startled him into a slip. “All the time,” he admitted. “Ever since that bastard wolf stole her from me.”
The man nodded again. “Tell me about those dreams, Walker. Where are you? Where’s she?”
Walker leaned back against the passenger’s seat, trying to shift an arm free, but the nylon wrap held fast. “She’s dead, or dying,” he said, his voice wavering as the memory came back to him. “She’s stretched out on a leather blanket on a riverbank. Pus oozes from her eyes. Her joints are swollen, but the rest of her’s just… just skin and bones. Her hair’s flat and matted.” His voice sank to a whisper. “She looks like a mummy. She can’t stand, can barely crawl. She can’t even keep down water.” Tears seeped from his eyes, but he refused to acknowledge them, forcing himself to keep talking despite them. “She’s thirsty… so thirsty.”
The man nodded, then put a hand on Walker’s shoulder, looking into his eyes. “Tell me about the area, Walker. Winter or summer?”
Walker’s eyes were distant, looking not at his kidnapper but five years into the past as he spoke, his body slumping against the seat. “Late spring. There’s a warm, wet breeze, but it’s carrying a sick stench, something cloyingly sweet and moldy, and it feels like it’s clinging to everything. The plants on the shore have died, and the grasses are brown and withered.” His eyes half-lidded, his voice starting to slur. He glanced at his assailant, whose eyes were similarly drifting. “All around, the trees to either side of the river look like they’re drooping, their new-grown leaves falling from the branches….”