Justin squinted in the hard winter light as he stepped out of the airport. A phone with the numbers of his fellow Pack members was in his pocket, a small pistol that he had no intention of using was in a shoulder holster, he wore glasses that barely fit his subtly altered face, and the name on his ID was not Justin Kobe.
Ah, conspiracy. It was more enjoyable when it was theory.
Justin walked to the nearest taxi, sidestepping bystanders. Their shouts and waving arms and mundane lives did not concern him—at least not according to Buncombe. He was something else—a privileged member of the Pack. Called to a higher purpose. Immune from the doddering of common humans.
It seemed like a lonely way to live. No wonder Buncombe was what he was.
He handed the driver a note that would indicate his destination. He knew Spanish like the Ramirez Yale he appeared to be—thanks to two years of it in school—but his accent was all wrong, and anyway, he didn’t trust his voice.
He was shaking with fear.
Francisco and Buncombe were miracle-workers. In the few hours of the plane ride across the border they had changed Justin from a black-haired pale and soft American to a tanned and fierce looking man of Southern American origin. His face matched that of the passport’s perfectly.
“We have to live around laws,” Buncombe had said, putting the finishing touches on his own disguise. “The other Pack uses them—has used them—to their advantage. And we’ll be in New York. Halling’s backyard. His pub, aye?”
Francisco had been looking through what appeared to be a pile of passports, drivers’ licenses, and visas. “When you live as long as we do, the law can be…difficult. Taxes and such.”
Buncombe had rolled his eyes and blinked, getting his bright blue contacts to settle in. “One man owning a house for 100 years straight is a bit of legal issue, if ya’ catch my drift.”
So now Justin was alone, heading for the rendezvous point at the hotel, looking like someone he certainly was not.
He paid the driver in cash—provided by Buncombe—and looked up at the hotel through his brown contacts.
It was smellier than he imagined.
“Welcome to my world.” Buncombe seemed to emerge from the stone wall of the alley next to the hotel. “The world beneath the bloody skyscrapers—where things are just as barbaric as the Stone Age.”
Justin nodded at the hotel, keeping a calm face at Buncombe’s sudden appearance. “Places like this?”
The hotel was shabby, dirty, and the customers Justin could see in the lobby did not look savory. Nice. Savory was too…Buncombe.
“No,” Buncombe said. He pulled Justin into the alley he had come from. It was like entering the Thin Place. It was suddenly dark. Semi-darkness—as the close-built buildings above blocked out the light.
Trash. Rotting waste. Cardboard boxes flimsily protecting both possessions and huddled figures. Eyes peering curiously up at the two figures that disturbed their rest.
Justin jerked out, jerked away. Back into the sunlight—weak and biting as it was.
Buncombe was behind, his teeth bared in something that wasn’t a smile. “The normal people…the bourgeoisie, as some of my friends would say, have always been repulsed by reality.”
Justin was silent. He couldn’t argue.
Buncombe removed the baseball cap that was part of his disguise, revealing his gray-flecked hair. He pulled a rumbled top hat from his side bag, brushed it off, and put it on. He ran a pair of fingers down the sides of his moustache.
Justin recognized the gesture. “What?”
“This is my world, Justin. Old and dark and dirty. Queen knows I don’t like young upstarts—especially arrogant young upstarts.”
Buncombe held up a hand to still Justin’s outburst. “I am entitled to my opinion on this side of the ocean…at least now that that civil rights things worked.”
Just how old was Buncombe?
“Old, at least by your standards,” Daldion’s hollow voice came. “Amber told you—more than a hundred years.”
“The point is,” Buncombe said, his voice now serious, “is that I have seen things happen—bad things—because of people like you. What happened last time—the death of my friends and half the humans in this Pack—was because of a mistake. Inexperience. A Ruler who was my friend died because the people he trusted were not dependable.”
Buncombe stepped back, taking a breath. “Bloody. Listen. I’ll try not to hit you so hard in the future. Just do as you’re told—you’ve a lot to learn.”
Turning without another word, the man entered the hotel.
Justin watched him go, not moving. Confused. “Was that an apology?”
“As close as you’ll ever get,” Daldion mused. “No matter how much he dislikes you, he needs you. It would not be advisable for us to be outnumbered. As a Pack member, out of all the humans in the world you are qualified to stand by him in battle. But in the last…incident…the human didn’t obey orders. He broke. And the Ruler of that time, Buncombe’s friend of almost fifty years, died because of it.”
“I will not break,” Justin whispered. A seedy couple passing him gave him a glance of questionable quality, but he ignored them. His mind was on something above their understanding.
Daldion retreated, going into the recesses of his mind. “That is what the one before said.”
Justin hung his head, his skin hot, his eyes angry. “Does anyone believe me?”
“I do.” Daldion was swimming at the edge of the darkness that was his mind. “But the future is uncertain…”