The Hunter Corporation Motherhouse in London sat in one of those upscale neighborhoods where Rowan felt seriously outclassed by everyone else’s boots and coats and the like.
Sleek luxury cars glided in and out of traffic silently, pausing to disgorge chic, elegant people.
Normally she didn’t care about that sort of thing.
Quite often what was fashionable made it harder to get at her weapons or made it harder to kick someone in the face.
But being in Mayfair made her think about a certain well-bred British Vampire and miss him more than she wanted to. She bet Clive had lived here or in Belgravia when he was based in London.
At her side, the Hunter Corp.’s escort. As in the person they’d decided to toss to the wolves to bring Rowan to the meeting of the full hunter council.
He’d shown up at her door all spit-shined and innocent. Like a virgin sacrifice.
He tried not to look her in the eye, and every time she moved too quickly he shrank back.
“What’d you do, anyway?”
He started, nearly stumbling. “Pardon?”
“What’d you do? To merit having to be my keeper, that is.”
“Oh, no, ma’am, it’s not a punishment. I mean, I’ve admired you since I was a kid.”
She burst out laughing. “Ma’am, and you’ve admired me since you were a kid? I’m only thirty. Not quite ancient.”
He blushed furiously. David, her valet and friend, walking to her left, gave her a chiding look and she rolled her eyes, momentarily abashed. Still, the kid was clearly in training to be an assistant to a Hunter like David was. He had to toughen up.
“Oh, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“I’m teasing, kid. I won’t bite. Not you anyway. Still, seems like you drew the short straw. I do know how to get from my hotel to the Motherhouse.”
“Ms. Portman just wanted you to know we were pleased to have you with us here in London once again.”
Valerie Portman was an uptight, sanctimonious tightass bitch. Rowan loathed her and had since the first time she’d come to London and Valerie had told her she was a half breed whose motives where sketchy and she’d never be as good as the rest. So if Portman sent this kid to collect Rowan, it was meant as an insult. But it was at the expense of a boy who probably could only recently buy alcohol on his own. It was a petty and weak shot across the bow. One Rowan had no intention of reacting to.
She smiled as they strolled up the sidewalk. She didn’t need to engage in juvenile back-and-forth. Valerie would be feeling threatened by Rowan’s being made Liaison, which replaced one of Valerie’s toadies who’d been mismanaging the position for years. As a bonus, it also raised Rowan’s position in the Hunter Corporation.
That in and of itself was her revenge. She didn’t need to play power games with people who thought more of themselves and their base within Hunter Corp. instead of their mission. Hunters like Valerie believed the only relationship they should have with the Vampires was through war. Costly and stupid, that viewpoint. Of course, it was easy for them, the Hunters who sat behind desks and never had to risk themselves or kill anyone in service to the corp. They sent others out in service. Others like Rowan, who’d had to bear the cost of killing and the scars of what it took to keep the Treaty together.
Rowan hated politics. But she hated Valerie and her mind-set even more. And now she had the power to be sure it didn’t take over the Motherhouse and send them sprawling into another war.
“Ah, here we are.” The boy motioned to the stately front steps leading to the shiny red front doors of the Motherhouse.
“Thanks. I got it from here.” She moved up and around him, and David held the door for her. “I’ve got an escort already. He’ll make sure I don’t stick anything into a light socket or set something on fire.” She made an X over her heart. “I promise.”
“Oh, I don’t think… I’d never…”
David gave a very soft huff of breath before he stepped between Rowan and the boy, to soothe him most likely. Rowan let that happen and moved ahead.
The reception area was quiet and lovely and elegant, and Sarah Foster, Hunter Corp.’s very own Moneypenny, sat behind an equally lovely and elegant, gleaming walnut desk.
“Rowan, it’s wonderful to see you.” Sarah stood and moved to Rowan, taking her hands.
Rowan squeezed Sarah’s hands lightly. “You too.”
Sarah had always been kind to her, even in her earliest days in London when she didn’t quite know whom to trust or if she’d stay on. Plus, Susan Espy, Rowan’s mentor and most trusted ally within the Hunter Corporation, adored Sarah, and that meant a great deal. Rowan had given herself stern lectures to accept kindnesses without outward discomfort after a very long conversation with her best friend, Thena, back home in Las Vegas. Sometimes she even succeeded. Within, the Goddess was pleased she was making an effort. Being nice took a lot of energy.
“You know your way back. The meeting is in the main conference room near Susan’s office. There’s tea.”
“Thank you.” She felt an irrational need to text Clive right then to say, See, I have manners.
Clive was Clive Stewart, Scion of North America. Bigwig, starched suit, ridiculously handsome Vampire she had…been dating? Seemed a tame word for what they did. Having sex with? Also tame considering what they did.
Whatever. He was sort of her boyfriend. Definitely a pain in the ass. More arrogant and condescending than anyone she’d ever let see her naked before.
Rowan headed up the curved staircase to the second floor where most of the Partners’ offices were. David followed silently, ready to serve her whenever she needed it. For a long time it had bothered her and she hadn’t quite known what to do with all that helpfulness. Now he was simply part of her life but in the best sort of way.
“I’m going to stop off in my office to check my messages and then I’ll go to the conference room. You can take the afternoon off, you know. This meeting is going to last hours and hours and hours.”
She keyed her door open. Her office was smaller than some of the others. It was the first one she’d been given when they’d made her a full partner, and as she spent so much time in the field, she’d never really felt the need to grab a bigger one when they came open. And then she’d transferred to Las Vegas and really only occupied the space the few times a year she traveled to London for meetings and the like.
“I’m fine here. I have friends to visit once you’re safely in your meeting.”
He busied himself opening the drapes, flooding the room with light.
“I promise I’m not going to make a run for it.” She opened her email and nearly closed it again when she took note of over a hundred messages waiting for her.
He sniffed delicately and gently moved her aside.
“I’m too fast anyway.” His teasing face disappeared. “Déesse, go about your business, and I’ll sift through all this to cull out what is unnecessary.”
Déesse meant goddess, and he called her that because that’s what she was. The first human Vessel for a goddess, Brigid, in modern history. Freed from the weight of her inbox, she sighed and stepped away.
“I’d totally kiss you if it wouldn’t be sexual harassment.”
He blushed, and with a wave and a last thanks, she headed down the hall.
Susan stepped out of her office and caught sight of Rowan, smiling warmly in response. “There you are, darling.”
Rowan grinned and allowed a hug and a kiss of each cheek. “I texted you to let you know my flight had arrived and I was settled at the hotel. Not like David had let me out of his very efficient sight since we got in anyway.”
“He knows his job.” Susan linked her arm with Rowan’s and drew her into the large room where a video feed would soon link them with Paris. “You’re coming over for dinner this evening.”
It wasn’t a request.
She hadn’t been able to really debrief with Susan after the events of three months before when Rowan had uncovered and dispatched a Vampire serial killer. Bonus that he was also a tweaker and they’d learned the Vampires had figured a way to get past the blood barrier that had until recently kept them from being able to get high through humans’ blood.
Or about Clive, which was a poorly kept secret that wasn’t really a secret by that point.
“Yes, of course. Just us, right?”
Susan paused, turning to take Rowan in carefully. what makes you ask that? Is there a problem?”
“Valerie sent an escort to bring me here this morning.”
Susan’s left brow rose slowly, imperiously. “Did she? How…conscientious of her.”
Well, that made Rowan feel better. Susan, despite her expensive wardrobe and perfect hair, could cut a bitch when necessary. Rowan might have been schooled at the knee of The First in all sorts of bad-assery, but Susan had taught Rowan her fair share. Rowan rolled her eyes, and Susan patted her arm.
“We have so much to catch up on before you leave for Germany.”
There was a fairly large spread, and Rowan not only got herself some tea, but several sandwiches and sweet things, as well, before she settled at the large table near Susan. Having something to do with her hands would keep her annoyance level down. Partners began to show up and settle.
Most greeted Rowan happily. She did have friends there. But some, those in Valerie’s camp, viewed Rowan with distrust. Which, well, was sort of like caffeine for her. For some reason it filled her with energy when people didn’t like her.
Valerie sailed into the room, and Rowan gave her a cheery smile and wave. Susan tried not to smile as she busily looked over her notes.
“Rowan.” Valerie settled in across the table. “I trust you made it here all right.”
Rowan looked down at herself, sitting right in front of Valerie.
“It’s a comfort to me that you’re so concerned about my memory. I’ve been here so many times over the years, but thanks so much for your concern.”
She cheerfully ate her sandwiches and waited as the Paris Motherhouse connected. Several minutes passed as the minutiae of Hunter politics droned all around her. She didn’t care about any of the day-to-day stuff. It might be bloodier out on the street instead of behind a desk, but Rowan preferred the violence to spending any amount of time thinking about how much of this or that to order, what exact language was in what contract, or other boring crap she didn’t care about. At least violence was tangible in her world.
Finally, the chatter died down and Rowan heard her name. She sat straighter and looked over at the screen. Celeste Blanc, Rowan’s very first trainer, spoke from Paris.
“As everyone knows, the meeting of the Joint Tribunal will be held at the Vampire Nation’s Keep in four days. This will be Rowan’s first time as liaison, so I thought she could first get us up to speed on the situation with the blood barrier and we could speak about our expectations for the meeting.”
That last bit was some sort of pat on the head to all the people who thought she’d set things on fire or eat with her fingers. Like she didn’t know Vampires better than anyone in Hunter Corp.?
“The main thrust of this Joint Tribunal will be amending the Treaty. The sub-committees have been meeting to work on language for that. You’ve all received it. There’ll be a certain amount of dancing around before we can get to the point, but if we stay on task, things will be fine.”
“This is your first Joint Tribunal. How do you know that?” Valerie’s patronizing smile made Rowan want to punch her in the throat. Instead, she smiled right back.
“I was raised by Vampires, I know how they work. They like pomp and circumstance. They like cocktails and tiny, pretty appetizers, and they like the big game that this is to them.”
Vampires liked to play with their food. It got boring being nearly immortal, so they loved that dance of negotiation. Debate, that intense back and forth between opposing parties, held a high position in the Vampire Nation. Teeth and nails, yes, but all the most powerful in the Nation used their brains too.
“I think you can trust us to know how to play the game. Some of us have been doing this longer than you have.”
“Is that so?” A muscle in the back of Rowan’s eye jumped. “I’m sure you think being here for what—two years—gives you some sort of unique perspective. And you know, it’s awesome to live in your world, but over here in reality, we’re talking about an amendment to a treaty that will protect billions of human beings. So, let the adults get their work done.”
On the screen, Celesse’s mouth flattened, and Rowan didn’t know if it was a frown she smothered, or a smile.
“You might have to accept that those of us here in the office might know a few things about how society events work.” Valerie looked Rowan up and down, distaste clear on her features.
“I’m a little too busy saving everyone’s ass to work on my social climbing bitch skills, so maybe you can write up a memo for everyone to read.”
Susan made a sound and quickly disguised it by clearing her throat. “The topic is the amendment to the Treaty. I think we can agree Rowan is in the best position to get this passed as she understands the Vampires better than anyone else.” She sent a look Valerie’s way.
Valerie smirked in Susan’s direction, and Rowan wished she had some popcorn to eat while she watched what she hoped would be an awesome smackdown by Susan.
Then Valerie doubled down on the smirk and started talking. “Well, Susan, the question is, what if we don’t want the Amendment to be passed? Why assume it’s for the best? We’re going forward as if we all agree continuing to try to contain a threat like the Vampires is the best option. Eradication has not been entertained as a viable solution in far too long.”
Rowan sighed. “Which is, I suppose, what you might think of as an academic discussion. Those of us out there in the field know the situation quite clearly, and we speak with a unified voice. War would be a devastating outcome. Countless humans would die. Some would join the Vampires, yes. The truth of the revelation would fracture human society, especially the whys of it. They’re stronger than you can imagine, and we’d lose people, too. We did this before. The cost, thought humanity—most of them anyway—figured it out. We don’t have the luxury of that sort of isolation and superstition know.”
“Collateral damage is bound to happen. But in the end, humanity would thank us. As for those humans who betray their race by taking the side of the Vampires, that’s the price they have to pay.”
Rowan didn’t bother to hide her lip curl. “Who are you to decide humans who make their own choices to work with Vampires deserve to die? As for humanity being thankful? That’s a pretty bold assumption. Would they greet us in the streets as liberators and take our chocolate bars?”
Valerie’s face went blank at the reference to past wars—and past failures. Not really a surprise. People who were ignorant of history were usually the ones pushing an agenda they didn’t fully understand.
“Collateral damage is a nice word for killing innocent people. We don’t have to. We’re not Vampire Hunters in the sense that we travel around in our custom vans and stake them in their coffins. Stop watching late-night television. We exist to enforce the Treaty and keep them in line. That’s our job.”
“Maybe our job needs to change. Humans are dying right now. That’s why we’re having to amend the Treaty to begin with.”
This time Rowan didn’t hold her lip curl back. “Yes, I know, as I’m the one out in the field dealing with it. But since you’re the one tossing out terms like collateral damage, I’m sure you can understand the difference between four or five deaths and millions.”
“But it’s four or five here and two there, and what about the deaths we don’t know about? If we do this know, we save lives in the long run.”
Clearly someone had been coaching her because Rowan didn’t believe she was smart enough for this stuff on her own.
“Really? And you’re going to get out there and get up close and personal with a Vampire? Close enough to kill one? Have you ever even fought one?”
“That’s what you’re for.”
Susan’s posture went rigid and her face darkened with the sort of fury Valerie was too dumb to understand the threat of. “What we’re for? Are we to be collateral damage too, then?”
Valerie gave a casual wave. “Not you. You’re not in the field anymore. Naturally the Hunters who are in the field would be the best choice to do this. We can also bring on private soldiers. The other supernatural might wish to join us as well.”
Celesse made a sound that Rowan knew all too well. Partners around the table shifted. Not all of them uncomfortably. Some of those faces were not entirely horrified by the stuff coming from Valerie’s mouth.
Celesse made a cutting motion with her hand. “We’re not hiring mercenaries and we’re not going to war. The cost is too high, and those of us who have regular contact with Vampires understand that for the most part they are not the monsters this serial killer was. The overwhelming majority are not law breakers. They go about their lives without misusing humans. It’s folly to imagine risking the peace that came at such a high cost to address an issue far more easily dealt with via diplomacy. And it’s far easier for those who’d never be asked to draw blood, or shed it, to toss out the sort of ignorant nonsense about the cost of war than those Hunters who are far too intimate with that violence and threat.”
All of this was delivered with such deadly calm, the hair on Rowan’s arms rose.
Celesse paused to sip some water and turned her gaze back to the camera. “In any case, as a group, Hunter Corp. has made the decision to pursue an amendment to the Treaty and it’s a waste of valuable time to go over the same ground again.”
Rowan actually felt it was a good thing to spank Valerie so publicly. This bullshit about going to war bugged the shit out of her. She was a cranky bitch, but the casual way the opponents to the Treaty brought up war made her skin crawl. They never seemed to remember or even consider the actual costs in terms of lives and the overall stability of human culture and civilization.
“Rowan, if you please. Give us an overview of your expectations.”
“So, to cover relevant issues, we’ll meet that first day and then aim for a vote the second.”
“It’s a three-day meeting, why not wait for the third day? We might get more out of them.” Valerie continued to speak as if Rowan were a small child.
“We’re not buying a car. The quicker we can push this vote, the better.”
“I can’t see the point. If we’re hauling ourselves all the way to Germany for this meeting and they’re the ones who are on the ropes, why wouldn’t we be getting as much as we can? It seems to me that your relationship with them has affected your thinking.”
Rowan’s laugh was full of jagged glass and menace. The sound of it pleased her nearly as much as the way Valerie paled and drew back slightly.
“That you can’t see the point is why this is my job and not yours.”
And then she went on to outline the chronology of the Joint Tribunal. It was important, this amendment. She knew there were those within Hunter Corp. who wanted war. The stakes were high and Rowan would not fail.
Too many lives were at stake to let ignorance win out. She had the tools to do this right. She just needed to keep herself focused on the end goal and not allow herself to get sidetracked. Which was easier said than done, of course. Everyone had an agenda. All those people with some measure of influence had to be dealt with, all while the process kept moving forward.