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    Chapter Ten: The Katana


    Sinajfae

     

    Chapter Ten
    The Katana


    Madeline’s stormy-blue eyes fixed on the last few lines of a newspaper article before carefully laying it down on her kitchen island. Grabbing the pot of freshly pressed coffee, she poured it into a cup laced with chocolate syrup and added some steamed milk until it was full.

    It had been a month since she’d moved out of Levi’s loft and into a place of her own. The building ended up not being one Levi had recommended, or even approved of, but she liked the layout and style much better than all the others she’d looked at. During the whole adventure of finding a new place, Levi had divulged that the building she’d been staying at with him was one he actually owned. And Caslon, whom she thought was being supported by his sister, was actually the building’s manager. It turned out that Levi held deeds on many buildings around the world, purchased over the course of decades and sometimes centuries. He employed a property management company to oversee them all, only needing to be involved in more important matters, like approving new vendors and whatnot. It allowed him to move between locations undetected when required and provided safe havens as well. Needless to say, he was disappointed Madeline wasn’t staying in his building, but he didn’t try to stop her. 

    One of the things Levi hated about the apartment she had settled on was that there was a fire escape right outside her kitchen window. They were a required feature for most older, multi-story buildings that weren’t retrofitted with adequate interior staircases, but he warned about picking an apartment on the same side. The danger of intrusion was just too great. He also warned that the ground floor had an over-abundance of access points, and even with the 24-hour concierge downstairs, it increased the possibility of strangers getting into the building. But despite all that, he helped her move in and set up her alarm system, recommending that she snag as many of the other five adjacent units as soon as possible to give herself somewhat total control of the floor.

    On a personal note, things had been going well with Scott.

     He somehow convinced Cole to allow him to remain in Seattle for an extended period of time, and since business was frequently downtown, Cole had reserved a semi-permanent suite at the hotel. Madeline had to admit it was a rush dating someone who lived in a chic suite. It was always clean, they could get room service whenever, and the location made it easy to get to trendy spots downtown. Despite their blossoming relationship, Madeline never invited Scott to her apartment, and Scott never pressed the issue. He was easy going, a characteristic Madeline found attractive.

    Returning to the newspaper that waited, she read a brief article regarding a public library break-in last night in Mid-Manhattan. She couldn’t help but wonder if Levi was out of town. He never revealed his jobs to her, which was expected, but she secretly hoped it was him. 

    She read through the rest of the paper casually, finishing her coffee and snuggling deeper into her soft, white robe. The color of it made her hair stand out dramatically. A coppery color by nature, she preferred of late to dye it a deeper red, and as it was early in the morning, she had yet to style it, leaving the curls wilder than usual.

    I should probably shower, Madeline thought to herself with a stretch and a yawn. 

    Walking across the polished hardwood floor, she passed by the large picture window that lined one wall of her living room. Sprawling buildings. The skyline of a busy city. Below, the traffic crawled. 

    It only took her about thirty minutes to get showered and dressed, but it was enough to miss a call from Syriem. Curious, Madeline listened to the voice mail and Syriem’s always digitized voice.

    There is something I need you to acquire for me. You'll find the details in your email, I've sent the information already. Watch your back though, it's not going to be easy, but it will definitely be worth it.
                                     
    Madeline listened to the message again, with notably more interest. Were her ears deceiving her, or did this sound like a potentially dangerous job? 

    Picking up her tablet, she plopped down on the sofa and propped her slender legs up on the coffee table. She quickly scanned through her emails and found the details of the job Syriem had spoken of. 

    An ancient Japanese sword had been stolen from one family by another. The surname of the family currently in possession of the heirloom weapon sounded familiar, while the family claiming rightful ownership did not. The target family owned a number of estates, and the katana, as well as a matching wakizashi, were on display at one such home in upstate New York. Madeline was to obtain the katana and return it to Syriem, while the matching wakizashi was hers to keep as a show of gratitude on top of her payment. 

    And the client asked for Madeline specifically. 

    Madeline was rather excited about the prospect of being able to keep one of the swords. Other than payment, she'd never been gifted anything from a job before.

    Syriem gave her 24 hours to decide.

    Reaching out toward the coffee table where her cell phone had been charging, Madeline dialed Levi’s number., Madeline dialed Levi’s number. 

    Moshi moshi,” he answered on the other line, voice as smooth and sexy as she remembered. 

    “Hey, I have a quick question for you,” Madeline began. “I got a contract offer to steal a couple of Japanese swords in upstate New York, and the owners of the estate sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I heard the name from.”

    “Go on,” Levi invited.

    “Orimura.”

    There was a moment of silence on Levi’s side of the line. 

    “You shouldn’t take this one,” Levi responded, his voice now flat and low, absent of all playfulness. “The Orimura family is an ancient canini clan. If you were to come across any of them, they would easily kill you.”

    “The client asked for me specifically,” Madeline added. “It’s one of many residencies they own, so if I plan to strike when they aren’t there, I’ll be fine.”

    “It’s not a good idea,” Levi warned. 

    “I think I can do this, Levi,” Madeline replied, adding strength to her voice. “I had the best teacher.”

    She could hear him let out a long, exhausted sigh, clearing deciding whether to encourage her or not.

    “If you take it, let me at least help you gather blueprints and photos,” he finally said.

    “Okay!” Madeline grinned. “I’ll sleep on it and then give Syriem my answer in the morning. “Thanks, Levi.”

    “Don’t thank me yet.” 

    Still smiling, she ended the call and then speed-dialed Scott.

    “Hey beautiful,” he answered, bringing a wider smile to Madeline’s lips. “We still on for dinner?”

    “Wouldn’t miss it,” she replied. “The usual spot?”

    “Of course. The salty air is wonderful.”

     

     

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    Later that night, Madeline and Scott were holding hands, strolling on the deck of a passenger ferry under a partially star-lit sky. Taking a seat on a bench, she leaned against him as he wrapped his arm around her lovingly, careful not to bump her hand as she ate a bowl of chowder.  

    “Have you ever heard of the Orimura family?” she asked Scott before taking a bite. 

    “Yeah, some big shot wolves from Asia,” Scott replied, his free hand moving to keep Madeline’s long red hair out of her face and her soup. The winds were a bit annoying to someone trying to eat. “Why?”

    Madeline opened her mouth to respond, but an unfamiliar ringtone interrupted her. 

              Been around the world, don’t speak the language…

    Again she began to answer Scott, but the song continued. 

              But your booty don’t need explaining...

    Looking around, she realized she and Scott were the only ones nearby, and Scott was staring annoyingly at her purse. The song was coming from her phone. Thrusting the chowder bowl at Scott, she began fumbling through her purse frantically, the ringtone growing louder as she retrieved it.

              All I really need to understand is… 

    Glancing at the number in a hurry to answer and stop the song, she noticed it was Caslon calling.

              When.  You.  Talk dirty...

    “Caslon you little shit. When did you…?”

    “You didn’t call anyone,” Caslon replied in a sing-song voice, clearly pleased with the reaction he’d gotten. A month of planning had finally paid off. “You’re supposed to call somebody. Remember?”

    “Yes, mom,” Madeline replied sarcastically. “I’m on the ferry. “

    “Now was that so hard?”

    “Asshole.”

    Madeline ended the call and silenced her phone, making a mental note to change his ringtone the first chance she got.

    “Who was that?” Scott questioned, definitely unamused by what the song suggested. 

    “A friend of mine making sure I’m okay,” Madeline answered. “You met him at the Halloween party. Tall, tan, model-like body… and I’ll stop there because that is obviously not the right way to describe him to you.”

    “I really wish your friends would stop being such controlling dicks,” Scott said. “I’m not going to hurt you. You would think they would get that through their damn heads by now.”

    Desperate to change the subject, Madeline once again brought up the family. 

    “So are the Orimura really dangerous?” she continued as she took the chowder back from Scott and went back to eating. “If I, you know, ended up on their bad side.”

    “Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Scott answered. “I wouldn’t worry about it, love.”

    Leaning over, he kissed her gently on the cheek. Madeline was always surprised how consistently warm his body was. Even now in the chill of the March salty air, his lips were warm and his skin soft and comforting. He’d only ever been vampire-like at the Halloween Party. Maybe he and Cole had a rotation of donors like Maseo did.

    “Besides, they would have to go through me to hurt you, and I would never let that happen,” Scott added softly.

    Madeline beamed at his reassuring words and finished her soup. 

    It was decided then. She would take the job.

     

     

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    A month’s worth of photographs were spread out before Madeline on the burgundy carpet. 

    Weeks ago, she'd taken up temporary residence in one of the buildings Levi owned in upstate New York, giving herself plenty of time to familiarize herself with the job. The modest one-bedroom apartment was in an ideal location and had everything she needed to make herself comfortable.

    Each time-stamped picture laid out before her was of the same estate at different angles and different times of day. A month’s worth of guard shifts allowed her to plan a route from the street to the main building. Levi had helped as well, arriving a few weeks before she did, casing out the details of the interior courtyard and helping her map out the security system. His core information confirmed the guards were human, which was of utmost importance. In fact, she highly doubted she would even make an attempt at this job without his assistance. Had he left for Seattle over a week ago, to allow her to maintain complete control over the contract. This was going to be without a doubt, her biggest challenge yet. Levi himself had told her the job neared his level of expertise,, and even though he supported her, it was clear he was nervous about it.

     

     

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    Some distance away in upstate NY...

    The sky was nearly jet now. The sun and all its blazing glory had ducked beneath the horizon hours ago. From a quiet coffee shop about a mile away, Madeline sat sipping a latte. She had a book open to no page in particular and was playing a beautiful and calming song called Getsumei Fuuei through the earbuds she wore. It had become a tradition to listen to that song in particular as she prepped for a job. It helped her center and calmed her spirit, making her feel more connected to her environment and blend into the aura of the situation. It was a song she didn’t find on her own, but one that Syriem had surprisingly introduced her too, and it just felt right.

    After the third time it played through her headphones, Madeline rose from the table, set some coin as a tip, and left the cafe. She walked toward her motorcycle parked off a side-street and unlatched the saddle bag, placing her long, dark green sweater-coat inside. The street the coffee shop was on was lightly trafficked by those on foot, and with inches of fresh snow on the ground, there were even fewer people around. She continued walking, passing streetlamp after streetlamp, listening to the crunch of every footstep before turning the corner heading into an upper-class residential neighborhood. Before long, the sidewalks thinned to emptiness, and soon, tapered off into the snow. Streetlamps were no more, and although the night air carried a biting chill, Madeline's anxiousness insulated her. Houses became farther and farther apart, and wooded areas became thicker. As she walked on, she slipped a small cloth backpack off her shoulders, removing a thin black belt with a number of small pouches attached to it. Fastening the belt around her slender waist, the redhead put the backpack back onto her shoulders and pulled it snug.

    Up ahead in the distance, she could see the focus of tonight’s mission come into view.             
    A high hedge wall, lightly dusted in white, surrounded the perimeter of the estate. From research, she knew the hedge was actually vines covering an inner brick wall foundation. Beyond the barrier, she could see the barren branches of cherry and plum trees, their leaves stolen by the passing of seasons. She envisioned in her mind the courtyard garden from the photos. One guard was always circling the winding pebble path past those same trees, over two decorative garden bridges, and then back to the side of the main building. The garden was kept extremely traditional, with only dim lantern light illuminating the pathway. Of course, there were floodlights on the rooftop corners, but those only triggered if any other securities were tripped.

    Madeline removed her winter gloves and ran her bare hand across the foliage, feeling the red bricks underneath and eyeing for the one slender ornamental tree that peeked over the top of the brick wall by a few inches. That would be her starting point. Taking four steps past the branch landmark, she reached into one of the pouches on her belt and removed a pair of thin black gloves with rubber-tipped fingers. Slipping her hands inside, she then strapped a small device resembling a rounded tablet to her forearm. Tapping it with a gloved fingertip, she watched as it ran through a system check. Slipping off her black boots revealed that she was actually wearing a one-piece catsuit with built-in shoes. The soles of the built-ins were thin but durable, allowing her to feel the ground with an improved grip. 

    Madeline took a deep breath. 

    Her PDA screen was showing a clear picture of the garden courtyard now, thanks to a minuscule camera she had placed in that very same ornamental tree, and she could watch the guard’s progression around the grounds. Noting the time on the digital pad, she began to track actions being taken on the other side of the wall chronologically.

    There was one point where the guard went around the corner for a few seconds - twelve to be exact - which was Madeline’s window to get from the high brick wall to the first-floor roof of the main building. That roof had an awning which protruded about three feet from the side of the building. The walkway underneath had railing running alongside it, which Madeline planned on using for her jump. That particular part of the roof would be safe to pause on. Even though it had its own security, all the cameras were pointed downward. She was positive some parts of the roof were fixed with either motion sensors, weight sensors, or both, but there were spots where birds had evidently hung out for long periods of time, leaving unmistakable white droppings, and she’d bet that those areas were free from alarms. The awning was one of those areas.

    Silently braiding her hair, she waited through three cycles of the guard’s path, a few times it was eleven seconds, so she planned on giving herself ten seconds to be safe. Her blue eyes watched the monitor on her forearm flicker as the guard turned his back on her. It took him eight seconds to get to the corner of the building from this point. Gently she dug the tips of her shoes through the vines and into the rough brick. The toes were slightly studded, so the grip was solid, and she placed her fingertips into the cracks much like a rock climber would.

    4… 3… 2... 1…

    10…

    Madeline scurried up the brick wall and lifted herself up and over the top.

    9... 8… 7…

    She looked to make sure the guard was out of sight before she dropped down silently into the soft grass, taking care to work her way around the backs of the tree and bushes and away from the lantern light.

    6... 5... 4…

    At the railing…

    3…

    Up and reaching to the awning…

    2…

    Pushing hard with her feet, she projected up, pulling herself onto the awning with her arms.

    1…

    She rolled flat onto the first-floor roof awning just as she heard the guard come around, early again, and listened to his footsteps track around the garden as she planned the rest of her path.     

    Madeline slipped her fingers into her thigh pocket silently, retrieving an electric field detector. She quickly passed it over the roof where it began to curve upwards and paused for a moment as her expression puzzled. With another sweep of her ELFLX, she confirmed the unexpected - the roof-top sensors had been deactivated. She was certain her equipment was working properly, and laid there for a few moments weighing her options. Without having to work around the roof-top security, her job had become significantly easier, not to mention quicker.

    Not one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, Madeline glanced once again at her screen and the path of the security guard on foot. When he rounded the corner out of sight, she rose into a low crouch and silently padded her way across the shingles. 

    There was an area at the back corner of the estate that had a second-floor balcony. With a three-foot jump, she was able to make it from the lower roof to the balcony, and then from the balcony to the second-story roof. The rooftop in this area of the complex crowned the outer corridors which framed an open-air garden in the center. It was a perfect square, and Madeline quickly trekked across the right side of it making her way to a rectangular building on the west side of the complex. She had chosen to keep her ELFLX out in case the sensors suddenly came back on. She would then have a split second to jump from the roof to avoid being detected. It wasn’t an ample amount of time, but there was a possibility to succeed.

    Her glance alternated between her video screen, which was now scrolling between the first camera she planted, the second one at the entrance to the targeted room, and the ELFLX readings. Using the roof kept her clear of pretty much everything, and she arrived at the western wing in no time. This building was actually a large hall, stocked with multiple artifacts gathered from Asia. From what Madeline knew of the floorplan and contents, it was akin to a small museum. There was a large skylight in the center roof, and the owners depended on their outside guards and building security rather than elaborate measures for each treasure inside it, so getting in and out was problematic, but the object would be reasonably easy to obtain once inside.

    She had to plan for weeks how to go about not using the roof to get in, yet here she was. It nagged at her that the sensors had been turned off or disconnected. It didn’t make sense and was extremely suspicious.

    Removing a spring-loaded camming device from another cleverly hidden pocket in her catsuit, she reached around the framing of the skylight until she found a nice wedge to place it in. Working quickly and silently, she began to go to work on the skylight itself.         

    After making another check with her ELFLX, she started to force the skylight open. Once she was able to get the vent opened wide enough to slip in, she attached an eight-foot climber's rope to her camming device, then wrapped it around a rod she had telescoped out to a length of three feet. She laid the rod flush against the opening in the skylight, then ever so slowly lowered the rope through the gap down to the private museum below.

    Levi had confirmed with her that there were no security devices in the museum itself, but she was going to take things slow nonetheless. She slipped her body through the skylight opening and strained against connection before putting her bodyweight entirely in the hands of the rope, rod, and camming device. The last thing Madeline needed was a gear malfunction leaving her stranded inside. After she was satisfied with its security and tension, she began to lower herself down into the room stopping just short of the floor. Glancing at her ELFLX again, she picked up no electric fields whatsoever on the ground.

    With a short hop, she stood in the center of the museum and observed her surroundings.

    The moonlight from the skylight provided little illumination, so Madeline took out a small flashlight for a better look into shadows. There were Asian collectibles everywhere, but what astonished her the most was the number of sword displays. 

    They were everywhere. 

    In glass cases. Lining racks on the walls. On stands in various display counters. She was here to retrieve two out of the dozens, which created a slight problem. Tapping her video screen a few times, she brought up a picture of the two swords she was looking for. Starting with the glass display cases, she began to examine each of them in the partial darkness. 

    There must be at least 40 swords in here, she thought.

    Knowing time was precious in any job, Madeline tried to make quick work of finding the right pair of Japanese swords, but her efforts were fruitless. Without carefully examining each hilt, one out of every two swords could have been the one she was looking for, writing off the ones that weren't in sets. She left the ones in the cases for last, hoping the pair she was hunting for wasn’t locked up. Besides, she didn't have the time to be cutting through all the glass cases in the room.

    Damn it, Levi, she thought to herself. You could have mentioned this.

    She worked quickly through one side of the room, scanning the wall racks and coming to the conclusion that her target wasn't among them. Staying in the shadows, Madeline began examining the open shelves next, using her flashlight to illuminate any details on the blades. Passing over the glass cases on the west side, she moved to the east shelves next. Her eyes were beginning to play tricks on her, as each weapon started to look more and more like one before.

    Cursing to herself quietly, Madeline's eyes rested on a blade in a glass case directly behind the oak shelf she'd been searching. It was a grand blade, highly polished, as was its shorter twin resting in the same confines. The handled was braided tightly in black and bore a script of characters along each sheath. The poor photograph Syriem had given her had the same details, as did many of the blades here, but this pair was more protected than the others of it's kind.

    These have got to be the ones I'm here for.

    Retrieving a glass cutter from her pocket, Madeline laid one hand on the side of the case, reaching with her other to press the diamond blade into the smooth surface.

    Then something caught her attention.

    Looking up, there was nothing there.

    Holding her breath, she remained motionless for a few seconds, waiting, but the room was still. As she was about to continue cutting, once again there was a faint movement out of the corner of her eye. Her hands froze as she followed the direction of the interruption, eyes laying to rest on a pair of swords resting alone on a shelf against the east wall. They too had a woven black handle and script along the sheath, but there was something different about them. Beneath the stand they rested on was a simple swatch of red silk embroidered with white blossoms. No other display had adornments, and the shadows bathed the blades so effectively that they would have gone unnoticed if it hadn't been for whatever flicker had caught Madeline's attention. 

    Lowering her hands from the glass case, she stepped silently to the pair  and grabbed the wakizashi.
                                         
    Madeline expected to feel a coolness as she wrapped her slender fingers around the tsuka, but the rayskin and silk braiding were oddly warm as if someone else had just been holding it for an extended period of time. Her eyes quickly darted around the room, searching suspiciously for movement of any kind. Could the brief blurs she swore she saw been someone in the room? And if so, how were they hiding so cleverly? Could this assignment have been given out to duplicate parties?

    The wakizashi felt comfortable in her hands, balanced and firm in her grip. She couldn’t quite explain it, but in a way, it felt as though the sword was holding onto her as well. Reaching over her shoulder, Madeline slipped the thin black carrying bag off her arm and laid it down on the table where the daisho had rested, and prepared to pack them up.                      

    "Take your filthy hands off that blade..."

    Madeline whipped her body around, bringing the wakizashi up to a straight and firm outward thrust. She found herself pointing the blade at a young Japanese girl who appeared to be in her late teens. Deep blue silk covered her olive skin in the form of a loose fitting tank top and shorts. Madeline assumed she was previously sleeping, given the slight disarray of her long black hair. This girl was holding a blade as well, poised to strike, and even in the darkness of the room, Madeline could see the fury that burned in her eyes.

    "How dare you desecrate my ancestors!"

    The girl lunged forward expertly, but being quicker, Madeline rolled out of the way and grabbed at anything she could from the table behind her, ending up with the sheath and not the other blade.

    Fuck.

    Spinning back around, she once again pointed the blade at the young girl, this time using its smooth wooden sheath as a guard. The girl came at her, forcing her to block the deadly sweeps of tempered steel with all her strength. Madeline was faster, which allowed her to live, but this girl was much more skilled. And even though the wakizashi felt light and seemed to help her technique, she knew the girl would surely kill her if this swordplay dragged on.

    Think, think, think…

    She cursed in her mind as she tried to scan the room between dodges and parries. She didn't hear any other commotions or alarms from where she was. Hopefully, there weren't any outside either, though she doubted it was going to be anything but easy getting out of here alive.

    With a few graceful and deadly strokes, the girl had maneuvered herself toward the table, grabbing the katana which Madeline failed to acquire seconds ago, and was now sporting a wicked smile on her pretty face as if she had won simply by picking up the other sword. She came at Madeline with much more precision now, and as the clashing of steel echoed in the large room, the girl’s face became increasingly troubled. Madeline could tell that she was trying for a disarm, but the blade wasn’t leaving the redhead's fingers. Her hand felt almost fused to the wakizashi, and the girl realized it too as her attacks became driven by frustration instead of skill.

    Realizing this, Madeline began to maneuver to the center of the room where her rope was hanging. She needed to get out of here fast, or she wouldn’t be getting out of here at all.

    Out of nowhere came a gunshot. 

    It was masked by a silencer but it was still a gunshot, there was no mistaking it. Madeline sheathed the wakizashi, slipping the strap over her head, and jumped for her rope, scurrying up as quickly as she could. Looking down, she saw the young woman staring at her hand, the katana she had held was now spinning across the floor behind her filling the air with a metal hum. Stunned, the girl just stood there for the few seconds it took for Madeline to climb up and out of the skylight. 

    As much as she really wanted to grab the katana and finish her job, she knew when it was time to retreat. Checking her video monitor, she confirmed the sensors were all still out and as soon as the guard outside rounded the corner she climbed down and hauled ass to the outside wall. With the highest jump she could muster, Madeline scaled the outer wall and landed precisely next to where she left her boots. It was silent on this side of the high stone wall, which she leaned against to steady her breathing. At her back, the wakizashi hung. She failed in her mission. She could probably still recover the other blade, but it would take months, perhaps years before the heat of the previous attempt would cool.

    Slipping into her boots, Madeline crossed her arms for warmth and walked briskly back to where her motorcycle was still parked near the coffee shop. 

    As she was about to cross the street, she heard a man’s voice. 

    “Don’t go back.”

    Turning, she saw a man standing about fifteen feet away from her. He was tall, dressed in a black leather jacket and worn jeans. His amber colored hair was styled in thick, spiky layers, with dark roots that betrayed a dye job. Lighting up a cigarette, she saw his face clearly for a moment. Piercing, bright blue eyes studied her. Angelic looking features. 

    Then the lighter went dark.

    “What did you say?” Madeline asked, but remained where she was, ready to move if need be and reaching slowly toward the throwing blades that were affixed to her suit.

    “Don’t,” he warned again, taking a drag off his cigarette with a nonchalant demeanor. “You’re done with this one. Don’t come back. If you do, I can make things... complicated.” His voice was threatening as he casually opened the left side of his jacket, revealing a gun resting in a holster under his arm.

    Madeline’s eyes narrowed. He had to have been the person that shot the blade out of the girl’s hand. How did he get out here so soon? She also wondered if he was the shadow she saw from the corner of her eye which led her to the swords in the first place. 

    “Who are you?” She asked, the look of annoyance showing clearly on her face.

    “I represent a third party in this matter,” he replied, taking another drag off his cigarette before dropping it to the damp concrete and crushing it underfoot. “You should go home before you get hurt.”

    Without another word, the man turned and walked away until he could no longer be seen.

    Cursing under her breath, Madeline walked back to her motorcycle and headed to the apartment.

     

     

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    By the time she took a taxi from the airport and arrived back at her apartment in Seattle, it was a little after 10 p.m. the next day. Madeline wasn’t expecting guests, but the scent of freshly brewed coffee filling her living room indicated she had no choice in the matter.

    “How’d it go?” 

    The words came urgently from Levi, who had let himself in and had been waiting anxiously for her return. He approached her from the kitchen, assessing her present state in such a calculating manner that it made her nervous. 

    “I only got one,” Madeline replied, downtrodden. 

    His eyes narrowed.

    “How did you only get one? What happened?”

    As the questioning began, he placed his hand on her lower back and began to guide her to the kitchen to make her his unique coffee concoction.

    “Can this wait for just a bit?” Madeline pleaded. “I really want to get out of these clothes. Then I’ll answer anything you want me to.”

    “Well in that case, did you want me to order anything?” he offered. “Mexican? Greek? Pizza?”

    Madeline set the sword bag on the table before walking down the hallway to her bedroom. “Pizza sounds good. I’m starving.”

    As she rounded the door into her room, she could hear Levi ordering a large Margherita pizza. Just the thought was making her drool. They liked a lot of the same foods, but she couldn’t remember if it was because of all the training they had done together, or if it was just always like that from the beginning.

    Thinking back, he had been acting strange lately. Like being here in the middle of the night, for instance, waiting for her come home. This was unusual. 

    She slipped out of her catsuit, tossing it into the laundry basket, and lazily wandered into her bathroom shower. The hot water washed away the sweat and relaxed her mind and body. Usually, she'd take a long, hot soak in the tub after a job, but she’d have to pass on that this time. Having Levi here was very unexpected. Worrying was definitely out of character. 

    After a quick dry-off and change into her pajama top and shorts, she went back into the kitchen and took a seat at the island counter. Levi was already making her coffee drink.

    “Well…?”

    “The roof sensors were off,” Madeline started off matter-of-factly.

    Levi stopped mid-pour.

    “They were off?”

    “Yep,” she responded, “So I chanced the roof run instead of the balcony.”

    He continued to pour the coffee, stopping to stir in the cream.

    “I got in through the skylight pretty uneventfully. They had a lot of swords in there, and when I was looking for a match, I thought I got a glimpse of something. Whatever it was led me to the right pair of swords.”

    “So what happened? Why do you only have one?”

    “Some girl who lives there drew a sword on me, and I had to fight her.”

    “Wait, WHAT?! Levi reacted boisterously. “You got into a swordfight at the estate?!”

    “Oh, it gets better,” Madeline added. “While we were fighting, someone shot the blade out of the girl's hand so I could get away. He said he was an 'interested third party'… I’ve never seen him before.”

    Their conversation was interrupted by the front door buzzer.

    Levi pressed a finger to her lips softly to silence her before walking off to get the door. After a few minutes, he was back, pizza box in hand, and starting to dish out piping hot slices onto a plate for her. 

    She noticed that his expression had changed from before. It was darker. And as she took a bite of pizza she could tell he was impatiently waiting for the rest of the story. 

    “So this guy with a silencer takes a shot from within the house, and I had time to get up and out. Otherwise, I am sure she would have killed me with the katana I was supposed to steal. I escaped the grounds, and that guy was waiting a few feet from where my start point was. Tells me don’t go back for the katana, and that he’s with a third party.”

    Levi was not enjoying the story.

    “And I’m not so sure we are returning this to the right people. Before the girl attacked me, she said I was desecrating her ancestors. She was trying to disarm me, but it was like the blade wouldn't let go of me. That frustrated the girl even more than…”

    Levi growled under his breath, and pressed a finger to Madeline’s lips once more, silencing her.

    His emerald eyes were blazing.

    He had told Madeline and Syriem from the start that, in his professional opinion, she shouldn't take this mission. She was breaking into one of many estates owned by a widely known, powerful werewolf clan. He trained her well but wasn’t sure if she would be able to handle it. And if she ran into any trouble, it would have been fatal. If the stranger she described hadn’t been there…

    And now this news about the blade itself. 

    He knew who it was she had fought with, which enlightened him to the importance of the blade. But what he feared most was why Madeline had an affinity for the blade. That could only mean one thing, but couldn’t connect enough dots to make sense of it. Something was missing. Some great, big, important dot. Did Syriem give her this mission knowingly? Was it even a mission at all? All it succeeded to do was to create a new pawn in the politics of the shrouded world. It made his student a pawn. Someone knew more about her than he did, and now they placed her in danger. 

    He could feel his blood boiling. He knew full well what being a pawn felt like. 

    “Levi?” 

    With a look of genuine concern in her eyes, Madeline gently placed her hand on his and moved it away from her lips. “What’s wrong?”

    “The girl you fought with is of the Orimura clan. Not a guard, or one of the house staff, she was of the clan. And I have no idea how you managed to dodge her or get out of there alive.”

    He rubbed his temples, wondering if this is what a human headache feels like. He was furious inside, and his head ached trying to suppress it.

    “No more missions for a while, ok?” he said, trying to reign in his anger and be gentle with her. “We need to make sure this blows over first.”

    “I’m sorry,” she apologized sadly, looking down at the pizza on her plate. 

    Madeline could feel the gravity of the situation weighing down on her. Levi was right. She shouldn’t have taken this. She should have listened. She wasn’t sure how this would affect her relationship with Syriem, or the client, but knew it wouldn’t be good.

    With a graceful sweep of his hand, Levi lifted her chin, so she was forced to look at him directly. Her sadness was fully apparent in her glistened eyes as she fought back tears. Sorrow was a hard aura to deal with, and although Levi felt the pain of her emotion throughout his body just by being so close to her, he persevered. Trying to remain strong, she attempted to divert her eyes from his, but he wouldn’t let her. She didn’t cry though. Her stubbornness overcame her sadness, and she managed to suppress the tears. She’d come so far with his training and support, farther than Levi had ever figured she could. And here she was, taking on a job that no average human should have even considered. Even after a confrontation, she came out unscathed. But she shouldn’t have. She should be...

    “It’s not your fault,” he reassured her, feeling grateful that she returned unharmed. “Something tells me you weren't supposed to succeed in the first place. I’m just glad you’re back in one piece. If anything were to happen to...”

    Levi inhaled sharply, catching himself in the midst of something foreign. He closed his mouth though his eyes were still wide. 

    No, he told himself sternly. I. Will. Not.

    “You need to eat,” he continued suddenly, expression melting into a sly grin as he released her chin. “And while you’re at it, I want the best description you can give me of the stranger with the gun.”

    Madeline went into as much detail as she could remember, from height to clothing to a physical description, and although Levi didn’t know this person, he committed it to memory. He needed to find out who it was, because without his interference, Madeline would have been dead. 

    After they finished their late dinner, Madeline took a seat on the couch with her laptop while Levi cleaned up in the kitchen. She sat staring at the screen for a few minutes, tossing around ideas on how to approach the fact that she had failed her contract. There wasn’t any easy way to say it, so she just started typing an update to Syriem with all the facts.

    The contract was not completed in full, she began typing. There was a last minute change in the security measures which prompted a secondary approach of the property. The set was located, but I was attacked by one of the Orimura clan who secured the katana before I could claim it. 

    Madeline stopped typing for a moment, considering whether to add the part about the stranger who saved her life. Since she was explicitly requested by someone for this contract, it’s possible, as Levi suggested, it was a setup, and she wasn't supposed to have succeeded. Passing on the information to this unknown client about the stranger with the gun would alert them to the fact that she had help. At this point, that sounded like a bad decision no matter how it was worded. 

    Fingers moving once again on the keyboard, she finished the email.

    I managed to make it out with the wakizashi only. Please advise.

    After she sent her report, Madeline let Levi know. The only thing left to do now was wait.

    “Mind if I stick around to see how this plays out?” Levi asked, drying his hands in a kitchen towel after washing the plates they had used. 

    “Sure, let me get you a blanket for the couch,” Madeline answered as she went off down the hall returning with an oversized throw. “I’m going to go lay down. If you hear anything, let me know. I’ve got my email notifications up pretty loud on my laptop.”

    Nodding, Levi took the throw from her hands and got comfy on her sofa while Madeline headed off to her room and closed the bedroom door. He wasn’t sleepy in the least, and within moments found himself texting Maseo, who he knew would be awake at this hour. Levi asked him about the stranger with the gun, but Maseo didn’t know of anyone who matched the description. Then he told him about Madeline’s failed contract. Out of all the friends Levi had, Maseo was the only one that knew all his secrets. The only one he trusted with his very life.

    Maseo was positively shocked that Levi had even let Madeline accept such a deal, to which Levi responded that he wasn’t really sure why he did either, but it wasn’t easy to forbid someone from doing something. Sometimes, he told Maseo, it was easier to help them than to hinder them.

    So how are you feeling about all this? Maseo texted.

    What do you mean?

    You know what I mean. About her almost getting killed.

    I’m mad. I should have been there.

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but once we vampires teach a fledgling what they need to survive, we let them make their own way. That should be easy for you to do as well, but you’re not letting go. You need to recognize what’s going on here.

    Levi typed something, hesitated long enough that it got saved as a draft message, and then deleted it all, staring at his phone until Maseo sent him another text.

    Or have you already?

    It’s not what you’re thinking} Levi finally replied. {I’m a perfectionist and can’t leave well enough alone. Her failure is mine for not teaching her enough. If my apprentice screws up, it tarnishes my reputation.

    Well, if you’re going to play it that way fine. If I come across anything to do with your mystery man, I’ll let you know Maseo messaged. In the meantime, I would be pretty cautious with contracts for a while. Yours and hers.

    There was a loud notification ping as an email landed in Madeline’s inbox.

    Gotta go. Duty calls  Levi texted. Ja ne.

    Flipping the screen open on her laptop, Levi clicked to open the email response from Syriem. 

    It was not what he was expecting.

    Madeline - Nevertheless, the client is pleased with your effort. In their own words, the fact that you “stirred things up a bit in there” was enough to satisfy the objective they were hoping for, katana obtained or not.  Full payment has been deposited, and as was initially stated in the details of the contract, the wakizashi is yours to keep. Thank you for your service. 

    It made absolutely no sense at all. Levi woke Madeline in a hurry to have her come read it.

    “What the actual fuck?” Madeline thought out loud. “I failed the mission. Failed it! If they wanted the Orimura estate to get their panties in a bunch, I could think of a lot better ways to do it.”

    She looked up at Levi, hoping he would have some hidden insight or explanation, but he was just as bewildered as she was. 

    “Do me a favor,” he spoke after thinking about things for a while. “Don’t accept any future contracts unless you run them by me, okay?”

    Madeline nodded.

    “But for now, get some rest,” he continued. “I’m going to head back to my place and do some digging. I’ll contact you if I find anything.”

    “Thank you for being here,” Madeline said as Levi made his way toward her front door.  

    Levi stopped for a moment, but instead of turning around, he simply waved his hand in farewell and left without looking back. 

     


    --------------------------------------------------

     


    “I have a message from master Gideon,” Cole said right after Scott answered his phone. “What is all that noise in the background?”

    “I’m at a nightclub,” Scott replied, a finger in his open ear to make hearing Cole’s call easier. “Give me a second to move somewhere a bit less rowdy.”

    The background music grew fainter as Scott moved in a hurry out into the alley behind the club. Cole was in England, and the call was long distance. Dealing with Cole when he’s angry was a drag, and Scott would do anything to prevent that, including lying. 

    “Okay, I can hear you better now.”

    “Your girlfriend survived the test master Gideon presented to her,” Cole continued. “Confirming his suspicions of her lineage. Chances are this test has left Leviticus suspicious, and you need to focus on convincing her to come with you on a trip home as soon as possible. Say whatever it takes to get her willing to fly here. Once she is home, we’ll take care of the rest.”

    “What do you mean, take care of the rest?” Scott asked. This part was new to him. He’d always been told if he got her to see their point of view, that he would be able to keep her as a reward. Cole made it sound like he and master Gideon were going to assume control of her once she was in England. 

    “There are things we will need from her first,” Cole explained. “Namely analysis of her necklace and how it connects to her bloodline. Once we unlocked her secrets, you may have her back to do what you please. Make her your child, make her a mindless follower, use her as a blood resource, master Gideon does not care what you do at that point. Just get her to London happy and unharmed.”

    Scott didn’t like what he was being told. How was he supposed to maintain being her knight, the man she trusted, the man she adored, if he was to hand her over to them? Cole was no charmer of ladies, but Gideon… Gideon wasn’t called ‘master’ for nothing. He was the most charming and terrifying being Scott had ever met. Madeline was beautiful, and if Gideon decided he wanted her, Scott didn’t stand a chance. Just the thought sent him into a rage. Only he would have her. She belonged to him. No one else. Ever.

    Stomping down the dark alley with the heavy beats of the club fading away behind him, Scott took a left turn which put him on the next main street. Grumbling to himself, he walked for a block and then entered a tattoo parlor that was still open. The windows were covered in black paper to provide privacy from onlookers, and the small shop had a tiny waiting area of four small folding chairs. A short counter ran the width of the shop, with a gap at the left wall to allow passage into the back area where all the work was done. The counter also served as a glass display case where the shop sold its jewelry and a few other items like lighters and water pipes. Behind the counter was a heavyset man in his thirties, with a buzzcut and a short brown beard. The whole shop was immaculate, and even the guy behind the counter was wearing a spotless apron.

    “I’d like my tongue pierced,” Scott asked the artist behind the counter. 

    After giving Scott a once-over glance, the artist directed him to one of four open chairs behind the counter, right next to where another tattoo artist was packing up.

    “I got this one,” the guy behind the counter told the other artist. “Just pack up and go home. This shouldn’t take long.”

    Nodding, the other man packed up his things and left out the front door, leaving Scott and the piercer alone. 

    “You from England?” the slightly heavyset man asked Scott as he prepared his equipment. Making small talk was part of the job, but to be honest, he really just wanted to get through this quick and head home. It had been a grueling day.

    “Yeah,” Scott replied, settling into the seat. 

    “I see you have a nose piercing,” the man continued, slipping latex gloves on over his large hands. “This one is going to hurt a lot more than that one did.”

    “Yeah, yeah. Just hurry up,” Scott snapped back. 

    “Listen man, you don’t have to be a prick,” the artist said. “I was just trying to give you fair warning.”

    Scott said nothing. Just waited for the guy to clamp the forceps on. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the needle get prepped for insertion. 

    “Going in from the bottom in 3… 2… 1…”

    There was a sharp pain for only a moment, and then the artist fixed the steel barbell in place. Scott could already feel the wound healing around the metal.

    “Now ice water and ibuprofen will help with the swelling you’re going have the first couple of…  What the hell?”

    The piercer quickly noticed something was not right. The tongue he’d just pierced was healed, looking as if the barbell had been there for months. Scott was in no pain, and there was no more blood.

    Before he could wrap his mind around what was happening, Scott rose from the chair, grabbed the man by the throat and charged, slamming his whole body into the drywall. His neck was snapped instantly. Lunging at his throat, the silver-haired vampire drank in a violent rage until there was no more left. He then proceeded to toss and tear into the body, leaving bits and pieces of flesh and clothing all over the shop, and toppling equipment and furniture in the process. 

    “Fuck you,” Scott cursed at no one in particular. “Nothing better than food, the lot of you. I’d kill you all if I could. Gonna LORD OVER YOU ALL!”

    Picking up a chair, he hurled it at the front counter, smashing the glass top to bits. With violent steps he marched to the front, thrusting his hands into the case and grabbing a fist full of jewelry before stuffing his hands in his front pant pockets. He then proceeded to unbutton his shirt, leaving it in a bloody pile on the floor. At the very back of the shop was a break room with lockers and a coat rack. Scott grabbed his victim’s coat, which was twice his size, and threw it on before exiting the shop through the back door. 

    He didn’t bother to call for clean up. Why should he? Let the cows come and try to catch him. All they would find is death.

    Edited by Sinajfae

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