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She had spent a week casing the joint, or at least that’s how she liked to think of it. It calmed her nerves to view these things in terms of B-movie plots. Keeping the notion of danger mildly amusing instead of terrifying made it easier to do her job without ill-timed cases of the freak-outs.
It also made it easy to slip out the staff door at the rear of the pub at the proper time and return through the front five minutes later looking like an entirely different person. Her bag had been stashed in the alley behind the bins, well wrapped in plastic. She continued to hold out hope that one of these days she’d get to Scooby-Doo it and use a hole in a big old oak tree as her hiding place, but those were hard to come by in Croydon, South London. A girl had to work with what was available.
She wouldn’t call her new appearance a disguise, exactly. More like camouflage. The secret wasn’t to not be recognized (extremely unlikely given the total number of people she knew in this country had been cut in half a few months ago), it was to not stand out. Her natural coloring of bright red hair and glow-in-the-dark pale skin drew too many eyes, so she covered them up with something a little more common. Pancake makeup took care of the pallor, and to complete the picture, she had slathered on lipstick the approximate color of a double-decker bus and enough mascara and eyeliner to make a raccoon feel insecure. A wig sporting dark roots and brassy blond highlights covered up her own distinctive strands and presented just the right level of delinquent hair-color maintenance to make her convincing as a lapsed brunette.
Since clothes made the woman, she paid attention to those as well. Her tight skinny jeans disappeared into a pair of bulky, unstructured boots that looked like they belonged on either a moon landing or an unfortunate Inuit. Personally, she thought they were uglier than sin, but they possessed the twin virtues of an inexplicable claim to being “in” and flat soles. The suckers might be hideous, but at least they didn’t hamper her movement.
Over the jeans—or, rather, above the jeans—she wore a midriff-skimming sweater in bright pink with a label that had absolutely no claim on reality. Topping it all, her anorak of shiny silver and faux-fur trim hung open, the better to display both the occasional flashes of belly her sweater revealed and the Burberry check scarf that hung around her neck. Another knockoff, of course, but it was the check that counted around here.
She looked as if she’d been born down the next street, meaning absolutely no one within a one-mile radius would bother looking at her twice. That was exactly how she wanted it.
Ivy pushed through the front door and into the Friday-night crowd, feeling a surge of nostalgia for the clouds of smoke that hadn’t floated through the air of British pubs in decades. It would have lent things a certain Sherlock Holmesian air she would have appreciated. Instead, she had a clear view all the way from the tap to the back corner of the room. She could see exactly what she had come here for.
Pasting a casual smile on her face, Ivy began to weave her way through the crowd. She might be keeping her eye on the prize, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t keeping track of the bodies around her for more than the usual reason of not running into one of them and making a fool of herself. Situational awareness had become a hard-earned skill of hers since she’d gotten involved in her little side business here in London, and it had come in handy on more than one occasion.
Like now, when she tried to move past a knot of local lads cozied up to the bar.
She had made a mental note of them earlier, when she’d been lurking in her previous camouflaged incarnation, just as she’d made a mental note of the older couples occupying several tables, the group of ladies gathered for an obvious hen night, and the middle-aged men with their attention glued to the television in the corner that broadcast a seemingly nonstop schedule of football matches. Unlike those other groups, though, Ivy had made note of the lads because she knew they were the ones most likely to cause her trouble.
And now it appeared they didn’t want to disappoint her. How sweet.
“Well, hello there, sweetheart. Buy you a drink?”
The young man closest to her reached out to pinch the fabric of her coat and tug her to a stop, all the while flashing her a crooked grin he probably practiced in his bathroom mirror, thinking it made him look rakish and charming. It might have even worked had the rest of him not screamed out “yob” at the top of its lungs. She couldn’t go so far as to call him a chav (mostly due to fashion choice), but he bore the look of someone with an ASBO or five on his police record.
She replied with a studious avoidance of eye contact and a patently false, close-lipped smile. “Thanks, no. I’m meeting someone.”
A couple of his mates snickered into their lagers, which of course did not help her escape attempt.
He tried another smile, but his eyes had narrowed. “Aw, don’t be like that, love. Me name’s Teddy. What’s yours, eh?”
“Busy,” Ivy said, revoking the smile and shrugging out of his grip.
She didn’t wait for attempt number three, just plowed forward and refocused on her goal. Good thing, too, because said goal had taken on the slight grayish pallor of incipient panic. She needed to settle him down and get their plan back on track.
She also needed to ignore the mumbled curses and rather vile suggestions Teddy threw at her back as she left him to his friends. What a charmer, that one.
A few more strides and a couple of last-minute weaves brought her to the small table she’d been aiming for. The occupant stood at her approach, then had to reach out to steady the glasses resting on the wooden surface because he’d nearly knocked them over with the nervous energy of his movements. Ivy hid a wince behind a bright smile and reached up to peck the complete stranger right on the lips.
The things she did for duty.
Not that the stranger was physically repulsive, or anything. Frankly, he looked just like she’d expected—tall, a little gangly, with graying, light brown hair that had begun to recede just a bit above the temples, and tortoiseshell glasses that gave him the air of an insecure junior accountant. His name was Martin, she knew, and it suited him. He looked like a Martin. He also looked to be about thirty seconds away from puking on his own shoes. She needed to get him to calm the heck down before they could move on to step two of their prearranged plan.
“Hello, sweetie. Did you order me a drink?”
She kept her tone breezy and her voice just loud enough to be heard at the neighboring tables. Her accent sounded like a careful combination of RP and the Estuary accent. Think Judi Dench meets Russell Brand. It gave the careful impression that she was from London, was a member the working middle class, had a respectable position in an office somewhere local, but was looking to move up in the world. Amazing what the English could convey with no more than a couple of vowel sounds, wasn’t it?
“Ta for that.” She settled into her seat and tugged Martin down next to her. “Lord, what a week. I’m totally fagged. How was your day?”
For a moment, the man just stared at her, eyes wide and jaw slack. It took a stealthy kick to his shins beneath the table before he managed to stutter out a squeaky version of, “Oh, fine. Just fine, love. G-glad you’re here.”
Ivy smiled again and lifted her glass of ale, deliberately clicking the edge against his and meeting his gaze pointedly. “Me, too. Here’s to our weekend, then.”
“T-t-to our w-weekend.” Martin didn’t manage to force a smile, but at least he raised his pint and took a drink. Frankly, he looked like whisky would have done him better than beer at that moment. He all but radiated nervous energy, which just made her job more challenging. Lucky her.
“Come here, sweetie,” she cooed, adopting a flirtatious expression. “I’ve missed you.” She covered her hand with his, gave a squeeze, and leaned into him as if nuzzling playfully. Taking advantage of the appearance of intimacy, she hissed a few instructions into his ear. “Relax, Martin. Take a few deep breaths and remember the plan I e-mailed you. Did you memorize it?” Ivy waited for his jerky nod before she continued. “Good. Then everything is going to be fine. I have it under control, okay? I’ve done this a dozen times. The nocturnis are not going to get their hands on you, but you need to calm down and remember your part. I’ll get you to the Guild. I promise.”
There was a moment of silence while he digested her words, but after a shaky inhalation, Martin nodded and wrapped one arm around her in an only slightly awkward embrace. “Yes, sorry,” he muttered. “This is all freaking me out, but I’ll get a grip. Sorry.”
Ivy picked up her beer again, but remained leaning against her companion, giving the impression of a couple in love out for a night together. In her experience, it was the kind of cover least likely to be questioned and easiest to fabricate on short notice. That was why she had so often relied on it since she’d begun her work smuggling Wardens in hiding along an improvised sort of Underground Railroad. The network had sprung up over the last year after it had become obvious that the latest strategy of the Order of Eternal Darkness was to eliminate the Guild of Wardens to thus ease the way for the return of their demonic masters to the realm of humanity.
Call her crazy, but Ivy figured that if a worthy cause had ever existed, then saving the earth from an apocalyptic war and enslavement by the forces of evil was it. She’d joined right up. You know, after she’d overheard her uncle and cousin becoming casualties of that war. Losing loved ones proved to be one hell of a motivator.
Martin was just the latest in the list of Wardens she had helped get out of England and to the relative safety of France, where their Guild had once been headquartered. The Guild itself had been destroyed by the Order, whose members were better known as nocturnis, but Ivy’s research (more like half-blind poking around, really) had unearthed the existence of a resistance network dedicated to keeping any remaining Guild members safe and hidden from the Order. Contacts in the area around Paris had established a secret refuge, first gathering the few Wardens who had rushed to the city upon learning of the Guild headquarters’ destruction by fiery magical attack. Then they began slowly taking in the more outlying members who had gone into hiding once it became clear their kind was being systematically hunted and eliminated by the servants of the Darkness.
Safety in numbers was the rallying cry, plus the Wardens had begun to realize that with more than three-quarters of their number dead and most of the rest reported missing, they needed to join together if they were going to come up with any way to stop the Order’s plans to release the Seven Demons of Darkness from their magical prisons. That being their end goal, natch. Once freed, the Seven would be able to join together and bring Eternal Darkness to the human world, killing and enslaving all of existence, feeding off the souls and lifeblood of humanity. Only one thing had ever successfully prevented that exact doom—the Guardians of the Light—and as far as anyone in the Guild could tell, those guys had gone completely MIA. No one had been able to figure out where they were, though Ivy’s Paris contact assured her the search was the surviving Wardens’ top priority.
Getting Martin to join in was adding one more soldier to the battle, and was the only way Ivy had found to cope with the deaths of her family. Some might call it revenge, and she was fine with that. As far as she was concerned, revenge was entirely justified. She didn’t care if it was served cold, warm, or buffet style; she would have seconds, please.
Lifting her glass, Ivy sipped her malty beer and used the opportunity to glance at the area immediately surrounding their table. The pub was doing a brisk trade typical of Friday evening as people stopped for a drink and a last chat with coworkers, settled in for a night spent downing pints and cheering the football, or met up with family and friends for a brief libation before moving on to the rest of their evening’s entertainments. Exactly as Ivy and her companion appeared to be doing.
A pub provided the perfect setting for Ivy and an ideal launching point for her mission to meet with Martin, go over their arrangements, and then set off on the journey that would ultimately see him settled safely with the other surviving Wardens in France. The Friday-night crowd provided additional cover as it decreased the chances that anyone would find her and Martin any more interesting than the next white, heterosexual, working-class couple in the place. Blend in and move on. She used the motto so often, she ought to break down and cross-stitch that sucker on a pillowcase.
In her copious spare time.
No one appeared to be paying them any particular attention. Even good old Teddy had turned his back to their table, so Ivy let herself relax a little, though she kept her voice low as she spoke to Martin behind a casual smile.
“So, you got the information I e-mailed, and you memorized it, which means you ought to know basically what’s going to happen,” she said, leaning close like an adoring lover. “We have to stay here long enough to finish our drinks like any other couple. Blending in is the most important part of this whole operation, and the more you relax, the better you’ll be at it. Got it?”
Martin took another long pull of his beer and nodded. The shaking in his hand appeared to be subsiding, so Ivy was going to call that a win.
“Good. A few more minutes here, and then we can leave. You’re going to hold my hand, because that will look natural, but it will also insure that we don’t get separated and that you keep up with me. You need to keep up. I’m as sure as I can be that nothing will go wrong, but if it does, we may need to move fast, and I can’t be worried about losing you.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed, but he continued to meet her gaze, even though his eyes remained wide behind the lenses of his glasses. Poor guy. His life would have been a hell of a lot easier if he hadn’t been born a Warden. He’d have made an excellent accountant. Or insurance actuary. Maybe a reference librarian. Something solitary and safe, with fewer soul-stealing demons to contend with.
“I’ll do my best,” he said, managing not to stutter through the brief statement. Ivy felt like cheering.
“That’s exactly what you need to do. We’ll have to walk to the tube station, which is about half a mile, but at this time of night, there ought to be enough people around to make anyone think twice about trying to waylay us. The tube will take us to King’s Cross, and from there we duck into St. Pancras’s and catch the Chunnel train to Coquelles. My contact will meet us there and take over getting you to Paris. Understand?”
“What? What do you mean? What contact?” Judging by his tone and expression, along with the way his grip tightened on her hand until she had to fight back a wince of discomfort, Martin did understand but wasn’t very happy with what he’d just heard. Panic had once again reared its head. “You said you’d take me to safety. You, not some person I’ve never met. How am I supposed to trust a complete stranger?”
With her free hand, Ivy gave him a reassuring pat, then tried to pry his fingers from their death grip around hers. “Martin, I’m a complete stranger, remember? This is the first time you’ve ever set eyes on me.”
“B-but we’ve talked. We’ve e-mailed and chatted online. We even spoke on the phone once, on the disposable mobile you told me to buy.”
“Right, and I hope you have another one in your briefcase tonight, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t strangers. We are, but you trust me, and I promise you, you can trust my contacts in France. We’ve been working together for a long time, and you’re far from the first person we’ve taken through this exact process. I can’t take you all the way to Paris.”
Okay, now what Ivy had thought of as panic was just starting to sound like petulance. “Because,” she said, striving for patience, and for the self-control not to yank her hand from under his, punishing grip or not, “you aren’t the only person who needs my help. I told you there are other Wardens in hiding who want to get to safety. Helping them is my job, and I need to get them to this point the same way I got you here.”
“Besides, changing traveling companions is safer for you. This was all in the information I sent you. The stuff you said you read?”
Martin flushed, then gave a jerky nod. “Oh, right.”
“There will be a change of clothes, new glasses, a new look waiting for you at the station. Paul will have his eye on us from the moment we arrive, but he won’t make contact with you until we’ve split up at the loos. That’s when you change. He’ll be with you the minute you do, and I won’t leave until I know you’re safely in his hands. I promise.”
“And how is that safer for me?” he asked, still suspicious.
“Because,” she said, struggling for patience, “you go from you traveling with me as half of a couple off for a romantic holiday weekend, to a different, single man meeting up with a mate for a casual holiday with your friend Paul. It’s an extra layer of insurance in the unlikely event that someone were to track you that far.”
“Has that ever happened? Being followed like that?”
“Never.” Ivy lied with convincing ease. “And it won’t happen this time, either.”
Of all her proffered reassurances, that one seemed to have the greatest impact. She could see some of the tension melt from Martin’s posture and gave a silent prayer of thanks. Dealing with nerves was to be expected, but real panic only put them both in danger.
Well, greater danger. It wasn’t like this whole thing wasn’t risky to begin with.
It still amazed her that for the most part, the general public continued to live in ignorance of the threat posed to them by the Order, and in spite of all the efforts of Ivy and the people like her, that threat only seemed to be growing. What had started with rumors of Order sects operating in Canada, the U.S., Eastern Europe, and South America had become newspaper headlines of bodies found with evidence of ritual slayings. Then there had been scattered terrorist attacks in places like Boston, Massachusetts, and Dublin, Ireland, ones where a handful of survivors babbled about devils and hooded cultists and were dismissed as crackpot liars or mentally ill.
By the time the natural disasters had surged in violence and frequency, Ivy and her brethren knew that global warming wasn’t enough to account for the fact that some “earthquake” victims appeared to have been stabbed in the heart or had their throats slit before death. Not even modern science could explain why the “natural sinkholes” kept appearing in areas where legends and folklore had long whispered about portals to hell. The war had already started, even if the world at large had no idea, and humanity was in serious trouble.
In the last few months, Ivy had started to hear other rumors, though, ones even the people spreading them seemed reluctant to discuss in depth. Maybe because they sounded too good to be true. A few whispers had begun to say that some of the Guardians had woken.
Light above, she only wished that were true. According to the lore of the Wardens, thousands of years ago, the most powerful magic users in the Guild had joined together and summoned from the Light seven powerful, inhuman warriors to fight against the Demons of the Darkness. Appearing almost like medieval gargoyles, these creatures were immortal, almost entirely immune to magical attack, each as strong as a dozen of the strongest human athletes, and entirely dedicated to the battle against evil. They existed only to fight against the Demons and their servants, helping to imprison the Seven and keep them away from the human world throughout the past centuries. Then, when their task was complete, they were put to sleep in the form of stone statues that could only be woken again in time of need by the Wardens assigned as their personal aides.
Ivy had heard the story as a child. Her mother had come from a family of Wardens, her brother George and nephew James only the latest in a long line that had included her father and grandfather and his father before that. Even though removed from the business of the Guild itself, Dorothy Fitzroy Beckett possessed a great deal of pride in her family’s legacy and her brother’s place in it. She’d shared a lot of knowledge with her daughter in the form of family stories, and Ivy had learned a lot more since she’d first looked into Uncle George’s and his son’s deaths.
She knew all about the Guardians, including the fact that the records of their whereabouts had been destroyed—along with everything else in the Guild’s records—at the library in their headquarters. No one knew where they were, and the attempts to locate them that Ivy’s contacts in Paris had been making had so far turned up next to nothing. Which sucked, when you figured that without them, humanity had next to no chance of stopping the Order from unleashing the Seven on an unsuspecting world. In fact, according to Ivy’s main informant, the surviving Wardens felt certain that at least three of the Seven had already been freed from their prisons. The presence of those Demons in the mortal realm offered the true explanation for the ritual slayings, the terrorist attacks, and the flurry of (un)natural disasters.
Still, even if humanity was screwed, that didn’t mean they would stop fighting. Ivy certainly wouldn’t, and getting Martin to safety meant one more Warden working to find the Guardians and wake them before it was too late.
Draining her half-pint glass, Ivy set it on the table with a click and turned to look at her companion. “Time to get moving. Are you ready?”
For half a second, she thought he might say no. Either that or pass out. But then Martin grabbed his beer, chugged it down like an American frat boy, and gave a shaky nod. “Let’s go, then.”
Copyright © 2017 by Christine Warren
Excerpt from Baby, I’m Howling for You copyright © 2017 by Christine Warren