Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Huntsmen 2: Backtrack by Amber Green

Title: The Huntsmen 2: Backtrack

Author name: Amber Green

Website address:

Title: The Huntsmen: Backtrack

Author name: Amber Green

Website address:

Buy link:

May 7, 1984

Sugar woke before dawn, hearing sirens doppler into the distance as if headed back into the dream that had ejected her. She stared at the cracked ceiling, lost, and then remembered to look at the city map taped to the wall by the bed. Tampa.

If this is Tampa, my name is Taylor. First name, Sarah.

And, dammit, it was time to move on. Find a new identity, a new room to rent, a new job that would pay enough so she could send something worthwhile toward Joe’s support. The process had become all too familiar in the three years since she’d stood in that oak-paneled meeting room, watching the judge tap cigarette ash into a Co-Cola bottle, hearing a radio drone on about the wedding gown Lady Diana was wearing today, and hearing her own voice like a stranger’s, agreeing to testify against Digger and his goons.

But then the feds had proven equally inept with their so-called witness protection program and their ability to keep Digger behind bars pending trial. So when he ran, she’d had to run. And keep running, although he probably had condos all over the country in addition to a land yacht of a luxury bus bigger than her current home. Digger had a thing about being clean, and a thing about being comfortable. Clean was usually the best Sugar could hope for.

One good thing about moving on -- just before leaving was the time to contact Joe. “Mom!” he always whispered. “You’re okay!”

That call was never enough. But it was worth living for, and therefore worth waiting for. Couldn’t call now, no matter how badly she wanted to hear his voice. Couldn’t call until she had everything lined up for her next metamorphosis.

She scratched absently at the hollows in her forearms, where the knives she wore under her sleeves had made homes for themselves. These impressions might stay in place long after the knives were gone; she still had a hollow around the base of her ring finger to match the wedding band she’d once worn. That band had gone for…she stretched slowly, all over…forty bucks. Yeah, twenty-six dollars to buy Joe’s bus ticket to safety, and the rest for burgers along the way.

Best forty bucks she’d ever spent.

The driving need to make contact wasn’t a good enough reason to give up an identity, especially here where the pay was so good, but other concerns gnawed at her. One was the fact she was too close to home, to the three-stoplight town where she’d grown up, and where she’d finally sent Joe to hide.

Two was the time span. She’d been here four months. Twice now, Digger had found her trail in less time. Four months and this close to home was pushing her luck on two sides at once. Couldn’t do that. Whatever measure of luck she’d been born with, she’d long ago burned through it. This was supposed to have been a brief stop to pump up her finances with the identity of a lady she actually knew, a retired physical therapist, but she’d gotten sidetracked.

And that was three: the kicker. She’d lost her marbles. Gone gaga over a patient.

She’d done physical therapy in about half her identities, but had never, ever fallen for a patient. Not until last month, when she’d walked into the room where Marco was fooling with the grip gauge and they’d both stopped dead and stared at one another. Neither had moved, and might not have breathed, until she’d finally found her voice and said, “Excuse me, but this room is for pediatric patients.”

He’d blushed, all schoolboy. One of those boys who got a man’s face and a man’s size when, poor things, they were just adolescents inside.

Jailbait. That’s the operative word. Worse than an entanglement, and getting entangled in other people’s lives is how you get caught. That dark, intent stare felt like a man’s appreciation, but it was really only a boy’s puppy crush.

She stretched again. Might as well get up now.

* * * * *

Fort stretched out on the weather-roughened planks of the matriarch’s pier, watching the phosphorescent leading edges of the waves coming in. Even with no moon, the sky glowed with Tampa’s everlasting city-aura, and the waves reflected it. The punklets, his youngest pair of brothers, snored lightly at his feet.

The sun would be up soon, stopping the boys’ sneak-and-stalk exercises. They’d barely have time to shower and change before starting the schoolweek: five straight days of pretending to be completely human.

He caught scent of a male, rank with day-old sweat. The snoring twins were too young to produce that odor. So, a pair of the teens has picked me as prey? He grinned at the swells rolling under the pier.

Trying to sneak up on him took balls, if nothing else. In the past six years -- no, seven years, since right before Dad had taken up with the punklets’ mother -- only Cassio had succeeded. And Cassio’s reward had been surgery to put his arm back together, followed by the six weeks of physical therapy he’d just completed. Not that it had put a dent in his smart-ass attitude.

This pair was good. They used the rhythm of the waves to cover their footfalls and their breathing. But their assumption their prey would pay attention to only sight and sound was pure arrogance, which could get them killed. He spoke toward the waves. “At this time of night, the wind comes off the land toward the water. Never expect your quarry to be nose-deaf.”

A moment passed. Then one of the stalkers sighed. “Shit. I thought we had you.”

Russ and Jimmy. Of course. His cousins were sixteen, six years his junior, and increasingly prone to challenge his authority.

He rolled over as the teens settled in lotus positions beside the sleeping little ones. Russ, identifiable by his mullet haircut, mashed a mosquito on his cheek. “Even if you smelled someone, how could you tell it wasn’t them two?”

Jimmy nodded, his dandelion-puff hair bobbing. “We all smell of bugspray.”

The punklets stirred. One mumbled, a note of distress. His twin, still deep asleep, put a hand on his arm in an automatic comforting gesture. They settled together. They had long hair like kids on TV. Or, rather, like Russ and Jimmy, the cool rebels of the family.

Little kids could afford hair long enough to get grabbed in a fight. Most of the twins, like Fort himself, kept it short. Jimmy and Russ always had to be different. If I’d known it was you two coming up on me, I’d have grabbed you by the hair and slung you into the water. Two lessons for the price of one.

Too late now. Fort caught a mosquito and pinched it against the splintery pier. “Guess who’s too young to need Right Guard? Guess who isn’t? When it comes your time to hunt down a hyde, you need to remember he has a better nose than you do. Almost dog-sharp. He won’t be as smart as before he crossed over, but he’ll have some cunning left.”

His cousins remained silent; the lack of a fight was as close to agreement as he got from them these days.

Fort stretched, popping joint after joint. As soon as I get y’all off to school, I’m taking a nap. After a full weekend of beach camping, he deserved a few hours of complete quiet. Then he could boot up the Commodore and see what he’d been missing on the Compuserve boards. Maybe drum up some business for Double Deuce Security, before the proceeds of the last job ran thin. “Whistle everyone in. First three pair in get showers with hot water. The rest get to wash up at the hose.”

“First three is you, the punklets, and us. Game over.”

“The punklets don’t need showers, and you two have to stay outside to supervise. Plus, you have PE first period. You can shower then.”

Awww, mannn!

He stretched again, ignoring them, and followed the scent of strong Cuban coffee to the matriarch’s back deck. He paused at the door, unsure whether to knock, and the matriarch opened it a crack.

“Good morning.” She cocked her head to the side, like a chickadee, and peered up at him. “Any of your brothers get hauled off by mosquitoes?”

“I’m having them counted now,” he said, politely.

“Are you Fort or Cassio?”

“I’m Fort, ma’am.”

“Then come in for coffee, do. I don’t have the patience to listen to Cassio moon on about his new Perfect Woman -- I swear he finds a new one every three months! -- but you’re worth talking to.”

He smiled. “Thank you.” Wiping his feet, he added, “If Cassio gets his way with the one he’s been sniffing behind the past few weeks, we may all be in for some relief.”

She gestured toward a round-tabled breakfast nook overlooking the dock and the waves. Her loudly flowered caftan fluttered with the notion. She hadn’t dressed yet, but she had taken time to crayon-on her lipstick and eyebrows. “Is this female why you’ve asked to speak with me?”

“No, ma’am.” He stopped, and considered. Cassio falling in love normally meant heartfelt declarations, bad poetry, and mournful sighs. This time, Cassio falling in love meant a surreptitious photo, copies of the cleverly faked documents in her personnel file, and a plea to find out who the woman really was. He hadn’t found out, but he hadn’t given up trying yet. “I don’t see an immediate connection. Perhaps you might correct me.”

“Sugar, no cream?”

“Please.” Cassio was the one who liked sugar and double cream.

“Angelina’s babies have dropped. It won’t be long now.”

“They aren’t mine, regardless of what she says. Nor Cassio’s.” But they very well might be Russ or Jimmy’s, neither of whom was emotionally ready to hive off a family of his own. Meaning they’d be effectively mine anyway, just like the results of Ty’s first bused rubber. Shit.

“I hear she’s an extraordinary feeder, and of course she has a daughter.”

“She swore that daughter was mine, until it was past arguing.” No huntsman ever fathered a daughter -- didn’t have the genes to do it. Angelina had been adopted as a toddler and raised with huntsmen, but she had to have been slipping around the back ways with human males, to have turned up with a singlet child, much less a daughter. Angelina had the iron will to eventually become a matriarch, and command obedience among the huntsmen in her territory. But she didn’t have the maturity.

Right now, she was just difficult. He had enough difficulty with the guys.

The matriarch filled a pair of small, thick-walled cups. “What if the Guardian says this pair is yours?”

So much for peaceful sleep for a while. I bet the price of diaper service has gone up too. He shrugged and reluctantly took the bench seat behind the round table, even though it put his back to the window, as a nod to the matriarch’s status. “We’d need a new nursery setup. Gave ours away when the punklets outgrew it.”

The matriarch smiled faintly. “If not protection from Angelina’s claim, and if not authorization to bring in this new female Cassio has fixated on, what did you want of me?”

I want the right to get close to a woman on my own terms. I want to choose what to tell her instead of telling her what you think she can be trusted to hear. I want a say in whether any of my guy have become enough of a risk to be neutered or hunted down like a rabid dog. I want to be treated as an adult, not merely as the eldest of fouteen boys. He couldn’t see any way to say that without sounding like a whiny-ass adolescent, though, and even if he could, it would lead away from the line of conversation he wanted to pursue. He sipped the coffee, oily and bitter as it was, without the sugar she seemed to have forgotten.

“Don’t drink that. I haven’t doctored it yet.” She spooned pale golden sugar from an iridescent blue Depression Glass bowl. “I almost said don’t drink that, boy. But you haven’t been a boy for some time, have you? It takes a man to tend his responsibilities, and to keep tending them when the job gets old.”

He smiled. The other matriarchs routinely offered him fruit juice, or even milk, and he had to take it to prove he had more sense than ego. Swearing obedience to this one matriarch had been one of the best decisions he’d ever made. She’d gradually loosened the reins since he’d taken over as surrogate parent for his brothers, then his nephews and cousins as well. She’d stopped demanding copies of everyone’s report cards, copies of his shopping lists and bank statements, input on how the boys dressed and wore their hair, details of the punklets’ weights and bowel habits.

But if she sold her property to those condo people and left, he’d have to prove himself to her successor. Which might not be possible. He couldn’t protect the guys unless he had a matriarch on his side, or unless he took the big risk, stepped forward into the coming power vacuum as the new Guardian. But as far as he knew, there hadn’t been a Guardian under the age of thirty since World War Two. He needed time. Eight years or ten years. Time. “I want you to put off your retirement.”

A knock sounded. Laertes, or Horatio, opened the door enough to poke in his disheveled head. He wore a spray of green sandspurs over his ear. “Russ said me and Ray could shower inside?”

The matriarch’s painted-on eyebrows rose.

Shit. “Do you just open a door in somebody else’s home, Larry? Why bother knocking?”

The boy’s eyes went wide, all chocolate and hurt innocence. “Russ said you were expecting us, to go on in.”

The matriarch chuckled. “That sounds like Russell. Let him know my lawn needs his personal attention this week. The roof and gutters need sweeping too. You’ll find towels on the backs of the toilets.”

“Thanks! Um… Where’s the bathrooms, please, ma’am?”

She directed the parade of reeking boys, each pair carrying a paper sack with clean clothes for school, while refilling her cup and Fort’s. Tybalt’s boys were high-fiving each other and crowing over the fact neither of them had been tagged all weekend.

The punklets came in last, yawning, Robin wiping his nose as he had been all week. Without invitation, they crawled onto the bench seat beside him and leaned in. They’d slept through most of the past night. At their age, though, they really needed more than most of a night.

The matriarch shut the door harder than necessary. “Good grief! Those two can’t be old enough to stay up all night!”

The punklets sat up straight, and Robin made a farting sound in his nose.

Fort put his arms around them anyway. “They’re six, and we have a deal. I only treat them like babies when they act like babies. For example, by making disgusting noises at the table, or in front of the matriarch.”

To his relief, the punklets stood up and bowed, like the little hams they both were. Being huntsmen, they strongly resembled their mother, who’d been a professional mime before Dad went hyde on her.

Robin wiped his nose on a paper napkin. “We’re sorry, ma’am. We won’t do it again.”

“Not on purpose,” his twin added, making a face.

The matriarch softened. “I bet y’all like peanut butter on your toast.”

“Waffles?” Robin asked hopefully.

Fort growled. “What did you mean to say?”

“Sounds great, ma’am!” He squeaked, looking terrified.

The matriarch burst out laughing, her eyes closed and her hands splayed in front of her face. Wiping her eyes with one flowered sleeve, she went back to the fridge. She returned with two glasses of milk and sat down opposite Fort. “Why do you want me not to retire?”

You would have to say that in front of the twin tape recorders. Who might repeat any qualms he voiced in front of the next matriarch, effectively pooping in the pool before he could show off his swimming strokes. He smiled and gave the boys a measured warning stare from under his eyelashes. “You’re awfully young to retire, and you excel in your job. You and the Guardian are a perfect team.”

She curled one side of her mouth. She did not, however, comment on his gall in judging her performance. “We are. We are also getting married, after we both sell out our properties. Taxes, you know. Then we’re moving to Costa Rica.”

Costa Rica? Someplace in South America? Central, maybe? Why? “What could I do to convince you both to postpone your retirement?”

“Until you’re old enough to be Guardian?”

That shot, from nowhere, took his breath. Who’d been talking? Nobody. He hadn’t breathed a word of that secret ambition. Not even to Cassio.

She grinned, plainly delighted, then sobered. “The basic qualification is to be thirty-five or to have raised teenagers. The unspoken qualification is you have to be married to someone who has the qualities to be a matriarch in her own right. You’ve raised teenagers. If one matriarch gave you total support, you’d be a shoo-in. But it won’t be me, because I’m leaving. It won’t be anyone else around here either; they wanted the batch of you…” Her eyes flicked to the little ones, and back to him. “Neutralized, after your father and his twin crossed over. They said every one of y’all would go hyde within two years of puberty, but you lost only Tybalt!” Her eyes went fierce, burning through the grandmotherly softness of her face. “And it wasn’t you who lost him!”

The punklets tensed, huddling against him.

The matriarch looked at them again, and her tone gentled. “What it boils down to, Fort, is you’ve proven all the biddie-hens wrong; they won’t forgive you that. So you have to bring in a new matriarch. You have to find a wife soon, Fort. As in right now. She has to be emotionally stable, intelligent, and tough-minded. And to keep you going under the strain of being a Guardian, she’ll have to be one hell of a feeder. Preferably, she should bring in at least one daughter. I won’t call Angelina perfect, but she’s available and she has promise. If not Angelina, who?”

Who indeed?

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