TACTICAL ERROR: THE RETURN OF MAGIC VIRUS by Rob Preece
ABYSS: THE DARK ROMANCE ANTHOLOGY
For the stupidest caper he'd pulled, Rod Cobrin figured things could be worse. He'd scaled the four-story former department store, deactivated the burglar alarm without being detected, and penetrated deep into the treasure hoard. Around him, gold glittered, artwork looted from the Santa Monica museum gloomed darkly on the wall, and two green lights shone like the largest emeralds he'd ever imagined, reflected by his hooded LED.
But he saw no silver. Had the rumors been wrong?
This building served as the vampire's staging ground, the virtual city hall, and an armed fortress for every troublemaker in this misgoverned zone. If the silver was anywhere, it should be here. Redondo Beach had been one of the richest towns in Southern California, and the vamps had been looting it for three years now. Their treasure would be worth millions. Rod's eyes were as acclimated to the dark as they were going to get, but a vampire's eyes could see far more deeply into the infrared. Camouflage from the nanobe-implanted assault suit he'd stolen from the Warder arsenal offered pathetically little protection. He wished he dared stop for another line of cocaine, but he couldn't. He had thirty minutes to penetrate, grab, and escape. If he was still in the building then, the vampire sentries would spot the hole he'd left and raise the alarm. As it was, the stupidity of his burglary was his biggest protection.
He reached for the emeralds-and touched something soft, warm, and giving.
He reacted without thought, grasping the still figure before it could move-before she could move-his body told him when he brushed against rounded breasts on his way to her mouth. If she screamed, he was dead.
She bit hard into his hand and he reflexively pulled back despite his need to control her.
“Take me with you.”
She was female, all right. Her husky voice exuded sex.
“So you can suck my blood? I don't think so.”
He'd told himself he didn't need a stake. If he had to fight, he would be dead. Now, he wished he had brought something. “I'm not a vamp. I'm an elf.”
He should have known. Vampire eyes are black, red, or pale blue. Besides, when she'd bitten, he hadn't felt oversized canines ripping into him.
“What's an elf doing here?”
“Hanging from the wall, stupid. I'm part of the treasure. A pass-around girl.”
He risked a flash with his light. Yeah, she was an elf. Small, beautiful green eyes, butt-length blonde hair, slender and curvy, all hung on the wall like a trophy.
An honorable man would drop everything, rescue the beautiful girl, and then spend the rest of his life in poverty. Rod was no hero.
“Will you be quiet?” he said. "You'll wake the dead."
“Only if you take me with you.”
Too dangerous, and it would make the vampires mad. “Forget it.”
“I can carry stuff.” She swung gently in her bonds, demonstrating that the vamps had already loaded her up with jewelry. Especially rubies to match the color of blood.
He couldn't hold back the grin. He wasn't sure how much he could get for an elf-girl, but having loot carry loot appealed to his sense of irony. “All right. But stay quiet.”
“Compared to what? You're louder than an elephant. I can't believe the vampires didn't hear you.”
He cut her down. “Just shut up and gather up some of the g old.”
She studied him. “Why not go for the real treasure?”
God, he needed another line. “You mean there's more?”
She nodded. “The good stuff is deeper. I can show you.”
Crap. “Not enough time. Just take what you can grab.”
“I can show you how to get in tomorrow.”
Sneaking in that night had been insane. Coming back for more would be suicidal. He would have to be satisfied with tonight's take--which was not inconsiderable.
He splashed along the beach, risking a shot from the U.S. Coast Guard stationed offshore, dropping ammonia on his tracks to annoy any inquisitive Were, and doubling back twice to throw off potential trackers.
“Where are we going?”
Rod had left the leather leash around the elf's neck, but he hadn't gagged her. She'd been useful in getting him out undiscovered. “I've got a hiding place.”
His hiding place would be useless after this. One way or another, the elf-girl would inform. But he kept thinking about what she'd said, about "the good stuff." If the elf led him to real treasure, he wouldn't have to worry about hiding. He'd be living large beyond the impoverished zone with his fellow normals and leaving the magical behind. “Through here.” He gestured to a sewer grate.
She slid through, her slender, flexible body making it look easy.
He squeezed to follow her, then led her down the storm outlet into what had once been an environmental control room, abandoned during the bio-wars two decades earlier. When it rained, the walls sweated. Fortunately, it didn't rain much in southern California.
The kerosene lamp put his entire cave on view. The five-meter square room was half filled with ancient machinery, long dead, his completely modern computer, his bed, and an old camping stove that served as his kitchen. He tied the elf's slender wrist to the end of his iron bed and dropped himself onto the mattress. “We're here. Now let's take a look at what we got.”
She stared at him for a moment. “You want me now, or shall we wash first?”
He shuddered. “You're an elf. I don't do magical girls." Not even pretty ones.
She shrugged one elegant shoulder. “If you don't want me, can you get me something to wear?”
That was a good idea. The elf-chick turned him on, surprisingly. But he'd never make it back to civilization if word got out that he'd had sex with a magical. He supposed he could do her, then kill her. The laws were lenient when it came to normals killing magical. But that was a bit much even for him.
“There's a clean sheet in that drawer. Drape it around yourself, but take the jewels off first.”
“Want to untie me?”
He loosened the leash a bit, but not too much. He'd read that the return of magic virus made elves strong and he didn't want to have her at his throat.
He watched carefully as she s tripped off her gem-encrusted vest, exposing breasts that were surprisingly full for the elf's slender body. He assured himself that he was only watching to make sure she didn't palm any of the treasure he'd worked so hard to steal.
Everyone knew the magical were sneaky like that. But his blood rush proved the lie. Her diamond-studded g-string hid almost nothing but glowed with body heat as she tossed it to him.
The vamps had shaved her. He'd heard they didn't like anything between them and their meal but he found the sight of her bare sexuality completely stimulating.
“Hurry and get that sheet on.”
“What? This little subhuman getting you hot, low-life normal?”
He gritted his teeth. Naturally she'd been offended by his rejection. He needed her cooperation if he was going to score some silver. “I didn't mean for it to sound that way.”
“Yeah, well it did.” She paused a moment, her perfect body gleaming ivory in the kerosene glow, then draped the thin sheet around herself. “I'm Loria Sheilds.”
“Rod Cobrin. So, what did you do, Loria Sheilds, before you became a pass-around girl for the vamps?”
“Before the Return, I taught social work and criminal justice at UCLA. Since they passed the separation laws, I've been gathering.”
Rod dramatically increased his estimation of Loria's age. Her body said she was late teens. But he was still relying on his normal instincts, ignoring the way the return-of-magic virus had torn through the population, altered humans into semihuman and non-human shapes. Elves looked young no matter how old they were. Knowing Loria was a reasonable age only made her more attractive to him, made it harder for him to resist the sexual pull. She was under his control. Nobody would ever know. Even if she told, who would believe her? Who would even listen?
“The gems are fake.” She nodded toward the diamond g-string he clutched, then the gold and ruby-woven vest.
He yanked on the leash, pulling her until she crouched at the end of his bed, her long, slender legs bending gracefully making what should have been a subservient position one of grace and beauty. “You tricked me.”
“Not at all. I told you the good stuff was deeper, but you were in too big a hurry. The gold is mostly plate. You might have a thousand dollars' worth here, in all. Of course, if you try to sell it, the vamps will be all over you.”
He couldn't cross over the zone line with a lousy thousand.
Not entirely trusting her word, he pulled out his knife and ran the tip across one of the 'diamonds.' Sure enough, it scratched. “Not even zirconium,” Loria said.
“At least you're worth something. Would your family ransom you?”
Her laughter was the tinkle of water over a waterfall. “My birth family is all normal. They disowned me. And none of the other elves have anything. The vamps and Were have looted us too thoroughly.”
He could still sell her. Some pervert would pay plenty for an elf. But smuggling a magical across the zone line was asking for death. The warders didn't ask questions and weren't constrained by the old laws or constitution. He'd have to sell her on this side of the line, which meant reduced prices and questions from the vamps.
He sighed, double-checked to make sure the leash was secure around her neck, tossed her a couple of blankets to make a pallet on the floor, then reclined on the bed. “Okay. Tell me about the real treasure.”
It was in the basement, according to her. Protected by a steel vault, a werewolf guard, and electronic sensors. But, if he could somehow access it, at least three tons of silver was serious loot, about six million California dollars' worth, at current prices. It would be enough for retirement, even after bribing the warders to let him through the zone barriers.
That much weight meant problems, of course. But for a few million dollars, he could put up with problems.
“Tomorrow night, then,” he said.
Her smile was just a bit too generous. Well, elves were known to be sneaky. Naturally she had a plan. She probably thought he would share the loot with her. Not going to happen. Rod Cobrin was nobody's soft touch.
Moving slowly, he grasped the knife he kept under his pillow and twisted.
Loria's emerald eyes glistened with amusement as she batted it from his hands. “If I'd wanted to hurt you, you'd be dead.” Her leather leash lay on the floor. She'd slipped out of it, although he would have bet money that was impossible. He'd have to get her an iron collar and chain. Elves weren't good at dealing with cold iron.
He cooked up a breakfast, watched as Loria daintily picked the vegetables out from the meat, and then booted up his computer.
The web wasn't what it used to be, especially here in the zone, but he linked to a high-powered antenna. Old, pre-return utility maps and architectural drawings could be had, if you knew where to look. Rod knew where to look.
“What can I do to help?”
Loria had somehow turned the old sheet into a garment that draped around her, covered what needed to be covered, yet exposed way too much cleavage, long slender leg, rounded hip. From the way his body reacted to her, he'd obviously spent too much time in the zone, away from human females. Once he had the money, he'd indulge his appetites with normal chicks and wash the perversion out of his mind.
“You know anything about architecture?”
Official propaganda said that the return-of-magic virus robbed its victims of their intelligence. Clearly that wasn't true of Loria. The elf quickly made sense of the architectural drawings he'd pulled up.
“So, it looks like there's a ten foot gap between the old telecom conduit and the department store,” Rod mused.
“Yep. Need a tunnel.”
He laughed. “Might as well wish for a teleporting machine. Their motion sensors would pick up any digging.”
“Unless we got someone who could dig quietly.”
That sounded like a setup. “Who do you have in mind?”
He couldn't argue with the logic. Dwarves could dig, and if anyone could dig through ten feet of bedrock and not make a sound, it was a dwarf. “You know any?”
“A few. They'll cost you, though.”
He grinned. The perfect solution. He'd trade the elf-girl to the dwarves and keep all the money himself. They'd probably even take care of her. Better than the vamps had, anyway. Not that he cared what happened to the chick, he reminded himself. He couldn't afford to care for anyone but himself.
Two hours later, the deal was struck. Three dwarves would dig the tunnel and help move the silver. Loria thought they were doing it for a share of the money, but they'd agreed to take the elf off his hands instead.
He needed to make sure they didn't backstab him, steal his silver when he was busy with the vamps, but he'd already planned for that.
The dwarves bronze picks bit through the Redondo Beach sandstone like it was cotton candy, producing a tunnel four feet tall and ten feet in length in less than half an hour.
Rod pushed a minicamera through the paper-thin wall of plaster and paint that was all that separated the tunnel from the basement.
He was prepared for that, of course. He extended the hole and slipped an ultraviolet light-source through it, then fastened his dual infrared/ultraviolet night vision goggles.
A dog or wolf, almost certainly a Were, trotted to investigate the almost imperceptible sounds.
Rod waited until the canine had passed the laser line and then fired his tranquilizer gun, and the animal slumped.
His raid on the Warder weapons depot had paid off big time on this job. Without his nanobe assault suit, the military night vision goggles, and the anti-Were weaponry, he would be one dead normal.
“I'm going in.” He barely whispered into the radio.
He climbed the wall, using his goggles to avoid the laser beams that cut the cellar into carefully monitored chunks. Radio frequency triangulation showed him exactly where the monitoring computer had to be and he homed in on it. The box was secured by an old padlock-one that stopped his electronic pick for maybe two seconds before springing open and exposing the sensitive innards to his gaze.
“Model S for secure 87a23b,” he read softly. “Encryption code 2, C, 7, 9, A, 1, 9, A.”
Burglary was sexy. Doing a job always made him hard. Loria didn't turn him on, he was turned on by the theft and she just happened to be there. That was the only explanation for his feelings. Still, the sound of her husky voice in his earpiece churned that pressure up a notch.
Within one minute, the laser beams twinkled out. Loria had used his computer and the wireless network to upload an unscheduled maintenance routine. They had fifteen minutes.
“I'm going for the vault.”
“Check. I'll send in the dwarves with handtrucks.”
He'd never pulled a job that required moving literally tons of precious metals, and his arousal grew even more pronounced. Way cool.
If the padlock had been old-fashioned, the vault was protected by the latest in security technology. The safe was a twenty foot cube of armored steel bolted to the floor and coated with an ablative ceramic that could absorb an acetylene cutting torch without even scorching the paint.
“Dwarves can't deal with steel,” Loria reminded him.
“It's under control.”
The elf might have been a college professor while he'd gotten his GED during a prison stint, but he had the Ph.D. when it came to safe-breaking.
An infrared scan of the keypad showed which keys had fingerprints, which showed the most wear, and which held the deepest pools of sweat. He fed the data into his Palm, glanced at the eight probable combinations it gave him, then began to code.
The third combination worked and a camera extruded. “Please prepare for biometric identification,” a speaker announced. He almost laughed. This was too easy. When the Warders had rounded up the magical, they'd processed them through the prison system, recorded distinguishing marks, fingerprints, DNA, and retinal maps. The DNA in the sweat told him which vamp had visited the safe most.
He applied the correct contact lens, then pressed his eye to the camera.
After five tense seconds, the mechanical voice droned , “Accepted. The vault is now open.”
The elf-chick hadn't lied. Bricks of silver, each about the size of a child's shoebox, filled the vault from its steel floor to the armored steel rafters twenty feet up.
This wasn't three tons. It looked more like twenty tons. Good thing he'd stolen a semi-trailer rather than an SUV for his getaway.
“Send in the dwarves with the hand trucks,” he whispered into the radio. “I'm moving back.”
He'd done the hard part. Now, he could get back to the truck and supervise the loading. If the dwarves wanted to hide a few bricks for their own use, he wouldn't begrudge them. Hell, he'd even give a couple to Loria, let her buy her freedom if the dwarves wanted to sell it to her. In an era of depression and deflation, he was a multimillionaire.
The dwarves scurried.
They'd built the tunnel exactly tall enough to let them run through it with their handtrucks loaded with silver. Their muscular, low-to-the-ground bodies managed hundreds of pounds with each load.
He and the elf-girl shoved silver into the truck as fast as they could manage while Loria kept him up to date with the time. “Five minutes. We should go.”
He had way more than the three tons of silver already. More than six, he thought. But silver was still pouring out of the vault like water from a broken main.
“Two more minutes.”
“You said we'd give ourselves a margin.”
“We'll still have a mar--”
“What's this truck doing here? This is a secure area.”
He didn't recognize the person, but he recognized the species. A vampire.
“Sorry, sir. We had a report of a gas leak.”
“Wrong answer, asshole. There hasn't been gas here since the bio-wars.” The vamp picked up his radio.
Rod's stomach threatened to erupt and he swallowed it down. “Yeah? Well, come closer and sniff this, then. You've got a bad leak right here.”
The vampire put his radio back in his belt and walked around to the back of the truck.
The load of silver caught him by surprise. “What the-“
Rod slammed a kick into the vampire's knee but the vamp evaded easily, blocked, then struck, the vamp's fingers moving in a blur that would disembowel Rod as easily as if Rod had been soft jello.
The vamp collapsed just as his strike reached Rod's assault suit, and Loria grinned at him, smacking a silver brick against her left hand. “Vamps don't like silver. It throws their metabolism off.”
“Especially if it smashes through their skulls,” he guessed.
“Especially then. But I think we need to move out.”
The dwarves climbed up the utility access port, lugging along another thousand pounds or so of silver. Together they stuffed the injured vampire down the hole and locked the grate.
“You'll want to lay low a couple of days,” the white-bearded dwarf leader suggested.
“The vamps will be guarding the crossings and you won't want to run into them tonight.”
He started the truck and pulled away from the vampire fortress. “I'll drop you guys off. And don't worry about me. I can take care of myself.”
He was perversely disappointed at Loria's joy in being left to the dwarves. Not that he wanted her, of course. Still.
He hid the truck in an abandoned parking lot, shook a couple of amphetamine tabs out, and swallowed them dry. He didn't dare sleep for the couple of days he'd wait for the vamps to decide that their silver was beyond their reach. He hadn't gotten where he was by trusting his luck-or anyone else.
Twenty-four hours later, he was bored out of his mind, hungry despite everything he ate, and high from the steady stream of amphetamines and chocolate he forced into his system. They weren't his drugs of choice. They interfered too much with his judgment and his balance. Worse, he was never quite sure whether the furtive movements his peripheral vision caught were real, or something induced by the drugs.
He ate more chocolate, then turned on his scanner.
The Warder traffic was encrypted, of course, but he'd stolen their codes and they hadn't bothered to change them. Laziness on their part. After all, nobody really thought the magical could resist anything the normals decided to do to them.
The Warder chatter sounded strange. If it hadn't been impossible, he would have guessed that the Warders were in league with the vamps and Were. They were talking about getting the silver back and the cut they'd make with the vampires. The vampires were on a different band, and if they were using encryption, his unit wasn't challenged. The first day, they'd been worried about the other magical getting the silver, but they'd calmed down after that.
After two more days, a full twenty-four hours longer than the dwarves had advised, Rod started his engine and put the heavy semitrailer into gear. A former buddy from prison was due to be on guard at a Warder border station. Even if the Warders were in bed with the vamps, Jimmy could be counted on to take his bribe and keep his mouth shut.
The truck lurched forward about twenty feet and then stopped abruptly.
He downshifted into granny and hit the accelerator-and heard a screeching noise of iron on concrete. An oversized wheel rolled by. For a moment, he thought it was another amphetamine vision, but the wheel was from his own drivers.
“Damn." He had seen something.
He opened the door, holding his drug gun ready-and saw nothing.
Jacking up a heavy truck, especially one loaded with twenty tons of silver, isn't easy. But Rod had all the time in the world and all the motivation he'd need. Brownies could be mischievous but as long as his silver was safe, he didn't care. He'd replaced the first of the wheels when his thief instincts jangled.
He whirled around, gun ready. Too slow.
The weight dropping on his shoulders wasn't much-probably less than a hundred pounds-but it was enough to knock him off balance.
A slender leg moved almost in slow motion as it kicked away his drug gun.
“Rod, we need to talk.” That throaty, sexy voice had lingered in his amphetamine-induced hallucination since he'd dropped Loria off with the dwarves.
She wrapped her legs around his neck, choking him just enough to be a warning. If he tried anything, she could clamp down and he'd be unconscious in seconds.
“I paid you off, you and the dwarves. We had a bargain.”
“Do you see any dwarves? Now, get down, slowly.”
He obeyed, moving carefully because he didn't want her to overreact, and also because his body had hardened at the tightness of her legs around him, her female scent in his nostril s. Rod blamed it on the amphetamines. He wouldn't be turned on by an elf-woman. Not when he was this close to being a normal multimillionaire who could have his pick of movie stars and society woman.
She rolled off of him but, when he tried to stand, he found that she'd fastened a familiar leather leash around his neck. “I didn't want you to get away before we talked.”
He nodded. She'd made a mistake. He could use his greater strength and weight to pull her to him, to regain control. But he would wait for the perfect opportunity.
“You want more silver? Take as much as you want. I've got plenty.” He didn't see any more trucks. Whatever she could carry wouldn't put a dent in his supply.
“I need it all, Rod.”
He couldn't comprehend that. “The vamps will just take it back. The only way to get it from them is to take it outside the zone. And you can't go there, Loria.”
“Why do you think the vamps and Were are in control? Because they're only vulnerable to silver and they controlled it. Spread it out, give everyone enough to make a knife or a cartridge of bullets, and the vamps will think twice before bullying again. Next time they try to abduct themselves a pass-around girl, they'll end up with a silver blade in their guts.”
That made a strange kind of sense. What didn't make sense was that she expected him to go along with it.
“Does the expression, not my problem, mean anything to you?"
She gave him another of her sexy laughs. “Oh, Rod. You're so much the criminal type. If you made it out of the zone, do you think you'd be happy? You'd let people take advantage of you, lose everything. Come on, admit it. You've had money before. So, what happen ed to it?”
“You've got a point.” He didn't like to admit it, but he was prepared to be fair. “'Course I never had millions before. And even a year filthy rich would be better than a lifetime of poverty stuck in the zone.”
“You think?” She was wearing a silky blouse and bent forward a bit, letting him get a good look down. Damn, the little elf was built.
“I've got to live with my own people.”
“Wake up, Rod. We are your people. Just because you're not magical doesn't mean you're not one of us. Don't you recognize the alienation you've always felt?”
“We made a pretty good team on the vamp break-in.”
“Anything we need, we could steal from the normals.”
“And don't tell me you don't want me, Rod.” She ran a long, slender, elf-finger along the inseam of his combat suit.
He sprang to attention like a good little soldier.
“I could tell you that you'd be a hero to all the dwarves, elves, brownies, fairies, shifters, and djinn. But you don't care about that, do you? So how about this. Pretend you're selling them the silver for their help on our next caper.”
He stared at her. “Our next caper?”
She giggled. Not like an elf, but like a woman. “Yeah, partner. Our next caper.” She slid her hand a bit higher. “One thing, though, honey.”
“Yeah?” He liked that word, liked the sensation.
She squeezed. “If you ever try to sell me or trade me again, there are a couple of extra jewels you're going to be looking for.
I hope you enjoyed this short story. If you're interested in the ABYSS Anthology, you can buy it directly from the Dark-Romance group and get three free eNovels in addition to THE ABYSS. Follow this link:
Author Rob Preece has several full-length eNovels available exclusively from www.BooksForABuck.com. One of these, IN THE WEREWOLF'S DEN is also set in the 'return of magic' universe described in this story.
A TACTICAL ERROR is now available as an animated movie. You can watch it for FREE here. If you enjoy the movie, please give it a positive rating.
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