Firestorm ch 10 - Death and Destruction

Story by Dikran_O on SoFurry

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#10 of Fox Academy 8 - Firestorm

The conclusion, wherein there are several revelations and many loose ends are dealt with


Phase III - Death and Destruction

Dawn rolled across the earth at the same steady pace that it has kept for a billion years. In Sochi, Sana'a and Hobyo the day dawned clear, promising to be warm and sunny for whatever activities one might have in mind. Morning was all but over in those locations when it came to Ottawa where the air had cooled overnight, and a blanket of fog lay on the ground waiting for the heat of the sun's rays to burn it off. Visibility was also down in Barranquilla but there it was due to smog. Creatures that had lived their whole lives there knew to stay indoors until the breeze changed and blew it out to sea.

Three hours later the darkness ebbed off the prairies. When the sun warmed the earth the jet stream collapsed, as predicted. On a line from Jasper to Whitehorse the storm that had been gathering strength for several days began to move. The cold, moist mass forced the hot, dry, supercharged air eastwards, erupting in a line of thunder storms the like of which only occurs once a year, if you're lucky. They were the kind of storm that could flood a city instantly, dumping enough water in an hour to equal the annual rainfall. The type that spawned tornados that could rip up a year's worth of crops, or wipe a town off the map. The type that came with enough lightning to set the boreal forest ablaze, fires that the rain could not quench. All across the region, with few exceptions, creatures of every occupation and description sheltered in their homes or business and waited for the storm to pass.

But the storm was not the only thing on the move.

* * * * * * * *

It was early morning in Ottawa when the alarm on Kyroo's phone went off again. Ruth/Runs With Stick was back on the air. He listened while she and Bloedrye exchanged no so pleasant pleasantries and was not surprised when the Persian told her that they would be packing up and leaving Ottawa later that day.

"Feel free to contact F.O.X. and have you revenge on Silver." The feline told her. "It will keep his mind off other things."

At that point Kyroo realized that Bloedrye's plan had layers beyond the obvious one of extortion. Even if Silver could act this late in the game he would be busy dealing with whatever the bunny had against him. And if she wanted revenge on Silver that meant that Leslie was still in danger, more so than before perhaps. He might have sensed some honour and compassion about her, but folk were known to do some drastic things in the name of revenge. You just had to look at the number of road rage killings back home in the States to know that.

While he had been thinking about this Bloedrye had signed off, but Ruth was still connected to the cellular network. As he watched on the clone she typed out a message, a message for him.

Bloedrye was just a means to an end. It began. I do not care about him or whatever scheme he is cooking up. What I want is between me and the one you call Silver. Have him meet me by the pond where we made love ...

She erased the words 'made love' and began typing again.

...where we met the first few nights. Tell him to come alone. When I am satisfied that there is just the two of us there I will text you his son's location ... in case I do not survive what comes next. No tricks or the kit's mother will never have the comfort of saying goodbye.

When she was finished she hit 'send' and a moment later Kyroo's phone pinged to indicate an incoming message.

The comfort of saying goodbye? He thought. He was no negotiator but he had been involved in a few kidnappings for profit when he worked security for non-government organizations in the world's trouble spots and talk like that was for bodies, not living hostages. He re-read the text and noted that at no time did she refer to Leslie by name, or in the present tense. Oh my God, Ruth, what have you done?

Instead of forwarding the copy on his phone he used the clone of hers to re-send the message to Silver's account at the Academy. He added a few lines that sounded vaguely threatening, and a bit nonsensical, but which contained codewords identifying him and verifying that he was sending the message via the enemy's communications. Since he had authorized her to contact Silver his wolves would think that the message was from her and they would not suspect that F.O.X. Agents had been on the case for some time now.

As soon as it was sent he called Kain, who was monitoring the whole thing on another clone.

"Did you see that? No, it doesn't sound good. You've located Bloedrye? That's fine, but we can deal with him later, damn it. Kain, I need the address of her hideout now!"

* * * * * * * *

Number Seventeen and his two cousins had worked their way back to the north-west corner of the oil sands so that they could have a ringside seat as the leading edge of the storm reached the first initiators. They would hang around just long enough to see the firestorm ignite the bitumen deposits and then make a run for the Edmonton airport, where they had seats reserved on every flight west for the next twelve hours.

They found a spot in the hilly terrain a couple of kilometres away where they could see the westernmost initiators and parked the van. Used to the rain forest environment of their home island they were not concerned about waiting outside the vehicle for the rain to come. And come it did, in sheets that grew steadily denser as the line of thunder and lightning approached. They stayed a little ways away from the van in case it was struck by lightning as it swept over them, raising their binoculars watch the fireworks as it approached the initiators.

Suddenly, a siren rent the air. Seventeen was confused at first, as there were no vehicles on the road to produce such a sound, but then his trained ears focused on a mound of vegetation halfway between him and the array. The pile was moving, sliding downward to reveal a dark green military vehicle adorned with several antennae, a Command Post vehicle, he realized. But before the implications of that could penetrate its presence was explained by a number of similar, smaller disturbances farther east.

All three tigers swore in unison as a pair of soldiers in ghillie suits rose up beside each initiator in view. One immediately grabbed the pole and began to wrest it back and forth as their partner covered them with their assault rifle. After a few moments, seeing no threat, most of those with the rifles let them hang in their slings as they assisted in removing the initiators.

Seventeen thought briefly about getting the sniper rifle out of the van but abandoned that idea. There were at least a hundred armed soldiers within sight and probably thousands more spread out across the prairies. Someone had tipped them off, and he wasn't about to go down in a futile fight. No, he thought, better to get out while the getting was good. He signalled his subordinates to mount up with a wave of his paw.

The rain was already making the ground mucky so he directed the driver straight back to the nearest gravel road. From there they had a choice between heading toward the array, where the soldiers were, or going west toward the mountains. West made for a longer route but he preferred that to having to answer questions at a military checkpoint. There was no way of telling how much they knew about Bloedrye's plot and they may already be on the lookout for three tigers.

The gravel road ended at a paved highway ten kilometres away, but before they got that far they found that the road was blocked by an accident. A car with rental plates had skidded on the loose gravel and ended up blocking the road just where it was bordered by steep ditches. One of the front tires was flat, perhaps that was what had caused it to go out of control. A busty blonde vixen stood by while her companion, a younger looking grey wolf, struggled with the spare tire and jack. They were the picture of urban incompetence on the frontier.

"I'll go lend them a paw." Seventeen's cousin on his mother's side, known as Number Thirteen this month, said as he exited the side door of the van.

"I'll go console that vixen." His other cousin, a bruiser designated Number Five for the time being, said as he opened the driver's door to follow.

"Wait," Seventeen advised. "I don't like the look of this." But he was too late, the two of them were already halfway to the stricken vehicle. The vixen and the wolf had moved to place the approaching tigers between them and the van, cutting off any supporting fire. Cursing, he reached in the back and pulled out the first weapon his paw fell on, a Chinese AK-47 knock off. Confirming that the double magazines were loaded Seventeen rolled out of the passenger door and into the ditch just as gunfire erupted by the car.

Dirt flew from the edge of the road right above where he had gone in but he had not stopped. Moving rapidly along the ditch, which was already filling up with rain water, he closed the distance to the car. More gunfire sounded, but it was not aimed at him. At his insistence they all had been wearing bulletproof vests under their raincoats so only a head shot would put them out of the fight permanently. A grunt that may have come from one of his cousins was followed by a cry of pain that must have been the vixen. The sounds had come from just over the lip of the ditch. Seventeen decided to risk a peek.

Five was down, but he had made it as far as the vixen and managed to collapse on top of her. His massive bulk and the weight of the equipment he had been carrying was too much for the smaller vixen to shift on her own, and her gun was a good metre away from her paw, so she was not an immediate threat. Raising his head a little farther he saw the wolf and Thirteen grappling. They were too close together to risk a shot from the ditch so, using the body of Five to screen his movement Seventeen crawled out onto the road.

Just as he reached the dead tiger the wolf managed to disengage from Thirteen and, with a pirouette that was almost artistic in execution, spun around three-hundred and sixty degrees, slicing Thirteen's throat with a curved knife as his paw flashed past. He had not even come to a full stop when Seventeen pulled the trigger and sent the wolf tumbling to the gravel.

The tiger stood up and surveyed the scene. The vixen remained trapped under his larger cousin, who appeared to be already dead. His other cousin was still alive, but barely. He was trying to staunch his neck wound with his paws but blood kept squirting through at the corners, bright red arterial blood. His eyes pleaded with Seventeen, but the leader of the tigers knew that Thirteen would be joining Five in the next world within minutes. And even if he did have a chance, Seventeen could not afford to be burdened with a wounded comrade. He aimed his AK and dispatched his cousin quickly with a shot between the eyes.

He made sure that there were no weapons within the vixen's reach before walking over to the prone wolf. Staying back two metres in case the wolf was playing possum he examined the body. The wolf was on his back. His shirt was ripped open, but not from the entry of the bullet, but from the ricochet. The ripped shirt revealed a tactical vest with ballistic plates. The wolf had merely had the wind knocked out of him. he began to come around as the tiger leaned over him and raised his rifle.

"Nice try." Seventeen said as he applied pressure to the trigger, and Zac barely heard the sound of the shot that turned his world into a red mist.

After a moment the rain washed the red from Zac's eyes. He looked along his body for signs of a wound but found none. What he did find was the corpse of the tiger crumpled at his feet. It had a fair sized hole in the back of it's head and it's face was missing. Two hundred metres away, a figure in a green, brown and tan camouflage poncho rose from the grass. It was aiming a sniper rifle in Zac's direction. He gave it the 'thumbs up' as he struggled to his feet. The creature whipped the poncho back, revealing that it was a greyhound, the general's aide. Slinging the rifle she began sprinting toward the site of the ambush.

Zac stumbled over to where Delores was pinned under the largest of the three tigers and helped to roll the body off her. "Woof!" She exclaimed as she let out the first full measure of air since the Sumerian had fallen on her. "Talk about a heavy engagement. I thought that these Asian tigers were supposed to be smaller than the Russian ones?"

"This one looked like he was into weightlifting, or sumo wrestling."

They both turned as the Lieutenant leapt over the ditch and landed on the road beside them. The slim greyhound managed to look elegant in camouflage clothing, and despite the run through the field she was not even breathing heavily. "You two okay?" She asked.

"Just some bruised ribs." Zac answered. "On both our parts I suspect." Delores winced and nodded in agreement.

The female soldier produced a bag full of first aid supplies from somewhere under her poncho. "Let's take shelter in the tigers' van and take a look." She directed. "I'm getting reports of some of the soldiers being hit by lightning while pulling those devices out so there will be a bit of a wait for the medics to get around to you I'm afraid."

"That's okay." Delores said as she hobbled over to the van and climbed in. "As long as I can get out of these wet clothes. Zac, grab the bags from the trunk will you?"

Zac complied, using the arm on the opposite side of his injury exclusively. When he joined the two females in the van he found them chatting away like a couple of old friends while the Lieutenant wrapped a field dressing around Delores' bare midriff. Delores had removed all of her wet clothing already, and despite being intimately familiar with her body, Zac looked away. He held the bag out behind him and felt it being taken from his paw.

There was some whispering and giggling but after a couple of minutes Delores called "Okay, you can turn around now." Zac did, and his eyes went wide at the sight of both females naked and laying together on the mattress of the cot the tigers had installed.

The Lieutenant smiled up at him as Delores beckoned him to her with a crocked digit. "Here, let us help you out of those wet things."

* * * * * * * *

Geno had a good first night at the Barranquilla brothel, earning several thousand pesos for her and an equal amount for the owners. She even managed to catch a shower and grab a few hours of sleep before the signal to strike arrived.

Getting dressed in her most provocative outfit, she ambled down to the lounge where those creatures senior enough in the cartel to live in the bawdy house were gathering for a late breakfast. As she had determined the night before, the three coatis that were hiding out were sitting at a table by themselves, just finishing up.

The busty cheetah strode to their table, took the last chair, swung it around and sat down with her arms resting on the wire-frame back in one smooth move. The eyes of the coatis were glued on her exposed breasts as she reached for one of their coffee cups and took a swig. "Do you like trains?" She asked the first to make eye contact.


"Do you like trains? Or, more specifically, do you like playing trains?"

"Playing with toy trains?"

"No, no, no. Making trains, with me as the engine. What happens is that one of you comes back to my room with me and couples their car to my engine. Then after about five minutes the next one goes up and joins the train. And after another five minutes the third comes up and becomes the caboose."

One of the coati looked at the other two speculatively and asked her if the second got on the first and the third on the second. "Because if that is the case, I'd rather be the caboose."

"Oh no, don't you worry. Everyone gets to hook up to the engine ... me ... and I pull the train."

The three agreed, after Geno offered them an "early morning" discount. She led the first, determined by a quick round of 'rock-paper-scissors' up the stairs. They paused at the top where she posed with his head against her breasts and her tail around his leg. Then she pointed to her wrist and mouthed the words "five minutes" before disappearing in the direction of the rooms.

In four and a half minutes the second eager coati started upstairs. The third was going to go three minutes later but was delayed by the waiter, a cartel thug who insisted that he pay the bill before he left. He paid and gave the thug a fair sized tip, as one did not want surly armed waiters to get any surlier, and rushed up the stairs.

Five minutes later Geno reappeared, wearing clothes much more conservative and suitable for traveling than what she had on before. She walked straight out of the brothel and into a cab she had arranged to be waiting for her. "To the Airport." She said as she passed enough money through the little hole in the security window to pay for a ride all the way Buenos Aires. "Fast."

As the cab sped through the crowded streets she sat back and pulled out her phone. Entering Kain's number she examined her nails, noticing some blood under one that would have to be cleaned off before going through airport security. "Kain? Hey lover, Geno here. Mission accomplished. Naw, no problems. Well, let's just say they should have looked both ways before they crossed the tracks."

* * * * * * * *

Marcel had gathered a lot of information about the local clan of pirates and their three recently returned members the night before and during the early morning market. So when the signal came through he knew where to find the three Jackals. He had also learned that they had been bragging about recent exploits somewhere cold, and of uncountable riches soon to come their way because of them. It was a perfect excuse for a salesperson dealing in commemorative hardware to make a cold call to their residence.

The servants that the three had hired were reluctant to let him in at first, but when one of the jackals overhead Marcel arguing with the head servant he intervened and asked the unusually dark toned dessert fox to join him and his brothers in the garden. There Marcel laid out a number of daggers, scimitars and other sharp objects on a velour cloth and let the three examine them while he described the best of them.

"And finally," he said, "we have Al Azab, the sword of the Prophet, peace be upon him, given to him before the battle of Uhad. Al Azab means sharp sword and , in fact, I am named after this one. This is just a replica of course, as the original is kept in the famous Jamia Masjid Al Hussain bin Ali museum in Cairo. But if you look closely you will see that our artisans have faithfully reproduced the etching of the original right down to the symbols said to be carved into the hilt by the prophet himself! Look, look !"

The three Jackals leaned forward eagerly, and Marcel flourished the sword.

A few minutes later Marcel appeared back in the foyer with his sample bag, where the head servant rushed to see him to the door.

"How are the masters?" the servant asked, speaking as though to an equal because merchants were regarded as no higher on the local hierarchy than servants or slaves. "Did you manage to get those cheap bastards to buy anything?"

"They were reluctant at first, so I took ten percent off the top."

"That is a good bargain."

"Oh yes, a deal to die for. They asked that they not be disturbed until supper. Something about getting their heads together for a while."

"Good, it is too hot to be waiting on them anyway." They came to the door where they exchanged blessings. "Oh, look." the servant pointed. "Another merchant. A hat salesperson by the look of him. I should send him away, don't you think?"

Marcel's smile turned into a rather grim grin as he slipped out the door. "Oh, they definitely won't be needing any hats for the foreseeable future."

* * * * * * * *

Laying in a lounger by the beach in Sochi, where he and his companions were soaking up the afternoon sun, Number Four suddenly sat straight up in his chair and exclaimed "I remember where I saw that vixen from the Edmonton airport before! She's a F.O.X. Agent that used to work in Moscow. We have to tell Bloedrye immediately!"

Number Twenty, the lone female in the group, opened her mouth to ask him if he was certain, but her question turned into a scream when Number Four developed a hole where his face used to be. She did not scream for long, however, as her gaping maw made for an excellent target. The back of her head joined Four's face on the sand.

The third bear was up and running at that point, but he made the unfortunate choice of running towards the hotel patio, which was directly in line with Dongo's firing point so he hardly had to adjust his aim before putting two rounds into the bear's chest. He put a third into the top of its head after it fell just for good measure. Then he abandoned his hide, leaving behind a few items associated with a terrorist group that preferred to attack Russians but that F.O.X. was not fond of either, and a declaration of jihad against all enemies of the Eastern Caliphate.

He made his way down to where he had parked a car that the Bears were not aware had been rented on their account and headed towards the border. There was a group of "volunteer fighters" on their way to South Ossetia gathering there that he wanted to hook up with.

* * * * * * * *

Within seconds of receiving the go ahead signal Hu Lianmeng was entering another number into his phone. When he pressed enter a fireball bloomed several blocks away, followed shortly by the sound of a blast and a mild shock wave. A secondary explosion produced a much bigger bang that blew the curtains of Hu's rented room inward.

That will teach you to store your explosives and ammunition against an unguarded outer wall, Hu thought as he contemplated which route he would take to get back to his home station in Singapore.

* * * * * * * *

The flurry of check-in calls to Bloedrye had allowed Kain to finally crack the protective measures on the Persian's phone, allowing him to track it as long as the feline kept it active. Those calls had also made it possible for him to narrow down the possible hideouts of the Cuni warrior, Runs With Stick. He had done that by looking at all the property listings in the area where her phone had been active and cross referencing them against visit data normally only available to real estate agents. He was looking for long-term listings with little action until the period between her arrival in Canada and the day she replaced Cohen as the EA in Leslie's class. Any isolated property with a single visit during that period was a possibility.

He had found several good candidates and started to check the hundreds of traffic and security cameras that were available to any moderately talented hacker. Within an hour he had found a former meth lab that she had apparently used for two days earlier in the week. But lately her calls had been coming from the opposite end of the city, and his vehicle recognition algorithm found her van cruising around the outskirts of Kanata. There were too likely properties in that area, a rustic farmhouse and a lottery home that had never been occupied due to a dispute over which one of a divorcing couple had the right to the ticket.

After confirming that Ophelia was ready to take up the chase the instant Bloedrye made a run for it Kain contacted Kyroo Echos and passed on everything he had found.

Kyroo was happy to see that there were only two properties to check out, but a bit surprised that Kain had not insisted that he go after Bloedrye first. The wily Persian was holed up in a bus-sized RV, according to Kain, and had recently called in his wolves from the Experimental Farm. It looked like they were just waiting for the storm to hit the oil sands before departing. But if he could free Leslie quickly he might have a chance of stopping them.

Kyroo had been waiting in his car, an older Mustang that he had signed out of the Academy car pool, in a small strip mall near the garden pond. The hour of Runs With Stick's appointment with Silver was approaching and Kyroo had some vague idea about intercepting her and forcing the kit's location out of her if Kain did not come through, but now that he had an objective he put the car in gear and sped off in the direction of Kanata. He heard the signal indicating that the attack had begun as he turned left onto Carling Avenue. With no need for subterfuge anymore he poured on the gas, so intent on getting to Kanata as quickly as possible that he did not see the white van that pulled into the strip mall's parking lot behind him.

Kyroo programmed the first address into the map application of his phone with one paw as he cut through the traffic, keeping one eye out for the police. He could not afford to be delayed and would hate to have to incapacitate a peace officer that got in his way. The voice of the application advised him to take the Queensway if he wanted to make the fastest time. He did, so he complied with the instructions. By breaking the speed limit as much as he could get away with and activating a few Red Light cameras Kyroo was able to reach the lottery home in just over twenty minutes.

It was a new brick bungalow on an unfinished private lot a kilometre or so past the last of the subdivisions, in an area that was forest and farmland just a year ago. The male half of the divorcing couple had spray painted a disparaging comment comparing his spouse to a female canine. She had retaliated with her own message bringing the marital status of his parents into question. It looked like both had added their own locks and chains to keep the other from occupying the property, and numerous tire tracks from just two vehicles attested to the fact that they visited regularly to check on them. But he had to be sure.

Kain had an array of burglary tools to choose from hidden in the trunk of his car, but he choose the realtor's large metal "For Sale" sign instead and heaved it through the front window of the bungalow. It took out enough of the glass to allow him to jump through the hole. He landed in the empty living room in a roll and came up on his feet at a run. With his gun in his paw he raced through the house shouting Leslie's name, but a thick layer of dust on everything, including the basement stairs, convinced him that he was at the wrong address before he finished searching. After seeing that there was no place to hide a kit in the open unfinished basement he turned and ran back upstairs, leapt through the window and got back in his car. Stones from his tires sprayed the front of the building, doing even more damage, as he peeled out of the unpaved driveway.

The second house was a bit trickier to find as the map application had not been updated since a number of new roads had been built in the ever-expanding city. But Kyroo could see it across a field from where the road ended abruptly. Rather than go around he sacrificed the muffler and a few other bits of the Mustang's undercarriage to the curb as he left the road and went cross-country towards the isolated farmhouse.

When he pulled up in front he knew that he was in the right place. Recent tire tracks indicated a larger vehicle with a wide wheel base, like a pickup truck or a delivery van. They led to a garage with a manual door. Kyroo took his gun out again and peered underneath as he eased it open. There was nothing inside. Entering the dim interior, he found the door to the house and saw that it was unlocked. He entered, keeping close to the wall and began a hasty search of the first floor. There were signs of occupancy - a battery operated lantern, used paper plates and empty cans piled in the sink and several pictures of the Chief of Staff, or rather several pictures of whomever and whatever Silver was forty years ago. The fox in the photos was unmistakably Silver, but slimmer and without the distinctive scar through his left eyebrow, and the cars in the photos were all from the Seventies by the look of them.

Kyroo wondered briefly why Ruth would have photos of Silver and a cloud leopard talking with several uniformed US Marshalls and a bunch of guys wearing blue windbreakers that had 'FBI' in big yellow letters on the back as he raced up the stairs to check out the second floor. It didn't look like Ruth or the kit had been up there but he looked in each room just to make sure. That left the basement.

He had been calling out Leslie's name as he went with no reply, but he was not too worried about that because Ruth would likely muzzle the kit when she was away. But he was hoping for a thud or a clang from the kit kicking the wall or banging on a pipe in response, and the longer it went without one the more worried he became. He wondered if she had not taken the kit with her to meet Silver, to either return him in exchange for her freedom or to hold that cleaver she was supposed to use at Leslie's throat while she negotiated with his father.

The knob on the door to the basement was shiny from recent use. The stairs were clear of dust in the middle, indicating someone had been up and down them regularly in the last few days. Kyroo called the kit's name softly as he clutched his pistol in both paws and moved off the stairs into the first room he found. It was a spare bedroom, and it was empty. The next room was for storage, with some old furniture and some dubious looking canned goods but it too was lacking signs of occupancy. Two more small rooms proved just as fruitless, and then Kyroo came to the utility room.

It was a large, rough room with two walls made from the original stone foundation of the building. An old oil furnace sat in one corner, and a laundry area occupied another. Between them was the point where the pipes from the well entered and the black and grey water exited. Built before the age of plastic, the pipes were made of thick brass and copper, built to withstand sub-zero temperatures.

One of the brass pipes ran from the concrete floor to the ceiling, and there was something at its base. Kyroo hurried over, holstering his gun as he went, and scrabbled through the pile of cloth and leather. As near as he could tell it was a harness of some sort, mixed up with child sized clothing. The clothes smelled of urine ... and the fresh blood that stained several torn and tattered spots on the little shirt that bore a image of a popular puppet character from an educational show. The harness was stained with blood too, and had been cut clean through as if with a sharp axe ... or a cleaver. But there was no body, and no blood on the floor.

There was a clean patch on the floor where a mat or a rug must have been. His mind reeled with the implications. Had the killer bunny wrapped the kit up in a blood soaked carpet and disposed of the body elsewhere? Was that the secret that she wanted to trade in exchange for some one-on-one time with Silver, so that Vikki could give her only son a proper burial? How could the cold, heartless bitch do that to an innocent child?

With fiery tears burning his eyes, Kyroo ran up the stairs and out to the car. Putting it in gear he punched the last known location of Bloedrye's RV into the map application. When you came right down to it Ruth/Runs With Stick was his instrument, and no harm would have come to Leslie if it had not been for the Persian. He deserved to die as much as anyone for this horror, and Kyroo dearly wanted to be the one to kill him.

As he sped down the road back to Ottawa, broken manifold pipes growling angrily, he picked up his phone and called a message in to the number that all the agents fighting Bloedrye were connected to.

"Mission failure on recovering the kit." He said in a voice much colder than he felt. "Just a bloody harness and clothes on the scene. Proceeding to Bloedrye's location. Echos out."

* * * * * * * *

Silver stood by the pond in the middle of the rock garden that he had been adding to and tending for the last thirty years. In the days before Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome was recognized and treated, the garden had given him peace and sanity in a world where pain and death were regular visitors. He regretted that he did not have as much time to devote to it since Leslie was born. He also regretted never having shown the garden to Leslie, or taught him how to work on it, and he hoped that he would have the opportunity to correct that.

He had done all that he could to bring that opportunity about. The message from Runs With Stick did not say to come unarmed, so he was carrying his trusty old Glock 17 and a variety of sharp objects. He had been told to come alone, but there was no way that Vikki was going to sit around the Academy twiddling her thumbs while she awaited the outcome of this showdown. There was, however, a very narrow field of fire, with a view of only one particular spot in the garden, from the top of a medical clinic about eight-hundred metres away. Vikki had taken up position there. When the bunny arrived she would likely circle the clearing looking for agents in the woods before approaching, and by waiting where he was the natural approach would be from the end where the pond drained over a small waterfall, the one spot visible to a sniper. When Pawstone got to that point she would have her back to Vikki, and unless she turned around and looked up, an unlikely prospect with Silver there to deal with, she would never know she was in danger from behind.

He had been standing perfectly still in one spot long enough for the wild creatures in the surrounding woods to have returned to their normal pattern of life. Birds sang and fed, butterflies flittered about, and mosquitoes probed his defences. As the appointed time approached Silver noticed a void in this activity, a small patch of caution that circled the clearing. It bespoke a stalker who was good enough not to spook the wildlife, but not familiar enough to them to be ignored. Finally, after a thorough surveillance of the surroundings, Runs With Stick appeared at the fat end of the clearing.

Having been quickly briefed on her background by Algorath after the assault began Silver noted the bone necklace and the blue powder and knew that Pawstone had come prepared for death - hers or his. She was dressed in jeans and a plain flannel shirt that was tied below her ponderous breasts. Her feet, longer than most creatures but average for one of her species he supposed, were bare. A cleaver was gripped firmly in her right paw, and Silver wondered how far she could throw it accurately. Probably as far as she had stopped from me, he decided.

Runs With Stick skipped the introductions. "You have a gun?" She demanded.


"Drop it."

Silver took his Glock out using only the tips of his digits and tossed it onto a patch of moss just out of reach.

"Just one?"

He removed his sports coat and turned around full circle and then he lifted each leg of his trousers to show that there was nothing under there either.

"Any knives up those sleeves?"

"A few."

"Fair enough." She flourished the cleaver and three hairs from her right ear drifted lazily down in the sunlight.

Up on the roof eight-hundred metres away Vikki cantered the crosshairs on her scope on the back of the bunny's head. "Target acquired." She said into her throat microphone.

Silver heard her but said nothing. Pawstone had yet to say why she had called for this meeting, although Silver thought he could guess, and she surely would not reveal the location of Leslie until she got what she wanted. But Algorath had also told him that Echos was on his way to check out a couple of possibilities. The longer he could stretch this our the more chance they had of locating his son first. So Silver let the silence drag on.

Runs With Stick finally spoke. "Don't you want to know why we are here?"

"What I want to know is where my son is. You promised to text his location when you were satisfied that we were alone."

"Funny, a coward like you expecting to be treated honourably."

Silver did not deign to answer.

Frustration crossed Runs With Stick's face. "My father was at Wounded Knee."

So, my guess was correct, he thought before answering. "So was I ... at first."

"What do you mean, at first?"

"I served with a reconnaissance unit in our Special Forces Brigade. We used to train with the Americans a lot during the cold war years, exchanges and such. When the protests at Wounded Knee started I was seconded to a SEAL unit where one of my best friends ... one of my only friends ... worked. Some genius in the State Department thought that the FBI should be backed up by a couple of military snipers." Silver shook his head at the memory of troubled times. "As soon as we saw what the situation was there we declined to participate. We went back to Virginia and what happened there happened without us."

"Can you prove that?"

"Of course not. That's the hard part about living in the shadows; one never really knows which shadows you are living in. We were never officially there, and my friend, the only one who could vouch for my story, died rescuing me from a mission in Bosnia twenty years later. Now," he said, shifting his shoulders to loosen his muscles in case action was needed, "I would really like to hat you have done with my son."

Even from the other side of the small pond Silver could see conflicting emotions crossing her face. She was angry, probably because she had been robbed of a clearly guilty target for her revenge. She was sad, perhaps regretting something she had done recently. And she was tired, a feeling Silver knew all too well, tired of the killing and the death and the blood. He waited to see which emotion would win out.

Runs With Stick looked around. It was the first time that she had seen the garden in daylight. "This is a lovely spot. I wonder why the city doesn't have a sign on the trail pointing it out."

"It doesn't belong to the city. It's on F.O.X. property."

"Your agency built this?"

"No. The industrialist we bought the land from converted an old mica mine that had flooded into a pond and built the gazebo." Silver paused and looked down in embarrassment. "I, uh, built the rock garden. It's not finished yet."

She looked at the one completed side, which had three tiers of flower beds planted with perennials that bloomed at different times of the year. On the other side the tiers had been started but nothing had been planted yet. A wheel barrow and a shovel sat abandoned nearby. It was a big project for one pair of paws, she thought, and one that did not fit the picture she had built up of the cold blooded killer that had shot her father ... may have shot her father ... or maybe not. Then she remembered her mother, who had wielded the cleaver in the family before she was born, and how she used to make and decorate pottery whenever she was felling melancholy. She always said that she like to create something nice to counter the destruction she had caused, as an act to ease her conscious. And hadn't her mate, Silver Two Trees, taken up guitar when the deaths started to weigh on his soul? Was gardening so different than that?

Runs With Stick suddenly realized that she had nothing to take her mind of the killings, not the ones she had committed nor the ones that had been inflicted on her tribe. She had just let them fester like open wounds, gnawing away at her for years until she was willing to overlook the obviously criminal nature of Bloedrye's business, and the flimsiness of his evidence, for revenge when she should have been celebrating the return of her father, whole or not.

"Kyroo speaks highly of you." She said to the fox. "He wouldn't use your name or that of your agency but I could tell he was talking about you when he described how cold and threatening you could look. But the things he told me left me more confused than ever. That's why I had to meet you, to find out if you were the kind of person who could have done that to my father. Would you like to know my conclusion?"

Silver shrugged.

Runs With Stick laughed and shook her head. "You are cool enough under pressure to do anything, as Kyroo said, but I believe your story. It brings shame on me for what I did to your son." She looked up at Silver. "Your son adores you, by the way, but he's sad that you don't have more time to spend with him."

Silver noted the use of the present tense, and wished that Vikki could hear both sides of the conversation. He was about to say something that would convey the message of hope to her when the earpiece blared a message on the operational channel.

"Mission failure on recovering the kit." Echo's voice, sounding somehow colder than before, said. "Just a bloody harness and clothes on the scene. Proceeding to Bloedrye's location. Echos out."

Silver's paw jerked as it involuntarily sought the butt of the Glock that was lying just out of reach. He stopped it, but he could not help saying "My God, Pawstone, what have you done with our son?"

* * * * * * * *

Up on the roof of the medical clinic Vikki heard the message and her heart stopped. The cryptic message the bunny had sent made sense to her now. Leslie was dead and the best she could hope for was the location of his body. But the kidnapper did not know that Kain Algorath had been tracking her movements ever since she started using the phone regularly. Vikki was certain that whether Pawstone told Silver where the body was or not that their resident electronic genius would locate her son for her. All this flashed by in the instant it took for her heart to start beating again, and for the tears to start flowing. But Vikki forced them back. She had not cried in years, not since the day she thought that Silver had been killed in a raid, and although she would cry for her son, a lot, she would do it later. Right now she needed a clear eye.

She shook the remnants of the first errant tears away and concentrated on the sight picture through the scope. Her aim grew rock steady as she blanked out everything except the image of the cross hairs on the back of the bunny's head and the messages coming over the radio. Agents were calling in from all over the world, reporting succession their assignments, and expressing horror at Echo's news. But she ignored them, waiting to hear what she wanted to hear from Silver. And a moment later she did.

"You put him where?" Silver sounded shocked. It was all the confirmation she needed. They would be able to recover Leslie's body and mourn him properly. Vikki pulled her earpiece out so that the messages would not distract her at the key moment. Now with nothing but the sound of mid-day traffic and the hum of a nearby transformer, she watched the crosshairs move up and down on the target as she breathed in, out, and in. Then she let half of the air out and just as the cross hairs came to a stop on the centre of the bunny's head, she squeezed the trigger.

* * * * * * * *

"Your son is tied up in the back of my van in a parking lot nearby"

Silver had been expecting to hear that Leslie was buried in a field outside of town, or that he had been thrown down a well. "You put him where?" He asked in confusion.

"I brought him with me to this meeting. I had to use some rope to restrain him though because he had almost chewed through his harness at the house we were hiding out in. He lost a tooth and there was blood all over. Then he got himself tangled in the harness and almost strangled before I could cut him free. You should go get him soon though. Even though I parked in the shade and left the windows open a crack the van will heat up quickly on a day like today."

Silver staggered backwards at the shock of finding out that his son was alive. "Our son is alive!" He said for Vikki's benefit as he looked up through the branches to the approximate spot where the hidden rooftop was. "Do you here that Vikki? Our son is alive. Vikki acknowledge."

He looked across the pond to Pawstone, who was looking at him suspiciously. The rest of the agents were leaving the channel clear so Vikki could acknowledge, but Vikki was not answering. Silver's mind processed the information at lightning speed. Vikki's failure to acknowledge could only mean one of two things: her equipment had failed or she had deliberately gone off line. But she would shoot Pawstone if they lost communications, just as she would shoot the bunny if she believed that Pawstone had murdered their son. Either way the result was the same. The question that flashed though Silver's mind was this, did the Cuni warrior deserve to die for what she had done?

Thoughts flew around inside his brain, made connections, broke apart, and reformed. She was a killer, but so was he. She had taken their son, but she had brought him back. She had wanted to kill him, but only because Bloedrye had lied to her, but she must have known that Bloedrye was up to no good, but ... but ...

"DUCK!" Silver screamed

The sound of the shoot coincided with Runs With Stick dropping like a stone, and Silver was sure that he had called out too late. But then the bunny rolled into the shelter of the rock walls of the garden, where she called out angrily, "You were supposed to be alone!"

"And you were supposed to be a killer. I had no way of knowing whether my son was alive or dead. What did you expect me do?"

Runs With Stick thought about what had just happened, including the fact that the fox had not dived for his gun the instant she was distracted. "Who's the sniper?"

"Leslie's mother."

"Why did you warn me?"

Silver sighed. "F.O.X. Is not a law enforcement agency, just an instrument of policy. What you do back home is no different than what we do here, remove threats to our nation. At the worst I would consider you a foreign agent that has been operating as a free-lancer on our soil; more of the RCMPs problem than mine. However," he paused and his blue-grey eyes grew cold, "we are mandated to deal with foreign agents if they pose a threat to the country or any of our personnel, including family members. Anyone who as involved in such activities could only expect one warning. And if they did not immediately leave this country ..."

"Okay. I get the picture." Runs With Stick looked back in the direction that the shot had come from. "Is it safe to move?"

"Hang on a sec." Silver walked to the spot that she had standing and looked up. He put a paw to his head, sticking his thumb to his ear and his pinkie to his lips and mouthed the words "Call me". Then he appeared to listen to something before he said "Leslie is alive and well and nearby. Miss Runs Wirth Stick has had a change of heart and will be going home shortly. No, I don't blame you for shooting. Just be thankful that everything worked out well. Right, a white van in a parking lot. Yes, I know it's a hot day. You can see it? If you can get there quicker then you go ahead. I'll be there shortly."

Silver offered a paw to help Runs With Stick to her feet. "It's probably best if you and Vikki don't meet, given the circumstances. Give us twenty minutes to get clear before you approach the van. The border is about an hour straight south of here. I'll leave it up to you to figure out how to get across, but if you are still in Canada tomorrow then you are fair game."

"We are Cuni." She said defiantly as she dusted herself off and slipped the cleaver back into her leather satchel. She looked over at his gun where it still sat on the far side of the pond. Then she looked up into his eyes, eyes that held respect, compassion and pity. "And we are not prey." She continued, but then her tone softened. "Not until tomorrow anyway. My mate was named Silver also, Silver Two Trees, and he was an honourable warrior, like you. Go in peace, Silver Grey Eyes. May Mother Earth protect you, and may the Sun guide your way."

Silver smiled as he went to retrieve his Glock. "You too, kid. Now get out of my country."

* * * * * * * *

Kyroo raced to the last reported location of Bloedrye's phone. His own phone was mounted on the Mustang's dash so he could see the route it had picked for him. Ordering it to show the destination he saw that it was the Carp Regional Airport, the same one the Delores and Zac had flown out off to avoid complications with security at the International Airport. Bloedrye just had to file a false flight plan and disappear off the radar on the way out of NORAD airspace, and no one would care. Not unless Silver scrambled the Air Force, but Kyroo had gotten the impression that this operation was not exactly on the books, so that was not likely to happen.

Studying the map on the phone between cutting in and out of traffic Kyroo decided to come at the airport from the far side, where the service vehicles came in. Circling around gave him the opportunity to see what kind of aircraft Bloedrye was planning on using. He could see a bus-sized RV parked near one of the hangers, right where the GPS was leading him. That must be Bloedrye's mobile headquarters. Sure enough, he could make out the figures of two wolves standing guard on it. He wondered if the third and Bloedrye were inside.

A moment later he heard the roar of engines overhead. Looking up he saw large aircraft with four turboprop engines. It looked like a Hercules, but there was a gap in the fuselage, a bus-sized gap, he realized. As the aircraft touched down exhaust smoke spewed from the bus as someone started it up. Probably the third wolf, he supposed. Clever of Bloedrye to use an escape vehicle that allowed him to remain in the luxury of his personal RV, where he likely had all the communications gear he need to stay in touch with his agents too. But first they had to get the bus hooked up to the aircraft, and Kyroo had something that would help prevent that.

The service gate was closed, as it should be, but Kyroo did not bother trying to fake his way through or even to ease up and force it open by pushing them apart with the Mustang. No, since things were about to get bloody subtlety would be lost on them. Kyroo pulled his seat belt tight and hit the gates at full speed. They flew off their hinges, almost falling back on top of him as he screamed through the gap. The sound of the crash was covered by the noise of the Hercules as it taxied toward the RV, but one of the wolves saw him break through, and put a paw to his face as he passed that information on to his comrades.

Kyroo skidded the car to a halt on the far side of the hanger, where he could expect a few moments to himself to prepare. Leaping from the car he popped the trunk with the key fob and hid behind it as he selected his gear. He had taken a number of interesting items from the F.O.X. armoury before setting out yesterday. He was still wearing the tactical vest he had put on before checking the first possible hideout but he put on ballistic eye gear too in case of shrapnel, but not theirs, his. The next item he pulled out of the trunk was a strange looking assault rifle with two barrels and a grenade launcher tube. There were three magazines sticking out at different angles, none of which held ammunition that was in any way legal in Canada. One held five 40mm grenades, one held ten fifty calibre armour piercing tracer rounds, and the last held fifty rounds of 5.56mm copper tip. Rusty the Combat Instructor and Joel the Forger and part-time tinkerer had cooked up this beast as a way of keeping your enemies guessing. It was horrendously heavy, and difficult to manage, but at short ranges in an intense fire fight it could be devastating - or so they thought. The gun had never been tested under combat conditions.

Kyroo ducked as a hail of bullets struck the armoured trunk lid. He dropped and rolled coming up in a kneeling position on the passenger side just as a wolf with an AK-47 ran forward. Kyroo pulled the trigger, and a grenade sailed over the wolf's head to explode harmlessly against the wall of the hanger. Kyroo swore as he checked the weapon selector. At least the grenade had made the wolf take cover. Switching the gun to 5.56 he fired in a sweeping arc under the Mustang, hoping to hit or at least flush out the wolf. The poly worked. The wolf jumped up and Kyroo put enough 5.56 rounds into the wolf to use him as a sieve.

Before he could duck he felt something tug at his ear and an instant later he heard the crack of the shot that came from the other corner of the hanger. He peeked through the crack between the trunk and the body and saw a grenade bouncing toward the Mustang. Time to abandon his ride, but two could play this game. As the Mustang went up in a fireball he ran for the opposite side of the hanger and switched the hybrid rifle back to grenade launcher mode. He fired two toward the other corner, one high and one low. The high one cleared the corner, forcing the wolf out of hiding, but then it saw the low one bouncing towards it and he froze against the wall, where he was an easy target for the last of the 5.56 rounds.

Kyroo raced around to the front of the hanger just as the Hercules came to a stop and turned to line itself up with the bus. It was keeping its engines at full revolutions as it waited for the buss to drive forward. Kyroo tried two rounds of .50 cal into the bus but they just bounced off. The thing must be made of titanium, he realized. Changing aim he fired at the engines of the big plane. He missed because the barrel was too short for accuracy over distance and because it had not been sighted in for him, but the fiery trail of the tracers told both him and the pilot that he was not far off. The engines roared as the pilot released the brakes and pitched the blades for maximum speed. The Herc began rolling before the bus could get in the gap and hook up. It headed straight down the runway and lifted off.

Kyroo hoped that someone in the tower had called NORAD for an intercept of the aircraft, but he had bigger things to worry about, like the fact that the bus had turned one-hundred and eighty degrees and was now bearing down on him at full speed. He could see the face of the scowling wolf behind the wheel as he raised the gun and put the last three .50 cal rounds into the windshield. The first just left a star-shaped ding in it. The second cracked the windshield in a couple of places, but the third made it break into a spider's web of cracks. It did not collapse, however, because the thick polymer film between the layers of armoured glass held it in place, and no amount of bullets would tear it enough for him to get a clear shot.

So he did not use bullets. He was out of those anyway. Holding his ground as the bus bore down on him he triggered the last two grenades two seconds apart and then jumped clear. But before he did he had the satisfaction of seeing the first grenade blow the tattered windshield clean out, allowing the second grenade to pass through it and inside.

He heard it explode as the bus passed not a foot from his head, and wondered if he had managed to kill the driver or Bloedrye or both. The way the bus careened left and right before running into the corner of the hanger it had been parked in front off told him that he had gotten the driver at least, and if he wasn't dead before the steel girder poking through the windshield had probably finished him off.

Kyroo dropped the rifle and pulled his only remaining weapon, a knife, and ran to the bus. If Bloedrye was still alive Silver would want him for interrogation, but if he fought back Kyroo would gut him like a fish. The door had come open on impact and Kyroo jumped inside. Sure enough, the last wolf had been fatally perforated by the grenade and mashed by the girder for good measure. Kyroo searched him for weapons and found a .45 calibre automatic. Taking it he examined the door separating the driver's compartment from the rear. It too had popped open, and Kyroo slipped inside, leading with the gun in case the Persian was laying in wait.

The first room was set up like a conference room, with a table large enough for twenty-two. The next chamber was a small communications room, but was empty. The last room was set up as a bedroom with its own bathroom attached. Kyroo checked there, in the closet, and under the bed, but there was no sign of Bloedrye. There was no sign of an escape hatch that he could had used to flee while Kyroo was searching the other rooms either.

Then he noticed the phone on the bed. The one Kain had been tracing, he suspected. He picked it up and saw that there was a post-it note with a smiley face drawn on it stuck on the screen. Peeling it back Kyroo saw that the display showed a timer counting down, and there were only fifteen seconds left to go. He dropped the phone and ran as fast as he could to the front of the bus. Ignoring the door he leapt straight through the empty windshield and hit the tarmac running. He was well on his way to breaking his personal best for the hundred metres when he heard a boom behind him and a hot wind picked him up and threw him the rest of the way.

Kyroo rolled over and looked at what was left of the bus. The explosion had turned the titanium hull into a ton of shrapnel that spread out for two hundred meters in every direction except his, because the missing windscreen had allowed the pressure to escape without breaking the front of the bus off. If he had run to the side instead of forward he would be spaghetti now. Shaking his head to get the ringing from his ears, he realized that the noise was coming from his pocket. He reached in and pulled out his phone.

"Kyroo? This is Kain. What happened? Bloedrye's phone just went off the air."

"He's blown the scene." Kyroo said. "The phone and the bus were decoys. He must have another way out of the country." He paused as the sound of approaching sirens filled the air. The police would be seeking answers about all the shooting and explosions, and Kyroo did not want to be the one they were seeking them from. He got to his feet and began to jog toward a ditch that went under the perimeter fence. Gawkers had gathered nearby, leaving their cars on the road. Kyroo bet that some of them had even left their keys inside.

"I have to go find another ride," he told Kain, "but I should be mobile again soon. You have any other leads on Bloedrye?"

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line, although Kyroo thought he could here muffled conversation. Who could Kain be talking with? He wondered. Someone on another line? But before he could ask Kain was back.

"Don't worry about Bloedrye." His fellow Arctic fox assured him. "We have it covered." Then Kain signed off.

We? Kyroo wondered as he stowed his phone and began to shimmy under the fence. Who's we?

* * * * * * * *

Silver sent a message out on the general channel that he and Vikki would be spending the rest of the day with their son, and that he wanted reports on his desk at zero eight-hundred Ottawa Time tomorrow. Until then Bill Hanlan would be in charge.

Those agents still making their way out of countries that had suddenly become inhospitable cursed and began to compose their reports in their heads. Kyroo, who was just abandoning a stolen car near the academy, cringed at the report he would have to file, and what Silver would do to him when he found out he had been sleeping with the enemy. He would get right on it after a shower and a visit to the medics. Delores heard the message, but Zac did not because her thighs were over his ears. Then she went back to kissing the greyhound who was riding Zac's cock like a jockey in the final furlongs. They could whip a report up quick enough later.

Of all the agents, only Kain worried about how he could explain certain things. He was not supposed to be in contact with Ophelia, let alone using her to track the elusive Bloedrye, and then there was the matter of bogus authority for the mission and all of the things that had been done based on those false pretenses. "You're sure that you can find Bloedrye?" He asked Ophelia for the third time that day.

"Yes. His contractors are good, but I'm better. We have the advantage of knowing where he was leaving from, and where his last secure hideout was."

"Silver is going to know that you did it if you kill Bloedrye on your own, and he may guess how you came to be involved."

"Then we have to come up with a way to make him assign me to take Bloedrye out."

"They have foiled his plan, ruined his organization, and no harm has come to Leslie. Won't that be enough for Silver?"

"You said that Silver promised to skin alive whoever was responsible for his son's kidnapping?"

"That's what he said, yeah."

"Silver rarely makes promises, and he always sees them through. When I find Bloedrye I'll let you know where he is, and if he isn't already covered by more layers of protection than a bishop in a whore house we'll make it look like there's no way any of the regular agents can get close to him. He will have to call me in and you are off the hook."

"That could work."

"You know what else could work?" She said, stepping up close and leaning down to whisper in his ear

He looked up, surprised. "No, what?"

"This!" She said, grabbing his cock through the material of his lightweight trousers. "If you stopped worrying long enough to put it in gear. Remember, you owe me two days."

* * * * * * * *

The next day was taken up with briefs and debriefs either live or by videoconference. Silver dealt with the agents who had participated in the mission from east to west, so that he would inconvenience the least number. He began each debrief with his and Vikki's thanks or the work they did and its contribution to saving their son.

Kyroo had written his brutally honest and self-critical report during the night and presented it to Vikki first thing in the morning, as she was the only senior agent in Ottawa at the moment. There was a rumour going around that she was on the warpath, having sworn revenge on anyone she could get her paws on that had anything to do with the kidnapping of her son. When he passed the report over to her she looked at him with eyes that seemed to know everything he had ever done wrong. He had never seen eyes so cold and dangerous, not even Silver's.

Since he was right there at F.O.X. Headquarters he was scheduled last for debriefing. Kyroo suspected it was also because of his role in this whole fiasco. It was almost five o'clock and he was waiting in the lounge with Rusty and Joel when the word came that he was wanted in Silver's office. He had told the two staffers about him and Pawstone, and they were all sympathy, to a degree.

As he rose from his bar stool Rusty slapped him on the back hard enough to knock the wind out of him. "Nice know'n you kid."

"You got that twenty bucks you owe me?" Joel held out a paw expectantly.

Sputtering for breath Kyroo replied "I don't owe you any money."

Joel scowled. "Can't blame a guy for trying. It's not like you'll need it where you're going."

Joel refused to elaborate and Kyroo could not afford to be late so he left it at that and hurried over to the Headquarters building. He was buzzed into the executive wing by a skunkette who was sitting behind Miss CC's desk. Kyroo thought that he recognized her from the mail room but he had never seen the formerly frumpy skunkette in a skirt or blouse so tight, or so revealing. It was not a pretty sight.

"Silver will see you now." The skunkette managed to say those five words in a sexy drawl and with several facial gestures that left Kyroo confused as to what her message was supposed to mean, but seeing the door to Silver's office open he rushed through it, pushing it shut behind him.

The big silver fox was sitting behind a plain desk that was so spartan Kyroo wondered how he got any work done on it. He recognized his report in the middle of the desk, despite the 'X's, circles, question marks and one swear word, all written in bright red ink. The Chief of Staff gestured to an uncomfortable looking chair on the near side of the desk and Kyroo sat in it. Silver stared at him in silence for a few moments. Kyroo was tempted to speak, to offer excuses and explanations, but thought that it was best to hold his tongue.

After what seemed like a very long time Silver said "You know that you are still on probation here, don't you?"

Kyroo's head sunk down between his shoulders. "Yes, Sir."

"And are you aware that, even for senior personnel, passing information on about F.O.X. operations, methods or personnel is grounds for dismissal ... or worse."

He swallowed and his head almost disappeared between his shoulders. "yes sir."

Silver took his report and studied it, flipping back and forth between the heavily marked pages. Then he tossed it into a corner of the bureau behind him. "Then it's a good thing you didn't mention any specific names or pass any operational information on to this Runs With Sticks - Ruth Pawstone."

Kyroo was astounded. "But Sir, I ..."

Silver leaned across the desk and fixed those cold blue-grey eyes on him. "I read your report, and I also talked to the bunny that took advantage of you. It's obvious to me that you need more training in the seduction and resistance department. We'll start with a lessons learned session, just you and me, tomorrow at nine. But let me warn you," he waved a digit at the junior agent who was almost falling off his chair in shock, "if anything like this happens again you'll be gone faster than buns at a buffet."

"Actually I don't think that the pastries get taken any faster than ..."

"Shut up." Kyroo did, abruptly, and Silver sat back in his chair. "I wanted to thank you for the role you played in saving our kit, Leslie. Your personal views on, uh, F.O.X. management, well it really helped get Pawstone off her vendetta. Thank you."

"Gee, Chief, I was only being honest. You really are a .... "

"You are not far enough in my good books yet to get away with brown nosing."

"Uh, right, Chief. You're, uh, welcome." There was an awkward silence as each sat staring at the other. "Was there anything else I could, uh, do for you, Chief?"

Silver squinted as he considered the offer. "There is one thing."

Kyroo sat forward, interested. "Yes?"

"Do you know the skunkette who is filling in for Miss CC this week?"

Kyroo's brow wrinkled in fresh confusion. "I've seen her around."

"Does she seem a little odd to you lately?"

"How so?"

"Oh, I don't know. But she keeps giving me these strange looks and, well, touching herself when she does. I always remembered her as a quiet, plain workaholic."

Kyroo was about to relate his impressions from her greeting earlier when there was the sound of a scuffle in the outer office and the door burst open. Silver had his gun in his paw before Kyroo could even turn around to see what was going on, but he slipped it back under his jacket before the creature at the door could see it.

"You!" Sylvie Roy almost screamed as she pushed the skunkette out of the office and slammed the door between them. "I know your dirty little secret now, fox."

Silver's paw was still on the butt of his Glock under the jacket. He reviewed the rules of engagement for discovery of F.O.X.'s operational mandate and frowned when he recalled that he could not shoot her outright, unless she threatened to reveal it to a foreign agent, of course. There being none of those in the room he lowered his paw. "And what secret is that, Director-General Roy?"


"Asbestos? Like the mineral, asbestos?" Silver wondered if she had not gone mad and confused the secret agency with Natural Resources a couple of blocks away.

"Yes, asbestos. The walls and ceilings are full of it! No wonder you tried to restrict our access to the buildings."

"There is asbestos in our buildings?" Silver said slowly.

"Don't play coy with me. The jig is up. Everyone knows about the Treasury Board decree that in-place asbestos can be left undisturbed for as long as a building does not change function or owner. But you were going to wait until we had occupied the site to revel it, weren't you? Making us responsible for the cleanup. But your nasty plot is foiled! The deal is off. You can keep your infested animal farm."

Silver looked to Kyroo, who shrugged, and back to Roy. "So you won't be taking over our campus?"

"Ha! No way!" The black feline leaned over his desk and gave him an evil grin. "In fact, when I get finished you won't be able to pawn these off on any of the other Departments either. You are stuck with them ... forever!"

"Damn." Silver said dryly as Roy turned and exited the office with a flourish. Then he turned to Kyroo. "When you can seduce that hell cat into saying something nice about anybody below her pay scale I'll consider your training complete.

Although the Chief of Staff's expression was serious Kyroo risked a short laugh. "Is that it then, Sir? Is this business with Bloedrye all done and over with?"

"No, there are still a couple of loose ends to tie up.

Epilogue - In the Weeks that Followed

Runs With Sticks had a harder time than she thought getting out of Canada and back to the South-West. When she returned to her home she found that her father, whose home it was before her, had not only kept everything in order, but had restored some of the things to the way they were before he had disappeared thirty-five years ago. Talismans and pictures her mother had liked were back on the walls, and her old utensils had been hung in the kitchen. She liked it, it reminded her of her departed mother, and it did nothing to take away from her memories of her mate, Silver Two Trees, as the memories she kept off him were of a more physical nature.

The first thing she did after seeing the changes was to hug her father tightly.

"I still can't get over how big you are, daughter. When I left you were just a slip of a doe."

"Things change, father. People change too. Has anyone been around, uh, asking for me lately?"

"No, but this letter came addressed as personal for you." He held out a sturdy envelope, the kid you could not see through even if you soaked it in cooking oil. The kind Government departments used for classified communications. There was no return address, no stamp and no postal mark.

She took it gingerly, checking the thickness to see if there could be explosives inside and then felt it for wires or detonators. It seemed too thin and smooth to be a bomb. She slit it open with the cleaver she had grasped when she felt threatened. Inside was a single sheet of paper. She pulled it out, unfolded it and read.

It was a biography of a retired FBI sharpshooter. It said that the canine had served a long and illustrious career with the agency before a misfire had prematurely ended his career. But she noted that he never rose to be a supervisor, nor had he been transferred to another division or to the training cadre when he had been injured. It was almost like they were looking for an excuse to get rid of a bad apple.

Written in cursive below the typed biography was an address. Presumably the address of the sharpshooter who, she was obviously being led to believe, had been the one who had really shot her father. It was signed in silver ink with a large stylized 'S'.

Runs with Stick considered the note. She had no reason to doubt that the canine was the true object of her hatred. But the question was why, why had the Silver fox given his name to her? To set her up when she went after him? To say 'thanks' for not killing his son? To give her justice?

Then something that Kyroo had said about his boss came back to her. "Everything is a test for him. How you react to a strange event, how you explain your actions afterward, whether you cheat when given the opportunity and whether you try to cover it up if you do. And there is no passing mark, only a fail if you make the wrong choice, then the consequences are dire, and swift in coming."

Runs With Stick took the note and the envelope and tore them both into many small pieces. Then she put the pieces into the fire where her father was brewing tea for them. As the fire consumed them she took the cleaver she had inherited from her mother and hung it with the utensils that she never used anymore.

"What was in the letter?" Her father asked as he came back into the room with cups for their tea.

"Nothing important." She replied, and hugged him again.

* * * * * * * *

The Department of Natural Resources Headquarters was in the Booth Street complex near Dow's Lake, not more than a ten minute walk from the Central Experimental Farm which would continue to shelter the Foreign Operations eXecutive for the foreseeable future. The otter who had given the envelope to be carried by courier to Tancred Williams had an office on the seventeenth floor. He had been expecting someone to come speak to him about that envelope, just not the creature that showed up to do so.

He eyed the big silver fox that had produced some kind of document proclaiming him to be an agent of the Government of Canada and another paper that Cartwright refused to touch, believing it might be a summons or a subpoena or such. They were not considered legally delivered if you refused to accept them, weren't they? In any event, instead of the reward he had been expecting for getting the envelope onto the courier run, he was now being threatened with prosecution.

But one does not rise to upper echelons of the civil service without a degree of confidence, bravado and gall, so Cartwright was not fazed by the accusations. As far as he could see, it was just a pressure tactic, one department trying to exert its authority over another.

"So, mister, uh, Silver." He said after consulting the documents again. "What exactly do you want from me? A confession? If so, you are going to waiting for a very long time."

The fox crossed his legs comfortably before replying. "I do not need a confession. There is only one creature that could have profited from the documents you gave Williams being in that particular courier package, and that creature is you. We already know how you held it back so that the only way it could get to Brussels on time was if our courier took it. We also know about your Swiss bank accounts and the payments that were deposited after the courier was hit. What I would like to know, because I'm a naturally curious kind of guy, is why? Why didn't you just give them the papers? Why go through all this subterfuge to get the documents to them?"

Cartwright knew that his office was not bugged, because they had just had it swept for an upcoming conference, and if the fox was recording this he was violating his rights and it could not be used as evidence. "There was too much security, the list of people with access was too restricted. They would have known it was me. By making them steal it from your courier it transferred the suspicion."

"You mean by having them kill our couriers for it."

"They lived. No harm no foul. Besides, what are you going to do about it? There is an election coming up and the government can't handle another scandal."

The fox sighed. "That is true, it is too sensitive. It needs to be handled delicately."

The otter smiled knowingly. "Forced retirement? I warn you, I'll fight it all the way. You'll have to top up my pension and give me a cushy appointment somewhere to keep me quiet."

The fox stood up and offered the official looking paper again. Again Cartwright refused to touch it. The fox sighed and folded the paper away inside his jacket. "Very well Mister Cartwright. Have it your way."

"You are going to buy me out? You know, the advantage of that is ...." But the silver fox cut him off.

"Let's just say that the Minister has authorized some cut backs and leave it at that. Goodbye Mister Cartwright." And with that the fox left, pulling the door to the otter's office closed behind him. Strangely enough, Cartwright heard the lock turn just after the fox closed the door. But there wasn't any locking mechanism on the outside, was there? Not unless you had a key, an he had the only copy, didn't he? He got up to check but halfway to the door he heard someone clear their throat behind him. Turning around he saw a tall, slim vixen standing in the corner of his office. The ceiling tile above her was askew. She regarded him with emerald eyes that burned with green fire as she tested the edge of a large meat cleaver she held in her left paw.

"That was a Cabinet Death Warrant he was trying to show you, you stupid male." She said as she transferred the cleaver to her right paw and strode towards him. "To be exercised at our discretion. And you just lost your last chance to negotiate your way out of it. Now guess who's about to die to from severe paper cuts."

Cartwright cleared his throat to raise a point of order but, for the second time as many minutes, he was cut off.

* * * * * * * *

Bloedrye sat in a villa in Naples that was secure as the local Mafioso could make it and contemplated the ruins of his organization as he stroked his tail reflectively.

GHOST was a just a spectre of its former self, his best agents were dead, and Operation Firestorm was a huge loss. But he had been in this position before and had recovered from worse with fewer assets than he had now. Number Eight and the other two French poodles, for example, were alive and taking care of the income streams that were generated by prostitution, drugs, blackmail and extortion. All in all, he was in better shape than after the theft of a nuclear bomb went bad in the Caribbean or the biological warfare stunt in The Swiss Alps. Maybe, he thought, he should take what was left and retire somewhere where he could pursue his twin passions for gardening and inflicting death in interesting ways. Somewhere where they appreciated a worthy death and a beautiful blossom; Japan, maybe. But he would have to take Number Eight with him, to take care of the books and manage his investments.

He supposed that he would have to make love to her occasionally, and the thought made him shiver. But he was sure that he could sneak away now and then to have the kind of female that he preferred - fuzzy and feline. Speaking of which, the masseuse he had ordered should be arriving any minute.

As if on cue there was a quiet knock on the door of his suite. He called for whoever it was to enter and the goon that he had hired from the local Don opened the door to admit a greyish leopard with cloud-like marking on her fur. He could see quite a bit of it because she was wearing nothing but a purple bikini that matched her eyes. She was also carrying a bag of massage supplies, which the guard would have searched for weapons, along with her. Since she was being admitted she had obviously passed inspection. Bloedrye gestured for her to approach.

She did, stopping a few feet away from him as he gave her the once over. She was not exactly the long haired Asian that he had ordered, but her fur was very poofy, and her incredibly long tail moved as if it was a separate creature. The pace of his paws on his own tail increased as he noted the fine cut of her breasts and the firm round buttocks. She looked to be in very good shape, and that boded well for what he had in mind.

"You are a cloud leopard, are you not?" He asked.

"Yes." She replied in good Italian. "My species originated in Borneo, although I was not raised there."

He nodded. "Are you a good masseuse?"

She smiled knowingly. "Amongst other things, I am a certified massage therapist. I was told that you like a deep tissue massage before ... before more relaxing activities."

It was Bloedrye's turn to smile, but his had a hard edge to it. "And did they tell you what would happen if you disappoint me, in either activity?"

A nervous frown flickered across her face before she regained her composure. "I understand. You will not be disappointed. In fact, when I am done, you will be so comfortable it will fell like you have stepped out of your skin."

Bloedrye stood up and dropped his robe to the floor. "I'll hold you to that." He said as he walked naked to a mat in the centre of the sun room. It was a private space in the middle of the suite where he could sunbathe in his bare fur without the guards seeing him. Although he took great care with his fur, especially that of his tail, he was a bit self conscious about his paunch and the size of his penis, the first being too and the second too small. The females he hired never laughed at him when he was naked though, not after hearing about what happened to those that did.

He lay face down on the mat with his head to one side. He saw the top and bottom of her bikini fall to the floor a foot from his nose but he did not turn his head to stare at her, he would see enough of her during phase two.

She put down the bag and knelt beside him. From the bag she took a number of tubes of massage gel and fine oils. She selected one and began to massage it in, starting at his shoulders and working her way to the base of his tail.

She really does know her stuff, Bloedrye thought as she dug her thumbs into the muscles just above his buttocks. It was rough enough to bring a delicious degree of pain followed by the soothing oil. In fact, he was feeling more relaxed than he ever did during one of these sessions. He wondered if he might fall asleep before she got to his legs.

But he did not fall asleep, and she did not do his legs. Instead she grabbed him roughly by the shoulders and viciously flipped him onto his back. He opened his mouth to protest - this was not supposed to happen until after the massage, and even then not to him - but no sound came out. He tried to raise himself up on his elbows but found that he could not move his arms. Panicked, but strangely immobile, he tried everything. He could see her going through her bag beside him, and hear the clink of grooming instruments as she rummaged through the bag seeking something specific, but he could not blink or move any part of his body. He could not even stop breathing when he tried to. He was fully conscious though, and while his mind raced his heart kept up a steady sixty beats per minute.

The cloud leopard had found what she was looking for, a set of rollers on a bar with paw grips on both ends so it could roll away a client's tensions. She twisted the grips in opposite directions and the device came apart in two pieces. Now one of the grips formed the handle of a long thin knife that had been concealed inside the tube. It had a straight, thin blade and a sharp tip. Bloedrye, who had studied a thousand means of inflicting death, recognized it as a flaying knife.

His skin crawled on his frame, as if it knew what was coming next.

She was still wearing nothing but the latex gloves that had kept whatever drug was in the oil from being absorbed by her. "My boss had a special request, so he sent me." She said with a malicious grin as she flourished the knife in front of his nose. "He likes to send me on these special one-person assignments because I tend to get under other folks skin." She chuckled as she flipped him over on his belly again. "And don't worry, I'll kill you quickly after I've done what he wants."

This time she started at the base of his tail and worked her way up.

* * * * * * * *

The taxi drew up at the Rue Cambon entrance to the Ritz Hotel.

Gray looked at his watch. Eleven forty-five. He must be dead punctual. He knew that if an agent of GHOST was even a few minutes early or late for a rendezvous the rendezvous was automatically cancelled. He paid off the taxi and went in the door to the left that leads into the Ritz bar.

Gray ordered a double vodka martini. He drank it half down. He felt wonderful. Suddenly the last few weeks, and particularly the day of the attack, were washed off the calendar. Now he was on his own, having his private adventure. All his duties had been taken care of. Miss CC was waiting at a cafe nearby. Local F.O.X. agents had tracked down and killed two of the three French poodles that represented the last of GHOST, but Silver wanted this one alive. Kain had used the clone he had made of Bloedrye's phone to arrange a meeting. Silver had spoken to an old friend, Rene Mathis, a red fox who was high up in the French General Directorate for Internal Security, and the concierge at the Cambon entrance to the Ritz had been told to give Gray a pass key and to ask no questions.

Rene had been delighted to find himself involved again with F.O.X. in une affaire noire. "Have confidence, cher Gray," he had said. "I will execute your mysteries. You can tell me the story afterwards. Two laundry workers with a large laundry basket will come to room 204 at twelve fifteen. I shall accompany them dressed as the driver of their camion. We are to fill the laundry basket and take it to Orly and await an RCAF Polaris which will arrive at two o'clock. We pass over the basket. Some dirty washing which was in France will be in Canada. Yes?"

Gray looked again at the time. He finished his martini. He paid for it and walked out of the bar and up the steps to the concierge's lodge. The concierge looked sharply at him and passed him a key card. Gray walked over to the elevator and got in and went up to the third floor.

The elevator door clanged behind him. Gray walked softly down the corridor, looking at the numbers.

  1. Gray put his right paw inside his coat and on the taped butt of a Beretta he had borrowed from Rene. It was tucked into the waistband of his trousers. He could feel the metal of the silencer warm across his stomach.

He knocked once with his left paw.

"Come in." It was a quavering voice. An old woman's voice.

Gray tried the handle of the door. It was unlocked. He slipped the key card into his coat pocket. He pushed the door open with one swift motion and stepped in and shut it behind him.

It was a typical Ritz sitting room, extremely elegant, with good Empire furniture. The walls were white and the curtains and chair covers were of a patterned chintz of red roses on white. The carpet was wine red and close fitted.

In a pool of sunshine, in a low armed chair beside a Directoire writing desk, a little old white poodle sat knitting. The tinkle of the steel needles continued. The eyes behind light blue tinted bifocals examined Gray with curiosity.

"Oui, Monsieur?" The voice was deep and hoarse. The thickly powdered, rather puffy face under the white fur showed nothing but well-bred interest.

Gray's paw on the gun under his coat was as taut as a steel spring. His half closed eyes flickered round the room and back to the little old poodle in the chair.

Had there been a mistake? Was this the wrong room? Should he apologise and get out? Could this poodle possibly belong to GHOST? She looked so exactly like the sort of respectable rich widow one would expect to find sitting by herself at the Ritz, wiling the time away with her knitting. The sort of female who would have her own table, and her favourite waiter, in a corner of the restaurant downstairs - not, of course, the grill room. The sort of female who would doze after lunch and then be fetched by an elegant black limousine with white side walled tires and be driven to the tea room in the rue de Berri to meet some other rich crone. The old fashioned black dress with the touch of lace at the throat and wrists, the thin gold chain that hung down over the shapeless bosom and ended in a folding lorgnette, the neat little feet in the sensible black buttoned boots that barely touched the floor. It couldn't be Bloedrye's head of operations! Gray had got the number of the room wrong. He could feel the perspiration under his arms. But now he would have to play the scene through.

"My name is Muzzle, Gray muzzle."

"And I, Monsieur, am the Comtesse Metterstein. What can I do for you?" The needles tinkled busily.

"I am afraid that Bloedrye has met with an accident. He won't be coming today, so I came instead."

Did the eyes narrow a fraction behind the pale blue spectacles?

"I do not have the pleasure of Mister Bloedrye's acquaintance Monsieur. Nor of yours. Please sit down and state your business." The poodle inclined her head an inch towards the high-backed chair beside the writing desk.

One couldn't fault her. The graciousness of it all was devastating. Gray walked across the room and sat down. Now he was about six feet away from her. The desk held nothing but a tall old fashioned telephone with a receiver on a hook, and, within reach of her paw, an ivory buttoned bell push. The black mouth of the telephone yawned at Gray politely.

Gray stared rudely into the poodle's face, examining it. It was an ugly face, toad-like, under the powder and tight cottage-loaf of white fur. The eyes were so light brown as to be almost yellow. The pale lips were wet and blubbery below the fringe of nicotine stained moustache. Nicotine? Where were her cigarettes? There was no ashtray - no smell of smoke in the room.

Gray's paw tightened again on his gun. He glanced down at the bag of knitting, at the shapeless length of small-denier beige wool the poodle was working on. The steel needles. What was there odd about them? The ends were discoloured as if they had been held in fire. Did knitting needles ever look like that?

"Eh bien, Monsieur?" Was there an edge to the voice? Had she read something in his face?

Gray smiled. His muscles were tense, waiting for any movement, any trick. "It's no use." He said cheerfully, gambling. "You are Number Eight, and you are head of operations for GHOST. You are a torturer and a murderer. You wanted to kill me and Mademoiselle Chienne-Caniche. I am very glad to meet you at last."

The eyes had not changed. The harsh voice was patient and polite. The poodle reached out her left paw towards the bell push. "Monsieur, I am afraid that you are deranged. I must ring for the valet de chambre and have you shown to the door."

Gray never knew what saved his life. Perhaps it was the flash of realization that no wires led from the bell push to the wall or into the carpet. Perhaps it was the English "Come in" when the expected knock came on the door. But, as her digit reached the ivory knob, he hurled himself sideways out of the chair.

As Gray hit the ground there was sharp noise of tearing calico. Splinters from the back of his chair sprayed around him. The chair crashed to the floor.

Gray twisted over, tugging at his gun. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a curl of blue smoke coming from the mouth of the 'telephone'. Then the poodle was on him, the knitting needles glinting in her clenched fists.

She stabbed downwards at his legs. Gray lashed out with her feet and hurled her sideways. She had aimed at his legs! As he got to one knee Gray knew that the coloured tips of the needles meant. It was poison. Probably one of those German nerve poisons, All she had to do was to scratch him, to break the skin.

Gray was on his feet. She was coming at him again. He tugged furiously at his gun. The silencer had caught. There was a flash of light. Gray dodged. One of the needles rattled against the wall behind him and the dreadful chunk of a poodle, the white bun of fur askew on her head, the slimy lips drawn back from her teeth, was on top of him.

Gray, not daring to use his naked paws against the needles, vaulted sideways over the desk.

Panting and talking to herself in French, Number Eight scuttled around the desk, the remaining needle held forward like a rapier. Gray backed away, working at the stuck gun. The back of his les came against a small chair. He let go of the gun and reached behind him and snatched it up. Holding it by the back, with its legs pointing like horns, he went around the desk to meet her. But she was beside the bogus telephone. She swept it up and aimed it. Her paw went to the button. Gray leapt forward. He crashed the chair down. Bullets sprayed into the ceiling and plaster pattered down on his head.

Gray lunged again. The legs of the chair clutched the poodle around the waist and over the shoulders. God she was strong! She gave way, but only to the wall. There she held her ground, spitting at Gray over the top of the chair, while the knitting needle quested at him like a long scorpion's sting.

Gray stood back a little, holding the chair at arm's length. He took aim and high kicked ar the probing wrist. The needle sailed away into the room and pinged down beside him.

Gray came in closer. He examined the position. Yes, the poodle was held firmly against the wall by the four legs of the chair. There was no way she could get out of the cage except by brute force. He arms and legs and head were free, but the body was pinned to the wall.

The poodle hissed something in French. She spat at him over the chair. Gray bent his head and wiped his face against his sleeve. He looked up and into the mottled face.

"That's all right Eight." He said. "The DGSI will be along in a minute. In a few hours you will be on your way to Ottawa. You won't be seen leaving the hotel. You won't be seen going into Canada. In fact, very few folk will see you again. From now on you are just a number on a secret file. By the time Silver's finished with you you'll be ready for the lunatic asylum."

The face, a few feet away, was changing. Now the blood had drained out of it, and it was yellow. But not, thought Gray, with fear. The pale eyes looked levelly into his. They were not defeated.

"And where will you be when I am in that asylum, Mister Muzzle?"

"Oh, getting on with my life."

"I think not, Anglais Espion."

"Actually I'm American." But Gray hardly noticed the words. He had heard the click of the door opening. A burst of laughter came from behind him.

"Eh bien." It s the voice of delight that Gray remembered well from his meeting with Mathis. "The seventieth position! Now, at last, I have seen everything. And invented by a Canadian! Gray, this really is an insult to my countrymen."

"I'm American, actually, and I don't recommend this," Gray said over his shoulder, "it's too strenuous. Anyway, you can take over now. I'll introduce you. Her name is Eight. You'll like her. She's a big noise in GHOST - she looks after the accounts and all of the operations that bring the money in - kidnappings, murders, extortion."

Mathis came up. There were two laundry workers with him, a pair of polecats. The three of them stood and looked respectfully into that dreadful face.

"Huit." Said Mathis thoughtfully. "well well! But I am sure that she is uncomfortable in that position. You two, bring along the panier de fluers. - she will be more comfortable laying down." The two walked to the door. Gray heard the creak of the laundry basket.

The poodle's eyes were still locked on Gray's. She moved a little, shifting her weight. Out of Gray's sight, and not noticed by Mathis, who was still examining her face, the toe of one shinny buttoned boot pressed under the instep of the other. From the point of its toe there slid forward half an inch of thin knife blade. Like the knitting needles, the steel had a dirty bluish tinge.

The two polecats came up and put the big square basket down beside Mathis.

"Take her." Said the French fox. He bowed slightly to the poodle. "It has been an honour."

"Au revior, Eight." Said Gray.

The yellow eyes blazed briefly. "Farewell, Mister Muzzle."

The boot, with its tiny steel tongue, flashed out.

Gray felt a sharp pain in his right calf. It was only the sort of pain you would get from a kick. He flinched and stepped back. The two polecats seized Number Eight by the arms.

Mathis laughed. "My poor Gray." He said. "Count on GHOST to have the last word."

Gray was about to comment when his eye fell on one of the discarded knitting needles and its poisoned blue tip. Then he fell to one knee. He pawed at the grey worsted wool of the slacks he had bought just the day before. There was a neat slice through the leg above his right calf. Gray looked down at the feet of Number Eight. He saw the short blade with its blue tip before she could retract it, and noted that a good portion of the poison had cone off on contact.

He lifted his head slowly, fixed his eyes on her yellow orbs, and said "Oh God. That is so old school." Then he got to his feet, pulled up the ruined leg of his pants and revealed the shark suit that he had been wearing under his clothes. He was careful not to touch the blue smudge on the mesh that matched where the hole in his trousers was. "That kind of thing went out with SMERSH," he noted, "but Silver said that you were old enough to have trained under them, so he made me wear this, just in case."

"Good thing." Mathis commented.

"Yes." Gray said. "Now get her out of my sight. And watch those feet! One ruined set of pants is enough for one day."

One polecat held the struggling Eight still while the other removed her shoes. Then they stuffed her, none too gently, into the laundry basket and sealed the lid. Gray and Mathis followed them down to the service entrance and watched them load it on an unmarked truck before returning to the front of the hotel.

Mathis turned to Gray. It is a hard day's work that you have done." He said. "But you looked tired, Gray. Why do you not go back to your Embassy and have a rest because tonight we must have dinner together. The best dinner in Paris. And I will find the loveliest female to go with it."

They were approaching an outdoor cafe, where the tiny tables were occupied mostly by couples on this fine summer day. All but one. Gray's eyes were fixed on that table.

"I shan't be needing a female, Rene." Gray said thickly as emotion welled up inside him. "I've already got the loveliest poodle in Paris."

He turned and shook Rene's paw. Then he walked over to the only table with a lone occupant. It was white poodle with black ears, and Mathis whistled under his breath when she put her menu down and revealed her stunning figure, shown off to perfection on a translucent white blouse and the shortest of black skirts. Gray bent to kiss her on the cheek before unlocking her wheel chair. She tossed a few coins on the table to settle the bill as he wheeled her out onto the sidewalk.

Mathis watched them as they went down the street, their heads close together and their paws gesturing in the kind of animated conversation that only lovers have, and only in a city like Paris. He heaved an envious sigh and turned back toward the city centre.

Maybe the new MI6 Liaison Officer was free for dinner tonight, he thought. What was his name again? Band, Bund? Oh well, it would come to him.

The FOX Academy series:

Book I - The New Breed

Book II - The Werewolf of Odessa

Book II.5 - The Love who Spied Me

Book III - The Curse of the Yellow Monkey

Book IV - Wait for No One

Book V - Dawn of Vengeance

Book VI - Unnatural Selection

Book VII - Rogue Sword

Kain Algorath (c) Marcus X Light

Ophelia Cassidy Sommer (c) Devil Kitty

Joel Grigori (c) Joel the Lemur

Geno (c) Coyotek

Dongo Fett (c) Dongo Fett

Zachary Ember (c) EmberWolf

Gray Muzzle (c) Gray Muzzle

Ruth Pawstone/Runs With Stick (c) Bunners

The final passage of this story is based almost word for word on the final chapter of "From Russia With Love", which is, of course (c) 1954 by Ian Fleming and Gildrose Productions Ltd. but is used here as a form of homage to a great storyteller and a fellow Intelligence Officer.

Firestorm - Ch 9: Deployment

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Firestorm - Ch 7: Deception

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