Tillie’s face reddened. Suddenly, she felt quite queasy. She started to speak, but her superior held up his hand.
“There’s more. This is a human-animal auction. It is not limited to Hucows. There will be Hupigs, Huhorses, and maybe even, Husheep. Fortunately, you are to focus on the cows. That is where we believe Lady Annabelle will be found.”
Tillie gazed at him. “What if she isn’t there? What if she has changed…er, species?”
“I suggest you cross that bridge when you come to it.”
“And what am I to do if I find Lady Annabelle? How do I extract her?”
“You purchase her at the auction. You have been given sufficient funds to bid up to one million Euros.”
Tillie’s eyes grew wide. “Criminy. That much?”
Lord Ryder nodded. “These cows are well-trained and well-treated. The females are pampered—weekly manicures, hair treatments, and such. A happy cow is a happy milker, as they say.”
Tillie’s eyes widened. “Lady Annabelle could be there willingly? She is not necessarily a captive, forced be a Hucow?”
“Exactly. And that is our dilemma. While the Queen hopes that she is there willingly, several factors are at play. Lady Annabelle may have freely joined a farm to become a Hucow, or she may just have danced on the wild side and somehow wound up at auction. In the alternative, she may have been kidnapped and forced to become a Hucow, or she may have been forced and now enjoys the lifestyle. There are all sorts of reasons she could be there and all sorts of reasons she prefers to stay. Our only mission is to get her out.”
Tillie frowned. “Why would they put her up for auction? Isn’t that a way to get rid of unproductive or uncooperative cows?”
“Not necessarily. Some farms simply raise and train Hucows, then sell them. Given their going rate, it is a lucrative business. A great way to supplement the income from a regular farm. Human cows bring much more lucre than actual farm-raised cows.”
Tillie sighed. “For just one day, I would like to forget that there is a whole lot of people engaged in activities that far surpass my imagination.”
Lord Ryder’s mouth curved up into a wry smile. “Then we would be out of a job.”
Tillie tapped her jaw, considering. “You know, this might be a better job for the Yanks. They are a kinky bunch. I believe there was a recent study that found them to be the kinkiest country in the world.”
Lord Ryder snorted. “If you were the Queen, would you want that bunch of kinksters to know your relatives are participating in like behavior? Why their intelligence services would find a way to use it against us for decades.” He shook his head. “No. This we do alone.”
“It’s not about you, it’s about him, Joan.,” a grumbly voice said. “You’re looking at this all wrong.”
Joan turned so fast she almost lost her balance. She glared at the old man who had spoken. He was around seventy, with ruddy cheeks and twinkling blue eyes. And thick white hair. Lots of white hair. Flowing over his shoulders, winding up in a very lush beard. On top of his head was perched a brightly colored red knit hat. She frowned. “Wait a minute. You’re Santa Claus. Without the red suit, but clearly, you’re him. I’d know you anywhere.”
The man bowed and with a smile, said, “At your service.” He gestured toward a park across the street. “Let’s take a walk.”
“Oh, no. I’m not going anywhere with you.” Joan shook her head. “I didn’t mean you actually were Santa Claus. Everyone knows he doesn’t exist. I just meant you looked like him. You’re just a man who looks like him. I don’t know you. Why would I…” She glared at him. “You’re not even wearing a red suit. And since when has Santa taken up armchair psychiatry?” She ran a hand through her blonde hair. “I must be hallucinating.” Despite her objections, she followed him across the street.
Santa laughed. “My dear, I have been dispensing advice since I was old enough to talk and make people listen. God chose my role a long time ago and I have gotten very good at it.” He looked toward the heavens. “Sorry, old boy. Still working on that humility!” He chuckled. “Man never stops reminding me.” He smiled at Joan. “Do you sense any ill-intentions from me? Of course not. I’m Santa. All I want to do is talk.”
Joan reached out and touched his shoulder.
He laughed again. A laugh that came directly from his belly. “Yes, I’m real. Well, as real as a centuries-old spirit gets. I even eat all those cookies children leave me each year. And let me tell you, that’s a heavenly feat.” Again, he looked skyward. “Yes, sir, I am well aware that borders on gluttony. A sin. You know darn well it has nothing to do with gluttony and everything to do with the magic of Christmas, an affirmation that Santa is real. I do it for the children.” He smiled at Joan. “Sometimes, He gets a little overbearing with his angels.”
He smirked. “Even God has his faults. He is by no means perfect.” A strong wind swirled through the plaza, nearly catching his knitted cap. He clapped his hand on his head to hold it down. He whispered, “And he doesn’t take criticism too well, either.”
Joan stared at the man. Surely, she was losing it. Santa a spirit, an angel? He and God didn’t even travel in the same circles. She shook her head, trying to make the hallucination go away.
Santa sighed. “I know, I know. You’ve been taught that I’m not real. That I’m a myth. That’s a rumor started by Satan himself, the old devil. He can’t stand the fact that people embrace the goodness in the world. And that I spread good cheer. He would much rather unleash a plague and make people miserable. He hates Christmas. He hates that the birth of Christ is celebrated, and his birth, well, is not. He really can’t stand the fact that love binds people so tightly during the holidays.” Santa shook his fist toward the ground. “The fool pouts all through the holidays.” He then sat up straight and gazed at Joan. “Christmas is really about love, you know. All kinds of love. The type of love he’ll never have. Love of family, love of children, love of—”
“What the heck do you want?” Joan blurted. “People are starting to stare.”
Donovan’s cell phone pinged. He pulled himself into a small alleyway, away from the stampede trudging back to their workplaces after lunch, and leaned back against a building to read a text. His face screwed up in confusion. The text read, The first thing we do, let’s kill all lawyers! Starting with you!
“What the bloody hell?” he muttered. “Is this some kind of joke?” Donovan’s eyes surveyed his surroundings. He gazed right, then left. It did not appear that someone had made him the focus of their attention. Everyone was scurrying about, like mice in pursuit of a big cheese. “Must be Finley,” he said. “Finley is always plying me with lawyer jokes. He thinks he’s funny.”
Donovan shrugged. Not funny at all. He left the alleyway and re-entered the mass migration on the sidewalk. He approached the crosswalk at Michigan and Superior and emitted a snort of frustration as the light changed and the crosswalk filled with cars. He was bumped hard by someone behind him. Donovan was forced to step into the street to regain his balance. A cab rushed by and narrowly missed clipping his side. Donovan jumped back onto the sidewalk.
A woman screamed and Donovan jerked his head around, trying to see what all the fuss was about. The woman was pointing at him. Donovan frowned and turned away. God save me from simpering females who saw the last issue of City Magazine. Donovan had appeared on the cover after being named as one of Chicago’s most eligible bachelors. Since then, he had learned that the female population was comprised of women of questionable morals and distressing behavior. He was growing weary of the attention. While his colleagues thought it a wise marketing strategy, it had brought him nothing but unwanted female attention. He had become prey.
Vampires were predators. They stalked their victims. Sometimes, they pursued them with a vengeance. That was why he had joined the legal profession. His predilections were well-suited to that particular world. Now, his role had apparently shifted and he was not pleased.
Someone tapped Donovan on the shoulder. “Sir? Are you alright? You’re bleeding. It appears someone stuck a knife into your side.”
Donovan’s mouth gaped and he turned toward the man who had spoken. Then he looked at where the man pointed. There was indeed a knife sticking out of his left side and a stream of his blood was flowing onto the sidewalk. He had a very high threshold of pain. He hadn’t felt the knife thrust into his side. If it wasn’t so appalling, he would be embarrassed. Donovan opened his mouth to reply. Then the pain in his side exploded and his vision dulled. Slowly he slid onto the sidewalk as if he planned to sit on the curb.
Then everything went black.
Tom cocked an eyebrow. “Warren, you’re a former Navy Seal. Isn’t there some sort of limit on the amount of time you can spend under the sea before it starts to seriously impair your health?”
Warren frowned. “Usually two weeks. After that, the lack of exposure to the sun and the constant high pressure oxygenated environment would begin to take a toll. There’s also a psychological impact. Think sensory deprivation. Your senses are out of whack because you’ve been dumped into a soundproof sponge. There is no normal sensory stimulation. No sunlight, no sound… Even taste and smell become compromised. Coming back to the real world would be an adjustment.
“In addition, those underwater stations are small. People are right on top of each other. Things we take for granted, like privacy, hot showers, home cooked meals, are in short supply. That can create anxiety, depression, and stress. No way he served that sentence consecutively. He had to take a break in between.”
Warren gazed at Tom. “That environment is more hostile than a prison. You may not be in danger from other inmates, but you are putting your life at risk. Three months sounds like way too much time to be stuck underwater though, especially if you’re not leaving the station for deep sea diving on a regular basis. They must be breaking up the time somehow, otherwise they’d have a pretty tough situation on their hands. A lot of contract workers would be headed to a rubber room. It would be extremely difficult to survive a month, much less three, down there.”
“Could they be treating the inmates like guinea pigs?” Hope asked. “Testing their limits? Tracking actual survival rates?”
Warren sighed. “Possibly. It’s not like they have to answer to anyone. They are located in international waters. No country in particular has legal oversight. I imagine they could be doing anything they want without recourse. Unfortunately, when the prospect of a reduced sentence is dangled in front of some people, they grab it, damn the consequences. If one or two inmates suffer some sort of harm or die along the way, they chalk it up to collateral damage.”
“And who’s going to know?” Cate shook her head. “Someone dies, they probably flush them down a chute into the deep sea and they become shark chum. No evidence left behind.”
Hope cringed. “God, that’s kind of evil. But that still doesn’t answer our original question. Where the hell is Fuzzy? Has he already served out his sentence? Has he been released, and if he has, where the hell is he? He’s the one we need to find. He could have a lot of the answers.”
“That lack of governmental oversight is troubling,” Tom said. “If Cassie McIntyre is down there, I can’t believe the CIA isn’t all over it. At least, our government should be doing a welfare check through the Red Cross or something.”
Warren grimaced. “Unless no one knows she is down there. Think about it. They are on the bottom of the ocean, more than two miles under the sea. It’s not like you can just go down there and knock on the door. Any regular monitoring would be impossible.”
Cate nodded. “And we haven’t been able to confirm that she embarked on the same path as Fuzzy. All we’ve got are suspicions. Right now, she’s missing. We need to sit down with her family and get more information. And we need to find other prisoners who contracted with Martimus.
“Otherwise, we’ve got nothing.”