“Did he say what, exactly, we are looking for?” Ulrich appeared in the doorway looking annoyed. “I searched the other two rooms and found nothing but suitcases that had not even been opened. It appears Ihara’s friends checked in and stayed only long enough to drop off their luggage.” He ran his fingers through his wavy black hair. His vanity and legendary poor swimming ability had earned him the nickname Hasselhoff, though few dared say it to the quick-tempered man’s face.
“The skulls, obviously, and anything else that might connect to the three hares, the Magi, or the cathedral.” Niklas finished his search of the bag. Neither it nor Ihara’s luggage had turned up anything. The name on the identification tag read Dane Maddock. The name meant nothing to him, but he committed it to memory all the same.
“Have you found anything?” Uhlrich opened the bathroom door and peered inside.
“I have not yet finished.” Niklas felt a flash of annoyance. He did not want to leave empty-handed, but he was concerned that Ihara had taken the skulls with her. He searched the dresser, closet, and even the floor beneath the bed skirt, but came up empty. Uhlrich poked around, looking in all the places Niklas had already checked.
He was about to give up when he noticed a bulge behind the curtain. Not wanting to give away his presence to anyone looking in from the outside, he drew back the curtain just far enough to see a black backpack resting on the windowsill. Dark, hollow holes gaped up at him from sinister, horned skulls. He had found what they were looking for.
“I’ve got them! Let’s go.”
Uhlrich’s tense face sagged with relief. He cracked the door open and peered up and down the hall before signaling that the way was clear.
They took the stairs down to the first floor and, along the way, Niklas slipped out of his overcoat and draped it over his arm, concealing the backpack. Neither Ihara nor the rest of her party knew him or Uhlrich, but there was always the slim chance she would recognize her own backpack, and he did not want to risk blowing things through a chance encounter. By the time they exchanged the warmth of the hotel for the cold December night, he knew he had made the right choice.
Four people approached, talking and laughing. Though he had never seen a picture of Ihara, he knew this had to be her. An attractive young woman of mixed Asian ancestry along with two American natives– one a tall, muscular man with long hair and a roguish face, the other an attractive twenty-something girl with captivating eyes. How many of their race did one see in Cologne? The fourth member of their group was a muscular man with blond hair and eyes the color of a stormy sea. This must be Dane Maddock. Though he smiled and spoke with his friends, his eyes locked on Niklas and Uhlrich as if he somehow knew something was amiss with them. Then again, perhaps it was because Niklas was not wearing his coat despite the snowfall that was growing heavier by the minute.
They passed close enough for him to catch a whiff of Ihara’s jasmine-scented perfume, and to realize just how tall the Indian was. Niklas was six feet tall, a shade taller than Maddock, but the Indian had him by at least half a head. Tension climbed his spine, knotting the muscles in his back and neck. He had a bad feeling about these two men and, though he and Uhlrich were armed, he would prefer not to have an encounter with them.
By the time they reached their car, the group was rounding the corner of the hotel. He breathed a sigh of relief, set the backpack containing the skulls in the back, and slid into the driver’s seat. He looked at Uhlrich, who was standing on the sidewalk staring back at the hotel. He called his name, but Uhlrich raised a hand.
“Wait a moment. I will be right back.” With that, he vanished into the swirling cloud of white.
Angel pulled up her hood, lowered her head against the wind and snow, and hurried along the sidewalk. How dumb had she been to leave her purse in the rental car? She wasn’t a girly girl by any measure, but her wallet, passport, and phone were inside it and she didn’t want to risk it getting stolen.
She was in such a hurry that she didn’t notice the man approaching her until he was almost on top of her. They had just passed one another moments before. Great! Another random stranger hitting on her. She was about to deflect his advances with a polite rejection when he reached out, grabbed hold of her French braid, and yanked her forward.
“Come quietly and...”
His words ended in a grunt as Angel drove a fist into his gut. An average person would have instinctively tried to pull away from the attacker and get loose from his grip, but Angel was not an average person. Her fighting instincts kicking in, she drove the heel of her palm up into her attacker’s chin. He turned at the last instant and her strike caught him on the jaw. He took a step back, trying to yank her off balance by her hair. Angel barely noticed the pain; she’d had much worse in the octagon. As he moved backward, she scooped one of his legs and drove him backward. He was bigger than her, and maybe stronger, but he was caught completely off guard by her aggression. He stumbled back against a parked car, letting go of her hair as he fell hard to the ground. She heard the whoosh of breath leaving his lungs and the satisfying thunk as his the back of his head cracked the sidewalk. The snow probably cushioned the impact, but not by much.
“Don’t you know,” Angel growled as she pummeled his face with sharp blows, “boys shouldn’t fight girls?”
The man flailed about weakly, trying to fight her off and regain his breath at the same time. She should probably get away while he was still too stunned to chase her, but she wasn’t known for making good decisions when angry. He caught hold of the front of her coat with one hand and pulled her toward him. She used the added momentum to her advantage, driving her elbow into the bridge of his nose. Her coat was thick, but the padding was not enough to save his nose. Two more elbows in quick succession and it was a flattened, bloody mess.
He sucked in a deep, rasping breath and let out a cry of rage. With a sudden burst of strength, he rolled her off of him. Angel scrambled away before he could pin her down. The man was up on his knees but instead coming after her, he pulled an automatic pistol from his coat pocket.
Angel’s roundhouse kick struck him in the temple and he went limp. His eyes glazed and, like a felled tree, plunged forward. Just for meanness, she added a front kick to his face as we went down. She caught him at an awkward angle, and pain shot through her ankle, but she could not stifle her feral grin.
She hesitated for a moment, wondering where the pistol had fallen and if she should search for it.
“Uhlrich?” An unfamiliar voice called from down the street. A shadow appeared in the whirling snow. Resolving into the form of Uhlrich’s companion– the odd one who hadn’t been wearing a jacket.
Still pumped from her beatdown of Uhlrich, Angel entertained a fleeting thought of taking the fight to this guy as well before common sense overrode adrenaline. Reminding herself that Bones was the dumb one in the family, she turned on her heel and ran.