"A FAMILY AFFAIR"
Sunday evening finally arrived. Cole and Olivia appeared in the dining room of the Golden Horn restaurant. A maitre'd fawned over the pair, before leading them to one of the restaurant's private dining rooms. After the maitre'd had left, Cole said to Olivia, "I hope this plan of yours work."
"So do I," Olivia replied, as she picked up her menu. "You know, it's a good thing that Mark Giovanni didn't invite us for dinner."
"He did, but I told him there was an emergency regarding the apartment building and that we would have to cancel."
Olivia stared at Cole, momentarily. "You know, I keep forgetting what a first-class liar you are."
The couple fell into a comfortable silence, as they examined the menu. However, Cole's anxieties about other matters refused to disappear. He continued, "What if they don't fake it? The Halliwells. What if they try to kill Marbus, again?"
"Paige will make sure that Marbus remains alive," Olivia calmly assured Cole. "After what happened the last time, I don't think she will be pushed into that direction, again. And I don't think that Piper and Phoebe will try to make another attempt. Don't worry." She smiled at the half-daemon.
Cole tried to gain assurance in Olivia's words and smile, but memories of his past experiences with the Charmed Ones made it difficult. All he could do was cross his fingers and pray. Now if only some deity would be willing to accept the prayers and hopes of a reformed half-daemon.
Three figures materialized on the sidewalk, outside Mark Giovanni's San Mateo home. "Paige, why are we here?" Phoebe demanded. "Why didn't you simply orb us inside the house?"
Paige sighed. "I don't know. I wasn't sure if Cole had removed the spell to prevent us from entering."
"Might as well find out," Piper murmured. She gave Paige's a tight squeeze. Again, Paige sighed before she orbed them all inside the house. They ended up in a private dining room, where their target awaited.
Marbus sighed with relief. "You finally made it. I began to wonder if you would. Ready?"
"I guess Cole and Olivia told you about the plan," Paige said.
Nodding, the demon replied. "Yes, they did. Now, let's get on with it. My host thinks I'm searching for something that I may have dropped from my pocket."
Paige produced a knife and handed it to him. "Here you go."
Marbus used the knife to form a small cut on the side of his left hand. Then he allowed the blood - which turned out to be red, much to Paige's surprise - to drip upon the floor. Phoebe produced a bottle of the potion from her jacket pocket. She held it high above her head. "Get ready to scream," she murmured.
Several seconds passed before Marbus cried out, "What the . . .? How in the hell did you three get in here?"
"A spell!" Piper shouted back. "We're here to vanquish your sorry ass!" She then rolled her eyes in disgust at her performance.
Phoebe tossed the potion at the blood on the floor. Marbus let out a bloodcurling scream, as smoke and fire materialized before the quartet. "Time to go," Paige quickly suggested. And they all immediately teleported out of the room.
The woman gasped aloud, as Cole materialized in the middle of her apartment. "Where are they?" he demanded in a harsh voice. "Where are the Halliwells?"
"Who are you talking about?" Eva Niccolli demanded. "And who in the hell are you?"
A cold smile stretched Cole's lips. "Belthazor. Surely the Charmed Ones have told you about me." His smile disappeared. "Now, where are they?"
Although trembling with fear, Dr. Niccolli faced the half-daemon with a defiance that he found admirable. "I don't know where they are," she spat out. "And if I did, I sure as hell wouldn't tell you!"
Cole took a few threatening steps toward the doctor. She took a few steps back. "And what if I made you talk?" he suggested in a menacing voice.
"You wouldn't . . ." Dr. Niccolli's chest heaved up and down. "What do you want with them, anyway?"
Chillingly, Cole replied, "They killed my uncle. And I want to repay the favor." He paused and eyed the Gypsy woman, as if contemplating a sure bet. His smile returned. "Maybe I should just take you, instead. I'm sure they will try to 'rescue' you."
"Get out!" Dr. Niccolli screamed. "Get the hell out of here! Before I . . ."
Cole gripped her arm. Hard. Fear widened Eva's brown eyes. "Before you what?" he said with a sneer. Then he relaxed his grip. "If you see your friends, tell them not to bother hiding. Because I'll eventually find them." His cold smile returned. "Good day."
Satisfied with his performance, Cole finally disappeared.
The shrill telephone ring broke Eleanor Read's concentration. She heaved a sigh, as she allowed her attention to drift away from the report on her computer screen. Then she picked up the receiver. "Good morning. Cole Turner's office. How may I help you?"
"Is he there?" an anxious voice cried into Eleanor's ear. The voice belonged to Mark Giovanni. "Is Turner there? I need to speak to him, right away!"
Eleanor repeated the message given to her by her supervisor, over an hour ago. "I'm sorry sir, but Mr. Turner is not in the office, at this moment. He's been called away on a family emergency. Would you like to leave a message?"
"Tell him that I need to speak to him about that family emergency! As soon as possible!"
Suppressing a sigh, Eleanor replied, "Of course, Mr. Giovanni. I'll tell . . ." The line went dead. As the sigh finally left her mouth, Eleanor hung up. She wondered if it was her turn to experience what many of the firm's employees already had - another one of Cole Turner's disappearing acts.
Prax burst into Artemus' office, looking very excited. "Sir, it's happened!"
The senior daemon glanced up from his computer terminal. "What are you talking about?"
"Marbus." Prax paused dramatically. "He's been killed. By the Charmed Ones. Kelson has confirmed it. And now, there are rumors that Belthazor is after them."
Artemus felt a warm flush of satisfaction spread throughout his chest. "And Giovanni? What about him?"
"Kelson tells me that he's in a state of panic over Marbus' disappearance. He's been trying to reach Belthazor, and has called the police." A satisfied smile curved Prax's lips. "However, Giovanni is unprotected."
A mirthless chuckle escaped from Artemus' mouth. "Perfect. Now, contact Ms. Kriegler and tell her that it's time for her warlock to perform that extra task for me."
"Why not use Kelson?" Prax asked. "After all, he's close to Giovanni."
Artemus rolled his eyes. "Please Prax! Get serious! You know as well as I do that Kelson is a miserable assassin! Remember how he had botched killing that wizard, last year? Besides, I need him to keep an eye on Giovanni's wife, once she becomes a widow. Which means I do not want any suspicion attached to him." Prax started toward the door. "By the way, tell Ms. Kriegler that I want Vernnoff to leave a body behind. That way, there will be no doubt that Mark Giovanni will be declared legally dead."
Footsteps echoed across the underground parking lot. Harold Vernoff's eyes watched Mark Giovanni and his fellow warlock, Kelson, strode toward his silver Mercedes. Kelson excused himself from the wine grower, declaring that a file had been left in the offices, upstairs.
After the other warlock returned to the elevator, Vernoff strode toward Giovanni. He pulled a switchblade from his jacket pocket and clicked open a blade. Before he could reach the wine grower, two pairs of hands grabbed his arms. Vernoff started to cry out, but he found himself teleporting out of the parking lot . . . against his will.
"What the hell?" the chestnut-haired warlock cried. He stared at his surroundings with confused eyes. "What the . . . where am I?"
A dark-haired man with blue eyes shoved the warlock into a nearby chair. Vernoff recognized him immediately. Belthazor. "I'll ask the questions," he growled menacingly. "Who are you?"
"None of your damn business!" the warlock shot back. He suddenly found himself, experiencing a shortness of breath. "Aaaugh . . .!"
A red-haired woman with green eyes stepped forward. "I'll stop choking you," she said softly, "when you start cooperating."
Still breathless, the warlock quickly nodded. The choking ceased. Vernoff rubbed his throat, as he glanced around. "What do you . . .?" His eyes shifted from an elderly woman sitting in another chair to a fair-haired man sitting on a sofa with three women. "Oh my God! The Charmed Ones? What . . .?"
"Never mind them!" Belthazor barked. "Just answer our questions. First of all, who are you?" When the warlock failed to answer, he turned to the redhead. "Olivia? Or shall I do the honors?"
The warlock, fearful of another choking session, quickly cried, "Vernoff! My name is Harold Vernoff!"
The elderly woman added, "I've heard of you. You're the witch who had killed off the rest of his coven, in order to get your hands on some pendant."
Belthazor blocked Vernoff's view. "Who hired you to kill Mark Giovanni?" he demanded.
After a long pause, Vernoff answered, "I . . . I was hired. Anonymously."
"Liar!" the elderly woman declared. Vernoff stared at her, as she smirked. "Don't tell me that you can't detect a fellow telepath, when you meet one?"
Vernoff frowned. "How . . . how did you know I was a telepath?"
The elderly woman rolled her eyes. "Dear Goddess! And this man was hired to kill Mark Giovanni?"
"Who hired you?" Belthazor demanded for the second time.
Vernoff glanced nervously at his captors. "I . . . Look, if you expect . . ." He suddenly clutched his head, crying out in pain. "Ow! Stop! That was . . ." He stared at the elderly woman. "You did that to me?"
The old lady coldly replied, "And I'll do it again, if you don't cooperate. Only, it will be a lot worse. You may be a talented telepath, but so am I. And I'm a lot better at it. I'll make sure that you'll end up dead with an aneurysm . . . slowly. So talk."
Belthazor shot the old bag an admiring glance.
"All right!" the warlock conceded. "A darklighter had hired me. Her name is Nina Kriegler." The fair-haired man gasped aloud. Vernoff continued, "I was hired to not only kill Giovanni, but to send false visions to one . . ." He paused and shot anxious glances at the Charmed Ones. ". . . to one of the Charmed witches."
The witch with the shoulder-length hair shot up from the sofa. Vernoff realized that she was Phoebe Halliwell. "You're lying!" she protested angrily.
Vernoff shrugged. "If you say so." Belthazor gripped his shoulder, sending spasms of pain throughout his nerves. "Ow! Okay, okay! I'm not lying!" He rubbed his aching shoulder. "I did send her those visions."
Phoebe now loomed over Vernoff. "There's no way you could have sent me false visions," she insisted. "Not without me knowing."
Exasperated by the witch's denials, Vernoff regarded her with contempt. "What are you talking about? Of course I can! I'm a telepath! There's no way in the world you could have detected my presence in your mind, without being one. Ask the old lady. Besides, I managed to do it to you, twice. First, with that daemon bodyguard. The one from the Gimle Order. And later, I had sent a false vision of some daemon named Marbus."
Belthazor frowned. "What daemon bodyguard?"
Shrugging, Vernoff replied, "I don't know her name. Andrea or something. All I know is that she had been sent by the Gimle Order to protect Giovanni. Nina Kriegler hired me to send a false vision of her killing the man to the witch - oh, about last Monday or Tuesday."
"Oh my God!" One of the Charmed Ones cried out in shock. Vernoff noticed that her red hair did not match her dark eyes. Obviously a dye job. Was this the half-breed? "That demon we had killed - she was from the Gimle Order?"
The last Charmed One stood up, shaking her head in disbelief. "It was a daemon," she said in a shaky voice. "She was trying to kill us."
After a long pause, the red-haired Halliwell added, "At first. Then I think she tried to . . . oh my God! We had killed an innocent?"
"That's impossible!" the long-haired Charmed One protested.
Vernoff said, "Look, all I know is that I had sent a vision of a female daemon with dark hair and blue eyes killing Giovanni to one of the Charmed Ones. The one with the power of precog . . ." The seer's fist snaked out struck him on the jaw. He sagged against the chair, throbbing with pain.
"You son-of-a-bitch!" Phoebe screamed. "You used us! And you violated me!"
Rubbing his jaw, Vernoff protested, "It wasn't personal! Just business. I can't help it if you witches are so willing to kill a daemon at first . . . oooof!" The seer had delivered another punch - this one to the stomach.
Belthazor grabbed the seer's arm and dragged her away from the warlock. "Not now Phoebe!"
The fair-haired man, whom Vernoff assumed to be the Charmed Ones' whitelighter, demanded, "Are you saying that Nina Kriegler is behind all this? Why is she so interested in Cole's client?"
"How in the hell should I know?" Vernoff shot back. "She had never explained to me what was going on! But I think she was hired by a third party. Someone with a lot of money."
Belthazor demanded, "Who?"
"I don't know!"
Heaving a sigh, the half-daemon faced the elderly telepath. Who nodded wearily. "He's telling the truth." Glancing at the stricken Halliwells, she added, "About everything."
Belthazor's gaze returned to the warlock. "I want you to summon this Nina Kriegler."
"And tell her what?" Vernoff demanded.
"Tell her . . ."
The red-haired witch with the green eyes finished, "Tell her that a problem has arisen over Mark Giovanni." She glanced at the Halliwells. "Meanwhile, do you guys still have those crystals Prue once used on Cole? Because I think we're going to need them."
Inside Harold Vernoff's apartment, Leo shook his head in disbelief. "I can't believe this! I can't believe that Nina Kriegler is behind this."
Paige glared at her brother-in-law in frustration. "She's not! Remember the Magan Corporation? For God's sake, Leo! We just found out that we had been used to kill two members of the Gimle Order. And all you can do is worry about an old buddy being a darklighter?"
"Of course I'm concerned that you've been used!" Leo retorted. "It's just that finding out about . . ."
Olivia interrupted the pair's conversation. "Paige, are you ready?"
The Charmed One heaved a sigh. "Yeah. Let's get on with it."
"All right," Cole said, squeezing the warlock's arm. "As soon as we're in your bedroom, summon her." He leaned close. "And don't forget that we're watching." He headed toward the bedroom, with Leo close at his heels.
Vernoff sneered at the retreating half-demon. "Arrogant bastard!" He glared at Olivia. "I'm a telepath. And that old bag isn't with you. What if I . . .?" He started choking.
"Just a reminder of what can happen to you, if you try to betray us," Olivia said in a menacing tone. "And besides," she waved an amulet worn around her neck, "we have protection against your power." Paige wore a similar amulet.
The two witches joined the men in the bedroom. From there, the quartet watched Vernoff summoned the darklighter. "Nina? Nina!"
A dark puff of smoke appeared, followed by a slender woman with short pale blond hair. Paige overheard Leo's sharp intake of breath. "What is it?" the darklighter demanded. "Is the mortal dead?"
Vernoff shook his head. "Not yet. There are . . . problems."
Frowning, Nina Kriegler shot back, "What problems? What's going on?"
Right on cue, Paige and the others returned to the living room. "We're the problem," Cole replied coldly.
Before anyone could stop her, the darklighter produced a knife and slit Vernoff's throat. Blood rushed from the warlock's throat before he finally slipped to the floor, dead. Then Kriegler tried to teleport out of the room, but Paige cried out, "Crystals circle!" She pointed at the darklighter, and seven white crystals formed a circle around the latter. The darklighter grunted in dismay, as she failed to escape.
Paige knelt beside one crystal and touched it. Blue sparks lit up the darklighter's body. She cried out in pain.
"If you don't cooperate," Olivia said, "you'll remained trapped in that ring for a long time. We can arrange it."
Nina Kriegler's eyes expressed confusion and pain, as she stared at her captors. Then she focused upon the whitelighter. "Leo? Leo Wyatt?"
Leo's mouth formed a grim line. "Nina." He shook his head. "I can't believe that I would see a former colleague as a darklighter."
The darklighter rolled her eyes with contempt. "Oh please! Spare me the dramatics, Leo! I really don't need to hear anymore whitelighter crap!"
"It used to be your kind of crap," Leo shot back. "My God, Nina! What happened?"
"What do you think happened?" Nina sneered. "I saw the light."
"Wha . . .?"
Nina sighed impatiently. "You don't understand, do you? The whitelighters are doomed, Leo. Your day is over. The moment you stopped doing your real job and started this idiotic war with the Source's Realm, you doomed yourself."
"May I remind you that the Source's Realm is in chaos, right now?" Leo retorted.
Nina snorted. "Yeah, thanks to the prophecy that the Elders made sure that the Source would receive. They've been planning his destruction for centuries. All because of their arrogant belief that they can wipe away evil from this earth. Idiots!"
"So, that's your reason for becoming a darklighter? Because you disapprove of the Elders?"
With a shrug, Nina replied, "Not quite. The real reason I became a darklighter is . . . I guess I realized that I couldn't stand being a whitelighter any longer. I had it with following the orders of self-righteous bores who consider themselves superior to others. I've been dealing with people like that during my life, and as a whitelighter. Being a darklighter gave me the freedom to be myself. My true self. And with all of the trouble starting over the Source's death, I thought it was a good time to switch sides."
"Well, switching sides isn't doing shit for you right now!" Cole retorted. "So enough of your bullshit and tell us who had hired you. Who's behind the Magan Corporation?"
A sneer marred Nina's pretty face. "I wouldn't know. My memory is a little faulty."
"For God's sake, Nina!" Leo cried. "Tell us the truth! Try to remember that you were once a whitelighter."
Nina rolled her eyes again. "Please! I've been trying to forget that for over a year."
Paige glanced to her right and noticed Olivia whispering in Cole's ear. A malicious smile slowly curved the half-demon's lips. Finally, Cole broke away from the redhead and inched toward the darklighter. "Since your memory seemed to be faulty at the moment, perhaps I can help you."
"What do you mean?" Nina warily asked.
Cole continued, "One of the new powers I had acquired since my return from the Wasteland is telepathic manipulation. All I have to do is simply make you tell the truth."
"You can't . . ." The darklighter's face turned pale.
"Who hired you to set up Marbus?" Cole concentrated his gaze upon Nina. "C'mon Nina. Tell."
Paige watched in fascination, as the darklighter struggled, before she automatically opened her mouth. "It was Auuuu . . ." She began to scream, as flames suddenly engulfed her body.
"Cole!" Leo cried. "What the hell did you just do?"
An appalled-looking half-demon retorted, "That wasn't me!" Nina Kriegler's screams finally ended as the flames disappeared. A pile of ashes - remnants of her body - remained on the floor. Cole angrily cried out, "Shit!"
Paige sighed. It looked as if the Magan Corporation had managed to cover its tracks in time.
END OF CHAPTER 7