AN: The Pocket Guide mentioned in this chapter is available as a companion guide under my account - The U.S. Census Bureau Handbook: A Pocket Guide for Human Enumerators. It is not necessary to have read it before starting this story, but it may be a helpful reference in the future.

Friday, 11:30 am EDT

U.S. Department of Commerce

U.S. Census Bureau- Office of the Assoc. Director for Field Operations

Washington, DC

The sun shone brightly through the opened venetian blinds in the windows of the Associate Director's office, causing Pam to squint uncomfortably from the other side of the large mahogany desk. She had received this unexpected summons just as she was heading out to lunch. Her stomach growled repeatedly, and Pam cursed her decision to skip breakfast this morning. While waiting for David, the Associate Director, to show up, she tried not to dwell on her under-dressed, casual Friday appearance. She had a good working relationship with the AD and knew he wouldn't judge her for her clothing, but she hated the idea of looking like an overdressed soccer mom if he was wearing his usual impeccably tailored suit.

The office door swung open halfway and Pam came to attention as David gave some parting remarks to a disembodied voice in the hallway. Upon seeing her, he gave her a tight smile, more warning than greeting as he made his way behind the desk. Pam was heartened to see that he was wearing the ubiquitous polo shirt and khaki pants ensemble that is the male federal employee casual Friday uniform; she didn't feel so bad in her dark jeans and fitted blazer.

"How's your afternoon look? Any meetings? Conference calls?" David asked.

Pam stopped and thought for a second. Meetings and calls were rarely scheduled for Friday afternoons and she knew without even having to consult with her calendar that there was nothing going on.

She shook her head. "No, I'm all clear."

This merited a short bark of laughter as David said, "Good, I was going to have to tell you to cancel everything. There's been an incident with a Baltimore East enumerator and one of the Elite Dens. Normally I'd send Jamie down to take care of it, but she's off the grid somewhere in Yellowstone or Yosemite or wherever she went on vacation—"

"Death Valley," Pam interrupted, knowing very well that David hadn't bothered to read Jamie's status memo. It explicitly stated where she would be and when she would have cell phone reception throughout her three week trek.

David smirked, not caring in the least. "Right, Death Valley. Anyway, we're in a pinch to take care of this quickly, so I had Dennis run some checks on this Friday skeleton crew. Did you know you're the only person here today who's passed the blood test and taken the sensitivity training?"

Pam's eyes grew wide, and she made a small noise of surprise. She hadn't anticipated that.

"But that was over ten years ago. Back when I was an enumerator."

"Doesn't matter," David said. "The blood test is good for life and the sensitivity training hasn't changed much since the early '90s."

"Have they updated that ridiculous handbook?" Pam asked sardonically.

"The Pocket Guide? Doubt it. Nobody reads the thing anyway."

Pam nodded and then thought to ask, "Nobody in Suitland qualifies?" Surely there were greater options available at Census's larger Maryland headquarters.

David shook his head. "The Director wants to keep this in DC. The fewer people that know about this, the better."

She didn't like where this was going. David looked at his watch, frowning slightly.

"Here's the situation: the Baltimore East office was scheduled to count the local Komodo Elite Den today. There was some political pressure from Senator Peter Marbanes' PR people to send a specific enumerator down there to do the count –you know how it is, mid-term election season and they wanted a photo op for the paper. Utterly ridiculous, but in the end, we acquiesced considering it was a small potatoes request. We sent her in with the concession that she would be escorted to the Den's location by a mutually agreeable Salamander fay."

Pam cocked an eyebrow, "This is where things went south?"

"While the enumerator was counting in the Den, she managed to get herself scar marked. 'Went south' would be a bit of an understatement."

Pam's jaw dropped, and she sat there gaping for a full five seconds before stating the obvious. "This is bad."

David's smile was icy. "It gets worse. The enumerator is Miranda O'Leary, Senator Marbanes' niece, set to be married to her college sweetheart next month. Did I mention the marking shifter is one of the top Elites in the country?"

"How did this happen?" Pam asked incredulously. "Last time I checked, Elite shifters don't go around bond marking random people they just met."

"We're not sure, but there's some speculation that the two have a history…nothing like a jealous ex-boyfriend putting a scar mark on you to stop those wedding bells real quick."

Pam, skeptical, leaned forward in her chair. "There's got to be more to it than that. Elites aren't the type to leave their 'claims' unmarked. They're even less inclined to remove marks once given. If they really did have some kind of relationship before, don't you think she would still have the scar mark? Plus, how could he be her ex? Don't Elites keep to the Dens?"

David had been nodding as she posed her rhetorical questions, but since her last question was a real one, he answered. "Depends. My father was a Kodiak Elite, and he mated with a human. They get off the reservation every now and then."

Pam was astounded by this information; it contradicted some of her fundamental beliefs about shifters and made her even more wary of where this meeting was headed. She knew of course that David had shifter blood; it was as easy to spot as the color of his eyes or the straightness of his teeth; she just hadn't known that his father was an Elite. Pam had always been under the impression that Elites avoided mating with humans.

In the few seconds of paper shuffling that followed, Pam realized that this was going to be no ordinary assignment.

"We're going to have to send you down to the Den and negotiate Miranda's scar mark removal with the Den's Alpha. When we're done here, run up to the nurse's office and get the bond mark examination. Dennis called in a favor and managed to squeeze you in as an emergency appointment."

Pam was unable to mask a cringe at his last statement. She was really glad she had shaved her legs this morning. Those examinations were very thorough.

Politely avoiding the look of disgust on her face, David continued, "Then, you'll need to take the next train out of Union and meet up with the Salamander at Penn Station; he'll have the waivers for you to sign and drive you to the Den from there."

He handed her a yellow post-it with a name and number scrawled in bright red ink: Tundr Isleifson (443) 802-4303. Pam hoped that she would be able to pronounce his name correctly when the time came.

"I don't know how long this is going to take, but the Elites won't allow you to call within range of the Den. When you're done, Mr. Isleifson will drive you home. Not too often that your living in Baltimore is a good thing, eh? Once you get home, call me on my Blackberry with a status report."

"What are the terms?" Pam asked, studiously ignoring the less than subtle dig at her hometown. She was very much out of her league on this assignment. The closest she'd ever gotten to negotiating with an Elite-level preternatural was fighting over an astronomical catering bill with a particularly stingy Gnome vendor at last year's office Christmas party.

David sighed. "You're going to have to work something out on the fly. We've never had to parley for an employee with a sovereign nation before. They're holding all the cards right now. At best we can cry foul over a breach in diplomatic protocol, but that doesn't get rid of the scar mark. Our only saving grace is that Marbanes' PR flaks promptly left after their photo op and Miranda's prohibited from telling anyone about what happened in the Den since she signed the waiver and confidentiality agreement."

"How far can I go with the negotiations? Where do I have to draw the line?"

"You can't go too far," David said gruffly as he started to stand. "The Director's conceded to just about anything short of handing over Fort Knox."

"Well, that leaves quite a few options. Any ideas about what they may ask for?" Pam hurriedly inquired as she sprang from her seat and started walking toward the exit.

David's demeanor became pure steel, and Pam could feel his power prickling lightly on her exposed skin, like invisible warm goose bumps dancing on her forearms, hands, and face. Preternatural power affected individuals on the receiving end differently. Within the office, David's was one of the hardest to ignore.

"I have a few, which is why I'm sending you and not farming this out to some Department flunky. You will likely have to make some unconventional concessions. One thing's for damn sure; you don't leave that Den until an unblemished Miranda O'Leary walks out first. I don't care if you have to promise them your first born. Make it happen."

Marching orders received, Pam left David's office and walked quickly to the closest set of stairs which led to the sixth floor nurse's office. She was in such a hurry that she didn't catch the pitying expression on the Associate Director's. She would be hard pressed to ignore the warm sensation of goose bumps that blanketed her skin for the next hour.

The commuter train was, for once, running on time and Pam had every intention of using the next hour to get up to speed. Dennis, the Field Operations office's dhampir intern, had compiled a briefing book for Pam to peruse en route. It included a short dossier on the Baltimore Komodo Elite Den; some hastily Googled information on Miranda O'Leary (permission to access HR records would have taken days); and the office's brand new copy of E. Thornton Hensley's U.S. Census Bureau Handbook: A Pocket Guide for Human Enumerators. The dossier was woefully brief, consisting of nothing more than demographics garnered by last decade's Census, most likely out of date and no longer applicable. As for O'Leary, Pam seriously doubted that the girl's college newspaper editorials and engagement announcement were going to help, but she read them anyway.

Miranda had been quite the woman about campus at her all-girls college. She held numerous student-elected positions, was a star player on the school's Division III field hockey and lacrosse teams, and continually made Dean's List throughout her college tenure. Easy to do when you don't have to work full time, Pam thought bitterly. According to Miranda's final editorial before graduation, she was looking forward to her job as a Census Bureau enumerator before starting law school in the fall. Apparently, she wanted to take after dear Uncle Pete and eventually enter public service.

The engagement announcement in the Baltimore Sun's society page was tediously long, with seemingly every minor milestone in the couple's relatively short life documented in extravagant detail. Miranda's fiancé, Brandon Mercer, was a programmer for an IT consulting group in Arlington, Virginia. They had met at the local skating rink when Miranda was a high school senior. Brandon had been working the Zamboni and spotted the tall redhead as she was sipping cocoa on the bleachers, waiting to hop back on the ice. They dated while Miranda was in college and had gotten engaged on Valentine's Day of last year. Of course, Marbanes was always looking for free press and despite the extreme inappropriateness of venue, had managed to rather prominently insert a picture of himself with the couple in the otherwise tastefully done acknowledgements. For his part, Brandon Mercer seemed like a regular guy, lacking political ties or family wealth of any sort.

Pam sighed as the train lurched to a stop to let off passengers at Seabrook. Miranda certainly seemed like the goody two shoes girl next door. How could she have gotten mixed up with a Komodo Elite? It seemed to fly in the face of her career goals, for needless to say, being in a relationship with an Elite shifter was not exactly conducive to public service. The whole jealous ex theory never sat right with her anyway. It didn't add up, for despite its sovereign nation status, no Den wanted to cash in all their political chips to defend a spite-fueled scar marking to the federal government.

Rummaging around in her briefcase to put away the O'Leary documents, Pam's hand ran across the handbook. Considering she still had a good forty minutes or so of travel time left, it couldn't hurt to crack open the pocket guide and refresh her memory on the basics of preternatural behavior. As the train sputtered to life with a jerky surge toward home, she concentrated on Hensley's obtuse text and tried not to dwell too much on David's final words.