Glastonbury Tourniquet - Chapter One

Damian

"What's so funny?"

"You're eating candyfloss"

"Why's that funny? I like candyfloss"

Iain's obvious bafflement made me want to laugh even harder. "Sure, sure, it's just that...", I chortled, "...with your background..."

With so many people around, I didn't want to elaborate, even though the chances of being overheard in all this cacophony were close to nil. And anyone who did hear would probably just put it down to me being high as a kite, anyhow. The Glastonbury Festival was that sort of party.

Iain Grendel looked, physically, about twenty-five, the age he'd been when Megan had found him during the sack of Constantinople. But that had been in 1204, which meant he must have been born sometime around 1180. Three hundred years younger than my sire, true, but with Eirik, you can feel his age. Everything about him screams at you that this is something ancient, powerful and deadly. His body language shifts between the absolute stillness of a corpse and the swift, lethal grace of a predator. You look into his eyes, and you see the weight and experience of centuries in them even before you notice that they're gold. He has an aura about him - partly power, of course, but partly the sense of being something other, of being disconnected from the mundane world.

Iain, on the other hand, was just one of the guys. He liked hanging with his friends, beer, girls, and loud music, not necessarily in that order. He wasn't stupid by any means - he'd spent half the voyage back to England creaming me at chess, and in between that he'd passed the time reading and annotating financial reports whose complexity made my eyes pop - but his personality was utterly straightforward and uncomplicated. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow, who knows, we might die. Not a bad way to be, I supposed. I could see why Megan, and now Marc, had chosen him as their ghoul. Unlike most vampires, the line of the Winter King can't create the Blood Oath, which meant that Iain was as free willed now as he was on the day Megan found him, despite his seven centuries of drinking her blood. An unbound servant can be a serious threat to a vampire. Megan and Marc would have wanted someone without dangerous ambitions or personal agendas, and Iain fit that bill perfectly.

It was just that... I choked back another chortle. To see someone who'd walked the earth for well over seven hundred years, standing there in jeans and sweatshirt, munching candyfloss and extending his tongue to lap up the pieces clinging to his top lip - it just seemed so absurd.

We'd arrived back in England a few days ago. The desire to go home had been building in me for some time, but it had taken me some time to get the nerve to speak to Eirik about it. He'd been an indulgent and generous sire - just how indulgent and generous, I was only now starting to realize from Iain's tales of the wider society of vampires - and I was grateful to him. I hadn't wanted him to think I was turning my back on him, after all he'd done for me. I should have known better.

"I'm delighted to hear you say that", he'd told me. "Not least because Marc wagered that it would take you at least another month to broach the subject. You've just won me a thousand dollars". He gave one of his purring, rasping chuckles at my expression.

I blinked. "It's not that I want to leave you". My mouth was on autopilot, reciting the prepared speech which now looked unnecessary. "It's just that... these past few years have been fantastic, in a literal sense. I feel like I've wandered into some sort of dream world. I need to spend a little time amongst familiar things, things from my life... before. I need to get my feet back on the ground. I don't quite know why...".

"Reconciliation"

"Shall I ask you what you mean by that, or would you prefer to just go on?".

Eirik chuckled again. "Becoming a vampire isn't easy, lad. Adapting to the physical needs, learning to harness the powers of the blood, is the easiest part in a lot of ways".

"It's an over-simplification, but you can say that everyone has two senses of self. What they are, inside - and what they are in relation to everyone and everything they know. You've spent the last few years rebuilding the first of the two, learning to accept yourself as a vampire. Now you need to go home, see the places and people you knew as a mortal, and rebuild the second".

Before the places and people you knew as a mortal are all gone. He didn't say it, but I sensed that he was thinking it. To a creature who'd watched a millennium and more pass by, all the trappings of my former mortal existence had to seem very... ephemeral.

And so I'd gone. We'd showed up in Oslo one evening, and found Iain, Marc de Brabant's ghoul and chief lieutenant, waiting for us. Arrangements had been made, I was told. The necessary permissions had been secured for me to take up residence in the Domain of York, in northern England. From there, I could make brief excursions further south, and tie up the loose ends remaining from my mortal life.

It was while we were on board the ship home that I'd got what I've privately started to label the Vibes. Those weird, inexplicable compulsions which give me a maddening feeling of being manipulated from afar. This one was about a particular piece of my unfinished mortal business.

"Ever been to Glastonbury, Iain?"

He'd grinned. "Many a time. As a matter of fact, I was planning to stop off there after I'd got you to York. You?"

"No, never. I often planned to, but there was always something... my work, a relationship... I never got around to it. I thought I'd have plenty of time"

Iain shrugged, understandingly. "Now you have eternity"

"But it's not the same"

"No. But Glastonbury will start in a few days. If you want to go there...". He left it hanging.

"Please".

So here we were. The Glastonbury festival. Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Plus a lot of mud, courtesy of the English weather. I'd never come here when I was a mortal, and now that I was a vampire, sex and drugs no longer held quite the same allure. I still liked rock-and-roll, at least.

The mud I could have lived without. If I'd actually been alive.

A high, clear voice started to sing nearby. Weirdly, it was partly echoing my own thoughts, singing a nonsense song I recalled from my childhood.

So follow me, follow

Down to the hollow

And oh! Let us wallow

In glorious mud

Iain and his candyfloss discreetly melted away as I turned and beheld the singer. She was worth beholding. Young, nice figure, straight mouse-brown hair, heart-shaped face, thick woolen sweater which emphasized her generous attributes. She peered at me over the top of a pair of outsize spectacles, and grinned.

"If you insist. I'm a modern guy. I have no sexist objections to women mud-wrestlers", I told her. I lowered my head slightly and peered up at her from under my unruly fringe of dark-red hair. Girls seem to go for that look, for some reason. They think it's cute and want to mother me, or something.

This one wasn't such a pushover. She roared with laughter. "Do you actually get results with that coy look?"

I shrugged ruefully. "Not tonight, it seems"

She gave me a frankly appraising look. "I don't know. Will you feel in any way demeaned or belittled if I treat you as a mere sex object, and show no regard for your feelings as a person?"

I raised my eyebrows, my gaze drifting to her neck. Even in the darkness, I thought I could see the pulse which throbbed there. It cost a certain effort of will to keep my canine teeth retracted. "Right now, treating me as a mere sex object would be paying a great deal of regard for my feelings as a person"

She grinned, and extended her hand. "I'm Claire"

She had a good handshake, firm and vigorous without any adolescent macho look-how-hard-I-can-squeeze bullshit. "Damian. Do you come here often?"

"My first time". She rolled her eyes at her own cliché, but good-humouredly. "I'm a history student, actually. I'm here working. Some friends convinced me that I couldn't pass the festival by, since it was happening while I was here".

"Ah". Inwardly, I winced. These days, everyone knew that Glastonbury Tor, the hill in the center of the town, was probably the "Isle of Avalon" of Arthurian myth. As a result, the place was plagued by "historians" with their own pet theories of the True Story of Camelot ™, frequently involving stone circles, ley lines, and crystals. "Intellectual capacity of a pickled herring" was about the politest thing I'd ever heard Professor Rutherford say about such people. Was this girl, despite her apparent intelligence, another of the species?

She read my expression as easily as everybody does, but misunderstood the cause. "Don't worry, I never talk about my work".

"It's not that", I hastened to reassure her. "I'm an archaeologist myself"

"Really? That's great, because I have some theories about the links between Glastonbury and Arthurian myth which I'd love to discuss with an archaeologist..."

Oh, God, here we go. What I go through for a chance to bite a pretty girl on the neck. This sort of thing never happens to Christopher Lee...

"... but if you like", she murmured in my ear, "Ill leave those to one side and tell you about the medieval remains which have recently been uncovered in a cellar in the town. Those are what I'm actually here to work on".

I looked her in the eye and saw a glint of pure evil lurking there. I groaned. "Was I that obvious?"

"Only to someone who's had a few run-ins with Ye Olde Celtic Magick brigade in her time". She grimaced. "At least now I can be sure you're not one of them. So it's safe for me to talk to you".

"I always practice Safe Conversation", I assured her.

Her mouth was open to reply when a voice like the screeching of a thousand bats rang out. "Co-eee! Claire!"

Claire rolled her eyes at me. "Believe it or not, her name's Sandra Dee", she muttered out of the corner of her mouth. "Don't let the words from the song fool you, though. It's been a long, long while since she was lousy with virginity".

"If your parents had saddled you with a name like that", I muttered back, "wouldn't you feel like you had a lot to live down?"

The origin of the screeching voice headed towards us as the words from the song started to echo through my head. (I hate it when that happens). She was clearly one of those women who are not improved by the addition of alcohol. Oh, she was very pretty, slim, curved in all the right places and "broad where a broad should be broad" - (the second song tried to displace the music from Grease at the back of my mind for an instant, but failed) - but whatever she'd been drinking had boosted both her volume and pitch. Neither was an improvement. She was more or less towing two other figures in her wake - another girl, who was cringing almost visibly in embarrassment for her friend, and a tall, lanky man.

As they got closer, I felt my gaze almost yanked away from Sandra to the man she had with her. There was something about the guy... I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was, but I found myself liking and trusting him almost instinctively. He had long dark hair and a lean, intelligent face, which was doing its best not to wince at Sandra's braying. He was wearing plain denim shirt and jeans, sturdy boots stained with the inevitable Glastonbury mud... nothing at all remarkable. Why was it I felt so drawn to him?

That question answered itself as soon as he got close enough for me to see his breathing, or absence thereof. He was a vampire. And he was using a basic trick of emotional attraction to draw the women to him. I felt annoyed with myself for succumbing, even as I felt his mental influence continue to tug at me. Claire, of course, didn't have a clue why this mysterious stranger was affecting her like this, but from the slight frown line that had appeared between her eyes, she was doing her damnedest to puzzle it out.

"You're missing all the fun, Claire!", Sandra burbled. "Look what we have here!". She tugged the other vampire forward, and he suffered himself to be tugged, with the resigned air of one who has bitten off more than he can chew and now has to live with the consequences. He didn't seem all that dangerous, although I felt my Beast stir reflexively in response to the presence of another Kindred.

"He's from Canada, aren't you Nick?". Sandra announced this as though it were a major revelation. Nick forced a grin and said "Yup", before extending his hand. "Nick Baron".

"Claire Latimer". She flashed him a smile as she shook, still puzzled, but willing to go along with the emotions which his little mind-control trick was evoking.

"Damian Tyrell". I kept it cordial, but cool enough to let him know that I wasn't under his spell. There was a hint of competition in the handshake, of two rival predators establishing their relative place in the pecking order, just as there always is when two vampires meet for the first time, but Nick didn't try any bullshit mano-a-mano stuff, either. Each of us was wary of the other, but neither of us had any reason to pick a fight.

"And I'm Sandra". She grabbed my arm from Nick and worked it like a pump-handle for a second. "This is Maria".

Maria, the other girl, was small, dark, sharp-featured, and refreshingly sober. She threw me a passing look of mute sympathy before her gaze was drawn back to Nick.

"We're going to see Vile Rumors", Sandra confided to Claire. "With Nick. They're going to play their new single. You should come along".

"I, ah...". Sandra was clearly taught between her own wish to stay with me, and her Discipline-induced fascination with Nick. I shrugged mentally and took pity on her.

"Rather than having me crash this party, why don't we meet back here tomorrow night, and pick up the discussion where we left off?"

"Ohhh, discussion". Sandra giggled and winked. "I hope I didn't interrupt an interesting... discussion".

Claire winced, and turned to me. "Tomorrow night it is".

Nick threw a brief look of apology over his shoulder as the three girls led him off. He clearly realized he'd fouled up my potential date by projecting that fascination effect at everyone around him. I shrugged and made a little gesture of dismissal: no big deal.

Like a well-trained butler, Iain appeared at my side as the four of them trouped off. "Unlucky in love?"

"Unlike some". I followed Nick Baron with my eyes. "Three girls...". It wasn't like I envied him Sandra Dee. It was just - embarrassing to admit - a hangover reaction from the days of my mortal adolescence. Three girls...

"You aren't missing all that much. Three girls can get totally exhausting after the first few minutes".

I gave him a cockeyed look, to which he responded with an expression of perfect innocence.

"You are not helping"

"Sorry"

***

My eyes snapped open. I could faintly feel the oppressive presence of the sun as it slipped below the horizon. I drew a breath. Old wood, fresh polish, cloth... yes. I was in the converted cellar of a cottage a few miles from Glastonbury, one of a string of such "safe houses" maintained by Marc de Brabant's network. I stretched out for a moment on the luxurious four-poster bed, like a cat, then rose to my feet and padded over to the door. Low-level electric bulbs dimly lighted the room, and the polished wood floor was covered with beautiful Persian rugs. When Marc traveled, he liked to travel in style, or so it seemed.

The door was a heavy affair with solid iron bars stretched across it, and an electronic keypad lock to boot. "Not", Iain had said, "a level of security which would satisfy the more paranoid breed of elder, but since we don't know anyone who's actively hunting you, it should suffice". Since I was used to sleeping in the cold earth of the Norwegian forest, I'd just shrugged assent.

Iain was seated at the kitchen table, munching on a sandwich, as I entered. He just had a small reading lamp on, and the kitchen was a pool of shadows with one small area of illumination in its center. Looking out of the window, I could still see a faint hint of blue in the sky, and a trace of gold in the fields of corn washed out to gray by the coming of night. Iain hadn't bothered to close the curtains, which struck me as a little odd. There were a number of newspapers spread out on the table in front of him, which I didn't register as especially unusual at first. Iain's always researching one thing or another, sometimes at Marc's behest, sometimes on his own account. But when he looked up and met my gaze, I knew at once that something was wrong.

"I'm afraid you won't be able to meet that girl tonight"

I waited.

"She's dead"

A red haze fell across my vision. I'd liked Claire. And now she was dead. That other vampire...

Iain's voice pulled me back from the brink before the Beast could take over. "The other vampire you met last night wasn't responsible". He indicated the papers spread in front of him - local papers, I saw now. "She wasn't missing any blood, and there were no injuries. Her blood work indicated a drug overdose. The police are treating it as accidental death".

I got control - just barely - and sat down, still trembling. "She didn't strike me as that type"

Iain shrugged. "You never can tell".

"I suppose not". I closed my eyes and drew in a deep, shuddering breath. Then another, and another. It had seemed absurd at first, a vampire breathing, but in the nights since Eirik had taught me the technique, I'd found it every bit as useful as he'd claimed, as a means of calming myself and focusing my concentration.

Good-bye, Claire. I'm sorry I couldn't have known you better

There didn't seem to be much to say after that. I looked at Iain. "You go ahead and go to the festival without me tonight. I'm not in the mood"

He looked concerned. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine, don't worry. I'll just have a quiet night in, reading". I had noticed some interesting books in the study on the night we'd arrived here. It seemed somehow wrong to go to the Festival again after hearing this news. I hadn't really known her, but she'd seemed smart, and interesting, and a nice person. On some level, I felt that I ought to make some statement that her passing was significant, even if Iain and I were the only ones who'd ever know.

He gave me a long, assessing stare, then nodded. "Okay. See you later"

***

Nick

"She didn't OD. I know she didn't".

The lean, weathered face of my sire looked out at me from the TV monitor. He'd been Embraced at the age of thirty-six, but with the life he'd led, he looked closer to fifty. There was more gray than black in his hair - still cut in a monk's tonsure - and there were deep lines graven into his forehead and around his mouth. His long, bony fingers rubbed the side of his hawk's beak of a nose, a familiar habit when he was stressed or thoughtful. I wasn't sure which it was this time. Maybe both.

"What makes you say that?"

"You got me a copy of the autopsy report". I waved a printout at the camera that was sending my picture back to Hugh. "It says she'd taken the drugs several hours earlier. I fed from her after the latest time it gives for her to have used them. Just a taste, but if there'd been any crap in the vitae, I would have picked up on it. You know how I am". Some Ventrue have what's called a "refined palette", able to detect all sorts of stuff in the blood. I'm one of them, though it's a skill I've never had much use for.

"Perhaps the report is simply wrong about when she took them"

"She was with us most of the night. They can't have got it that wrong".

Hugh pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed. "Then what are you suggesting? Murder? Suicide?"

"I don't know. But it stinks. Someone's covering up something. Maybe that other vamp who was there, the one who called himself "Damian Tyrell", had something to do with it. You find out anything about him?"

Hugh gave me one of those smiles which mean he thinks I just said something unbelievably dumb. I hate that. Mostly I hate that because the smartass old bastard is usually right about the "unbelievably dumb" bit.

"Enough to know that he's an unlikely suspect - and also someone it would be injudicious to antagonize". That's how Hugh speaks. He understands perfectly when I use phrases like "He's bad news", and "Don't mess with him", but he won't speak that way himself, even when he's trying to look modern.

"So who is he?"

"Have you ever heard of Marc de Brabant?"

I had to think about it for a minute. "Gangrel elder. Camarilla big noise. Works out of Brussels. Has his fingers in a lot of European police stuff"

Hugh nodded. "He's been an archon - formal and informal - for several Justicars, but he's also a power in his own right. Not someone to cross. He's employed my services on several occasions where he felt the Masquerade might be threatened".

No surprise. Back in the middle ages, Hugh was a monk, but he had a major curiosity bug which got him into trouble. Show him a map with "Here be dragons" on it, and the first thing he'd do would be to start asking questions. What kind of dragons? What did they eat? How big, what color, what were their mating cycles, what was their damn' shoe size, the works. So eventually, the Church decided that they might as well get some practical use out of that tendency of his, and the Inquisition headhunted him. After he'd racked up a few successes, my grandsire decided "If you can't beat 'em, make 'em join you", and Embraced him. Since then, he's been like the Camarilla's answer to Fox Mulder, the guy they call in to deal with the weird Truths that they'd rather not be Out There any more. I got the Embrace after the Truths he was hunting at the time got into my gut and started to eat me alive. My first act as a vampire was to puke the damn things up after they found they couldn't feed on my dead flesh any more. Happy days. Not.

"So you're saying that this guy I met last night is de Brabant's kid?"

"Not exactly. Prior to the formation of the Camarilla, Marc spent several centuries wandering Europe with his sire, Megan of Bristol, and his grand-sire, a ninth-century Norwegian called Eirik Haraldsson. They've separated since then, but by all accounts, they're still in contact and remain on excellent terms. Damian is the most recent childe of Haraldsson, Embraced only a few years after you were. A few weeks ago, Marc quite openly petitioned the Prince of York to grant Damian permission to reside there, presumably at Haraldsson's request. I don't know what the boy's doing in Glastonbury. But as lethally dangerous as he is, secret murder isn't Haraldsson's style. He's quite fanatical about that barbaric code of honor of his. And since this new childe is evidently on good terms with him...". Hugh shrugged.

"Okay, I hear you. What about before?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Damian Tyrell. What was he before Haraldsson vamped him?"

"Oh, I see. A postgraduate archaeology student at Cambridge, with a talent for computers. Intelligent and competent, but unremarkable, by all accounts".

"So we can cross him off the list for the moment, then. We'll have to start by looking at..."

Hugh raised his hand. "We will not do anything. I've indulged your curiosity to this point, but I can't spare the resources to assist you with the full-scale investigation you seem to be contemplating. I'm sorry for the dead girl, but she's only one mortal. Dozens will die if the situation here in Prague gets any worse. I need to concentrate all my efforts on that. If you wish to look into this any further, you have my blessing, but I cannot spare you my help"

I felt a stab of guilt. "It sounds rough. You need me over there?". Someone in Prague was summoning ghosts. The mortal papers hadn't spotted a pattern yet, but Hugh had - and he figured that something real nasty was due to happen if the summoning wasn't stopped. Hugh shook his head. "No, there's nothing you can do. Good luck"

"You too". Shit. I wanted to punch my fist through the monitor - or the Beast inside me did - but I got control in time. I'd been counting on Hugh. I didn't have the connections to pursue this myself...

Connections. This Tyrell character had connections. He was connected to de Brabant. His sire was even older and more powerful than that. He could help - probably. But would he?

Quite fanatical about that barbaric code of honor of his. That's what Hugh had said. Maybe that would give me an in with Tyrell. It was worth a try, anyhow.

"One last thing. You have a number for Tyrell, or an address?"

Hugh gave me a concerned look. "A confrontation with him would be unwise, as I've explained".

I held up both hands. "Chill. I'm not planning to accuse him of anything. Actually, I thought of asking for his help".

Hugh looked startled, then thoughtful. "Good idea. I'll have one of my aides... email you". He stumbled slightly over the modern term.

"Thanks"

I stood as far up as I could in the tight confines of the van as my sire cut the connection, and slipped through the rear doors. I really, really love my van - it's got a lightproof hidden compartment where I can sleep, another hidden compartment for stashing gear and weapons, a built-in laptop with a videoconferencing link, even a GPS. Hugh hadn't known what half the high-tech stuff was when he'd gotten the van for me, of course. He'd just told a ghoul to get me everything I needed for a mobile home. And I was grateful.

But when you're 6'5", not being able to stand up straight inside can still be a real pain in the ass.

We'd parked in the street. Tony was leaning up against the side of the van, smoking one of his herbal cigarettes. He's a good guy. Hugh offered to have one of his own ghouls drive me, but I preferred to find someone I liked, someone I could feel comfortable spending time with.

"Hey, boss"

"Hugh can't help us", I told him, "so I'm going to try that other vamp I met last night. With any luck we'll get the contact info through in a couple of minutes. Sorry that you'll miss the Festival tonight".

He shrugged. "S'okay. I got enough action last night that I'll welcome a little peace and quiet".

I grinned and high-fived him. "That's my boy"

***

Damian

I'd just decided that the sixteenth-century diary I was reading was likely a nineteenth-century forgery when my cell phone bleeped. Since I'd only had it two weeks, it was the first time that had happened for real.

"Uh, hi". My IQ always seems to plummet to room temperature when I speak into one of the bloody things. God alone knows why.

"Hi". The voice at the other end seemed similarly hesitant. It also sounded American. "Look, you don't know me, really, we met just the once. My name's Nick Baron..."

"Last night, I remember". The fingers of my free hand clenched into a fist as I thought about the girl. Was that what he was calling about? If this was some sort of confession, he'd get no absolution from me. I struggled to keep my voice cordial as I asked him "What can I do for you?"

He paused slightly, seeming to pick up the tension. "That girl you were with, Claire. I guess you heard she's dead".

"Yeah. I'd heard she OD'd".

Another pause. "But you wondered if that was some sort of cover story, and I just got sloppy feeding?". It seemed like a question, not a statement, so I answered honestly.

"I'd thought about it. Is that why you're calling?"

"No! Well, yeah, sort of. I mean, I think she was killed, only not by me. I swear I only took a few mouthfuls from her. A pint, tops. That couldn't have been what killed her. And the kicker is, she hadn't taken the drugs then, and she was with me for most of the rest of the night, so I don't think she took them later"

I sat up straighter. The book slid off my lap and dropped to the floor, forgotten. "Someone murdered her"

"Looks that way"

"Why?"

"No idea. Hoped you could help me figure it out".

The connection which should have been obvious from the start finally formed in my brain. "You thought maybe it was me?"

"Started out that way, but I've heard different since then. But I've also heard you have contacts. Look, neither of us knew this girl, and we don't know each other, but I want to find out the truth. If you help, I'll owe you one".

Even in the modern American idiom, the offer of a Prestation debt was clear enough. I shook my head by reflex, feeling like an idiot when it occurred to me that he couldn't see me. "No debts needed. I feel the same way you do. I'll help, if I can"

"Thanks". Another pause. "Where are you right now? I have the address of de Brabant's place, I could meet you there".

My Beast-inspired paranoia flared. A stranger knew where I'd be resting during those vulnerable, daylight hours. Who was he? Cold reason took over. This place wasn't secret; Marc allowed any number of trusted elders and Camarilla agents access to it. Nick Baron must be one, or know one, or he wouldn't have been able to get the address - or my new cell phone number, come to that.

"I'm there now". But I planned to slip outside to wait for Baron to show up. It gave me a better chance of fleeing into the night if this were an ambush.

"I can be there in twenty minutes"

"I'll be waiting"

***

A little to my surprise, he hadn't been lying about the time. Precisely twenty-three minutes after the call, a big black transit van pulled up outside the cottage, and Nick Baron got out. He was alone, though he got out of the passenger side, so he must have at least one other person, mortal or vampire, with him.

I waited a second before I stepped forward to greet him. "Hi!"

He jumped back, his fangs showing for a second before he got control. "Jesus!"

"Sorry. I was a bit... wary".

"Yeah, I figured me calling like that might freak you. Thanks for seeing me". The handshake seemed genuine enough, and he didn't object to leading the way into the house, though he must have been tense at having a strange vampire at his back. I know I would have been.

The tension level started to go down as we settled ourselves into overstuffed armchairs and began to talk. I guess we're both pretty naïve and new to this, because within half an hour the defensive tensing and wary glances were mostly gone, and we were able to get down to some serious talking.

"They were with me most of the evening. We saw the band, and I slipped away with Claire during the interval. She didn't seem like the type to go for groups. We didn't have much time to do more than grope through clothes, though I gave her a hickey, if you know what I mean. That's how I can be sure her blood was clean". Nick was quite casual describing his amorous encounters. I guess it was a bit like a mortal talking about dining out, though a part of me flinched back from that analogy. "Sandra wanted into my pants, and Maria - well, if you ask me, I think she wanted into Sandra's pants more than mine. But we went off to my van together, and Claire left. That was the last I saw of her, 'till her picture appeared in the paper tonight".

"When was that?"

"Not sure. Maybe three-thirty"

"And the body was discovered in a field by a farmer walking his dog, about five-fifteen. Maybe two hours unaccounted for". I shook my head. "Too long. Anything could have happened to her in that time. Maybe she really did take the drugs".

"But look at this autopsy report. It says that there were traces in her system from hours and days before. Made her out to be a regular junkie. There weren't any drugs in her blood when I fed from her - that was about two-thirty, only three hours before she was found"

"You're sure you would have tasted it?"

"Positive. Especially", Nick waved the report, "in the quantities they mention here. This much crap would probably have knocked me out"

"So the autopsy report is fake. That's a place to start"

"That's where I was hoping you come in"

I blinked at him. "Me? How?"

"I don't know many Kin hereabouts. My sire's in eastern Europe right now and can't help, but I talked to him tonight and he says you're in tight with Marc de Brabant. And he has loads of police contacts".

"Kind of. We never met or anything, but we're... related... and my sire and I did a job for him once. I'm here with his ghoul. But it's not like I can just call and ask him favors or anything".

Nick looked a little taken aback. "Oh. I sorta hoped you could".

I shook my head. "Sorry. But Iain - that's Marc's ghoul - might be able to. Give me a moment"

I only had one speed-dial programmed into the phone, so it wasn't hard to remember which it was. Iain answered on the second ring.

"Damian. I assume this is about Dominic Baron?"

"Yeah". I eyed the other Kindred. Here's where we find out he's a Sabbat spy...

"Marc just called me from Brussels. Baron's sire asked for your number on his behalf. It seems he has a problem which you can help with".

"Yup, we've been talking about it". I didn't want to just come out and say, who the hell is he, not with Nick sitting opposite. Iain put me out of my misery.

"It's okay to help him, if that's what you want to do. His sire's a Ventrue elder, and a Camarilla agent. Nick's a neonate".

"Good. Look, Iain, we may need your help too. Your police contacts..."

"Marc okayed that too - within reason. I'm about to start driving back"

"See you in a few then". I signed off and turned to Nick. "That was Iain vouching for your bone fides. And he's got the okay to use some of Marc's connections, "within reason", he says".

Nick looked relieved. "That's good. And while he digs, I was thinking we could make a start with the coroner".

I nodded agreement. "The report was faked. But who faked it, and why?"

He flashed me a sudden, manic grin. "Ever break into a coroners office?"

I grinned back. "First time for everything"

I found myself starting to like him. This time, it was for real.