Nick schmoozed his way through the nurses' stations with an ease that would have left me as jealous as all hell if I hadn't been so worried. As it was, I barely noticed.
We were almost too late. As we burst into Howard Kelper's room, there was another vampire there, pointing a gun at Sandra.
I lunged forward, trying to knock her out of the way, but I slammed into something invisible and practically bounced, stumbling and falling forward on my face. Sandra was ducking down to get out of the way of the gun, and we hit the floor together, like we'd rehearsed it.
"Freeze", I heard Nick say to the stranger with the gun, sounding for all the word like something out of an American cop show. Except the guys who say that in cop shows usually have guns of their own pointed at the bad guys. Nick didn't.
But the stranger obeyed anyway. I guess that old Ventrue mind magic was doing its work.
Before it had a chance to wear off, I threw myself forward, tackling the gunman around the legs. He fell hard and started to try to get the gun levelled at my head, but Nick was there, grabbing his gun arm and yanking it up. The other vampire was strong, but he didn't have much in the way of leverage.
My claws had already been out when we'd burst into the room. Keeping the stranger pinned beneath my weight, I raked them along the arm that Nick was holding. There wasn't much blood, of course, vampires don't have a circulatory system in the conventional sense, but I must have severed something important, tendons maybe, because the hand gripping the gun suddenly went slack. Nick grabbed it and took a couple of steps back, aiming it at the other Kindred's head.
The guy I was fighting wasn't frenzied, and Nick had a clear head shot despite my being there - the other guy was taller than I was by almost a foot. He didn't exactly relax beneath me, but he stopped struggling.
Cautiously, taking care not to get in Nick's line of fire, I rolled off and stood up. Nick was handling the gun like he was used to it, and the strange vampire could obviously see that too.
"Okay". I felt, on some subliminal level, as if I should be out of breath, and the normalcy of my voice surprised me. "Sorry to be clichéd with the questions here, but what the hell are you doing to this guy?" I indicated the patient on the bed.
"Sorry to be clichéd with the answers, but fuck off". Faint Scots accent, educated voice. Good grasp of demotic Anglo-Saxon. Beyond that, his reply didn't tell me much.
There was a slight sound from behind us. Sandra had gotten to her feet, and was staring at us, wide-eyed. Out of reflex, I made haste to hide my clawed hands behind my back, out of sight. "What the hell is happening here? Who are you people, terrorists or something? This is a hospital, for Christ's sake, you can't just burst in here and start waving guns around!"
"It's okay, Sandra". I have to say this for Nick, he's pretty quick-witted. "We're an undercover police unit, attached to Interpol. I'm here on detachment from the Canadian police. This guy here isn't a terrorist, though, just your garden-variety criminal. He and his buddies have a sweet little racket going, stealing drugs from hospitals with big government health programs and then selling them on, mostly to third-world regimes. This guy isn't anyone special", Nick added maliciously, needling our captive, "just a bit player. But he's a very nasty one. I guess he was afraid your patient saw him doing something he shouldn't. I'm sorry you got caught up in this, but we'll be out of here soon. Just leave it to us". Feeble, I thought, but I felt that odd fascination effect again, and I guessed he was using a little Ventrue mojo for make up for the deficiencies in his story.
Sandra shook her head, seemingly stunned. "This is fucking crazy, it's like something out of a bad movie. This isn't Chicago, for crying out loud, it's a little English hospital. Stuff like this isn't supposed to happen here". She made a show of pulling herself together. "Will you need me to make a statement?"
"Thanks, but not this evening. We have about a million forms to fill out to get this guy processed. We'll send someone around to take a statement from you tomorrow, if that's okay"
Their performances were really smooth. I wondered if they each thought they were fooling the other. More to the point, were they fooling the vampire on the floor? No point blowing their cover if they were. I flipped open my phone.
"Iain? Damian? Sergeant Fraser and I have the suspect in custody, but we need some help getting him out. We're at the hospital now - looks like we got him just in time to stop him killing one of the nurses who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Looks like he's a good family man, if you take my meaning"
"Family, as in Kindred, I assume? And you're posing as police officers for the benefit of this nurse he almost killed?". My, my, wasn't everybody quick on the uptake tonight. Though after all these centuries I doubted if much could surprise Iain.
"And you need help getting him out?"
"Definitely. As soon as possible".
There was a pause. "I'll make some calls and get there as fast as I can. We'll talk later". He sounded pissed, and I couldn't blame him. This was the second time he was having to come along and clean up one of my messes. First the time I'd torn Otto apart, now this. "Yeah. Sorry about the extra paperwork".
He grunted and hung up on me. Shit. I was going to have some explaining to do later.
Sandra was looking between us. "What now? We have a patient suffering from smoke inhalation in here, we can't have you holding someone at gunpoint".
"I've called for backup. It would be safer not to try to move him until they arrive, unless you want to risk him getting free and running loose through the hospital". I was confident she'd buy that argument. From the line of bullshit he'd fed her, Nick obviously thought she was a perfectly normal mortal bystander who'd gotten in over her head, but I knew better. She'd see the sense of not having a vampire running amok and ripping apart her patients as he tried to escape.
Sure enough, she did. "Okay. Would it be okay if I stay here to keep an eye on him, at least?"
"Please do" Nick sounded a little relieved. Maybe he'd been afraid that she'd want to call in all the hospital administrators and top brass before Iain showed up to smooth things over.
She went to the bed, checking the assortment of ticking and bleeping things the poor guy was attached to. I joined Nick in staring down at our prisoner. He stared right back at us, unintimidated, and I made the mistake of looking into his eyes.
"You don't want to do this". I felt his mind and will pressing against mine, backing up the words, and cursed myself for a fool. Never make eye contact with another vampire was one of the lessons which Eirik had drilled into me right from the start, but Scandinavia was a mainly Gangrel fiefdom, with a large contingent of Brujah the other main group. I wasn't used to being around Kindred with a knack for mind control. Now I was in England, long a Ventrue Domain, and I'd better wise up fast.
Except that this guy didn't have the juice. His mental pressure felt like walking through a strong gale - you can feel it, but it isn't anything like powerful enough to knock you over. I lifted a clawed hand, keeping my body between him and Sandra to stop her from seeing. "Bets?"
He snarled in frustration. "Screw you".
"Not unless you get a lot better at sweet-talking me", I told him dryly. He gave me an evil look and shut up.
There was a long silence. Nick and I didn't want to say anything to spoil the "undercover cop" story in front of Sandra, and out captive didn't seem to have anything he wanted to talk about, so we waited. And waited. And waited. It felt like an eternity before Iain showed up, accompanied by three burly figures I'd never seen before. One was a vampire, to judge from his paleness, but the others were likely ghouls.
"Good work, Sergeants", he told us in an approving tone. His eyes said precisely the opposite, but he played his role faultlessly. He gestured, and one of his men moved to handcuff the prisoner.
"Sorry you've been troubled, nurse", he added to Sandra. "We don't usually like to operate this way". I turned my face away so that Sandra wouldn't see me wince. I knew what he was saying, all right.
"I just hope it doesn't happen again". Sandra was still faking the whole shock-and-anger thing.
"We'll try to make sure it doesn't"
Oh, boy. I was really in it, this time.
But what else could I have done?
We were in the parking lot before the handcuffed vampire tried to make a break for it. He got less than a yard before there was a sizzling, an ozone stench, and he fell flat on his face, jerking like someone having an epileptic seizure.
"Sorry, forgot to mention", Iain said blandly. "The handcuffs are a Tremere contribution to the problem of keeping law and order in Kindred society. They have quite a shocking effect if you try to get free. That doesn't kill vampires, of course, but having that much electricity going through your body plays merry hell with muscle control".
He glowered as he pulled himself to his feet. Iain had brought along a black Maria, into which his unspeaking followers loaded the prisoner without further ceremony.
Instead of joining them in the van, Iain motioned us into a sleek black Jaguar parked nearby. He took the wheel; we clambered into the back. I could see his eyes glaring at us in the rear-view mirror.
"Now, what the fuck do you think you were doing?"
Nick looked at me. I looked at Nick. Neither of us was anxious to be the first to talk. It was like one of those "mice-to-bell-the-cat" situations, but in the end I figured, what the hell, Iain is sort of family, it had better be me.
I've had easier conversations.
A couple of rots just saved my life.
Somehow, that was more of a shock than having a gun pointed at me.
I stayed with Howard until dawn. I knew the rots have servants who could get to him during daytime, but by the end of the night I was just about ready to pass out from exhaustion. Graham and Grim Jim showed up about an hour before dawn, and Jim offered to drive me home. He had his police-sergeant face on when he said it, so I guess what he meant was: as an officer of the law, I am not going to let you drive anywhere until I'm sure you won't pass out at the wheel.
I didn't argue. I just made Graham promise to stick around at the hospital and keep an eye on Howard. The other nurses knew that Howard's a friend, and they half-suspect that Graham's my boyfriend, so they turned a blind eye to him being there outside of visiting hours.
I was grateful for the lift for another reason. I desperately needed to talk to someone about what was happening, and Grim Jim is one of the best listeners I know. He sat them impassively, keeping his eyes on the road, as I spilled out the whole thing. I was a little incoherent from fatigue, but he got the gist.
"You're saying that these rots who saved you are the good guys", he said placidly when I ran out of words. He has a thick country accent and a slow way of talking which make people underestimate his intelligence. A lot of crooks ended up behind bars because they made that mistake.
"I don't bloody know what they are". Tiredness made me snap, but he didn't take offence.
"Good. What you just told me isn't enough to prove their intentions one way or another. We need more information. I'll write a post to Hunter-Net and see if anyone's heard of anything like this before - or heard of these rots, specifically".
I yawned. "Good idea. But what about Sandra? And Howard?"
"The rots had two theories: Howard had been replaced with an impostor, or Howard was being mentally controlled. Did you sense anything wrong with Howard?"
I shook my head. "No. I had a quick peek with the Sight while Tyrell and Baron were guarding the other one, but I didn't spot anything odd. He's not been replaced by a monster. He was too deeply unconscious for me to get a feel for whether he was being controlled, though".
"Then we'll just have to wait for him to regain consciousness", Jim said pragmatically. "Of course, the rots overlooked a more mundane explanation: someone has kidnapped Claire and has threatened to hurt or kill her if Howard doesn't co-operate in a cover-up. I've noticed that about the monsters. They get so dependant on their supernatural powers to solve problems that more normal possibilities get overlooked"
I must have fallen asleep at that point. The next thing I can remember is waking up on my bed, still fully clothed, at around 4pm the next day. I could hear movement from downstairs and tensed for a moment until I recognized Jim's tuneless whistling.
He was fixing himself pizza as I walked into the kitchen. Not the frozen, pre-packed stuff, the genuine home-cooked article. I'm a lousy cook, but Jim's a terrific one, so I always keep my cupboards well stocked with ingredients in the hope that he'll take the hint when he visits. Today, he had. He flashed me a quick smile as I entered.
"Feeling like a shower". I sat down. "Any word on Howard?"
"Graham called half an hour ago. Still unconscious, but in no danger".
"Good to know". I spotted a sheaf of printouts on the kitchen table and reached for them. "The Hunter-Net responses?"
He nodded. "Quite interesting. Take a look".
I did. Like he said, quite interesting.
Subject: Anyone heard of these rots?
Copper, I ran into a guy about a year ago who might be one of your rots. He called himself "Damian Tyrell", and matched the description, anyway. It was before I was Imbued, so I can't be sure it was a rot - maybe he wasn't, at that point.
My ship had docked in Oslo, and I was drinking in a bar, a real dive. There was a gang of young toughs in there, swilling beer like they had inside information that there was about to be a world shortage, and getting to the aggressive stage. People were edging away from them, and a lot of them were making their excuses and leaving. I was keeping my head down, when the door opens and two guys walk in. One of them was your man Tyrell, in a brown leather jacket and old denims. The other is this little guy, only about five feet tall, but kinda muscular with it. Looked about twenty, maybe twenty-five. He was blonde - real Scandinavian-blonde, the kind that's almost white - and he had hair going half-way down his back, tied in a pony-tail. He had a black leather jacket on, brand new, and a pair of incredibly expensive wrap-around sunglasses even though it was pitch dark outside. It was dim in that bar - I guess the barkeep didn't want people noticing all the suspicious stains - but I could tell that he needed a shave. Stubble all over. He was in denims, too, but these were brand new, and so were his boots, all shiny. And the dumbass was wearing a gold Rolex, right there in the open. He might as well have walked in with a T-shirt on that said, "Please mug me". He was like a textbook example of a rich kid who goes slumming and gets in deeper than he bargained for.
Only I noticed that not as many people were snickering, as I'd have expected. In fact, as this guy got close to them, they'd get this nervous look and sidle away.
'cept for the gang who were drinking. I think they were too far gone to pick up on subtle hints.
So, anyway, their leader swaggers up to the little guy, he tops him by about a foot, and says, "The drinks are on you".
The little guy isn't fazed. He just nods, and walks over to the bar, and buys a tray of beers. Then he walks back to the table where these punks are sitting, puts the tray down, and looks the leader straight in the eye.
"I believe you're mistaken", he says, and I swear I can hear the laugh in voice. It's not nice laughter, though. "This drink is very definitely on you"
Then he throws the beer into the leader's face.
Well, I'm thinking, shit, he's fucking crazy, and I'm wondering if I'm morally obligated to help out, when this little clown is obviously so set on committing suicide. Then I catch sight of your guy Tyrell. He's standing about ten feet from the punks - and about four feet from me - and I swear, he's rolling his eyes. He's not worried at all. I'm, like, what the fuck is going on here? when the punk with beer on his face takes a swing at the little blonde.
It was a roundhouse punch, and it hit the little guy's jaw like an express train. It should have sent him flying half-way across the room, and I'm shoving back my chair and starting to walk over before I realize what I'm doing. It's not like I want to get involved or anything, it's pure reflex.
Only the little guy doesn't go flying. He doesn't move so much as half an inch. He just stands there watching as the punk who just hit him screams in agony and staggers back clutching his hand.
Then he looks over his shoulder at Tyrell. "I'd better try another one", he says, "This one seems to be broken". I notice something odd about his voice. Like it's been altered electronically or something, so there's this rumbling echo to it that sounds like a big cat purring.
And then he starts picking up beers and throwing them into the faces of the other punks.
Tyrell just rolls his eyes some more. He sees me standing there and gets between me and the fight that's starting to develop.
"Thanks for the thought, but he really doesn't need any help". I swear, he sounds like a parent with a kid who's always getting into trouble. He sticks his hand out, and I shake automatically. "Tyrell. Damian Tyrell. And that's Eirik", he adds, jerking his thumb back over his shoulder. The little guy, Eirik, is taking a lot of punches, but they're having the same effect as the first one, just breaking the fingers of the guys throwing them. One of the smarter - or more sober - punks - smashes a bottle and goes for Eirik's throat with the jagged edge. Eirik reaches out and grabs the hand holding the bottle - shit, this guy is fast, like nothing I've ever seen before - and the punk just comes to a dead stop, as though his hand is set in concrete. Eirik lets him struggle for a few seconds, then picks him up and throws him at us. Remember, I said there were about ten feet between us, and the guy is still airborne as he cannons into Tyrell. Tyrell gets bowled over, but still manages to sink a punch into Mr. Bottle's gut which leaves him gasping helplessly on the floor.
My attention is distracted by Tyrell getting knocked down. When I look up, the little blonde is still standing there, with about half-a-dozen severely battered toughs lying around him, covered in beer. He's won the fight in about five seconds, and he's still standing in the same spot he was when it started.
He hasn't even lost his sunglasses.
"Wonderful", Tyrell mutters to himself. Eirik walks over to the bar, pulls out a stack of hundred dollar bills, and tosses them to the barkeep.
"Sorry for the mess"
Then they just walk out. I hear Tyrell complaining as they leave about Eirik having stolen that line from Han Solo, and the idea wasn't to get them banned from yet another bar, but they're out of earshot before I hear Eirik's reply.
That's it. I know it's not much, but this Eirik, at least, was almost certainly a rot, from the way that fight went. I wondered if the punks would be dumb enough to hunt them down, but they were arrested less than a day later on drug related charges - possession, and dealing. Were they innocent, and framed by the rots? Your guess is as good as mine. I'll tell you this, though; they were the type to be into dealing drugs. Even if they were framed for that particular crime, they belonged in jail anyway.
I put the printout down. "Well, that could mean anything"
Jim put a slice of pizza in front of me. "There's more". He pointed to another sheet of paper. This one included a grainy back-and-white photo. It was a bit blurry, but I had no trouble recognizing Nick Baron, looking just a bit younger than he did now. He was surrounded by a group of much older men, both he and they wearing hard hats. There was some sort of oilrig in the background behind them.
I skimmed the printout. It was a newspaper article, something about a technical breakthrough which had improved production on a North Sea drilling rig. I got about half-way through before I saw the same, Derek Baron, "pictured here with his son Dominic, (left), who flew out from Canada along with the rest of Dr. Baron's family to be with him at the formal commencement of commercial drilling operations", blah, blah.
I put the paper down and looked at Jim. "That picture was taken in daylight. He can't have been one of them for long. I wonder if Tyrell is an older one?"
He shook his head. "Skip the next three sheets for a moment; they're financial stuff which we'll get back to in a minute. Check out that last page"
I checked. It was a scan of a clipping from a local newspaper.
ARCHAEOLOGY STUDENT FEARED DEAD IN MYSTERY DISAPPEARANCE
The photo wasn't very flattering, but it was Tyrell, all right. I checked out the date - November '95, just a few years ago. I speed-read the rest of the article, but it didn't say much beyond the fact that he'd been in Norway for an archaeological dig and vanished one night with no explanation. Promising post-grad student, the article had said, computer whiz and a rising star at the Cambridge archaeology department.
"Okay". I noticed that Jim had plonked a slice of pizza and a coffee on the table in front of me, and grabbed both hungrily. "They're both young. Maybe that's why they're still acting sort of human. Maybe you have to be cold a few years before you start acting the way the others did". Our vampire encounters had been mercifully rare, but they'd not behaved the way Baron and Tyrell had, that was for damn' sure. "Do we know anything else?"
"Got an address for Tyrell. His family gave him a little bachelor pad in Cambridge when he went to University there. They don't use it themselves, and they never had him declared legally dead or tried to sell his stuff"
I raised an eyebrow. "How do you know?"
"Oh. Ways". In other words, a word in a few ears in the police force.
I took another bite of pizza. "Okay. I'll try that this Saturday, if we don't come up with anything else first. What's all this other stuff?"
Grim Jim looked pleased with himself. "I took a leaf from the book of the boys in Fraud Squad - follow the money". He sat himself down opposite me, munching away at his own pizza. "I took a look at the whole Norwegian angle. It seems pretty clear that Tyrell became a vampire there, so I started checking for other connections. After two years of zero activity, he made a big withdrawal from his old bank account in Oslo, in 1997. Two days later a cruise ship set off from there on a tour around the Norwegian coast. Tyrell's name was on the passenger manifest. One of the other passengers died on the cruise, apparently of natural causes"
"But Tyrell murdered her". Somehow I was sure of it.
"Maybe". Jim sipped his coffee. "But he may have had a reason. The police never discovered her real name, but they traced the credit card account she used to pay for the trip to a corporate account held by a shell company based out of Bergen, Norway. That company was linked - via two other shell company layers - to a lot of radical far-right groups, some with terrorist links. There were even some suspicious funds which could have had a Libyan connection. I think maybe this woman was a blood slave to a rival vampire who was less kindly disposed towards normal people than your new friend Tyrell seems to be"
My gut went cold. "I can't believe that you, of all people, would sit here and find excuses for a murderer"
"Nor would I. But I wouldn't rush to any conclusions, either. You had him tried and convicted of Claire's death before you figured out that he was looking into it as well, didn't you? And you already told me he saved your life back at the hospital. All I'm saying is that we don't have enough information"
"Definitely. Accountant37 on the board said he'd do some more digging. He thinks that someone else bought up the shell companies shortly after the woman died, but he couldn't work out who"
"Meanwhile, Mr. Police Officer, I'd better plan my burglary of Tyrell's little bachelor pad. Any advice?"
"Don't get caught"
"Thanks. I might have forgotten that one"
Baroness Caroline Greville looked a well-preserved fifty, but I knew that estimate was out by at least three hundred years. Rumor had it that she'd been part of a Royalist secret society called the "Sealed Knot" when Oliver Cromwell had ruled England, and had been brought into Clan Ventrue because of his skills as a politician, spy - and assassin. She was the Camarilla's voice in this part of England - she didn't call herself a Prince because she was technically subordinate to the Prince of London, but that, in practice, was what she was.
She sat next to me on the overstuffed leather sofa, one slim leg elegantly crossed over the other. She was dressed in a grey silk pants suit, modern and conservative, but stylish. Her ash-blonde hair was trimmed to shoulder-length, and she hadn't made any effort to conceal the strands of gray in it. She didn't need to. With her cheekbones she'd have looked good if she'd lived to be ninety. And she had merry blue-green eyes and a killer smile, too.
She was acting friendly. That made me nervous as hell.
"... quite fortunate that you were able to capture him", she was saying. "None of the Kindred I've spoken to were aware that he was in the fief". She cocked her head. "Any idea who he is?"
I shook my head. "No, my Lady. I just came upon him by chance"
"While investigating the disappearance of a kine. Out of curiosity"
I nodded. Best to agree. But her eyes narrowed. "No, not entirely. There's more"
I hesitated. She didn't do anything as crude as threaten, just settled back in an attentive posture, but it was plain that she meant to have an answer - by whatever means necessary. "When this started, I thought she'd died by accident. Then Nick reckoned she'd been murdered, and I wanted..."
I shrugged. "Yes"
She sighed. "The passion of youth. Well, you may leave this matter in my hands. If we discover this missing girl, I'll see to it that she's returned to her normal life after a suitable editing of her memories. I trust that will satisfy you?"
It was one of the most gently delivered absolute commands I'd ever heard. Get out and stay out. I nodded. "Yes, my Lady"
She studied me for a second. "Very well. You leave for York soon?"
"I'd hoped to see the remainder of the festival, if you don't object"
A shadow of suspicion crossed her face, but she shrugged. "Very well. A little harmless diversion is your own concern, not mine"
Just make sure it stays harmless diversion. Again the subtext.
But what could I do? Defying her was hardly practical. Iain wouldn't support me, and without his resources, I had nothing to fall back on, nor did Nick. All I could do was hope that she meant what she said about rescuing Claire.
I thought of something. "M'Lady, the nurse who was attacked at the hospital is expecting a couple of police inspectors - Nick and I - to show up and take a statement from her"
She nodded. "Yes. Mr. Baron is to be commended for his quick thinking". Well, he was a fellow Ventrue. It was natural that she'd keep any criticism she might have in the family - and out of earshot of an "uncouth" Gangrel like me. "Arrangements have already been made for one of my agents to visit her. She'll go back to her job with no memory of what happened to her".
Like hell she will. I lowered my head. The Baroness would take it as a sign of respect, but actually, I just didn't want her to catch my expression. I'm too easy to read
"Thank you, M'Lady"
She nodded graciously. "A safe journey to York". In other words, get the hell out of my hair.
I withdrew gratefully.
Surprise, surprise, my train was almost an hour late. I got out at Cambridge feeling thoroughly pissed off. Which was a relief, in a way; if was better than being scared shitless, which I would have been otherwise. I was about to burgle a vampire's flat in the company of a guy I'd never met before, but who had three convictions for burglary and one for assault. Grim Jim had offered to come with me, but I'd turned him down, pointing out that a petty crook - even if he was another Hunter - wasn't likely to fancy the idea of burgling a place with a serving police officer watching.
"Oh, come off it", he told me. "He knows the bigger picture as well as we do. I'm not going to nick him for going after a monster"
"Come off it yourself. Just because he's a Hunter doesn't mean he's stopped making his living out of petty crime. And it doesn't mean you wouldn't nick him for stuff that didn't have to do with monster hunting. I'll do better on my own".
So here I was, looking around Cambridge Station, trying to pick another Hunter out of the usual teeming crowd. After about five minutes I decided I'd do better with a bit of food in my guts, so I popped over to the Upper Crust stall for a baguette. I was standing near the departures board reading it when I heard a voice behind me.
He wasn't what I was expecting. Small, young and fair-haired, with green eyes and a cheerful grin. He couldn't have been more than about 19 or 20 years old, tops, and well-spoken with it.
His sparkly white grin broadened. "Weird thing is, that's how old I was when I started, too. I've got a car outside".
The car was a real beaten-up old banger, but it got us to where we were going. We parked about four streets away from our target, in case anyone tried to trace the break-in later. Hopefully we weren't going to leave any traces that we'd ever been there, but you never knew with rots.
I was silent for most of the drive. I wasn't quite sure how to begin. "Thanks for helping out. Did Grim...". I corrected myself hastily. We don't share our real identities, except on a need-to-know basis, "Did Copper tell you what we're after?"
He shrugged. "Burgle a rot's pad, see what we can turn up. My group have done it before, but this job seems simpler than a lot of ours. From what Copper said, he probably hasn't used this place for a while".
"Yeah. I'm just hoping it's still a correspondence address, though".
"You have mail", he imitated the AOL voice. "Here's hoping". He was looking around. "He can afford to live in an upmarket neighbourhood. Is he one of the old ones?"
"Nope". That was also reassuring. "He's just from a rich family. Farmers down on the Welsh border"
"Lucky sod". He pointed. "Corbier Mews. That's it"
The Mews was an old street. Jim had done some research, and found that it had been there since the eighteenth century. Back then, wealthy landowners from the shires had stabled their horses there when they came up to Cambridge University. These days the stables had been converted into luxury housing, and the vehicles were Jaguar XJ-3's and Porches rather than horse and carriage, but the street was still narrow and secluded. Perfect for the rot that wanted privacy.
"The address is 9, Corbier Mews". I was looking around. "I don't see it".
"It's those steps that look like they lead to the cellar of number 11. They're all squashed together". Burglar shrugged at my surprise. "One of my group scouted the area in advance. Don't worry, he was very discreet", he added, catching my expression. "He's a pro burglar, not getting noticed casing the joint goes with the territory. He's not an amateur like me. He said I should be able to handle this, though, don't worry. There are no alarms, and the lock's old. 'Course, that probably means that the rot isn't keeping anything valuable inside".
The door at the bottom of the steps was well-seasoned oak, weathered and sturdy. Burglar gimmicked the lock with some long, slim tool he took from an inside pocket of his denim jacket, and we were in within a few seconds.
He shrugged. "Like I said, old lock".
There were a few envelopes on the floor in the hall, but they turned out to be circulars. I tried to control my disappointment. Burglar just shrugged again.
The whole place followed the same pattern of décor - white painted walls and heavy, blood-red carpets. Doesn't show stains, I thought to myself. There were prints on the walls, what looked like reproductions of medieval manuscripts and shots of old castles in picturesque surroundings. The small living room had a big screen TV, a lot of bookshelves filled mostly with history books, and an overstuffed sofa and armchairs in ox-blood leather.
Burglar was looking at the lowest shelves. "Some video tapes down here. Not marked". He plugged the TV in and slipped one into the VCR. "I don't know if they're important but... oh". His fair complexion blushed easily. I laughed. "Don't worry, I've seen worse on my gynaecology courses. Well, it's a normal enough bachelor pad in that respect, anyway. You want to go through the rest of the shelves while I check the bathroom and bedroom?"
The bathroom was remarkably clean for something belonging to a single guy, thought the mirrored tiles along one wall suggested that it was kept that way in case of "guests". The bedroom was mostly taken up with an antique oak double bed and yet more shelves. Nothing.
"Just history books, sci-fi, detective novels, stuff like that", Burglar reported, appearing in the doorway. "I didn't read them all, but I didn't spot anything unusual. You find anything?"
"Not a damned thing. Sorry, looks like I dragged you here on a wild goose chase".
He flashed me a quick smile. "I wasn't doing anything important. It was worth a try. I'm curious, though. What were you hoping to find?"
"I wish I knew", I admitted. "Some clue about what he wants. How much did Copper tell you?"
"Only that you'd found a rot with a place up here and you needed to find out more about him"
"Pretty much, yeah. Only... this is weird... but it looks as if this rot and another young one are trying to solve a murder. They actually saved my life a couple of nights back from another rot. I just wondered why".
"Maybe they're nice guys?"
I blinked at him. "You're serious?"
"I'm very serious. See, you're not the only one who got saved by a rot. There are some good ones"
"Burglar, they're...". I came right out and said it. "They're vampires. They're monsters. How can they be the good guys?"
"Why shouldn't they be? It's not like they come from another planet. They used to be human, and the young ones, at least, still think and act human. Maybe they all go bad eventually, I don't know, but that doesn't mean they all start out that way".
I shook my head. "This conversation is turning weird. You sound like you're actually defending them"
"You sounded like they were actually defending you, not so long ago"
"Yeah, but was that out of the goodness of their hearts, or did they have something else in mind?"
"Maybe you should ask them"
What Burglar said bugged me all the way back to the station. It put me in an edgy mood which only got worse when I found that my train back had been cancelled.
"Great!" Two bloody hours I'd be waiting for another one. I was pissed off and not bothering to hide it. Burglar raised his eyebrows. "You'll be on your way well before it gets dark".
"Yeah, but not back until after sunset. Oh, sod it". I sighed. "Want to go somewhere and eat? My treat".
He gave me another flash of those pearly whites. "Thought you'd never ask"
It turned out that we both like Pizza Hut, so that was where we went. The place was almost deserted, so we got a chance to talk.
"I started stealing to support a drug habit", Burglar told me. "I was still at school at the time. Very exclusive school. My parents could afford to pay only the best people to bring me up for them". There was an edge of bitterness beneath the amusement in his voice. "They paid so little attention to me that they never even noticed that I was turning into a cokehead. I'd probably be dead in a gutter of an overdose by now... if it hadn't been for a rot".
I was curious in spite of myself. "Go on"
"I managed to make it into the University here, God knows how. I was doing a history course under this really terrifying old biddy called Professor Rutherford, but the coke was really starting to get to me. I probably would have dropped out, only..."
He took a bite of pizza. "There was a guy I met at a disco... East European exchange student, or so he said. He told me he was a dealer... said he could get me some dynamite shit. So I went outside with him, and the next thing I know I wake up in some sort of jail cell with no windows and a bar across the door. I don't know how long he kept me there, but he used vampire mind whammy to ease the withdrawal until I was through the worst of it. I kept seeing weird messages in the cracks on the ceiling... stuff like FROM THE DARKNESS COMES YOUR SALVATION. I thought I was just hallucinating, but now I figure it was the withdrawal that somehow triggered off my Imbuing. I wasn't thinking very straight, so when he came in to see me one time, just before he let me go, I told him that I knew. Knew he was a vampire, I mean"
"And he let you live?" The few rots we'd met seemed to make it a policy to kill anyone who discovered their existence.
"Yeah. I know, it's not how they usually act, but he just got this really sad, puppy-dog look and asked me what I meant to do about him. I just kind of shrugged, and he told me to go to sleep, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up in my own bed. I never saw him again"
"Weird". There was something else nagging me about his story, something he'd said... after a second, I got it, and dug the papers out of my bag.
"Wait a minute, did you say Professor Rutherford?"
"She was Tyrell's Professor, too"
He looked startled. "No shit?"
I looked at my watch. Three-quarters of an hour to get the train. I made a quick decision. "Could you get me in to see Professor Rutherford?"
"Sure. I'm still in her class, but how am I going to explain what you want?"
"We'll think of something. Maybe she can give us more on Tyrell. A family contact, a lead, something... he was her student for several years, they must have talked"
"You're staying here, then?"
"Oh". I came down to Earth. "I've got nowhere to stay, unless you can..."
He smiled. "Won't be the first time I've had a girl in my room. Don't worry, I won't try to show you my etchings. I'd better warn you, though, I snore"
I phoned Grim Jim and let him know of the change of plans. I could tell he wasn't happy but he just warned me to be careful.
Burglar lived in a house with four other students. He offered me his bed and said that he'd take the couch, but I flat-out refused and crashed on the couch myself. The price of my pride was a stiff neck, but what the hell, I've had worse.
I called in sick to the hospital, and spent the next couple of days doing touristy things in Cambridge. Burglar had told Professor Rutherford that I was a private investigator hired by someone to find Tyrell; it was pretty thin, but I'd be able to make up the details as needed - I hoped. She'd agreed to meet us in a little coffee-house overlooking the river Cam. I wasn't happy about the time she set; 10pm, well after sunset, but I figured that nobody was likely to be looking for me.
It was a lovely place, filled with delicious aromas of roasting coffee that set my stomach rumbling. The floors were polished wood, the ceilings low and irregular, and the walls lined with bookshelves. It was filled with students, eating cake, drinking coffee, and chattering.
Burglar led me to a window table looking straight out across the river, and went off to the counter to get our drinks. I looked out at the Cam, black under the night sky, letting my mind wander.
"Hello, Sandra", said Damian Tyrell casually, sitting down in the seat opposite me.
I just about jumped out of my skin. "Jesus wept!". I was on my feet before I realized it, looking around wildly for help, a weapon, anything. Tyrell winced and raised his hand in a sort of warding-off gesture.
"Will you please calm down? You'll attract attention"
"That might not be such a bad thing", I told him. It was an effort to keep my voice steady. Tyrell was looking anxious, but also just a bit amused, and that pissed me off. He was also keeping his voice low, so low that I had to strain to hear him over the general rumble of conversation from all around. But I was damned if I'd risk getting any closer.
"Look, neither of us can risk anything in front of dozens of witnesses. I can't grow fangs and suck you dry, and you can't turn me into a frog, so chill out, will you? I came here to talk, that's all"
It took a few seconds for his words to sink in. The shock of the first part, that he as good as admitted that he was a vampire, almost made me miss the second. You can't turn me into a frog. Turn him into a frog?
I had a sudden, insane urge to giggle, but I sat back down. He thought I was a witch!
"What the hell are you doing here? How did you find me?"
"I wanted to talk to you", he said easily, leaning back in his chair a little, "so I went to your house after I got Nick to charm the address out of one of the other nurses. When I found the address of my flat on your phone pad, next to train times for Cambridge, it wasn't exactly difficult to figure out where you'd gone. Since you were obviously looking into my background, I just came down here and started wandering around all my old haunts 'till I spotted you. I used to come here all the time when I was a student".
I felt myself blushing. I remembered scrawling that address on the phone pad now. Stupid, stupid, I mentally chastised myself.
"Incidentally, you left that porn tape in the video", he added. There was a wicked glint in his eye. "Night Nurse 3. Was that some kind of subtle message?"
"Nah. It was me that left that there, and I didn't know the title"
We both started at the sound of Burglar's voice. We'd been so intent on each other that we'd never even noticed him walking up. He was holding a small tray with two steaming cups of coffee on it. Tyrell's nostrils twitched at the smell.
Burglar set the tray on the table and sat down next to me. Looking Tyrell straight in the eye, he asked, "Do you remember what it was like to live here?". He put a slight stress on the word live.
Tyrell froze in place like a rabbit staring into headlights. Emotions chased each other across his face - fear, anger, sorrow. I was starting to notice that he had a very readable face. Finally, he shook his head as though awakening from a dream.
"That was...". He actually took a breath before he continued. I guess it must have been reflexive. "That was pretty intense. Could you do it again?"
Burglar looked taken aback. "You liked it?"
"Yes... no... I don't know. But I want to feel it again. Why, was it supposed to hurt me?".
"Not hurt, just sort of incapacitate"
Those intense green eyes bored into Burglar. "It probably would have if I'd been older, or more... well, inhuman. Like whichever vampire you used it on before, I'm guessing?".
I decided to head that line of conversation off. The rot didn't need to know the details of a Hunt for another of his kind. "Whatever. You said you came here to talk to me"
"Right". Tyrell refocused his gaze on me. "Look, I'm guessing that you're here, checking out my background, because you think I had something to do with Claire vanishing. I don't. I want you to help me find her"
Well, that made me blink, even though I already half-suspected it. A dozen questions rushed into my mind, but I contented myself with a simple "Go on"
"I'm pretty sure that that vampire who attacked you at the hospital kidnapped her, killed the other girl to disguise what he'd done, and mentally conditioned Kelper to identify the dead girl as his niece", Tyrell said. "Unfortunately, the... uh... the head vampire, basically... of the Glastonbury area has him... the one who attacked you at the hospital, I mean, not Kelper... locked up and won't let me see him. I've been pretty much warned off following this whole thing up any further, actually"
"So if the head vamp finds out about this conversation he'll be seriously pissed?", Burglar asked.
"She, actually, but yes. And to save you the next question, I don't know why the hell I'm doing this, especially now I know that you're both mages. Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, et cetera. I just have this feeling, this instinct, that it's the right thing to do. I can't explain it"
Burglar didn't show any shock or surprise at the "wizard" remark, which was a relief. I was putting the pieces together now. "So you came to us for help because your own kind won't? Help, that is?"
"Pretty much, yeah"
"And you want us to believe that you'd do that - defy your own kind, come to a couple of wizards for help - just on the strength of a gut feeling?"
"I thought that you were the only wizard I'd be dealing with", Tyrell sighed, glancing over at Burglar, "but otherwise, yup, that's pretty much it You're not about to trot out the "why should I trust you?" question, are you?"
Actually, yes, but I was damned if I'd give him the satisfaction of admitting it. "We both know I can't trust you, so no. How about, "what are you expecting us to do?", instead?"
"For a start, you can tell me everything you know about Claire. There has to be some reason why she was picked as a target. It can't be something as simple as feeding from her, not a hoax as elaborate as this. Then help me with legwork, especially in daylight. Everyone but me thinks your memories have been erased, so there won't be anyone watching you"
"Just out of curiosity, how did you know her memories were still there?", Burglar asked.
"I went to help her at the hospital and bounced off some kind of force field". Would you believe it, Tyrell started ticking things off on his fingers. "So, she wasn't a normal human. I knew she wasn't Kindred, and Nick would have tasted it in her blood if she'd been a ghoul. Besides, most ghouls don't have enough power to do tricks like that. If she were a Lupine she'd have gone wolf-man - wolf-woman, whatever - and torn me to shreds by now. There are weirder beings out there but they're rare enough that the odds of meeting them are slim to none. So, process of elimination says "mage". I figured she had to have ways to stop Kindred from affecting her mind, otherwise she wouldn't have come down here to check me out"
I reached for my coffee and took a sip, as much to give myself time to think as anything. Tyrell was throwing around a bunch of terms like he figured I'd be familiar with them. I didn't want to ask questions in case it tipped him off that I wasn't actually a "mage". Luckily it was easy enough to figure out from the context. "Kindred" was obviously a rot, and I was guessing that "ghoul" was what we called a blood-slave. "Lupine" was a flicker - the wolf-man comment was a dead giveaway - and it seemed that flickers and rots didn't get along. That was an interesting little tit-bit of information. Burglar's faced had turned totally closed-off and neutral so I guessed he was thinking much the same things
"Your boss vamp has our best lead locked up. What will she do about Claire, if she finds her?"
"Nothing too bad. Just a cut-and-paste job on her memories"
My eyes narrowed. "You don't sound very certain"
There was a long silence. Tyrell was looking uncomfortable. Finally, he said, "Our kind survive on secrecy. Yours and ours. Just remember, it's thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, not just a vampire. But a dead girl would attract a lot more unwanted attention than an amnesiac one".
"In other words, you're not sure they won't kill her". I was getting angry all over again, and I didn't see any reason to hide it. Tyrell looked up and glared at me.
"No, I'm not sure. That's why I'm risking my arse to keep chasing this. If you'd rather play holier-than-thou than help me - and Claire - just say so and I can piss off"
"Okay, okay, the pair of you, time out", Burglar interrupted. "Focus on what's important here. We all want to find this missing girl, yeah? So let's talk about that".
Tyrell shot him an annoyed look. "That's what I've been trying to do"
I bit back the first five or six things I was about to say. Burglar had a point. I needed to concentrate on finding Claire before Tyrell's fellow rots did. I forced myself to sound almost reasonable as I said, "All right, what do you want to know about her?"
"What's different about her in the last few weeks or months". The rot sounded relieved at the new tack of the conversation. "What she was doing, any weird stuff that happened to her, anything she talked about that sounded odd".
"All she's been talking about for the past month was that excavation that she's been doing in the town. I can't see how that would interest a... Kindred"
Tyrell seemed to flinch. "Trust me, you have no idea. All right, excavation. Of what?"
"Cellar in a house in the town. Medieval cellar, but the weird thing is, it looked like it had a tomb in it".
"A tomb? On unconsecrated ground?"
"That's what Claire said, too. She said she'd never heard of anything like that"
"Me neither, unless..."
I waited a few seconds. "Don't start sentences you don't mean to finish"
"Okay, okay, sorry. Either of you know enough about my kind to know what "torpor" is?"
Bite the bullet and admit it, I told myself. If it's some sort of trick question, too bad. "Nope, sorry".
Burglar surprised me. "Something like suspended animation?"
"Sort of, yeah". Tyrell looked a bit surprised. "More like hibernation. Some of us do it for years, even centuries, when the world gets too much for us"
I saw where this was going and didn't like it much. "You're saying that there could have been a Kindred asleep in this tomb?". I didn't stumble over the rot term this time. Good. Tyrell was nodding. "It would explain why one of us would be interested in what Claire was doing".
"So our next move is to look at the dig site?"
"Seems like the only thing, only..." Tyrell hesitated, caught my eye, and grimaced. "If there is an elder asleep in that tomb, he is she would probably be a match for all three of us together"
"Three?" I asked him. "What about Baron?"
"He doesn't know anything about this. I mean, he gave me a lift here, but I told him I just wanted to check up on my flat before I head on up to... ". Tyrell broke off. "To where I'm going".
"Baron's the other... Kindred?". It made me feel a bit better to see Burglar stumbling a bit over the expression as well. "You don't think he'd want to help?"
"More like I'm afraid he would. See, he's got connections to the Kindred hierarchy. He could find himself in really deep shit if I drag him into this. He seems a pretty decent guy and I don't want to do that to him"
... he seems a pretty decent guy, and I don't want to do that to him.
Whoever eavesdroppers never here any good of themselves?
Standing under the window, it was easy to overhear the conversation with vampire-sharp senses. Daim had fed me some bullshit story about wanting to look over the bachelor pad he'd had up here since he was mortal, but I'd known there was more to it than that. For a Kindred that guy is an unbelievably lousy liar. He's also pretty bad at noticing when he's being followed.
Smart, though, I had to give him that. I hadn't had the least idea that Sandra was any more than she seemed. Tyrell had figured it out right off. It had given me a real shock, hearing Sandra's voice floating out of the window.
I was kind of unsure whether I should be pissed that he'd been holding back on me or grateful that he'd been trying to protect me.
Screw it; nobody said I couldn't be both, did they?
Sandra wasn't happy, I could tell that. She was obviously looking for reasons to hate me, and it was beginning to get on my nerves. This was her friend I was risking putting my nuts in the fire to rescue, for God's sake.
At least the little blonde guy seemed a bit more reasonable. "Your kind doesn't like daylight much, right? So if there were an old one in that tomb, day would be the best time to check it out? Less risk?"
"Yeah". It was safe enough to admit that. Anyone who's ever seen a Hammer flick knows that much about vampires, let alone a mage.
The blonde guy looked at Sandra. "We need to talk this over privately". He glanced back at me. "Got a number we can call you on?"
"Sure". I fumbled around in the pocket of my jacket and pulled out a card. Iain had given me a boxful of the things along with the mobile phone. Up until now I'd only used them to remind myself what my own number was. "I'm going back to Glastonbury, now I've talked to you. You decide you're in, call me on this number. If I don't hear from you in a couple of nights I'll assume you're answer's No and make my own plans".
They both flinched back as I made to stand up. "Oh, for crying out loud, calm down, will you? I'll see you later, I hope".
"Thanks for waiting". I got up beside Nick in the front of his van. He was driving until daybreak, after which his ghoul, Tony, would take over.
"No problem. I had a really interesting time"
I started to grin. "Let me guess, you met a girl?"
He shook his head. "Didn't have the time. What with following you and all"
If I'd been mortal I would have blushed. As it was I just winced. "All right, how much do you know?"
"Everything I could overhear standing under that window". At least he sounded more amused than upset. "You ought to be more careful"
"I didn't want to get you onto your sire's shit list"
"Thanks". He broke off the conversation to overtake another van. "And you were afraid I might snitch on you as well, yeah?"
"It's not like that was an unreasonable fear".
"No, which is why I'm not pissed at you... too much. But for future reference, I don't betray confidences, and I make my own decisions about whether to get involved"
"Good to know". I waited. "So, what now?"
"Now it's four against one, rather than three, if that's what it takes".
I was taken aback. Altruism isn't a common Kindred trait
"Don't mention it. But do mention other stuff, from now on"
My mobile trilled at me. I fumbled a bit before I hit the connect key. I needed to get used to the damned thing.
"Where the hell are you?". Iain sounded mightily ticked off. Damn. Did he know what I'd been up to?
"I wanted to check my old pad in Cambridge before I headed up to York. Nick gave me a lift. We're driving back now. Why?"
"Lousy timing. You'd better get back here as fast as you can"
I was getting a bad feeling about this. "What's wrong?"
"The Baroness has a little job for you, one she wants kept quiet. Your friend from the hospital? He's escaped"