Glastonbury Tourniquet - Chapter Five

Sandra

There was a long, long moment of silence. Baron looked dumbfounded. Grim Jim's jaw dropped slightly, although fortunately neither of the rots was looking at him. I think I had to smother a gasp of surprise.

Tyrell, though - he just looked satisfied. There was a putting-the-pieces together expression on his readable face which Baron noticed too.

"All right, genius, when did you figure this out?"

Tyrell raised his hands in a placating gesture. "Go easy. It only started to make sense to me a couple of seconds ago, when he talked about "the other vampire". Then it all suddenly slotted into place"

Baron gestured impatiently for him to continue. Instead, Tyrell leaned over the bed.

"Howard? Did the vampire say that the other one had ordered him to kill Claire?"

Howard blinked at him uncertainly. "That's right"

"And did he say who the other one was?"

"No"

"Too bad". Tyrell straightened up and mouthed the word sleep at Baron. Baron nodded and focussed his gaze on Howard.

"Okay, Howard, time to sleep now. This was all just a bad dream. Go to sleep. Forget about it. That's right, sleep..."

Howard's eyes closed and he sank back into the pillows, looking more peaceful than he had for a while.

"It makes sense now"

Baron frowned. "OK. I think I see where you're going with this. Claire sees something she shouldn't have, or overhears something. Our guy - let's call him Braveheart - oh, quit rolling your eyes like that, he sounds Scottish, doesn't he? - gets told by his boss to kill her. Except that Braveheart has the hots for Claire, so instead of going through with it, he fakes her death. But where does killing Kelper fit into the picture?"

"Simple". Tyrell started doing the ticking-points -off-on-his fingers thing again. "He was her uncle. He was the one she would have turned to if she were in trouble, so he's the one she's most likely to have told about whatever she found, or saw. So the boss tells... oh, all right then, Braveheart - to kill them both. Braveheart sees a way to kill two birds with one stone. He decides that he'll get Kelper to help him fake Claire's death, then murder Kelper - both to obey his boss' orders and to remove the one witness who knows both that Claire's still alive, and that Braveheart's protecting her. Only we came along and screwed that last part up"

"That fits except that she didn't act like she was in trouble when we met her at the festival"

"So maybe she didn't realize the significance of what she'd seen or heard, and our unknown boss didn't realize that. Or if he did, he just wanted to make sure. Doesn't really matter. The point is that Braveheart needs Kelper dead to protect his own skin. He has to try again. And he's not going to want his boss around when he does, just in case Kelper's in a fit state to talk. Which is kind of reassuring, you have to admit. It means that when Braveheart shows up, he's not likely to have a kick-ass elder with him"

"Still leaves us pretty much where we were before, though. Waiting for Braveheart to come to us".

"Maybe". I could almost hear a whirring noise coming from Tyrell's head. "It depends. If Braveheart cared that much about Claire, it stands to reason that she was more than just a casual acquaintance. Is Claire a party animal? Could she have met him on the nightclub scene, say, or at a party?"

He sounded like he was thinking aloud, but he was staring pointedly at me when he said it. I shook my head No, seeing where Tyrell was headed.

"If not, he must have had something to do with her work - which gives us a definite tie to that dig site she was working on. That gives us another way to track him down"

And whoever was monitoring the bugs - if there were any - now knew that too. I lifted my hand to my ear, tapping it and looking all around. Tyrell rolled his eyes and mouthed, I know, looking irritated.

"Okay, so what are you suggesting?"

"I'm suggesting we delve more deeply into the background of that dig. Who runs it, and who financed it. Follow the money"

"The Baroness wants us here. And she was really pissed the last time we saw her. We don't want to piss her off any more"

Tyrell sighed. "You're right, there's nothing we can do. I s'pose we'll just have to pass the news on to our friend"

He pulled his mobile out and hit the speed-dial.

Damian

Iain answered on the second ring. He obviously hadn't been far from the phone.

"What's happening?"

"Nothing as far as Braveheart goes"

"Who?"

Smooth, Iain, very smooth. Act like you haven't been listening the whole time.

"Nick's name for our target. We decided that we needed to call him something other than "our target", and that was the only Scottish name Nick knew, being American and all". I grinned at Nick's pissed off mutter of "Canadian!"

"But we made some progress with Kelper. Nick got him talking. It sounds as if Braveheart is working for someone else"

"Obviously. He didn't rescue himself"

"Yes, but we think that Braveheart's boss is tied in somehow to the archaeological dig that Claire was working on. Get this - Braveheart told Kelper what he was, and persuaded him to help fake Claire's death. Then he tried to kill Kelper to cover it up. His boss had told him to kill them both".

There was a pause. "Why didn't he do as he was told?"

"He loves her. Allegedly"

There was a snort. "Assuming all this is true, what does it have to do with what you're there to do?"

"It doesn't, but it gives you another line on the boss. The dig"

Another, longer pause. "It could just be a coincidence"

"Or not"

"All right. It won't hurt to check. But you stay where you are. I'll do the checking"

"Don't worry. I don't want the Baroness any more ticked off than she is already"

"Glad you understand the situation. Take care of yourself". There was a click, and the line went dead.

Short and sweet. I looked at Sandra, but spoke as if I was talking to Nick. "They're looking into it. Shame we can't do it ourselves"

Nick looked at her too. "We've done what we can. It's up to someone else now"

Sandra let her expression tell her how pissed off she was. It wasn't difficult to see what she was thinking - that we'd screwed with her chances of finding anything out - and maybe put her in danger - by passing on what she'd learned to our fellow Kindred.

I was starting to get a bit pissed myself with Sandra's attitude problem. Didn't she have the sense to see we'd had no choice? The room was bugged. We couldn't have got anything out of Kelper without someone overhearing. And the "someone" was probably smart as hell and with hundreds of years of experience. Anything we'd figured out from what Howard had said, they'd figured out too, probably a hell of a lot faster. Our best chance - our only chance - was to pretend to be totally honest with the Baroness and let the mages handle things.

So why wasn't I letting the Baroness handle this? Simple. Claire was already legally dead. Killing her for real wouldn't start any awkward investigations. And she'd been spending time with a rogue Kindred with a careless attitude to the Masquerade. Her grave would be the best protector of any secrets that she'd learned.

And I just wasn't willing to let that happen.

Except that as far as Sandra was concerned, I was obviously just "the monster". Well, screw her and the broom she rode in on.

I slumped back into a chair without looking at her again, and waited. And waited. And waited. I don't handle boredom very well, and counting the number of tiles on the floor got old very fast.

It was several hours before my phone went off again. I almost dropped it in my eagerness to take the call.

"Any news?"

"One fairly important piece of news. Dawn's coming up. Get yourselves out of there. Braveheart's not likely to show up now".

"There's a copper in here. And the Sister who led us to the room. Nick made them both fall asleep on duty".

"Get the Sister out of there. Leave the copper to sleep"

"Okay, we're on it". I hit the disconnect and looked at Nick. "Wake up Florence Nightingale here and send her away, then we're off duty".

Sandra flipped me the finger at the Florence Nightingale crack, but surprisingly amiably. Maybe tiredness and boredom had taken the edge off her charming personality. She played along as Nick did his hypnosis act, and then we followed her out.

She played her role well, neither talking to us nor looking at us as she stalked away. Or at least, she was either playing her role or still mad at us, it was hard to be sure. She turned off towards her office as Nick and I headed for the exit.

The hospital was at its sleepiest, the night-shift workers winding down and the day shift yet to arrive. A nurse walked past us, wheeling a cart that gave off the smell of eggs, bacon, and freshly brewed tea. I always used to love those smells in the morning; now the only thing that made me feel hungry was the coppery tang of blood. Of course, these days - or rather, these nights - I had my breakfast when I used to have my late-night snack, and...

Breakfast.

Breakfast would be served by the day shift when they came on duty. It was way too early for breakfast.

I muttered a curse in Welsh, turned on my heel, and sprinted back the way I'd come. Nick didn't waste time with questions, just followed me.

We burst back into Howard's room just in time to see the policeman - looking suspiciously awake and alert for someone allegedly under the influence of the Ventrue mind mojo - struggling with the nurse. He was at least a foot taller than her and much bulkier, but he was in danger of being overpowered. To be packing that much strength into her petite frame, she had to be a ghoul.

She was holding a hypodermic containing some sort of clear liquid. The copper was fighting to keep her from shoving the needle into Kelper, but he was losing.

I let the precious vitae flow into my limbs, boosting my strength, and grabbed at the nurse. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nick doing the same. She lashed out with her foot as we grabbed her, scoring a lucky strike in the copper's stomach. He doubled up and staggered back, wheezing.

"Can you make her sleep?", I asked Nick calmly. It felt odd to be speaking normally - I felt like I should be gasping with exertion - but of course, I no longer needed to breathe when I was exerting myself.

"If I can catch her eye, I can tell her to... stop! Stop!"

"It's not working!"

"Someone whammied her first! I can't break through!"

The copper, his breath still rasping painfully, reached out and managed to grab the hypo, narrowly avoiding another kick as he did it.

"What the hell do we do now?", I muttered, half to myself. If Nick couldn't quiet her...

The copper grabbed the woman's head. "Calm down!" he rapped out, his voice a parade-ground bark.

The effect was immediate. She didn't stop struggling, but the unnatural strength of a ghoul fled from her limbs.

So the copper was another mage. Nick met my gaze and I saw that this time, he'd figured it out too. Without her boosted strength, I was able to pin her limbs to her side while Nick moved around to gaze into her eyes.

"Stop. Sleep. Stop. Sleep. Stop. Sleep". He repeated the words over and over, like a chant. It took a minute, maybe two, before she finally succumbed, and collapsed in my arms.

"Now what? We can't carry a nurse out of here in full view of everyone. People will get the wrong idea". I paused and looked at Nick. "Or possibly the right one, in your case".

"You're not carrying her anywhere, sir. This is a police matter". The unformed mage was staying in character.

"Of course, officer". With a flash of inspiration, Nick said, "We're plain-clothes detectives. We'd be grateful if you could assist us by arranging for the young lady to be delivered to this address". His voice had what I was coming to think of as his "Dominate croon" again. He produced a pocket notepad, scribbled something down, and handed it to the mage/copper.

"I'm sure that will be fine, sir", the copper replied in a dull voice.

"That's all we can do. We can't stay here much longer. We have to get to shelter before dawn", I said, for the benefit of the bugs. Nick nodded. "So let's go"

I pulled out my mobile as we crossed the car park, filling Iain in on what had happened. "Nick got the copper to take her to..." I looked at him for the address, which he supplied.

"I know it. A safe-house. Way-station for visiting Kindred. It's a deserted farmhouse a little way outside Glastonbury proper. Good choice". Iain said. "I'll get someone out there. And I'll get some ghouls to take over guarding Kelper. Our friend Braveheart obviously has too much sense to show up there himself, so he's making ghouls and Dominating them into doing the dirty work. Clever... and it means Kelper's at risk by day, too"

"Yeah. Any progress on the dig connection?"

"Working on it. Look, you've cut it a bit fine to get back to your own safe-house..."

"Tell him you can crash with me. My place is closer", Nick said. Kindred senses were sharp enough for him to hear Iain's side of the conversation. I passed that on, got a terse agreement from Iain, and rang off.

"My place", turned out to be Nick's black van, which was parked in a public car park. We greeted Tony, the driver, a ghoul of Nick's who I'd met on the way to Cambridge, before we climbed inside for the day. I paid for long-term parking for the Ferrari before we got in - Iain would be royally pissed if we got it impounded.

Nick had a sweet setup, a regular little up-market bachelor pad on wheels with lightproof resting places hidden under the bench seating. I'd appreciated it on the trip to Cambridge, and I appreciated it even more now. I glanced at my watch as the engine purred to life and the van started moving. Fifteen minutes before dawn. Just enough time for what I needed to say.

"They'll be pissed when that mage doesn't show up with the nurse"

Nick shrugged. "They've the evidence of their own bugs that I did the best I could, in the circumstances".

"I suppose". I hesitated for a second. "I appreciate what you've done so far, but I'm about to get myself into deep shit, and I don't want to drag you under with me"

Nick smiled wryly. "Shall I make a guess on what you're about to say?". He continued without giving me a chance to reply. "If they find the girl now, they'll kill her. You can't let that happen. You also can't keep her safe if the Baroness is hunting her. So if Braveheart's on the level about caring for her, you may have to rely on him to protect her, in which case you'll be forced to help them both escape. You feel honor-bound to admit this to me, even though it puts a noose around your neck if I don't respect your confidence, because your conscience won't let you get me into what you think of as your own mess. Close?"

I sighed. "Spot on"

"I'm not bailing on you"

I was taken aback. "Look, I can't..."

"You're right. You can't. I'm the one who makes my choices for me, and I've chosen. If you want absolution for having me along for the ride, fine, consider it granted"

"I...". I'm not often at a loss for words. In the end, all I could say was "Thanks"

Nick just stared at me for a moment, his face completely unreadable. Slowly and deliberately he said, "We need to get some things into the open. You know that I've got a voice in my head, telling me to double-cross you, telling me to run out on you. You know that if we get caught, I'll be tempted to pin the blame on you to save my own ass. The reason you know all that... is that you feel the same way"

His voice was still calm and quiet, but his last words had an edge of harshness that stayed there as he went on, "Face up to it, Daim. Kindred don't do buddy movies. We're all here because we chose to live when we should have died, and that selfishness is what ultimately defines us. The real reason you're so pissed at the way Sandra's treating you is that deep down, you know damned well that she's right to feel the way she does about you. About all of us"

I opened my mouth to deny it. Couldn't force the words out.

Nick leaned back. More gently, he said, "You didn't have much contact with other Kin, did you? Before you came back to England?"

I shook my head. "Pretty much none, apart from my sire"

"And he was too old and too powerful for you to challenge, so you were able to fit into the role of Omega to his Alpha. No politicking, no conflict. Now you're surrounded by vicious conniving backstabbers who are closer to your own level. And better at holding up a mirror showing you what you've become. You've been telling yourself you aren't really a monster since you got Embraced, haven't you?"

"I'm not", I tried to protest. "You're not. Doesn't what we're doing now prove that?"

"No, it doesn't". Harsh again, uncompromising. "Any more than not having a drink proves that people at AA meetings aren't alcoholics. We're monsters who are struggling not to let being a monster define us. Just like the people at AA meetings are alcoholics who're struggling not let being an alcoholic define them"

I tried to voice another denial. What came out instead was "You're not the airhead slut you pretend to be, are you?"

He flashed me a quick grin. "I'm not the airhead I pretend to be, at least"

I couldn't help laughing, but I didn't feel very amused. "So you don't think Kindred can ever be friends?"

"No. I'm saying the friendship will always be tainted, is all". He offered me his hand. "I still prefer it to nothing at all, though"

I took his hand, and we shook. "Yeah. Me too"

Sandra

It was late afternoon. We'd all managed to get some sleep, and now the three of us - Greg, Grim Jim and me - were sitting in my living room, drinking coffee and eating ham sandwiches.

"They seem to make a habit of bursting in to save the day", Grim Jim told me reflectively. "That's twice now. Once with you, and once with me".

The blood slave had woken up with no idea of where she was or what she'd been doing. At least, that's what she claimed, and Jim had believed her. He has an Edge that lets him pick up on lies.

"Besides, it makes sense", he'd pointed out. "She was basically a guided missile. Go in, kill Howard Kelper, get out. If she'd remembered what she'd done afterwards, she might have turned herself in. So he programmed her to forget"

"Why not just program her to kill herself?"

He'd shrugged. "We don't know how strong their mind control is. Maybe overcoming something as basic as the survival instinct is too difficult"

The girl's name was Alice Turner, and she was an assistant at the local library. Probably the rot had picked her out at random - just another human pawn. Grim Jim fed her a story about a group of teenagers who were slipping hallucinogenics to people to laugh at their reactions - the latest variation of happy-slapping. It was a feeble enough explanation, but she seized on it gratefully. For a moment, I'd wished we had Baron's ability to mess with her mind, but firmly repressed the thought.

We'd have to keep an eye on her, both to make sure there were no ill-effects and to protect her if the rot targeted her again. Greg had watched her for most of the day - he wasn't much of a fighter, but Graham was guarding Howard at the hospital, and Jim and I were both too exhausted after an entire night awake. She seemed to be coping, so he'd come back here for a Council of War.

Greg nodded in response to Jim's comment. "Like I said, they aren't all evil. These two really seem to want to help"

"Even if that's true, I get the impression that they're at the bottom of the totem pole. And the ones above them aren't nearly so friendly". Okay, it was getting harder for me to ignore the evidence that Tyrell and Baron really were - sort of - on our side, but I wasn't ready to extend a hand of friendship to the bloodsucking undead, either.

Greg lifted his hand, tacitly conceding the point. "At least we know the other one probably hasn't killed your friend. Which means we have a chance to get her back".

My fingers tightened around the coffee cup. The heat of it scorched them. "Thanks. I'm hoping that, too. Jim, did you find out anything about the dig?"

He waved his hand, dismissive. "It's in the cellar of an old building that was bought up to be a local branch of River Island. They found the tombs when the workmen broke into the cellar, and the National Trust were called in. River Island wasn't too pleased about having their schedule disrupted at first, but someone smart in their middle management figured that "come see the lost tomb of King Arthur" would get more people into the shop that "come be this month's fashion victim", so they gave the Trust permission to study the place and restore it in exchange for being allowed to charge admission afterwards. The National Trust wasn't very happy about that, but they finally caved in. I think Howard may have had something to do with getting them to agree - you know he's involved with the local branch?". I nodded. That was how he'd pulled the strings to get Claire assigned to the dig team. It didn't seem such a favour to her now.

"No sign of a bad-guy vampire pulling the strings - unless he's on the board of River Island". Jim's expression made it clear what he thought of that idea.

"But our bad-guy vampire must be interested in the place, so presumably he goes there. After dark. We could set up a watch on it", Greg suggested

Jim shook his head in an emphatic No. "The rots are bound to have the same idea. We don't know what we'd be walking into the middle of".

"So what can we do?" I asked.

Jim picked up an envelope from the sofa beside him and tossed it at me. "Legwork"

I opened it up. "CDs?"

"Footage from the CCTV cameras in the street outside the place they're renovating. I just got the stuff recorded from sunset onwards. We look through the recordings for the rot who attacked Howard. We may get a line on him from them"

"What about Howard?"

"As gross as it is, that glass of rot's blood seems to have been a real pick-me-up. Graham called from the hospital about an hour ago. They're discharging him today. Graham's driving him out of town - they're going to stay with Graham's sister in London for a bit. Hopefully that'll put him out of harm's way. We're getting him out of the hospital before the sun sets, just in case".

I nodded. It seemed as good a plan as any. "Won't the rots have blood slaves watching, though?"

"I assume so, but Graham can spot them. He should be able to get Howard clear. We're sticking to the story that Baron fed him, for the moment - everything he remembers is a hallucination caused by smoke inhalation. Graham told him that Claire's out of town but she'll be back in a couple of days, and that the cottage was set alight by teenage arsonists. Fortunately the poor bloke still seems a bit confused and out of it. Maybe he really did get a bit too much smoke, or maybe it's a side-effect of the rot mind-whammy. Anyhow, he'll be safer with Graham in London than he would be in the hospital"

Greg and I both nodded. It wasn't exactly the Witness Protection Programme, but it was the best we could manage with the resources available.

"So". Grim Jim gestured towards the DVD player. "Shall we get started?"

***

"My God, that's it! That's him!". After three hours ploughing through the recordings, I'd almost been ready to give up hope, and then suddenly, there he was, climbing out of an expensive foreign sports car.

Greg hit the freeze-frame. "You're sure?"

"Dead sure". I grimaced. "Let's hope not literally. You don't forget someone who's pointed a gun in your face. That's him"

Jim studied the grainy image. "And best of all, we've got a clear shot of the license plate. Let's see...". He scribbled it down in his notebook and stood up. "You two keep searching. I'm going to phone this in". He pulled out his mobile as he walked out into the hall. Greg and I could hear him talking to someone, his voice low, as we started the playback again.

"Are we going to tell them?" Greg asked me.

"Tyrell and Baron? Maybe. Depends what Jim finds. If we can get Claire out ourselves, I'd feel happier about it"

"Me too". I looked at him in surprise, and he raised his eyebrows. "What? I'm more willing than you are to give them the benefit of the doubt, but that doesn't mean I don't have any doubt. Right now we have a tentative alliance because they think we're witches. I don't know how they'd do if they knew the truth, and I'm not in a big hurry to find out. You have to admit, though, that they could be useful if this comes to fighting rots. We break a lot more easily than they do"

He looked at his watch. "Sunset in less than two hours. By that time, Howard'll be well on his way to London. They'll be pissed when they wake up and find he's given them the slip". He pursed his lips. "I hope Baron and Tyrell don't get into trouble because of that"

***

Nick

Click, click, click went the Baroness' heels as she paced the polished wooden floor of her receiving room. She was outwardly calm, but she wasn't exactly making a secret of the fact that she was royally pissed.

"So", she said. "Let us just recap. Howard Kelper has disappeared. The ghoul who tried to kill him has likewise vanished. The policeman who helped you to stop her called in sick earlier today and has not been seen since. We now face no fewer than three serious potential Masquerade breaches - Kelper, the policeman, and that wretched girl whose disappearance started this. Additionally, there are two rogue Kindred on the loose somewhere in the area. We have no way to locate either the renegade Kindred or the missing kine. Is that a fair summary?"

I shot Daim a warning glance, mentally willing him to stay quiet. The Baroness wasn't asking for a critique of her analysis. "Yes, my lady"

"And how far", she asked, as if the question were purely academic, "should I go in blaming the two of you for this debacle?". I opened my mouth, but she raised a hand, cutting me off. "No, Mr. Baron. I'd like to hear what Mr. Tyrell has to say"

At least Daim didn't just blurt something out, like I was half-expecting. He took a second or two to marshal his thoughts before he spoke. "By ghouling Kelper, we made it possible for the hospital to discharge him. But he would have recovered within a couple of days even without us, and by doing it when we did, we got his story - something we might not have had the opportunity to do, otherwise. The rest, though - the two rogue Kindred, Claire'e kidnap, the arson attack on Kelper's cottage, the Kindred who attached him, the ghoul sent to finish him off and the policeman who witnessed it - those had nothing to do with us. We just discovered them, and stopped them in some cases. They would have happened anyway"

"So your argument", said the Baroness, silky menace dripping from every syllable, "is that your habit of blundering into things has proven accidentally beneficial?"

Not a very charitable way to put it, but Daim - a bit to my surprise - seemed to realize how far he could push things. He just nodded. "Yes, my lady"

"Hmmm". Click, click click again, as the Baroness paced back and forth, pondering. "And were you in my position, what would you suggest I do about you?"

"Order us to help get the situation straightened out, my lady"

She rewarded him with a wintery smile. "A generous offer, but I believe we can manage without your refreshingly original brand of assistance. In fact, I think we've already imposed a little too much on your good nature. You stopped off here on your journey to York. The time has come for you to resume it. I'm sure Mr. Baron will be happy to take you there in that splendidly well-equipped vehicle of his".

"It will be a pleasure, my lady", I told her.

"I'm so glad. While it may be true that your blundering about has proven accidentally useful, you represent a random factor which I'd prefer to remove from the equation. Now, I'm sure you're both anxious to be on your way. If you begin now, you'll have most of the night to travel in"

And get as far away from here as possible, her subtext said.

Shit, shit, shit. We were screwed. If we stuck around Glastonbury after this, she'd be within her rights to call a Blood Hunt on us. I suspected that she'd have already used us to vent her frustrations on, if she hadn't been worried about pissing off our respective sires. But that protection would only cover our asses for so far.

I also knew that Daim wouldn't just give up, not with the girl's life at stake. He was looking at the floor now, like he was bowing his head in defeat or shame. I suspected it had more to do with keeping that readable face of his out of sight, but the Baroness wasn't sparing him more than a glance as she gestured to her ghoul to escort us out.

The Baroness received visitors in an unpretentious office building on the outskirts of the town. My van was parked in the small car park, with Iain's Ferrari beside it. Iain was sitting in the driver's seat of the car, reading a paper. He looked up as we walked over.

"Still have your balls?"

"Just about", Daim said grimly. "How about you?"

"The Baroness wants me to stick around to deal with this mess. We've worked together before, and I'm far older and more experienced than any of her own ghouls. Plus, I'm her line to Marc de Brabant and his various contacts. You two had better get the hell out of Dodge before she changes her mind about your balls, though"

Daim was resentful, and it showed. Iain raised his hand. "Look, don't kill the messenger. If you want my honest opinion, you handled things pretty well, but the Baroness wants her own people on this from now on, and she doesn't want you getting in the way. I promise I'll let you know how it turns out, for whatever that's worth"

"Thanks", Daim muttered. He ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. "Look, I'm sorry this turned out the way it did. I didn't mean to cause you all this extra trouble"

Iain barked out a snort of laughter. "In eight hundred years, I've seen "trouble" that'd make your hair curl. Trust me; this isn't such a big deal on the grand scale. Go on, hit the road"

***

I took the wheel. Daim was silent as we drove, studying a map of the Glastonbury area by the light of the dashboard displays. Vampire eyes, adapted for darkness, don't need much in the way of illumination. Tony was riding in the back, getting some sleep. He'd take over from me as we got close to dawn.

"What are you thinking?"

He looked up from the map and tapped his ear. I shook my head. "Don't worry, there are no bugs in here. My sire had it upgraded with all sorts of countermeasures when he got it for me, and anyway, I've had Tony drive it around at random with minimal pit stops since we came back from Cambridge. I was more worried about the mages than the Baroness when I did that, but there's be almost no chance for anyone to plant anything. Besides, if they could hear everything we were saying, I don't think they'd be bothering to follow us".

I was expecting him to act surprised, but he took it in his stride. "I didn't think they were. I've been looking in the mirror and I didn't see anything"

"They're using three cars, taking it in turns. And not always behind us, either. Sometimes they're pulling out ahead of us. I guess they're checking to see there's still two of us in the cab"

"Sod it". Daim frowned. "Do you think they're tapping my mobile?"

"Where'd you get it?"

"From Iain"

"Then yeah, I'd say the odds are better than even"

"Mmmm". Daim switched the phone off and set the map down. "I'm planning on going back"

"Well, duh. The question is, how do you plan on doing it, with the Baroness sending goons to chase us all the way out of town?"

"I can think of a way, but it'll take some pretty precise timing. And it'll need help from the mages"

"'kay, go on"

Daim tapped the map. "There's a motorway services up ahead that we'll hit about an hour before dawn. It's the most logical place for us to switch drivers. Tony can get out, have breakfast, stretch his legs and take a leak. Then the two of us get into the back of the van - watched by our tail - and Tony drives off, carrying our sleeping bodies. Or that's what it'll look like"

"You figure you can get out without them noticing?"

Daim nodded. "I can shift shape"

I whistled, impressed. "I thought that only elders could pull that off, even amongst the Gangrel"

Daim shrugged. "Mostly true, as far as I know. Eirik, my sire, said our particular line of Gangrel were unusually skilled at it, though, and he gave me a pretty intensive crash course in it when we were wandering around Norway. It's a survival skill up there"

I wondered if he was consciously aware of why he hadn't told me any of this before. As I'd tried to tell him last night, we're still Kindred. We instinctively dislike revealing our weaknesses - or our strengths - to a rival predator. I had a feeling that Daim had some major issues with that - with being a predator, that is. Not that I'm exactly cool with it myself, but I'm a zoologist. I'm trained to size things up in terms of predator/prey relationships.

I thought about pointing it out, but decided against it. I'd started the ball rolling with my little talk the night before - better to let him think it over than push it too hard, too soon. But I figured he was going to need some help to make the adjustment, and I was okay with offering it.

"So you plan on turning into a bat?" I asked him, getting back on topic.

"Yup. Small, black, hard to spot in the darkness. We get in, I shift shape, and Tony gets out, looking like he's alone but actually carrying me in a coat or a lunch box or something. Then I sneak away and hide in the earth for a day, and the mages pick me up tomorrow night"

Good plan, with only one tiny flaw. "That means I really will be headed for York. You won't have any backup apart from the mages, and whatever Kindred issues we might have, I'd still say we can trust each other a hell of a lot more than we can trust any of them"

"Tell me about it. But unless you can do shapeshifting, or invisibility...", I shook my head grimly, and he continued, "... then we don't have a lot of choice. Look, they can't keep watching you forever. They'll probably turn back once you're well on the way to York. But I don't think we can afford to wait"

Me neither. Didn't mean I had it, though.

***

Greg

We'd eventually decided to share what we'd found with the rots, only to hit an unexpected snag. Tyrell's phone was off. Sandra was still muttering darkly about that when she went off to do her night shift at the hospital. She obviously had a serious problem with their kind, and I couldn't figure out if it was a grudge from something that'd happened in the past, or just a general distrust of corpses that don't stay still. I wished she'd tone it down a bit, though. Baron seemed cool, but it was pissing Tyrell off without achieving anything.

Jim had tracked the license registration with surprising ease. The car was a registered company vehicle for a chain of funeral parlours with a head office in Glasgow. That fit with "Braveheart" having a Scottish accent, although they didn't have any branches locally. At Jim's suggestion, I'd put a couple of posts on Hunter-Net. There was a guy there going by the handle "Accountant37", who'd come up trumps for them in the past, and Jim figured he might be able to uncover any links that the funeral chain might have in the immediate area.

Jim decided to call it a night at about four. I wasn't feeling all that sleepy - I'm kind of a nocturnal creature, unless I have early-morning lectures - so I volunteered to stay up and man the phone in case the rots got back in touch.

The call finally came about five. I snatched the phone up before the second ring was finished.

"Hallo?"

The voice wasn't familiar, but it was male, and sounded young. "I'm trying to reach Sandra Dee"

"Sorry, not here right now. You calling for Nick Baron?"

A pause, then "Sort of. Got a message for her from Damian Tyrell. He needs a lift into town tomorrow night"

"Where from?"

The voice gave the address of a motorway services place that I vaguely recognized. It was several hours' drive away, and I wondered what the hell they were doing there. "OK, we can do that. When?"

"Right after sunset"

So where would the rot be staying during the day, I wondered silently. I knew better than to ask aloud. "I'll be there"

"Thanks". There was a click and the line went dead.

***

Sandra and Jim hadn't liked the idea of my going to meet Tyrell alone.

"It could be a trap", Sandra said predictably.

"So it makes sense that our least effective fighter goes. Bluntly, I'm more expendable". I winced inwardly. That sounded too much like a line from a bad spy movie. "But I don't think it is. Why would they have saved both your lives, if they'd wanted us dead?"

"Interrogation?"

"They think we're witches who can turn them into frogs with a few well-chosen words. They may haf vays of making us talk, but would they want to?"

Sandra wasn't convinced, and nor was Jim. I wasn't 100% sure myself, but I was willing to chance it.

Apparently I was right to take the risk. Tyrell appeared out of the trees bordering the car park as soon as he saw me get out of the car. We nodded greetings to each other, and were on our way again within ten minutes - and that included the time it took me to take a leak. Tyrell kept looking around as though he was nervous about being seen, but after the services place disappeared from the rear-view mirror, he started to relax.

"Thanks for the lift. Nice car"

It was. A present from my parents. Normally in Cambridge I drive my beat-up old banger out of principle, because I scraped together the money to buy that myself, but occasionally a powerful, well-maintained sports car is useful on the Hunt. "You're welcome, but why are we having to do this?"

"Long story. The short version is that after you got Kelper out of her reach, the head vampire had a hissy fit and threw us out of town. She sent some of her people to tail us and make sure we left. Nick's leading them off in his van. I managed to slip away just before dawn this morning, but I was stranded here"

"How did you avoid the sun all day?"

Tyrell shrugged. "I have a trick for that"

Need-to-know, his tone implied. OK, it would have been nice to know, for future reference, but I didn't actually need to. I switched topics. "How do vampires feel about funeral homes?"

"Pretty indifferent on the whole. Why, don't tell me that mages believe that crap about us sleeping in coffins?"

"Nope. It's just that Braveheart's car is registered to a chain of them"

"You traced his car? Interesting, but I don't have anything to add. We like secure long-term investments, and it's a pretty safe bet that people'll keep dying, so it makes sense for one of us to have money in a company like that. That's all I can tell you"

"We haven't found any local links to the company, but we're still looking"

"I'll be happy to help. I'm pretty good at analysis and putting pieces together. I'm an archaeologist"

"I know. Cards on the table, we did some checking into your background, and Baron's"

He just nodded, unoffended. "I know, you broke into my flat in Cambridge, remember?"

"Didn't find anything, though"

"Apart from Night Nurse 3?"

He was grinning. A normal, guy-humor sort of grin, the kind that almost made me forget what he was. Unlike Sandra, I didn't see how it hurt to grin back. "Apart from that, yeah. It didn't look as if you'd been there for a while"

"I hadn't. I've spent most of the past few years in Norway - but if you've been checking me out, you probably guessed that. We'll be on the road a few hours. Want to ask me anything to pass the time?"

The offer took me by surprise. "You saying you'll answer?"

"Maybe"

"Why?"

"Because the questions themselves will tell me something about what you know already", Tyrell said bluntly. "And I've some curiosity of my own. We'd each get to learn something. Quid pro quo"

"Fair enough. OK, as your starter for ten, who made you into a vampire"

"That's a bit of an obvious one, isn't it? His name's Eirik Haraldsson. He's a Norwegian poet and singer"

"Eirik" had been the guy in the bar fight, in that Hunter-Net post that Sandra and Jim had showed me. Interesting. It sounded as if Tyrell was willing to tell the truth, up to a point. But still... "Poet? Singer?".

Tyrell laughed. "His word is skald. It's Old Norse. And so is he"

"How old?"

"Eleven, twelve hundred years or thereabouts"

The shock went through me. Eleven or twelve centuries? I sucked in a breath. How much had he seen, how much had he done, in all those centuries? A second, unwelcome thought followed - how many had he killed?

I glanced at Tyrell, who was looking at me with something close to sympathy. "I know. It's almost impossible to imagine, isn't it? I reacted the same way when he told me"

"Why'd he pick you?"

"I got in the middle of a fight between him and another vampire. She drained too much of my blood for him to save me any other way than..." he tailed off. "Than this"

"Why should he want to save you at all, though?"

"Honor. I'd helped him. He pays his debts"

"He gave you a choice?"

"Yes, he did. I chose to be a vampire". Tyrell's face grew distant as he remembered. "I was lying on the ground, dying, and I just felt totally, utterly furious. I'd just discovered that vampires existed, that the supernatural was real, and I wasn't going to get a chance to learn anything about it. It was a real Kevin and Perry moment - "it's so unfair!". Plus, curiosity aside, I've always been a survivor. There are limits to the price I'm willing to pay for survival, in case you were wondering, but giving up food and sunlight was inside those limits. Just about"

"What isn't, then?"

"Letting Claire die when I could have done something to save her"

I frowned. "Back in Cambridge, you said they'd just do a cut-and-paste job on her memories"

"Back in Cambridge, I didn't realize that the vampire who kidnapped her is so careless about admitting what we are. That changes things. Before, I thought she'd just believe she was abducted by some weirdo. Now, they'll assume she knows too much to risk her remembering, if the alteration of her memories ever fails".

"They being the other local vampires?"

"That's right".

I digested that. So he really was willing to turn against his own kind for the sake of a stranger he barely knew. Logic said he had to be feeding me a line of crap, but all my instincts said that he was on the level. Still... "Just how far are you willing to go, against your own kind?"

He hesitated, shrugged. "Truthfully? I won't know until it comes to making the choice"

"Fair enough. Mind if I ask you a personal question?"

He actually laughed at that. "It hasn't been personal up 'till now?"

"OK, then, a question that might piss you off. A Sandra question"

The mirth faded from his face. "How many people have I murdered?"

"I was going to ask if you'd ever killed anybody, actually"

"Same thing, just phrased a bit more prettily". He sighed. "One"

I waited for him to continue, but he didn't. He didn't seem pissed, though, so I risked going further. "Mind telling me about it?"

He sighed a second time, more deeply. "Any way I told you would sound like I was trying to make excuses"

"Does that mean you're sorry that you did it?"

"That's a complicated question". Tyrell didn't sound regretful, or ashamed. A bit wistful, maybe, but mostly thoughtful. "Killing him broke something inside me that I'd have preferred not to break. In that sense, I'm sorry I did it. But I can't look you in the eye and tell you I regretted his death. The truth is, the sick bastard had it coming, and I'm very glad he's gone"

"Sounds like he was pretty bad"

A snort. "You want the details? Fine. He was a pimp. I walked in on him when he was punishing one of his working girls by raping her daughter - who was about eleven or twelve at the time. I lost control and ripped him to pieces. By the time I got a grip on myself, the body wasn't even recognizable - just ripped up bits of flesh and bone lying in massive pools of blood. I looked like I was covered from head to toe in red paint. My clothes were a complete write-off".

He paused deliberately for a second, letting that sink in. I could feel those intense green eyes boring into me. "Pity Sandra isn't in the car right now. What I just told you would be enough to make her feel totally vindicated about me, wouldn't it?"

To be honest, I didn't know what to think. If I'd walked in on a scene like that, I might have killed the guy myself. Okay, maybe not so bloodily, but dead is dead.

"What did you do to the girl and her mother?". That, I thought, was the big question. That was what would make Tyrell a true monster, not the fact he killed their abuser.

"A friend of Eirik's re-wrote their memories and set them up with new lives someplace else in Scandinavia. It wasn't a completely happy ending - neither of them remembers consciously, but the girl still wakes up from the nightmares of what I did to Otto, as well as what Otto did to her. But at least they have a chance to start over. I'll give you their names and address if you want to check that I'm not bullshitting you"

"Funnily enough, I think I believe you, but it sounds almost too good to be true. Like you were the rescuing hero"

He shook his head. "Told you it'd sound like I was making excuses. No. I'm not kidding myself that a murderer gets to label himself a hero, and you shouldn't either. I think - I hope - that I did more good than harm to the pair of them, even when you factor in the nightmares.. But that's as far as I'd push it. At worst, though, I've done more good in the world in my thirty-odd years than Otto managed in his ninety-plus"

"Ninety? I thought you were talking about a human!"

"I am. He was a ghoul - that's why Eirik and I were tracking him. Physically he looked about thirty-five"

"Oh". I decided to take a gamble and admit my ignorance. It might draw him out more. "Sorry. I'm new to all this. Sandra and the others haven't really brought me up to speed on your kind"

Tyrell leaned back in his seat. "Well, if your kind are anything like ours, they may not know much more than you do. It's not like our two - breeds - socialise much..."

Now that was valuable information, even if it just confirmed something that we'd suspected.

"... but you do know what a ghouls is, though, right?"

"Pretty much. Human servant you make with your blood?". I felt safe taking it that far, after Sandra told me how they'd healed Kelper.

"In a nutshell. Well, they get accelerated healing and suspended aging out of the deal. Like Otto"

"Got it", Sod it. Didn't sound like he was going to go out of his way to share any big secrets. We hadn't known about the blood slaves not aging - or at least, I hadn't - but I didn't see how that'd be much help on the Hunt.

I crossed into the fast lane to overtake a slow-moving lorry, then back into the left-hand lane again. "Will you tell me how you got involved in the first place? With all this?"

"Accident. I really did come to Glastonbury for the festival. I'd never been when I was still breathing. I met Claire and I was planning to feed from her"

My grip tightened around the steering wheel. Tyrell saw it. "Sorry, but I'm a vampire, and vampires need to feed. Deal with it. I wasn't going to hurt her, just siphon off a pint or two. Her body would have replenished it within a couple of days. Anyway, I met Nick, and Sandra - who was as drunk as a skunk, totally different from the way she usually comes across - and they all went off together. Nick was suspicious about the cause of death they gave for Claire - OD - because he had managed to feed from her, and hadn't tasted anything dodgy in her blood. I'd liked her, and I was curious, so I agreed to help him look into it. That's more or less where your group came into the picture"

"You were planning to treat Claire as fast food". For some reason, even though intellectually I'd know what Tyrell was, his matter-of-fact admission was freaking me.

"Yes, I was. But that's not all she meant to me. When was the last time you put your arse on the line to protect a bucket of KFC?"

I took a breath. OK, he had a point there.

"Talking of fast food", Tyrell added, "about ten miles ahead of us, there's a field, with a fast-flowing stream running under a road bridge, and a whole load of sleeping cattle. I saw it when we were driving the other way. Can you pull over there?"

"You mean you can feed from animals as well?". I hoped like hell that the question didn't give me away, but I'd already admitted my relative ignorance. Luckily Tyrell seemed to take it in stride.

"It's less nourishing, but it's possible. And there are enough cattle that I'll be able to refill the tank completely. I'm only about a quarter-full at the moment, and I'm getting hungry"

"Anything to keep myself off the menu"

He grimaced. "Are you joking? If I tried that, Sandra'd have my balls. Without needing magic, probably"

I didn't disillusion him about what Sandra could do. "Point"

We didn't speak much more until I pulled up in a lay-by, beside a cattle-gate leading to a large, open field. Tyrell got out of the car and pulled several items from the inside pocket of his jacket. I blinked a bit when I saw what they were - soap, travelling toothbrush and toothpaste.

Quite unselfconsciously, the rot began to strip. I was taken aback. "What the hell are you doing?"

He looked at me as if I were a fool. "Open field? Mud, cowpats? Not to mention the possibility of blood dribbling or spraying onto my clothes". He shucked his boxers. Naked, he grabbed the toiletries. He had a very hairy chest, but the way the light from the streetlamps glistened on it was subtly wrong - as if it were an animal pelt that just happened to be the same colour as Tyrell's own hair. "I'll feed from the cows, wash up and clean my teeth in the stream, and walk up it to that bridge...", he gestured to the low stone bridge across the road, that bisected the stream a little further back from us, "...to avoid getting mucky again. I'll be as quick as I can"

His eyes seemed to ignite, their whites turning a baleful, glowing red. His canine teeth extended. He opened his mouth slightly to stop them from cutting into his lower lip, and turned away. The street lights reflected momentarily off his bloodlessly pale, muscular butt.

"Ill-met by moon-light, fair Titania", I muttered. He overheard me, glanced back, and flashed me a quick grin. With his fangs extended and his eyes demonically ablaze, the expression made him look even more inhuman.

I locked the car and wandered along to the bridge to wait for him. I had a lot to think about.

Finding out that he was a killer wasn't a surprise. It was interesting that the victim hadn't been that woman on the cruise ship in Norway, the one that the guy on Hunter-Nut had posted about. I wondered whether to ask him about that. It would reveal that we knew about it - but he seemed in a talkative mood, and I might as well take advantage of it while it lasted. Once Sandra started in on him with her snarky remarks, he'd probably clam up again.

Supposing we managed to rescue Claire, what happened then? Did we just let Tyrell go, along with Baron? My own group consists of a couple of Redeemers, including me, a Defender and an Innocent. It's not that we're buddy-buddy with the monsters - we've ashed a couple of rots when there didn't seem like any other choice - but we prefer non-violent solutions. Most of our work up 'till now has been about helping spirits get some kind of closure and move on. Sandra's bunch seemed a lot more militant. She and Graham were both Defenders, and I had Jim tagged as a Judge. He seemed the more rational type, the kind that wants the case proved before passing sentence. Police background, I supposed. But I had a feeling they wouldn't be willing to let the rots just walk away. So what then? Tyrell had already admitted an especially brutal slaying, albeit under extreme provocation. If the others tried to put him down, he could do the same to them in self-defence. And if he did - could I really blame him? If what he'd told us were true, he basically seemed to be a nice guy who was going out of his way to help a virtual stranger, at some risk to himself. Ditto Baron.

I caught a glimpse of Tyrell moving amongst the sleeping cattle, and leaned on the bridge, trying to keep track of him and he knelt beside each one in turn, lowering his head to drink.

Still, from the way he'd been talking, maybe the other rots would put them down before Sandra's group got a chance to. If that happened, Tyrell and Baron might even turn to us for help, still thinking we were witches who owed them a favour. If that happened, could I bring myself to betray them?

Killing him broke something inside me that I'd have preferred not to break. That's what Tyrell had said. I was beginning to see what he'd meant.

There was a splash of water. Tyrell had dived into the stream and was soaping himself up. The water must have been freezing, but he didn't act like it bothered him. My mind turned from moral dilemmas to more practical matters, hoping I still had the towel I used for swimming in the back of the car. I really didn't want him getting the upholstery wet. The sheer pettiness of that worry suddenly hit me and I started to laugh. Tyrell heard the sound - damn, his hearing must have been sharp, to pick it up at that distance - and turned his head in my direction. I caught the crimson glimmer from his eyes.

He took his time cleaning up and brushing his teeth, then splashed briskly towards me. He had a pretty impressive physique - not a weight-lifter's build, but his stocky frame was solidly muscled, without any spare fat. He looked as if he could take care of himself physically. Again, it struck me that the reddish hair that covered much of his body looked somehow unnatural, like short fur.

He reached out a hand for me to help him up as he reached the bridge. The flesh was warm - not human body temperature, but definitely warmer than a rot should be, especially after bathing in a freezing stream. It must have been the recent feeding, I supposed. He wasn't very graceful as he scrambled up, but he was quick and sure-footed.

"Thanks". I'd subconsciously expected him to sound out of breath, but of course he didn't. "Any chance you've got a towel, or something I can use to get dry? I'd prefer to do it now, while the warmth from the feeding lasts". So, I'd been right.

My old beach towel was a bit threadbare, but at least it was in the car. Tyrell dried off quickly and briskly, saving his shoulder-length hair until last.

"Lack of natural body heat is a pain in the ass sometimes", he commented as he dressed. "It's the little stuff that makes it hit you, sometimes. How much you've changed, I mean".

I didn't need reminders of how much he'd changed. His eyes were still filled with that hellish glow. I didn't answer until we were back in the car and pulling out. "Is it - difficult to adjust to? Being what you are? Having changed so much?"

"Oh, yes", he said, very softly. "In the first weeks, the first thing I thought when I woke up every night was, tomorrow will be the dawn when I walk into the sun. Nothing I'd gained seemed to be worth what I'd lost. Sometimes I still feel that way"

"But not always?"

He sank back into his seat. He was staring out of the front windshield with those crimson eyes, but I don't think he was seeing what was in front of us. I could see his reflection in the glass. His expression softened, filling with something close to awe.

"Have you ever experienced something", he asked, his voice so quiet that it was almost a whisper, "That was so incredible, so amazing, that no matter what price you had to pay in horror, in terror, you couldn't choose not to experience it? That if you had a chance to go back in time, to change your own past and make a different choice, you couldn't bring yourself to take that chance?"

Not to the extent that Tyrell seemed to feel it, no, I hadn't. But... "Knowing what I do now", I answered him truthfully, "I couldn't go back to what I was"

He sighed. "But you get to experience it without giving up the sun. I envy you that"

We drove on for a while in silence. It felt somehow disrespectful to intrude on Tyrell's mood. Eventually he shook his head as if awakening from a dream, and the blood-red light in his eyes went out.

"What was that?"

"What was what?"

"Your eyes"

"Oh, that. Just enhanced night-vision. I was trying to avoid stepping on too many cowpats"

I snickered, and he raised his eyebrows. "What?"

"You made yourself look like something out of Hammer House of Horror", I wheezed, "to...avoid... stepping on... cowpats?"

"Yes. When you're a vampire, you do sometimes get these little this-never-happens-to-Christopher-Lee moments", he said, so absolutely deadpan that he had to be trying to make me lose it. He succeeded, but it was a pyrrhic victory, because he lost it himself and joined in.

I think that was the moment I made up my mind. The hell with what Sandra's group wanted. Someone who could laugh like this wasn't someone I could feel good about killing, rot or no rot.

It took a while before we stopped setting one another off. After that, there was more silence, but it was more companionable this time. I turned off the country roads and back onto the motorway.

"Nothing else to ask me?"

I made up my mind. "One more thing. When we checked you out, we found out that you'd been on a cruise ship when one of the passengers died. A woman"

"I was wondering how long it'd take you to get around to that", he said, sounding completely unsurprised.

Which surprised me. "Meaning?"

"Oh, come on. The one occasion when I was mixed up in the death of one of your kind? Of course you want to know about it"

Oops. She'd been a witch? That could be awkward if Tyrell wanted to know anything about her.

"Mind you, considering what she was like, I don't think you've any cause to complain", Tyrell added. "If anything, we did you a favour"

I recalled what Jim's printout had said about tied to hate groups and terrorists. "She wasn't exactly an upstanding member of the community", I said, trying to keep it as neutral as possible.

"Now there's an understatement"

"But you haven't said what happened to her"

"I suppose you could call it assisted suicide. She cast a spell to summon up some creature that looked like it was made of serrated blades of bone. It left some nasty scars on both of us - me and Eirik. Took us weeks to heal completely. Probably would have finished us off, except that she lost control of it and it decided to have her for lunch instead of us. Then it just...", a vague wave, "vanished. We bagged what was left of the body - it was neatly divided into manageable chunks at that point - stole some industrial cleaner and some mops from a janitor's closet to get rid of the worst of the blood, and left the ship the next time it docked. What was she to your lot, anyhow?"

"Unpopular". I was sticking to the keep-it-simple approach.

"Good. No hard feelings, then?"

"Not even when you flashed your arse at me. Actually, especially not when you flashed your arse at me"

"Hey! I didn't intend that as a come-on. I'm not that kind of girl. Although I have to admit, it hurt a bit to hear you say that. I thought you liked me"

"Awwwwww. I do. It's just that "dinner and a movie" has a slightly different meaning with you"

He smiled. "I just ate. Anyhow, what about you?"

I'd been expecting this, but I still hadn't figured out a way to deal with it. "What about me?"

"How did you become a mage?"

"How much do you know about us already?". I kept the question as casual as possible. I really hoped he'd take it as "What don't I need to explain?" rather than "How far can I get away with bullshitting you?". Fortunately, it seemed as if he did. I'd gotten used to deceiving people - a coke-head picks up a lot of tricks to hide his addiction - but Tyrell came across as so straightforward and honest that I almost felt embarrassed lying to him. But only almost. I still didn't want to know how he'd react if he knew what we really were.

"Pretty much nothing. I know the Tremere were on your side of the fence before they joined us, back in the middle ages - my sire was allied to one of the last of the mortal ones, hundreds of years ago - and I know the names of the Hermetic Houses his allies came from - Verditus, Bonisagus and Tremere. I know zilch about where your powers come from or how they work, or how you're set up now"

Thank God for that. I took careful mental note of the names he'd thrown out so casually. He obviously thought I'd be familiar with them. And there had been a group of witches back in the Middle Ages who'd become rots instead? I wished I could ask him about that without blowing my cover, but I couldn't.

The best way to bullshit him was probably to stick as closely to the truth as possible. It would mean less chance that I'd trip up and contradict my own lies. "I don't know where my powers come from. None of us do. I started off as a poor little rich kid who was taking the drug route to an early grave. Then I got kidnapped by one of your kind. I don't know why he did it, but I developed my abilities when he was putting me through enforced cold turkey. Felt like the world's worst acid trip. After I was clean, he let me go. I've been clean since"

"That's strange. Why would he do that? Save you?"

"You're putting yourself out for someone you barely know. Maybe he did too"

"Maybe. I have to admit, though, Kindred aren't too good at altruism. Maybe he deliberately set out to bring out your talent"

Considering what I really was, that didn't seem likely, but of course, I could hardly tell Tyrell that.

"Or maybe he was working for someone else... no, that doesn't add up. Why would a vampire higher-up care about saving you?"

I nodded. I could have put it more generally. Why would anyone else have cared about saving me? I'd had casual acquaintances, I'd had... well, "lovers" would be overstating it. "fuck buddies" would be more honest... but the only one at Cambridge who'd actually seemed to give a damn about my welfare had been...

An insane idea occurred. No, that was impossible. It couldn't be true. It... I became aware that Tyrell was looking at me, frowning.

"Sorry, I was thinking of something else. What did you say?"

"I asked how you'd hooked up with the other mages"

"I just met Sandra's group recently. But I met them the same way I met my own, through the internet. We have a way of using it to find others like us"

"Magical detection through the web?". Tyrell was fascinated. Too fascinated. "Some sort of trigger that trips when someone with the Gift comes online?"

"I don't know exactly how it works. Remember, I'm even newer at this than you are".

"Yeah, I know how it is. It's all "not in front of the children" with the higher-ups, isn't it?". Tyrell was looking around. "I don't think the Baroness will have a watch out for me in case I try to sneak back in, but it can't hurt to be cautious. I'd better be disguised"

"False beard?"

He laughed. "I can do better than that. Pull over onto the hard shoulder for a moment. Since I'm going to have to show you this trick anyhow, you might as well enjoy a good view"

Intrigued, I did as he said and pulled over. He scrambled over onto the back seat, and stretched out.

"Watch and learn". He winked at me.

Then he changed. His body seemed to melt and lose form, the lines shifting. Gray-white fur flowed out in a wave, swallowing up his clothing. His entire face and skull deformed, lengthening and flattening as his ears changed shape and slid up the sides of his face. His limbs slimmed down, his fingers retracting and fusing together, and the nails hardening into claws as the joints reversed their orientation. Only the eyes remained the same, brilliant green and filled with mischievous laughter.

My God. I'd never seen anything like it, but the legends really were true! He was turning into a wolf right in front of me!

The transformation completed, Tyrell - now a very handsome-looking wolf - curled himself up on the back seat, and winked at me. Then he yawned elaborately, and set his muzzle between his paws.

I gathered the presence of mind to quit gaping and wink back. Then I put the car in gear and pulled out.

Oh, boy. How the hell would the others react to this?

***

Sandra

I got back about three hours before dawn, having arranged to swap the remainder of my shift with one of the other Sisters. I told her I had a terrible migraine, which I had a nasty suspicion would be true before the night was over.

Grim Jim was awake, having cat-napped through the night while he waited for me. I'd only been in about twenty minutes when we heard Greg's car pull up in the driveway.

"Moment of truth", I muttered to Jim. He nodded, never one to waste words, and went to open the front door.

When Greg walked in, he had a dog with him. It was a beautiful creature - a husky, I thought - with gray-white fur and bright green eyes. The animal panted when he saw me, and his bushy tail thumped the carpet. Then he rolled over on his back and looked at me hopefully, his tongue lolling out.

I laughed and put my coffee down, kneeling beside the animal to rub his belly. "Hello, boy. And what's your name?"

The fur shifted and flowed away under my fingers, as the body reshaped itself into human form.

"Damian. Hello, Sandra"

Greg collapsed, howling with laughter. With a mighty effort, I stopped myself from leaping back in shock. I straightened up slowly as the sodding rot, grinning, picked himself up off the floor.

Grim Jim was even grimmer than usual, and glaring at Greg. Tyrell saw it and raised his hand.

"Oh, for crying out loud, lighten up, will you? I needed to disguise myself to sneak back here. Do you really think I would have risked revealing one of my powers to you if there hadn't been a bloody good reason, beyond playing a practical joke on Sandra?"

I pulled myself together and waved Jim down. "He's right, Jim. Let's at least hear what he has to say. And cut it out, you", I added, cuffing Greg's ear. "It wasn't that funny"

"It was from where I was standing", he wheezed, but at least he stopped laughing. Mostly.

Jim was looking between Greg and the rot, almost suspiciously. "I get the feeling that the two of you did a lot of talking on the way back here"

"You could say that". Tyrell shrugged. "Nothing especially relevant to Claire's disappearance, though"

"You mind telling me what you did talk about?"

"Not particularly". The rot didn't seem worried, but Greg was frowning. "What is this, an interrogation? For fuck's sake, it was just a joke!"

"And you've got to the point where you're comfortable enough around him to help him play a practical joke". Jim raised his hand to cut off Greg's protest. "Look, I'm not accusing you of sleeping with the enemy. But even if what you talked about didn't have to do with Claire, it'll be useful in letting us know how far we can trust him". He looked at Damian. "Suppose I told you I had a spell that works as a lie-detector. Would it worry you to tell me what you told Greg?"

Tyrell raised his auburn eyebrows. "No. But we've only a couple of hours until dawn, so if you want to do it, you'd better get on with it. What do you need to do?"

"Just touch you"

"As long as it's not... inappropriate touching". Greg grinned, but neither Jim nor I laughed. Tyrell sighed. "I get it. We are not amused. Go for it, then"

***

We did.

Tyrell was looking straight at me when he talked about tearing the pimp apart, as if he was challenging me. I kept my face carefully blank and didn't say anything. To be honest, I don't know what I should say. He'd killed a blood slave, which according to him was the same as killing a human being. The only trouble was, Hunters kill blood slaves, too, and maybe I'd accepted that too readily as a fact of my new life. Tyrell thought what he'd done was a big deal. Had it been a big enough deal for me, in the past? The question bothered me. The fact that a rot was the one making me ask myself the question bothered me even more.

He sat quietly for a moment after we got done, looking between the three of us. "Well? Now I'm a self-confessed killer, am I not an ally any more?"

We both looked at Jim. Quietly, he said, "You're still an ally"

The rot looked a little taken aback. "Okay". He stood up. Interestingly, I noticed that Jim didn't flinch back defensively, as I'd half-expected.

"I need to get to cover before dawn. Then we can talk about our next move. If we're lucky, Nick will be able to make it back in a night or two"

"Suppose Claire can't afford to wait that long?"

"If Braveheart hasn't already killed her, he isn't likely to"

"And if your Baroness finds them first?"

He looked a little worried. "That's a risk, but she can't function during the day, nor can the other local vampires. She's got servants who can function during the day and do legwork, but you can function by day as well, and you're mages. The odds are good we'll win the race"

I would have snapped at him that I'd like more reassurance than that, but with Jim's lie-detector Edge backing up his story, I finally had to accept that he would have preferred it, too. So I just said, "Let's hope, then"

For the second time in a couple of minutes, he seemed taken aback. "Yeah, let's hope"

***

We waited until the sun had risen before we started talking.

"So". I looked at Jim. "What did you get from him?"

"Not a single lie". Jim sounded almost mournful. "He really was telling the truth all along. It's enough to destroy my faith in inhuman nature. Some interesting images in his memory, too. That part when he was talking about how this "Eirik Haraldsson" arranged for him to come home? I got a very clear picture of Haraldsson, and he matches the Hunter-Net description perfectly. Short, covered in fine blonde fur that's almost the same colour as skin - you remember the Hunter-Net post said he needed a shave? - and with an odd echo in his voice. And I also saw this Baroness that he was talking about, and the meeting where she ran him and Baron out of town. So now we know what the local boss vampire looks like. That could be useful"

Greg looked between us. "That Edge can pick up memories?"

"Only recent ones, but yes"

"Cool. So he's in?"

"I'm willing to trust him, at this point".

I shrugged. "And if Jim is, I am"

"Great". Greg finished his coffee. "I was up all night, so if you don't mind, I'm hitting the sack"

"Sleep well"

We watched as he headed upstairs, and I turned back to Jim. "You were holding something back. I could tell"

"I wanted to discuss it privately. Look, your personal life is your own business, but was it really wise to get that drunk in front of a couple of rots? The night that Claire disappeared?"

A chill went down my spine. "I wasn't drunk"

He looked at me. "What happened? At Glastonbury festival?"

"I was there with Claire and Maria, another of the nurses from the hospital. Maria saw Baron and started chatting him up, while Claire went off to find a candyfloss stall. Claire was taking a while, so we wandered after her. She was talking to Tyrell. I checked him out with the Sight, saw he was a rot, and realized that Baron was another one. So I got Claire away from Tyrell, and then I got the two of them away from Baron. We drove home together. That's it. I was drinking coke the whole evening, because I was driving"

"So you remember being sober the whole time?"

"Of course"

Jim looked at me steadily. "Sandra... Tyrell quite clearly remembers you being as drunk as a skunk. And he remembers Baron saying that you and Maria went off in his van for a three-way, and that he, Baron, fed from both of you"

Anger and embarrassment sharpened my voice. "I don't do corpses. Baron was doing a bit of locker-room boasting"

"And you remember being cold sober at the festival, but Tyrell saw you there, drunk out of your head. And you can't blame locker-room boasting for that"

No, I couldn't. "Oh God. You're saying one of them got into my head while my defences were down?"

"It looks that way. I'm sorry"

"Oh my God..."