"Are you sure you want to do this?"
Of course I wasn't sure. I was dreading what I'd find out about what had really happened. But it didn't matter what I felt. We had to know. I just shrugged. "Claire's life might be at stake. Can you think of another way?"
Jim sighed and rubbed his forehead. "I'm sorry, but no. You want to make a start now?"
"Like I said, it's Claire's life. She's being hunted. We don't know how long we have"
"Okay". He sat down on the sofa and gestured for me to join him "Just lean back and relax. Start remembering Glastonbury from the moment you got out of the car and I'll try to shake the real memories loose from under the fake ones".
I tried to do as he said. Maria, Claire and I had got out of the car. As I'd locked the door and turned around to Claire, my eye had passed over the crowd without really taking them in, except to notice how muddy and grimy they all seemed.
"Wait. I felt something just then. Let's go back a few moments. You got out of the car..."
I took a deep breath and tried to concentrate. I'd got out of the car. I could hear music, amplified and slightly distorted by the massive speaker rigs. I'd smelled popcorn and hot dogs. I turned around to talk to Claire, and my eye passed over the crowd...
"Stop. Right there. Do you see him?"
It was disconcerting to realize that Jim was seeing through my mind's eye, reliving these memories along with me. It was even more disconcerting that he'd apparently seen something that I hadn't. "Who? Where?"
"Off to the left. Behind the middle-aged bloke in the Guns n' Roses T-shirt."
Oh, my God. Jim was right. It was Braveheart. He'd dressed to blend in with the crowd, in a Metallica shirt and dark jeans, but there was no mistaking him, especially considering the way he was staring at us. How the hell had I missed him before?
I must have said the last part aloud, because Jim grunted. "You didn't know him then. And if feels as though someone monkeyed around with your memory to edit him out".
That bothered me more that I'd thought it would. If you can't trust your own memories, how can you know the truth of anything?
"Go forward now", Jim instructed me. "You talked to Claire?"
"Asked her where she wanted to go first. There was some local band she wanted to check out, called themselves Vile Rumours or something equally daft. Maria and I didn't have anything in particular we were interested in, so we went with her. Then Claire saw a Candyfloss stall and decided she wanted some. Maria and I said we'd scope out where Rumours were playing and meet her in about a quarter of an hour. We met Baron by their stage, but they weren't due to play until eleven. Baron must have used some kind of mind trick on us both, because I remember thinking how cute he was, although it was Maria who really seemed dazzled by him. He sort of attached himself to us, or we attached ourselves to him, and...."
A stab of pain lanced though my skull without warning, and I gasped. Jim's hand gripped mine. "It's all right. That's the break point, where your memories were tampered with. Deep breaths. Take a break for a second and relax. Don't try to force it. You were going with Baron to meet Claire. What happened then?"
"Then..." My vision started to swim in and out of focus. The relentless pounding in my head was getting worse. "Then..."
In life, almost a century ago, his name had been Edgar Brunton. As Vicar of a pleasant rural parish on the outskirts of London, with a spacious Vicarage and a comfortable stipend, and a lovely wife to share them with, he should have had every reason for happiness.
Instead, he'd been bored to tears, and so was Alicia, his lovely wife. So they'd turned to crime, both the supplement their income and to spice up an existence they both found dull as ditchwater. Before too long, they were the centre of quite a formidable network of skulduggery. When masterminding burglaries and organizing prostitution and smuggling rings, in turn, lost its allure, they turned to even darker pursuits. Murder for hire was their new diversion, a variation of the Most Dangerous Game in which they competed with each other to devise ever more ingenious ways to commit perfect, undetectable homicides. They'd known, of course, that what they were doing made them a liability and a loose end to any of the wealthy patrons who paid them to make their rivals disappear, but the danger had only added spice to their existences. Until the day when, like all who gamble with the very highest stakes, they lost.
But the alleged "burglars" who beat them to death one fateful night didn't end their partnership or their careers. United in death as they had been in life, they defied the Empire of Stygia and its Dictum Mortum, learning the art of reaching out across the Shroud to possess the bodies of the living. A few years after their deaths, the man who had ordered their end himself perished at their ghostly hands. With that small piece of business taken care of, they swept across Britain and the Continent in a reign of terror which had lasted decades, possessing and sacrificing mortal after mortal in their insatiable quest for ever-more twisted "entertainment". They climbed mountains, travelled up the Amazon, leaped out of aeroplanes without parachutes, fought in the trenches of the First World War, played the Great Game of espionage against the Soviet Union, compared and contrasted every form of drug and intoxicant ever known... freed of the limitations of their own flesh, and with an endless supply of mortal victims whose flesh they could use instead, it seemed that nothing could ever stop them.
Then came the fall of Stygia and the great Ghost Storm. Truly terrified for the first time in a mortal lifetime, they had desperately sought any shelter they could find. And Alexander Dunsirn had offered them the sanctuary they needed... but at a price.
Still, Edgar thought, as he ran Sandra's hands over Sandra's fairly generous bosom, there were compensations. Their employer might lack style and subtlety, but he and Alicia usually managed to extract a measure of entertainment from the assorted "services" he demanded of them.
They'd seen Dunsirn's target a few minutes ago, a faintly insipid mortal girl that the vampire seemed totally infatuated with. Neither Edgar nor Alicia could remotely understand why, but regrettably, the bloodsucker held the whip hand in their relationship, and he'd shown in the past that he wasn't in the least afraid to wield that whip. So they didn't pass comment on this peculiar fixation he'd developed towards the brat.
When the three had split up and left Claire alone, it had seemed like a gift from Providence. Dunsirn had ordered the Brunton's to possess Claire's companions and keep them out of the way while he went to talk to Claire, but just as they'd been about to do precisely that, the two girls had met another vampire.
The low stream of viciously muttered obscenities had sounded almost amusing in Dunsirn's soft Scottish brogue, but Edgar had known better than to display his amusement openly. Eventually, Dunsirn had sent the Bruntons to possess the two girls anyway, with instructions to find at way to separate them, and their new undead friend, from Claire at some point during the evening.
That had proved easier than imagined. Edgar and his dear Alicia had merely to display a certain amount of... physical affection... towards Baron and each other, in their borrowed bodies, to make Claire uncomfortable enough to take her leave. Insipid, as Brunton had thought. Ludicrously prudish. No doubt Dunsirn had intercepted her the moment she'd been out of earshot - the vampire had been hovering in the background all evening like a love-sick puppy.
Baron, at least, was no prude. In fact, Edgar reflected with a connoisseur's appreciation, he was quite skilled about his work. He'd half-exhausted the body of Edgar's host (he took an idle moment to delve into her memories and discover her name, Sandra Dee), although a part of that could be put down to blood loss.
Mind you, Baron had proved boringly conventional in his are-you-sure-you-really-want-to-do-this questioning before he set about his task. A classic product of the emasculating political correctness of the American college system, Edgar thought contemptuously. He'd spent his mortal life married to a woman who would have thrust a stake knife through the heart of any suitor who had pressed his attentions on her against her will. He had no respect for any woman who lacked such strength, or any man who would indulge their weakness.
His dear Alicia was presently indulging Baron's sanguinary and other appetites, leaving Edgar free to deal with the other part of the evening's business. Claire Latimer had to die tonight. Or rather, a Claire Latimer had to die. One Claire Latimer... or another. Locating the "other" was Edgar's next task. Unfortunately, it was proving less diverting that he'd hoped. For the plan to work, the death of the substitute had to take place in secret. He couldn't simply break someone's neck in full view of a dozen witnesses and leave the host to deal with the inevitable murder charge
Really, it took all the fun out of things.
He stalked through the fields on the outskirts of the festival in the body of Sandra Dee, trying to spot a lively prospect who'd drifted from the main body of the herd. He despised the revellers. Wretched idiot mortal children, capering around. Brunton had no objection whatsoever to drunken debauchery, but it ought to be done as a violation of the staid social order, not as an act of mass conformism It ought to be done with style, and flair, and...
The ground squelched under his feet, and he contorted Sandra Dee's features into a grimace. And less mud Much less mud.
Intent on his own reflections, he practically stumbled over the girl's prostate form before he noticed she was there. She was lying on the ground, passed out, totally insensible, breathing shallowly. Her skin was clammy to the touch. Altogether an unprepossessing spectacle, but nonetheless a welcome one. He searched her prone body for her identification. Dunsirn would need that in case any awkward questions arose about her disappearance.
She was half-dead already, Edgar could see. Finishing the job wouldn't be difficult. Even better, she probably had enough exotic substances in her system that the true cause of death wasn't likely to be questioned. He just had to be careful not to leave any marks.
Casually, he slipped Sandra's jacket off, folding it carefully, and reached down to press it gently across the girl's face.
The Latimer girl was asleep in the back of Dunsirn's sports car when Edgar arrived to report his success.
"She won't wake until I tell her", Dunsirn told him briskly. "Have you found a substitute yet?"
"A drug addict, from the looks of her. The cause of death shouldn't be questioned"
"Good. Here, take these. Credit card, debit card, organ donor card... all the ID I could find on Claire that didn't include a photo of her. Plant them on the body, then wipe the host's memories and leave her. Report back to the Four-Leaf Clover when you're done here. Tell Alicia to do the same when that Kindred's finished snacking on her".
Edgar accepted them without comment. He resented Dunsirn's peremptory tone and manner, but painful experience cautioned him against mentioning it. He watched as the vampire got into the car and drove off without a backward glance.
I made it to the bathroom just in time.
Jim was waiting for me when I emerged from a long session of prayer to the God of Porcelain. I'm a nurse, and he's a copper. We're both trained to deal with people who are suffering from shock. But seeing what it does to someone else is a far cry from experiencing it yourself.
Jim did the right thing, though. Instead of offering words of comfort and sympathy, he held out a glass containing a very large whisky. At least a triple, if I'm any judge. I gulped down half of it in one go. It burned my throat as I drank it, but at least it helped to wash away the taste of bile.
"Thanks". I took a deep breath. It sounded hiccupy, as though I was sobbing. I took a couple more, fighting to keep myself under control.
"The Four-Leaf Clover. I know it. It's a big hotel and restaurant". Jim's tone was absolutely neutral. It didn't even acknowledge what had happened to me. Smart guy. Any display of support or affection right now would push me right over the edge, and I couldn't afford to lose it. Not yet, not with Claire's life hanging in the balance. "Just off the A37, a little way outside the town. Used to be a farm, but they were to small to survive, so some property developer from London bought it and turned it into the kind of hotel that makes a packet hosting executive conferences".
I was working so hard to concentrate on his words that I didn't really notice him guiding me back to the sofa until I'd sat down. I took another, more moderate sip of whisky and set the glass firmly down on the coffee table. "So we have a name for the rot - Alexander Dunsirn - and an idea of where he's based. After I've had a few hours sleep, we can drive out there and have a look around. It'll be better to do it during daylight when Dunsirn'll be sleeping.
Jim frowned. "Sandra, we both know you're in a state of shock. You're in no condition to be walking into a rot's lair, even in broad daylight. Leave it to me and Greg to do the initial look-see".
I cast a longing glance at the whiskey glass, but resisted the temptation to pick it up again. "Claire's life, Jim"
"You won't help her, or us, by falling to pieces at a critical moment. You have to give yourself a chance to recover from this".
"That filthy thing used me to murder someone. The only chance I have to "recover" is if I can send it back to hell" I realized I'd spoken more harshly than I'd intended, and reigned myself in. I couldn't have Jim thinking that I was lapsing into hysterics. "Look, I've worked late-shift A&E. I've assisted during surgery. I'm no stranger to dealing with shocks and unpleasantness. I'll admit that I'm horribly shaken up right now, but it's nothing I can't cope with once I've had a chance to get a few hours sleep". I could see that he wasn't convinced and raised a hand. "Just leave it until then, okay?"
He nodded, plainly unconvinced "Okay".
I supposed that was the best I could hope for.
I took a long gulp of coffee. I would have preferred something stronger, but I avoid alcohol these days. I'm not teetotal, but I've learned the hard way that I'm prone to getting hooked, so I'm careful with booze, especially when I have an easy excuse. Like most cokeheads and potheads, excuses and rationalizations are my stock-in-trade.
The coffee was strong enough to send me into orbit, though. Call it a compromise.
"It wasn't her fault".
"I think she knows that. Rationally". It was easy to see where Grim Jim got his nickname. Although I suppose he had an easy excuse, too
"How bad was it?"
"Bad enough, but as she said, she's a tough girl, and her job's made her pretty case-hardened. Hopefully she'll be able to handle things once she's had a bit of sleep. I watched her for a bit last night, and she seemed to be spark out - no tossing and turning from nightmares, at least".
I nodded. "You think Claire's at this place? The Four-Leaf Clover?"
"It's big enough. It started as a Tudor manor house, and it's been accumulating additions ever since, including a major renovation in the early eighties. Surprisingly enough, they managed that without ruining the look of the place. There have to be loads of places in the main building where you could hide someone, not to mention all the outbuildings. It'll be like looking for a needle in a haystack unless we can spot the rot and somehow wring some answers out of him".
"We know his car from the CCTV". I was trying to work out a plan. Not my strong suit - with my own group, my main talent is improvising when everything goes to hell. "So we can tell if he's there or not. And if it's parked there during the day, the chances are that he's got his own bolt-hole there. But how do we search the place?" I looked hopefully at Jim. "Could you arrange a Health and Safety inspection of the kitchens or something?"
"No, and even if I could, I wouldn't be involved in it"
A bright idea struck me. "Could I get a job there?"
"In a day or two? I doubt it". A suitably grim smile touched Jim's lips. "You go by the handle Burglar 17. Do you think you're up to it?"
"A bloody hotel? I've burgled private houses before, but this....". I shook my head. "It's out of my league, but there's someone in my group who's more experienced. He could probably clue me in about what to look for. Even he probably couldn't manage it in broad daylight, though. You aren't going to like this, but we'd probably be better to wait until after dark, when Damian's around to help. I know this Dunsirn character's more likely to be awake by then, but he's also more likely to have gone out"
Jim nodded. "I'd thought of that. I don't like it, but I agree. I was thinking that we could book a table at the restaurant later today so that you can case the joint"
"A copper helping me to case a joint. I never thought I'd see the day", I muttered, mind full of the practical problems involved. Jim snorted. "You never thought you'd see the day? Just one thing, though. When did "the rot" become "Damian"?"
He was good, I have to give him that. He managed to make the question sound like simple curiosity rather than an accusation. If he was hoping to shake me, though, he underestimated an ex-addict's ability to play it cool. "Probably on the drive back here. It was a pretty interesting conversation. Why?"
We locked eyes for a moment. Then he looked away, apparently willing to let it go. "Just curious"
Least said, soonest mended, I decided. Another thought struck me. "What about building plans? Don't they have to be on file somewhere?"
He nodded "Yes, and we'll have them by this evening. I've already had a word with someone we know. Of course, we can't expect to find a section labelled "secret vampire lair", but it might give us an idea of where to start looking".
Sandra woke up a couple of hours later. I could tell she was badly shaken up, but she was keeping it together. Her face was a frozen mask and she was confining herself to yes or no answers wherever possible. I could tell that Jim was worried about her, but he didn't try to stop her from coming with us, and he knew her a lot better than I did, so I took my cue from him.
I insisted on paying for the meal. Sandra and Jim protested until I told them how much my monthly allowance was. That shut them up pretty fast. One thing my parents have never failed to do for me is sign cheques.
We drove there in my sports car, too. As I pointed out, the Four-Leaf Clover was used to catering to a pretty exclusive clientele. The richer we seemed, the more likely we were to be accepted.
I could see why the place was favoured by executive conferences. Its broad, black-timbered red façade loomed over a beautiful expanse of lawn, filled with a riot of colourful flowerbeds and ancient trees casting their shade over well-polished benches. As we drove up the wide, sweeping driveway, I saw landscaped golf courses stretching out behind the house, fading away into a beautiful expanse of countryside.
There was a uniformed valet to take charge of the car. I tipped him a bit too much - if I was going to come back here, it wouldn't hurt to be remembered kindly - and let Jim lead the way into the restaurant. The foyer had a floor of polished red marble - red to match the outer façade, I assumed - and gleaming mahogany fittings. There was a notice up, advertising a conference being held by some outfit called the Tiranul Foundation - something about getting rid of landmines. I recognized the names of several of the keynote speakers - MPs and Serious Journalists ™
There was a little knot of people standing around in the foyer, sipping wine and talking. It almost looked like a works outing, except these people seemed - I don't know, sombre. As if they were afraid of having too much of a good time. Afraid - or guilty, perhaps. Beside me, Sandra made a faint exclamation of surprise - the most animated sound I'd heard from her all day.
"What the hell is he doing here?"
I looked at Jim, but he just shrugged, baffled. "Who?"
She nodded. "You see the blonde? The one nearest the flyer about the conference?"
I looked. He was a short guy, maybe 5'6" or 5'7", with pale skin and shoulder-length blonde hair. He was good-looking, with high cheekbones and a lithely muscular build, and there was a sort of aura about him, a sense of self-assurance. Not arrogance - it was more a sort of confidence that whatever life could throw at him, he'd seen worse. The only thing that slightly marred his poster-boy good looks were his ears, which were a little too large and stuck out slightly.
"His name's Randy Fitz. He's a bit like you in a way - from a rich family that didn't pay much attention to him. But he decided to do something more useful with his life than stockbroking. He works part-time as a nurse in a cancer hospice about ten miles from here The rest of the time, he spends on other charity work. He's weird, but I like him"
The little blonde guy turned around and spotted us. He gave Sandra a little smile and wave, said something to the people around him, and crossed to where we were standing.
"Hey, Sandra". He had an American accent, which explained the name. Having been around enough Americans thanks to all my parents' business connections, I was able to place it as Midwestern, probably from someplace nearer the south than the north.
"Randy". She accepted his handshake at once. Despite her badly shaken state, she managed a smile for him. "What brings you here?"
"I know a few of the folks at the Tiranul Foundation shindig, so I figured I'd come see them, and treat some of the guys from the hospice to a day out and a good meal at the same time", he said cheerfully. "How about you?"
"I'd heard about the place and I thought I'd try it out. Oh, sorry. This is Greg, and this is Jim. Friends of mine"
He offered his hand. "Hi, I'm Randy", he said, and grinned. "And yeah, I know exactly what that sounds like to you Brits. Don't worry about staging a coughing fit to hide the grin"
I laughed, and shook hands. "I can think of about a dozen jokes, but I'm sure you've heard them all before"
"I shouldn't think so", he said, wide-eyed in his innocence "The guys at the hospice are always really careful not to make jokes about my name"
Sandra snorted. "Sure. So, how have you been keeping?"
"Pretty good" The smile faded a little "The usual losses, of course, but you get used to that working at a hospice. You?"
"Like you, pretty much. Lost a friend recently - Claire Latimer. You remember her?"
Was it just me, or did something spark in Randy's eyes when she mentioned that name? If so, there was no clue in his voice. "I think I met her once or twice. I'm sorry to hear she's gone. I thought you were looking shaken up"
She nodded grimly. "It was a shock"
"You've got my number if you need to talk", he said gently. There was something about him that made the offer more than just a conventional courtesy That assured aura I'd picked up on from the moment I'd seen him was calming and soothing. It was almost like talking to a priest.
It seemed to be having its effect on Sandra, too. Some of the lines of strain eased from her face "Thanks"
He let the silence go on long enough not to seem abrupt, but not so long that it became uncomfortable. Credit where it's due, he was good. "Well, I hope you enjoy the meal. Try any of the beef dishes, they're great. And the pastries in the desert course are out of this world". He nodded to Jim and I. "Nice to have met you guys. Catch you both later"
He removed himself gracefully and headed back to the group he'd been with.
"Interesting guy", I commented to Sandra. She nodded "Yes, he really is. He's a terrific nurse, too. Not only is he great on the emotional support side - as you probably just saw - but he handles the nastiest incidents involving bodily fluids without turning a hair, or losing his smile. You have to admire what he's chosen to do with his life, when you consider the idle luxury that his family's millions might have bought him".
"You know him from this hospice place?".
"Yes. We refer terminal patients there sometimes. I know the resident priest, and he says it's a crying shame that Randy never thought of a religious vocation. For my money, though, he does more good as a nurse"
We walked towards the restaurant, which was half-deserted at this time of day. That meant we didn't have to wait for a table, and it also meant that we didn't have to worry about anyone sitting too close to us, which was a blessing, because we could talk relatively freely. Jim wasn't slow to take advantage of that - he leaned in close to me practically before I'd got the menu open
"What do you think?", he asked, low-voiced. I held the menu up so that it just covered my lips. Probably I was being stupidly paranoid, but it would be just my luck if one of our fellow diners could read lips.
"I didn't get a chance to look for Dunsirn's car when the valet took mine, but I noticed at least a dozen alarm wires discreetly placed around the windows and it looks as though the CCTV cameras cover most of the approaches to the front It would be nice to imagine they've left the rear of the place exposed, but I wouldn't count on it. The place is a hotel, so by its very nature they can't lock it down too tightly, but I'm not going to be able to just break in and wander around at will. I think we'll need Damian's help to make a proper search. I do have one idea, though"
"Like I said, it's a hotel. I can afford to book in for a few days. And that'll give me all the excuse I need to wander around the grounds and the public areas. Damian can probably handle the rest. I wonder if he can do mist and bats as well as wolves?"
Sandra and Jim exchanged glances. "That would leave you on your own here with just a rot for backup", Sandra said grimly. Her eyes were still shadowed, but she seemed to be starting to work past the shock she'd had, and function again. "The two of us ought to book in as well".
I could afford that. I try to spend as little of my allowance as possible on principle, although I couldn't really say what the principle was. Proving to myself that I'm not as obsessed with wealth as my parents, maybe? In any case, it meant that I have quite a nice little nest-egg accumulated. I could see a problem, though. "Three of us would be too obvious. Anyway, Dunsirn's seen Sandra. Unless he's paranoid enough to spend his nights checking the daytime security recordings, he's not going to know she's been here during the day, but if she's here once the sun sets, they might run into each other. We don't want to spook him until we can find out where he's stashed Claire".
I left unvoiced my other objection, which was that working with Damian would probably be a lot easier if I were on my own. I knew that argument would go down like a lead balloon.
There was another exchange of glances. "All right, not Sandra, then", Jim conceded. "But you shouldn't be alone here - and the rot doesn't count as having company, even if he really is on the side of the angels. If you book in, I book in. No arguments".
I suppressed a sigh. Great. Damian aside, trying to do a bit of discreet wandering around was going to be tricky enough without a copper clumping along behind me in his hobnailed boots, but I could see I didn't have a hope in hell of talking him out of it. "All right. Since the staff saw us arrive here together, there's not a lot of point paying separately. I'll stick it all on my credit card"
"I can afford...."
"Stuff that. Trust me, the money wouldn't have been put to a better use. At least being a poor little rich kid is finally turning out to be good for something"
Jim nodded after a moment's hesitation. To be honest, I wasn't completely upset to have someone else around, just in case things went to hell.
"Sandra, if we can get rooms, you can take my car and go back to collect the rot", Jim said. "Tell him what we've found, call my mobile and fix up a place where we can meet. And at the same time you can check my hunter email account and see if the building plans have come through". He pulled out his notebook, scribbled down the details, and tore off the page to hand to her. "If they have, you can print them off and bring them with you".
I half-expected her to protest, but she nodded. "Okay".
Since that was apparently settled, I turned my attention back to the menu. If I was going to have a busy night, I might as well do it on a full stomach, and Randy had recommended the beef.
I was expecting the rot to knock, and he did. But he knocked on the living room door, not the front door. I'd grabbed the poker from the fireplace and I was all set to bring it down on his skull before I realized it was him.
He held up his hand placatingly. "Calm down. I'm sorry I didn't ring the doorbell, but like I said, the local head vampire officially kicked me out, and she might just be having this place watched. I needed to sneak in. Have you made any progress?"
"We think we know where Claire's being held. It's a hotel called the Four-Leaf Clover, outside of town". I thought I'd done a pretty good job of keeping my voice steady, but the rot's eyes narrowed, and he frowned, looking almost concerned.
"What's happened to you? You sound shell-shocked"
"No, you're not". It was a flat, matter-of-fact statement. "Something bad happened today. Is it about Claire?"
"No... yes..." What the hell was I doing? I did not want to share this with a damned bloodsucker. But my mouth seemed to be on autopilot. "How do you cope with knowing you've killed someone?"
Emotions chased themselves across his absurdly readable face. Shock, surprise, curiosity, and finally contemplative reflection. "If you don't want to become a monster, you don't exactly cope with it. You just accept that you can't change it and you move past it. Who did you kill?"
Something about the stark simplicity of the question broke through my resolve, and I told him. About Brunton, the possession, the ghost using my hands and my coat to choke the girl to death, all of it. I was crying by the end of it, and I kept on crying for some time after. The rot didn't say anything, or try to stop my tears. He just sat there, watching me, with an infuriatingly kind expression. I wished I could kick it in. What business did he have, feeling sorry for me? He was a self-confessed killer.
Just like me
The treacherous whisper from the back of my own mind set me off on a fresh round of crying. I closed my eyes and sank back into the sofa, finally allowing myself the release that I'd been holding back all day. I don't know how long it lasted, but as it finally wound down, I heard a faint clatter of cups, and Tyrell emerged from the kitchen, Bearing a tray with a steaming pot of coffee, a jug of milk, the sugar-bowl, and a bottle of brandy. He set the whole lot down on the coffee table in front of me. Then he finally spoke.
"Not your fault"
I wiped away the tears and blew my nose. I should have felt embarrassed that he'd seen me vulnerable I should have felt worried that I'd taken my attention off him for so long that he'd had time to make coffee. I should have felt a lot of things, but all I could feel was tired. So very tired. I poured out the coffee, but hesitated over the brandy. He raised his hand. "I'll drive"
Sod it. Why the hell not? He'd probably be safer behind the wheel than I would, anyway, in my current state. I finished the coffee with a splash of brandy and took a sip. Then what he'd said sank in. "So you're saying you'll help?"
"To check out this hotel? Not a problem. I agree with you, it looks like the most likely place for Claire to be. Are these the plans of it?" He pointed to the sheaf of papers lying next to the tray on the coffee table.
I flushed. I'd printed those out from Jim's email earlier, but I'd completely forgotten about them until now. At my nod, he picked them up and began leafing through them.
"We think Dunsirn's lair is somewhere in the hotel. We haven't figured out how he's keeping Claire there without anyone noticing".
"If he's used mind control on her, she could just be staying in one of the suites under an assumed name", he replied absently, still going through the plans.
"I thought the idea was that he loved her?"
"Maybe he's told himself that he's doing it for her own good. My kind are pretty good at rationalizations like that". He flipped a page over, hesitated, frowned, and went back.
"Tell you in a moment" He shuffled the papers, looking through several other pages before returning to the one which had originally attracted his interest, and then gave a grunt of satisfaction. "That seems the most likely prospect". He handed me the page he was looking at.
I read it. "Locker rooms and pump house for the pool?" There was a heated swimming pool behind the house, off to the right-hand side, adjacent to the golf course. The building that Tyrell was pointing to was a single-story structure, long and low, in a basic oblong shape. The locker rooms took up about seventy percent of it, with the pumping mechanisms in a separate section next to them. The building ran parallel to the pool - the long side of the pool next to the long side of the building. Both entrances - locker room and pump house - faced the pool.
"Forget the locker rooms. Look at this". Tyrell pointed. "The pump mechanisms are above ground, so why was all this area excavated underneath when they were building it?"
"The label says it's for storage"
"A storage space covering a larger area than the building above it?"
"So that's his lair?"
"It has all the requirements. The plumbing for the pool means that it'd be easy to put in all the needed facilities without anyone the wiser..."
"I thought your kind didn't..."
"We don't, but we still shower. And sometimes we have live-in servants or even dates back for the evening. Also, look at this." He picked up another piece of paper "At the same time the pool house was added, in the 1970s, the cellars of the main house were extended in the direction of the pool"
"A connecting tunnel?"
"It would be easy enough to do. That would give Dunsirn an underground haven, completely safe from the sun, with two exits, and a secret, secure way to get into and out of the hotel"
I took a deep breath and another gulp of coffee. The crying jag had eased a lot of the tension inside me, and Tyrell's matter-of-fact tone was helping to keep me calm. "Do you think that's where he's keeping Claire, then?"
"Assuming that he's got living quarters suitable for a mortal down there, then yes, I think that's most likely. What's really bugging me is the question of what kind of security he's got set up. I'd expect armoured doors with electronic locks at the very least, considering the amount of money he's got to throw around. I don't know if you've got any tricks that could get us past those. I certainly don't"
"We can cross that bridge when we come to it. First thing is to find out if you're right"
He nodded. "Okay. We'll have to take your car. Mine was a... company one. I lost access to it when the local head vampire kicked Nick and I out".
"Fine". I fished the keys out of my handbag and tossed them across to him. "Ready to go?"
He caught them one-handed. "Yup"
Sandra's theory - well, Damian's theory, really - seemed to make a lot of sense. As soon as I got off the phone with her, I wandered along to Jim's door, two down the corridor from mine, and knocked.
He was unpacking the small suitcase he'd popped home to fetch. I just had the bag I'd brought from Glastonbury, and all the stuff in there was jeans and T-shirts. Luckily I'd managed to get hold of a shirt and tie for my first visit to the restaurant this afternoon, so I'd been able to get an evening meal without breaking their precious dress code.
He nodded as I went through the points that Tyrell had made. "Not bad. OK, so we head down to the pool in, what, half an hour?"
"Sandra called from the car, so yeah, that'll give her and Damian a chance to get here. And there shouldn't be anyone using the pool this late".
Me and my big mouth.
"What the hell is he doing here?" Jim muttered, as we spotted the lone figure doing laps of the pool. Randy Fitz swam with a steady, even stroke, not varying his route or pace. The methodical, repetitive movements made me think that we were looking at an exercise regimen, rather than a simple diversion.
We hastily ducked out of sight behind the pool house.
"Stuff it", I muttered. "We can't break in with him there. We'll just have to wait 'till he leaves. He can't stay out here all night"
Jim grunted. "You'd better text Sandra and let her know. Make sure you've got your ringer turned off"
"Or maybe you should just turn the phone off"
A chill went down my spine at the sound of the soft, Scottish voice. I peered into the darkness, unable at first to see the source, and then a slim, dark-haired figure emerged from the darkness behind the pool house. He was dressed, a bit stereotypically I thought, entirely in black - T-shirt, jeans and trainers - but really caught my eye was the silenced handgun he was pointing at us.
"Let's just stay nice and quiet, shall we?, he said, low-voiced. "If we draw any attention from your friend in the pool, I'll have to kill him, too, and I'm sure you wouldn't want that"
"Alexander Dunsirn, I presume?"
He took an involuntary step back, and his eyes widened. "How the hell do you know that?"
"Shoot us, and you'll never find out".
"I wouldn't be too sure of that if I were you. I'm quite good at persuading ghosts to cooperate".
"But then our friends might just tell your boss that you tried to double-cross him over Claire's murder", Jim said, in what I assumed was his "bad cop" voice. The threat hit home; the rot's dark eyes widened, and his slim features twisted into a momentary expression of alarm before he got control of himself.
"You really want to risk that?"
The rot glowered. "Not when I have an alternative". He lifted the hand that wasn't holding the gun and made a rapid, complex series of gestures. "Edgar, Alicia. Take these two as hosts. I want to know what they've found out, and how"
Instinctively, I reached inside myself and threw the mental switch which the Messengers had added to my make-up, the fail-safe that makes me immune to attempts to control my mind. The rot looked at me expectantly, waiting. I gave him the stare right back, letting the moment stretch. Then, suddenly, the vampire's lips drew back in a snarl.
"What do you mean, you can't?"
"I wasn't talking to you. Shut up". He stared at the air next to my head as if looking at something I couldn't see. The snarl gradually faded into an expression of anger and frustration. "All right, we'll do it the hard way". He gestured with the gun. "Move. Quietly"
I looked at Jim, who nodded grimly. We turned and started to walk up the slope towards the hotel.
"Hey there! Hello again!"
Damn, damn, damn. There was no mistaking that Midwestern-accented voice. I turned around to see Randy Fitz, his wet hair plastered to his head and neck and a white terrycloth robe belted at his waist. He was walking across the grass towards us, barefoot, waving cheerfully, with a friendly grin on his face.
"Too bad for him", Dunsirn muttered coldly. He took a step away from us, levelling the gun at Randy Fitz. The nurse stopped dead, his eyes widening. "What the hell?"
Time seemed to slow down. One part of my mind couldn't believe that the rot was about to shoot Randy Fitz in cold blood. Another part was frantically trying to work out if I could reach him in time to knock the gun aside. Beside me, Jim started to lunge forward...
A white streak blurred past my vision, as a large wolf hurtled past me and sprang. Its jaws clamped down around Dunsirn's wrist and yanked, dragging the gun down.
Tyrell. I started to take a pace forward, intending to help, but Jim grabbed my arm. "Are you crazy? Dunsirn could still fire that thing. Tyrell may be bullet-proof, but you aren't. Leave the rots to fight and help me get that bloody Yank out of the firing line".
Unfortunately, the bloody Yank in question seemed to have other ideas. He ran forward, straight towards the struggling pair. It looked like he was planning to follow my original idea and try to get Dunsirn's gun. Jim cursed. "Get the hell out of the way. I'm going to try to save that idiot". He plunged towards the fray, just as Fitz reached the two rots. Dunsirn grabbed the front of the terrycloth robe and threw him almost casually away. Fitz flew back a good six feet and landed on his back on the grass with a groan.
His expression vicious, Dunsirn lifted his arm, with Tyrell in his wolf-shape still hanging from it, and swung the gun towards the prone American.
Tyrell released his grip and dropped to the ground. Even as he fell, his body was changing shape, flowing back into human form. Free of the encumbrance, Dunsirn took aim at Fitz, only to be thrown off-balance as Jim cannoned into him. Snarling, Dunsirn swept his free hand around in a savage gesture which caught the copper in the ribs with the force of a sledgehammer. Jim staggered back with a cry of pain. I dived forward, catching him to stop him from falling.
Tyrell straightened up. His fingertips had grown into long, wicked looking claws, which he used to slash at Dunsirn's gun-arm. Dunsirn threw himself back, rolled, and came up firing. Two bullets caught Tyrell in the chest and he snarled, his canine fangs sliding out as he lunged towards the other rot.
"Oh my god, he's been shot!" That was Randy Fitz again. His not very helpful commentary was followed by an even less helpful "What the...?" as he caught sight of Tyrell's fangs.
Dunsirn, still on the ground, brought the pistol around again, but Tyrell's had reached him now. His claws swept down menacingly. One hand came to rest against the Scottish vampire's Adam's apple; the other, I noticed with grim amusement, pressed gently against his crotch.
"Sorry to be clichéd with the threats", Tyrell said, very gently, retracting his fangs. "But go ahead, make my day"
Dunsirn looked murderous, but his trigger finger relaxed. He looked around, saw me, and offered me the gun.
I made sure that Jim could stand unassisted before I edged forward and took it. I'm not good around guns, but Jim was in no state to take charge of it, and Sandra... I looked around. Where the hell was Sandra?
"Jesus!". Randy Fitz was looking at Tyrell as if he'd seen a ghost, which, I supposed, was close enough. "Those bullet wounds - the fangs - you turned into a freakin' wolf". He sat down on the grass as if his legs could no longer support him. "You're a vampire!"
"Are you crazy? There's no such things as vampires!". I did my best to make it sound convincing. Randy Fitz laughed shakily. "Right. So if I take your buddy's pulse, I'll get a normal heartbeat, right?"
"Look, it was a very confused situation..."
"I saw a wolf turn into a human being. I wasn't confused enough to make a mistake about that". Randy was looking between us, quietly determined. "So you can quit trying to bullshit me. It won't work"
"Looks like you have a major Masquerade breach on your hands, Gangrel", Dunsirn said mockingly.
"Only if they talk. And maybe I'll be able to persuade them not to". Tyrell pressed his claws a little harder against Dunsirn's throat.
"So, what happens now?"
"Now we talk about saving Claire Latimer's life. That was what this was all about, right?"
Some of the aggression drained from the Dunsirn's face, replaced by calculation. "Say it was. What were you planning to do about it?"
"Help you save her"
That took Dunsirn by surprise. Or else he was a very good actor. "What?"
The valet service didn't run this late at night, so I'd had to park the car while Tyrell went to meet Greg and Jim There were two pay and display machines, one right beside where I'd parked the car, and the other all the way across the car park. Guess which one was out of order?
So I was feeling pretty pissed off as I headed towards the pool house. That in itself was something - a sign that the shock I'd had was starting to fade and I was functioning at something close to normal capacity.
The sight that greeted my eyes as I walked down the gentle slope leading to the pool house didn't exactly improve my mood. There was the rot from the hospital, Dunsirn, lying flat on the grass. There was Tyrell, with claws out and pressed against Dunsirn's throat and balls. There was Jim, clutching at his side and obviously in a lot of pain. There was Greg, holding a gun as if it were a live snake. And there was Randy Fitz, in a grass-stained white bathrobe, with a demanding-answers expression on his face.
It took me a second to find my voice. "What the hell just happened?"
Randy glanced over at me. "Took the words right out of my mouth"
"I have a feeling", muttered Tyrell ruefully, "that this is going to be a very difficult conversation..."