"Okay", Randy said. He was speaking very slowly, as if talking to a dangerous lunatic who needed careful handling. "Let me get this straight. Alex and Damian, here, are both vampires. Alex kidnapped Claire to save her from another vampire, who's his boss. Damian met Claire and decided to be her knight errant and save her when she vanished. You three", he looked between Greg, Jim and I, "are all wizards, only not like the ones in Lord of the Rings?"
We'd had to stick to the wizard story in front of Randy, since Tyrell had been there. Oddly enough, he'd had a harder time accepting that than the vampire part. Or maybe it wasn't odd. He'd seen Tyrell change from a wolf to a human - or something that looked like a human. Our Edges couldn't do anything that spectacular even to the monsters, and we'd learned the hard way that they were mostly imperceptible to normal humans.
"Pretty much, yeah", Tyrell said. He seemed almost cheerful.
"That's so cool. Can you really turn people into frogs?"
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. This was getting us nowhere. And I wasn't in the mood for light-hearted banter. Intellectually, I knew it was probably helping to stop Randy from freaking out completely, but what had happened to me still burned in my mind, and the rot who'd caused it was sitting just a few feet away. I couldn't look at him. I wanted to burn his evil, undead carcass away one inch at a time, and we needed him to lead us to Claire. "Getting back to the point?"
"Getting back to the point, if Alex here is serious about getting Claire away from his boss, he needs to give her to us", Jim said, wincing slightly at the pain from his ribs as he shifted in his chair.
We were in Randy's hotel room. We'd needed a place to talk while we strapped up Jim's ribs, and we'd been afraid that Randy would go crazy if we didn't get him somewhere and get him calmed down. Randy's room had seemed the logical place. Randy had had some medical supplies in his suitcase - said he never left home without them - so he was able to strap up Jim's ribs while we answered his questions. There didn't seem a lot of point in holding back on him. He'd seen Tyrell's little shape-shifting trick, and there was no way we were going to talk our way out of that. Honesty wasn't so much the best policy as the only one we had.
"And why the hell should I trust you with her?", Dunsirn growled.
"Because as far as being able to protect her, yourself goes, your options are pretty limited. The Baroness is hunting you right now. Your only protection from her is your boss, and if he finds out you disobeyed him about Claire, he'll probably be hunting you as well. If it really hits the fan, you'll be lucky if you can protect yourself, let alone Claire. You can't afford to have someone find her hidden in your haven". Tyrell was in ticking-things-off-his-fingers mode again. I made a brief mental note that the local head vampire was known as "the Baroness", and steeled myself to look at Dunsirn to see his reaction.
He was sulky-looking and reluctant. "Where are you planning to take her?"
"Not your concern", Jim said harshly.
Dunsirn snarled, showing a flash of ivory fang. "Fuck you. I love her. I'm not giving her up"
Greg raised his hand. "Cut it out, both of you. It's Claire's choice, not either of yours. And she's not going to be able to make a decision either way if she's dead". He looked at Dunsirn. "After she's safe, we can talk to her, and she can decide if she wants to see you again. That's the best offer you're going to get. We already know where she is. We can probably get to her without your help, anyway. You can just make it easier or more difficult.
Dunsirn looked like he was biting back a lot of choice remarks, or maybe swallowing bile, but he nodded reluctantly after thinking about it for a few moments. "Okay. I'll take you to her".
"Good. So why exactly does your boss want her dead, anyway?", Tyrell asked.
Dunsirn hesitated, but then just shrugged. "Ah, screw it, what does it matter? She did a translation for him. There was a medieval book in the tomb that was written in some kind of cipher. She managed to crack the code using a computer program of some sort. He didn't want anyone else finding out what it said - or even that the book existed, for that matter. So he told me to kill her as soon as the decrypt was finished"
"You said a medieval book?". Randy asked, puzzled. "What the heck's in a medieval book that could matter enough to kill for right now? Map to some kind of buried treasure?"
Dunsirn's laugh was harsh and mocking. "Instructions for getting at something that was buried, Yank, you're right about that"
"If we're getting Claire, let's get her", I broke in. Randy seemed to be on the point of asking more questions, and I was tired of waiting for something else to go wrong. It seemed like forever since she'd disappeared, and I wanted her back.
Everyone turned to look at me, and there was a chorus of nods, except for Dunsirn, who still looked sulky, like a rebellious adolescent. But he offered no protest as we all trooped out.
We must have made an odd-looking group as we all headed out of the lobby towards the pool. Greg had given Dunsirn's gun to Tyrell, which wasn't a choice I would have made, but he'd caught my look after he did it and just shrugged. "Out of all of us, he's the one who can put up the most fight if Dunsirn tries to get it back".
Which I hadn't had an answer too, but that didn't mean I had to feel comfortable with it.
Dunsirn opened the outer door to the pump house with a conventional key. Once inside, he led us past the machinery to a heavy metal door which he opened with an electronic swipe card, revealing a steep spiral staircase of bare metal descending through a claustrophobically narrow stairwell. This was an unexpected complication. We'd have to go single file.
"I'll go first", Randy said. "Dunsirn can come behind me, and Damian can be behind him. Damian, I hate to be a sore loser here, but if I walk into any hidden traps, gut the bastard for me, will you?"
"Depend on it", Tyrell said grimly. Dunsirn gave a sneer which I'm pretty sure he picked up from watching gangster movies, but he didn't say anything.
"Randy, hang on a minute. This isn't your responsibility...", Jim began. Randy cut him off. "Oh, quit being dumb. If he's got any kind of Indiana Jones style traps set up, I can duck a lot faster than you can with busted ribs, but he's still going to be more worried about a bunch of vampire hunters standing behind him than he is a cancer nurse. This is the best way to make sure he doesn't try anything funny".
He headed down the stairs before Jim had a chance to protest. Tyrell flexed his fingers, and those wicked-looking claws emerged again. He gestured at Dunsirn. "After you"
With little alternative, we all followed in their wake. I made sure I was right behind Tyrell, so I had a clear view when we reached the bottom. There was another door with a swipe-care reader there. Unfortunately, the space in front of it was so cramped that there was barely room for Dunsirn to squeeze in behind Randy. Tyrell and the rest of us were still stuck on the metal staircase.
Dunsirn took out his swipe card and ran it through the reader.. As he did, there was a sudden sharp drop in temperature in the stairwell. I could tell it wasn't natural, simply because of the speed with which a thin coating of ice formed on the metal.
"Tyrell!" I yelled as the metal door slid open. He was ahead of me, stepping forward and bringing his claws towards Dunsirn's throat.
"Hold it! What was that about?"
Dunsirn swung around. His expression, as he took in all of us standing on the stairwell, was shocked.
Tyrell touched his claws to Dunsirn's throat. "Why the surprised look? What were you expecting to happen? And why did it suddenly get so cold?"
Dunsirn got his expression under control. "I don't know why it got cold. It was nothing to do with me". There was something in his voice - an undercurrent of surprise and frustration, maybe - which gave me an odd feeling that he was telling the truth.
We stood for an instant in a sort of frozen tableau. It was Randy who broke it. His Midwestern drawn came as an unexpected shock in the charged atmosphere. "Everybody okay?"
We all spent more nervous seconds checking each other out, but it quickly became apparent that everyone was, in fact, okay.
"Okay, then, shall we go in? If that was some kind of funny business, I figure something must have gone wrong with it". Randy seemed oddly immune to the atmosphere. In fact, now I came to think about it, he'd seemed totally unfazed by this whole situation, once he'd got past his initial shock. Perhaps it was that weird, priest-like air of serenity he had, like a Holy Innocent of some kind, but it was almost as if I were the novice here, not him.
The most shocking thing that lay beyond the door was that there wasn't anything shocking beyond the door. I don't know what I was expecting, but pine bookshelves, a big-screen TV, and a lounge suite in cream leather wasn't it. I wasn't expecting the smell of roasting coffee, either, but it hit us full-on the moment we stepped through. I almost sagged with relief. I knew that smell of old. Nobody works coffee magic like Claire does.
And then I heard her voice.
"Alex? What took you so long?" She stepped through an archway, beyond which I could see a compact kitchen area. She was alive. Alive and well, and completely lucid.
Something in me snapped, and I charged. Laughing, crying, I hugged her as hard as I could, spinning her around. I saw Alex Dunsirn looking annoyed, while Greg, Jim and Tyrell had that embarrassed, guy-at-a-hen-party look. Randy didn't. He looked tranquil, although there was a happy little smile tugging at the corners of his mouth..
"What the...". Claire sounded stunned. "Sandra, what the hell are you doing here? What's happening? Who are all these people?"
"In strict order of asking", Randy said. (He did sound amused, damn him), "She's here to rescue you, we're trying to find a way to save your life that doesn't involve your vampire boyfriend murdering your uncle, and these people are a policeman, a burglar, a cancer nurse - that's little moi - and another vampire. Hello, by the way"
Dunsirn shot Randy a murderous look. Randy gave him an innocent little "who, me" look back. I made a mental note about giving him a talk on dealing with the undead (lesson one, don't piss them off unless you're already pointing a flamethrower at them), but at that moment I was just too damned relieved to have got Claire back in one piece to be seriously annoyed. Claire, however, picked up on the reference to Howard immediately. She wriggled free from my hug and turned on Dunsirn.
"Alex, what the hell is he saying? Murder Howard?"
Dunsirn didn't look guilty, but he did look defensive. And angry, though not at Claire. "Claire, I had a choice, his life or yours. I chose yours. I'd make the same choice again. I'm sorry, but I had to keep you sa..."
"You tried to murder Howard". Claire doesn't shout. Her voice gets this low, vicious intensity about it when she really loses it. "Murder Howard. When were you planning to tell me? Or weren't you? Were you always going to let me think it was an accident... oh, god", she broke off, turning a stricken gaze on me. "Please tell me he isn't..."
Damn it. I shook my head frantically. "No, no, he's fine. Got a little bit of smoke inhalation when his cottage burned down..."
"Cottage. Burned. Down", Claire said tonelessly. "I've been visiting that cottage since I was a kid. I loved that cottage"
"It's not worth your life, Claire...", Dunsirn started, but Claire cut him off.
"Shut the fuck up!". She crossed to him in several quick, violent strides, and drew back her arm to punch him. Tyrell hastily moved over to her and grabbed her arm. "Whoa! Trust me, very bad idea. Vampires can sort of... go nuts a little..."
"Stuff it, Gangrel. I've got more control than that. And take your hands off her", Dunsirn said, in a low, dangerous voice. Tyrell hesitated for a second, and then released Claire. The thwack and crunch of her fist striking Dunsirn's nose echoed through the room a second later.
I was thinking, oh shit oh shit oh shit, and poised to try to grab her and yank her away from Dunsirn, when I noticed he wasn't losing it. He just looked at her, frustrated and bitter.
"I'm sorry", he said simply.
She didn't answer, just turned away from him, trembling, barely in control of herself. I knew how she felt. I'd been feeling much the same way myself.
"Maybe", Randy said mildly, "we should all sit down and talk. And I'll make some coffee, for those of us who can drink it". He looked between Claire and I. "With some brandy in it, if there's any around"
"Cabinet over there", Dunsirn said mechanically, his eyes on Claire. She refused to turn to look at him.
"I met Alex about six months ago", Claire said, sipping her brandy-laced coffee. "He said he was Dr. Matthews' nephew - Dr. Matthews is one of the sponsors of the excavation. We started talking, then the occasional date. We started to get serious about each other, but he never seemed to be around much". She hadn't looked at Dunsirn for about ten minutes. In fact, she seemed to be going out of her way to talk about him as though he wasn't there. I could tell the betrayal still had her seething, but that wasn't as reassuring as it should have been. If it was affecting her this badly, she must have a serious thing for him, no matter how furious she was. "I never guessed, though, until I woke up here the night of the festival. It just seemed so incredible, so fantastic. I swear I had no idea what he was planning to do".
"Dammit, Claire! I'm sorry, I really am sorry, but I had no choice! It was him or you! Will you look at me?"
She looked, but the look wasn't a pleasant one. "If you really think "I did it for you" is enough for me to forgive you for trying to murder my uncle, I wonder if I ever really knew you at all"
Dunsirn made a sound half-way between a snarl and a sob. "You don't understand the danger you're in. You think he wouldn't have sacrificed himself for you, if you'd asked him?"
"I never would ask him! And I certainly wouldn't have... have..."
Her fingers clenched around the coffee mug. Randy sighed. "What's done is done. Maybe you'll be able to forgive him for it, maybe you won't. But one thing's for damned sure, if his boss kills him, you'll never get a chance to decide. I don't want to come over as an insensitive asshole here, but we still need to decide what we're gonna do about keeping you safe"
Greg, Jim and I exchanged glances. "Randy, there is no "we". You got into this by accident. You don't understand what you're dealing with. These are vampires we're talking about. You haven't seen what they can do, you don't understand how dangerous they are, and you don't have any way of protecting yourself against them. The three of us have powers that at least go some way towards evening the odds, but you've got nothing. You'll get yourself killed"
Randy stood up and turned away. I couldn't see his expression. Several seconds passed before he replied.
"I've got a right to make my own decisions, Sandra. I'm not a child. You've done the decent thing and warned me; fine. I accept the risks. You're not responsible if I don't make it; it's my own choice. But I'm not backing off, and you can't make me. Deal with it"
I was going to protest some more, but I caught Jim's slight shake of the head. I mouthed "what?" at him, incredulously.
"He's right, Sandra. He's not a child, and if he's not going to back away from this voluntarily, there's not much we can do to force him".
I wanted to argue, but I was just too damned tired. "Fine. Your damned funeral"
"Maybe not". Randy turned around, his face a mask that I couldn't read. "But getting back to my question?"
Tyrell spoke up. "I've got an idea. What about York?"
Randy looked at him, puzzled. "What about it?"
"The... uh... head vampire there is expecting me, but he's never seen my face. So we could do a switch. Dunsirn here could go up there with Claire and pretend to be me. It might throw his boss off the scent when he disappears"
"But where does that leave you?"
Tyrell grimaced. "Up shit creek without a paddle, probably. I suppose I'll just have to go running back to my sire with my tail between my legs. Hopefully he'll understand. Weird as it sounds, he does believe in protecting innocent people from supernatural threats, and he really doesn't like cowardice. I'm pretty sure he'll sympathise with my motives, even if he thinks I've been a complete dickhead".
Claire set her coffee mug down hard. "You think I'm going anywhere with Alex, after everything that's happened?"
"I guess", Randy said mildly, "that depends on whether you're pissed enough with him that you're willing to throw your life away just to make a point". There was a thread of steel in his voice that I didn't expect. Claire heard it too. Her eyes widened.
"Not alone, though", Jim said, before Claire could reply.
Randy looked at him. "You figure on going with her?"
"Someone should, but Graham's already away. It'll be tricky for me to get the time off. Sandra, maybe you could...?"
I shook my head. "Not a chance. Sorry"
"It's okay, I'll go", Greg said. "Randy, you said you wanted to part of this, want to come along?"
Randy frowned. "I guess", he said uncertainly.
"You don't sound very certain". I realized that had come out more harshly than I'd intended, and held up my hand. "I mean, if you want to back out, that's absolutely fine"
"No way. I just figure that here's where the action is, not York. But I guess I can always head back here once Claire's settled in. You have a pad in York lined up?", he added to Tyrell, who nodded.
"Yeah, my sire arranged it"
"Cool. Guess it's settled, then. You give Alex here all the maps and phone numbers and shit, and we can get started tomorrow morning"
Dunsirn shot him an irritable look. "I'm a vampire, Fitz. We have a little problem with sunlight, remember?"
"Hey, not an issue. I'll just hire a van, and we can stick you in the back and throw a tarp over you. The way I figure it, it'll be safer than sticking around here if we travel by day when your boss is asleep"
Dunsirn seemed about to argue, but then he looked at Claire and gave in. "Oh, fuck it, why not. I've risked enough for this. Why not try one more throw of the dice?"
"Bloody hell", I muttered, looking at the big, gleaming van. "You must be more loaded than my parents"
Randy shrugged and grinned. "New York, Old Money. Sometimes it's useful".
They day had dawned bright and clear, with the sun blazing down from a cloudless sky. Dunsirn had more or less collapsed the moment it had risen above the horizon, as inert as a true corpse. Randy, Jim and I had wrapped him in layer upon layer of tarp and carried him out to the van. It probably occurred to all of us that we'd never have a better chance to get rid of him, but none of us voiced the thought. Tyrell's idea of hiding in plain sight in York still seemed like our best bet for keeping Claire safe, and we needed Dunsirn to make that work.
Claire sat next to the window, which left me sitting next to Randy, who was driving. He had a license for larger vehicles like ambulances, so the size of the van wasn't an issue for him.
Traffic was light, and Randy was a good driver - not a speed demon, but he didn't dawdle either. He was quiet as he concentrated on getting us out of Glastonbury and onto the motorway, so I was a little but surprised when he spoke up.
"So, now exactly do you become a wizard anyhow? I mean, is it something you can learn, or is it something you have to be born with?"
I shook my head. "Honestly, I don't know"
"You don't? How does that work? I mean, you must know how it happened with you"
I thought about it for a second. Tyrell was back in Glastonbury, and Dunsirn was spark-out in the back, but Claire still had that Cathy-and-Heathcliff thing going on with him. Maybe it wouldn't be smart to drop the cover story in front of her, no matter how pissed she was with him at the moment. "All I can tell you is, I went through a bitch of a withdrawal from drug addiction, and when I woke up, I could see things, do things, that I couldn't before. But I'm new to this. I haven't learned much about how things work"
Randy looked interested. "Like, what kind of things?"
"Mostly second-sight type things". I didn't want to get too specific. "They aren't especially impressive. I can't chuck fireballs around or anything like that"
"Too bad. I guess that'd be pretty handy if you fight vampires a lot"
"I don't. Fight them a lot, that is. This is something pretty unusual for me"
Randy grinned. "Yeah? It's pretty much routine for me".
I looked at him incredulously for a second and started to laugh. After a moment, Claire turned from the window and joined in. Randy didn't crack up, though. He just sat there watching the road, setting us off with this oh-so-innocent expression.
At least he'd stopped asking questions.
Just after sunset, we found ourselves in a place called Alder Manor Hotel, a converted Victorian manor house about eight miles outside York proper. According to Tyrell's instructions, we were supposed to meet the "Prince" - the vampire head honcho - of York here. Vamps had some sort of protocol about introducing yourself to the boss when you arrived someplace new, apparently.
It was full dark by the time we arrived. Randy had phoned ahead and reserved rooms for all of us before we left Glastonbury - I offered, but he said his family was even more loaded than mine, so he didn't mind picking up the tab.
Dunsirn already had the tarps off by the time we opened the back. I was getting really tired of his pissed-off expression, but at least he didn't say anything as he scrambled out. Claire was still pointedly not looking in his direction
"Okay", Randy said, looking around. "Now what?"
It was another American accent, but different from Randy's. A tall figure in jeans and a leather jacket had emerged from the front of the hotel and spotted us.
"Nick!". Claire managed a wan smile and walked up to him. "What are you doing here?"
"Pretty much the same thing you are, I guess. Waiting to meet someone". Nick looked at Dunsirn, and for a second they looked like two dogs eying each other up. "Hello, "Damian". Nice to see you again"
"Back atcha". Dunsirn's voice was heavy with irony.
"So, the guy we're here to meet is arriving in about an hour. We've got time to freshen up so we make a good impression". Nick looked at Dunsirn, and then the rest of us. "I guess it'd be better if the rest of you stay out of sight. He'll only want to see the two of us anyhow"
That suited me fine. I didn't feel like squaring off against a vampire boss. Apart from anything else, he might know more about real warlocks than Baron and Tyrell did. Claire nodded too, but a shadow of concern crossed her face as she looked at Dunsirn.
"Okay, so we just go to our rooms?" I asked. Baron nodded. "And stay put. No peeking!"
"Scout's honour!", I assured him.
Randy shrugged. "Sure. This dude sounds kinds scary"
"Trust me, he is". Baron's voice was grim. "He really is"
Okay, I didn't actually know that for certain. It was just an educated guess. I'd never met Robert Tanner, but I knew him by reputation, thanks to my sire. To hear people talk, he was kind of a model for what a Camarilla Prince should be, like some kinda freakin' undead King Arthur or something. Good PR aside, though, I knew he ran York as a pretty tight ship. He'd been in charge of it since the middle ages, before there'd even been a Camarilla, and as far as I knew - not that I was in on any deep, dark secrets - there hadn't been a serious attempt to oust him in all that time. That had to mean something. Maybe it was something good, but I figured it was just as likely - hell, given what our kind are like, more likely - that he was just the meanest son-of-a-bitch on the block.
And I was going to lie to him about Dunsirn. If I'd been mortal, my stomach would have been tying itself up in knots at the thought of what he'd do if he found out. Why the fuck was I risking myself like this, just for one mortal girl? It was insane. Only it wasn't, of course. In a way, the question was its own answer. The night I could say "just for one mortal girl", and mean it, like her life was nothing, like it didn't matter, would be the night I'd finally lost the person I used to be. Okay, I'd read Daim the riot act about accepting how we'd changed, about not trying to kid ourselves that we were human any more, but there's a difference between that and letting myself turn into a stone-cold killer.
Dunsirn sat beside me, absolutely still and completely expressionless. I was impressed; he must be feeling even worse than I was, but he was controlling it well. The guy might be an unrepentant bastard, but he had guts, I'll give him that.
We were sitting on a couch in a luxury suite in the hotel. It was swanky enough, but you didn't have to be Einstein to figure out that it wasn't where Tanner usually held court. It's like we'd been quarantined or something, until he decided whether or not to let us stay.
There was a soft click behind us as a door opened. The flunky who'd ushered us in here announced "Prince Robert Tanner of the Camarilla Domain of York, Leeds and Bradford!"
We both got to our feet as though yanked by strings, but a deep, mellow voice said wearily, "Oh, sit down, the pair of you. I don't need anyone impersonating a jack-in-the-box just because I've walked into the room"
I was more or less standing at attention by reflex; I forced myself to relax again and sat back down. Dunsirn, beside me, was just a second or two slower.
Robert Tanner took the armchair facing us. I would have known it was him even without the ghoul's announcement; he had this thing about him, a sort of magnetic quality, that'd make him the center of attention in any group he was in. When I'd been doing my training in arctic survival, way back in the day, I'd had an instructor like that. The guy had been ex-Army, a senior non-com, and it had showed. He'd never even needed to raise his voice; all he'd ever have to do was make a mild suggestion and you wanted to salute and leap to obey.
He looked, pretty much, like a GQ model. Immaculate suit, crisp white shirt, blood-red tie. He smelled slightly of expensive aftershave, which somehow came as a surprise, though I couldn't tell you why. He'd had a really smooth shave, but there was still a trace of dark shadow around his mouth and chin that no amount of shaving would eradicate. He wore his brown hair shoulder-length, tied back in a ponytail. I would have put his age when he was Embraced at around twenty-five to thirty, but although his skin was largely unlined, there were long streaks of grey in that hair which he hadn't bothered to hide. Patent-leather shoes completed his ensemble, pure black, and polished so well that the relatively subdued lighting sparkled off it. I'm not into guys, but I guess you'd say he was handsome; like I said, if you leave out the charisma thing - which was more like a military officer - he was more like a fashion model.
"Dominic Baron and Damian Tyrell". He looked between us. "I've granted you both indefinite leave to remain in the Domain of York, subject to your good behaviour. Your havens have already been prepared". He pulled a slim leather wallet from his jacket pocket. I could tell from one glance at it that it'd cost hundreds - it was a real bit of quality workmanship. Casually, he slipped two business cards from inside, handing one to each of us. "These contain numbers for the Sheriff's office. I expect you to use them if you discover - or are responsible for - any potential Masquerade breaches, or anything else that could disturb the peace of the Domain. Don't use them casually".
"Understood, Prince". I was keeping it nice and deferential. Elders don't usually like it if you kiss ass to obviously - they figure you're trying to play them, and that pisses them off. But they don't like a lot of smart back-talk either. Sometimes it's a fine line to walk.
"Very well". He leaned back, studying us thoughtfully. His eyes were a perfectly ordinary hazel, but it still felt like being under the predatory gold stare. "I know both your sires somewhat. I trust you'll live up to their standards"
"Thank you, sir. We'll try". Dunsirn could do a pretty good English accent, I was surprised to see. I nodded along with him. Tanner smiled slightly.
"Which is all any of us can do, in the end. You may go, Mr. Tyrell. Mr. Baron, a moment more of your time, if I may?"
Nothing we could do but go along with that, of course, so we did. Tanner waited a few moments for Dunsirn's footsteps to recede in the corridor outside before he spoke again.
"You had some trouble in Glastonbury, I gather. A missing girl"
"Yes, sir. She disappeared during the festival. We believe she may have been kidnapped, possibly killed, by a renegade Kindred operating in the Glastonbury area"
"And no trace of the girl has been found?"
"She was still missing when the Baroness instructed us to head for York, sir". I was being careful. Suddenly, I had the feeling I was walking on thin ice.
Tanner actually smiled. "Very precisely worded, Mr. Baron! And you attempted to play the Good Samaritan and track her down, I gather. Would it reassure you to know that she's been found, safe and well?"
A trickle of ice ran down my spine. "That's very good news sir. I'm glad she's all right. May I ask where she is?"
Casually, Tanner reached out and picked up a paper from the coffee table that lay between us. I hadn't registered it before, but the paper was a local rag from the Glastonbury area, not something you'd expect to find in York. He unfolded it to reveal the slightly blurred picture of Claire next to the "local girl found dead at festival" by-line.
Next to the photo was a CCTV picture of me meeting them all outside the hotel.
"Right here at this hotel. But I see you already knew that". Surprisingly, Tanner didn't sound angry. As I braced myself and raised my eyes to his face, his expression seemed almost amused. "And incidentally, doesn't the real Damian Tyrell have red hair? For future reference, you might like to remember to pay attention to that kind of detail"
I grabbed that off-hand comment like a drowning man grasping a floating hunk of wood. "Does that mean I'll actually have a future, then, sir?" My Beast was screaming at me to run, but the rational side of my mind knew that that was the worst thing I could possibly do. My only hope was to try to talk my way out of this, and I wasn't too confident of being able to pull that off.
"Let us say that the balance of probabilities is tilting in that direction. Although if you'd like to tilt them a little further, I'd recommend a great deal more candour than you've shown so far".
I took a deep breath, party out of old reflex and partly to give myself a few extra seconds to think. "This wasn't aimed at you, sir, or your Domain. There's no hidden agenda. We just wanted to stop an innocent girl getting killed"
"Continue tilting, Mr. Baron"
"It seems there's a Giovanni elder with an interest in an old medieval tomb in the town. Claire translated a document they found inside - some kind of book - and the elder tried to kill her to stop her from telling anyone about it. Only the elder's assistant had - well, I know this sounds hard to believe, but he'd fallen for Claire, and he tried to fake her death. He's the guy who's pretending to be Damian".
"And the others who are with you?"
"One's an archaeology student from Cambridge, the other's a caner nurse from near Glastonbury. Neither of them have anything to do with this. They just got sucked into it by being in the wrong place at the wrong time"
"But they appear very deeply involved for mere innocent bystanders? And they do know more than they should?"
"I can take care of that, sir. There's no need to hurt them".
"In other words, yes". I braced myself for Tanner's next order. I was pretty sure it'd involve killing all three of them - Claire, Greg, and Randy - and I didn't know how the hell I could handle that, especially if he was going to tell me to do the deed myself. It took me a second to register his next words because I was so convinced that I was going to hear something else.
"I asked you for candour, Mr. Baron. I dislike repeating myself. You've been well trained by your sire; I don't believe that you'd be so careless with the Masquerade as to casually involve two random strangers in our affairs without very good reason. So I ask you again, who are these others with you? You must surely be aware that by giving me the impression that they're merely kine who've stumbled onto our secret, you are increasing the risk that I will have them permanently silenced. Now who are they?"
The last three words came out with incredible force, considering that he hadn't raised his voice. It was all in the tone and the inflection. I hesitated a second longer, but he was right, Mages knowing about us wouldn't be seen as the Masquerade breach that ordinary kine were. The trouble was, if Tanner asked Randy and Greg to do something to prove they really were Mages, only Greg would be able to oblige.
"They really are a cancer nurse and a university student, sir, only the University student's also a Mage. The cancer nurse isn't; he's just a nice guy who got caught up in things, but I'm sure he can be stopped from talking. If we don't do it, the Mages will".
Several aeons seemed to pass while the Prince studied me like a specimen on a slide. Finally, a weird little grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. I blinked, not quite believing what I was seeing.
"I should like to meet him"
"Sir?" Confusion was starting to nibble away at the edges of my fear.
"This cancer nurse of yours. What did he say his name was?"
"Fitz, sir. Randy Fitz. He's an American"
"Indeed. Fetch him up here, will you?"
Oh, shit. I clamped down ruthlessly on my expression. My mind started to run around in little circles. I couldn't let the Prince kill Randy, I couldn't do anything to save him....
Tanner raised his eyebrows. "Mr. Baron, courage and loyalty are traits I admire, but stupidity is not. If I intended to kill Mr. Randy Fitz, I would hardly order him summoned to my presence by someone who felt any degree of personal loyalty towards him. I merely wish to speak with him. I will confess myself... intrigued"
Huh? Intrigued by Randy Fitz? Was he saying he swung that way?
"Not in that manner, Mr. Baron". The Prince was definitely amused now, but there was an edge in his voice as he added, "I believe I gave you an order, a few moments ago. Bring Randy Fitz to me. Immediately"
No way around it. "Yes, sir. I'll be right back"
"I still don't get it", Randy said. "Why does he want to see me?"
"He didn't say, and I couldn't exactly ask. Look, just act like you're taking a stroll through a minefield, because that's pretty much what this is going to be. Be polite, tell him anything he asks, but don't volunteer anything and don't give him any backtalk, clear?"
"Okay. This way". I led him down the deeply carpeted corridor towards the Prince's room. "One other thing, because I won't get another chance to say this. If this goes to hell, I'm sorry. I'll do my best to protect you, but the truth is, I probably won't be able to buy you more than a few seconds"
Randy stopped. I thought for a moment that it was from fear, but he was studying me with unnerving intensity. "You actually mean that. If the chips are down, you really will try to stand up to this guy to save my ass"
It was only after he said it that I realized I'd made that decision. "Yeah, I will. For all the good it'll do"
He shook his head. "That certainly makes me feel like a total shit"
"Huh?". I didn't get it. He took in my blank look as sighed, softly, sadly.
"You're bracing yourself to risk your life for me, and I'm standing here smirking at the in-joke that you aren't in on". He shook his head disgustedly. "Oh, fuck it. All of a sudden, the game isn't fun any more. Look, you can relax. Robert Tanner isn't going to hurt me, I promise you that"
I did a double-take. "How the hell could you know that?"
He sighed again. "Come on. After making me feel thoroughly ashamed of myself - for the first time in probably far too long - I owe you the truth. Once more unto the breach".
He strode past me, headed for the Prince's room. After a couple of turns of the corridor, it hit me. "What the... you know where you're going!"
He glanced back at me as we reached the Prince's door. "To hell, probably"
He reached up to knock but the Prince himself pulled it open before he got the chance. A rich chuckle echoed out into the corridor as the Prince looked over at me. "Give him six months, and he'd be running the place"
Randy sounded rueful. "All right, Robert, we've both had our little joke at the kid's expense. Can we come in? We need to talk"
What. The. Hell?
I think my jaw must have dropped. The Prince was still visibly amused, but Randy was looking almost embarrassed. He seemed to find it hard to meet my eyes as we all trooped into the room. Randy strode across to the sofa and threw himself down onto it without waiting for Tanner's permission. I would have been more horrified at the faux pas if I hadn't already figured out that the two of them knew each other pretty well.
Tanner gave Randy a sardonic glance. "Why don't you both sit down?", he asked ironically.
I eased myself gingerly onto a chair, looking between the two of them as I did. Randy rubbed his forehead. "All right, Robert, why don't you get the formal introductions over with first?"
The Prince settled himself gracefully into his own seat. "If I'm going to reveal your true identity, "Mr. Fitz", maybe you should be wearing your true face?"
"Fair enough". As Randy straightened up on the sofa, I realized that he wasn't talking with an American accent any more. Now, he sounded English, but with a slight flavour of something else. French, maybe?
That wasn't the only change in him. As I watched, he underwent a subtle alteration. His ears shrank and pulled themselves up against the side of his skull, no longer sticking out. His hair darkened to a deep, rich red and grew down past his shoulders. His eyes darkened too, to an extraordinarily vivid green, and the planes of his face thinned down, ever so slightly, losing the slight puppy-fat quality they'd had before. He was still visibly the same person, but the difference was still pretty dramatic. Instead of a regular, all-American guy, he looked - I don't know. Fey in the old sense of the word maybe, enchanted, supernatural.
Something about his appearance struck a chord in my memory. I was still wracking my brains when Prince Tanner's oh-so-elegant voice said smoothly, "Mr. Dominic Baron, may I have the slightly dubious honour of presenting his Grace, Lord Ranulf Fitz Rufus"
I knew the name, but it was like knowing the name of Darth Vader or the bogey-man. You don't expect to be formally introduced to them in a freaking hotel suite. Ranulf Fitz Rufus, the immortal and (supposedly) unkillable sorcerer who served the Court of London - but on his own terms. My sire said that even Prince Mithras had had trouble controlling him, and Mithras was a true ancient - the childe of an Antediluvian, if you could believe the legends.
Randy - Lord Ranulf, I figured I ought to be calling him - rolled his eyes at me. "Oh, stop looking at me like that, will you? And don't believe everything you've heard about me. A lot of it's probably complete bollocks"
"Yeah, right". I looked over at the Prince. "Sir, since you've let me know this much, may I assume you're going to let me know what's really going on here?"
"Mr. Baron", the Prince said, a little wearily I thought, "If I myself knew when the hell was really going on here, I'd be delighted to enlighten you. As it is, I'm afraid we'll both have to hope that Mr. Randy Fitz here has finished playing games"
Randy - Ranulf - gave him a sour look. "I was going to tell you before you jumped to gun and had the kid bring me here, Robert"
"Now's your chance". The Prince was nothing if not succinct.
"Fine!". Randy - screw it, Ranulf - threw up his hands. "Caroline Greville called me. Eirik Harraldsson's latest childe had caught a rogue Giovanni running around her Domain and she wanted some answers. She figured that Tyrell would keep looking for answers whatever she told him to do, so she decided she might as well use him as a cat's paw to draw the Giovanni out, but she didn't want Eirik pissed at her if the kid got himself offed, so she asked me to keep an eye on things. I used a bullshit medical conference as cover for staying in the area for a few days, only to discover", he made a sour grimace, "that the hotel I was staying in was the Giovanni's lair. Ironic, isn't it? I as planning to hunt down Nick here, and Tyrell, and the humans they'd hooked up with, that night. Then all of a sudden they just walk into the hotel reception"
"Quite a coincidence"
"Yes, it was. Unless I'd subconsciously homed in on that hotel as a nexus of spirit activity, I suppose. I do remember feeling a bit of a hunch about it, now I think back. But since Fate had tapped me on the shoulder, I decided to go with the flow"
A sudden thought struck me. "Just a minute. How come the other Mages didn't figure out what you really are?"
"Because they aren't Mages". Randy held up a hand. "And before you ask, I don't know what the hell they are, but they aren't Mages. Some kind of specialized psychic, maybe? I'm still trying to figure that out. I couldn't exactly call them out on it without letting them know I was more than I seemed, so I decided to stay quiet".
Wow. Tyrell was going to be pissed. He'd had this ever-so-slightly smug air about him for figuring Sandra out before I had. It was going to be fun letting him know the truth.
"Indeed?". The Prince looked at him speculatively. "So what now?"
"Well, it's your Domain..."
"Ah, you've finally remembered that? Better late than never". There was a hard edge beneath the amusement in the Prince's voice.
"... but it I were you", Randy continued, totally unfazed, "I'd play along for the time being. Keep the girl and the Giovanni under close observation, but don't do anything. I'm going to head back to Glastonbury and deal with the elder he works for"
I cleared my throat. They both looked at me, and Randy shrugged. "You may as well give him permission to come with me, Robert. You of all people can understand loyalty to a comrade"
The Prince actually smiled, just a little. "So I can. And it's a trait I appreciate in my subjects. Once this affair is concluded, Mr. Baron, I shall be glad to welcome you back. You and Mr. Tyrell seem to make a rather good team"
That was more than I could have hoped for, so I did the smart thing - I kept it simple and didn't look a gift horse in the mouth. "Thank you, sir"
He chuckled softly. "And you're not stupid either. Another trait that should stand you in good stead. But let me be clear, Mr. Baron". He leaned forward slightly. "While I understand your reasons for this deception - indeed, I can even sympathise with them, which is why on this occasion, I'm willing to overlook them - you will find me far less forgiving should you try anything like this again. I trust I shall not need to make that point more forcefully"
"No sir. Thank you, sir"
"Very good". Tanner settled back again. "But if I'm to be playing nursemaid to this rogue Giovanni, how do you suggest I explain your absence, without panicking him?"
Ooops. I hadn't thought of that. Randy, though, just rolled his eyes. "Neither of them really wants him around, Robert. He can just tell them that as the new-boy Ventrue in town, he has to run some errands for you. He won't be away for long. This isn't the old days; you can cross this country in the space of a single night, now".
"You never had any trouble doing that even in the old days, as I recall"
"That was before the storm hit the spirit world, Robert. The ghost roads are far too dangerous, these days, even for me. Ah". Randy blinked. "Now that's an interesting thought. I wonder if these so-called "Mages" have something to do with that?"
"As intriguing as the possibility is, if you could please try to keep your mind on our immediate problems, rather than wandering off...?"
"Sorry". He didn't sound it, though. "Okay, we can tell them that you've sent Nick off on an errand. I can go along as his daytime driver. You can establish them in havens in York where you can keep an eye on them both and..."
The phone trilled discreetly. The Prince frowned, looking at it in vague annoyance, but picked it up straight away. "Tanner". He listened for a second before uttering a curt, "One second, I'm putting you on speakerphone"
He tapped the phone console and a voice emerged, male, youthful in tone but not in inflection.
"I've contacted our Chantries in the South West, but none of them know anything specific. We have confirmed it's not some kind of hoax, though"
"What isn't, Arthur?". So Randy knew whoever was at the other end? He had more connections here than I'd figured.
"Ranulf? What the hell are you doing there?". And the speaker knew Ranulf, too, obviously.
"Never mind that now. What's happening?"
"Put the BBC News on"
The Prince gestured to me, and I grabbed the remote from the nearby table and flicked the TV on. It started off in the middle of some puff piece about whether or not Britain was going to join the Euro and I wondered what the fuss was, but then...
"The Glastonbury Festival has always been known for strange and unexpected events, but even by Glastonbury standards, the spate of mysterious phantoms sighted in and around the town are extraordinary. Eyewitnesses have claimed to see everything from medieval knights, to eighteenth-century squires, to Victorian matrons. These mysterious ghosts seem to appear and disappear without rhyme or reason...
Ranulf shook his head grimly as we watched. When he spoke, it sounded like it was to himself.
"Whatever it is... it's beginning"