Istambul

You would not believe how many vampires think they're being funny with the "lawyer = bloodsucker" jokes. I wish I couldn't believe it either.

It's worse when you're a Toreador. Kindred seem to have less of a problem with, say, Ventrue being lawyers. But they think all Toreador are art-fag types who wouldn't know one end of a subpoena from another, and they get kind of antsy if you don't happen to fit into their neat little cookie-cutter stereotypes. The Toreador who actually are art-fag types are the worst of all at that.

What? No, I don't have a problem with fags. Quite the contrary. Their discrimination suits pay for my Armani ones, after all. Or they used to, while I was still breathing. Nowadays the cost of an Armani is chump change. Being undead has its advantages.

But I still miss sunning myself on the beach.

Anyhow, most Toreador are snobs. You do Shakespeare's Hamlet and get the good review, and hey, you're a Great Artist - or a good one, anyhow. Even though with Shakespeare, all you have to do is learn the lines - and learn them knowing that nobody who wants to be taken seriously will criticise the lines themselves, just the way you're saying them.

But a trial lawyer? A trial lawyer plays the audience - sorry, the jury - just as surely as any Shakespearean actor. Only he doesn't have anyone to write his lines for him. He has to write them himself. In about two seconds flat, if events take an unexpected turn. I'd like to see dear old Sir-Lawrence-fucking-Olivier try that for a week.

I can do that. I can think on my feet and judge the mood of the audience and give them exactly what they want. And because of that, I now have supernatural powers and immortality. And a bunch of vampires making with the lawyer jokes. I manage to get a "condemned" notice slapped onto one of the comedians' havens occasionally, just to keep my hand in. It's the closest thing I have to a hobby.

So here I am in Istanbul, Turkey. Not a place I'd like to be. It's basically Assamite territory, and the Assamites have had a hard-on for the Camarilla ever since we handed them their asses in a sling towards the end of the middle ages. Or so I hear. All this happened hundreds of years before I was even born, but I'm thinking that they aren't likely to accept that as a plea in mitigation. They've gotten a lot more aggressive since they figured out the loop-hole in that mojo the Tremere slapped onto 'em, and I'd guess they'd welcome an excuse to tear a Camarilla Kindred to bits pour encourager les autres.

Oh, I've got a bit of paper supposedly guaranteeing me safe passage, but I know exactly how much a guarantee written on a piece of paper is worth. I'm a fucking lawyer, for Christ's sake. So I'm nervous. I'd rather do this someplace else, but I'm here to meet a Very Important Person, and if the Very Important Person and the Flunky are hundreds of miles apart, it's the Flunky who gets to do the travelling.

Still, there's an upside. I came here on the Orient Express. That was pretty cool for an All-American boy like me. I was kinda hoping for the traditional murder en route, just to keep things interesting, but as far as I know, everyone on board reached their destination alive.

Well, apart from me, of course.

My host throws a great party, I have to give him that. I'm standing on a broad marble balcony with a magnificent view of the Bosphorous. It's all decked out with strings of soft electric lights - electricity is the best thing for vampire-kind since they invented blood banks, much less scary than fire, and brighter, too - and it's crowded with people. Pretty interesting bunch. Oh, there's a smattering of Turkish government ministers and civil servants - that much, I was expecting. Some rich mortal businessmen, ditto.

But there's also a disproportionately large number of young faces in the crowd - college-age kids, though they're acting older than their age. No loud laughter or fart jokes from this crowd - if anything, they're even more po-faced than their elders. I wonder briefly if that's because they're on their best behaviour in grown-up company, or if they're normally this serious. I'm guessing the latter. I recognize maybe three faces out of a couple of dozen, but those three are enough to give me a hint about the others. They're trust-fund babies, uber-rich kids with a massive guilt complex about being born with silver spoons in their mouths, who are trying to work off their inherited guilt by doing something to Save The World ™.

Which explains why they're here. This party is officially a charity fund-raiser given by the Tiranul Foundation, an international non-profit charity dedicated to helping the innocent victims of military conflict. Right now, the Board of the Foundation have gotten a burr up their collective asses about landmines, and this whole shindig is partly a lobbying campaign against the things, and partly a fancy way to pass the collecting tin around.

I've known the name of the Tiranul Foundation for years. Being the childe of an Archon, I pick up a lot of gossip. But I know pretty much squat about it. When both the people you're overhearing know what they're talking about, they don't bother to explain it, and my sire's as tight-lipped as - well, as she's tight-assed, to be honest. Not that I ever am if I can help it, of course. Honest, that is.

Anyways, the Foundation seems to be one of those things where, if you have a need to ask, you don't have a need to know. Luckily, it has a visible presence in the mortal world, so I was able to do some digging from that angle.

According to everything the mortal world knows, the Tiranul Foundation was founded in London in 1872 by a reclusive Eastern European millionaire named Victor Tiranul. Its stated goal was "to offer charitable assistance to those who have suffered in wars not of their own making". It seems to have started off as a sort of philanthropic gentleman's club - it's noticeable that a lot of its early recruits were retired British Army officers - but over the decades it grew like topsy, 'till today it has offices in more than forty countries, with the main HQ in Washington, D.C., in the good ol' U.S. of A.

Everything I could come up with on it suggests that it's perfectly legit. It has an annual budget in the hundreds of millions, but there's no money missing from its accounts - and the accounts weren't audited by Anderson Consulting, either. It actually spends a hell of a lot less on administrative overheads than other charities of comparable size, and it delivers more of a bang for your tax-deductible buck as well. It runs orphanages and children's clinics in places like the former Yugoslavia, often in partnership with the International Red Cross and similar groups.

What makes it stand out - though you won't find this boast in any of its own literature - is that its teams have a reputation for getting into dangerous hot-spots where other charities consider it too risky to operate - and then getting themselves and the people they're trying to rescue out in one piece. If you look really, really closely at the small print, you'll see that some of its leaders and operatives are ex-Special Forces - Green Berets, British S.A.S., Israeli Defence Force Parachute Brigade. I turned up hints of informal contacts between the Foundation and several Western governments, but nothing concrete.

It's run by a six-man Board of Directors - actually, four women and two men - who nominate their own successors. The current head of the Board is a forty-two year old ex-USAF surgeon by the name of Marie Branimir, who, despite her sex, is said to have big brass ones.

There has to be some kind of Kindred involvement, but I'm damned if I know what it is. Of course, if you listen to the Church I'm Damned regardless. Whatever.

The orchestra set up in the grounds of the villa has just struck up a Viennese waltz. That's a daring choice, considering where we are. The Turkish advance into Europe back in the late 1400s was famously halted at the gates of Vienna, and I'm guessing there are still some elder Assamites around who're still sulking about that.

Nah, I'm not a history buff. A good lawyer tries to pick up a bit of background, though. Never know when it might come in handy.

A space clears as if by magic, and a man leads a woman into the waltz. Considering the way everyone made way for him, this must be my host.

He's tall, I see, and broad-shouldered. Muscular build, but not bulky, more athletic. His face is handsome in a hard, chiselled sort of way, his hair is black and impeccably cut, and his eyes a vivid and penetrating green. He has that stillness common amongst elders, no extraneous twitches or tics, just the muscles he actually needs in use. At first glance, I think he's wearing a military uniform of some sort, but then I realize it's an ordinary tux. There's just something about the way he wears it which makes it look like a military uniform

His companion is drop-dead gorgeous, with flowing, auburn hair, eyes as green as his, and a figure which would have my tongue lolling out if I still had operational hormones. Her dress is green, too, some kind of silk, draped so that it draws attention to her curves without actually accentuating them. Whatever she paid her dress designer, it wasn't enough. She has that same elder stillness that he does.

Their dance is - naturally - a display of graceful perfection, and I start to lose myself in it, mesmerized. I do notice a subtle difference in their styles, though. For her, the grace is an inborn thing, as natural and unthinking as a cat's. For him, it's a matter of absolute and exquisite self-discipline and awareness of his own body, each move choreographed and executed with flawless precision.

After a few moments, I place the woman. Lady Gabriella Grey of London, Camarilla stalwart. Like me, she's a Toreador, though a patron of the arts rather than an artist herself. She's also about fifty bucks richer than God. She heads a merchant banking and financial conglomerate called Grenville Peregrine - that's not what it says on the company letterhead, mind you, but like I said, lawyers know better than to trust things written of bits of paper. I wonder what she's doing here. Istambul is a little outside her normal western European orbit.

As I watch, I shift my vision into the higher spectra, and take a look at their auras. I can see that they like and trust each other, and there's an emotional bond between them, long-forged and durable. But there's something very odd in the man's halo, something I've never come across before. It has veins in it, like you might see after an act of Diablerie, only these aren't black, but shining gold. They give his aura the look of very expensive marble.

I'm still trying to figure it out when the applause jolts me out of my reverie as the dance comes to an end. I become aware that someone is standing beside me - probably has been for quite a while. I expect my Beast to snarl in outrage at the sudden awareness of its vulnerability, but it's strangely quiescent.

He looks like one of the trust-fund babies - late teens or early twenties, pale skin, hair and eyes the same colour as Lady Grey's. Not so much handsome as pretty - he'd fit well into a boy band.

"You can call me Randy". He grins like he just said something funny. "Our host's ready to speak with you now, if you'll follow me"

A ghoul? That would be my best guess, although ghouls usually have this subtle weirdness about them which this guy isn't giving off. He's breathing, though, and warm,, so he's not Kindred. He starts to stroll off with the casual arrogance I associate with trust-fund babyhood, not bothering to glance back and see if I'm following. I grit my oh-so sharp teeth and follow in his wake.

He leads me down through the house, past little groups of mortals sipping drinks. I glance around, taking in the décor. The master of this place has tastes which run to the minimalist and militaristic, a few carefully positioned suits of armour here, crossed swords and axes up on the wall there - but there are also woven Persian rugs on the cold marble floors, paintings, and objects d'art at intervals. The interesting thing is that not all of them are by famous artists, which suggests that they're there because the master of the villa happened to like them, not because he sent some flunkies to buy stuff that would make him look cultured.

He has good taste. Restrained, but good.

Randy touches a door up ahead of us, and I hear a lock click, even though he hasn't produced a key. The door leads into a small library, or reading room, with several desks and stacks of shelves on the walls. No computer equipment, which doesn't surprise me. Elders are more intimidated by computers than my grandmother was, which is saying a lot.

Randy turns and flashes me another grin. "I love traditional things, don't you?", he asks me. Before I can come back with a "what the fuck are you talking about?", he's fished a cellphone out of his pocket and hit a sequence of buttons. A section of bookshelf swings aside, and I see steps leading downwards.

Oh, puh-leese. Traditional I can handle. Clichéd I can do without.

Randy makes a face at my expression. "That's exactly what our host said when I finally talked him into having a secure facility added here. But trust me, it's useful. Here", he fishes around in his pocket again, and tosses something over to me. It's a necklace, a wooden carving of a three-lobed leaf or something, on a leather throng.

"Put that on"

I think about telling him it'll clash with my business suit, but I settle for a simple "Why?"

"Because if you're not wearing it when we go downstairs, ice crystals will form in your vitae and you'll collapse into freeze-dried torpor. I told you this is a secure area, and not all the security is the high-tech variety".

Sorcery? In Camarilla circles that usually means Tremere, but no way in hell would a Tremere last long in this city. But if Randy knows words like vitae and torpor, chances are he is someone's ghoul. Frowning, I put it on, and follow the kid down the stairs.

We go down a long way - I'd guess three stories - and there are a couple of opened blast-doors along the route that I doubt even a Kindred could punch through. I'm hoping like hell that we won't come out in the Batcave, and as it turns out my prayers are partially answered. The underground room has much the same décor as the villa above - marble, rugs on the floors, indirect electric lighting. There are a number of leather armchairs arranged in a loose semicircle around a massive, wall-mounted monitor screen, with a row of gleaming, matt-black consoles with flat-panel monitors and touch-screen controls to the left of the main screen.

Three of the chairs are occupied as I walk in. Two of them by the host and Lady Grey. The third is a face I didn't expect to see, but recognize from photographs - Dr. Marie Branimir. She's still slim, and fit, her short hair a mouse-brown colour and her eyes a pale blue that looks grey in certain lights. A strong, square face, but an attractive one. She gives me a nod as I walk in, and Lady Grey flashes me a megawatt smile.

My host rises from his chair and gives me a courteous nod. "Mr. Jack Heyden of Clan Toreador. I am Lord Raguel Viteazul of House Tiranul. It is my honour to make known to you my allies, the Lady Gabriella Grey of your own clan, Dr. Marie Branimir, and His Grace, Prince Ranulf Fitz Rufus"

His voice is deep and resonant. I feel like I want to salute, and I'm pretty sure he's not using any mind powers to get that effect, just pure charisma. Impressive. His presence is distracting enough that it takes a second for what he actually said to register.

Prince? I shoot a look at Randy, who's shooting a look of his own at Lord Raguel, one which seems to combine amusement and annoyance. "But you can call me Randy", he says.

Lord Raguel shoots Randy - His Grace, Prince Ranulf Fitz Rufus is too much of a mouthful if he's not going to insist on it - a look right back, and quirks his eyebrow a fraction. Lady Grey has the same "boys-will-be-boys" look my mom used to get as she glances between them, and Dr. Branimir is looking between all of them with frank interest, like she's also an outsider here and trying to figure out what's going on with them.

"You were sent here by Justicar Lucinde, with an urgent communication". It's not quite a question, but I nod anyhow.

"Yes, my Lord". I'm not sure about the "my Lord" bit - and it's not something that comes naturally to an American boy like me - but Randy starts to grin when he hears me say it, so I guess I've made the right choice.

"Please be seated, and present it". He indicates a chair. "Do you require refreshment?"

Actually, it's been a couple of nights since I last fed, and I could use a taste of vitae. I'm not sure of the protocol, but he offered, so I thank him and say yes.

Randy pulls a silver knife - what else does he have in those pockets? - and slits his own wrist. I start to get worried when he finishes bleeding into a large wine glass, and the gash in his wrist promptly heals up. He catches the direction of my gaze.

"If you're thinking of the Blood Oath, relax, I'm not a ghoul"

Dammit, why did he have to say that? Now I either admit I was worried - which insults my host's honour - or deny it, which insults his intelligence.

Sometimes honesty is the best policy, particularly if it changes the subject. "I figured that. I can usually tell. But since you're obviously not fully mortal", I indicate his wrist, "might I, without giving offence, ask..."

"I'm a sorcerer". There's a glint in his eyes that tells me he knew what I just did. Smartass.

"Ah. Thank you". I purposely don't ask about Dr. Branimir, but she saves me the trouble. She gives a snort and looks around.

"Are you guys letting him dangle on purpose? It's okay to ask, Heyden. I know us mortal types don't usually get to horn in on conferences of the undead, and I'm betting you wonder what I'm doing here. Especially since what's in that briefcase is supposed to be pretty hush-hush, yeah?".

"I must admit I'm curious, Doctor". The hints I'm getting from Lord Raguel suggest he might go for honesty and directness. "But it's not my place to question Lord Raguel's reasons for inviting you here. I'm sure they're good ones"

"My sire once told me that an obvious question is better than obvious ignorance, Mr. Heyden, although I appreciate your discretion", Lord Raguel's voice rumbles smoothly. "Dr. Branimir is here because she is more familiar with modern medicine than anyone else here, and Justicar Lucinde hinted at a medical dimension to this mysterious problem which brings you to my door. She enjoys my complete confidence - and the protection of various magical safeguards against hostile intrusion into her mind, although her native courage and strength of will would be more than enough to overcome most such".

"Aw, shucks". The Doc is doing her best not to show how much his praise means to her. "I bet you say that to every girl who sticks a gun in your mouth"

Sticks a gun in his mouth?

Randy laughs at my expression. "It's true, believe it or not. She was in Bosnia with a small group, without any official support, trying to save some Muslim kids from the Serb militias. She found a bunch of them hiding in a burned-out farmhouse after the paramilitaries killed their parents. Raguel was leading a team to rescue those same kids, but he and his team had disguised themselves as Serb paramilitaries to make it easier to move freely. When they found the farmhouse, the Doc here grabbed his hair, yanked his head back, shoved a gun in his mouth, and threatened to blow his brains out if he didn't let the kids go. He hired her on the spot".

"I value subordinates who are not afraid to express candid opinions", Lord Raguel says blandly. "In any event, you may speak freely before her".

"Yes, my Lord". I still have my doubts, but I know better than to express them. I start to enter the combination code on my armoured briefcase. "This case contains some documentation and records, but first, if you'll allow it, I'd like to show you a DVD..."

***

On the giant monitor, a man in his late fifties or early sixties is sitting in a bare, antiseptic cell. For about a minute, he does nothing. Then...

All Kindred recognize the effects of Frenzy, but what happens to this guy is impressive. He goes totally nuts, punching great, gaping holes in the stone wall of his cell, slavering, snarling, and grunting like a beast. Then, suddenly, the sounds change to cries of pain and he starts convulsing. Blood starts to pour from his eyes, nose and mouth, and as we watch, it turns to dust and ashes. He collapses, shudders, and is still.

Marie Branimir is horrified and not bothering to hide it. Ranulf is looking mortal-angry. Lady Grey is outwardly calm, but there's a great and terrible anger in her eyes which promises death to anyone responsible for what we just saw. As for Lord Raguel, he's perfectly still, but somehow, looking at him, I think of a volcano about to erupt.

I'm feeling like a mouse standing in front of several hungry cats, but I summon up all the phoney self-confidence I learned from years of courtroom battles, and start speaking.

"What you just saw wasn't a normal frenzy in a normal ghoul. It was part of an experiment sponsored by this Kindred". I tap the surface of the smooth black touch-console to select a new DVD menu, and a picture appears on the screen.

"He's a Sabbat Priscus operating mostly in Eastern Europe - understandable, since he's a Tzimisce. His name is..."

"... Hugh Mortimer". Lord Raguel's tone is as deep and commanding as ever, but it has a feral undertone now. His Beast is close to the surface. Lady Grey also has a manic glint in her eye. "You may dispense with further biography on this gentleman, Mr Heyden. We are... not unfamiliar with him. Proceed"

Those gold lines in Lord Raguel's aura are flaring suddenly, washing over the red of rage and the black of bitter hatred which appear as he sees the face of Hugh Mortimer. As they recede, the dark colours are much more muted. Weird.

"Yes, my Lord". It's a relief to get the old bastard's face off the screen. Lord Raguel and Lady Grey visibly relax a little after it's gone. "Mortimer has been spotted recently in Belgrade with this man". A grainy photo comes up on the screen. Mortimer is one of the vampires in it, and I zoom in hastily on the other. "His name is Nicolai Meciar, and in the 1980s he was one of the leading lights of the Soviet biowarfare programme. After the wall came down, he found himself unemployed and went freelance. We've linked him to several unpleasant regimes, including the former Iraqi dictatorship. In 1994 he was Embraced into Clan Tremere"

"However, at some point, Mortimer must have suborned him. He vanished six months ago and all efforts to locate him were unsuccessful until three weeks ago, when this picture was taken. The Tremere sent a team to retrieve him, but he managed to escape with the aid of a Sabbat pack. This DVD was found in his haven along with other materials, and they gave us a clue as to what he's working on"

"Meciar is a virologist. He also proved, from what the Tremere tell us, to be a thaumaturgical prodigy. For a couple of years after his Embrace, his apprentice project was the study of the process through which human vitae becomes transformed into Kindred vitae within our bodies. The Tremere thought this was just a student exercise, but from the notes we recovered, it's clear they were wrong".

"Nicolai Meciar was working on the first stages of creating a virus which would slightly transform the blood of an infected human to give it one specific property of vitae - specifically, the ability to create a Blood Bond. The virus is somehow cultivated within the vitae of one specific Kindred, and the Bond is created to that Kindred. Infect a population of a city... and anyone feeding in that city on a regular basis would soon be Bound"

"Become a slave, or starve. How very like Hugh Mortimer". The Beast has receded from Lord Raguel's voice, but there's something even worse there now. Something lethal and utterly implacable.

"Yes, my Lord. As you saw, Meciar hasn't perfected his virus yet. The strain he's come up with transforms human vitae to Cainite, but then it drives its victims into Frenzy, and after a couple of minutes the transformed blood starts to break down and degrade into dust, killing the subject. But if he ever works the bugs out...". I shrug. "Justicar Lucinde sent me here, my Lord, because she believes you're uniquely qualified to deal with this menace. Will you consent to help us?"