7:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, Day Three. By the time we left the restaurant, a greasy spoon on the outskirts of Hartford that served some of the best burgers on the planet, the sky had turned a steel gray. The clouds were that dense, packing megatons of snow, getting ready to rock, the wind nothing much when compared with a blizzard on the Great Plains but more than enough to get the job done.
Sissy checked on our unwilling but now fully conscious passenger one final time before climbing into the shotgun seat. It was my turn to take the wheel, especially since we were back in my old stomping grounds. My partner seemed worried.
“He’s fading a bit, Tree. The lights are on, somebody or something is home, but he seems weak.”
“You can tell that from nothing but a glaring face in a pile of blankets?” It wouldn’t surprise me if she could; I was merely curious.
“That, and the universal bird he flipped my way. He had to stick a hand out of the covers to do that. The hand was shaking.”
“Could be the effect of the drug. We had him coldcocked for most of the past forty-eight hours. It’s not like Larry was able to run a series of double blind trials with his concoction before we field tested it on Cheng.”
“Yeah.” She fished her glove bag from the back seat, dug around a bit, and came up with a lightweight pair made of some material I never could pronounce correctly despite my eidetic memory. They’d keep her fingers warm and flexible without interfering with her shooting, though, should it come to that. That’s what mattered.
Our next stop was the local library. Technically, this branch was not connected with the massive Hartford system; I’d chosen it for that exact reason. The thermometer in the cab said it was twenty-seven degrees above zero but dropping. I left the engine running and Sissy in the truck pretending to read a thriller on her Kindle. Not that we expected anyone to hear Cheng even if he did decide to yell for help; schools were expected to close by noon and most of the city was quiet as the tomb, bracing for the storm. I didn’t see a single pedestrian out and about.
It was obvious the aging librarian at the computer sign-in desk remembered my face from somewhere, but she didn’t blink a bit when I handed her the driver’s license that identified me as a Hartford area resident, one John Holmes. I was pretty sure there had once been a porn star by that name, but Philip hadn’t consulted me when he was picking out names of deceased residents for our various sets of credentials.
“Number three is open,” she said.
Yep, number three, a Dell that had seen better days, was definitely available. So was every other station in the room. Perhaps arriving two minutes after the library opened for the day had something to do with that, eh? Not that I cared. All I had to do was open Intenet Explorer, type in the URL for the appropriate chat room page, and tell the beast to print out the page. Then check out of the chatroom, close the browser, and…done. It would have been nice to be able to go into the machine and delete my browsing history, but come on. The risk of being found out was miniscule, the necessity of getting Philip’s message absolute.
The message turned out to occupy nine hard copy pages. The library had drastically upped its charge for printing stuff; it cost me a buck a page, payable in cash at at the checkout desk.
Back in the truck, I handed the paperwork to Sissy and started driving. “Need me to remind you of the code, or are you good?”
“I’m good,” she replied absently, her attention focused on the text. “Just making sure I’ve got it right before I pass it on…okay. Here we go. First off, Philip says you owe him big time. Lost a lot of sleep, computer tracking Cheng’s back trail. But he got it done in time because he’s just such an awesome dude.”
That made me grin. “He is at that. Though I may have to dock his pay for whining.”
“That’ll be the day. Oh…wow. You called it. He started with face recognition software, the surveillance photos of the female form Cheng was using when you met him at the Half Castle. Says he backtracked to every commercial airport that flies to Missoula. Hacked the various airport surveillance computers. Got an ID match in Kalispell of all places. Oh, no….” Her voice trailed off.
“Tree, Philip has identified eleven victims between Cheng’s arrival at LAX and his arrival in Missoula. The bastard didn’t get a lead straight to Montana; he went down a number of false trails first. Hence the number of victims. But it looks like once he hit the mainland, he started killing every time he stole an ID and changed appearance. Seven of the eleven victims are listed as missing, but Philip is dead certain on this. Um, sorry about the dead thing; poor choice of words. Four bodies have been found, one in Los Angeles–guess he must have had trouble figuring out where to stash a body in the big city, eh? One in Lordsburg, New Mexico, one in Des Moines, Iowa, and the most recent one in Moline, Illinois. He was all over the map.”
“No kidding.” My tone was grim, yet I was relieved. I knew the guy was bad news and needed to be put down, but executing him without clear evidence could have put a real strain on my conscience. Now the karma for his upcoming death…there would be karmic kickback as there always was unless they were actively shooting at me, but it should be manageable. Not that I worried overmuch about my ledger balance with the Lords of Karma; it was my own stern inner judge that wielded the deadliest whip.
Something in her tone alerted me. “Yeah?”
“Two of the missing and three of the four bodies found so far were women…and two of those women were underage girls, one sixteen and one just fourteen.”
Time to slam down my emotions and think rationally. “No underage boys?”
“No. Youngest dude is twenty-three.”
“Makes sense in a way.” There was a ringing in my ears, not tinnitus but a sort of inner music I knew as the Voice of God Itself. We weren’t discussing the sort of topic your average preacher would associate with higher awareness, yet I was certain I’d just tuned into something. “Most likely teenagers traveling unaccompanied, old enough to pull it off in most cases, and we’ve seen plenty of girls who had their full height at heck, what, as young as eleven? So Cheng went for the low hanging fruit, as any predator does. Um…am I mixing metaphors or something?”
“No.” She fixed me with a stare that bored into the side of my head. “You’re dancing around the subject at hand. If you weren’t already planning a dismal future for this piece of filth, I’d gladly do it for you.”
We didn’t have anything else to say.
The first snow flurries were in the air by the time we reached our initial destination. Perfect; despite the truck being parked on Capitol Avenue, nobody paid the slightest attention when I climbed in the back. Sissy pretended to admire the Lafayette Statue while I fired up the cutting torch and sliced the near end of Cheng’s cage completely off, counting on his sense of self preservation to keep him huddled back as far from the molten steel as possible. Which wasn’t far, but the cold air wicked away the heat rapidly. Fifteen minutes of cooling later, I beckoned to the Chinese man.
Being drugged and caged for a couple of days after having his ass kicked had apparently gotten it through his head that cooperation, at least until we made a mistake, was the better part of valor. Not that people on the dark path worry much about valor; it’s been our experience that those negative posts in the car batteries of Life are usually focused on survival at any cost.
Though there were exceptions. Weak or not, Cheng still blazed with hate, ignoring Sissy entirely but continuing to give me the Stink Eye as he crawled stiffly out of the truck bed. I handed him a parka, which he accepted without comment. He stayed quiet even when standard jail issue irons were added, first to his ankles–we didn’t need him running–and then to his wrists. I led him to the statue, advised him to study the statue closely as it would be important to his future. He gave mw an inscrutable Asian look at that, shook his head slightly, and turned to take in the heroic sculpture of the Frenchman on the horse. I left him to it, backed off a few yards to give him room…and that was that.
Whether or not he realized Sissy’s cell phone was snapping pictures at the time, I neither knew nor cared.
The brief break in the brisk Christmas air (talk about a white Christmas) did seem to revive him considerably. Back in the cage, he tore into his rations with renewed vigor, washing it all down with two bottles of water by the time I had the end plate secured again. The cage was starting to look like a welding student’s practice project, but it was functional. Nothing else mattered.
“Interesting that he didn’t say a word,” Sissy observed as we pulled away from the curb.
“He’s evil, not stupid. What could he have said that would have helped?”
“Just saying. Did you know that before the Europeans landed, the Hartford area was known by Native Americans as Suckiaug, or black earth?”
I glanced at her in surprise. “Suckiaug?”
“Yep. You didn’t know, did you?”
“No. It’s not like I grew up here. At least, not until I was seventeen. I can just see teenagers back in the day. Man, this place is sucky! I can’t wait to run away from home!”
She laughed in delight. “Or if one of the guys was named Aug, think of the gay jokes!”
“Whoa,” I groaned. “Enough third grade humor.”
There was nothing funny after that. The snow was getting worse, which could either work to our advantage in a big way or backfire on us badly. The radio was announcing school closures and advising people to stay home, a practice that had always amused me. It was no joke in the big city, but for a guy who’d grown up bucking blizzards to feed cattle on an Idaho ranch…come on, be serious.
The Arvin Hotel was one of those massive buildings that had seen better days on the outside, but the aging was strictly superficial. Inside, the place was huge, bordering on Five Star status, and impeccably maintained. No valet parking, but we wouldn’t have allowed anybody else to touch our war truck anyway, so that was good.
The doorman reminded me a bit of Hal at the Half Castle, lacking the halberd and medieval garb but projecting the same sense of quiet competence beneath the uniform. We walked in like we owned the place. He didn’t challenge us, but I could feel his eyes on my back all the way to the front desk.
It’s not every day that the Arvin sees a six foot three black cowboy in boots with two inch heels and a black Resistol cowboy hat making him look six-six or more. He might have thought I was a smallish pro basketball player. Or an oversized pimp.
Not that I would normally be wearing the rodeo cowboy togs in weather like this, but first impressions are everything, right?
At the front desk, I zeroed in on the clear leader of three clerks, a graying mixed race six-footer with soulful brown eyes. His name tag said BOWEN.
“Checking in?” He asked the question pleasantly enough, his face giving away nothing. A pro, then.
Not that we’d expected anything less, but I figured to get a reaction out of him before long. “No reservation, Nick,” I replied without missing a beat. “We’re here to meet with Charleston and Warisa.”
His eyes widened at that. I knew his first name, but he didn’t know me. More importantly, I referred to his employers by their first names, and nobody knew those. His right hand began to slide naturally down from the counter, inspiring Sissy to speak up for the first time.
“Reach for that alarm button, Mr. Bowen, and you will not live to see the result.”
Her tone was conversational. The other two clerks, who’d not been paying much attention, froze in place as completely as the Lafayette Statue; they were both women, probably both sensitives, and they recognized a clear and present danger when they heard it.
Nick Bowen was either made of sterner stuff, utterly terrified of failing his bosses–as well he should be–or a tad stupid. I didn’t think he was stupid. His hand stopped moving, but he didn’t acknowledge Sissy. Instead, he asked, “And you would be, sir?”
“Treemin Jackson, Rodeo Iron, Ovando, Montana.”
A quiet introduction like that shouldn’t make a grown man tremble so. Perhaps he’d heard of me.
“Ah, yes sir. I w-w-would be happy to leave them a message now, but the B–they’re not in right now.”
“Nick.” I leaned over the counter, getting right up in his face, violating his personal space. His eyes flared even wider, but he held his ground. Or maybe he was petrified. A shaking, petrified, six foot bowl of jelly. “Nick, we both know the Blydens are indisposed at the moment. I am not proposing that you put your life or your job in jeopardy by crashing their Do Not Disturb sign. What I would like you to do is leave a message on their machine, the one they always check first thing when they start their night. Let them know that Rodeo Iron is here, but not looking for confrontation in any way, shape or form. In fact, we have every reason to believe they will be very glad we came, once we’ve had our meeting. Can you leave them a message, Nick? Without activating the corporation’s personal SWAT team? Because we are going to be right over there, enjoying lunch in your highly recommended restaurant and watching the snow come down. We would be somewhat irritated if an armed response interrupted our dining experience. Do we understand each other?”
I could see that we did. Bowen’s mental faculties, however, were a bit scrambled. “Right. L-leave a message….”
“No need to memorize anything, Nick,” I assured him. “Just read it.” I handed him a piece of paper with the typed message I wanted delivered.
We enjoyed our dinner immensely. After all, the die was cast. We weren’t about to say anything of consequence, assuming the dining room to be bugged–and, by now, there were probably electronic listeners behind every drapery and door as well. If the Blydens did order us killed, we had our plan in place, such as it was. The ornate tables were heavy, but Sissy in her fighting black bear form would help me flip it over to provide a bit of cover if lead was flying. Then, while I unlimbered the carbine hidden by what I called my Dresden duster, she would crash through the floor-to-ceiling window next to our table and head for the truck–which we could see in the parking lot despite the snow, parked with its driver side door away from the building.
But I didn’t think they would try to terminate us before finding out what we were up to, and the prime rib was…exquisite was the only word that came to mind.
We were lingering over coffee when one man–just one–entered the dining room, crossing to our table with no visible concern. Burly build, maybe five-ten, the blocky sort of warrior who always worried me the most, and with good reason. “Mr. and Mrs. Blyden have agreed to see you,” he said quietly, his slate gray eyes giving nothing away. “Please follow me.”
What, no asking us to disarm first? No attempt to pat us down? Putting us at his back?
I was impressed. The owners of Arvin Properties knew how to play the game.
Ten floors to the penthouse. The elevator was standard Otis except for the one way mirrors. I did wonder who the poor fools were who had to pull watch-the-elevator-go-up-and-down duty. Come to think, the observation stations along the way must have been hell to build….wait a minute. Cameras. Duh.
Charleston and Warisa were seated on a long, leather covered couch, watching a sixty inch TV screen on which one of the local talking heads was pontificating on the storm. Or at least I assumed that was what they were doing, judging by the shots of cars already getting stuck here and there. They had the sound muted.
The senior vampire, reputed to be most of a century older than his wife, looked a bit like the actor, Tom Hanks. That was more disturbing than the glass of red not-wine in his hand; it’s almost impossible to picture Forrest Gump as a predatory businessman vampire to put old J. P. Morgan to shame. On the other hand, since we’re making celebrity comparisons, Warisa could have passed for Sandra Bullock’s prettier kid sister. Which is saying something, as I’ve always considered Bullock to be the hottest chick on the silver screen.
Point being, both vampires were sleepers in more ways than one. An ordinary opponent would never see them coming.
Well, except for the red rimmed eyes, the inescapable mark of the vamvirus, but vams could and sometimes did use contact lenses to hide those. It did not escape my attention that they’d chosen to face us as they truly were. Not that they were taking us lightly; counting our escort, eight guards ringed the room, all of them openly armed.
I took it as a good sign that nobody had a hand on a weapon. Silver linings, right?
More than anything, this was going to be a pissing contest of sorts. There was a smaller couch facing the one occupied by the Blydens. I nodded to them politely but said nothing. They refused to nod back. Uninvited, I seated myself on the smaller couch, stretching my legs out in a relaxed manner–which coincidentally allowed a moderately quick draw of the Taurus Curve from my right hand pocket. If I could get my duster out of the way in time before being riddled like Swiss cheese. The pose looked cool, though.
I sensed Sissy taking up her position at my back, staying on her feet. Her arms would be crossed, an expression of indifferent boredom on her face. This Clan would never use a woman, and especially not a shifter, as a prime bodyguard. I was counting on that keeping them off balance, just a bit.
“Thank you for seeing us,” I said in my most gracious voice.
Charleston Blyden didn’t respond for several seconds, using the silence between us in an attempt to throw me off balance. When that didn’t work, nor did his vampire stare down appear to cause me any visible discomfort, he got the ball rolling. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company, Mr…Jones, is it?”
I smiled. A genuine smile, gently amused. “The Heartbite Clan seems to feel your people may not understand the strength of the Confederation. As I had business in the area, I told Ted I’d fit you into my schedule, see if perhaps we could enlighten you.”
His eyebrows rose in obvious disbelief. “You are working together?” His wife gave him a look when he said that, the sort of look that only a woman can produce. You know, the one that implies, you and your big mouth! Her husband had just admitted he knew very well who we were; she didn’t like it.
“I wouldn’t go quite that far.” I shrugged, dismissive. “We do have some common interests. Cyber security, keeping the knowledge of Talents and especially Clans in the realm of fiction, those sorts of things.”
Warisa Blyden chose that moment to enter the conversation. “Really, why are you…hicks down out of the mountains?”
That did it. I could feel tension in the guards ratcheting up. Sissy’s presence was quiet, steadying, and…coiled. I dropped any pretense of civility and let the words leave my mouth as they would. “We’re here,” I said coldly, “to threaten you.”
They didn’t expect that. Eight warriors reached for their guns…but were stopped in mid-grab by Charleston Blyden’s lifted index finger. A manicured finger. Tom Hanks with a manicure. Huh.
“That,” he smiled, showing his fangs, his eyes as cold as my voice, “is a truly refreshing approach. Why is it, Treemin? Why do so many supposedly intelligent individuals conclude that they must dance around the word when making threats?”
“Got me.” I grinned back, warming to this cold blooded hotel chain operator.
“Please do go on.” I could swear his eyes were warming, though for what reason I had no clue. “Please provide the illuminating details of your…threat.”
“Thank you. I will do just that. First, let me recap some of what you must already know, which is the simple fact that Ted Kraznick and his band of merry murderers tried to eliminate Rodeo Iron for eight full years. We stayed home and simply counter punched for all that time, until the day they finally succeeded in killing two of my closest friends. Then, when we finally went on offense, just three of us crushed the defenses at Heartbite’s headquarters. It’s not that his forces were weak, either; we’re justthat good. Then, when we had our heels on their throats and could have destroyed them utterly, we chose to let some of them live.”
Blyden wasn’t interrupting. In fact, he appeared fascinated as he sipped quietly from his blood glass while giving me his full attention. Not that fascinating a senior Vampire Clan Lord is necessarily a good thing, but it seemed I had the green light to go on.
“You may think Heartbite is now so weakened that it can be picked off easily, Kraznick killed by challenge or assault and his Clan holdings taken over. You would be wrong. He’s not back up to full strength yet, but he’s getting there fast, under a totally new charter. Ted and I came to an agreement. He’s a strong leader, so I chose not to replace him despite our little squabbles, but we agreed that except for Lord Heartbite himself, vampires would henceforth be excluded from his Clan. Weres, fine. Spell casters, fine. But no more Blood Princes.”
“Why?” Warisa’s eyes were flashing. “Racism?”
“Oh, please. That would be species-ism, not racism. Seriously, you’ve been watching the Progressive media for way too long. No, that decision was mine and mine alone. The point is, the Heartbite Clan and the Rodeo Iron Clan have formed the beginnings of a confederation. We’ve titled it the Crossfire Confederacy. Members agree to be bound by the Crossfire Accords, which are simple enough. One, we agree not to attack each other. Two, we agree to trade various forms of information and intel, though of course neither of us expects the other to reveal everything by a long shot. And three–this is where the threat comes in–if either of us is attacked by an outside source, the other is bound to render all possible aid. Be it another Clan or a government agency or whatever, any aggressor toward any member of the Confederacy will find himself in a crossfire.”
I stopped there, letting it hang in the air. In my simple but earnest delivery, I’d leaned forward toward the Blydens, scooching forward to the edge of the couch without even being aware of it.
That was the image I was trying to project. After many hours of computer hacking and research, Philip Phreeb had wholeheartedly agreed with Theodore Kraznick’s evaluation of Charleston Blyden’s personality, summed up in three words: Arrogant, paranoid, and curious. Both of them also agreed that I was out of my mind, bearding the vampire in his own den like this, but I’d been certain I was right. The vam’s paranoia would want to keep him safe, have us killed without ever seeing his fang-filled face; that much was true. But despite our devastating defeat of Michigan’s Heartbite Clan, his arrogance would never allow him to believe a black human welding company executive could possibly be a major threat–at least not without the Wizard on hand to back him up. It was Blyden who was the racist, who refused to drink blood from any source other than a Caucasian untouched by the Black Taint. He knew I was African American, he presumed Sissy was, and he simply couldn’t make himself fear us. Which meant that his curiosity, strong as that of any cat, would rule the day. He would simply have to allow us to get near him in order to study us like bugs under glass before destroying us completely.
Unfortunately, I’d miscalculated and pushed too many of his buttons. I’m not exactly a full fledged telepath, at least not yet, but I am getting better at reading people. I felt the Clan leader’s decision, pressed the button hidden in my left hand jeans pocket that sent a thrill up Sissy’s leg, and the game was on. Blyden started to signal his men to shoot us to doll rags, but I’m faster these days than I used to be. Wind sprints. We had to do them during my high school football days. I hated them then and I hate them now, but I’d been doing them three mornings a week for the past two years and three months. I exploded forward, trusting a whole lot of things to keep Murphy’s Law at bay, trusting more than anything in Sissy Power.
She was faster than Blyden, faster than me, faster than anybody else in the room as her tawny cougar form leaped clean over the couch, line driving all the way to her target before I had the silver laced sword out of its sheath. She was faster than the gunmen. Nothing near the speed of their bullets, but they’d expected to be blasting stationary, unsuspecting, blockhead-stupid Montana hick targets; their minds simply couldn’t process the cougar’s action in time.
The quickest Arvin Clan member in the room turned out to be Warisa Blyden. She was halfway to her feet, half turned away from the onrushing cat when Sissy hit her, the power of her charge carrying both victim and attacker over the low backed couch.
My own charge was more of a good news, bad news kind of thing. Charleston Blyden barely blinked, his bone deep arrogance refusing to accept reality. He was packing, a small semiauto in a shoulder holster, but he seemed frozen in place. All of that was good–and somewhat surprising–news. On the other hand, the hail of bullets that missed Sissy found me with a vengeance. Bad. Thanks to the top secret experimental fabric that had cost as much as a small car for one garment, the Dresden duster stopped the lead from fully penetrating, thanks to every guard in the room packing a shooter in the infamously wimpy 9mm caliber. Good. I was still going to have at least thirty or forty ugly bruises from the hits. Bad, though my adrenaline was up and I’d worry about feeling that later. One sharpshooter got in a fancy head shot that should have cored my brain nicely. Bad. My cowboy hat was thicker than the usual version–which a westerner would have noticed but these New Englanders had missed. Nor was it merely a hat, but rather a felt-coated titanium helmet, way lighter than steel but still heavier than aluminum and a downright bother to wear. Even so, the metal bounced the round off in a ricochet with no more damage than the loss of a bit of felt. Very good indeed.
“Hold your fire!” Glory be; Clan Leader Blyden had found his voice. The shooting stopped immediately. Up close, I could see that the vampire was a small man, no more than five-seven, maybe a hundred and forty pounds. He didn’t look afraid. In fact, he looked…offended. Which made sense; I loomed over him like the Dark Angel of Death, my beloved blade at his throat. It must have been awful for the poor little bloodsucker, dominated even momentarily by an upstart descendant of slaves, his trophy wife flat on her face on the floor behind the couch, the full weight of a 170 lb. tom cougar holding her firmly in place.
“Take a quick look at your wife,” I growled.
He did, turning his head carefully. One does that sort of thing when a poisoned blade is a flick away from opening one’s jugular vein. The big cat had shifted a bit, getting the right angle to enclose its victim’s neck securely in its jaws. Not too securely; Sissy’s fangs glittered. One crunch, even a death reflex, would sever the lovely vam’s spine and introduce a bit of silver to her spurting bloodstream. Blyden hadn’t lived this long without good reason; he took in the situation in a glance and turned back, calm as the proverbial cucumber. We’d taken him off guard, but that would not happen again. “Impressive,” he said.
“Now,” I continued in a more normal tone, “to quote the late great Rodney King, can’t we all just get along?”
Charleston Blyden’s mouth twitched upward. “You’re using King as your role model?”
“Hey.” I grinned, still wary yet keenly aware of the sudden improvement in communications between the two of us. “The Martin Luther King worship is all right, but Rodney’s my guy.”
“He would be. Do you think, Mr. Jackson, that perhaps we got off on the wrong foot?”
I raised an eyebrow. “You think?” Of course, we’d simply been testing each other, right? It’s a guy thing. Never mind that my head ached like seven kinds of hell from the impact of that one bullet. The same hit with a .45 ACP would have knocked me cold or worse, though; I didn’t feel much like complaining. “How be you have your security crew huddle up in one corner where we can keep an eye on them? Then I’ll call off my cougar and sheathe my sword, and maybe we could have a civilized conversation.”
Just like that, disaster was averted. For the moment, anyway; I wasn’t assuming anything. His nose wrinkling at the stink of my nearness, the ancient vampire made it clear he didn’t think much of colored folks. But he did respect survivors who succeeded in smashing his wife flat and putting themselves in position to separate his head from his body. Go figure.
The smashed wife wasn’t nearly as broad minded. Once we were all seated, this time at a small but ornate table with high backed chairs, Warisa got down to some serious glaring. Hate, murder, mayhem, mostly directed at Sissy. Not only had the vam been taken out by an upstart rube from the sticks, but it had been a shifter who’d done it. We knew from Philip’s research that Warisa Blyden purely hated weres; she was the real reason the Arvin Clan was made up of vams as the only Talents. With humans on staff, of course. Every Clan we’d heard about so far had at least a few of those, with the exception of a couple of were-only groups who could fill both Talent and non-Talent roles.
We covered several topics, letting the tension dissipate as far as it could, before I delivered my closing pitch. “We have a prisoner for you.”
“Go on,” Charleston said, pulling a pack of Virginia Slim cigarettes from his breast pocket. Virginia Slims? Menthol, no less, the 120 mm length. He lit up, using an honest to goodness Zippo lighter that looked like World War II vintage. He inhaled deeply, blew the smoke out through his nose, and watched it waft to the rafters. Real rafters; we were on the top floor of the building, and the original rafters were right there. Copper plated, but there. At least the smoke didn’t come across the table at us.
He had to be waiting for me to react to a Virginia Slims smoking vampire. I kept my poker face in place. “Your Clan properties in Hartford border the territory held by the Hood Rats,” I explained. “I know because I lived in this city for a number of years. As I understand the situation, you wouldn’t mind wiping out the HR’s if it could be done without any great effort on your part. Am I correct in that assumption?”
“We all know about the word assume,” he replied, a glint of cold humor creeping into his eyes, “but yes. We wouldn’t object if they…conveniently disappeared.”
I nodded, inwardly relieved. That had been the linchpin of my entire plan; if he’d truly not cared–or had refused to admit it–we’d have been well and truly screwed. “In this case, Lord Arvin,” I went on, using his formal title as a somewhat belated gesture of respect, “we appear to have at least one common interest. Twelve years ago, I left Hartford in order to protect a young lady targeted by the Rats. They took exception to our departure and sent a couple of mercenaries after us. Known hit men. We deflected their attention and let it go at that time, but there’s that old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold.”
“Revenge,” he admitted quietly, “is a concept I understand.”
Another nod. “To that end, we have brought with us a truly dark being–”
“Possessed?” His gaze was sharp.
“Possibly, but my sense of the man is that he is simply and truly evil to his core.”
“And you bring such a one here? To my headquarters?”
“To your parking lot.” I decided it was time to get to a first name basis. “Charleston, I would not bring him into the building. Nor would I suggest that you do so. But he has a certain value. One that I suspect your more talented…persuaders…could put to good use. If you have, say, a distant warehouse or some such where screams would not be heard, this one–his name is Duyi Cheng, a Chinese national–could, I believe, be quite convinced to clear out the Hood Rats for you. Which I, of course, also want.”
“I see. And how would this…evil person accomplish such a…holy mission?”
“He’s what we call a Chameleon, able to manipulate his surface appearance, voice, and mannerisms sufficiently to impersonate anyone close to his own height. But he’s not a true were, and he’s a weakling in that he wants to live; we were able to quite easily persuade him to inject himself with a drug that knocked him out for a day at a time. Of course he is not trustworthy, but he can certainly be…conditioned…to do as you direct. And if he were to enter Hood Rat territory, assuming the precise appearance and convincing mannerisms of various gang members, the gang would destroy itself from the inside in nothing flat.”
That got Warisa Blyden’s attention away from her nemesis. Her glare jerked from Sissy to me, demanding, “He would do that, how?”
“Simple. The HR’s mostly handle drugs and guns these days, right? So the Chameleon ambushes a mule, for example, starts out easy. Kills the kid–believe me, he’s an accomplished killer–and dumps his body. Takes the drugs to a competitor and sells them for pennies on the dollar, using the dead boy’s face to do it. Within hours, days at most, word gets back to the gang leaders that they have a traitor thief, but he’s disappeared. The Chameleon repeats the process with somebody a bit higher up the chain, having learned more about the gang by this time. He uses one gang member’s face and voice after another, spreading dissension, distrust, paranoia. These are just examples. After all, you know the ins and outs of the HR’s better than I do. Before long, he could even impersonate the gang leaders themselves, start a civil war within the gang itself. Pretty soon, a hail of bullets, knives in the night, a garrote job or two, and poof! No more gang.”
Blyden seemed to be considering. I gave him time to do so. He sipped his glass of pure Caucasian blood; neither Sissy nor I sipped anything. Not at table with enemies, we didn’t.
Finally, the Clan Leader asked the magic question, and I knew I had him hooked. “How,” he wondered idly, “could such a useful tool be prevented from disappearing whenever he chose? If this evil Chameleon is as skilled as you say, he would be impossible to control, would he not?”
“For most people, yes,” I agreed, letting my smile reach my eyes. “For Arvin, no.”
His answering smile was fleeting but real.
“Why did you say controlling Cheng would be no problem for Blyden’s bunch?”
Sissy’s question had a simple answer, but I didn’t reply immediately. A dark fright had loomed up suddenly in the swirling snow. It turned out to be a car, hopefully abandoned, stuck smack dab in the middle of the freeway. If somebody was in there, screw ’em, they were dead. Not my problem. The big Chevy with its studded snow tires had no problem churning through the drift, but getting around the motionless vehicle was a bit scary. It was almost impossible to tell where the edge of the pavement was until you felt a wheel or two drop off the edge.
Which had already happened twice.
We’d never have made it without Jack’s custom fog lights. Bolted onto special telescoping mounts, they could be individually raised or lowered to find the best possible angle, piercing the blizzard to some small degree without totally blinding the driver. Fortunately, we had the road to ourselves, and there were no road closure gates in this area. I got us lined out again and picked the speed back up to a blazing 25 mph. Risky, on the edge, but within my skill set.
“A bit of Kraznick intel. Charleston Blyden prides himself on inventing the Blyden Ball Buster.”
“The what?” Sissy had her job to do as shotgun driver, but she was a pro at it, simply watching the right side to warn me if it looked like I was going to run off the road and roll the truck. It was a simple enough task; she could easily chat between moments of panic.
“Some suspect he got the idea from BDSM aficionados. It’s a ring that locks around a guy’s…well, above the testicles, okay? Can’t be removed except by some sort of proprietary technology known only to Charleston and his favorite Persuaders.”
“He calls ’em Persuaders. Anyway, the ring has a timer, and it’s explosive. So lets say Cheng gets set up with one of those, which I have no doubt he will. Blyden tells him exactly what he wants him to do and what time he needs to report back in. If he doesn’t check in, the BBB explodes.”
Sissy started laughing uncontrollably. “Oh, what an image!” It took her a while to calm down enough to aske the obvious question. “But couldn’t Cheng simply manipulate his family jewels to escape the Buster? He’s not exactly a standard human, now is he?”
“No, he’s not. But there have to be certain rules of physics that Cheng follows when he’s changing appearance. Believe me, Blyden will make sure his pet Darth Vader is truly under his control before he sics him on the HR’s.”
“I believe you. Just thought of something.”
“Won’t Blyden be tempted to keep Cheng around, you know, forever? Controlling a weapon like that could make Arvin Clan a real menace to society.”
“No kidding. Yeah, I thought about that. But no, when he saw what we had in that cage, he recognized the danger immediately. He won’t take a chance. He’ll make sure Cheng is stone cold dead, burned to ashes, and the ashes dissolved in acid. Not to mention that the Chinaman will know too much.”
Talked out, we motored on through the storm, the extreme concentration of driving in this weather serving as a distraction from the miseries of my beat-up body. There were lots of reasons to keep going. If we pushed hard and didn’t have a wreck, we might actually make it home by Christmas morning. The photos of “Mei Foo” standing in front of the Lafayette Statue in Hartford, “accidentally” captured by a “tourist”, needed to get to Philip Phreeb to leak to YouTube as soon as possible. After that, the Phreebster would hack a couple of Chinese security databases to make sure the evidence of the Suited woman being on the east coast reached the right eyes. Once the weather cleared, satellites and drones once again had a chance of noticing us. Warisa Blyden would urge her husband to take action against us, a pressure the senior vampire might not be able to resist if we were still within easy target range. Jack would probably be irritated until we returned his truck in one piece. And so on and so forth.
My impact-inspired headache spiked an extra flash of pain through my skull. Concussion, maybe, but I wasn’t feeling any desire to drop off to sleep. Not with Death out there figure skating on the slick and nearly invisible highway, I wasn’t. It’s like the old saying goes: I can sleep when I’m dead.
Or not. Reincarnation throws a whole lot of old sayings into the Mixmaster.