The flight from Heathrow to New York was a little over eight hours long, and Mr. Dutch had arranged it so that as much of those eight hours as possible would be in sunshine.
Part of it was so that his familiar, Catherine, would be more comfortable and alert and able to better work with him on their current task. Part of it was so that his colleague Yolanthe Normand, less able than he to avoid the torpor during the day, would be less inclined to discuss the job. She was a step or two ahead of him, as always, and he needed the time to brief with Catherine prior to the inevitable pregaming that would happen between he and Yolanthe if he was going to keep up.
Part of it was that, even after two hundred years, he missed the sun and the ocean and the way they looked together.
The windows of the Creighton’s Learjet had been treated with UV filters for just such a purpose and staffed with trusted familiars who knew how to accommodate their patrons’ needs while boarding and deboarding during daylight hours, and their general sluggishness while in flight. Yolanthe Normand had indeed retired to the rear of the plane to rest, while Catherine prepared the briefing in the small four-seater dining and office area. She watched out of the corner of her eye as Mr. Dutch hung up his jacket and undid his collar and cuffs. He wore an ivory dress shirt and the vest from his three-piece blue suit, and he rolled up his sleeves as he prepared a cup of coffee. He was lucky. Not all of his kind retained their sense of taste for food. Somehow (he liked to say through sheer force of will) he’d kept his, and in fact the heightened senses that came with the Embrace actually augmented his appreciation for food. It did not help the questionable digestion that came with the other changes to his body and metabolism, but he didn’t talk much about that.
Catherine was ready by the time his coffee was. “Is that what you need?” she asked, indicating the coffee and then gesturing vaguely to her neck. He considered the understated offer. It was certainly appealing. She wore on her pale neck a thin black leather collar that bore a silver token. On the token were two glyphs – one indicated House Scion, and the other was one that had come to represent Dutch. Beneath the collar, he knew every millimetre of her carotid as it traced its way up from her heart to her brain. He knew where to bite for the most efficient feed, where to avoid the most nerve endings to avoid pain and maximize the joy of the Kiss, where would show the least in the days between his feeding and the accelerated scarless healing encouraged by enzymes and proteins in his saliva. The Kiss would replenish him, and a few moments of care would promote cell division and collagen development, leaving her restored and blemish-free in superhuman time. Dutch knew it all, and he wanted what she offered him.
“No,” he said. “Thank you. Not on the plane. The low pressure wouldn’t be good for you. There’s nowhere to recover. Let’s focus and enjoy our coffee for now. Please, let’s begin.”
Catherine Cash smiled as she and Mr. Dutch fought their own warm flushes of yearning for the Kiss. She appreciated her patron for a moment as he sipped his coffee. The suit she had commissioned for him fit him well. He still doesn’t quite fit it, though, she thought. Two hundred years hadn’t put much distance between him and his South African homesteader roots, and the effect was charming, striking, and disarming all at the same time. It was a very composed look she had designed for Mr. Dutch in the last couple of years of their arrangement – almost model-like, with his shaggy blond hair and close-cropped stubble accentuating the farmboy charm. He was built to swing an axe or carry a hay bale, not a briefcase. She had calculated that too as he took on more and more files for his own patrons. The well-groomed hayseed with the charming accent wearing a slick suit like a costume was a gambit. It made people underestimate him. But she knew that her boss was not a man to be underestimated.
“Your contact will be one Gerald Barnabas. House Barnabas,” she began, placing a photo in front of Mr. Dutch. “House Barnabas is small. Localized mostly to the Eastern seaboard. Operates in a couple of ports of note. Philadelphia and Charleston, mostly.”
“He’s in the import-export business, then,” Mr. Dutch said, examining the photo. Barnabas certainly looked the part of an old-time dockhand, bearded and long-haired under a knit cap. His face bore scars from long ago, and he wore a rough coat that suggested a weapon concealed under it.
“Passage for sleeping elders across the Atlantic. Guns and ammunition. Blood and donors. Some trade in historical artifacts,” Catherine continued. “He’s the one that arranged transportation for the original Pax documents back to Europe once the private owner… um, passed.”
Mr. Dutch smiled wryly. That a human had come into possession of those accords, signed by many great and ancient Houses, was a sign of the times. It was becoming harder and harder to maintain the Shroud in the age of infinite information. But they had recovered the document. Not personally, but the team of Normand, Dutch, and Cash had made certain arrangements, and evidently this Barnabas had played a minor role. “So why exactly are we worried about losing him?”
“The Loop concerns themselves with the fortune and protection of every House,” Catherine recited. “But in all honesty he’s a minor player with delusions of grandeur. His daughter, next in line, is a realist and sees the error in leaving the Loop. So she may be our vector to maintain this trade link.”
“Do we really need someone in the ports this badly?” Dutch wondered, and allowed himself another carefully-paced sip of coffee. “The family expressed some urgency in keeping this locked down,” she replied quickly. “They didn’t give a reason why.”
Dutch looked over the rim of the mug at her. “But you have a suspicion,” he said. He considered her for a long moment, listening to her heartbeat, smelling a hint of fear hormone in her. “You think it has something to do with Darrian’s execution in Savannah.”
“You think that they want to avoid any situation where one of our own is unable to flee America.”
“You’re allowed to speculate,” he admonished gently.
“I know. I prefer not to.”
“May I, then?”
“By all means,” Catherine said, and closed the folder.
Dutch leaned back and looked out the UV-protected windows. “We’re there to play kingmaker as much as to play nice. We offer Barnabas access to the ports in Savannah if he swears allegiance to the Loop and renounces the Elderidges’ recruitment efforts. We bankroll his expansion into Savannah. Disrupt the foothold of the organized crime that exists there to create a vacuum he can move into.”
She flipped through a couple of pages of the dossier, refreshing her memory. “Effectively, yes.”
“But he’s not sympathetic.”
“No. He’s an ideologue.”
“But his daughter?”
“A pragmatist. And ambitious.”
“Tell me more about her,” Dutch said.
Catherine opened the folder again and flipped through until she found a photo. “Silvia Barnabas,” she said, sliding the photo across the small table. The Learjet bumped through a pocket of turbulence and Dutch lifted his coffee to that he could steady it while he examined the photo. She watched his eyes flick over the photo for a moment before continuing. “She handles the South Carolina operations more or less autonomously. The sense isn’t that she and her father – ”
“Gerald,” Mr. Dutch gently mocked an elaborate voice, quirking an eyebrow at Catherine. She smiled. The name certainly didn’t seem to fit the man.
“The sense isn’t that they’re estranged, or at odds, but she’s made it abundantly clear that she does not need her father,” Catherine continued. Mr. Dutch pulled the dossier over to him and began scanning it as she talked. “And at this stage she does not seem to have any strong affections for him. She has slowly divested herself from the other affairs of Clan Barnabas and has authority, as the eldest child, but few strong ties.”
Mr. Dutch had gone to work in the last couple of sentences of the briefing. Catherine could see the wheels turning in his head. She knew this part of the process – where he worked the problem like a lock. Soon enough, with enough twisting and prodding, the pieces would click into place like tumblers, and the solution would be revealed. Catherine knew the process well, and she enjoyed watching her patron do the same kind of work.
He flipped the folder closed after a couple of minutes’ deliberation and lifted his coffee to his lips again. “I am sorry I’m coming into this so cold,” he said. “The turnaround from the last job to this was… Well, I was not expecting to travel again so soon.”
“You don’t need to apologize to me,” Catherine said. “I suspect Yolanthe will feel the need to discuss the approach more with you when we land, but it’s truly not that complicated a negotiation. Gerald Barnabas will either accept our offer to help him expand into Savannah with our oversight and involvement. Or he does not, and we move on to make the offer to Silvia.”
“From there, we either support her in a coup, or hope that father Barnabas has the good sense to let Silvia do the work,” Mr. Dutch responded. “Maybe – just maybe – we can get her to work with us without explicitly turning on or disobeying her father.” His blue eyes were intense under furrowed brows. “Invisibility is perhaps the optimal solution here. Especially if the idea is to make Savannah a fallback position.”
Catherine leaned back in her chair. “Are you considering going to her first?”
Mr. Dutch shook his head. “No. We have made arrangements to meet with the patriarch of House Barnabas.” He raised an eyebrow again and a smile tugged at his lips. “We would not cancel such an important engagement lightly, Miss Cash. You know that.”
She returned the smile warmly. A tingle spread down her neck where she had offered herself to him before. “My apologies, sir.”
Mr. Dutch let them enjoy the moment before continuing. “I think that – like you said, and like the dossier implies – Sylvia will be interested in the offer. She will want to expand into Georgia, and she, not Barnabas, will be able to do it. But if Barnabas knows that we have designs on the port, perhaps she makes a play to take ownership of Savannah. To prevent a foreign influence from gaining power there,” he explained.
“She would be taking a risk, supporting us covertly.”
“She would. But she stands to gain considerable wealth and influence.”
“Which is where Yolanthe would do what she does best,” Catherine said.
“Yes. I’ll make contact and, if Barnabas refuses to participate, then we make contact with Sylvia and aim for a subtle approach. In the meantime Yolanthe can begin her preparations. And you, too,” he added. “I know that the usual equipment is being delivered, but now that you mention it I will want to feed before the meeting. Just in case Barnabas’ delusions of grandeur lead him to some truly stupid decisions. I will want to be refreshed.”
Catherine nodded, sending waves through her dark brown hair. “I suspected you might. Like you said, you’ve been travelling for some time. I’ve made arrangements with the safehouse.”
“Thank you, Miss Cash,” Mr. Dutch said. “Let’s enjoy the flight for a while until it’s dark enough for Ms. Normand to rejoin us, and consider the task. The torpor is finally catching up with me. We can reconvene in a couple of hours.”
After a few pleasantries, Dutch returned to his seat behind the small office pod. The thirst was indeed creeping in. He had hunted during his last mission, but he had also expended an incredible amount of energy and he had needed to heal considerably in a short period of time. He was drained.
And so with the mission finally well-understood, Dutch leaned his forehead against the windowsill and watched the ocean roll by.
House Rahaim Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, one week ago
“This light does not… suit you, father,” Mazina Rahaim noted.
And it did not. Muhammad Rahaim’s discomfort was visible in the light shining through the glass of the balcony overlooking the circuit. The effects of the anti-UV lotion applied earlier that morning were just starting to fade. Now, in the stark sunlight, the discomfort of the aged vampire patriarch was beginning to look frightfully clear.
“I know, my jewel,” he muttered. “But we must keep up appearances for the meanti-”
He paused as the Formula One cars roared past them below, eliciting raucous celebration from the masses in the bleachers and some polite applause from the more reserved in the balcony on top.
Once the last whine of the racers had come, Muhammad turned to a smaller, bespectacled and slightly plumper man by his side wearing a plain white headscarf. By the looks of it, he had clearly enjoyed the race more than his two masters. Muhammad, stooping his six foot four frame, whispered feverishly into the smaller man’s ear.
“Khalil. Is the race over?”
“Then inform the others we will retire to our quarters.” Muhammad made a gesture as if to go. “And tell the American we will be waiting for him back at the penthouse.”
Khalil nodded and moved to engage in conversation with the others at the balcony. Muhammad and Mazina discreetly made their exit.
“What does the Yankee want again?” he asked her once they were safe and sound in the limousine.
“He is from Washington, father.” Mazina was styling her nails, experimenting with some scarlet and gold glitter. Muhammad smiled. In a sense, she hadn’t really grown up from the young girl she was centuries ago.
Mazina continued. “He wants to talk to us on the Guerrera deal.”
“I thought the Guerrera deal was done and finished with.”
“Evidently not for him, father.” Mazina reapplied deep, ruby red lipstick. “He is… unhappy about the ‘assault’ Fariq fixed on the convoy.” Muhammad chuckled. “Is he now?”
And he was. Standing in front of the Rahaim residence half an hour later was a diminutive American in a nondescript suit and tie, who, though flanked by an entourage of heavily-armed US Marines, was struggling to maintain his composure.
When the guards had left them, they both sat down in the residence’s spacious botanical courtyard. The flamboyant array of flora and fauna starkly contrasted with the arid desert outside.
The American, ignoring the cold cup of black coffee in front of him, adjusted his tie. “Mr. Rahaim.”
On the other side of the table, Muhammad coolly sipped from his hot cup, with a dash of blood mixed in. “Robert Brode. Aide to the Undersecretary of the US Department of Defense.”
“Flattery will not work this time, Mr. Rahaim.” Brode menacingly leant forward. Muhammad barely met his eye. “What happened to the Guerrera deal?”
“An ambush.” Muhammad put down his cup. “That your people have been generously compensated for.”
“You can’t just throw money at us and expect the matter to be closed! Thanks to that ‘ambush’, three hundred Kalashnikovs are not in the hands of the militias in Kirkuk!”
“Let us remember, Mr. Brode, that you chose to have them transported via the faster route in the first place.”
“It’s not just that!” Brode was shouting now. “Do you know what happens if they trace the guns back to us, and some mopey CNN reporter gets their hands on them? The embarrassment of the United States on the world stage! The press everywhere in my people’s business, and yours!”
“Our people have nothing to worry about.” Muhammad grinned, allowing some of his canines to slip out. “At the end of the day, Mr. Brode, we have fulfilled the terms of our deal. This matter is ended.” He stood and turned to leave.
“Don’t turn away from me, Muhammad!”
Muhammad looked back. Brode was red in the face, the same color as his tie.
“I know who you are.”
Muhammad raised an eyebrow. “And who might I be?”
“Monsters. Monsters that feed on flesh and blood, who never die and who burn in the sunlight. I know you’re not just an ordinary gun runner, Rahaim. You’re something else. And soon everyone will see you and your family for who you really are!”
Muhammad said nothing. Brode breathed in deeply, beginning to realize the gravity of what he had just said.
Muhammad, a face as unreadable as stone, turned away. “Good day, Mr. Brode.”
Once back in his personal study, he reviewed the CCTV footage of Brode’s convoy pulling out into the desert. He dialed a number.
“Have Dhareed kill the American, please.”
The other side was quiet, for a while. “...Are you sure, sir? That will be quite high-profile, no matter how quietly we do it.”
“Are you scared of them, Khalil?”
The other side fell silent again, this time for longer. “How would you like it to be done, sir?”
A week later, the body of Robert Brode would be found in a Boston alleyway, with a face so disfigured that it had looked like it had been crushed by someone’s bare hands - and to those in the know, it had. In Abu Dhabi, Muhammad Rahaim called out to his daughter.
“Pack your bags.” Muhammad motioned to a butler familiar. “We are going to New York.”
The Roman settlement in the area the Creightons call home entered decline after the 2nd century. Part of that was an increase in aggression from the Picts. Part of that was a series of general uprisings and a mood of unrest amongst the Roman troops and citizenry in Britain. Part of that – perhaps the largest part, though historians debate this point – was the reputation it developed.
The town was at one point an important town with a considerable amount of traffic, somewhere between the highly Romanized areas to the South and the wilds to the North. The Roman occupation included a temple complex, regional administration, an inn, and baths. Troops and traders from all over Roman Britain would move through to reinforce the northern border or to return South to London. Trade was good. Amenities were sophisticated. Wine flowed. The bath complex grew to accommodate the increased traffic.
But rumours began. Rumours of witches and demons. Rumours of people going missing. Of bloodstained cobblestones and mutilated bodies. Of one elderly patron’s interest in hearty young men and women, who would occasionally go missing. Of tattoos – strange symbols, not pagan, not Roman – borne by those who came and went from the estate. Officially, nothing was confirmed. But soon enough the rumours started to coalesce around the wealthy patrons of the town, the ones who owned the baths and funded the small temple complex and paid to maintain the catacombs beneath. And bit by inexorable bit the centre of the town’s life started to shift away from the patrons’ estate, towards the other end of the settlement.
This suited the patrons just fine. They allowed the traffic at the baths to dwindle. They accepted when a new temple drew the focus of worship away from their land and dismissed the temple staff to work elsewhere. The catacombs lay dormant as burials ceased.
As the wider area entered decline, there continued to be traffic, although less. But by this time the attention had shifted far from the strange family that had founded and overseen the town. And so nobody noticed when the Roman estate was slowly subsumed into the ground, and a new house was built on the hill. By the time the Romans had completed their withdrawal from Britain in the 5th century, a new Briton house stood on the spot where the Roman settlement had once flourished. And so it continued unmolested through the years. But folklore in the area did not quite forget the idea that there was a spirit or creature in the area that fed on the young and healthy. And whenever anyone went missing, there was a murmur that the spirit folk were at work. Perhaps a pale woman who stalked graveyards and preyed on bereaved lovers and passers-by. Perhaps an undead Celtic dwarf who delighted in cruelty and could only be dispatched with a sword made of yew wood. In the 50 years after the Roman withdrawal, there were intermittent flurries of disappearances and strange occurrences. But then, for nearly a century, quiet.
Eventually, whispers began that something was again stirring. The kingdom of Mercia, which encompassed the area, began to experience a rapid increase in power. It remained pagan much later than other areas in England. The Northumbrians especially held a distaste for the pagan Mercians, and talked in low voices about pagan demons who feasted on the blood of virgins. Questions were raised about the provenance of the Mercian king’s power, where his knowledge and tactics came from. How so many of his opponents seemed to die or disappear at inopportune times. And the old ghost stories started again.
The Mercian throne passed from king to king, with favour blowing in one way or another. The old Breton estate that stood on the site of an old Roman settlement evolved into something else. And all grew quiet for some time.
Eventually the Mercians stopped being useful, and in the 9th century Danish invaders put an end to the Kingdom of Mercia. Some historians called it an inevitability. Others saw peculiar machinations, and a pattern beginning to emerge. More and more infrequently through the centuries, but always in the same way, power was being brokered. And the keen-eyed would note that the calm centre of the storm in the British Isles was a small estate in the North of Warwickshire.
Lady Ada Creighton snapped the last sinews, separating the head from the body. She tossed the head off to the side and it rolled into the shadows. The body, spasming and enthusiastically pumping out its hot blood, collapsed to its knees and slowly tipped forward, landing at the edge of the retrofitted Roman bath in front of her. Lady Creighton watched as it emptied itself into the pool. Beneath, fed by pumps far away so as not to create noise, oxygen-rich air bubbled through it, and slow, gently turbines kept it moving. There were many human lives’ worth of blood in the pool. But the last one was Lady Creighton’s privilege to add. It was an offering.
“Lamashtu,” she called gently. “Lamashtu. It’s fresh. For you. Thank you, progenitor.”
Lady Creighton’s husband, her sire, the vampire who turned her, was nearly the latest in the unbroken line of House Scion. But the creature that lived in the depths of her estate, moving slowly through the crypts and the temple complex and only ever venturing out as far as this ceremonial bath, was something far different. A pureblood vampire, impossibly old. One who had whispered in the right ears and made clever decisions and deals for over a thousand years more than a thousand years before Caesar was murdered in the Senate. She had amassed a horde of gold and secrets in the catacombs and guarded it like a dragon.
And now, here she was. Impossibly old. Still whispering. But in many languages, most dead, and to no one. Sitting in the dark, being fed like a child.
Lamashtu would be worshipped and nourished and sacrificed to. But Lady Creighton, Matriarch of House Scion wielded the power now. A half-breed. A convert. Lamashtu had reminded Ada of her status many times early on, when Ada’s power was still developing and Lamashtu would still venture above ground.
Lady Creighton caught a rustle of movement in the deep darkness on the other side of the pool, and a babble of whispers. She stepped back from the pool of blood. A slender, pale figure slipped to the side of the pool on all fours, smelling, dipping its fingers in like a child would, tasting gingerly. Its hair trailed along the surface of the blood, turning the white to pink. It spoke to itself, spoke to the dark alcoves of the room around it, spoke to ghosts. Lady Creighton allowed herself to watch as Lamashtu emerged. Her face and body were oddly ageless, but impossibly old at the same time – like a classical statue carved out of flawed marble, translucent and veined but polished beyond any semblance of texture. Finally Lamashtu slipped beneath the surface of the pool.
The sacrament was complete. Lamashtu would live on, for all the good it did anyone these days. It felt like half of Lord Creighton’s attention was focused on his mother in recent decades, worrying and doting and hunting – him, hunting for her and carrying the catch back like a servant. Once, he was a force to be reckoned with. The Lariat would never have been so much as a whisper on the Americans’ lips if he had his full attention on the authority that was their birthright.
One day soon, Ada Creighton vowed, they would be rid of Lamashtu and could shape the fortunes of House Scion free of her legacy. Until then, the Mother of Vampires had been appeased. Business concluded.
With whispers and small splashes echoing behind her. Lady Creighton ascended back to her house.
Hopefully, news would be waiting from Dutch, Normand, and Cash. She had designs on the American port cities.