Somewhere over the North Atlantic
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.