Berkfield stood in the archway that separated his kitchen and dining room. He watched his wife move between the sink and the dishwasher, the counter television blaring a sitcom. He glanced up toward the ceiling, willing away sudden tears. The sound of heavy metal was coming from his son's room. Robert would go deaf by twenty, he mused, then sadness chased away the thought.
Before the scientist had briefly detained him, he knew for sure that his children would outlive him, no matter what statistics proved. He was a cop; he knew he might die young. His family was supposed to be inviolate. This was a perversion of the way things were meant to be. He closed his eyes to fight back the tears and listened for his daughter's voice, already knowing that Kristin was on the telephone with one of her girl friends. It pained him to think of the trauma he was about to visit upon them all.
His attention returned to his wife. She looked so pretty in her wrinkled khaki capri pants, her pink T-shirt, and little white sneakers. Marjorie was a pretty woman, still, at forty-two. Sure they'd had their ups and downs, but he still loved her smile, the way her eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled... her form was rounder, softer these days, but it was also comforting and matched his own.
As she continued to bend and pivot and rinse dinner dishes, he found himself drawn to her. He watched the setting sun glisten in her short blond hair, and then reached out to cup her cheek.
She stopped, holding a dripping dish midair. "What's wrong, honey?"
He shook his head. "Nothing. I love you."
She set the dish down carefully, her eyes searching his face. "No one died at work, did they? Your new partner..."
He shook his head no and tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. "No. Everything and everyone at work is fine. I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you... how much I love you." He smiled. "Why don't you make me and the kids help you out more?"
Marjorie chuckled, and began working on clearing out the sink beside him. "Because it's easier not to fight with you guys and just get it done myself." She kissed his cheek. "Some battles you learn, over the years, are not worth the energy." She offered him a sly pout. "So, either you're angling for a second Wednesday night this week, or you just bought some more electronic gizmos that this house doesn't need. Which is it?"
He cast his gaze out past the breakfast nook to the sliding glass doors. How did a man protect his family from the night?
"I didn't buy any more stuff, and I'm getting used to rations," he said, trying to tease her.
"Oh, ho, ho... Very funny, Mr. Berkfield. You might have to get used to sleeping on the sofa, if you don't watch it."
Her laughter and the twinkle in her eyes made him know what he had to do. It broke his heart to steal her joy, but he wanted them all to survive. Even if this scientist had been wrong and was just a nutcase, it was better that his family not be around until he figured it out. Yet, the fact that the scientist had seen the same things he'd seen made him slow to judge the man as a lunatic. Deciding to err on the side of caution, Berkfield took his time to explain.
"Marj," he said quietly, in a tone that stilled her mirth, "I need you and the kids to tell people that you're going to visit your sister in Iowa for a while. There's this priest I met, uh... a Father Patrick that I need you to stay with for a bit." He waited until his wife nervously nodded. "Remember after what happened in the alley, I told you he came to me while I was looking for that guy, Rivera? If something happens to me, you and the kids will be safe with him. Do you understand?"
He caught the glass that was in her hand before it fell to the floor.
"There are some men I put away, years ago... I want you and the kids to lay low until it gets sorted out. I don't want you to go with anybody except the priest. I don't even want any of the guys at the office to know where you are, in case there's another bad apple in the department."
He watched tears fill her pretty blue-green eyes; he almost couldn't breathe as she wrapped one arm around her waist and covered her mouth. He stared at her glistening tears, loving how one eye seemed blue and one seemed green. It was as though he needed to recall every facet of her in great detail and brand the memory of it into his mind.
"I knew this would happen one day," she whispered. "You've put so many criminals away..."
She touched his cheek and he drew her into an embrace, burying his face against her neck.
"The children..." Her voice faltered and he hugged her tighter.
"Only trust that priest. Only him," he said, firmly holding her back from him to look into her eyes. There was no way in the world he would entrust the lives of his family to some unknown group of mad scientists that had abducted him and threatened him in his own driveway.
"When my old partner went bad, Father Pat came to me and told me a lot of things were happening around Carlos Rivera that I didn't understand. But he's a man of the cloth, and he said if Rivera's word ever got shaky or if he was compromised, to come to him immediately for safe harbor. He's linked to the Vatican, and they have resources that can keep you safe and comfortable until this all blows over."
"You're going with us, right? You aren't staying here!"
He cradled his wife in his arms and kissed the crown of her head. "No, honey. I have to bring closure to this thing, and I want you and the kids safe until this is finished. I'll be all right. Just go with the priest, tonight. Call a few girlfriends and spread the word that you're visiting relatives, and then make the call. I'll joke around with the guys about hanging out for beers while you and the kids are in Iowa. I want everyone to think everything is fine, got it?"
"But you don't trust anyone in the department? No one?" Her eyes scanned his face as tears streaked her ashen cheeks.
Berkfield kissed his cross then kissed her lips fast. "No. Your mouth to God's ear, you are going to visit your sister tonight, with the kids. Make the calls, get the bags from the garage that I always told you to keep ready, and drive. You get in the car and dial the priest's number - memorize it when I give it to you. Okay?"
Marjorie only nodded, obviously too traumatized to speak. Her stricken expression cut into his conscience. What if this was all pure insanity? He'd made his wife memorize safe-house numbers, keep clothes in a garage to escape at a moment's notice as though they were fugitives. He'd run drills with his children to keep them readied... all the while telling them that mobsters were the culprit, that his job had hazards that could spill over to them... but he'd never imagined the danger would be vampires.
He'd vowed to give the Guardians the early part of the evening to purge Damali, but Carlos knew it would be impossible to make it through the entire night without going to her. Still, there were security issues that he had to address, if he was going to keep her safe. That reality held him steady, honed his focus to razor clarity. It was about finding the motherfucker that had breeched his borders and had put his woman at risk.
When the earth opened and the swirling blackness died down, Carlos stood on the front grounds of his Beverly Hills lair, huge chains wrapped around both fists, a beast at either side of him, straining to break free of their leads.
"Chill," he said firmly, his head tilting. He heard it, too. Damali's bloodcurdling screams slammed into his brain. Not a good sign. The sound agitated the hounds, but it drove a spike through his skull. The Guardians were not confining his baby; they were torturing the living shit out of her! The only relief was that they hadn't dusted her.
Carlos closed his eyes. He had to give them time to work on her. He had to ignore her call. She had to ride it out to become human again. Only his council-level status gave him the wherewithal to resist her cries, but even that power was questionable. He let his breath out slowly and wound the chains in his fist tighter. It was about caring for her enough to let her live the way she was intended.
He forced the dogs to heel, giving them a hard tug by their chains, and began walking the perimeter of his grounds with them so they'd know the borders that they were confined within. "Not the postman, not the cops, not a kid chasing a ball - only I feed you," he muttered as he walked the monsters, noting how they snarled, sniffed, and occasionally looked at him confused when Damali's voice pierced their senses. "I know," he said, dropping the chains and stroking their ugly heads to calm them. "It's fucking me up, too. Stay!"
The more aggressive of the two animals growled low in his throat and walked in a circle, going from the edge of the land back to Carlos, but then settled down. He had to feed these creatures�go find a miscellaneous vamp or local demon so the animals could get a topside feed on, even though they'd fed well on the way up.
It had sent a serious message within all the lower levels he'd passed, and the news was out, couriers were on notice. Every region was now aware that a council master was going topside and was taking no prisoners, if crossed. Courier ranks stood aghast as he donated a few of them to the cause of proving his point. Even the were-realms were giving him wide berth. The little stop down there garnered respect with Hell-dogs at his heels. And every region knew that council masters didn't do topside, unless there was a serious mission at hand.
But the other issue was he had to do something, anything, to get the sound of Damali's cries out of his mind. As her voice escalated, he gave his dogs a hard glare. "Conceal. Stay. Guard." He watched them sulk away, dematerializing as they took winged flight and bent the top branches of a mature oak tree as their lookout post. Only their glowing eyes told him where they were.
Blood Music made the most sense as a primary feeding ground, to his way of thinking - it had been the epicenter of Nuit's territory. The hounds would get the scent from Nuit's tracer in the meat, and any old dons left, rebels, or human operatives marked from that region, would be blocked from ambushing him. So, he went there.
"Good evening," Carlos said with a calm smile as he materialized in the plush outer lobby of Blood's sixty-sixth-floor penthouse. He remembered being brought here when first turned... ironic how life... and death could be. At the bottom one minute, at the top the next, but wasn't the promise that in the last days, the first should be last and the last should be first?
He studied the sumptuous leather seating, dark marble along the walls, and the huge reception desk of the same materials, bearing the Blood Music insignia crest and logo - that would have to go. So would a few of the tired human artists on the label. But all things in good time. Too hasty a move would further alert the four topside masters, and unfortunately, Nuit's music empire was still producing plenty of negative results for the vamp nation. It was already tense in the empire, given that a councilman had not elected to stay seated on a subterranean throne.
As he moved toward the front desk, the pale, willowy vamp receptionist at the front desk blanched and held her breath for a moment before responding.
"Master Rivera, uh, oh, a... good evening. We didn't know you were coming or when you'd want your new offices readied." She jumped up from her desk, and hit the console. "We'll have that immediately rectified, sir. How can I make you comfortable in the - "
"I want a board meeting of all my vice presidents, now, in the war room." He smiled at her more broadly and gave her a wink. "You can chill. Only top brass changes in a hostile takeover."
"Got a bad feeling, man," Stack said, peering around the new additions to Club Vengeance.
Yonnie only nodded and continued to sip his drink. Downing it quickly, he ordered another round for himself and his partner. "Two Chivas, double color. Top shelf," he told the bartender without glancing up, waiting as the bartender mixed liquor and blood. He knew Rivera was close. The hair on his neck was crackling with electricity. Every curly strand of his Afro felt like it was on fire.
Accepting his drink, he suddenly stood as he watched Stack nearly topple his short rocks glass when he knocked back the shot and set the drink down hard. "It's time."
Stack was slow to get up and follow him. Yonnie brushed past the eager females that greeted them as they cut a swath through the frenetic club crowd. Almost as quickly as their popularity had been ignited, he could feel it wane as he wound his way up the spiral staircase and crossed the first floor on his way to Carlos's old office. The females in the club had their line of vision trained on the boss's VIP booth. Furious energy radiated from it nearly twenty-five yards away.
"Whatchu gonna tell him, man?" Stack whispered.
"The truth, and beg for mercy," Yonnie said, no quiver in his tone, his gaze straight ahead, his pace steady as they walked. "If we bullshit him that's a sure death."
Heads turned slowly as they passed. All eyes were trained upon the two young lieutenants walking toward the booth. The music seemed to get quieter as they approached. The entire club froze, then gasps rippled through the room as two Hell-dogs appeared and snarled to stop Yonnie and Stack's approach.
"Gentlemen," Carlos said, materializing out of a beam of blue club light. "I like what you've done with the establishment." He stroked the heads of his beasts and snapped his fingers twice, commanding the dogs to sit, and then extended his crest ring for Yonnie and Stack to kiss.
"We added a new subterranean level," Stack said quickly, bowing and stepping back from Carlos after appropriately acknowledging his rank. "While you were gone, we converted the basement level for VIPs so the club can stay open twenty-four hours without a light intrusion. It's fully stocked with top-shelf and the territory's best females."
Carlos nodded and smoothed the front of his black Armani suit, his gaze sweeping the club floor. His line of vision settled on Yonnie, who looked him square in the eyes. He liked that. A man with courage. A man of few words, wise enough to hold his counsel until he was asked to speak. Carlos smiled. The collective tension in the establishment abated. The music resumed.
"Walk with me, Yonnie. Let's have a conversation."
Yonnie nodded and neared Carlos.
Appearing relieved, Stack stepped away from his partner's side, his eyes holding an expression of pity. Carlos watched Yonnie stiffen from the corner of his eye.
"Feed the dogs," Carlos ordered as they left Stack. "They require a hundred and eighty pounds of meat. Take it from the old inventory in the freezer. I want that bullshit out of my club, understood? Only top-shelf from Nuit's old holding in here, but no new bodies." He glanced at the dogs, angry that he didn't consider feeding them the leftovers from Blood Music. Carlos resumed walking with Yonnie a few paces behind him.
They climbed the stairs to Carlos's old office, and for a bit, nostalgia settled into Carlos's bones. He approached two bulked security vamps who parted for them to pass. The good old days, when he was alive and this club had been the crown jewel of his human empire. So much had changed in such a short time, and he'd learned just how relative time was.
Carlos took in his environment, walking around the spacious room, remembering, and fingering objects on his old mahogany desk. The room now seemed so small, so plain, compared to what he'd experienced since then.
"Sit," he bade Yonnie, as he found his old high-back leather chair and sat in it. He was amazed at how ordinary it felt in comparison to his council throne.
But Yonnie didn't sit. He stood before the wide desk, his eyes glittering with both fear and respect as he stared at Carlos.
"Sir, we have a problem."
Carlos laced his fingers together and made a tent. "I know."
"Philadelphia was a disaster."
A slight smile tugged at Carlos's mouth as he stared at the young vampire. Yonnie couldn't have been more than eighteen years old when he turned. He wasn't concerned about Philadelphia. But he was aware of the strong Guardian nest that had been uncovered there. Perverse amusement filled him. He now understood the chairman's reactions to his visits to council chambers. So he waited, gathering the patience to watch how Yonnie would function when there was bad news to deliver to the boss.
"We got blindsided there," Yonnie said, his expression stoic, but the beads of perspiration forming on his brow gave away his calm exterior. "We'll go back and address it, will root out all Guardian teams in your territories. Our resources had been strained - "
Carlos held up his hand. "Let the Guardian teams, wherever you find them, be."
Yonnie blinked twice. "Sir?"
"Strategy," Carlos said, his gaze assessing every inch of the young vampire. "When their side gets that strong, it's because our side has kicked up a notch. If Guardian teams are flooding my zones, then it stands to reason that the light has picked up on more than me in the area." Carlos's smile disappeared as Yonnie's body swayed. "This is why I asked you to have a seat."
Yonnie nodded and sat slowly, his attention riveted to Carlos. "You were breached by another master?"
"Appears so," Carlos murmured, renewed fury making his incisors lower a half inch.
"We'll take him," Yonnie said quickly. He stood again and began pacing, his agitation creating a crackle of electricity throughout the room.
"Your men couldn't take a well-fortified Guardian team," Carlos said in a blase tone. "You're third-gens, and that's my fault."
Yonnie stopped pacing and horror filled his eyes.
Carlos shook his head and stood. "I should've had seconds in there watching my back." He began walking in a wide circle around Yonnie. As he watched pure terror reflect back at him from the vampire's young face, an old wound opened inside him. Alejandro should have been here. Julio should have been here. Miguel should have been here, just like all the others should have. "All my family is gone... all my old hombres, at a time when I need them most." Carlos chuckled, and a sad, hollow sound echoed throughout the room. "Fate is a curious thing. I didn't think I'd survive this long without them."
He stopped and stood before Yonnie. He reached out and placed a hand on Yonnie's shoulder. He wasn't surprised when Yonnie closed his eyes, resigned to his fate.
"How old are you, man?" Carlos asked, his voice low and gentle. It hurt him that Yonnie was trembling.
"I was turned at eighteen."
"Open your eyes. Talk to me. How long ago were you turned?"
Seeming surprised, Yonnie opened his eyes. A silent understanding connected them. They both knew that Carlos could have dredged him for the information, but hadn't invaded his mind.
"Respect," Carlos murmured. "Some things, between men, are just not done." He dropped his hold on Yonnie's shoulder and appraised his light almond complexion, wiry light brown Afro, and hazel eyes. "You've got a Southern accent," Carlos said, leaving Yonnie and walking to the far side of the room toward the bar. He studied his old crystal decanter, which was now filled with blood, and poured a half goblet, offering one to Yonnie. "You ever miss your living family?" Carlos asked, extending the tumbler.
Yonnie accepted the glass and took a shaky sip, his eyes never leaving Carlos's. "They're all dead by now," he admitted quietly. "I was made just before Nuit overthrew my master. A lot has changed in the world since then."
Intrigued, Carlos stared at Yonnie, as the vampire polished off his drink and set the glass down carefully on the edge of Carlos's desk.
"That was in the plantation days," Yonnie said slowly. "You cannot imagine what those days were like."
Carlos nodded. That was the stark truth, if ever he'd heard it. He didn't know much about this kid, but he did know an honest man when he saw one. But the irony of it all was not lost on him. In human terms, Yonnie was most likely two hundred years his senior, but in vampire terms, because he was a third-gen, he was a junior ranking officer now in his camp. Twisted.
"I gotchure back, man," Yonnie said in a quiet voice. His eyes searched Carlos's as he spoke. "I got into this by accident... it was more like a dupe. Had heard your turn went down like that, too. All of us from the old generation were rooting for you in that drag race, brother. We wanted to see one of our own, somebody who'd been played get the upper hand. So, when you came out holdin' aces, it was one of the proudest moments in my vamp life - and that's no bullshit. Go 'head, scan me, test me, but I mean what I'm saying, no matter how this night ends."
Emotion filled Carlos, but he kept that locked within him. He could appreciate where Yonnie was coming from, and didn't need a mental probe to test for authenticity.
Without fear, Yonnie stepped closer to him. His gaze locked with Carlos's, and Carlos could feel the invitation to peer into his mind. He nodded his acceptance of the offer and allowed his hand to again rest on Yonnie's shoulder. Horrible images filled his inner vision. A pretty, ebony-skinned young slave woman raped and brutalized by barbaric overseers. An almond-colored baby born and snatched from her arms, while she was forced to work. A child abused and beaten when it cried for its mother. A tender caress in the dead of night to soothe a frightened little boy... who became a man that ran into the woods one night to find a way to save his momma from her misery.
Tears streamed down Yonnie's face. Carlos closed his eyes.
"They told me that this old woman knew a man with power..."
Carlos stepped away from Yonnie and nodded, not sure that his dead heart could withstand the story he knew too well. "And he promised you power like you'd never imagine."
Yonnie simply nodded, then drew a ragged breath. "I wanted to get them back for what they'd done to us. I wanted to give all my boys the chance to live forever and to be strong. Two of them had tried to run and go north, but Alabama was a long way from the Mason-Dixon. They dragged them back, strung them up, and burned them alive for us all to see. That night I stole away and got made."
"And it wasn't what you thought it would be," Carlos said flatly. "It never is."
Yonnie wiped his face and nodded. "No, brother. It's not."
"Stack's been with you since then?"
"Yeah," Yonnie replied, drained. "All my boys were made by me. That's the tragedy." He quickly looked up, becoming tense. All vampires knew it was forbidden to speak ill of the eternal dark life, and he'd admitted his displeasure to a councilman.
"It's cool, man," Carlos said with a wave of his hand. He sat on the edge of his desk, emotionally spent. "This shit is not what it's cracked up to be, even at my level."
Again, a silent understanding bound them as they stared at each other.
"But it is what it is," Carlos finally said. "We are where we are, and what we are. So, the only option is to make the best of it."
Yonnie nodded and found his empty chair and slumped in it. "After two hundred years, man, there are some nights when it all seems like it was yesterday. Then, there are some nights when it seems like it will never end." He laughed sadly. "And it won't."
Carlos rubbed his jaw, hearing everything Yonnie had said. He was only a year old in his vampire life, and already it had been too long. He could only imagine the boredom and pure agony of hundreds of years of existence... and the master vampires who were very old had that reality as their Achilles' heel.
"You know," Carlos said, his voice a low murmur, "as a councilman, there are some wrongs I can right."
Yonnie stared at him, new tension ebbing back into his body.
"I need men I can depend on, men who died with honorable intent."
Yonnie had stopped breathing. Carlos stood.
"My borders are shaky; another master has come into my territory and poached it." Carlos walked to stand before Yonnie and motioned for him to stand. "If you don't know anything else about me, you know I ain't having that."
"No. I didn't expect you would."
"I have certain rules about how I handle my business." Carlos stared at Yonnie hard. "No women and children. No elderly. No innocents. It's a long story, but it has to do with how I was made and who's still under my mark. It has everything to do with how they half ate my brother when they turned him."
Yonnie nodded. "Nuit's bite was nasty, man. We all hid from him. You ain't got no problem from us. Where we came from, none of us has the stomach for babies and old folks... hate seeing sisters diced up and left on the morgue slabs. What humans have done is worse than what we've ever imagined."
"That's why I want the dead meat out of my freezers. That's why I don't want any more floor shows with underage chicks. I want all my establishments run on the up and up, like we're going legit - so the humans don't swarm us. Top-shelf is siphoned from willing human donors only, already compromised motherfuckers who have lost their souls while still alive - and there's enough of them walking the planet to fill vats."
"Got it. We stay off radar until the heat dies down."
Carlos extended his hand to Yonnie. And when he accepted it, Carlos pulled him in close. He studied the junior vampire's jugular and waited until Yonnie threw his head back in submission. "You ready for a demotion to second-level, man... with the power to deliver this to your boys?"
Tears of admiration filled Yonnie's eyes as he choked out the word, "Yes."
"Make 'em all seconds with you," Carlos whispered as his fangs lowered to a deadly eight inches. "Do it tonight. After that, your bites will make thirds, and unless I sanction the turn, you make none without my permission."
He could feel Yonnie trembling as he held him in a steel embrace. Yonnie swallowed hard, on the verge of weeping as a current passed through them. "I'd always wished... but never dared dream."
"I know," Carlos crooned. "With this bite I give you the flight pattern to my lairs - guard them well. Watch my back. Protect my woman. Protect her family. Honor my strategy. Never question my judgment. Bring me information about which master has been in my yard."
"Done," Yonnie murmured.
The strike was so swift that Yonnie's knees buckled. The shock of energy transfer coursed through the room, toppling chairs, shattering glass, and eliciting a garbled groan of pleasure from the junior vampire. Years of Yonnie's torment entered Carlos and fused with his own, making Carlos's hands tremble as he siphoned away the pain and wrapped it in a pleasure bond. Prisms of dancing lights formed beneath Carlos's lids as he made his first lieutenant.
Winded, he dropped Yonnie to a chair and staggered away from him, torn. Part of him knew that the power transfer was a necessary evil to shore up his territory, but another side of him was deeply troubled. The pleasure that came from such power was nearly maddening. Now that he'd learned what it was like, he wondered if he'd ever be able to give up this new, dark life.
He brought the back of his hand to his mouth and dabbed away the black blood. He stared at Yonnie, who was prone, breathing heavily, eyes closed, as though he'd just been with a lover. The image disturbed Carlos and he crossed the room for much-needed space.
Without turning around he knew the vampire was slowly opening his eyes, which now glowed red. He watched Yonnie stretch out his arms and stare at the blue-black electric current running down them. Instantly, Yonnie stood and walked around in a circle, becoming giddy, almost as though he were high.
"I descended," Yonnie said, laughing. "Oh, shit, you made me, man! I'm your first lieutenant - Carlos Rivera's first lieutenant!"
Carlos poured a drink and downed it, his tone even, his nerves shattered. "Yeah, man. Congratulations. Go celebrate."
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