Yonnie stood on the roof of Club Vengeance and breathed in the night air. For he'd gambled right, had chosen to ally with Carlos Rivera, and had been handsomely rewarded. He'd been given management of the club with nearly free rein. Rivera was cool like that, it seemed.
A blue haze filtered across the moon and he smiled. It was in the air, a surge of power that all vampires had to acknowledge. The blood in the territories had more adrenaline kick to it, the kills were more satisfying... existence was good. To be a third-level vamp and take a club from a second-level just by strategically aligning with the right man, was unprecedented. All of a sudden he cocked his head to the side, briefly shut his eyes, and felt the powerful surge of sex in the air. Damn! Even the sex in the territory was sweeter under Rivera's rule. He just wished he knew who the vamp female was that Rivera had just turned. It was a fresh turn. Her vibe set his teeth on edge. But she felt stronger than a second...
"Damn, sis," Yonnie muttered as he strolled to the edge of the roof and peered down at the small specks of humanity beneath him.
"Enough to give a brother wood." All he could do was shake his head as he wondered what it would be like to become a second-gen vampire, or even a master.
Yonnie chuckled to himself. Maybe if Carlos remained in a particularly generous mood he might share his new lair kitten. Yonnie quickly banished the thought. Not a strong female like that - she was destined for a throat mate-marking, for sure. No sense in a man getting his heart ripped out by the boss over wishful thinking. But to be able to transform into pure vapor and fuse with the blue haze of the moon... To be able to attract all the females that the master had no further use for, have them trembling for one vein hit.
Yonnie shook his head as he balanced on the drain gutter, tempting his good fate. Rivera had been cool enough to give him Club Vengeance and let him run the other clubs in the network; pushing his luck farther to ask for more would not be wise.
He turned his head and looked at the metal door leading to the club. He could sense the approach of a guard. He smiled. That was odd. As a third-level, he had some precognitive skills, but he had never been able to sense another third-gen like this.
"Yo, man, what's up?" Yonnie said, thoroughly amused by his new strength.
"We just got back from Philly," the guard said, shaking his head and raking his fingers through his ragged Afro.
Yonnie allowed his gaze to roam over the thickly built vamp. His boy's army fatigue vest was in shreds, his jeans were dusty, his Timberlands were crusted with mud and old blood. None of which was a good sign. Old human blood, yes. Black blood from the empire, no. Stack's normally deep brown color was dull, which meant he'd been in battle and hadn't stopped to refuel. Stack had been in a hurry. What had gone down in Philly? His euphoria quickly faded. If Rivera came back and found out that he and his boys couldn't hold it down... He didn't want to think about it.
"What the fuck happened, Stack?" Yonnie said, walking up to his friend. He smoothed the front of his electric-blue suede jacket and hitched up his black leather pants. "Man, we just got this promotion. You know the boss's rep," Yonnie warned, speaking low and firm. "You fuck this up and there's no tellin' - "
Stack stepped away from Yonnie. "It ain't like that. You shoulda been there. We was checkin' on the Philly clubs, like you said. We was up in North Philly - where they have all them damned row houses stuck together so you can run a whole block roof to roof, if you get in trouble. But you have to be careful, because the humans got storefront churches in them houses, so some of the roofs are hot, and - "
"Aw'ight, aw'ight, I get the picture. So, you was up in the badlands. The humans got outposts, so who hit us?"
Stack stared at Yonnie for a moment and then looked away. "Humans."
"What?" Yonnie was incredulous. "The Guardian team is in LA, man. How you gonna tell me that - "
"No, man," Stack said, grabbing Yonnie by both arms. "Can't you feel it in the air? We were in one of our clubs, everything was going smooth, the girls were dancing the poles. We were about to do a little dinner theater - chick about fifteen or sixteen. You know, blood sacrifice for the crowds, when the fucking door blew in and these big, burly, black motherfuckers came in and lit the joint up. Rowdy black giants, and shit, are what they call themselves."
Yonnie opened his mouth and closed it. Stack dropped his arms and walked away.
"Lost three of our boys. They have one about the size of Damali's big man, Mike. And a smaller version of Shabazz. Like ten or eleven of 'em, and they roll fast, combat-style, then be gone. We got our asses kicked, man. They drew us to the rooftops. We thought we could escape, but that's their backyard. Lost one of our boys on a disguised roof - was hallowed ground and he torched on impact. Then that big Hannibal-looking guy threw a hammer at our other boy, and the way it hit him, it dazed him, and he fell wrong off the roof - two of them got him on the ground before he could get up. Third one got wrapped up in motorcycle chains - pure silver dipped in holy water - strangled to death. We was out."
"You sure they were human?"
"Man, they bled red blood, okay?"
Stack let his breath out hard and leaned against the metal door and shut his eyes.
For a moment, Yonnie didn't move. He became so still that he didn't even breathe, sensing the atmosphere.
"You feel like you're getting stronger?" Yonnie whispered to his friend.
"That's the crazy thing about it," Stack said quietly, peering around nervously. "We felt strong as shit going in. Every one of us was on top of our game. We were drinking toasts to you for getting us aligned with Rivera, and they were saying that even back in the day under the old regime, we'd never had the blood flowing like this. At one point tonight, it was like the females were all in heat. You could feel it in the air."
"Yeah, I know, man," Yonnie muttered as he began to pace. "That's what's so freaky about humans taking you out like that."
Both vampires looked at each other for a long time but said nothing.
"If we're getting stronger, it has to be because he's getting stronger." It was more a question than a statement.
"Then, it makes sense," Stack said, but his voice seemed unsure. "If our side just kicked up a notch, then the light maybe kicked up a notch?"
"That has to be it." Yonnie continued to walk back and forth, running his palm over his jaw. "See, you guys probably ran into a regulation Guardian team - there's like a hundred forty-four thousand of them bastards in hidden cells scattered throughout the globe. So, what happened in Philly was good. We'll explain to Rivera that you tracked down a splinter Guardian unit in his territory. Cool?"
"Right. Makes sense. We tell him that we were holding down his club, and we drew fire. Then, we can ask him if he wants us to take a small army back there to deal with the Philadelphia problem."
Yonnie was walking in circles now, perspiration making his black silk shirt cling to his body. "Yeah, man. That could work."
Stack wheezed as he pushed himself away from the metal door.
"You need to eat," Yonnie said with concern. He slung his arm over Stack's broad shoulders.
"Let it go, man," Yonnie told him. "We've gotta take this shit like men. We'll feed, get laid, and be merry since tonight might be our last night once Rivera blows in here."
Berkfield walked the perimeter of his suburban home one last time before he set his top-of-the-line security system. His wife thought his job was making him paranoid; it was better that she and his teenage son and daughter believed that. They didn't need to know that his floodlights were special UV halogens, nor did they need to know that the lawn and garden sprinkler systems contained holy water.
If his family knew he believed in monsters, they'd have him committed. Then what would happen to them? Who would take the special precautions that had become a neurotic routine?
He scanned the short hedges and peered into his neighbor's yard. All seemed well. It was still light out, nearly dusk, and people were about, messing with yard equipment, calling children in for dinner, and washing their SUVs and minivans after work.
Maybe he was crazy, but he'd witnessed his partner's shot mysteriously turn on him when he'd tried to shoot a guy with fangs. Carlos Rivera had dropped a gold mine of info on the local drug lords in his lap. Then Rivera had disappeared and he'd come up empty on all his searching into Rivera's territories. There was something very serious going on... Then again, maybe he was just crazy.
Berkfield's shoulders sagged resignation as he slowly walked toward the garage.
A bee sting on his calf made him wince. He hated yard work and he hated bugs. He grunted with exertion as he leaned on the workbench to pick up the garage-door opener that had fallen�and froze when he saw a shiny pair of military-issue black shoes on the other side of his minivan. Then everything went dark.
Groggy, Berkfield woke with a start, his gaze darting around. He was in a van. A gaunt, older, Caucasian male with dark sunglasses and a shock of unruly white hair leaned in close and shined a pen-light in his eyes, causing him to squint.
"You'll be a little disoriented for a moment," the man with the light said, "but it will wear off. Our apologies for the way we had to collect you."
"Who are you?" he said, his voice tense and angry. "What do you want? Where's my family?" He let his mouth snap shut. What if his captors didn't know that he had a beautiful wife, daughter, and son? Damn it! Whatever they'd given him had made him sloppy.
"That's why we have taken you," the strange man said.
Berkfield studied his abductor intently. He had a wild rush of silver hair all over his head, piercing gray eyes, and a seeking expression. He looked like someone's professor. His accent was foreign, but hard to place. His demeanor was calm, almost too calm.
"What do you want?" Berkfield noted the four heavily armed men on either side of the professor.
"We're trying to protect you," the man said.
"Protect me?" Berkfield's eyes narrowed. "What branch of government are you from?"
The man offered a patient smile. "What's about to happen is an international issue. Not just an American issue. But you, my friend, are at risk."
Berkfield ran his sweaty palm over his bald scalp. His objective was singular - get home to ensure that these nuts hadn't harmed his family. "I'm just a cop on a local force - not worth much to anybody," he hedged.
The man's face became stern and the polite smile vanished from his face. "Let's stop playing games, Detective Berkfield - or is it Captain now? You are lucky to have so narrowly escaped death at the hands of your partner. And even more lucky to be placed under the protective seal of the master vampire in this territory, Carlos Rivera."
Stunned, Berkfield leaned forward. "You've seen him? What do you know?" His voice escalated. Someone else, somebody in authority, knew there was such a thing as vampires! Berkfield grabbed his captor's arms. The henchmen bristled, but the man before him remained calm. He nodded reassuringly.
Gently extricating himself from Berkfield's hold, the man sat back and removed his sunglasses. "They are the most fascinating creatures we have yet to study," he said. "They have abilities that we could never fathom. Until we found out about your situation, we thought that they didn't have anything resembling a conscience�that their capacity to discern emotions, like empathy, was impossible. But they can, which means there may be hope."
Total confusion kept Berkfield riveted, but there were so many questions that he needed to ask that he couldn't contain himself.
"You actually know there are such things as vampires? You guys study them? You've seen the vampires? You know about Carlos? When did he become one? How? We'd just seen him taking a stroll by day, then, bam, just like that, he's a creature of the night�And the girl. Is she one? I'm not bitten, am I? You guys work for the feds, black ops? CIA? You said my family is at risk. Why? Some-fucking-body talk to me!"
"Take a deep breath, Mr. Berkfield," the man ordered. "Yes, to all of the above, except we don't work for the feds. Every government has been searching for its next weapon of mass destruction. They've each set up very small, well-funded, independent science teams to research these areas. But a few years ago, several of us broke away from our countries and banded together under an international umbrella. Once the governments saw that they'd lose their top scientists and that their threats had minimal effect on men who'd lived their entire lives on a quest of knowledge, they begrudgingly funded our group. Currently, we're made up of all the global superpowers. Recently we began to follow up on some old German research."
The man's eyes contained pain, and his voice became weary. "Our directive, when attached to our respective countries, was simple. Find a way to harness the paranormal, if it existed, and give it to the highest bidder within our respective military units. Phase one was to determine if there was such a thing as a paranormal plane. We succeeded with those tests. But as we gained further insights, it became apparent that the dark energy was limitless and stratified - almost like finding out there's an entire universe within a universe... space exploration is nothing compared to what we've uncovered. Yet, it's all linked; the esoteric sciences are just as real as hard quantum physics."
He gazed at Berkfield, his beady, gray eyes shining. "We also found out that there was another side - a side we hadn't considered. If there's a Hell, there's a Heaven," he whispered. "You cannot even begin to quantify the energy of that realm. Since we couldn't capture it, they wanted us to abandon that as a potential source for weaponry and to focus on dark matter. That's when the group fractured... Several good scientists died or, better stated, were murdered or driven mad. Those of us who survived now pretend to go along with the demands of our governments."
Berkfield sat very still. "So, you guys are like a hostage ghost-busters team?" he said as he continued to look for a possible escape route.
The man sighed. "Don't be foolish. We found hard evidence behind every myth and legend. We've catalogued demon fila, Detective Berkfield. The ancient high priests, warlocks, witches, generals, you name it, called on deities to assist them in wartimes. The new era of so-called reason has made us forget their power."
"So, you plan to do what with me and my family?"
Raking his fingers through his hair, the man looked Berkfield in the eye. "Listen carefully. We don't have much time. There are two sides of this organization - those insane enough to believe that they can open up the gates of Hell and contain what comes out of it, so that they can proceed with imperialistic desires to rule humanity. And those of us who, after having studied the phenomena, have enough respect for it to leave it alone. We know that chaos will ensue. Therefore, the group is philosophically at odds with itself and threatening to implode. That means that valuable and dangerous research will spill out into the various nations that support this work, and as we all know, anything is for sale on the black market. Do you follow?"
Berkfield nodded, but he still didn't understand his role. This whole story was too bizarre to wrap his mind around.
"You, my friend, are currently under the protective seal of the master vampire who controls this region; therefore, right now, you're in full favor. The dark side essentially has a no-hit policy on you, and the Light apparently has you covered, as well. However, the way the power shifts seem to work within the vampire world are very much like old feudal law - they wipe out anything once associated with the outgoing incumbent. Understood?"
Terror halted Berkfield's breath for a moment. He touched his throat and then his fingers slid down to the small gold cross that he never took off. "But I'm a believer," he rasped. "How could I be marked by the dark side?"
The scientist calmly reached beneath his olive green flack-jacket and pulled a long chain from beneath it, bearing a sterling silver Star of David. "I'm a believer, too. The mark isn't physically on your body. It's in your aura. That's what we measure - energy fields, if you will. Our equipment cannot pick up much more than that. All we can ascertain is that a very strong energy from the nether realms has been gathering in the region, and it has been sending out sensor tentacles in your direction. Time is nigh, my friend. We're not exactly sure what this means, but it cannot be good."
"My wife, my kids - how do I get this fucking seal off me? I didn't ask for it, I don't even understand it!"
"That's why we want you to make a decision - quickly - to come work for us. Maybe, just maybe, you hold the key to bringing both sides to a standstill, a stalemate. You were deemed a good man by both sides. You could be the key to creating world peace. We must have an opportunity to study you, understand the conditions that led up to - "
"No! I don't know! This is all so crazy!" Berkfield put his head in his hands. "I want my old life back, my kids and wife safe. I want to read the damned paper, drink beer, and worry about gas prices. I do not want to be a guinea pig, nor do I want my family traumatized."
"Then you should have never become a crime fighter, never should have made that bargain in that alley, never should have started researching otherworldly phenomena and come up on our radar. I am a man of logic. I'm a scientist with thirty years of hard research under my belt and degrees that would..." The man stopped, swallowed hard, his voice gravelly with emotion. He spread his hands before Berkfield, imploring him to understand.
"I'm no cop. I'm no weapons designer. I opened a gate in a lab and found Hell," he said in a barely audible tone. "I thought I was losing my mind, and I cried out to God to save me, and another door opened and bright light bearing a blade shut the gate. We all saw it - and all of those colleagues joined us that day." The man's gaze slid away and he held the hair at his temples in clenched fists as he stared at the locked back door. "Some said it was a group hallucination. We told our superiors and they gave us an unlimited budget. That's when I knew we were in trouble." His voice dipped to a scratchy murmur. "They don't open the financial floodgates unless they know you're close. We're so close, and so are they."
"I thought I was the only one..." Berkfield said, dazed.
"So did we," the professor said sadly. "Then we began religious research, started looking at texts we had never considered in our scientific quest." He glanced up at Berkfield. "Ever wonder why you were spared that night in the alley where your partner double-crossed you and pulled a gun on you? Ever wonder what higher purpose you are to serve?"
The two men stared at each other, only the faint sounds of traffic droning on in the background.
"But my family - "
"Will be relocated and re-identified, just like ours had to be."
"But we can't just leave our home - "
"You make your informants do it all the time. Think of it as a witness protection program for scientists, and like I said, we're well funded."
"I can't make a decision like this without talking to my wife and my kids, and - "
"All you have to tell them is that one of the drug lords you've put away is out now and looking for payback. They know what you do, so that's not too far-fetched."
Berkfield sat back. "Why me? What special skill do I bring to the table?"
His abductor leaned forward and touched his clasped hands. "You're sane, you're not on the take, you've been spared because you're a good man, and you can call this master vampire to you. We need to speak to him. Plus, you know the inside of the American legal system like the back of your hand, and you have connections. And we may need sanctuary."
"But why now?" Berkfield asked, not convinced that this was his problem or that he needed to get swept up into the madness of trying to solve it. Truthfully, it was enough that he'd learned that vampires and demons were real. He didn't need to know more, or want to know more - except how to keep them away from him and his family.
"We've forecast a problem that is about to blow up on American soil. The dark-side energy levels are off the meters. We have a small sample of its atmosphere contained, and it's expanding exponentially within the vacuum containers in the lab. More current is being drawn into it, and its density is increasing. Disturbance locations in the U.S., where we know there are dark energy fields, are almost, for lack of a better explanation, harvesting power."
The van came to a sudden stop. Berkfield and the scientist's gaze locked.
"You have twenty-four hours to make your decision. Push nine-one-one on your garage-door opener between now and then, and we'll come collect you. They won't expect the code to be imbedded there. Ignore our offer, and you're on your own."
A henchman motioned for Berkfield to open the door. "You're home. You never saw us. We do not exist."
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