Victor rubbed his eyes and stared at the map again. With only a few days to go before mission launch, large chunks of the plan needed serious reworking.
The mission now had to accommodate a different and smaller team, as well as an increasingly unpredictable environment.
Victor sat back and looked at the mass of photos, maps and blueprints in front of them, cold pizza and empty coffee cups littering the spaces in between. Lauren scrutinized the blueprints for DeeDee's club through her reading glasses, reclining on the couch with her swollen feet up on the arm. Victor rubbed his eyes again. Walter was taking too damned long with the coffee.
No sooner had Vic finished the thought when Walter walked in with a tray of coffee and tea. Walter set it down and took another slice of the cold pizza.
They'd had everything all set, but then Carrios had pulled the two most experienced agents to lead high-priority missions in Baltimore and Cleveland. He'd then pulled three more to man those assignments. He had allocated three others to Viper's team in return, but they were hardly replacements.
Each had staked at least two vampires, each had participated in a bloodrunner hunt at some point. But a great white shark such as Marion, with her skill and her current appetites, she'd challenge them like no other vampire. He'd have to make it work, nobody else had the combined deep knowledge of New York and prior bloodrunner experience to qualify for this mission. Nobody nearby and available, at least.
It spoke to their success, to have resources and membership as vast as theirs stretched so thin. The world would have less three bloodrunners within a week, and Viper could happily live with that. Still, his certainty of a successful mission had taken a hit in the face of leading the not-so-tried or tested.
"I've seen you take down worse with less." Carrios' confidence had abated neither Viper's concerns nor his aggravation. "We have other needs. Marion is not the only bloodrunner in our sights right now."
Just the most dangerous, he'd thought, but kept it to himself.
Yes, he'd staked and scorched worse bloodsuckers with less planning, tighter resources, and fewer agents. Several times. But he'd had far more talent, with Thorn on the team. During her months of leave, neither Viper nor Bricks had had a bloodsucker so lethal and unpredictable as Marion on their docket. Viper thanked his lucky stars that Carrios had at least left him with Bricks, his right hand, and given them several more "eyes" – spotting and tracking support only.
A strike team of eight or nine sized up well against a Bloodrunner, assuming you were in a position to back the bloodsucker into a corner. By all rights, that's what this mission should have looked like. Sighting Marion, a few following her and a few others cutting her off. But on account of Marion's reputation and the nature of the event, they'd planned for a larger team. With the setup of the surrounding streets, the confusion of the crowd, they needed more eyes high and more feet on the ground than usual. But the strike team had now shrunk in the face of greater needs.
As if they didn't have enough holes to plug, a steady stream of protestors had joined that loony Catalyst cult in picketing DeeDee's. A number of them now mobbed around the block day and night, with tension in the air increasing every day as punk fans grouped to tell them all to go to hell. Sure, things were peaceful now, if a bit loud. But it didn't take a genius to see that some confrontation would go down once the music started to play.
But the hunt had to go on. Lauren, Walter, and Carrios all agreed with him on that. They had to act before other bloodsuckers could get Marion under control, and with the event around DeeDee's, they'd never have a better time to strike. It was just bad timing that they had several other critical missions in motion at the same time. While frustrating to this hunt, it was exhilarating in the bigger picture, an excellent sign that they'd made so much progress on so many fronts, in so many cities.
"The protest will work in your favor," Lauren started, taking her glasses off and resting them on her enlarged belly. "Lots of places to hide in the chaos, Marion will stand out much more than you will. Just make sure the whole team stays sharp and unseen."
"That's key." Victor agreed. "If Marion knows we're there, she might flip. If she's as strung out on fear as we think, she could do something very stupid, right there in the crowd."
Walter squinted at the map of the area. "Should we stay out of the club, then, with that many people around?" It was a valid concern. The Salierant existed to protect humanity by killing vampires. Preservation of civilian lives took priority over any bloodsucker hit. "We're more flexible outside, too. If we set up a perimeter, a safe distance from the crowd –"
Lauren shook her head. "No, you definitely need people inside, there's a much better chance of spotting her in an enclosed space. Outside she could get halfway up a building before anyone sees her. And with a face like that," she picked up a picture to make her point, "she'll sneak in a back door... She might even have her own way of getting in."
"Hmph, yeah, that sounds about right." Walter looked at her, then to the map, then up at Victor. "So, we're in, then?" Victor nodded. "Have we gathered anything new on the place? Any evidence it might be a bloodsucker joint?"
"Nothing concrete yet, just its unnaturally clean history." Victor dumped several spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee as he spoke. Walter couldn't make decent coffee to save his life, and Viper needed the extra lift. "The 'quiet' of the area up to this point could simply be a side-effect of all the nearby churches." He drew their attention to a few areas on the map. "Mighty uncomfortable place for a bloodsucker to be."
Lauren tossed the picture back onto the table and sipped some tea. Victor reached for the blueprint and spread it across the top of the clutter. Lauren had marked it and made several notes, his fingers traced through them one by one.
"So we have to have a crew running inside, but we still need the entrances covered, to keep her in sight when she leaves."
"I marked in green," Lauren explained, "the spots where there might be a hidden entrance, too. Put the core team at the red marks," she pointed to spots on the blueprint, and to others on the map, "and surveillance support at the blue ones. Circles street level, like night maintenance near manholes. The triangles, put them up high in a window. That should cover all the angles."
Victor took a close look at it all, but he knew he didn't need to check her work. She'd really nailed most of it. He might actually be able to get some sleep today.
"What would we do without you?" Walter grabbed one of her feet and massaged it.
"We'd get there, eventually, it would just take a lot more coffee." Victor slumped back and took another gulp, the caffeine and sugar sloshing around his stomach and doing little else. It took more and more to get by these days.
"I have all day to think about this shit right now. It's the least I can do." Lauren sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "Trust me, I'd rather be gearing up with the rest of you. I'm more than ready to unload this package into the world."
It didn't surprise Victor to hear his twin talk that way. He could only guess how she felt, at the mercy of her unborn vampire hunter, and all the physical changes that came with it. She took the job seriously, and Marion was an important sting, a bloodrunner in a very important, vampire infested city.
If the Salierant could gain more ground here, weaken New York just a bit more, they'd be in good position to plow right up through New England. They'd scorched several lesser vampires in New York lately, including a ballet dancer they thought had fled to Boston years ago. They'd nailed her entourage, too, in retrospect she might have been Turned of an Elder or Keeper. A very good score. They owed some of that success to Marion's decline.
Beyond that, the city wasn't in good shape, and Sebastian was a poor Keeper. From what they could gather, he ruled the city too tightly, which only let control slip more easily through his fingers. Marion's talents could only compensate for so much, and much less in her current state. If they could tag her, they'd soon nail the rest of the city's bloodrunners as they tried to fill the vacuum.
Victor, Lauren and Walter specialized in bloodrunners, hunting them as Viper, Thorn, and Bricks. Every bloodrunner in every city had heard of them, and lived in fear of the day when the three might show up in their neighborhood. Because by then, it'd be too late.
Vic and Walt had spent the past few months lending expertise to other teams, to great success. But it was clear to everyone the three worked their best all together. Lauren would be back in the game soon, but not soon enough as far as anyone was concerned. Working without her was like playing blackjack with no aces or royalty in the deck. You could get to twenty-one, it just took more time, more cards, and more risk.
Lauren sat up with some difficulty. "So let's take another look at the final team, figure out who goes where."
Walter flipped through the roster and the agents' files. "With that buzzcut, Ripper looks like he belongs inside, and he's sharp and strong. Blaze and Whirlwind will do better blending in outside with the protestors and bystanders."
"Feather's fast, quiet and sneaky, keep her outside, and Ace as well," Lauren put her tea down. "He and Scorch can make rounds between the primary zones. No, no, wait, have Feather make the rounds with Ace, keep Scorch near the side door, she's got better field command skills."
Walt flipped another page over. "Let's get Bullet inside, she and you could pass for... what, talent scouts, record company?"
Victor nodded, "Yeah, and you can be our security. That leaves Daemon at the other door. That's as good as this'll get. Unless we get some more last-minute changes."
"You sure you don't want me to run the front door?"
"I'm sure." Victor kept his eyes on his own copies of the files, he knew where this would go. "I want you inside with me, Daemon and Scorch can handle the doors."
Vic felt Walter and Lauren exchange glances. Walter stood irritably and paced the length of the living room.
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Vic. It's just another mission, I'm just another agent."
"We've been through this," Lauren sat up and looked pointedly at Victor. "No special treatment. If I could stay out of bed more than an hour at a time I'd insist on going myself."
Victor sat straight up. He couldn't handle this shit tonight, he had to end this fast.
"Daemon's better at on-the-spot judgement, and fast changes in strategy. I need him outside, he and Scorch balance each other out. You – you're better at sifting and storming through crowds, we need that inside in the closed-in space. It's as simple as that."
"Bullshit." Exactly what Victor expected Walt to say. It wasn't quite that simple, but it wasn't untrue, either.
"Just trust me on this one. My mind's made up. And it's too fucking late to argue."
Victor looked at Walter first, then Lauren, then back to Walter. They knew each other well enough to let it go. He hated pulling rank, and almost never did. Technically he only had seniority by about a hair. An awkward silence hung for a moment then slunk into a dark corner. It would pounce again if it got another opening. Walter grunted and started cleaning up the mess and leftovers.
Viper knew this would come up, and had thought long and hard about it. In any other situation, Victor would and could keep his decisions strictly professional. He had his whole life. But this was his sister's husband, his pregnant sister's husband. She had enough life-changing bullshit lately.
Lauren had been close to their father, and had taken his death really hard. She didn't let it show, just threw herself into the work all the harder. But Victor knew better.
They'd lost their mother when they were teenagers, she had specialized in bloodrunners as well. They knew what this life was all about. They were vampire hunters. They hunted vampires. They didn't get to retire and grow old. They didn't get to be great parents, either, even if they were still around to parent.
Victor was not prepared to make those odds even worse.
Honestly, the deciding factor had come at the heels of all the team's change-ups. His confidence in the mission had waned with the new team, and his gut told him he'd need Bricks at his side for it. But he didn't dare share that trepidation with them. Not this late in the game.
Victor rubbed his forehead above his eyes. The caffeine hadn't arrived in time to intercept the headache. He slumped back and stared at the ceiling.
"When's the last time you got some sleep?" Walt asked, standing over him.
"When's the last time you got some sleep?" Victor squinted up at him. "We got two days. We need to focus on nailing this plan down." He yawned.
Lauren tossed her glasses onto the table.
"I'll leave the nailing to you boys for now, I can't hold out any longer. Leave your homework on the table, I'll check it when I get up." Walter crossed the room to help her stand and kissed her gently on the cheek. She touched Victor's shoulder and said, "You're an asshole, Vic."
"Thanks, sis," he chuckled as she left the room. He had that coming.
"You really gonna stick me inside with you, then." Walter went back to the mess.
"You make it sound like it's scrubbing toilets. C'mon, we've got a really unusual hunt, neither of us can take anything for granted." He thought about helping Walt with the cleanup, but his head throbbed again and forced the idea to retreat. "Two goddamned days. Home goddamned stretch. I need you working with me. This crew's got a lot of recruits in it and –"
"What's that got to do with anything, Vic?"
"Look, I know on paper, they've all got the chops. But that crew, in that meeting, they didn't have a drop of chemistry. Carrios has tossed some oddball recruits at me before, but never like this." Victor tossed the file on top of the pile, and felt Walt give him the hairy eyeball again, another conversation he'd braced himself for. "Not for a bloodrunner, the fucking scourge of New York."
"They've all passed the tests." Walt picked up Victor's nearly empty coffee cup. "You done with this?" Vic nodded. "They're all one of us," Walt continued as he tidied things up. "They know how to take orders and follow a plan."
"Do they? How many have you worked with, personally?"
"You know the answer to that."
"Yeah, I do, and it's not nearly enough."
"An unusual path to this life doesn't justify questioning an agent's capabilities. It's just not a good excuse anymore."
Victor had no response to that. Or did have one, but wasn't sure he was ready to bring it up. His headache had grown, and brought the nausea along with it. Walter's fucking coffee. Dishes and mugs clattered as Walter dumped them into the sink.
"Carrios knows what he's doing when he puts a someone in a specific somewhere. Or hadn't you noticed how far we've got lately? We might see the endgame in our lifetime! Fuck, even Carrios might!"
Victor kept silent. Walt wasn't wrong, but he didn't know everything Victor knew, with his access. There was a lot more to it than that. But Walter wouldn't let it rest.
"You've always trusted his judgement."
"Yeah, and my father always trusted his judgement."
And there it was. He'd lobbed the bomb right into the middle of it. He hadn't meant to, but fuck, he was tired, and Walter kept pushing, and now that Lauren had retreated for the night, he didn't have to guard the secret so tightly... He had planned on bringing it up, but had also planned on, well, planning on when first.
Walter stopped and stared. Victor sighed and slumped forward in the chair. Walter stopped what he was doing and sat back down.
Nobody knew Vic had pulled the files. He wanted to know everything about the mission that had got his father killed. The report didn't spell out a lot of details, but it wasn't hard to put pieces together, not for Vic.
As Vic suspected, one of the recruits was out there with his father. Chopper had turned up dead weeks before his father's body had been found, but likely killed the same night. Another agent had reported both missing in action at the same time. The recruit wasn't even supposed to be there. He'd followed them, against orders, and blown their cover before they'd unpacked their bags.
"He was up in Boston, they were supposed to set up a front, and three more were supposed to head up when that was safe and secure. They'd been up there two days, Walt. Two fucking days, and then they got nailed." He slammed his fist into the table in irritation. "How the fuck could they get made so goddamn quick?"
"You know the answer there, too."
"Yeah, the partial answer. Henry. Motherfucking bloodsucker must have some sixth sense." All these years, and really only the priest had lasted more than a few weeks in Boston - the one city they just couldn't gain any ground. "But that's only part of it." Victor leaned forward, elbows on knees and watched Walt pour some scotch out into a couple of glasses on the now empty table. "No vodka?"
"We're out, sorry. Haven't restocked the bar since I'm the only one drinking."
Victor took the glass. "Chopper was one of the recruits he'd flagged for reevaluation. The guy followed them north – against orders. My father was making sure he left town the night they both got killed." He took a pull at the scotch and stifled a wince. He preferred vodka by a lot. "We've had a lot of luck so far, Walt. And most of them have more sense than that. But I'm afraid it's a house of cards that's about to come down all around us."
"You got better instincts than anyone I've ever known. But I'll be damned if you're not being paranoid here." Walt paused and took a drink, clearly enjoying the scotch more than Victor had.
Was he paranoid? Victor didn't have anything against Carrios' extreme recruiting practices. They'd served the organization well, as Walt had just pointed out, over the past three decades.
The origins of the Salierant traced back to the earliest of known vampires, and an ages-old rumor still held that they knew more about vampires than the vampires did themselves. Top officials and inner circle members were all distant but direct descendants of those first vampire hunters, and raised to hunt vampires from childhood.
They'd had to take in others from time to time, otherwise they'd be more inbred than a royal family or the rural deep south. But the influx had grown to more than they could handle and train properly, and it had started to show.
More and more lone civilians had stumbled upon evidence of bloodsuckers, probably owing to modern technology, and had then gone hunting themselves. Fiction and legends held enough of the truth about stakes and sunlight, and many amateurs actually succeeded against the odds. Which is when the Salierant would step in.
Beyond individual recruits, the Salierant had created, aligned with, taken over, and enveloped scores of organizations, secret brotherhoods, portions of the Inquisition, Templars, Masonics. Over the ages, anybody who knew anything about vampires either joined with them or were eradicated.
They had to keep a tight lid on all knowledge of vampires, lest that knowledge leak and create panic. All kinds of hell could break loose in the human population, inspiring both amateur hunters and bloodsucker wannabes. Few humans had what it took to survive Turning, but still enough would seek it. But really it was the public hysteria that they feared most. And what would a government do to protect itself from vampires? What might they try, to harness the secret to vampire powers?
On occasion, controlling the information required severe intervention. The lost colony of Roanoke had clearly and irrefutably witnessed vampire activity, apparently deliberately on the part of some conspiring vampires. Slow and lousy communications between settlements had worked in their favor to keep the world ignorant of that and similar situations.
But these days a mere phone call and some 8 millimeter video could bring the whole damnable mess to light. The Salierant had contingency plans in place should that ever happen. They made a point to stay a few steps ahead of the game, at all times in all places.
They had every reason to trust Carrios' judgement - the old man knew exactly where to put which agents and when. Or at least he had.
Lately, the "join us or else" recruitment pitch had shifted to "join us, we'll make so much more of you." Those who didn't join still met with some end or other, but the offer was too cool for anyone to refuse now. In days past a recruit might think of it a sign from God, a calling. But these days, it was more the temptation of glory and honor...
New recruits had grown to be nearly forty percent of the organization in the past decade. Viper couldn't deny that it had given them a hell of an edge, but it still made him nervous. There was still a fundamental difference.
Hunters like him, his sister Lauren, Walter, Daemon, and Bullet had learned to hunt together when other kids still played with matchbox cars or dolls, cowboys and Indians, or hopscotch. The recruits all wanted to be a Van Helsing or something. But you didn't hunt vampires that way – not for long at least. Even with good hunting habits, Viper and his peers stood little chance of getting to Carrios' age. They would likely die doing this, as his parents had, and not by trying to be superstars.
No one could say for sure, but as their numbers had tripled, vampire population had decreased by at least half, possibly even two thirds. Whole cities had been swept clean, purged and sanctified, making it near impossible for vampires to move in again. And vampires could not thrive for long outside of the cities. For one they couldn't stand the boredom. But truly they could not hide their needs and quirks without masses of people all around.
Carrios moved the recruits about like diverse pawns, confident they wouldn't put any of the top pieces - lifelong agents - off their game. The Salierant had needed some fresh ingenuity and unpredictability to their strategies. Now they had more than they bargained for, and some of the top pieces had come down as a result of it. Well, one. His father. It seemed. No, it didn't seem. Vic was never wrong with things like this, and the report all but spelled it out.
Fuck. He'd tried to get over it, he'd been trying really hard. They all needed more training. More experience as part of a team. They all wanted glory, to be the ones holding the stake on every mission. Sure, every agent carried a stake, but recruits foamed at the mouth at the thought of driving the stake in. And each bloodsucker only had one heart, no matter how evil.
His father, the Jackal, had subscribed to an elite purist point of view, he believed only descendants of the original Salierant should have access to all this knowledge, weaponry, and organization. Victor had disagreed with his father and took Carrios' side to a point, and that point had been reached.
"You sure you're up for this?"
Victor leaned back into the cushions. "Yeah, gimme a day's sleep and the team Carrios originally promised, and we'll nail that bitch so fast she'll never see it coming."
Walter took a long pause before he replied.
"We will nail that bitch, with the team we have. First, we both need that sleep."
Victor sat back up and thought for a second. No, all the coffee in the world wouldn't get any more out of him tonight. "Yeah. Yeah, we do. I'm done."
"The guest room's ready."
"Thanks, but I'll get out of your way, gimme a buzz when you're ready to dive back into it.
"I'll call a cab–"
"Nah, I can drive." As exhausted as Victor was, he knew he was far from sleep. And what he needed to sleep, he had back at his place. "I've got three cups of coffee in me since dinner, and hardly touched that paint thinner." Vic headed for the door and Walt followed.
"That paint thinner's eighty years old."
"I know, I'm the one who bought it for you on the occasion of you knocking up my sister."
"Hah! I should do that more often, then."
"Only if you schedule it around bloodrunner hunts, ok? I'll buy you all the paint thinner in the world."
Walt smirked at him, his brother in all but blood.
"Sounds like a deal."
Victor closed the door behind him and stepped out into the morning sun.
• • • •