For your reading enjoyment, below is the second installment of the BLOOD WAR excerpts. Once again, all three novels in the trilogy, BLOOD WAR, UNHOLY ALLIES, and THE UNBEHOLDEN, can be found at most major bookstores and gaming stores. They are also available from Amazon.com, and signed copies are available from The Vintage Library.
These chapters are copyright © 1995, 2001 by White Wolf Publications. Reprinted by permission of White Wolf.
These chapters are copyright © 1995, 2001 by White Wolf Publications. Reprinted by permission of White Wolf.
Washington, D.C. - March 11, 1994
Makish glanced impatiently at his watch. It was one minute before two a.m. The letter had stated two o'clock tonight, at the front entrance to Union Station. The hour approached. But there was no sign of his mysterious employer.
A small, slender male, with mahogany skin, slicked-down black hair, and too wide smile, Makish attracted little attention other than that of an occasional bum asking for a handout. Or a hooker hoping to make some spare change. The few policemen, anxious to make it through the shift without any trouble, treated him as if he was invisible. Whenever one of them walked by, Makish grinned widely and sang out in a high-pitched nasal voice, "Good evening, officer. I am waiting for my ride home, officer. Good to see you, sir."
The cops nodded and continued their patrol. Lots of loonies and weirdos hung out at Union Station. It was well lit and comparatively safe. Not more than one or two killings took place there in a week. Which made it one of the most secure buildings on Washington's southeast side.
The nation's capital was infested with drug lords, crime bosses, and crooked politicians. They all controlled packs of thugs who engaged in a violent, ruthless war for territory. The small, out-manned and outgunned, District of Columbia police force, had long conceded the street to the outlaws. North and West, where the major government buildings stood, was comparatively safe. The National Guard helped keep the peace there. South and East, near Capital Hill and the train station, the only justice came from the muzzle of a gun.
Makish couldn't understand the senseless violence. The cheap hoods who killed for gang honor and small payoffs disgusted him. They acted like wild animals, with no appreciation for art. Murder needed to be done with style, with panache. Makish was a connoisseur of extermination. Most Kindred thrived on blood. Makish drew his sustenance from murder. He was the supreme assassin in the world of the undead.
"I believe you are waiting for me?" asked a voice slightly behind and to the right of Makish. It was exactly two hours past midnight.
Startled, the assassin turned. Cautious by nature, he had positioned himself close to the front wall of the station. No one had passed in his direction in minutes. Yet, where no one had been seconds before now stood a stranger.
A tall, lean figure wearing a dark raincoat, with a slouch hat that hid most of his features, the sardonic smile indicated he found Makish's bewilderment amusing. Stepping out of the shadows, he beckoned with one hand. "Come, walk with me. We need to talk business, and the street offers unmatched privacy. Besides," the newcomer added, "there is work to be done."
They headed east, into Washington's worst slums. At this time of night, in the midst of a cold snap, the dark streets were empty of life. The glare of single streetlight sent long shadows scurrying ahead of them into the blackness.
"You hired the two kine as instructed?" questioned the stranger.
"I followed your instructions as written," said Makish. The assassin possessed a special talent for sensing the bloodline of any vampire he encountered. There was no question in his mind that the figure at his side was a member of the Kindred. But, inexplicably, Makish could not place the other speaker's clan. It was quite frustrating. And very disconcerting.
"I dispatched them to St. Louis the other day," continued the assassin. "The first, of course, had no knowledge of the second. They received half their money in advance, the other half to be paid on completion of their assignment. I have not heard from either human since."
"Nor will you," said the stranger. "I was informed a short time ago that both killers died in the unsuccessful ambush. As I expected. They served their purpose admirably."
"The other arrangements you requested proceed on schedule," said Makish. "The work will be finished tomorrow."
"Excellent," said the stranger. "Though I expect no less. You come highly recommended. And cost too much for the services you provide."
"I charge what I am worth," replied Makish. "Success cannot be measure in mere dollars."
"A wonderful sentiment for these times," said the other dryly. "You have an artist's temperament. In a few minutes, we shall discover if your skills match your arrogance."
Reaching up, the stranger removed his hat. Makish's eyes widened when he saw his employer's features. The speaker's chalk white face was that of a long dead corpse, with decayed skin stretched across his hairless skull. Streaks of crimson stained his cheeks and forehead. With a smile, the horror turned to the assassin. "I am known as The Red Death. Touching my flesh would be a terrible mistake."
Makish nodded, watching the stranger remove his raincoat. Beneath the garment, the Red Death wore a tattered shroud, held in place by moldering bandages. Though he stood several feet away from the grim figure, Makish could feel the heat emanating from the Red Death's body. It felt as if the mysterious vampire was on fire, without the flames. `
"You are a renegade, no longer obeying the commands of your clan?" said the Red Death. It was more statement than question.
"The Society of Leopold killed my Sire," declared Makish defensively. There was little respect among the Kindred for those vampires without a clan. "I demanded revenge, but the Assamite elders worried that such action against our human enemies would jeopardize the Masquerade. I thought differently."
"So you disobeyed their orders," said the Red Death, "and murdered the kine involved."
"They died, along with those who issued the directive," said Makish. "As did their families. I thought it only proper to make a personal statement of my grief. My Sire deserved a fitting memorial."
The Red Death smiled. "In total, how many did you kill?"
"A hundred and fourteen," answered the assassin. "Shortly afterwards, I received word that my presence was required in Alamut to explain my actions. I politely but firmly declined the invitation. That was when I began working as an independent contractor."
"Six Kindred disappeared delivering that request," said the Red Death, chuckling.
"They refused to accept my decision as final," replied Makish. He spread his arms apart, as if appealing to a jury. "I had no choice but to convince them that I meant what I said. Five more failed attempts finally persuaded Hasan's minions to leave me alone."
The assassin paused. "You are quite well informed about me," he said politely.
"My plans involve both the Camarilla and the Sabbat," said the Red Death. "While the Camarilla claim this city, there are traces of the Sabbat here as well. I require an assistant loyal to neither sect. You are the best available choice."
"I am flattered," said Makish, with a slight bow of his head. "I will do my best to justify your confidence in me."
Walking east as they spoke, the two Kindred had traveled nearly three blocks since the start of their conversation. They were deep in the heart of gang territory. With the ruins of rusted cars, weed-infested lots, and seedy tenements, the street resembled photos of war-torn Sarejavo more than the capital of the United States.
The Red Death halted in front of a gutted brick structure. It appeared deserted. The spectral figure raised a bony arm and pointed. "I sense several Kindred inside. The Camarilla rules the capitol but they cannot be everywhere. A Sabbat pack controls the drug traffic in this part of the city. It is time for them to learn the meaning of fear."
He stepped to the doorway. "I will deal with the vampires. Kill all of their associates but one. I desire a survivor to spread the tale."
"News travels best when conveyed with passion," said Makish. "I will strive to make a strong impression."
"Follow me," said the Red Death and entered the hallway. Behind him, like a dark shadow, came Makish. The slender assassin flowed from place to place. It had been several hundred years since he had last worked in tandem with another. But adapting to any situation was another of his many skills. Makish followed orders. As long as his fee was paid.
The spectral figure moved confidently to the center of the building. Despite his strange appearance and outlandish garb, he walked swiftly and without a sound. A ramshackle wooden door when opened revealed a brightly lit steel stairway leading down into the basement. Two video cameras were mounted on the ceiling at the far end of the corridor.
"Childish toys," said the Red Death. "I assume you can neutralize them."
Makish nodded, and pointed a finger at the devices. After a few seconds, he smiled. "I froze the picture on their screen," he declared. "Anyone monitoring the hall will see nothing unusual. I disabled the traps in the floor and walls at the same time."
"Fools," said the Red Death. "Depending on machinery for protection is the mark of incompetents. They deserve to perish."
Together they descended to the lower level. The door opened into a small foyer containing the twin video screens monitoring the corridor. A heavyset ghoul, with shaved head and thick handlebar mustache, guarded the chamber. He was armed with an Uzi machine gun and sour expression. His first glimpse of Makish was his last. He died silently, his head twisted about a full 360 degrees. Though not very big, the Assamite assassin had incredibly strong wrists.
"Impressive," murmured the Red Death and pushed open the door leading to the Sabbat headquarters. For a second, he stood there, unmoving, with Makish at his side.
"Greetings from the Camarilla," he announced in a harsh voice. "I am the Red Death."
There were two Kindred and eight ghouls in the room. The vampires were greedily sucking the last drops of blood from an attractive young black woman, her shocked eyes wide in death. Their servitors sat clustered around a large screen television set watching "Beavis and Butthead." Typical young punks, dressed in black leather with cut-off shirts and multiple tattoos, they were armed with an impressive assortment of knives, chains and automatic weapons. Makish didn't care. His only concern was that the ghouls might accidentally kill each other while trying to hurt him, leaving none alive as requested.
Ghouls were tough, stronger and quicker than normal human beings. The taste of vampire blood heightened their awareness and their physical abilities. But they were helpless as children against the assassin.
Makish moved so fast that his actions blurred. He raced from punk to punk in an intricate pattern resembling a complex dance. His fingers, hard as steel, ripped and tore at the bodies of his foes. Blood gushed across the room in bright crimson geysers. It splashed on the floor and walls like red paint, as the chamber transformed from drug den to a slaughter house.
Unlike most vampires, Makish held the beast within his soul under tight control. So much warm blood would have sent other Kindred into a mad frenzy. Not Makish. He drank blood when necessary, for the physical nourishment it provided his body. Killing gave him life.
To the assassin, art meant style and substance. Makish served as his own worst critic. A satisfactory murder required a minimum of effort with the maximum result. He strove not to waste a motion. Death was a broad canvas on which he painted masterpieces of destruction. Whenever possible, he worked with Thermit. The explosive powder provided flash and color to an otherwise drab business. Though the Assamite's expression as he worked remained fixed, mentally he strove to attain the blessed state of the perfect kill.
The first ghoul died with its throat torn out, nearly decapitated. The second collapsed to the floor in a steaming pool of its own insides, ripped from it with a disemboweling stroke from needle-sharp claws. The third screamed once, then choked to death on his own blood as Makish slammed his nose into his brain. Thirty seconds, three corpses.
Victim four Makish hurtled headfirst into the hallway, slapping it across the shoulders with a glancing blow. Normally, a killing smash, Makish pulled his punch, so that the punk suffered a few bruised bones but no serious injury. Dazed and confused, the young ghoul crouched helplessly in the outer foyer, as he watched his comrades systematically destroyed.
Using a variety of simple but effective maneuvers, Makish finished off the rest of the ghoul pack in less than a minute. The triumph of his art rushed through him like a powerful drug. He found the exercise an invigorating if short encounter. Simple, uncomplicated deaths, they required little effort. The truly satisfying kills, those done with explosives, would come later. His own task complete, Makish focused his attention on the Red Death.
The spectre held a Kindred in each hand. The two vampires struggled weakly, tugging ineffectively at the skeletal fingers clasping them by the throat. Their features were contorted in pain, while faint, mewling sounds issued from their mouths.
A dreadful smell permeated the room. It came from the Sabbat duo. Makish's nose wrinkled in distaste. He recognized the stench of burning flesh. Tiny wisps of smoke rose from the pale white skin of the drug lords. The Red Death was slowly cooking his undead prey.
The monstrous figure laughed. A wave of incredible heat poured out of his body, sending the temperature of the chamber soaring. With a faint popping sound, a trace of fire appeared around the Red Death's fingers, like a crimson set of brass knuckles. The imprisoned Kindred shrieked in unbelievable agony as the tiny flames touched their cheeks, setting them ablaze.
They burned like dry, rotted wood. Flesh melted, eyeballs exploded, bones crackled and burst like rotted sticks. Makish, no stranger to violence, shook his head in amazement. In a thousand years of murder he had never witnessed anything like this before. The Red Death was appropriately named. He was flame incarnate.
Behind them, a scrambling on the stairs indicated that the remaining ghoul had made his escape. The Red Death spread wide its fingers, letting the pair of shriveled husks drop to the floor. Stepping forward, he ground the remains into ashes.
"I expect news of our escapade will circulate through the city and suburbs swiftly," declared the spectre. "The Sabbat Anarchs will demand immediate revenge against the Camarilla. Prince Vitel and his council of advisors will retaliate swiftly to any such action. They know the Sabbat hungers to control the capital. A push or two more in the right direction should finish the job. A single incident will escalate quickly into a major battle between the rival cults.
"The Camarilla has controlled Washington for nearly two centuries. However, it is one of the few major cities in North America they still dominate. Their grip has been slipping here for decades. We have merely hastened the inevitable. A Sabbat attack is assured. Leaving me free to pursue my objectives without interruptions."
The Red Death smiled. "It is almost too easy."
"You plan to start a major blood war merely to further your own desires?" questioned Makish. "Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Kindred will perish."
"The existence of the entire Cainite race depends on the success of my mission," said the Red Death, all humor gone from its voice. "If I fail, entire generations of vampires will die in a slaughter unmatched in history. I must succeed, no matter what the cost."
Makish, who had been employed by fanatics many times in the past, knew better than to respond.
It was close to 3:00 AM before McCann returned to his office. With a sigh of relief, he sank into his armchair and put his feet up on the desk. It had been a long, brutal evening. One filled with more surprises than he imagined possible. Both during the reign of the Red Death... and after.
The room cleared of his brood Vargoss had spent more than an hour raging about his progeny's cowardice to McCann. The detective and the Dark Angels had been the only ones who had attempted to save the Prince from the Final Death. Vargoss made it quite clear that in nights to come, the regulars of the Club would pay for their weakness.
Although the Prince didn't address the issue, there was no question that the Red Death's attack had frightened him badly. Vargoss had exerted the full power of his will against the monster, without success. The vampire knew he had escaped the Final Death by luck alone. And, there was no certainty that the Red Death would not return.
Finally, his temper spent, the Prince bade McCann goodnight. After instructing the detective to return to the club the next evening, Vargoss retreated by a hidden passage to his inner sanctum in the sub-basement of the building. McCann suspected the vampire planned phoning the other Ventrue elders throughout the United States to warn them of the attack. His exit left McCann alone with Flavia.
The rest of the Kindred and their accompanying ghouls had departed the minute Vargoss had allowed them to exit. Tonight, none of them evidenced any desire to wear the Prince's crown. The Red Death served as a grim reminder on the perils of leadership.
The remaining Dark Angel, however, had not exited with the others. She remained sitting on the floor, silent and unmoving, throughout Vargoss' tiresome outburst. In her hands she still held the scorched white leather remains of Fawn's jumpsuit. She seemed frozen in place, her face a mask of despair. Though anxious to return to his own office, McCann felt compelled to say something.
"She died fighting," he declared, softly, stepping within a few feet of Flavia. Sympathy was fine but not stupidity. If the Dark Angel took offense to his words, the detective wanted enough room to try defending himself. "It was an honorable death."
Flavia turned her face and stared at him. Her cheeks were stained with crimson. Vampires cried tears of blood. "Your concern for my feelings is appreciated, McCann" she said, in a mellow, low voice, with a surprising trace of a British accent. It was the first time the detective had ever heard the Dark Angel speak. She cast a quick glance in the direction of the secret stairs leading to Vargoss's hideaway. "Sympathy is often in short supply among the Kindred."
"The Prince always lavishly praised the services provided by you and your sister," said the detective, nervously. The last thing he wanted to do was stir up trouble between Vargoss and the remaining Dark Angel. "He treated you with respect."
In a smooth, catlike motion, Flavia rose to her feet. She was without question one of the most beautiful women McCann had ever seen. She had platinum blonde hair, high cheekbones, and wide sensuous lips. Her white leather jumpsuit accented her full breasts, narrow waist, and long, long legs. Sex might no longer hold any pleasure for the Dark Angel, but her body defined seduction.
Flavia laughed bitterly. "Respect? Vargoss never truly cared about us. We were his servants. He enjoyed bragging about our skills, because it reflected back onto himself."
She smiled sardonically at the detective. "You understand, don't you, McCann. He does the same with you."
Without thinking, McCann nodded in agreement. The Prince liked showing off. And he treated his associates as prize possessions to be displayed whenever possible.
"My sister and I originally lived in England in the early 19th century," said Flavia. "Our given names were Sarah and Eleanor James. We were touring the continent for our seventeenth birthdays when we were kidnapped from our party. Our blonde good looks, lightning fast reflexes, and notorious taste for cruel delights caught the attention of a traveling Assamite assassin. He arranged our abduction and had us brought to Alamut."
"A taste for cruel delights?" repeated McCann.
"Fawn and I dallied in what now has become commonly known as bondage and S&M," said Flavia, chuckling. Her long tongue circled her wide lips. "As sisters, we often shared our lovers. Even after we were Embraced. Despite what you think, McCann, vampires can still enjoy sex. Especially if the stimulation is mental as well as physical."
The detective took a step back. He definitely did not like the Dark Angel's tone of voice. Or the hint of an implied invitation.
"We trained in the mountain fortress for ten years," said Flavia. "The Assamite elders marvelled at our skills. We fought well separately. However, as a team, we were unmatched. It was there that we earned the title, 'The Dark Angels.' When we turned twenty-seven, our years of preparation complete, we were Embraced and became Neonates of the Order."
Flavia glanced at the charred leather in her hands. With a shrug of her shoulders, she let it slip from her fingers. "Together, Fawn and I served the clan for over a hundred years. We traveled the world, working for many masters, never fighting alone, always staying together. Thirty years ago, we performed several minor executions for Vargoss. Impressed, I suspect, more by our appearance than our skills, he agreed to a long-term contract with the Assamite elders. In three decades, we never failed in our duties to our lord. Until tonight."
"I doubt stopping the Red Death constitutes a failure on your part," replied McCann. "I don't think a Kindred in existence could have dealt with that monster."
Flavia nodded. "Perhaps. Someday, I hope to meet the Red Death for a second encounter." She paused, her expression turning grim. "Fawn's death will be avenged. I swear it."
"What discipline did the Red Death use?" asked McCann, warily. He did not want to appear too curious. "I've never heard of a Kindred who controlled fire."
"Nor I," said Flavia. "I suspect he travels on the Path of Evil Revelation."
McCann grimaced. The Path of Evil Revelation was a secret discipline practiced by many members of the Sabbat. It taught that evil was good and that vampires were the agents of corruption. Followers of the path routinely dealt with demonic forces. "I once heard talk of a forbidden rite called the Body of Fire," said the detective, hoping for a response.
"I am not familiar with that discipline," said Flavia. "I know only of Fires of Inferno. It is one of the Paths of Dark Thaumaturgy, practiced by the Corrupters. I know little about it. But I intend to find out more."
She stepped closer to McCann. "You are an unusual human," she declared. "Even for a mage, you are aware of too many of the darkest secrets of the Children of Caine."
Without warning, Flavia's right hand lashed out at McCann, second and third fingers stiff and aimed directly at his eyes. The Dark Angel's limb moved with incredible speed. Equally fast, the detective reacted, grabbing her wrist with his left hand, holding her hand immobile inches from his face.
Flavia laughed, a wild untamed sound. "No ordinary man could move that swiftly, McCann. Nor stop me from making contact."
"I'm not an ordinary man," said the detective. Mentally, he cursed himself for letting the Assamite get so close. Flavia was much more cunning than he realized. He pushed her arm to the side. "As you stated, I am a mage."
Flavia shook her head, grinning. "No kine could have halted that lunge. Nor any mage. Don't worry. I won't betray you to Vargoss. He pays for my fighting skills, not my thoughts."
"What are you babbling about?" asked McCann, fearing the worst.
"There are rumors," said Flavia, "of certain fourth generation Kindred with incredible powers of domination. They are called Masqueraders. Their minds are so strong, that while they lie in torpor, they can reach out and overwhelm a mortal's personality. They literally possess their victim, body and soul. In this manner, these Methuselahs again experience true life. Puppet masters, they masquerade in mortal form - eating, drinking, sleeping, making love. For safety, they endow their marionette with some of their powers. Enough perhaps for the person to claim to be a ghoul - or a mage."
McCann laughed, trying to appear amused. "What utter nonsense."
Flavia smiled. "Protest all you wish, Dire McCann," she said.
"If you didn't, I might be worried."
Slowly, provocatively, she leaned forward and pressed cold lips to his. Her tongue, a sliver of ice, darted for an instant into his mouth. "I would be very grateful for the patronage of a Methuselah." Her lush body pressed against him, her taut nipples hard against his chest. "Extremely grateful."
McCann forced himself to remain quiet. He had said too much already.
The Dark Angel seemed undisturbed by his silence.
"I must go and attend to the Prince. Sooner or later, he will wonder where I am. Do not expect me to address you aloud unless we are alone." She chuckled. "Vargoss prefers his bodyguards never speak. He enjoys the air of mystery it creates."
McCann, sitting in behind the desk in his office an hour later, sighed heavily. The detective folded his arms across his chest. For all of her grief, the Dark Angel had not stayed in mourning very long. He trusted Flavia not to reveal her suspicions to the Prince for as long as it suited her purposes, and not a second more. If not handled properly, the Dark Angel could prove to be as dangerous to him as the Red Death.
The thought of that bizarre spectre stirred the detective to action. McCann reached for the telephone. He needed to make a number of calls. A careful man reacted immediately to any threat. And McCann liked to think of himself as very wise.
Nearly an hour later, he put down the receiver. Arrangement had been made and instructions given. Money was diverted from a dozen secret bank accounts into the proper channels. Already, a team of researchers was investigating everything available on the Path of Evil Revelations. And another group was studying whether any of the Kindred legends about the Nictuku described a horror similar to the Red Death.
Satisfied that he had done everything possible, McCann reached for the desk drawer containing his overseas mail. He felt sure that the coming of the Red Death and the reappearance of the Nictuku had to be related. The detective did not believe in coincidence. Especially when it involved the Kindred.
The drawer was empty. The documents were gone. McCann cursed, steadily, in seven languages including two that had not been spoken on Earth for over three thousand years, until he was out of breath. Angrily, he slammed a fist into the side of the desk. Wood splintered, delivering a small amount of satisfaction along with a strong recognition that he was acting foolish.
While he had been at The Club Diabolique, a thief had entered his office and stolen the papers. He had obviously underestimated the intelligence and ability of his unknown adversary. Or adversaries, since McCann did not know if he faced one enemy or many. It was not a mistake he would make again.
It was then that he noticed, resting at the edge of his desk, almost like a calling card, a bright green sequin.
The official smile of Paris is the sneer. The rich sneer at the middle class. The middle class sneer at the poor. And they all sneer at the hordes of tourists who flood their city each year.
Their mockery, according to the guidebooks, is part of the charm of Paris. The city, with its great restaurants, fabulous museums, superb monuments, and long history, breeds contempt for the lesser achievements surrounding it. The average Parisian citizen considers himself far superior to anyone from outside the city. That attitude explains, at least in theory, the joy the natives get from telling tales of the Phantom of the Paris Opera.
The story, immortalized in the novel by Gaston Leroux, then brought to vivid life first by films, then by stage productions, told of a demented genius living beneath the venerable Opera House. A master musician with a hideously scarred face, he ruled an underground kingdom of labyrinthine catacombs and secret waterways. Parisians loved to elaborate on the fantasy for gullible tourists, saying how, though he had reportedly been destroyed, the body of Eric, the Phantom, had never been found. And that every year, a few unwary tourists to the Opera House disappeared without a trace.
It was typical malicious Parisian humor. Often, the story was with a breathless attempt to sell bootleg souvenirs such as an authentic map of the catacombs or a page from the score of the Phantom's infamous lost opera.
Not all such stories, however, provoked the gales of laughter generated by the Opera Ghost. Late at night, the poor shopkeepers of Paris met behind locked and barred doors and exchanged tales not told to tourists. They spoke in whispers of the unexplained disappearances that had plagued the Ile de la Cite, the oldest section of Paris. They repeated the same stories they had heard from their parents, who had been told similar tales by their parents, stretching back into the dim recesses of history. Common to every narrative was the same name. A title that when said aloud could cause the most elegant Parisian to blanch in terror. Phantomas.
Officially, the French Surete, dismiss such rumors as the insane ramblings of demented poets living on the West Bank. No mention is made of a file, five inches thick, hidden deep in the files of police headquarters. Contained in it are hundreds of reports, dating back a hundred and fifty years to the time of Chief Inspector Vidocq, detailing the circumstances surrounding hundreds of disappearances in the vicinity of the famous cathedral of Notre Dame.
Of special interest is a heavily underlined six page document prepared in 1963 by a special historical commission appointed to study the 800 year history of the church. The article, never made public, summarizes hundreds of myths and legends about Notre Dame. A mysterious thread binding them together is the presence of a ghostly figure haunting the cathedral grounds at night. Though he is called by a dozen different names in the tales, he is always described as being incredibly ugly. And a drinker of human blood.
In turn of the century France, the vampire's name had gained such notoriety that a series of mystery thrillers featuring an arch-fiend called Fantomas became best-sellers. None of the stories explained the origin of the mastermind. Or why he preyed on the citizens of Paris. They were works of fiction, not fact.
The subject of these various novels, reports and studies found them all vastly amusing. He had enjoyed the Fantomas novels immensely and had even sent the author several anonymous letters suggesting future ideas for plots. To his intense disappointment, none of his ideas had ever been used. Once or twice, he had mentally debated visiting the novelist to plead his case. But, Phantomas suspected his physical appearance might do his cause more harm than good.
The vampire readily acknowledged his ugliness. Standing exactly five feet tall, with skin wrinkled as a prune, eyes like raisins, and a nose the size and shape of a sweet potato, he had caused more than one drunken Parisian to swear off red wine forever. A gaping mouthful of yellow teeth and bulging red eyes propelled his face out of the realm of bizarre into the domain of the grotesque.
The second police charge, that of murdering hundreds of innocents over the course of centuries, he regarded as cheap slander. While he occasionally satisfied his thirst on some poor unfortunate, Phantomas rarely killed innocents if it could be avoided. A quiet, gentle soul, all he wanted was to be left alone in his underground lair, pursuing his research.
Over the years, a host of villains had used his presence on the Ile de la Cite to alibi their murders. Their victims ended, not in his hideaway, but dumped in the Seine. Most had escaped had escaped the guillotine. However, Phantomas was less forgiving. And his justice was as sharp and final as any blade.
Tonight, Phantomas was in excellent spirits. Francois Villon, the Prince of Paris, was throwing a party. Villon, a Toreador clan elder and patron of the arts, held court once a month in the Louvre. Dozens of Kindred, along with several hundred of the Prince's favorite ghouls and kine attended the festivities. This evening, the Prince entertained an important Tremere wizard visiting from Vienna. Phantomas loved such events. Though never invited, he never missed one.
The Prince was under the mistaken impression that he was the oldest, most powerful vampire in the City of Lights. He was neither. Phantomas had come to the Ile de la Cite with the invading legions of Julius Caesar in 53 BC.
Known as Lutece, the small island served as a natural crossing point across the Seine. A small village of Celtic tribesmen, the Paris, lived there. They were no match for the soldiers of Rome. Dwelling among the tribes, amusing himself by playing a forest God, though, was a fifth generation Nosferatu vampire, Urgahalt. Fascinated by the invaders, the Kindred secretly embraced Varro Dominus, a young noble traveling with Caesar to carefully record his triumphs. Urgahalt intended to use Varro as his introduction into Roman society.
Unfortunately, the Methuselah had not counted on the discipline or fury of a Roman soldier whose entire career had been unexpectedly destroyed by a chance meeting with one of the Kindred. Urgahalt underestimated his new Childe and the mistake cost him dearly. Varro knew more about vampires - lemures as they were called in Rome - than the Nosferatu realized. A wooden stake through his heart and a huge bonfire that burned him to ashes showed him the error of his ways.
Left to his own devices, Varro decided to remain on the island when the legions departed. Nosferatu Kindred were cursed with incredible ugliness. Like most of his kind, the young vampire preferred solitude to company. Two thousand years and several name changes later, he lived in much the same location as before. He was as much a part of the city as the Eiffel Tower.
More than two hundred Kindred inhabited Paris and its suburbs. The Toreador clan held control of the central city, but several other bloodlines roamed the streets including rebel bands of Brujah, Gangrel and Malkavians. Rumors spoke of a Sabbat pack, anxious to spread dissension and revolt, with headquarters in the slums. At least a half-dozen Nosferatu lived in lairs beneath major museums and churches. Yet, even among the Kindred Phantomas was a legend, an unseen presence with no firm basis in reality. He was a phantom to the living and the undead.
Phantomas' maintained his invisibility two ways. He lived alone in a huge underground lair situated hundreds of feet beneath Notre Dame. Its entrance to the surface world was located in the ruins of the Paris settlement in the Crypte Archeologique in the main square of the cathedral. However, the vampire rarely used the secret doorway, preferring instead to travel the vast network of tunnels he had established over the centuries throughout the metropolis. After hundreds of years beneath the ground, Phantomas felt uncomfortable without a protective layer of earth over his head.
Equally important to Phantomas' invisibility was his incredible mastery of the vampiric power known as Obfuscate. It enabled him to walk among other Kindred without being noticed. Wearing the Mask of the Thousand Faces, Phantomas cloaked himself with anonymity. Those who saw the Nosferatu dismissed him as a minor, unimportant vampire. Numerous Kindred had actually encountered Phantomas. They just didn't realize it.
Shortly after midnight, he strolled past the two Assamites guarding the glass pyramid that served as entrance to the Louvre. They nodded without interest as he displayed an imaginary invitation and walked into the main hall. Phantomas muttered a word of thanks to his Roman gods that Villon considered electronic monitoring devices provincial. His psychic camouflage worked flawlessly with humans and vampires. It was useless against cameras or television monitors.
In Phantomas' opinion, the Prince was a pompous dandy who wouldn't recognize true art if it hit him in the face. Master of the Louvre, the finest art collection in the world, Villon ignored the treasures of the past for the ephemeral pleasures of the moment. His mercurial taste dominated the Parisian fashion scene. He surrounded himself with the most beautiful models in Paris, blood dolls who sipped on blood and dreamt of immortality. Like too many of the Kindred, Villon had never come to terms with his undeath.
The party was being held in the glass-roofed Cour Marley. Phantomas was in no hurry to go there. Though he had visited the Louvre many times, he never skipped the opportunity to visit the galleries housing the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities. The museum housed perhaps the finest such collection in the world and though Phantomas had the face and body of a monster, he possessed the soul of a poet.
Ten minutes he spent staring at the Venus de Milo. Then, it was on to Winged Victory of Samothrace. The huge Winged Bull with Human Head from Assyria drew his admiring glances, then it was a short walk to the to the veiled statue of Queen Nefertiti in the Egyptian section. As always, he stopped to stare at the crypt of Osiris with its depiction of many of the gods of the New Kingdom. It had been old when he had served with Caesar.
The bust of Agrippa drew him into the Roman section. The famous general, the hero of Actium, had served Octavius, the grandnephew of his mentor, Julius Caesar. Staring at the statue made Phantomas feel old. Two thousand years separated him from his heritage. If not for a chance encounter in Gaul, his children might have fought against Mark Anthony. Or served in the Senate with Cicero.
Tour completed, he crossed into the Richelieu wing, where the Cour Marley was located. As he drew closer to the courtyard, he frowned. There was no music. Villon's parties always featured a loud rock band playing the latest hits. Tonight, the corridors were strangely silent.
A tall, young man, slender, with blond hair and bright blue eyes, stood in front of the door leading to the Cour Marley. Dressed in a white suit with an open-necked white shirt, he nodded in greeting as Phantomas approached. It was almost as if he had been waiting there for him.
"Do not enter," said the young man, catching the vampire by surprise. No one spoke to him directly when he employed the Mask of a Thousand Faces. Especially not a human.
"The Final Death waits inside," continued the stranger, evidently not troubled by Phantomas' concerns. "If you enter, you may never leave."
"I am no coward," stated the vampire simply. "After twenty centuries, I fear very little."
The young man smiled. "I suspected you would say that." He stepped to the side. "Beware the Red Death, Phantomas."
"Who are you?" asked Phantomas, startled. "How do you know my name?"
But the stranger had vanished. It was as if he had never been there.
Trembling for the first time in centuries, Phantomas pulled open the door to the courtyard.
The smell of charred and blackened human flesh assaulted his nostrils. A horrified glance around the courtyard revealed a dozen bodies of Villon's favorites, their beautiful features burnt beyond recognition. The fashion runways of Paris would be missing a number of familiar faces tomorrow. Mixed among the dead were the remains of twice as many ghouls. Nowhere was there life.
Villon was gone. As were all other Kindred. However, dark shadows on the ground indicated to Phantomas that more than one had departed the Louvre permanently. Neither kine nor Kindred had been spared in this massacre.
As if in answer to Phantomas' unasked question, a gruesome figure stepped from behind the Marly Horses. Tall and lean, he wore a rotted shroud of funeral cloth, held together by strips of moldering bandage. His face was that of a long dead corpse, with chalk-white skin streaked with red lines. Cold dark eyes stared at directly at Phantomas. Slowly, the monster smiled.
"The meddling record keeper," said the Red Death. He stretched out a skeletal arm. Phantasm could feel the heat thirty feet away. "Your termination will be a fitting conclusion to the celebration."
Hundreds of years hiding beneath the streets of Paris had taught Phantomas an important lesson. When threatened, flee. Immediately. Don't search for alternative solutions, don't negotiate, do not look back. Run as fast as possible until you reach safety. It was a basic survival technique that worked in the past. It served him tonight.
Phantomas ran. He burst through the doors of the Cour Marley, raced down the halls leading to the glass pyramid, and sprinted out into the night air without turning his head once to see if he was followed. Short and misshapen, he ran astonishingly fast. And he didn't stop until he attained the relative security of the underground maze of tunnels that made up much of his domain.
When he finally rested, hundreds of feet beneath the earth, there was no sign of the Red Death. He had escaped for the moment. But Phantomas felt certain he had not seen the last of the monster.
It had named him the record keeper. Somehow, it knew of his great project. And the Red Death obviously disapproved.
Locking his office, McCann rode the elevator to the street. At the city-run underground parking complex, he waited ten minutes for his car. It cost extra to have your automobile brought to the entrance by one of the lot's security guards, but it was well worth the price. Despite security cameras and motorcycle patrols, muggings, rapes, and murders were common occurrences in these parking garages. Rumors had it that the security patrols were the ones responsible for much of the crimes. No one knew for sure, as dead men told no tales.
McCann didn't mind spending the extra money if it avoided unnecessary confrontation. The city was a dangerous place. Urban America was increasingly becoming a jungle in which the only strongest and smartest survived. More people died these days from gunshot wounds than any disease. The government claimed that crime was under control. But nobody believed the politicians. The truth was on the streets.
Survival depended more on recognizing the perils that haunted daily life and adjusting to them, than on superior firepower. A fact of life in the nightmarish world of modern society was that someone else always possessed enormously superior weaponry.
The detective drove west, heading for the suburbs. As he rode, he mentally scanned his surroundings. He detected no evidence of being followed. Which, after the events of the past night, he found barely reassuring.
McCann lived in a small brick home in a new development a few blocks off Highway 80. Located on a wide lot at the end of a quiet street, it was surrounded by a wrought iron security fence, isolating the building from the rest of the block. Which was exactly what the detective desire. He wanted to be left alone. In these troubled times, no one considered his security measures the least bit unusual.
He had bought the house for cash less than a year before, when he first decided to settle in the St. Louis area. He knew none of his neighbors and had no interest in meeting them. He worked at night and slept during the day. The few times had seen anyone he had raised a hand in greeting, but said nothing. McCann considered his home a safe place to rest and relax. His office served as his base of operations. He socialized in neither of them.
Parking his car in the indoor garage, the detective laid a hand on the wall before entering the house proper. Certain arcane rituals from the dawn of civilization imbued a home with the personality of its owner. A master magician, and McCann was among the greatest ever to walk the Earth, could immediately sense any disturbance in their dwelling. There was none. McCann was safe. At least, for the moment, neither the Red Death nor the mysterious Ms. Young had discovered his hideaway.
Twenty minutes later, shoes off, drink in hand, McCann let the tension of the evening drain out of his body. He sat in a padded armchair, the soft strains of an expensive stereo system whispering hints of Billie Holiday in the background. The front room contained the chair, a sofa, the stereo and a small coffee table. There was no television. A thick plush carpet covered the floor. The detective believed in simple comforts. What few possessions that mattered to him, he kept in the bedroom.
McCann was a rootless individual. He wandered from location to location, never settling for long in any one place. His complex scheme required him to keep moving. At times, he wondered why he still bothered playing the game. So many of his kind no longer struggled. Some had plunged into the great unknown from which there was no return, while others had retreated from cruel reality into a dream world of their own creation. He was among a handful who continued fighting. In truth, the prize hardly seemed important. It was the diversion that kept him amused.
The detective shook his head. He had engaged in this mental exercise a thousand times and never arrived at a satisfactory conclusion. He was like Ole' Man River, Tired of living, but afraid of dying. For those like himself, there were no easy answers. Just more questions.
Idly, he wondered about the identities of his foes. The Red Death was Kindred and a member of "The Children of Dreadful Night." The detective could not remember ever hearing of such a cult before. That meant nothing, since the Kindred possessed a bizarre fondness for nicknames. The term, Dreadful Night, spoke of a fear of the possible approaching Gehenna. During the past few years, numerous Armageddon cults had sprung up among the Cainites. They believed that the Third Generation was preparing to rise and devour their descendants. Like many mortals, the approaching end of the millennium frightened them.
McCann had ignored these groups, feeling that they represented the farthest fringe elements of the Kindred. Now, with the advent of the Red Death, he wasn't so sure.
The fact that the Red Death had been aware of his existence and his psychic powers also worried the detective. For the past few decades, he had maintained a low profile, preferring to forward his schemes through unsuspecting agents. He felt certain no evidence existed associating the human detective, Dire McCann and Lameth, the Dark Messiah of the Kindred.
Shaking his head, McCann wondered if Anis was behind the attack. She was one of the few Kindred who knew many of his secrets. And, like him, she continued to plot undaunted by the centuries.
Rachel Young puzzled him more than the Red Death. She seemed genuinely terrified by the appearance of the spectre. He was convinced they were not working together. Yet, he was equally positive she was the one who had killed Tyrus Benedict and stole the photos of Baba Yaga. And later traveled to his office and swiped the files from overseas.
Adding to the mystery was the unexplained telephone message cautioning him about the Red Death. Reality had twisted immediately after he received the warning, which hinted an extremely potent mage was at work. McCann had no idea who that could be. More pressing, how had the stranger known about the Red Death before it attacked?
Then, there had been the attempted assassination in the alley. Two hired killers had tried to murder him for no apparent explanation. Obviously, someone had paid them for the attempt. Was it the Red Death? Or Rachel Young? The whole scenario was all terribly complicated and very confusing.
Remembering the attack on the street, McCann reached into his back pocket and pulled out the wallet he had retrieved from one of the dead men. Except for the money he had removed earlier, it was absolutely empty. However, that didn't mean that it couldn't reveal secrets.
The detective rested the leather billfold on the coffee table. Placing both hands on it, he let loose the full power of his mighty will. The air wavered with titanic energies. Squeezing his eyes shut, McCann concentrated on a solitary word. Find.
Five minutes later, the detective sank back into his chair, a slight frown creasing his forehead. The wallet came from Washington, D.C. It had been purchased from a nameless department store by a government file clerk working at the Pentagon. There was no mistaking that building in the psychic residue left by the former owner.
The killer had stolen the billfold less than a week ago. He had used it to hold the money found inside. It contained no traces of his personality.
The nation's capital had long been a source of friction between the Camarilla and the Sabbat. Though the Camarilla controlled the city, both organizations had agents in the suburbs. The constantly shifting population also brought in a change of new supply of Kindred. Each sect controlled numerous politicians and lobbyists. However, the frequent changes in government officials thwarted their ambitions for absolute domination of the government. The city was a potential battleground between the cults. The Camarilla held it, but Sabbat forces surrounded it. Sooner or later, warfare between the two groups was bound to explode.
McCann had carefully avoided the city. He disliked being too visible anyplace where the balance of power was in flux. He worked best in the shadows. However, this assassination attempt hinted that perhaps he had made a mistake by ignoring the metropolis.
Dawn approached and sleep called to him. Wearily, McCann shuffled off to the bedroom. Mentally, he reviewed the magical safeguards protecting the house. All were in place. Nothing living or undead could breach his defenses. He could rest in peace.
With a wan smile, he rested one hand on a small, detailed sculpture resting on the end table in his bedroom. Carved from sandstone, it depicted a man's face remarkably similar to his own. Not particularly large or impressive, the statue originally came from Egypt and was over four thousand years old. It had been with McCann for a very long time.
The detective grinned, remembering Flavia's tale of Masqueraders. It was an entertaining fable. He wondered how she would react to the truth. Maybe, someday, he would tell her.
Keeping that thought, McCann switched off the lights and let sleep engulf him.
A black shape slipped from shadow to shadow in the late night darkness. Weaving through the narrow streets and winding lanes of the ancient city, it moved without a sound, heading ever inward, towards Saint Mark's Square, at the center of the sleeping metropolis.
The form, vaguely human in shape, traveled quickly, never hesitating to stop and stare at the stunning examples of Renaissance and Byzantine architecture, that had earned the city a reputation as one of the most beautiful locations in the world. Nor did it slow down on the numerous bridges it was forced to cross. Venice, situated on 120 islands and formed by 177 canals, was laced with over 400 such spans. The dark blot lanced across them with eye-blurring speed, vanishing on one side only to appear on the other an instant later.
Saint Mark's Square, at the center of the city, was the most popular location in Venice. It was bound on all sides by famous historical monuments. At its eastern end was Saint Mark's Cathedral, over a thousand years old. Nearby was the Doge's Palace, built in 814, destroyed by fire four times, and rebuilt after each blaze, more magnificent than before. The shadowy figure glided by them both. At the rear of the palace was the famous Bridge of Sighs. Once, the famous arch led to the public prisons. Now, the prison was gone, and in its place stood a vast black skyscraper of glass and steel.
A number of Venetians had expressed loud and vocal complaints when plans to tear down the famous historical buildings were first announced. Opponents objected bitterly to the massive rebuilding project, declaring that the ancient jail was one of the city's most prized landmarks. As usual, money spoke louder. The city zoning commission had ignored the complaints and approved the design.
Soon after, a number of the most strident critics disappeared from Venice. Reports by the police claimed that the citizens had angrily departed the city after being scorned by the city fathers. The more cynical inhabitants of the island said nothing and made their peace with the new skyscraper.
Forty stories high, the building was surrounded with a brick wall twelve feet high. A single gate and guard-post offered the only entrance into the compound. Whispered tales described huge, red-eyed hounds that roamed inside the grounds at night. No one was sure what secrets the building contained. Other than a street address, the skyscraper had no name. None was needed. Among the residents of Venice the rectangular black giant was known simply as "The Mausoleum."
The presence halted at the brick perimeter. It knew better than to touch the structure. Embedded throughout the barrier were small heat-detectors that would record the slightest variation in temperature - warm or cold. The top of the wall was covered by thousands of inches-high steel needles. Each was barbed with a curved designed to rip protective garments or skin to shreds. Powerful searchlights swept the inside perimeter of the compound every few minutes. Monstrous beasts roamed the grounds, things of nightmare that recognized no friend, only prey. Entrance to the Mausoleum other than through the main gate was impossible
Pausing for a second, the shadow crept along the wall to the lone opening. Four guards watched the barren street. Tall men, dressed in black uniforms without decoration, their eyes glowed with an unnatural brightness. They were ghouls. They were the elite soldiers of the fortress, their lives dedicated to keep it safe from intruders.
Two were stationed in a raised, glass-lined booth that offered a commanding view of the empty street. They manned a complex video and computer network that provided them with instantaneous visual access to any spot on the company grounds. Their companions, standing at attention at the gate, were armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, loaded with high-powered explosive bullets. Behind them, a pair of six-inch thick steel doors that could be opened only from the control booth, provided a final obstacle to anyone who made it past the quartet of sentries.
Timing was everything. The blot waited and watched for the precise moment. It was extremely patient. There were hours till dawn. And it had been planning this operation for a long time.
Even ghouls blinked. Human senses could not trace such rapid eye motions with precision. But, the blot was not human.
Precisely twenty-two minutes after it arrived at the gate, all four ghouls blinked at the same moment. Their eyes were closed for less than a hundredth of a second. That was all the time the shadow needed to dart past them and sink into the microscopic space between the massive doors. Molecules in width, the blot easily slipped through the crack and into the inner grounds of the compound.
Maintaining exactly the same temperature as its surroundings, the patch of darkness raced across the earth like a reverse moonbeam. The blot had neither smell nor form for the hellhounds to detect. Creatures of limited intelligence, they only attacked things they could see or smell or hear. They ignored the flowing blackness. Many vampires could meld their forms into the earth, becoming part of the ground. The moving shadow was one of a few that having done so could actually shift its location.
Two giant glass doors led into the interior of The Mausoleum. On them were engraved an ancient family crest, a symbol the shadow knew well. A solitary guard, another ghoul, sat in a booth in the center of the hall, a dozen feet back from the entrance. His gaze, like the men posted outside, never wavered. Getting past him would be more difficult. The hall were he waited was well lit and painted bright white. A dark patch would be immediately noticeable. A new form was needed. And that would take more than a millisecond of time to accomplish.
Gathering its willpower, the shadow projected a single thought at the watchman. Sneeze, it commanded, sneeze. The guard sniffed, scowling. Sneeze projected the shadow again. The ghoul sniffed a second time, then raising a hand to his face, sneezed.
Involuntarily, the watchman's eyes snapped shut. They were closed for only a second, but that was all the time the black spot needed. Like a whirlwind, it flowed upward out of the earth, into the night air, gathering substance as it moved. Dark shape turned into white mist. Cloud-like, the intruder flowed through a microscopic crack between the top of the door and the steel frame. As with the outer barrier, no seal was tight enough to keep a vapor from penetrating. The mist was in the hall before the guard removed his hand from his nose.
Once inside the corridor, the cloud immediately rose to the top of the hall, flattening itself against the ceiling. Surveillance cameras and security patrols guarded the floor, not the roof. White on white, it drifted swiftly past the outer checkpoint and into the main atrium of the complex. There were other guard posts throughout the building, but the shadow meant to bypass all the rest. It knew exactly how to reach its objective at the top of the skyscraper.
Though late at night, the Mausoleum never slept. The complex was filled with workers. Dozens of people scurried between offices. None spoke, nor did any music play. The structure was silent as a tomb.
Scurrying along the ceiling, the cloud searched for the door leading to the basement. It knew the easiest way up was by going down. A quick hunt disclosed the necessary entrance. Oozing through a crack, the entity drifted into the dark hallway leading to the Mausoleum's lower level.
Finding the switch boxes for the entire complex was child's play for the mist. The building was controlled by a computer monitoring system. Bypassing the built-in safeguards was child's play, and the shadow was no child. Mentally, it attached invisible trip-wires to the proper circuits. The emergency generator proved no more of a challenge. Plans set, it went looking for the way up.
Locating the service elevator shafts was easy. Several ghouls labored close by, but none of them were security personnel. Focused on their own business and nothing else, they never noticed a white mist flow through the double doors to the lift.
Maintaining loose contact with one wall of the passage, the vapor floated towards the roof. Security cameras monitored the elevators throughout the Mausoleum. But there were none in the shafts themselves. It was a dangerous mistake.
Flowing around an elevator car stopped on the twenty-second floor, the mist rose to the fortieth floor in ten minutes. Cautiously, it mentally probed the hallway beyond the service doors. No one was there. Quickly, it slipped into the corridor. This part of the building was extremely well protected. A dozen deadly spells ringed the inner group of apartments. They were triggered by thought, not physical presence. One wrong move and the invader's efforts would come to a hideous end.
Effortlessly, the misty form disarmed the traps. Instead of intertwining, so that releasing one set off another, they overlapped. The interloper's powerful mind surrounded each spell and swiftly neutralized it. Not an alarm was sounded, yet in the span of a quarter-hour, the entire top floor of the main headquarters of the Giovanni clan of vampires was rendered defenseless from outside attack.
The whir of an elevator coming from below alerted the mist that its actions in negating the spells had finally been noticed by the building's security forces. Mentally reaching out to the proper circuits, it shut off the power to the elevators. Another touch disabled the emergency generators. Using the stairs would waste valuable minutes. No longer concerned about outside interference, the mist flowed beneath the door marked Madeleine Giovanni.
As expected, the chamber was empty. The mist swirled and gathered substance. In seconds, it was gone, leaving standing in its place, an attractive young woman with dark eyes and long black hair. Pale white skin and blood rep lips offered a sharp contrast to the black leotard that was her only garment.
Walking to a nearby closet filled with women's clothes, the intruder searched carefully until she found an old-fashioned black velvet gown. Nodding, she slipped out of her leotard and pulled on the dress. It fit perfectly, hugging her slender form as if by design. Reaching into a box on a shelf above the clothes, she extracted a stunning silver necklace and draped it around her neck. It was decorated with the same family crest that marked the front entrance of the Mausoleum. A pair of short heels completed her outfit.
Smiling at herself in a full-length mirror, she strolled across the chamber to a second door. Gently, she rapped on the paneling.
"Enter," growled a loud voice from the other side. The speaker did not sound pleased. "You little witch."
Grinning, the young woman opened the door and stepped through. She was in a huge corner office, lined on two sides with windows. Dark tinted glass provided a stunning view of the city. Which seemed only proper, as the occupant of the chamber considered Venice his personal property.
"Sire," murmured the young woman, her husky voice barely concealing her amusement. "As requested, I tested the headquarters security system. I found it... underwhelming."
"So I gathered," said the figure she addressed. A tall man with graying hair, he had the face of an aristocrat. He was impeccably dressed in a dark, three-piece suit, with white shirt and an unadorned tie. His only concession to color was a blood red rose tucked into his jacket collar button. When he was walked the earth in human form, hundreds of years ago, Pietro Giovanni had a passion for beautiful flowers. Undeath had left that sentiment unchanged. As manager of the Mausoleum and one of the most powerful Kindred in Europe, he could afford to indulge in his vices. Large and small.
Pietro dropped in a huge black leather chair behind an ebony desk. Madeleine perched herself on the arm of an armchair facing him. Politely, she waited for her Sire to speak first.
"Of all my Childer," he declared with the barest trace of a smile, "you, Madeleine, are the most accomplished saboteur. I doubt that any other member of the clan could breech our defenses. Still, considering what you accomplished, we are obviously vulnerable to outside attack. What do you recommend?"
"We rely too much on ghouls," she declared. "They are loyal but are a weak link in our defenses. The guards at the front gate must be better trained. And their equipment redesigned to compliment their efforts, not duplicate it."
"The Hellhounds?" asked Pietro.
"A minor force," answered Madeleine. "Feed them less. They need to be hungrier. Replace the earth and grass surrounding the building with artificial sod. Astroturf, lined with steel. Run an electronic current between the door and its frames, much like an electronic eye. Even that can be bypassed, but only with difficulty."
"Repaint the hallway," she said, smiling slightly. "With stripes. A multitude of color will make it difficult for a shadow to pass unnoticed."
Her eyes narrowed. "The ghoul at the entrance. His mind was too weak for the task he performs. I bent his will with minimal effort. He never realized I was manipulating his thoughts. He is worthless. Kill him."
"As you wish." Pietro pressed a button on his desk. "Summon the ghoul watching the entrance of the Mausoleum to room seventeen. Disarm him when he enters. Give the fool an hour to contemplate his sin against the House Giovanni and beg for forgiveness. Then, feed him to our Neonates." Pietro paused, then continued. "Make sure the other ghouls assigned to guard duty are present and watch. It should inspire them to higher standards."
The Giovanni patriarch chuckled and switched off the intercom. "Next?"
"We need security cameras in the basement. And in the elevator shafts. Motion detectors, geared for the slightest disturbance, are also a must."
"Easily managed," said Pietro. "The arrangements will be made tomorrow. Anything else?"
"The spells guarding your suite are worthless. I broke through them too easily. They need to be changed."
"You doubtlessly have specific ideas on how to improve the casting," said Pietro. Before he could say more, the phone on his desk rang. He listened for a few seconds, then hung up.
"Before we cover that matter, would you please turn the electricity in the lower levels back on. My clerks are helpless without their computers."
"Sorry," said Madeleine and snapped her fingers. "Power has been restored to the entire complex."
"Thank you," said Pietro. "Now, explain what you want done with the spells. Anything involving the black arts has to be approved by the clan elders."
They spent the next hour talking. Finally, Pietro raised his hands in mock surrender. "Enough. You have convinced me. I will raise your points with our esteemed ancestors at the next board meeting. There will be no objections."
"Good," said Madeleine. Standing up, she walked over to the bank of windows facing Saint Mark's Cathedral. "You realize, grandfather, I went through this escapade merely to insure you are properly protected."
"Yes, my precious one," replied Pietro fondly. "You are my greatest treasure. I thank you for your concern."
The Giovanni vampires were bound by ties closer than Sire and Childe. All clan members were related. Madeleine had been Embraced by Pietro, establishing their relationship in undeath. She was also the daughter of his only son, Daniel, who had met the Final Death at the hands of Don Caravelli, the Kindred master of the Mafia. It was a debt that both father and daughter had sworn to repay.
Money and death were the two ruling passions of the Giovanni. Their skill manipulating finances was matched only by their powers of necromancy. Of all the Kindred, their clan was the most heavily involved with the world beyond. No one was sure what ghastly rituals they pursued in secret vaults beneath family enclaves. Rumors spoke of an incredible plot to control not only all life but the spirits of the dead as well.
Equally mysterious was the exact extant of the Giovanni fortune. Like a gigantic financial octopus, the family business had tentacles spread throughout the world. Connections with the Catholic Church, firmly established during the Inquisition, had further enabled the clan to penetrate markets unreachable by any other banking institutions. The Giovanni controlled billions of dollars in assets. A word from the clan elders could plunge the world into a depression that would leave entire populations destitute.
Madeleine was unique in the clan that she possessed skills unrelated to either necromancy or high finance. Fanatic in her devotion to family honor, she had spent her entire existence seeking a method to avenge the murder of her father. A century of intensive training and rigid discipline had turned her into a master of industrial espionage and corporate surveillance. She was the hidden dagger of the Giovanni empire.
Though she was responsible for many of the clans greatest triumphs, engineered through a combination of sabotage, blackmail, and assassination, Madeleine was virtually unknown outside the Mausoleum. Those mortals or Kindred she encountered during a mission never survived to tell the tale. When she hunted, death ran at her side.
Yet, despite her successes, Madeleine remained unfulfilled. Three times she had tried to penetrate the secret fortress of her ultimate quarry, Don Caravelli, and three times she had failed. The Mafia chief, controlling a criminal empire that equaled the Giovanni clan in wealth and power, lived in the most secure hideaway in the world. Caravelli knew Madeleine waited for him the moment he left Sicily and thus refused to travel. The Don was no coward, but he was also no fool.
"I have a special mission for you," declared Pietro. He pushed a manila envelope across the desk to her. "Everything necessary for your trip is here. You are to leave for America immediately. In the city of St. Louis, I want you to locate a human named Dire McCann. Finding him should not be difficult as the kine has ties to the local Prince."
"And when I find him?" asked Madeleine. "What do you want me to do?"
In two words, Pietro told her.
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