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It is an immutable law of nature in any business that just as you go to hang up the "Closed" sign, the phone will ring or a customer walk in. It gets to the point that you automatically hesitate for a few seconds before finally turning the lock and setting the security system, not because you've forgotten anything, but because you're giving the inevitable a chance to make its appearance less painful through preparation.
This does not fool the gods, however, so just as I stopped hesitating and turned the key, the phone rang. I gave my usual mild curse and picked up the phone. "Wood's Information Service, Jason Wood speaking."
"Ah, Mr. Wood. It is good to hear your voice again."
There was no way I could forget that deep, resonant voice with its undefinable accent. "Mr. Domingo! This is . . . a surprise."
I hadn't heard from Verne Domingo in several weeks, ever since we'd finished the Great Vampire Coverup, and hadn't expected to ever hear from the blood-drinking gentleman again.
"No doubt. I was wondering if you would do me the honor of joining me for dinnerin the purely normal sensesometime this week."
Well, now, there was a poser of a question. And given that he obviously had more than enough people to call around and arrange his schedule, it must be rather important to him if he was calling me personally. "Ummm," I said smoothly. "Might I ask why?"
To my surprise, he, also, hesitated for a moment. "There are several matters I would like to discuss, but at least one of them was touched on during your first visit to my home. In a sense, you might consider this a business meeting."
"I'm aware of certain elements of your business, Mr. Domingo," I said, trying not to sound overly cold despite my distaste for drug-runners. "Without meaning any undue offense, I don't think that I could be of much assistance, given certain other elements of my own." Such as wanting to stay on the right side of the law, for instance.
I was startled to hear a soft chuckle. "Would you be willing to take my word for it that you would find any business proposal I would make to be neither overly onerous nor morally reprehensible to you?"
I considered that. "As a matter of fact . . . yes, I guess I would. All other things aside, you strike me as a man who takes his word very seriously."
"Your perceptions are accurate. Can I take that to mean you will accept my invitation?"
"Now that you've gotten my curiosity up? You'd have a hard time keeping me away. I can't manage it tonight, but tomorrow night or Thursday would do."
"Excellent. Tomorrow night it is, then. I shall tell Morgan to expect you at eight o'clock. Have you a preference for a menu?"
What the hell, I knew he wasn't hurting for money. "Since you're buying, I have a fondness for fresh lobster and shrimp."
"Noted. My chef rarely has a chance to show off; I shall let him know someone will be coming who can appreciate his work, as he has himself a preference for seafood dishes."
"Great. Um, should I bring anything with me, this being partly business?"
"For this meeting, I think just your mind will suffice. If we reach a significant agreement, then we shall go into the more formal details."
"Gotcha. Okay, see you at eight then."
"I shall be looking forward to it. Good-bye, Mr. Wood."
"Good-bye, Mr. Domingo."
I stared at the phone for several minutes afterwards. "I have a dinner date with a vampire."
It was, at least, somewhat more comforting to be pulling into the huge curving driveway in my own car under my own control. My prior visit had been rather informal, when several thugs in Domingo's employ had dragged me out of bed, bundled me into their car under gunpoint, and shoved me into his parlor while still in my pajamas. So this time I was not only here by choice, but I was better dressed, too.
The door opened as I reached the landing, and I saw the impeccably elegant butler/majordomo I remembered from the last visit. "Thank you . . . um, Morgan, wasn't it?"
"Indeed, sir," Morgan replied, with a small bow. "Your coat, sir? Thank you." I handed him my overcoat, which he took and handed to another servant. "If you will be good enough to follow me, sir, Master Verne is waiting for you in the dining room."
The manners in the Domingo household, I had to admit, had never given me room for complaint. I followed Morgan to an absolutely magnificent room, with an actual cut-crystal chandelier shedding a sparkling light over a huge elongated dinner table which could easily have seated fifty people. The panelling was elegant, real wood I was sure, and there were small oil paintings tastefully set along the walls.
Verne Domingo, resplendent in an archaic outfit, rose upon my entry and bowed. "Welcome to my home, Mr. Wood. Enter freely and of your own will."
I couldn't manage to keep a straight face, though I tried. After I stopped laughing, I spread my hands. "Okay, okay, enough. I see you have a sense of humor too. At least you have the looks to carry it off."
"I thank you. Please, sit down and tell me how my chef has done his work. Alas, I am unable to directly appreciate such talents any more."
It was a lobster-and-shrimp dreamseven different dishes, small enough so that I could eat something of each of them without feeling like I was going to put a large number of crustaceans to waste. As it turned out, small enough so that if I felt like a pig, and I did, I could make sure no crustacean went untouched. I sat back finally, realizing I'd overeaten and not regretting it one bit. "Magnificent, sir. I haven't eaten that well since . . . um . . . I don't think I've ever eaten that well, actually. Seven dishes, four cuisines, the spices perfect, neither over nor underdone . . . I'm going to miss this when I go home, I can tell you that."
Domingo smiled broadly, giving a view of slightly-too-long canines. "Excellent!" He glanced to the side. "Did you hear that, Hitoshi?"
A middle-aged Japanese man came in. "I did. Many thanks for your kind words, Mr. Wood."
"Jasonmay I call you Jason?this is Hitoshi Mori. He has been my chef for several decades now, but he rarely has had a chance for a personal command performance. I am sure he finds it good to know his skills have not faded."
"They certainly haven't." I glanced at Verne. "Surely your entire staff isn't vampires? I mean, Hitoshi-san must have people to cook for?"
Hitoshi bowed. "It is true that, aside from Domingo-sama, his household needs to eat. But it is also unfortunately true that a man can become too accustomed to a routineeither the chef to the tastes of the household, or the household to the work of the chef. Only one who is new can truly permit the chef to measure his skill."
"Well, you have my vote. I've eaten in top-flight restaurants that served far worse. And I'm sure that at least onethe grilled lobster with the citrus and soy saucewas an original."
Hitoshi looked gratified. "You are correct, Mr. Wood. I am glad that my efforts met with your approval." He bowed again to Verne and me, and left.
"Okay," I said, leaning back to let my somewhat overstressed stomach relax, "Let's cut to the chase, Verne. What, exactly, did you want to talk to me about?"
For the first time, I saw Verne Domingo look . . . uncomfortable. Almost as though he was embarrassed. "As I mentioned, it has to do with a discussion we began the first time we met. You described your objections to my profession, I dismissed them.
"I have . . . reconsidered some of my statements."
I raised an eyebrow at him. "Oh? You no longer want to argue about whether drug-pushing is an acceptable profession?"
He cast a faintly annoyed glance at me, then nodded, conceding that I had the right to phrase it that way. "Philosophically, I remain of the opinion that your government is committing an act of extreme idiocy in criminalizing these substances. In terms of morals and practicality, however, I have considered your words and realized that there was far more truth to them than I was originally willing to grant.
"While ideally I sold only to those who were both wealthy and foolish, I discovered that this was in practice virtually impossible to maintain; some of my . . . products were inevitably being sold down an ever-branching hierarchy of smaller and smaller distributors, eventually to be marketed to the very unfortunates I would never have intended to ensnare. Moreover . . ."
He trailed off, then rose from his chair, walked over to a window, and looked out into the darkness.
I waited a bit. Finally, I said, "Yes?"
He took a breathI noticed that he didn't seem to do that habitually, which was a subtle but definite clue to his natureand seemed to force himself to continue. " . . . moreover, I found that I was not pleased with my own behavior, when I compared it with your own. I do not think my own peoplethose bound to me by oaths and by the power that makes them able to share my journey through timecould ever complain of their treatment at my hands, but outside of this isolated and self-contained circle, I have not been the sort of man I originally meant to be." He gripped the windowsill, tight enough that I heard faint crackling sounds and was sure that if I went there later I'd find dents the shape of fingers in the wood. "Many things happened in the past centuries which soured me, made me less than I had been in many ways. I do not think, were I to talk with my self of ages past, that he would be proud of what I have become; in truth, I think he would pity me. I have had no true friends outside of these, my people, for a very long time indeed. I was, despite my unchanging appearance, becoming a bitter, cynical old man. I had . . . and may still have . . . enemies who would have considered that a triumph and amusement." He turned to me. "I wish to try to change that. I would abandon this peddling of illegal substances, find some other venture to provide for myself and my people, and, perhaps, find a way of in some small manner rejoining humanity."
Other people might make a speech like that for effect; but the way that he spoke, I could hear pain under the restrained and dignified words. In my business, you often make a living by guessing who you can and can't trust. Verne Domingo, vampire and drug-runner, still struck me as a man whose word was inviolate and who would never say things like this unless they came from his heart. I nodded. "For what it's worth, Mr. Domingo, I agree with your philosophical position. I think people have the right to be fools, and that the criminalization of things like drugs was proven to be a failure during Prohibition. The same market forces that eliminated booze as a profitable black-market item here would pretty much eliminate the crime caused by drugs, if we just stopped making it illegal to sell them. Doesn't mean that this wouldn't create other problems, but I think the new problems would be a lot more manageable than the old ones." I studied him. "But I think you called me here for more than to basically admit you'd made mistakesalthough I appreciate immensely your decision, and find it pretty darn gratifying that you decided to tell me this personally. So . . . what do you want from me?"
"In a sense . . . little more than you have already given, Jason."
"Aside from the words you have already spoken, which eventually led to this revelation, the fact that you have known what I am, and have nonetheless chosen to leave me to myselfand have even trusted me, to assist in hiding what happened here, and to come here and speak with me, on nothing more than my word." He was looking at me very gravely. "I have trusted no mortal with my secret for a long time. You have taken that trust and already repaid it.
"Yet I confess that there is another, more practical need I have of you." He sat down again, looking slightly less formal than he had moments earlier. "As you can see, I live quite well; this involves the expenditure of money, for which I would prefer to have a visible source. It is undoubtedly true, however, that I am hardly a man of these times, and I have no idea what professions I could do well in."
I blinked at that. "Mr. Domingo"
"Call me Verne, if you would."
"Okay. Verne, I'm not an employment agent or counselor."
"This I understand, Jason. Yet it is true, is it not, that finding jobs, or evaluating people, could be construed to be something involving finding and analyzing information?"
I chuckled. "Well, yeah, I guess you could put it that way. I could probably do a halfassed job at those kind of things, but a professional advisor would be a lot more effective."
"This I cannot argue with," Verne conceded. "However, to do their job to the best of their ability, such people would need to understand many things about meincluding what makes my situation unique."
I saw what he was getting at now. "In other words, they'd have to be able to understand why you were in the position you aremost likely have to know there was something weird about you, at the least, and maybe learn exactly what you are."
"Precisely. Now, I have already confessed that I have been a sour old man for far too long, but that does not mean that I have decided it would be wise to spread the secrets of my existence far and wide. In fact, I suspect that this is one area in which I must remain as careful as I have ever been."
I nodded slowly. "Can't argue that. Despite The X-Files and other similar shows, the world is not ready for real vampires as standard citizens. And the angry mob these days carries automatic weapons, molotov cocktails, and explosives." I dropped into my professional mode and started analyzing the problem.
"Okay, Verne, let's take this a step at a time. I find it hard to believe that you don't have scads of money stashed away somewhereyou've had centuries, and it's pretty obvious to me, just from your mannerisms, that you've been used to being in the upper crust for a long time. So I guess the first question is, why do you need a job at all?"
He looked pleased. "Indeed, you cut to the heart of the matter. I do, as you surmise, have quite considerable wealth in various locations and institutions around the world. However, this is not quite as simple to access as you might think. Until recently, you see, there was little ability to examine the flow of funds from one country to another, and thus it was relatively simple for a man such as myself to move from one place to another and bring my fortune with me, needing only a rather simple cover story to explain why I had so much."
"Gotcha. Transferring significant sums around, making formerly inactive-for-a-century accounts active, dragging in large quantities of gold or whatever, tends to draw the notice of the IRS and other agencies interested in potentially shady activities." This was an issue I hadn't really considered before, having grown up in an era where the government was already well in place with computers monitoring any significant transaction. Oh, it had become more pervasive in areas since I was born, but the basic idea that income was watched by the IRS had been taken as a given. Someone like Verne, who had been living for hundreds of years in civilizations which didn't communicate much between countries and who had at best spotty ways of tracing assets, would indeed find the new higher-tech and higher-monitoring civilizations a bit daunting, to say the least.
"As you say. In addition . . . I am accustomed to doing some form of work. I have been many things in my time, but even as a nobleman I tried to busy myself with the responsibilities such a position entailed. I would feel quite at a loss if I had nothing at all to do." He waited for me to acknowledge this second point, then continued. "Now, my former profession, while illegal, has the advantage of being paradoxically expected. When the government sees large sums of unexplained cash, it expects drugs are the source. If it finds what it expects, then it digs no farther. And if I can deny it admissible evidence and have . . . connections who pay the right people, it is unlikely to do more than try to harrass the suppliers. Supplying drugs also, as I understand you deduced, has the advantage of no set hours. If I wish to be eccentric and meet people only at night, well, this is no stranger than some of the other people involved in this business."
I rubbed my chin, thinking. "Uh-huh. You have this double problem. Not only do you have money of unknown provenanceand thus, from the point of view of any cop, probably crooked somewhereyou can't afford to have people look at you too closely because there's some aspects of your own existence that you have to keep hidden.
"So what you need is a job or profession which permits you to communicate with people exclusively, or nearly exclusively, during darkness hours, which has the potential to earn very large sums of money, and which you can at least fake having the talents for. Either that, or you need a way to get a huge sum of money here where you can use it openly and have an ironclad reason for getting that money."
"I think you have summed it up admirably, yes. I also have something of a philosophical objection to the rates of taxation applied to certain sources of income, but that's a different matter."
"And way out of my league; finding more acceptable employment is one thing, convincing the federal government that it shouldn't tax income is another." Verne smiled in acknowledgement. I went on to the next item of business.
"And what are you doing about your soon-to-be-former business associates?" At a glance from him, I hastily added, "No, no, I'm not asking if you're going to turn them in or anything. Just when and how you're going to get out of the business, so to speak."
"I have, in point of fact, already sent the relevant persons my decision. I will of course clarify my position to them if any of them desire it."
I looked at him questioningly. "You do realize that some of these people may not think of retirement as an option?"
He smiled, but this smile was colder somehow, less the smile of a gracious host and more the bared-fang expression of a predator. "I am sure I can . . . persuade anyone who might think otherwise, Jason. Do not concern yourself with that side of the equation."
I gave an inward shiver, remembering what Elias Kleinbarely a baby by Verne's standardshad been capable of. No, I didn't suppose Verne would have much trouble there.
"Okay," I said, "I guess I can give it a shot. I'll have to think about it a bit, and of course we're going to have to go into your skills and knowledge areas. I'd feel kinda silly giving you a standard questionnaire, so I'll just have to talk to you for a while on thatget a feel for what you would enjoy, what you'd hate to do, what you've already got the skills and knowledge for, and what you'd learn easily. Also, you'll have to confirm or deny the various limitations I guessed for your people, and how they apply to you, so I know what things are definite no-nos and which ones are 'well, sometimes, but only rarely,' if you know what I mean."
"I grasp your meaning, yes. Would you like to start tonight?"
I ran over my schedule in my head. "Unfortunately, no. I'd have to leave here in about another hour anywayI have some early clients to seeand I'd like time to just let the concept percolate through my brain. How about Thursdayday after tomorrow? I know that one was clear, since I checked on it yesterday."
"Thursday will be eminently satisfactory. I shall expect you at the same time, then?"
"Fine with me." I got up and extended my hand.
He shook it with a firm but not oppressively strong grip. "You have neglected to mention your fee, Jason."
I shrugged. "This isn't a normal jobI have no idea what to charge at this point. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. In fact, I have a better idea. When I bring over the work-for-hire agreement, the price will be left open to your discretion. You can decide after the fact what the work was worth to you."
"Are you not concerned I might take advantage of this option?"
I shook my head. "You're a man of honor. You'd feel too guilty. In fact, I will probably come out ahead, since you're likely to charge yourself more than I would."
He laughed. "You are indeed wiser than your years would make you, Jason. Good night, then, and have a pleasant journey home."
"After that dinner, I certainly will. Thank you, Verne."
"All right," I said, "you can meet people in the daytime if necessary. Just not a good thing to do often. That's greatthere are a lot of things, like signing papers, getting permits, and so on, that are close to impossible to manage if you can't get the principal to make himself available when other people are."
I was going over the notes I'd gotten that night, while Verne answered my questions and read the work-for-hire agreement. "Yes, I understand that," Verne confirmed. "I will certainly make myself available for official meetings in the daytime, but would strongly prefer such things be very few and far between. By the way, I admire your wording in this agreementmaking clear that part of your job is to take into consideration my special requirements, while being so utterly generic that someone getting a look at this agreement wouldn't think anything of it."
I grinned. "Wish I could take credit for that one, but I stole most of the wording from similar agreements for people with disabilities." I stood up. "Okay, let's take a look around your house here. Sometimes what you see in a man's home gives you ideasI'm assuming you keep at least some things around because you like them, not just for show."
"Indeed I do. Most things are for my enjoyment, or that of my people." Verne rose also and began to lead me on a tour of the house.
Verne Domingo's "house" was one of the only ones I'd ever visited that deserved the apellation "mansion." It rose a full three stories, sprawled across a huge area of land, and had at least one basement level (given my host's nature, I was not at all sure that there weren't parts of the house, above or below ground, which were being concealed). His staff numbered twelvethirteen, if you counted Morgan. He seemed wryly amused at the coincidence of the number, and noted to me that it had been that way for at least three hundred years. "Therefore," he said, "you must forgive me for putting little stock in triskaidekaphobia."
"So none of your staff is less than three hundred years old?" I asked, trying to get my brain around the concept.
"Not precisely. What has happened is that, on the occasions I have lost a member of my household over the past few centuries, I have quickly found a replacement. This number seems to be suited to my requirements for efficiency, comfort, and security. My youngest, in fact, you have metHitoshi Mori is scarcely seventy-five years old, and has been in my service for forty-two years."
"Morgan, I know, can work during the day. So they aren't vampires like yourself, right?"
Verne nodded, pausing to point out the engravings which were spaced evenly around the walls of this room. "It is possible for someone such as myself to bind others to my essenceallowing them to partake of the power that makes me what I amwithout giving them all the limitations of the life I follow. Naturally, they do not gain all the advantages, either."
Morgan shook his head, opening the next door for us. "No, sir. We do have a preference for meat, given a choiceour metabolism, to use the modern terms, seems to use more protein and so on. We gain immortality, some additional strengths and resistances, but nothing like the powers accorded to Master Verne."
"This is my library, Jason," Verne said as we entered another large room, with tall windows that admitted moonlight in stripes across the carpet before it was banished by Morgan's finger on the switch for the overhead lights. "One of them, to be more precise. This contains those works which might be commonly consulted, or read for pleasure, and which are not so unusual or valuable as to require special treatment."
The other three walls were covered with bookshelveslong, very tall bookshelves. A runner for one of the moving book-ladders I'd seen in some bookstores ran the entire circumference of the room, aside from the one window-covered wall. Other tall shelves stood at intervals across the room, with a large central space for tables and chairs. Two people were there now, one taking notes from a large volume in front of him, the other leaning back in her chair, reading a newspaper. "Ah, Camillus, Meta, good evening."
The two had gotten swiftly to their feet upon seeing that Verne had entered. Camillus was a man of average height, slightly graying brown hair, brown eyes, and the wide shoulders and bearing of a career soldier; despite a strongly hooked nose, I was sure that Syl would have rated the tanned, square-faced Camillus highly on looks. Meta was a young ladyor, I amended, a young-looking ladywhose height matched Camillus', but whose long, inky-black hair very nearly matched her skin shade. Despite that, her eyes were a quite startling gray-blue, and her features were sharp and even, giving her a look of aristocratic elegance that made questions of beauty almost inconsequential.
"No need to rise," Verne said with a smile, "But since you are up, please say hello to Jason Wood."
"Mr. Wood." Camillus' grip was as strong as I would have expected. "Domingo's spoken of you quite a bit of late. Let me know if there's anything I can do to assist."
"Sure," I said. "What exactly do you do?"
"I'm the master-at-arms and in charge of security here," he responded.
I noted the nature of the material scattered around his side of the table and grinned. "And how do you feel about that?'
He understood exactly what I meant and grinned back. "You have me there. By all the gods, security has changed in the past century! At least in the old days the common man didn't have access to sorcery; nowadays, you can pick up one of these," he gestured at several home electronics catalogs, "and order up something with the eyes of an eagle and the hearing of a bat that will send all it sees and hears right back to you."
"Well, I noticed the security setup you have here; it's not bad for a man who seems to still be playing catch-up on the century."
He acknowledged the comment with a bow. "Mostly done on contractor recommendations. I'm not comfortable, though, with having anything in the house that I don't understand."
"Then ask me; once I've got Verne's problem out of the way, I'll be glad to bring you up to speed; I've got plenty of resources in the security area."
"I'll do that." he said, smiling. "Oh, sir," he said, looking at Verne, "Carmichael sent a pretty pissed-off message to you. I don't like the tone of it."
The two of them went off a ways to discuss Carmichael. I turned to Meta and shook her hand. "And your position here is . . . ?"
"I suppose you might call me . . . librarian? Archivist? Something of that sort." Her grip was much more gentle, though not a limp fish by any means.
"Ah, so I'm in your territory here."
She smiled. "It is of course Master Domingo's, but I have jurisdiction as he allows."
Meta and Verne let me wander the library for a few minutes; it was rather instructive, I thought, to see just what Verne thought of as "not unusual or valuable enough" to warrant being kept elsewhere. Even with my relatively limited knowledge of books, I noted several items on the shelves that probably would bring in several hundred dollars if sold.
The next hour or so of the tour passed without notable eventsthe other staff might be sleeping or out for the evening, but whatever the reason I didn't run into any more.
Finally, Verne led me down a wide flight of stairs into the basement, which was as high-ceilinged and opulently furnished as the downstairs but had clearly greater security. "And here is my bedroom."
"Wait a minute. I thought you said that room on the second floor was your bedroom?"
"My show bedroomthe one that visitors of most sorts will be told is my bedroom, if they have any occasion to ask or discover it. I can rest there, if necessary, but here, enclosed in the earth itself, I am better protected."
The room was very large; I was vaguely disappointed not to see a classic pedestal supporting an open, velvet-lined coffin, but instead there was a huge four-poster bed with heavy curtains about it. Several small bookshelves stood at intervals along the walls, along with some large and oddly elaborate frames for paintings, a desk and chairs, a fair-sized entertainment center, and two wardrobes. Besides the paintings there were a few other objects on the wall, most of them weapons of one kind or another. I wandered around the room, studying these things carefully. The oddity of the painting frames became clear when I realized they were double-sealed framesmuseum quality, for preserving fragile materials against the ravages of time. Probably nitrogen-filled.
"So, Jason," Verne said finally, "Does anything occur to you?"
I rubbed my chin. "I'm getting something of an idea, it's just being stubborn and refusing to gel. I need just one more thing to trigger it. Unfortunately, I haven't got any idea what that one more thing is."
"Well, I have saved the part I believe you will find most entertaining for last," Verne said. "It is of course natural that I would place those things I value most in the most secure area. Here is the entry to my vaulta small museum, if you will." He led the way to another room, relatively small and undecorated, whose far wall was dominated by a no-nonsense, massive door of the sort suitable for banks and government secure areas. Verne placed his hand on a polished area near the door, then punched in a number on a keypad and turned the large handle. The door opened onto another set of stairs going down to a landing which ended in another door (also clearly strong, though nothing like the several-foot-thick monster Verne had just swung open). I paused, but they gestured me down. "Go first, Jason. I think you will find it more effective to see it without us leading the way."
I shrugged, then went down the steps. As I reached for the door handle, I saw it turn and push inward, as though grasped by an invisible hand. I felt the prickle of gooseflesh as I realized that this wasn't any cute gadgetry, but a subtle demonstration of Verne Domingo's powers, clearly for the effect. I felt myself momentarily immersed in something mystical, standing at the edge of ancient mysteries. The black door swung open, into inky darkness. Then the same unseen force switched on the lights.
I can't remember what I said; I think I may have gasped something incomprehensible. What I do know is that I stood for what seemed an eternity, staring.
In that first instant, the room seemed ablaze with the sunlight sheen of gold, the glitter of gems, the glow of inlay and paint so fresh it might have been finished only yesterday. At first I couldn't even grasp the sheer size of the vault's collection; it wasn't possible, simply wasn't even imaginable that so many artifacts and treasures could be here, beneath a mansion in upstate New York.
There were statues of animal-headed gods, resplendent in ebony and gold, bedecked with jewelled inlay. A wall filled with incised hieroglyphics provided a sufficient backdrop to set off coffers of jewelry, ceremonial urns, royal chariots. Farther down, beyond what was obviously the Egyptian collection, were carefully hung paintings, marble statues, books and scrolls in glass cases . . .
I stepped slowly forward, almost afraid that the entire fantastic scene would disappear like smoke. I reached out, very hesitantly, and touched a finger to the golden nose of a sitting dog.
"From the chambers of Ramses II," Verne said from behind me, almost making me jump. "His tomb was looted quite early, as things go; I managed to procure a large number of the artifacts, which was fortunate since otherwise they would have been melted down or defaced for valuable inlay and so on."
I just shook my head, trying to take it in. Ramses . . . II? "That's the one they associate with Moses?"
I walked cautiously around this first incredible chamber, stopping at a huge sarcophagus. The golden face rang a faint bell, which was odd because there were very few Egyptian nobles I'd ever seen statues or busts of. What . . . I studied some of the symbology, not that I was an authority or even much of an amateur in the field, but because maybe something would trigger a memory. As an information expert, it's a matter of pride to get the answers yourself, even if it's by luck.
There! That disc, the rays . . .
My head snapped up and I looked at Verne in disbelief. "No. It can't be."
He inclined his own. "Can't be . . . what?"
"Ahkenaten. That's the Aten, and it's all over here. And I've seen a couple busts supposed to be of him. But I thought they found his mummy."
He smiled faintly. "I did hear that someone had found something they believed to be Akhenaten's mummy. Since this has never been out of my, or my people's, possession since shortly after finding out that the Sun-Pharoah's tomb was being looted, I must incline to doubt that what they found was indeed Akhenaten."
It was then that the idea finally crystallized. "Good God, Verne, I've got it."
He looked at me. "What is it?"
"Art, of course!" I waved my hands around at the treasures that surrounded us. "The art world can be tolerant of strange hours and stranger habits. You've already got stuff to sell or donateno, wait, hear me out. You speak many languages, you certainly have various connections around the world, and, well, you appear to have taste and style which I don't have. You could deal in rare artworks, maybe be a patron to newer artists, and so on."
Verne looked thoughtful. "True. I have in fact been a student of the arts, off and on through the centuries; I could determine authenticity in many ways, not the least being firsthand experience of how many things were actually done. Even though I would not, of course, wish to reveal the source of that information, simply knowing the correct from the incorrect is something that I could justify with the proper scholarly logic."
"Yep. It's always easier to write the impeccable logical chain to prove your point if you already know where you're going."
"But selling these masterworks . . . I have kept them safe for thousands of years, Jason. Do not speak lightly of this."
"I'm not taking it lightly, not at all," I said earnestly. "Verne, these things would rock the archaeological worldand I haven't even looked in the rest of this vault; to be honest, I'm almost afraid of what I'll find. Stuff of this historical and cultural value should be out there for other people to appreciate. Hell, just the aesthetic value would justify putting it out there on the proper market. Okay, it's impolite at the least to go around breaking into someone's tomb and ripping off their stuff, but since it was done long ago, shouldn't the work of those ancient artists at least have the chance to be fully appreciated?"
Verne's expression was pained; a man listening to someone trying to tell him to give up his children wouldn't have looked much more upset. Then Morgan spoke.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but I think Master Jason is correct."
Verne just looked at him, silent but questioning.
"If you truly wish to open yourself up, as you once were, sir, I think this means not keeping everything locked away. Not just your feelings, sir, but those things of beauty which we treasure. We have guarded them long enough, sir." He gave another look that I had trouble interpreting; it seemed filled with more meaning than I could easily interpret, something from their past. "We already know of someone whose love of beauty and fear for its fate transformed him . . . in ways that I would not wish to see happen to you."
Those last words got through to Verne; he gave a momentary shiver, as of a man doused with cold water. "Yes . . . Yes, Morgan. Perhaps you are right." He turned back to me, speaking in a more normal tone. "Your idea certainly has merit, Jason. I shall consider it carefully, and discuss it with my household. I would appreciate it if you would be so kind as to examine the best ways for me to begin on such a course of action."
"Sure," I said, wondering if I'd ever quite know what was going on there. "I suppose I'll leave you to it, then."
I cast a last, incredulous glance over my shoulder at that vault of wonders, then headed up the stairs.
The apartment door opened in front of me, at least to the limit that the chain on it would permit. Two bright blue eyes looked somewhat up at me, framed by blue-black hair and set in a pretty, well-defined face. "Hi. Can I help you?"
"I'm Jason Wood."
"Oh, right, Dad's expecting you! Hold on, I'll get the chain off here." The door closed. I heard rattling, and "Dad! Your guest's here!"
When the door opened, I saw Sky Hashima walking towards me, wiping his hands on a towel. "Mr. Wood, please come in." He shook my hand. "This is my daughter, Star," he said, and I shook hands with the girl who had greeted me. "Star, we'll be in my studiothis probably won't take long, but please don't disturb us."
"Okay, Dad. You want anything to drink, Dad, Mr. Wood?"
I smiled at her; she obviously knew something was important about my visit. "A soda would be niceginger ale?"
"We've got that. Dad? Water for you?"
"For now, yes. Thank you, Star."
Sky led the way into his studio; his hair was longer than his daughter's, but despite traces of silver here and there, was otherwise just as night-dark. Their features were also similar enough; there wasn't any doubt about who her father was, and in this case that was a good thing for Star. "A very polite young lady."
Sky gave a small chuckle. "Ahh, that's because she thinks you might be a good thing for her dad. If she thought you were trouble, you'd have needed a crowbar to get inside the house."
"And when she's old enough to date, I'm sure you'll be just as protective."
"Star will be old enough to date when she's ninety. I've told her that already." We shared another chuckle at that. "I recall meeting you at that little show I did at one of the libraries, Mr. Wood, but I didn't think you were really interested in art."
"I'm not, really," I confessed. "Thanks, Star," I said, as she came in, handed us each a glass, and left. "I came to that show with Sylvie, who is interested in art and found some of your pieces quite fascinating. But I do have a few other acquaintances who have more than a passing interest in art."
"And . . . ?"
"And it so happens that one of them is looking to find people to sponsorto be a sort of patron of the arts. I remembered you and wanted to see what kind of work you were doing, and if (a) you were serious about it, and (b) you were willing to meet with him to discuss it." I studied some of the canvases set around the studio. One thing that impressed me was Sky's versatility; I saw paintings which were, to my uneducated gaze, random blots of colors, shapes, and streaks, and others which were landscapes or scenes of such sharp realism you almost thought they were windows rather than paintings, and some in-between, which really didn't follow the accurate shapes or lines yet somehow conveyed the essence of the thing he was depicting.
Sky had an expression that was almost disbelieving; I realized that it must sound almost like that classic of Hollywood myth, working in a restaurant and being discovered by the famous director who stopped in for a cup of coffee. "You're joking."
"Not at all. Would you like to meet him, then?"
"If he's ready, I'll go right now."
I laughed. "Not quite that fastI have to let him know, then he'll either set up the meeting, or have me do it. He's a bit eccentric"
"That's almost a requirement for being a private patron these days. It used to be standard practice, back in Leonardo's day." He took a gulp from his glass and looked at me. "The answer to the first question is yes, I am serious about it. I make an okay living from my framing work, but if you look around you you must realize that the stuff I'm producing represents major investment of time and effort. I could do an awful lot of other things with the money I spend on my art, but my art's worth it to me." He smiled again. "That doesn't mean I'm at all averse to seeing my art start making money rather than taking money, however."
I grinned back. "Excellent. Now, why don't you just show me a few of your favorites here and explain to me what you're doing, so I can give my friend a capsule overview and he'll know what to expect."
Sky was only too pleased to do that, and I spent a good half-hour or more listening to him describe his intentions and techniques in several of his works. I noticed that he, like almost all artists I've ever met, mentioned all the myriad ways in which his works failed to live up to his expectations. It's always been a source of frustration that someone can produce something that's clearly amazing, and all they can think about is how it is flawedoften in ways that no one but they themselves can see. It does however seem to be an almost required characteristic for an artist, and I've heard similar things about writers.
Finally I shook hands with him again and left. "Thank you, Sky. I'll be getting back to you very soon. Nice meeting you, Star."
A short time later I pulled up into the curved driveway which was becoming increasingly familiar to me, and smiled to Morgan as he opened the door. "Good evening, sir. Master Verne is in the study."
"Morgan, do you ever get tired of playing the butler?"
He gave me a raised eyebrow and slightly miffed expression in reply. "Playing, sir? This is my place in the household, and I assure you it is precisely what I wanted. I have, with some variation in regional standards of propriety, been performing these duties for considerably longer than the Roman Empire endured, sir, and had I found the task overall onerous or distasteful, I assure you I would have asked Master Verne for a change."
People like Morgan gave the phrase "faithful retainer" an entirely new, and impressive, meaning. "Sorry. It's just that it sometimes strikes me you're too good to be true."
He smiled with a proper level of reserve. "I strive to be good at my job, sir. I feel that a gentleman such as Master Verne deserves to have a household worthy of his age and bloodline, and therefore I shall endeavor to maintain his home at a proper level of respectability."
"And you succeed admirably, old friend," Verne said as we entered. "Jason, every member of my household has chosen their lifestyle and I would never hold them to me, if any of them chose to leave. It has been a great pleasure, and immense vindication, that not one of my personal staff has ever made that choice . . . though on occasion, as of my recent descent into less-than-respectable business, they have made clear some of their personal fears and objections." He put away a book that he had been reading and gestured for me to sit down as Morgan left. "I have been taking up some considerable portion of your time, Jason. I hope I am not interfering in your personal lifeyour friends Sylvia and Renee, for instance, are not suffering your absence overly much?"
I laughed. "No, no. Syl's off on some kind of convention for people in her line of work and isn't coming back for something like a week from now, and I only get together with Renee once in a while. Most of my other friends, sad to say, aren't in this areathey've gone off to college, moved, and so on, so I only talk with them via phone or email. Really. So have no fear, I'm at your disposal for at least the next week or so."
"Excellent." Morgan came in with his usual sinfully tempting tray of hors d'oeuvres and snacks. "By the way, Morgan, have there been any further problems from my erstwhile business associates?"
"No, sir. They have found that it is not easy to intrude here and have apparently given up after I was forced to injure the one gentleman at the store."
"Very good. I shall send another message to Carmichael emphasizing that I will be extremely displeased if any more such incidents happen, but it does appear he has learned something about futility." He turned back to me. "And how did your meeting go?"
"I think he'd be a great choice, Verne. He's clearly serious about his work, and with my limited grasp of art I think his stuff is really, really good. If you want to meet with him, he's willing to meet any time you name."
"Then let us not keep him waiting overlong. Tomorrow evening, at about seven, let us say."
"I'll give him a call now." Suiting actions to words, I picked up a phone and called Sky Hashima. As he'd implied, he was more than willing to meet then, and assured me that he'd be able to assemble a reasonable portfolio by that time.
"I'm glad you're going to check him over yourself," I confessed. "I know just enough about art to know that I really don't know the difference between 'illustration' and 'art,' and that the latter is what you are interested in."
Verne smiled. I was, at least, getting used to seeing the fangs at various moments, although I also had to admit that they weren't that obvious; someone who didn't know what he was would quite probably just assume he had oddly long canines. "You may be confident, my friend, that I would still wish to see for myself even were you an expert in all things artistic. If I will sponsor anyone, it will be because I am convinced the person deserves my support. Now that that is settled," he said, pulling out a chessboard, "would you care for a game?"
I pulled my chair up to the table. "Sure . . . if you take black and a queen handicap. You've got a few years on me."
"A queen? A rook."
I opened the trunk and helped Sky get out his portfolio. Innocent that I was, I thought a "portfolio" would be a notebook-sized collection of picturesreproductions, etc. Artists, of course, do not do things that way. Reproductions are often used, but they're done as near as possible to full size as can be managed, and Sky had a lot of samples. He was trying to show a number of things about his work (most of which I could only vaguely understand) and accordingly had put together a very large collection of material.
Morgan bowed us in the door, and Verne came forward. "Mr. Hashima, it is a great pleasure to meet you."
Sky smiled back and shook his hand. "The pleasure's all mine."
I nodded at Verne. "I'll be off, then. I know you people have plenty to discuss and I won't have a clue as to what you're talking about."
"Of course, Jason. Thank you for bringing Sky over; Morgan will arrange his transport home once we are done here, so do not trouble yourself further."
I waved, said "Good luck!" to Sky, and got back into Mjolnir, turned down the driveway and headed home.
It was only when I turned the key in the office lock that something bothered me. I felt it click . . . but at the wrong time. The door had already been opened. Not having expected any trouble, I wasn't carrying, either. Then again, I supposed it was possible, though unlikely, that I'd forgotten to lock it in all the confusion. I pushed it open, letting the door swing all the way around and bump the wall to make sure no one was hiding behind it. Nothing seemed out of place. I went in and locked the door behind me.
With the lights switched on, I still didn't see anything disturbed in the officewhich was what I'd be mainly concerned with. I checked the secure room at the back; nothing. That left only my living quarters upstairs. I went through the connecting door.
Something exploded against my head. I went down, almost completely unconscious, unable to see anything except vague pain-inducing blurs. Rough hands grabbed me, dragged me out the back door, threw me into a car, and then shoved something over my mouth and nose.
By then I was focused enough to fight back, but these people were stronger than me and had the advantage. Eventually I had to breathe, and whatever they'd put in it finished ringing down the curtain.
I came slowly awake, my head pounding like a pie-pan in the hands of a toddler. With difficulty I concentrated on evaluating myself. I could feel a focused ache on the side of my skull, where I'd been conked on the head. My stomach was protesting, an interesting but unpleasant combination of hunger and nausea; some hours had gone by, I figured. There was the generalized headache, of course. Chloroform? Halothane? I supposed that the specific chemical didn't matter, though it had seemed too fast for classic chloroform. I'd been in too much pain to notice the smell clearly, if there'd been one. I was sitting uprightobviously tied up in a chair or something similar, because I could feel some kind of bindings on my arms, legs, and chest.
Now, if this was a proper adventure novel or TV episode, they'd have left me my Swiss Army knife or something for me to attempt an escape by, but I could in fact feel that, while I was still dressed, there wasn't a damn thing left in my pockets except possibly some lint. Not being an escape expert or martial artist or superhero, I decided I'd gotten about all I could out of just sitting and thinking, so I slowly raised my head and opened my eyes.
The pain only increased slightly and then started to ebb. Leaving aside the niceties of being tied up with a knot on my head, I was in a rather pleasant room, large and airy, with a big picture window looking out on a driveway somewhat reminiscent of Verne's own, although this one was a wide drive that turned into a circle at the end, rather than a drive shaped like a teardrop. The landscaping was also different, more sculpted and controlled, less wild; Verne liked a more natural look, while whoever owned this clearly preferred symmetry and precision. The trees and fountains and bushes were all laid out in a smoothly rolling but still almost mathematically precise manner.
I was facing the picture window; off to my left were some cases of bookswhich I was fairly sure were chosen for show, rather than actual reading material, judging from what I could seesome pictures, an in-wall television screen, and some chairs and low tables. Looking off to my left, I saw a very large desk. The person behind the desk, however, made the desk look small. He was as blond as I was, but tanned, wearing a suit that had to be custom made because he was large enough to be a pro wrestlersix foot eight standing was my guess, maybe even biggerbut the suit fit him perfectly, making him look simply like a well-dressed adult in a room made for twelve-year-olds. His hair was fairly long, pulled back in a smooth ponytail, and his face had the same square, rough look that many boxers get, complete with a slightly broken nose.
He had been reading a newspaper, but when I turned my head to look at him the movement apparently caught his eye. "He's awake," he said in a deep, slightly rough voice.
I heard a couple chairs scrape back behind me, and heavy footsteps approached. Twisting my neck around, I was able to see two large menthough neither of them quite the size of the guy behind the deskwalk over. They picked up my chair and turned it to face the desk.
"Good morning," I said. "Mr. Carmichael, I'd presume?"
He didn't exactly smile, but something in his expression acknowledged my feeble sally. "That's right."
"I was afraid of that. As far as I knew, I didn't have anyone who disliked me enough to use a blackjack to introduce themselves, and I haven't been on any really nasty cases lately."
"Since you know who I am, we can get to business." He nodded, and one of the silent thugs pulled up one of the small tables with a telephone on it. "I'm going to call Domingo. You'll listen in on that extension. You say nothingand I mean nothinguntil I tell you. When I tell you, you will confirm to Domingo that I do indeed have you here, and that I'm going to have you painfully killed if he doesn't cooperate."
I nodded. There wasn't much point in arguing with him; in my current position, what was I going to do?
He did give a small smile at that. "Good. I hate people who don't cooperate. You might actually get out of this alive, if Domingo doesn't screw up." He punched in the numbers, and one goon picked up the extension and held the receiver to my hear.
"Domingo residence, Morgan speaking."
"Morgan, buddy, this is Carmichael. I need to talk to Domingo right now."
Morgan paused. I could see that it was, in fact, morning, so Verne was doubtless sleeping. "Master Verne is not available at the moment"
"Listen up. I know for a fact he hasn't left that mansionmy people were watching yesterday. So okay, he went to bed. Get him up. Now. I'll guarantee you he'll be the one regretting it if you don't do it."
Morgan sighed. "If you insist, sir. Please hold the line."
Faint strains of classical music came on; apparently Verne or whoever ran the phone system agreed that dead air was no fun to listen to. Carmichael made a face. " 'Please hold the line.' Jeez, I still can't figure this clown. He think he's in a fucking Masterpiece Theatre show or something?"
I didn't say anything; I figured silence was my best policy right now.
Several minutes later, the music cut off and Verne's voice spoke. "Mr. Carmichael."
"Verne! Good to hear you, buddy. Look, if you want to cut out of the business personally, I want you to know, that's okay with me, so long as you aren't going to rat. But your leaving like this is causing me a problem, and I'm not okay with that."
"What you are 'okay' with, Mr. Carmichael, is not really much of my concern."
Carmichael gave a nasty laugh. "I think I got an argument about why it is, Verne old buddy. Take a listen and then tell me." He nodded at me.
"Hello, Verne," I said. I at least managed to sound casual.
There was silence for a moment, then, "Jason? Is that you?"
"I'm afraid so. Mr. Carmichael made me an offer I couldn't refuse and invited me to visit him. He's instructed me to tell you that if you don't go along with what he wants, he's going to have me killed. Painfully."
I could envision the offended shock on the other end. "Carmichael. What do you want?"
The nasty laugh again, combined with a nastier grin. "I thought you might want to ask about that now. I want your contacts, Verne. You had some seriously smooth pipelines to bring stuff in from various places. No matter how hard I tried, never could quite figure out who was doing it, and you never lost a fucking shipment. I admire that, really. That's art. But I was depending on those pipelines, and suddenly you cut me off? Where the fuck do you get off thinking you can just tell me to go screw? What is that shit? You wanna go play with your English butler in teatime land, fuck, I don't care, but without a replacement I'm eating into my reserves and I ain't got supply for my customers to last more than a couple more weeks. And I ain't going to go for a supplier that's gonna cost me more or give me lower quality. So, if you ain't doing the supply end, I'll take your place. You just hand me your contacts, whoever ran the pipelines, and I'll do it from there. Your friend here goes home, we all end up happy. Get stupid with me and I'll send him to you in pieces."
Verne's voice, when it finally answered, seemed as calm as usual; but, now that I was familiar with it, I detected a hint of iron anger I'd never heard before. "Mr. Carmichael, my . . . contacts would be useless to you. When I stopped, they stopped. They no longer trade in the same merchandise."
"Well, baby, that sounds just too bad. You'd better tell 'em to start trading in it again, and give me the names double-quick. I ain't got too much time, so my patience is totally gone." He pointed at the other thug, who stepped up and kicked me hard in the shin.
I know I screamed or shouted something in pain, then cursed. I hadn't been ready to try to stay quiet at that.
"Hear that? That wasn't much, Domingo. Right now he's just got a couple bruises."
"I will need some time."
"You never needed much, buddy, so don't you even think about stalling me. I'll give you to midnight tonight, Domingo, to start coming through. Either you start the supply back up yourself, or you hand me the people who were doing the job for you, or I'll finish your friend here off."
There were a few moments of silence. "Domingo, do you hear me? I need an answer, buddy, or do I have to make your friend uncomfortable again?"
"I hear you," Verne answered. "I will have something for you before midnight, Carmichael. But if you harm Jason again, you will be exceedingly sorry. That I promise you."
"Not another touch, Domingo, unless you try something cute. His safety's all in your hands. I'll call you later tonight. Be ready." He hung up, and so did the thug holding the receiver.
"You did that good, Mr. Wood," Carmichael said. "Now, boys, you can untie him, take him to the bathroom if he needs to go, and we'll get him some food. You're not going to do anything stupid, are you?" he asked me.
"Nope," I said honestly. "I don't know exactly where we are, and I'm sure you've got lots more where these guys come from."
"Great. Y'know, I grabbed another guy once, few years ago, thought he was a fuckin' action hero. Busted up a few of my guys, tried to get out, ended up shot. Nice to see not everyone's that stupid."
Privately, I wondered. Verne was an honorable guy; he'd probably see it as his obligation to get me out of this, but it would really suck if a bastard like Carmichael got access to his drugs again.
But no point in worrying now. Using the bathroom sounded good, and now that my stomach was settling, so did food. I figured I'd just try to be a good Boy Scout and Be Prepared.
"Ten o'clock," Carmichael said. "Jeez, will you look at that shit come down!"
Even as worried as I was, I had to admit it was an impressive storm. Gusts of gale-force winds battered the house, blue-white lightning shattered the night, torrents of rain came down so heavily that they obscured our sight of the front gate, even with all the lights of the estate on. An occasional rattling spatter showed that there was some hail as well.
"Man, did the weatherman ever screw up this one. Forecast said clear and calm all night. Boy, that put the crimp in some party plans, I can tell you." Carmichael picked up the phone and dialed. "Yo, Morgan, put Verne on the line." He listened and his brows came together. "What do you mean, 'not available at the moment'? Listen, you just tell him he's got two fucking hours . . . Yeah, well, he damn well better be 'planning to discuss it with me momentarily.' " He slammed the phone down. "I dunno, bud, maybe Domingo doesn't give a shit about you."
I glanced outside. Could it be . . . ? "I wouldn't bet on that if I were you."
He looked out speculatively. "He couldn't be that dumb, could he?" I heard him mutter. Then he pushed a button on his desklooked like one of several, probably securityand said "Hey, Jay, look, I know it's a dog's night out, but pass the word to the boysDomingo and his gang might try something on us tonight. Yeah, yeah, I know, they'd be morons to try, especially in this crap, but people do dumb things sometimes."
He leaned back. "If he does try, I'll make sure he gets to see you shot, you do know that, right?"
I looked back at him. A faint hope was rising, along with the shriek of the suddenly redoubled wind. "Yeah, I guess you will."
The intercom buzzed. "Mr. Carmichael, Jimmy and Double-T don't answer."
His relaxed demeanor vanished. "What? Which post were they on?"
"Number onethe private road entrance."
"The line down?"
"No sir, it's ringing, they just aren't answering."
He glared at me, then flicked his gaze to the window, as did I. So we were both watching when it happened.
The huge gates were barely visible, distorted shapes through the wind-lashed storm; but even with that, there was no way to miss it when the twin iron barriers suddenly blew inward, torn from their hinges by some immense force.
"What the fuck" Carmichael stared.
Slowly, emerging from the howling maelstrom, a single human figure became visible. Dressed in black, some kind of cloak or cape streaming from its shoulders, it walked forward through the storm, seeming almost untouched by the tempest. I felt a chill of awe start down my spine, gooseflesh sprang out across my arms.
Battling their way through the gale, six men half-ran, half-staggered up to defensive positions. Stroboscopic flashes of light, accompanied by faint rattling noises, showed they were trying to cut the intruder down with a hail of bullets. Even in that storm, there was no way that six men with fully automatic weaponry could possibly miss their target, especially when it continued walking towards them, unhurried, no attempts to dodge or shield itself, just a measured pace towards the mansion's front doors.
The figure twitched as gunfire hit, slowed its pace for a moment, was staggered backwards as all six concentrated their fire, a hail of bullets that could have stopped a bull elephant in its tracks. But the figure didn't go down. I heard an incredulous curse from Carmichael.
The figure raised one arm, and the three men on that side were suddenly slapped aside, sent spinning through the air as though hit by a runaway train. The other arm lifted, the other three men flew away like rag dolls. The intruder came forward, into the light at the stairway that led up to the front door, and now there was no mistaking it. Verne Domingo had come calling.
He glanced up, seemed to see us, even though the sheeting rain and flashing lightning would have made that impossible. The winds curled down, tore one of the trees up by the roots, and the massive bole smashed into the picture window, showering both of us with fragments of glass.
I felt Carmichael's immense arm wrap around me and a gun press into my temple. Verne came into view, walking slowly up the tree that now formed a ramp to our room. He stopped just outside of the window. "Put the gun down, Carmichael," he said, softly.
"You . . . whatever the hell you're doing, you just fucking cut it out, or you can scrape up Wood's brains with a spatula!" Carmichael shouted.
I wondered why the heck Verne wasn't doing something more. Then it clicked for me. "Come on inside, Verne," I said. "We were just talking about you."
With my invitation, I saw a deadly cold smile cross his face, one that showed sharper, whiter teeth than I'd seen before. "Why, thank you, Jason. I do believe I shall."
The two thugs charged Verne; with a single backhanded blow he sent both of them tumbling across the floor, fetching up unconscious against the back wall.
Carmichael's hand spasmed on the gun.
Nothing happened. I felt, rather than saw, him straining to pull a trigger that had become as immovable as a mountain. Verne continued towards me. "Put my friend down now, Carmichael," he said, in that same dangerously soft tone.
Carmichael, completely unnerved, tried to break my neck. But he found that his arms wouldn't cooperate. I squirmed, managed to extricate myself from his frozen grip, and backed away.
Now Verne allowed Carmichael to move. Deprived of me for a hostage, the huge man grabbed up the solid mahogany chair and swung it with all his might.
Made of wood, the chair was one of the few weapons he could've chosen that might have been able to hurt Verne. But to make it work, he also had to hit the ancient vampire, and Verne was quite aware of what he was doing.
One of the aristocratic hands came up, caught the chair and stopped it as easily as if it had been a pillow swung by a child, and the other whipped out and grasped Carmichael by the neck, lifting him from the ground with utterly negligible effort.
"You utter fool. Were you not warned to leave me and mine alone? I would have ignored you, Carmichael. I would have allowed you to live out your squalid little life without interference, if only you had the sense to let go. Now what shall I do? If I release you, doubtless you shall try something even more foolish, will you not?
Purple in the face, Carmichael struggled with that grip, finding it as immovable as though cast in iron. He shook his head desperately.
"Oh? And should I trust you? The world would be better off with you dead. Certainly for daring to strike in such a cowardly fashion I should have you killed."
He looked at me. "You would have me spare him?"
"Sure. Killing him will force the cops to investigate. You haven't killed anyone yet, have you?"
He shook his head. "No. Battered, unconscious, and so on, but none of his people are dead, as of now."
"Then leave it. I think he's got the point. It's not like he'd be believed if he told this one, and he can't afford the cops to come in anyway; even if they tied something to you, they'd also get stuff on him."
Verne gave an elaborate shrug, done as smoothly as though he was not actually holding three hundred pounds of drug lord in one hand. "As you will, then. I, also, prefer not to kill, even such scum as this." He let Carmichael drop. "But remember this well, Carmichael. I never wish to hear your name again. I do not ever want to know you exist again. If you, or anyone in your control or working for you in any way, interferes with my life or that of my friends again, I shall kill you . . . in such a manner that you will wish that you had killed yourself first. Believe me. I shall not warn you a third time. This is your final chance."
Carmichael was ashen. "I gotcha. I won't. You won't ever hear from me again, Domingo, I promise."
"Good." Verne turned to me. "My apologies, Jason. It never even occurred to me that you might be in danger. Let me get you home."
Outside, the storm was already fading away, as though it had never been.
"How did you find me?"
Verne and I were comfortably seated in his study. He smiled slightly. "I have always known roughly where Carmichael lived, just as he always knew where I lived. Once I arrived in the general area, it was simple to sense your presence and follow it."
"No need to thank me, Jason. It was my fault entirely that you were involved. I should have realized that once he found my household impenetrable, he would look for anyone outside that was connected to me."
"Maybe you should, but so should I. Heck, you hadn't had anyone 'outside' connected to you for so long that I'm not surprised you sorta forgot."
"For far too long, but I thank you for your understanding."
"You think he'll keep his hands off from now on?"
Verne gave that cold smile again. "Oh, yes, I assure you. I was not concerned with the niceties of civilized behavior at that point, Jason. I made sure that he was, shall we say, thinking very clearly. He knows precisely what would happen to him if he ever crosses me again. And as you pointed out, the authorities won't believe him even if he tells his story, nor would it do him much good if they did."
"So how did your interview with Sky go?"
"Excellently well," he replied, offering me a refill on the champagne, which I declined. "Your casual evaluation was, as far as it went, accurate. Mr. Hashima is a true artist, a dedicated one, and highly talented in several ways. I will have no qualms about supporting him fully. He is naturally a bit cautiousI do seem to him to be a bit too good to be truebut I am sure that we shall get past this minor difficulty."
I sipped, appreciating the unique taste that a real champagne offers. "And the antiquities?"
Verne grinned, a warm smile that lit the room. "As usual, you and Morgan are right. I shall be donating, or selling, many of the items in question to people who will both appreciate them and be willing to place them on proper display. Some discreet inquiries have already elicited several interested responses, and I expect several archaeologists to visit in a few weeks in order to authenticate, insofar as is possible, the artifacts and prepare a preliminary assessment. I have already decided to send Akhenaten, at least, directly to Egypt. Let the Sun Pharoah return to his home." He raised his own red-glinting glass in salute. "My thanks, Jason, again. You have indeed found something that I shall enjoy doing, something which will contribute to the world as well. And you have given me your friendship, which I value perhaps even more."
I managed, I think, to keep from blushing, although I do tend to do that when praised extravagantly. "It was my pleasure, really. Well, aside from being kidnapped, but that wasn't completely in your control. I just hope he has bad dreams about you whenever he goes to sleep."
"I assure you, your hope will be more than adequately fulfilled, Jason," Verne said, with the expression of someone with a small secret.
"As I implied, I was quite capable of hearing his thoughts when I extorted certain promises from him, and discovered one quite serendipitous fact." He paused for me to urge him to finish, and then said, "Many people are afraid of various things, real and otherwise.
"It turns out that Mr. Carmichael's greatest and most secret fear . . . is vampires."
I laughed out loud. "Well, I'll drink to that!"
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