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"Good evening, Jason," Verne said. "Is there a reason you come bearing a laptop?"
"Evening, Verne," I said, sitting down in the large, comfortable chair I usually took when visiting. "Yep. Remember, I asked you if you were free this evening. I want to pick your brain, or at least get a start on it."
He smiled, curious. "About what, in particular?"
"Well, when I first met you and ended up with Elias Klein turning into a charcoal briquette, I thought, 'Well, now, that's something to tell my grandkids,' but figured it was a fluke. Then Virigar and his litter of homicidal puppies showed up, and I thought, 'Jeez, twice in a year. But that ought to be that.' "
Verne sat down in his own chair. "I believe I see where this is going."
"So then along comes Ed Sommer, genetically engineered contractor-assassin, following your time-displaced contradictory-backgrounded long-lost son, and I get an infodump on the Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know," I continued. "At this point, I think I have to accept that as long as I'm involved with you, the Weird Shit of the World is going to keep coming to my door. This puts aside the fact that along the way I, personally, have gotten pretty high on the hit parade of several nastiesEd and the Colonel's former organization, whatever's left of them, the vampire who sent Klein after you at their request, and of course the King of the Werewolves himself.
"So I figure that as long as I'm going to be in the deep end, I might as well know what else might be swimming around under me, nibbling at my toes." I plugged my laptop into the wall and powered up. "I've set up a database for the weird here, and I want you to help me fill it in, as much as possible, so when I run into something I'll have a chance to figure out what I'm dealing with."
"I cannot argue with the logic of this enterprise," Verne admitted. "Whether I would agree that I, personally, am the focal pointit could I think be argued with equal facility that you are yourself the cruxI am a firm believer in destiny. Giving you more information to work with has always served us well. Ask and I shall answer, to the best of my ability to do so."
Kafan appeared in the doorway. "Do you need my help, Mr. Wood?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so, Kafan. Verne probably knows more about the current 'State of the Weird' than you do, given that you spent most of your current life either locked in a lab or hiding in some Viet jungle. If I have to ask about things specific to you, I'll let you know. By the way, I got a message from the Senator; I'll be having a meeting with her day after tomorrow, and the three of us will have to decide how I'm going to approach it. But I'll do that tomorrow as a strategy meeting."
Kafan clearly wanted to discuss it now, but he restrained himself admirably. It had taken more than a little effort to hammer it through his head that there simply was not going to be any quick and easy way to get his children away from a United States senator. "I'll see you tomorrow, then," he said finally. "I'm going out for a while, Father. Morgan says that he and Meta will watch Genshi."
"Very well, Kafan. Enjoy yourself." Verne turned back to me as Kafan left. "So where shall we start?"
"Well, why not with you, Verne?" I asked. "Over the months I've gotten piecemeal ideas about what hurts you or helps you and so on, and you told me that your powers derive from your . . . goddess," I stumbled over the word; it was still difficult for me to casually discuss things as fact which had been myth to me a year previously, "and that Klein's type of vampire were made in mockery of what you are, but I'd like to have a unified idea of what you can and cannot do, and why, and then we can compare this to the Klein type of vampire, and move on from there."
"I have no objection." Verne settled back and steepled his fingers in thought. "As you know, the Lady Eonae blessed me with these powers. She is the essence of the living world; you can think of her as a spirit who reflects the nature of life and the magic of the soul. During the destruction of Atlantaea, I was one of her priestshigh in her hierarchy, but not at the topand at the moment the blow fell I was serving as . . . how should I put it . . . a minister or chaplain to the Royal Family. Seeing the demons unleashed, the Eternal Queen told me to go swiftly and protect her son, Prince Mikael, who had only shortly before left for the Great Temple. She did this partly out of her own kindness, I am sure, for she knew that my own wife and children were of necessity at the Great Temple as well."
Verne's voice took on that trace of an ancient accent, and his eyes seemed darker and sad as he continued. "It was while I raced down the Diamond Way that I was attacked by a mob of Demons. Individually they were no match for me at all, and as a group they should not have been able to defeat one of my rank and training. But even as I summoned the power of the Lady to oppose them, I felt it falter. For the first time in living memory, something was threatening the strength of Eonae herself, and because of that we, her chosen, were weakened, at the very moment when we so desperately needed her power." He sipped from his crystal goblet, eyes staring into the past. "Yet still had Queen Niadeea placed her command and charge upon me, and I would not fail her. With the shadow of power still mine to command and my own will and training, I managed to fight my way free of the Demons, but they had greviously injured both body and soul. I should have died there, moments after that desperate victory, but I could notI would notyield my life without reaching the Great Temple. I refused Death, forbade it to touch me, and swore upon all the Powers of the Two Worlds that I would still reach the Temple and see Prince Mikael's living face, even were my very heart torn from my body.
"Around me, as in a nightmare, I could hear the destruction of the cityscreams of terror and pain, the snarls of Demons and monsters, the crumbling of buildings, the flare and thunderclap roar of spells and mystic weapons against the invaders. My breath seemed to give me no strength, yet I forced one foot in front of another, following the wavering path onward towards the building I must reach."
I found myself gripping the laptop tightly, knowing what was coming. There was pain in Verne's voice, a pain that literal ages had not been able to entirely erase. I hadn't intended to ask for his past story, just for something on what he could do, but I realized that this was a story he hadn't told for a long time indeed, and maybe a story that he had to tell.
"The steps of the Great Temple were covered in blood. The echo of the Lady's presence was fainter. I staggered up the steps, my shattered ribs grating, blood trickling down my side, vision narrowing until it seemed I walked down a black tunnel, a tiny sliver of light ahead of me revealing bodies, torn tapestries, nothing but death, death and destruction everywhere." For a moment his voice, the smooth, deep voice which almost never varied its controlled pitch, caught, wavered. "Then I saw them.
"Mithanda lay atop Nami and Suti, futilely trying to protect them to the last. The beast that had slain them turned towards me, grinning, feeding upon my horror and despair. I screamed, I know that, and swung my staff of office, caring nothing of how I died now. But the staff carried the enchantments, as did almost all weapons in those days, and the monster had seen my wounds; it had thought me unable to fight at all, and its lunge took it straight into the path of my blow. The staff shattered, but the mystic force slew the monster in that same moment.
"I could do nothing for my family now. I had to see if the Prince was safe. Surely he would have been taken to the Heart, and the Sh'ekatha defend him. I had nothing left, only the command of the Queen. Somehow I still moved, leaving them behind. Mourning would be for later." He drew a deep breath.
"But the Prince was not there. The Sh'ekatha was, but he was already near to death. The Lady was one of the Demons' greatest enemies, so one of their greatest killers had been sent to make her cult impotent. It had not been easy, not even for one of the Great Demons, but even as I entered, Balgoltha broke the Sh'ekatha's back over the Heartstone. My cry of protest was barely even a cough, so weak was I, but still the Demonlord heard it and turned. Wounded though he was, he still laughed, and rightfully so. I was no threat to such as henot even had I been unhurt. The Lady's power was faint, and fading. I had no more hope or help to give, and I had failed the Queen, for surely the Prince was dead or captured now. With no other course, I used the last of my strength and staggered into the Mirror of the Sky; at least I would die in a place where no Demon might touch my soul."
He swallowed, eyes still focused on things long gone to dust. "But the Lady is wise, and has the craft of the Earth within her. In that very instant, she drew upon the strength of the world entire, and I . . . I became the Sh'ekatha.
"Balgoltha had tried to seal the power, but even he had failed to realize how strong the Lady could be; by the time he reacted, it was too late. Here, in the center of the Great Temple, I rose from the Mirror, healed and touched by the very grace of the Lady, and he knew he was no match for me, not in that moment, not as he was. It would have pleased me to fight him, finish off at least one of the enemy, but he was no fool, and fled with a curse.
"But Atlantaea was ended, and the Demons scoured the earth. With the Lady's blessing I could hide from them, but little else could I do for long, long years. Only when they had left, confident that their work was done and only harmless savages remained, did I emerge and, taking those few things I could salvage, begin to rebuild what had been lost."
There was a long silence then. Finally, Verne shook himself and looked apologetically at me. "Dear me, Jason . . . I became rather carried away there. I had no intention of talking so long on a topic which was, at best, a side issue to the one at hand."
"It's okay. I think you needed to talk that out."
He hesitated, then nodded slowly. "You may be right, my friend.
"And though it's about half a million years too late . . . I'm sorry."
"Your sympathy is appreciated." He sipped his goblet, and then with a visible effort cast off the feeling of brooding sadness. "Enough of this. It was only after that time that I truly began to understand what I had become, and why. The powers of a Sh'ekatha, and their limitations, are all part of what it means to represent Eonae, the Lady of the World.
"Firstly, I drink blood. Blood is in many ways the essence of life; it carries all that sustains a living being, and thus I depend on it as all living things depend on each other. I am strong, a strength that represents both the unity of life and the solidity of the Earth, and a strength which grows as time does pass, just as a forest can grow from a single seed in time. Only things that are living, or that derive directly from the activity of life, can harm me as weapons. This reflects the fact that the existence of life itself is not truly dependent on the Earth's decisions, for life is a natural consequence of the world; only the turning of Life against itself, or an unnatural form of Life, can destroy life. I cannot enter a dwelling place of intelligent creatures unbidden, because the very nature of intelligence is to control nature; nature only enters a dwelling if the owner permits it, and therefore one who is the living avatar of nature may not enter without permission either. I can change my form, since life is itself mutable, and nature exists in many guises; yet the forms I can assume are constrained, because in nature the rules constrain the ways in which life evolves. Sunlight harms us because it is the source of energy for all other forms of life, but the Sh'ekatha draws his strength from the Earth itself; he is reminded, by this separation, that he is different from all other things that live because he, alone of all things, is tied to the Spirit of the World directly and can do no harm to her without feeling it rebound upon him, nor can anything long harm the world without harming him. He can no longer turn to the Sun for strength and light, but must find it within himself. I can influence the world, especially the elements of air and water, through the action of my willalthough this power does not come to a Sh'ekatha immediately, but grows over time just as the physical strength. This power derives from the fact that life itself can affect and transform the world, and is in fact an expression, by its very existence, of the power of spirit over matter. Similarly, as that which lives can affect me, I can affect it to some extent, and thus I have some power over minds. As I represent the Earth itself, and life in all its guises, no mirror or image made by unthinking machines can capture my essence; a picture of myself can only be created by the power of a thinking mind that sees me with its soul as well as by crude light. As I am living, I can also reproduce, though in a way unique to myself; I can place some of my power in another who is willing, and let that power grow; my life force acts as a seed and symbiote, creating a new and stronger life, but one with some ties to both myself and to the original creature." He sat back and finished his glass of blood. "I believe that covers everything. If I recall anything else, I shall inform you."
I typed the data in, asking questions of him occasionally since I had to clarify certain pointshe'd reeled that stuff off awfully fast. Finally I finished up. "Okay. How about those vampires like Klein? Is there a specific logic in the parody of your powers?"
Verne's mouth tightened momentarily. "Oh, yes. Their creator was a magician of vast power, one who in essence was attempting himself to become a demon and perhaps something even greater in darkness. I was one of his major adversaries after the Fall of Atlantaea, because I attempted to establish a new civilization based on the old and had the power to do so. He intended to create his own empire, or so I believe, in order to use the strength of the human race to further his personal quest. In any case, I became a perennial thorn in his side; he could not corrupt the world or its spirit so long as I lived. Eventually he came up with this curse, which was all too effective.
"The victims of the curse, the vampires, are parodies in all ways. Rather than a purification and extension of the true spirit, they are warped powers, turned against themselves to produce an abomination. They drink blood to represent their ties to destructionspilling blood rather than accepting it freely. Their strength is the strength of self-hate and destruction, life turned upon itself. They shift shape to forms of nightmare because terror is their object." He gave a wintry smile. "I suspect their inability to enter a dwelling unbidden, besides being necessary in an overall parody, was also there for a purely practical reason; why permit your own quite mad and vicious creations to be able to enter your own home without permission? For they were all mad, at least for a time; just as becoming the Sh'ekatha cleanses the mind and spirit and gives you clarity and peace, at least in the beginning, so this dark mirrored version first turns the mind against itself and tests your will to live."
Verne went on, detailing the vampiric abilities and weaknesses and their relationship to his own. After that, things got more complicated, as we started discussing other "powers" in the world, what they were like, and how they did what they did.
After a while, I glanced at my watch. "Holy sheep! Verne, it's three in the morning!"
He smiled. "So you want to make an early night of it, eh?"
I grinned back, probably looking a bit dazed. "I probably should have. I had no idea how big a project this was going to become."
"Remember, Jason, many of these things either do not exist any more, in all probability, or at the least are vanishingly rare. If you wanted to do a comprehensive catalog of the entirety of the paranormal, you would never finish in an ordinary human lifetime; however, the number of such things that can even function on Earth as it is today is so small that I believe we can probably finish your little database in a few months of once or twice a week discussion."
"Well, that makes me feel some better. I think. But I'll let you know later. Tomorrow evening remind Kafan we will be going over what I'll be doing in my meeting with the Senator. "
"I shall. Get some sleep, Jason."
"Preferably after I get home, of course," I said, glancing at my car.
He chuckled and held open the door as I left.
I shook the Senator's hand. She had a strong grip, and looked as dignified in person as in her publicity shots; I was pretty sure that her "stern schoolteacher" image worked in her favor not only at the polls, but on the Senate floor. "Senator, good to meet you."
"A pleasure, Mr. Wood." She was unaccompaniedsomething which showed considerable trust on her part, or at least faith that her intelligence gathering people wouldn't miss something dangerous. "Now, I don't have an unlimited amount of time here, so let's not spend too much time on formalities; you call me Paula and I'll call you Jason and we'll just call things as we see them, all right?"
I nodded. "Fine by me, Paula."
"I'll start," she said. "As you know, I have received the test results for paternity, and they clearly demonstrate that your client is the biological parent of my children. If it comes to court, I won't even bother arguing with that.
"However," she continued, "investigating your client's background has turned up some . . . confusing information. Without wasting each other's time going into the details, my investigators are of the opinion that some, or all, of his background was falsified, although they do inform me that his credentials, if forged, must have been faked by one of the very best intelligence services. My investigators also find Mr. Verne Domingo's background somewhat disquieting. I don't think I need point out that if this is indeed true, I would be extremely unlikely to agree to have my children taken away, even for short periods of time, by a man whose real name and background I don't even know."
She had good investigators. I'd expected as much, but they were damn good to ferret out some of that stuff. I'd been pretty sure of the general thrust of what they'd find, though, and because of that I'd made my decisions about how to approach her. Convincing Verne and, especially, Kafan to go along with those had taken five hours of sometimes acrimonious debate last night. "You know, I pretty much thought you'd be saying something along those lines," I said finally. "I've discussed the situation with my client, and he's given me permission to tell you certain things, but before I do, I'd like to lead up to it in my own way. The situation is much more complex than you currently understand, and I'd like to give you the big picture."
She gave me a formal nod.
I stood up and went over to a small glass case at one end of the room, opening it with a key code. Reaching in, I picked up one of the objects inside and brought it over. "Do you know what this is? Carefulit's extremely sharp."
The Senator examined the long, slender, sparkling thingslightly curved, razor-sharp along the inside edge, coming to a needle-fine point at one end and about half an inch across at the opposite end. At first she seemed a bit puzzled, but then she glanced up suddenly. "Why, this must be . . ." she stumbled a bit over the next word, "a werewolf claw?"
"That's correct," I said. "I want you to think about what you're holding there, ma'am. That's nine and a half inches of diamond blade. The thing it came from had five of those on each hand, five on each foot, and stood taller than this room's roof if it straightened up. It could run as fast as a car given a straight distance to accelerate, was strong enough to tip a car over on its own, and had a mouth full of teeth just like those clawsa mouth that could open up wide enough to cut a man in half.
"And it could look just like you or me, or anyone else on Earth."
Senator MacLain gave a small shiver. She had a good imagination, I suspected. "I see. I do indeed, Mr. Wood. I assure you, that's one of the things that most impressed me about youthat you survived being chased by something like that."
"More luck than anything else, Senator, believe me."
She gave a refined, Katherine Hepburn–like sniff of doubt. "Jason, to quote a movie that my older son enjoys and that you are no doubt well acquainted with, 'In my experience, there's no such thing as luck.' Rather, I see people who are competent as making their own luck through making the right choices in bad moments."
With a small laugh I ceded her point. "Okay, yes, I'm pretty good at thinking on my feet. But there's a few other points that some investigators have brought up which are relevant hereand yes, I'll be connecting it to your children in a few moments."
She looked thoughtful. "Oh. Quite so. As I recall, one of the unresolved problems, even after the briefing, was exactly who had assisted you. Some of my colleagues were under the impression that it was some special task force of our ownand from reading the transcripts, I think it's very clear that this was in fact the impression that the testimony was intended to give. I always felt that there was more being hidden than told, however. Are you saying that my impression is correct?"
Boy, she was a sharp one. Winthrope and her unknown employers had done a bang-up job on giving out the story without revealing anything they didn't absolutely have to, and the wording they'd used would have fooled almost anyone into thinking they'd been told all they needed to know. Senator Paula MacLain, however, was not just anyone. "Your impression is bang-on, Paula." I said. "I had help, but it wasn't anything official."
"The second question that some people have askedand quite reasonably sois basically 'well, if werewolves exist, does that mean there's other things like them out there?' The answer to that is 'damn straight.' "
She had certainly seen where I had to be going with this, but her expression gave no sign of what her reaction was. She sat, waiting to see what I was going to put in front of her to evaluate.
"The werewolves are just one of at least half a dozen or more types of beings we'd call 'mythical' or 'supernatural,' even though those words aren't accurate any more; after all, it's not mythical if you can actually prove it's there, and if they're part of the way the world works, are they really supernatural?" I shrugged. "Anyway, the Wolves are in some ways the nastiest of all of these things, near as I can tell, and they've got their own enemies. In point of fact, the reason they all came here to Morgantown was that they were hunting down one of their old adversaries, who was living in Morgantown under the name of Verne Domingo."
Now her gaze was riveted on my face. Other than its intensity, there still wasn't any sign of what she was really thinking.
I took a deep breath. "Verne Domingo is, himself, one of these other types of beings; the best, really quick way I can think of to describe what he is would be to say he's a vampire, but that's not accurate. It would give you some basic idea of his characteristics, though. Verne has . . . connections throughout the paranatural world. In a sense, he's one of its most respected citizens. While he certainly doesn't know everything about all of them, virtually every one of the beings that lives this kind of double life knows about him, even if they don't know precisely where he is.
"Now, where this hooks up with Tai Lee Xiang is that Verne knew Tai Lee's family, years ago." Verne, Kafan, and I had decided that this "take" on the history would be the closest match to allow us to tell what we had to without bringing up certain contradictions which had led to other facts which none of us wanted to talk about. "They saw him as an ally and protector. Verne left for parts unknown and eventually they lost track of the ways to contact him. But the tradition of the protector was still passed down through the family line, along with the unique characteristics that separated this protector from the common man.
"So when Tai Lee Xiang found himself in trouble that he didn't dare bring to the authorities, and in fact was being hunted by the authorities for killing a man who had held him and his family prisoner for years, he came to me to find this legendary protector. By that time, he'd reached the end of his resources and was willing to try anything to find his family or stop the people who were after him. With the publicity of the Wolf incidents, my name seemed the best possible choice; I knew there were Weird Things out there, and if anyone would be both willing to listen to his story and able to find someone from some pretty strange hints, it would be me." I grinned. "As it turned out, he was even luckier than he thought; I'd already met Verne, of course, so once he gave me the list of odd characteristics, I could just turn around and phone his family protector."
She'd sat quietly throughout the whole story, gazing at me intensely as though I was on trial and she was the judge evaluating my testimonywhich, now that I thought of it, was a fair assessment of the situation. Finally she leaned back slowly. "That is quite an impressive story, Jason. I would expect that much of this would be information your friend Mr. Domingo prefers to keep secret, since no mention of him has ever been made in connection to prior events in Morgantown. Why was it necessary that you tell me so much?"
"Glad to see you are as quick on the pickup as your reputation makes you, ma'am." I said. "Because Tai wasn't held in an ordinary location at all. He, and his children, were the subjects of genetic experimentation. Just by being involved in their lives, you're putting yourself in danger, because the people who did this want their 'subjects' back. Your being a senator has no doubt balked them and caused considerable concern in their ranks, but it will most certainly not have stopped them. Eventually they'll come for the kids.
"So you have to know the truth about themnot just because it's your right to know about anything that might be endangering you and your family, but also because we just don't know what the ultimate results of the genetic tampering that was done to them will be. You might come home tomorrow to find one of them suffering from some disability or condition which simply isn't even recognizable by medical science."
To my surprise, Paula MacLain didn't burst into a flurry of questions, and she didn't attempt to argue about what was going on. She looked a tiny bit more pale, and after an inquiring glance at me she lit a long cigarette and drew a slightly shaky breath. A few moments later, she dropped her gaze and considered the half-smoked cigarette. "Usually I take my time on these." She looked back up. "Jason, I appreciate your candor."
I'm sure my startlement showed on my face. "Most people would have said something else, and 'candor' wouldn't be even close to the meaning, either."
"Oh, it's a preposterous story, young man." she said. "Yet I'm old enough to know that sometimes life is preposterous. However, that isn't why I accept that most, if not all, of your story is true."
Taking another drag from the cigarette, she continued. "I've been on many different committees over the years. I've seen a great deal of material handed around marked 'Top Secret' and heard all the 'in the interests of national security' speeches. And so I've been familiar with the sort of reports I get from my own investigators whenever someone else has been nosing around my life.
"After I adopted Jackie and Tai, I started getting faint hints that someone was interested in my life again. The hints were terribly subtle, though, and whenever I hired someone to poke back, so to speak, they found nothing concrete. Just recentlyabout the time you first contacted me, in factthese little hints became more frequent, and my best people came to the conclusion that whoever it was had to be top-level intelligence, and that there might be more than one group of them, all sniffing around my family. I tried using my own connections to find out what was going on, but got nothing.
"At one point, Jackie became aware that I thought someone might be spying on us. That night, he tried to leave, taking his little brother with him. When I got him back, he tried to insist that he had to, but he simply wouldn't tell me why. But he's been worried ever since, and I've gotten the extremely strong impression from him that he is more worried about my safety than his own."
I nodded. "That would fit."
"It certainly would. Now, while I happen to believe you are telling me the truth, or as much of it as you think safe, I'd appreciate a bit more in the way of solid evidence. I've come here without any fiddling lawyers or bodyguards so that we could be honest and say what we want, and so I hope we can get this all out of the way."
I glanced at the clock. "How much time do you have, Paula?"
She smiled. "A bit more than I might have implied at the beginning. Start out with the other side under pressure, that's always been my motto. If you can manage to feed me, I daresay I can stay for the rest of the evening if necessary."
Smiling back, I said, "I suppose I could manage that as we get around to dinnertime." I switched on the air filterwhile I don't particularly mind smoke, some clients and friends do, and I always seem to forget at first. "Assuming that what I said is true, what would your position be with respect to Tai Lee Xiang? I'm sure you know he's already started a quite respectable carpentry and woodcarving business, so he's not a shiftless layabout, so to speak."
"My position isn't markedly changed, Jason," she answered. "I don't care what dangers come with them, they're my children now, and anyonemad scientists or otherwisewho tries to take them from me will, I assure you, lose their hands if they touch either Tai or Jackie. Their true father is another story, naturally. I have noticed genuine sadness in the boys on the few occasions they've mentioned their father, so I know that he must have been at least able to inspire affection. This of course isn't sufficient to prove that he was, or could currently be, a good father to them, only that he wasn't such a monster or disciplinarian as to lose the love of his children. If I can be confident that he will be good for the children . . ." her face worked for a moment, " . . . well, Jason, we will work something out, I promise you. I lost my family once, you know."
"Then understandI know what that feels like. If I know that Tai Lee Xiang is a good man, then I will not cause him the same kind of pain. He will see his children again. To do anything else would make me the monster, and while the thought of letting them leave meperhaps for months at a timehurts far more than you could imagine, I would rather bear that pain than think that I was taking another person's family away." She was back under control again, at what cost I really didn't know. "I hope that makes my position clear enough."
"Perfectly clear. And I thank you, Paula. I'm sure we will be able to work something out." I glanced at my watch. "I think I can give you some more solid evidence, but not until later today."
Seeming somewhat relieved to get away from what was a very emotional topic, she accepted a temporary shift away from the business conversation, and took up some of the time quizzing me about the Morgantown Incidentgetting my version of the story, rather than the trimmed, edited, and perhaps not entirely accurate version the press releases had contained. By the time we were done with that, it was getting towards evening.
"Well, Senator," I said, "If your reputation can survive the scandal of being seen out in a restaurant with a younger man, I think it's time to get you the food I promised."
She laughed. "Mr. Wood, my reputation doesn't need protecting. And having seen pictures of the young lady you're currently dating, I suspect no one would believe any scandal about us anyway."
"I didn't know my love life was so, um, public."
"It isn't, really, but as I said, I had people investigating. You being one of the principals in this matter, there was a fair amount of digging into your background as well."
I wasn't sure I liked that, but on the other hand it wasn't anything surprising. I shrugged and offered my arm. "In that case, Paula, shall we?"
"Senator MacLain, welcome," Morgan said, bowing both of us inside. "Master Verne is just this way."
Verne and Kafanrather, I reminded myself, Tai Leerose as she entered. "Senator, what a pleasure," Verne said, quite sincerely. "Allow me to present my foster son, Tai Lee Xiang."
The two studied each other. Tai's face was, if anything, more coldly controlled than MacLain'snot surprising, since he knew that if it came to a dragged-out legal fight for custody, this woman was virtually certain to beat him hands-down. "Senator," he said, bowing formally.
"Mr. Xiang." She extended her hand, which Tai took after a moment. "I will say the same to both of you as I said to Mr. Wood; let's not waste time on formalities. Call me Paula, and I'll call you Tai and Verne, and let's see if we can at least begin to reach some solution to this problem."
"An eminently sensible suggestion," Verne approved. "Very well, Paula. Where would you like to begin? I presume that Jason has already told you a great deal."
She managed a small smile at that. "You might say that, yes. Let us start with you, Verne. Jason tells me you are no longer associated with any of your drug-dealing contacts. Is this indeed true? For you must understand that anyabsolutely anyassociation with drug-dealing is absolute poison to any political career. If the father of my children is found to be living in the same home as someone of that sort . . ." She trailed off, having made her point clear without needing to belabor it.
Verne sighed. "To be utterly frank, the answer is yes and no. No longer do I, or any associate of mine, have any connection with people who deal in illegal substances. However, some of the 'contacts' which I use now for other purposes are the same contacts used during my days as a supplier of such substances. They simply have shifted their, how shall I put it, inventory and supply lines."
She seemed a bit nonplussed. "You mean that the same people who used to ship, or arrange the shipping of, large amounts of cocaine and so on are the ones doing other, non-drug-related work for you now? They simply dropped such a lucrative trade?"
"You will pardon me if I find that a bit hard to believe," she said. "Most people who were involved in such a business find that the money is quite tempting and continue in it no matter what."
Verne's expression was slightly amused. "In the majority of ordinary cases, I have no doubt you are correct, Paula. However, there is little ordinary in my case. My 'contacts' are not ordinary people, in any sense of the term, and have helped with matters of supply and demand, off and on for an extremely long time now. It is, in fact, their business, in which they take great pride, to be able to drop one line of supply and within days or weeks have developed another pipeline of supply for an entirely different line of materials which is, in quality and efficiency, quite the equal of the one they dropped."
Paula opened her mouth, closed it, seemed to think for a moment, then spoke. "Hm. When you say 'an extremely long time,' Verne, am I correct in interpreting that to mean something long to a man of your nature, not merely long in terms I am used to thinking in?"
"That would be correct, Paula. For instance, many of the principals involved helped me in obtaining some of the materials which recently went on display in Cairo. I received these materials shortly after they had been removed from their proper resting place, due to the fact that my suppliers knew of my interestvery long-standingin preserving materials of historic and cultural value when I could."
Those "materials," I recalled, included the mummy of Akhenaten, the Sun King. I had guessed at something of the sort, but it was still mind-boggling to imagine some group of people who acted essentially as general-purpose suppliers and had endured since at least the middle period of the Egyptian dynasties.
Something similar was probably going through Paula's mind at this point, but her demeanor didn't change. "I must presume, then, that they are experienced at being circumspect about their activities?"
"If you are asking if they are likely to ever be connected with myself, especially in a drug-related context, I would say it is extremely unlikely. It happened once, very long ago, and those were special circumstances. In other words, you do not need to worry about these connections of mine becoming an embarrassment to you."
Paula nodded, looked at Tai. "And yours?"
Tai shrugged. "Mr. Wood only made the connection between the murderer the Viet were hunting and me because he had reasons to think something peculiar was going on, and because he's very good at what he does. The IDs that were supplied to me, Mr. Wood assures me, are pretty much unimpeachable. So I don't think any evidence will come to light unless I make a nuisance of myself somewhere and make someone really start digging."
Paula laughed suddenly. "I see! If, for instance, there was a loud, public custody battle I might cause the very kind of uproar I want to avoid."
"All right," she said, "I've had my opening shots; either of you gentlemen wish to return fire?"
"I want to know about my children. How are they? Are they safe, really?"
Paula's face softened very slightly. "JackieSeb, to youand Tai are perfectly safe. They're wonderful children. Jackie always tries to do whatever he can around the house, even though he doesn't really need to, and he's so good in his studies. Tai, well, he's a bit of a scamp, but he never means any harm. As far as them being safe, I would think they're as safe in a senator's house as they're likely to get."
Until now, Tai had been in a taut posturelike a cat with its back up. But as Paula talked about the children, I saw him relax. There was no single specific change I could point to, but overall he just seemed to settle back. Something seemed to have reassured him, far beyond anything her words could have done.
"They'd be much safer here," he said, but the confrontational edge was gone from his voice. It was just a statement of fact.
Paula raised an eyebrow. "You are so sure of that?"
"I would be here," he said. "And so would Father. I know your military and your security. They aren't bad. But they could not guard a home half as well as we could."
I could see Paula wanted to debate that, but she had as good an intuition as mine, and knew that Tai was telling the flat truth, at least as he saw it. "Do you concur with his, pardon the expression, extravagant assessment of his abilities, Verne?" she asked finally.
"Better, I think, that you ask Jason," Verne replied. "He has more extensive knowledge than I of modern security, and has personally witnessed my abilities and those of Tai Lee."
In response to her questioning glance, I grinned. "Beyond doubt. Paula, you must realize how difficult it would be to just 'get out' of the drug business, especially if there were highly placed people relying on you. Verne was able to provide them with a convincing argument to leave him utterly alone. By himself. Tai can take care of himself and those around him equally well."
Morgan came in, carrying two trays of the sinful snacks he seemed to always be pushing on visitors. It was a good thing I didn't spend more time here, or I'd start to become a far bigger man than I'd ever expected. Like Elvis. "No thanks, MorganI really have to cut down."
"I'll have some," Tai said, hungry as usual.
Paula took a sampler plate and accepted a glass of wine. "Now, I was hoping for some direct physical evidence of the more unusual claims Jason has made. He said you would be providing such evidence?"
Verne couldn't quite restrain a smile. "I think we could arrange that, yes. I believe the same evidence that convinced Jason should suffice, eh, Tai?"
Tai smiled. "Why not." He swallowed another bite, then went to the stairwell. "Genshi? GENSHI! I know you're up there trying to listen in! Come down!"
That familiar clattering-patter of clawed feet immediately sped down the stairs. Genshi, now used to seeing people come and go, wasn't nearly as shy as he had been the night Sylvie and I met him; he toddled up to Paula, who was staring wide-eyed down at him, and smiled, wagging his golden tail.
"This is my youngest son, Genshi," Tai said. "My son Tai, named after me, can change to a very similar form, but was trained to avoid it. Seb's transformation is considerably less extreme, though still very easy to notice."
Genshi suddenly held his arms up, and Paula, clearly a mother to the core despite her often-demanding profession, responded by picking him up. Genshi snuggled into her as though at home. "Nice lady!" he said.
She looked almost ready to go teary-eyed, but held back. "Well, he's certainly a little charmer."
Tai laughed. "He knows how to use the cute look, yep."
"Will you be requiring a demonstration of my abilities as well, Paula?" Verne inquired.
She glanced over to him, still mostly focused on the tailed little boy. "Um . . . not really necessary, I suppose. It would be silly of me to doubt the rest of the story with the evidence right here for another part."
"Will you people be needing me any more?" I asked. "Seems that we've gotten over the potential shooting war, and I'd like to get home if it's possible."
Paula looked at Verne. "If you can provide me with transportation back to my hotel . . . ?"
"But of course. Go on, Jason. I have a feeling that we have started on a resolution to our problems."
I headed out the door, relaxing finally. Judging by the way things were going, it might be time to start feeling sorry for the late Colonel and his pals; Paula MacLain, Kafan, and Verne were going to be a very dangerous team.
"How is it?"
I needn't have asked; the blissful expression on Syl's face told me that the food was everything she'd imagined. "God, Jason, the chef must be a wizard!"
The New York restaurant was famous for its Southwestern-grill menu, and I'd brought Syl down with me when I came to the city because I knew her fondness for New York, shopping, and grilled TexMex cooking. She'd gotten in plenty of shopping while I took care of business, and was now temporarily lost to me as she immersed herself in the delights of cilantro, cumin, and cayenne.
This was ideal for my purposes, since it put her Talent at a definite disadvantage.
"Oops," I said, bending over to pick up what I dropped. Then I went to one knee, opening the little box as I did so, and held it so that her gaze fell upon it just as she finished swallowing and opened her eyes.
"Sylvia Rowena Stake," I said, sounding far more calm than I felt, "would you marry me?"
For oncemaybe the only time I ever wouldI had completely surprised her. Not with the question, I'm sure, since both of us knew it would eventually happen, but she hadn't had a clue that today would be the day. Why I was nervous, I didn't knowit wasn't like I could imagine her saying "no" any more than I could imagine asking anyone else to marry me. Maybe it was just that old fear of commitment making its last stand.
Her eyes got wider and wider until suddenly tears started rolling down her cheeks; she closed them and flung her arms around my neck. "Oh, yes, Jason, of course I will!"
The entire restaurant seemed to erupt into clapping, and camera flashes popped across the crowd. We both blushed, but neither of us could stop grinning as I slipped the glittering diamond ring on Sylvie's finger.
The rest of the dinner was taken up by wedding plans. Now that the CryWolf devices were rolling in the money for me, I could afford anything, so I told her that; whatever kind of wedding she wanted, from a quick Justice of the Peace to an all-out extravaganza that would empty any six bank accounts, it was all fine with me. "Just keep me from having to spend too much of my own time on it," I said, honestly. "I don't do the big fancy stuff well."
She patted my cheek affectionately. "Jason, darling, don't worry. The wedding's still more for the girls than the guys, even in these enlightened times. You just have to show up and look respectable, and I don't need to worry about you on those scores. The problem will be finding an appropriate person to perform the wedding. I'd ask Verne, he's a priest, but somehow my parents would probably balk at the idea. They're still rather Catholic, you know."
"Yeah, I do." I'd met Syl's parents for the first time relatively recently. They couldn't complain about me as a potential son-in-law, and had done their best to make me feel welcome, but it was also pretty clear that they didn't quite know what to make either of my profession, which seemed somewhat arcane and peculiar to people who weren't computer-savvy, or their own daughter, who had departed the normal world quite some years ago. They often wore the bemused expressions of birds who, after sitting on an egg for months, had watched it hatch into a flying turtle. They loved their daughter dearly, but her religion and business were so utterly beyond the pale for them that they simply didn't know how to deal with it all. My family had raised me so innocent of religion that any religion was roughly equal to me, but this also made it somewhat awkward when you were dealing with a family that joined hands to say grace, quite seriously, at every meal. Never having encountered that ritual before, I was taken a bit aback the first time. Now I saw it as an interesting and possibly heartening custom, but it was a clear departure from what I was used toeither in my own experience, or in Sylvie's breezy approach to life, the universe, and everything.
She was certainly right that having Verne, a priest of an unknown (in this age) nature deity, perform the ceremony would lead to antacid moments for her parents. Much better to find a flexible Catholic priest and write vows that reflected our real commitment. "I'm sure we can find someone who'll fit the bill."
"I'm not worried," she said, taking another bite. "Mmmm. Since I knew we were going to be married, therefore we obviously will find someone."
I looked at her. "This destiny thing could become very annoying."
She gave a roguish grin. "And it's only just starting, Jasie."
I yawned, glancing at my watch as I went to my front door. Jeez. Another 3 a.m. morning after talking to Verne. At least I was getting a load of data, data which hopefully I wouldn't ever actually use. Oh, damn. I had to check on the tuxedoI'd forgotten my appointment. Have to reschedule, and soonI wanted the tux done long, long before the wedding, and the day was approaching like a runaway train.
I unlocked the door and stopped just short of crossing the threshold. Maybe I was catching intuition from Syl, or something else, but somehow I just knew my house wasn't empty. The last time this had happened had been when Carmichael's thugs had grabbed me. Since then I'd added a few tricks, however. After making sure no one was in immediate view, I nudged the wood above the doorway in just the right way, and a small liquid-crystal screen popped into view, cycling views of the various rooms from a CryWolf-fitted set of lowlight cameras, with a running status of the systems showing me what was going on, or not, in each room.
Nothing showed up in any view. Were I in an ordinary line of work, that would've been enough to satisfy my paranoia, but vampires didn't show on videotape, film, or anything else; while they had to be invited in, it wouldn't be hard to have an accomplice do that for them and then have the accomplice leave. That's why I studied the status carefully. The motion detectors were a bit different; they didn't actually try to produce imagesand thus shouldn't be covered by the magical prohibition against mechanical devices "seeing" a vampirebut just detected air movement within a given volume. None of the detectors showed anything out of the ordinary since I'd closed up shop, so I shrugged. I was getting jumpy.
So I think I could be excused for jumping backwards with a shout of "what the fuck!?" when I entered my living room to find a man sitting in one of the chairs, waiting for me.
"Sit down, Mr. Wood." he said. He was older than meforty-five to fifty, I'd guess, with a tanned, lined complexion. His eyes were hard, cold blue, measuring me up like I was a piece of fabric waiting to be cut to fit. His hair was brown, sprinkled with gray. Standing, he was probably average height I'd guess. His voice . . . level, slightly rough, and direct, reminding me of Clint Eastwood; in fact, there was a vaguely Dirty Harry look about him overall.
I started to reach for my gun, and found that I was suddenly looking down the barrel of what appeared to be a small cannon. After what seemed an eternity, my brain calmed down enough to recognize it as a .44probably an AutoMag. Somewhat old-fashioned, but quite capable of blowing a pretty large hole through me. I couldn't believe the speed. This guy hadn't had anything in his hands just the moment before, and I hadn't even really seen him move. The only person I'd ever seen move that fast was Tai Lee Xiang.
"Don't think about it," he said. "I'm not here to hurt you. But I don't like people pointing guns at me either."
"Hey, it's cool," I answered, sitting down slowly. "Clearly I am not going to be much of a threat to you. Now who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house? And how the hell are you sitting here without my security systems showing you?"
"Um, that would be my doing, actually," said another, much younger voice.
Emerging from my bedroom, where he'd evidently gone to hide during my entrance, was a much younger manin fact, I figured him for a couple years younger than me. He was slender, very tall, and very blond, and wore a grin from ear to ear that somehow carried a faint air of apology even while it screamed out "I'm soooo good at this!"
Something clicked in my head. No picture had ever been printed, but to do what someone had just done to my security system . . . "The Jammer."
His grin grew even wider and he gave an extravagant bow. "In the flesh!"
I looked across my coffee table at the other man. "Which would make you . . . the guy who strongarmed the Jammer into not blackmailing me."
The weathered face acknowledged that with a hint of a smile. "Mr. Locke was forcibly employed by my organization, and when necessary we rein him in." He put the gun away. "Mr. Wood, as time goes on it appears that you continue to become more involved in things that impinge upon some of my organization's most sensitive operations. I would try to recruit you, but your operations here actually serve other purposes for us while they're kept separate. It has, however, become necessary for us to meet, and for both of us to get to know the other well enough so that we can, when necessary, cooperate and not work at cross purposes. The secrecy of my organization at least equals that of our oppositionsome of whom you have already encountered."
I knew that Virigar himself had been a thorn in their side, but he seemed to be referring to something largerorganization-wise, anywayand that didn't leave me many choices in possibilities. "Whoever sent over Ed Sommer and pals."
It clicked then. "Winthrope! She's not NSA or any of the regular organizations, she's with you!" I'd always had a nagging doubt about Jeriwhich is why even in my thoughts I'd generally avoided tagging her real employers with a particular set of lettersbecause she'd seemed a bit too open and flexible over certain things.
"Told you he already had it down," the Jammer said.
The older man shrugged. "If he wasn't that quick, he would've been dead already. Yes, Mr. Wood, Jeri is employed by us."
"So you know pretty much everything."
"Everything you've told her or that she's seen," he said, correcting me. "I am quite certain there's material you have never told her."
"Okay." I got up. "C'mon downstairs. I want some coffee; I've been up all day and was going to go to bed."
They followed without comment, though the older guy accepted a cup while the Jammer went for a Mountain Dew. I turned to the older man finally. "If we're going to 'get to know each other' well enough, then let's stop tapdancing. Who are you people?"
"My name is James Achernar," he answered after a moment. "My particular task force is codenamed Project Pantheon, and is part of ISIS."
"ISIS?" I repeated. "The name's very, very vaguely familiar . . ."
"The International Security Investigation Section," the Jammer put in.
Now I remembered. It was an attempt (an abortive one, I had thought) to create a sort of multinational intelligence and espionage network for the United Nations, quite some years ago. Supposedly it was going to recruit operatives from many different nations and use them to gather information to prevent international disputes, resolve conflicts, and in general be a truth-checking organization with enough teeth to allow the UN to (at least on occasion) be able to tell who was really trying to hoodwink them and who wasn't. There'd been some discussion, preliminary appropriations and so on, but I had been certain that ISIS had gone the way of many a good idea whose time will never come. "Now that's interesting. I thought ISIS never really happened."
Achernar gave a small, very cold smile. "We prefer it that way. It nearly didn't, in point of fact, but a number of countriesat the time, the US and USSR foremostrecognized that despite various competing agendas we also needed some kind of independent group that would try its best to defuse problems that could be caused by smaller countries, terrorist organizations, and even large corporations. The result was an intelligence organization operating out of a non-profit front sponsored by the UN, whose full scope of powers and operations wasn't realized by anyone save the people who made it. All participating countries supplied authentic intelligence materials for their contributionssuch as genuine IDs and so onand were given certain controls to prevent their own contributions being used against them.
"Pantheon is a subdivision of ISIS, established shortly thereafter to deal with the most extreme and unusual intelligence situations."
"The X-files," I said.
He gave a wry smile. "Not precisely, although of late it has started to seem that way. We do have other problems that we deal with."
I studied him. "All right. Now, you said something to the effect that I seemed to be making a habit of getting involved in your stuff. Once obviously isn't a pattern, and I'd think even twice wouldn't make it certain, but I'm not able to find more than one or two possibles in my history. The recent conflict that involved me and Verne against that group from Vietnam appears to be one, and I suppose Virigar counts as another, since as Gorthaur he was busily chipping away at everyone in the intelligence agencies, but where's the 'habit' coming from?"
He gazed at me expressionlessly. Finally, he said, "I will not give you details at this time, but I will say that even from your first encounter with Verne Domingo you began to enter our business. And now that you've connected Jackie MacLain to his old family"
"I should've known; your people are the ones hanging around Paula MacLain."
"Not just us," the Jammer said. "Them, too. The other side. Once you contacted her and someone started the paternity test, somehow they got alerted. Up 'til now the kids had gotten away with itthe baddies had lost track of them. Not any more."
"So who are they, then?"
Achernar and the Jammer exchanged glances. "At this point, you're better off not knowing," Achernar said, with the Jammer giving a reluctant nod. "I know you will find these kind of answers very unsatisfactory, but in the main it's true."
I sighed. "Look, if you're not here to give me info, just what do you want from me? And why all the futzing around instead of just setting up a meeting?"
He acknowledged my frustration with another faint smile. "To answer your second question, Pantheon doesn't really exist, so to speak. Currently, as far as any official sources are concerned, I am at a psychological convention attending various seminars, and tomorrow morning I will be presenting a paper of my latest research, no doubt to considerable controversy . . . though somewhat less direct mockery, thanks in part to your own Morgantown Incident making people more open-minded."
"Seminars . . . You're Dr. J. T. Achernar!"
His movement was the seated equivalent of a bow. "Correct."
"Now I start to understand. Your name was one of the more prominent ones I came across when doing paranormal research."
"I had good reasons for being willing to be open-minded myself," he said. "My research has provided few unambiguous results, of course, but as you may now suspect"
"part of that is deliberate." I finished. "If you made the wrong things public, it could get very dangerous for a lot of people."
He nodded. "As for what I wanted to accomplish by coming here . . . by letting you know exactly who was behind Jeri, I would like to make it easier for you to understand if we start sending hints in your direction. We may ask for help, through her, or you might get a request for an interviewperhaps even with Dr. Achernaror in some other manner either request your assistance, or offer some subtle assistance of our own. But we have to avoid being visible. This is a shadow war, Mr. Wood. The world at large does not know of these kind of thingseven after the werewolves. Many forces exist, some you would not believe, and many of them are in their own way quite willing to trigger a holocaust if they feel that their operations are threatened or about to be revealed."
Privately I had to hide a smile. I'm sure Achernar meant every word he said, but the truth was that after Verne's revelations, not only would I be able to believe just about anything, but I probably knew stuff that made everything Pantheon knew put together look like small change. "Well, I'm always willing to help. And I'm already kinda in your debt after the little assist you gave me with the IDs for Tai Lee Xiang."
Achernar nodded. "That was our intent, although as I said that connected to one of our own operations. Let me put it this way: I'd have arranged the same thing for him myself, whether you requested it or not, if I'd become involved. So don't feel it was a tremendous favor; you just gave us a chance to do something for the enemy of an old enemy."
I studied him narrowly. "And you're just going to leave him and his kids alone? Not, um, 'recruit' them at some later time?"
"No government, and no agencynot even ISIS and Pantheoncan be trusted with them," Achernar answered.
"He's telling it straight," the Jammer put in. "Part of my job at Pantheon is to arrange for certain kinds of data to just plain disappear."
"I find it extremely hard to believe," I said, "that even the UN, in its best days, would like the idea that its own agents would be taking it upon themselves to decide what data should and shouldn't be reported up the chain of command."
"They wouldn't," Achernar said bluntly. "But my immediate superior created Pantheon specifically to be able to make such decisions. No, there isn't anything like that in the written files, but our meetings always at least touch on how much of what we learn is going to stay hidden in our own heads and how much will be reported up. Yes, we could all be arrested for treason or something similar if the truth somehow came out. Fortunately, our opposition generally wants the truth hidden even more than we do, so for the most part the only people who might ever be in a position to blow the whistle on us have a vested interest in not doing so."
I shuddered. "Mr. Achernar, no offense, but I can only hope to God that you'll never get a mole in your organization."
"We do our best. It may happen one day, but at the moment we have no better alternative; someone must deal with the problems we do, and at least thus far we have proven to be sufficient to the tasks at hand. Of course, your work with the Wolves eliminated the one actual threat of such infiltration we've ever had."
I had to admit that I'd missed that point. Virigar's poking through intelligence files actually made more sense now; he had, almost certainly, encountered something indicating Pantheon's existence and was trying to find out what various governments might know or guess. After his existence had been blown wide open and the CryWolf gadgets put on the market, he and his furry friends had to back out of that business, at least for a while.
"So in that sense you owe me at least as much as I owe you," I said finally.
"I'd agree with that," Achernar said. "In any case, I'd like you to memorize this number." He handed me a card with a phone number on it. I concentrated and committed it to memory by a few mnemonic tricks, handed it back. "If it ever becomes necessary for you to contact us directly, rather than through Jerishe's unavailable, got herself killed, you're too far awaythat will get in touch with me. But do not use it barring a true emergency."
"I won't. Obviously you already know how to contact me. Are you planning on trying to reach similar arrangements with Verne?"
That got a short laugh. "No, I don't think so. Mr. Domingo has his own game that he's been playing for a lot longer than any of us. If he needs our services, he'll ask for them, and there isn't anyone on earth that can demand his help." He looked at me. "Except his friends, of course, and I'm afraid that in my business you can rarely take the time to make friends."
There wasn't much to say to that, so I finished drinking my coffee. "Anything else? No offense, but I'm exhausted."
"Not at the moment. Our apologies for disrupting your schedule. With luck, you'll hear very little from us." He got up. "Oh, there is one more thing."
I glanced up.
I couldn't help but laugh. "My god, is there anyone who doesn't know I'm getting married?"
"Jason, Sylvie, please meet Father Jonathan Turner," Verne said.
I shook hands with the cheerful-faced priest. He looked to be a mere twenty-five, hair dark and curly, wearing the traditional uniform of his profession. "Pleased to meet you, Father."
"It's a genuine pleasure, Mr. Wood." Father Turner's rolling, English voice carried the warm, comforting tones that the very best priests usually havea kind of voice that makes you willing to believe that God does speak through them sometimes. I'm not religious myself, but I recognize the dedication a real priest has to have. "And Miss . . . Sylvia." he went on, avoiding by himself the name pitfall that most peopleincluding mefell into when first meeting her. "Verne has told me a great deal about both of you. I understand you are looking for a priest who will be, shall we say, flexible in the ceremony while remaining acceptable to the more traditional elements of the wedding party?"
Sylvia smiled, obviously taking to him on first glance. "Exactly right. My mom and dad are old-style Catholic and if I don't have a Catholic wedding of some kind, they'll be worrying that I'm heading to Hell one way or another."
Father Turner smiled back and shook his head in a resigned way. "Not, I'm afraid, an uncommon state of affairs these days. Now, my dear, you were baptized Catholic, weren't you?"
Sylvie nodded. "Not practicing for years though."
"No matter. Would you be willing, both of you, to agree to teach any children you have in the Catholic faith?"
"How do you mean that?" I asked. "I'm basically agnosticI'll believe in the Almighty when I see evidence for himand you already seem to understand what Syl is."
"Let's put it cynically," he said, taking a seat across from us in Verne's living room. "As a representative of a Church that's coming under hard times, my job is to try to make it look more attractive than previous generations saw it. Sometimes you have to deal with people who are currently using the competitors' product, so to speak. Well, we don't win points with such people by insulting their choices, but on the other hand, if I'm going to perform a wedding, it's incumbent upon me to at least try to get a wedge in the door to increase our membership somehow. Yes, I generally get paid for doing the wedding, and that isn't something to be lightly brushed off, but I take my job seriously. If you'll agree to make sure that any children you have are exposed to the Catholic faithtaught the beliefs and valuesI'm gaining something out of it. I'm willing to bet," he said, turning to me, "that you had almost no exposure to organized religion in your childhood. Am I right?"
I nodded. "A couple of Sunday-school attendances for reasons I can't even remember now, and some time at the Unitarian church when I was much older, but no, not much at all."
"And without you making a promise of this sort, your child or children would most likely follow a similar pathor be exposed only to Sylvia's faith or that of this decadent old bloodsucker," he said with a grin, hooking a thumb at Verne, who chuckled.
Syl and I were both startled by that; clearly Jonathan Turner knew a great deal about Verne!
"So at the very least I gain the potential of children who grow up knowing our system and aren't inherently hostile to it."
I glanced at Syl; she nodded, so I said, "I think we can agree to that. If you're not requiring us to only teach him in that faith, it's no problem."
"Jolly good; we should be able to get on famously." he said.
"Pardon me for asking," I said, "but just how do you come to know Verne so well?"
He was very serious all of a sudden; he looked at Verne for advice.
"It is entirely up to you, old friend," Verne said. "You know how much I trust them; let your reluctance be only personal. If you wish not to speak of such things, do not, but they are of my family, as though by blood."
"Quite, quite," Father Turner agreed. "It would be a long story, and I'm not sure how to tell it without either leaving out too much, or sounding as though I might be boasting in one way or another. Unless you would care to explain the essence of it yourself?"
Verne accepted the invitation, apparently feeling that some explanation was appropriate. "Jonathan is one of the accursedtaken by one of the vampires of Klein's type many years ago. He has, however, managed that which no other in my memory has done: opposed the curse's madness with will and faith, and maintained himself in a state of innocence. He has killed no one, hunts no human prey, and has seemed to become stronger because of it."
Father Turner seemed to blush slightly, though that reaction in such a being was hard to credit.
"Is this evidence for the truth of the Faith, Father?" Sylvie asked.
He smiled sadly. "Of course I believe so, Sylvie. Yet I cannot deny that other priestssome at least as devout as myselfhave over the years been preyed upon and fallen. God's will has helped preserve me, but I have no reason for Him having saved me while permitting others to be damned. And without such reason, I am afraid I cannot convince others that it is a genuine Miracle. Verne would have it that it was my own strength; yet I don't see myself as being so much stronger than others." He shrugged, obviously uncomfortable with the thought, and I realized that with him there wasn't any false modesty; he sincerely doubted he was that strong. "I had friends and others who depended on me, and perhaps that, also, helped. Yet the same could be said for so many others. Still, having found my mind spared and my soul unstained, I realized that I must minister to those who had no others they dared trust. There are still some of the accursed who try, with all their will, to turn from the path the curse lays out for them, and so long as they try, I am there for themas confidant, helper, and perhaps as an example that it can be done. This is the task Our Father has set before me, and at the least I can accept it knowing that it is a worthy goal, even if I myself am hardly equal to the burden." He took a breath and shook himself. "But enough of this. Let's talk about your wedding. I spend enough time fighting darkness, it is a positive joy to be able to work in the light."
I glanced at him. "Would that also be literally true? Because we'd like to have the ceremony during the daytime."
Jonathan nodded. "I can walk in the sunlight; the Lord has seen fit to bless me in certain ways, perhaps to help me in my mission. Our friend Verne, of course, is more than strong enough for such things."
"Goody," said Sylvie. "Then let's get down to planning the whole ceremony."
I looked around for some more snacks. This might take some time.
"But of course, Jason. Indeed, I would be honored. How long will it be?"
I considered. "I've put a 'price no object' priority on it, and with my various contacts smoothing the way, I figure our new house should be finished in about three months."
"Then think no more of it, my friend. All your extra possessions can remain here until that time."
That was one small load off my mind; I knew that with the moderate-sized wedding Syl planned we'd still end up with a sea of presentsit seemed that the public actually cared about what happened in my life, my fifteen minutes apparently hadn't quite come to a close, and so there were likely going to be some attempts at gatecrashing and certainly gifts from all over the place. This ignored people who wouldn't be at the wedding but that one or the other of us knew well enough that we'd be getting something from them.
"You did say something about increasing my security?" Verne prompted.
"Hm? Oh, yeah. You remember that I finally had a talk with Jeri's people?" Verne nodded. "Well, after their demonstration, I contacted them again and requestedrather stronglythat they have their, um, security specialist design and install better systems for both of us."
"That would be this 'Jammer' person?"
"Yep. They agreed that it was in both our best interests to maintain maximum security, so sometime before the wedding the Jammer will be by to help out. Put up with him; he's younger than I am, and he has that wiseass geek's attitude that I mostly outgrew, but he's the best of the best."
Verne smiled tolerantly. "Jason, I assure you that I can 'put up' with any temperament. Geniuses are often immature or asocial in many ways. For a greater degree of security, I will have no objections. I will of course emphasize, in my own way, that they are to not leave any special privileges for themselves in the systems."
I grinned. "I rather thought you might. And someone like you will probably get through his hide." I saw Kafan going by the doorway. "Hey, Kafan! Is the Senator coming to the wedding?"
He smiled. "Paula says that you'd have to lock the doors to keep her away. And she's bringing SebI mean, Jackie and little Tai!"
I smiled back. Legal wranglings could be murderous, and establishing truths in court almost impossible, but Paula and Tai Lee Xiang had found a way to cut through all the potential barriers; Tai Lee knew, by scent that never lied, that Paula was a devoted mother who loved children, and Paula, from long experience in judging people and promoting children's rights, could tell from Genshi that Tai was a loving parent. Once the two recognized the other as someone who genuinely cared about the well-being of their children, they were no longer adversaries, but allies who simply had a complicated problem to work out. The storybook tale of the orphans' father returning was bound to come out soonand in point of fact Paula was laying the groundwork for the press releases alreadybut the stories would be of a fait accompli, not of a potential legal firestorm. "That's great. I'm looking forward to meeting them myself."
"Master Jason, is this list from Lady Sylvia the most accurate?" Morgan inquired as he entered, carrying a sheet of paper.
"I think so. Yeah, that's the current guest list. All the ones in red have confirmed. The few blacks are ones we expect but haven't got confirmation on." It was Morgan's concern because we were having the wedding and reception here, on Verne's extensive grounds.
"Very good, sir."
Suddenly there was a shout from down the hall, followed by a voice: "Hey! Let me go!"
Verne smiled and leaned back in his chair as Camillus entered, carrying the Jammer in a move-along hold. "Is this the young man you expected, Jason?"
I raised an eyebrow at the Jammer. I should've expected he'd try something like this. "Caught so soon? Yes, Verne, but he's kinda disappointing me."
The Jammer flushed. "I'd like to know just how you managed to catch me at it, since I know for damn sure not one of your alarms went off."
Verne gestured, and Camillus deposited the Jammer in one of the chairs. "Mr. Locke"
"How the hell do youoh, Wood."
"To an extent, yes, but I have my own sources. You are Ingram Remington Locke, former resident of Long Island. I know a great deal about you, Mr. Locke."
That got the Jammer's attention; he knew that Achernar had mentioned his last name, but not his first. "Damn."
"As I was saying, Mr. Locke: you are apparently suffering under the misapprehension that my only security is technological. While you are correct in that none of my electronic security systems notified anyone of your presence, I was myself able to sense you once you entered my demesnes. I then notified Camillus of your whereabouts and the direction in which you were moving, and he was naturally then able to capture you."
The Jammer rubbed his arm and glanced at the door through which Camillus had left. "Naturally. Well, if you've got that kind of warning, I don't know if you need anything more."
"Oh, assuredly I do," Verne said. "I do have to rest, and during that time my senses are less sharp. There are also various ways to elude my senses which would not evade properly designed technological security; magic is not inherently superior to technology, merely different. I would be very pleased if you were to design a top-of-the-line security system for my home. I will not offer you money, since I am sure that is not really a major consideration for you; only the challenge of making such a large, old, rambling estate secure enough to meet your own exacting standards."
The Jammer laughed. "Okay, Dracula, you've got me pegged pretty well. My friends sent me out here to do a job, but damned if you didn't go and make it look fun to do, too. I hope you won't take this wrong, but I'm going to keep trying to get in here without you knowing."
Verne ignored the vampire witticism and nodded. "I expect no less. In fact, I would demand that you try everything at your disposal to enter this place unbidden, so that any flaws which may exist can be fixed, either with your techniques or my own."
"Then can I get up and start working?"
"By all means." As the Jammer rose, Verne said, "However . . ."
The Jammer froze; Verne's tone had shifted without warning, to something cold as winter ice, and his level gaze almost seemed to impale Locke. "Let me make one thing clear, Mr. Locke: your work will remain exclusive to me in this instance. You will have no 'backdoor' codes, no special privileges, and no records, after the fact, of the work. This will also be true of my friend Jason's home. I am aware of the way your sort of person thinks, and I warn you that I will not be amused if I discover anything in my or my friend's security systems that appears in the least suspicious. Is that understood?"
The Jammer was a shade paler. "Understood, sir," he answered.
"Very good, then." Verne's voice had returned to spring again. "Carry on."
I watched the Jammer leave. "It's amazing. When I was younger, I didn't really believe that crap about people with a 'force of personality' that you could actually sense. The past year or so has made me a believer. You've shaken him up pretty good."
"My sense of the matter is that he has already encountered someone with a similar force of personality, in fact." Verne commented. "Someone whom he respects and thus associates with my own exhibition in that arena. But I agree; we will not need to worry about him inserting unwanted material in our security now."
"Good. Because, lord knows, I've got enough to worry about right now . . ."
I took a deep breath. "All set."
I walked up the sunlit aisle, lined with flowers, that ran between the rows of chairs on Verne's back lawn. I wasn't nearly as nervous as other people I'd known; the nervousness was only an echo of the proposal now. I was excited, yes, and serious.
Verne, of course, was Best Man. I saw my mom and dad, her hair still clearly blond (maybe dyed, but I'd never dare ask), Dad's a distinguished gray, both smiling broadly. Sylvie's mom sat just across the aisle from them, and was already dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. Why do so many people cry at weddings? Jeri Winthrope was also near the front, leaning back in a relaxed pose as she waited for the vows, having already sat through Father Turner's quick little introductory sermon; Morgan was sitting next to her, straight as a ramrod in his proper butler manner. Kafan was sitting with his three children and Paula, looking happier than I'd ever seen him. I saw Camillus and Meta a row back, along with several other members of Verne's household that I'd only glimpsed on occasion.
Then I saw Sylvie, and everything else faded. She'd chosen a traditional shimmering white for her gown, and I no longer saw the laughing gypsy princess . . . or rather, I saw the shining angel who'd hidden behind the gypsy façade.
I heard the vows, and responded, but at the same time I hardly heard them at all. Sylvie was the only one that mattered.
"You may kiss the bride," Father Turner said finally.
I lifted the veil and bent down. I don't know how long we stood there.
Then the party began. But as a favorite character of mine once said, that's a deceptively simple statement, like "I dropped the atom bomb and it went off." The reception and dinner went on for hours, and no one seemed inclined to leave early. Hitoshi had outdone himself, and even with my newfound wealth I shuddered trying to imagine the bill for this one; imported caviar was a trivial garnish, and I was quite sure that if I'd asked for a truffle I'd be handed one the same way other people might give you an apple from the fridge. Butterflied lobster, some kind of imported beef that cost twenty times what any other cut might, abalone, the list went on and on. The cake itself was a stunning edifice of the pastrymaker's artI learned later that Verne had imported, not the cake, but the cakemaker from Paris just for this one cake.
Finally, with most of the guests cleared out, our inner circle gathered in the living room and Sylvie and I started going through the remaining presentsthose not belonging to the other guests that had attended. Most of them were exactly what you'd expectsilly knicknacks, appliances, we all know the kind of thing. But there were a few . . .
I studied the long, slender package. "Damn. Feels pretty heavy. What, a crowbar?"
Jeri smiled. "Open it and see."
I stripped the wrappings off and opened the box. "My god!"
It was a swordkatanaesque in its design, with strange upward-spiking crossguards and a hilt that could be grasped with one or two hands. There was something strange about the metal of the blade, maybe a color or a shimmer. I glanced questioningly at her. "Okay, you people seem to have found out I collect swords off and on, but I'm stumped on this one. What is it, exactly?"
"Sort of a joke," Jeri said, obviously pleased that it wasn't instantly clear to me. "Since you seem to get involved in all kinds of unearthly strange stuff, we thought an unearthly blade would be appropriate."
"Unearthly . . . ?" I stared at it. "Meteoric metal!"
"Bang on," she agreed. "There's a couple outfits that make things like this, so Achernar and the rest of us chipped in to get it."
"Well, thanks!" I hugged Jeri. "Convey my thanks to the rest of the spies."
"Will do. Hey, go help your wife over there."
Sylvie was wrestling with the wrappings on something that stood about six feet high. Finally the two of us convinced the box to open up. Sylvie gasped. "Oh, my . . ."
It was a vanity tablewood so polished that it seemed almost to shine from within, a mirror sparkling in the center, drawers so carefully fitted that they slid in and out with only a whisper of sound.
"Oh, Kafan, how beautiful!" Sylvie said, throwing her arms around Verne's foster son. "You shouldn't have!"
"Bah," said Kafan, blushing. "I don't have much money of my own, so all I could do is make something. Jason's got matching bookcases and a dresser, but I didn't wrap those uptake up too much room."
I thanked Kafan, and while Syl hugged him again I chose another package. This one had the elegant writing on it that could only belong to Verne. Opening the small box, I found two rings, formed of gold and what appeared to be platinum and ruby, intertwined like growing vines. "What . . ."
"Gold and platinum, imperishable metals, the essence of the Earth," Verne said, "and ruby, the bloodstone, symbol of life ever-flowing." His own ruby flickered, and I thought I saw a faint answering shimmer from the twining ruby threads.
"They're amazing, Verne." Sylvie said. Her eyes became distant momentarily, and then widened. "No, Verne, you can't!"
I understood then. "We can't possiblyVerne, you took these from your true home! We couldn't take them!"
Verne shook his head. "My friends . . . my very dear friends . . . such rings were one way that couples to be married would symbolize their vows, in my own culture. In my own collection, they do nothing save gather ages of dust and memories. What better thing could I do with them, than to see the two people who brought back my very heart and rekindled the flame I thought lost wearing the last rings of the Lady? I insist."
Syl hugged him even more emphatically than she'd hugged Kafan, and I just gripped his hand. There weren't words to express this kind of thing properly, but he understood.
We went back to wading through the mass of gifts.
"Look, Jason, another blender!" Sylvie said, laughing, from the pile. "Oooh, look at this one!"
"This one" was a large box in shimmering silver-and-gold paper.
"It's heavy!" I grunted, setting it on the table. It had no card on the outside, and Morgan vaguely recalled it was among the large number sent to us via special couriers. Presumably it would have a card on the inside, as most of them did. The two of us undid the wrappings, revealing a hardboard-sheathed box held by a clasp at the top. It had an interesting symmetry of almost-invisible lines down the side, indicating that it opened in a unique fashion; when I undid the clasp, the sides fell away like the petals of a flower.
Sylvie gave a shriek and leapt back; I sucked in my breath and recoiled; I heard both Verne and Jeri gasp.
In the center of the table, the focus of the radiating sides of its box, stood a crystal sculpture of a wolf in mid-leap, facing us with savage glee. Carved on the water-clear base were the words, " 'Til Death Do You Part."
Fear washed away at that taunting, threatening phrase. I glanced around for something heavy, then reached out to heave the glittering reminder through the window.
"NO, Jason!" Verne and Sylvie both shouted.
The desperation in Verne's voice halted me, even more than the fear in Syl's. "Why the hell not?" I demanded. "The son of a bitchand I mean that literallywants to send me a message, I'll send him one back!"
He plucked the statue from my hands. "Please, Jason. Sit down."
My heart still pounding from the mixture of terror and fury, I did so, a little shakily. I hadn't realized just how scared I really was of Virigar until I saw the statue. "Okay, I'm sitting. Now why shouldn't I break the thing?"
Verne sighed. "Because, my friend, it would have terrible consequences. I do not argue with you what his purpose was in sending this to you, for that purpose is obvious: Fear, uncertainty, to ruin your future with thoughts of your eventual demise at his hands, and to do so on your very wedding day, yes, this is undoubtedly his purpose. Yet you also must understand that Virigar is not an ordinary adversary. He is not even what you believe him to be. He is an ancient being; evil, yes, perhaps more so than you realize, yet with a majesty and a pride that you cannot begin to comprehend. That statue was carved with his own hands, Jason. I have seen a few works like it in my years, and I cannot mistake that inhumanly perfect hand; you have been gifted with a creation the likes of which few mortals have ever even seen, and even fewer have owned. Throwing it away would be a mortal insult, one which would almost certainly require that he turn his immediate attention to your painful demise. It is, in its way, a salute as much as a turning of the screw; you are an enemy who has actually bested him, in a manner that he found artful, original, and worthy, and further one whom destiny favored sufficiently to save you even from your second confrontation. For that he has chosen to terrorize you in a manner worthy of your stature; see it that way, please, and take heart in your own success. He may threaten, but only you can fear."
Syl nodded, still so scared she didn't want to speak, but obviously seeing the truth in Verne's words.
I saw them myself. I'd faced Virigar in person. I sensed that what they said was true, and more, that the whole thingeven being beatenwas to the King Wolf nothing more than a game. If I played by his rules, I had a chance. If I didn't, I would be risking the lives of everyone associated with me. "Okay, I'm cool now. But I know what I am going to do with it." I turned to Kafan. "Could you do me a favor, just once, and let me borrow your transport skills?"
Kafan nodded, confused. "On your wedding day, of course. Where are we going?"
"One second. Verne, that case over there, the one you emptied the other daycan I use it?"
"Certainly, Jason. Consider it a gift." He measured it by eye. "It will fit the statue admirably, actually."
"My house, Kafan."
He took my hand, and there was a flickering dislocation; I suddenly stood in my kitchen. "Whoa. I always wondered what teleportation felt like."
"It is less disorienting after you get used to it," he said. "Why are we . . . ?"
"Just a second. Then we can go back." I ran to the living room, got what I came for, came back. "Okay, we can pop back now."
It was still disorienting, so I presumed that it took more than a couple of times to accustom oneself to instantaneously crossing distances. After I refocused, I went to the case, in which Verne had just placed the statue, and around it placed six other sparkling objects. "I'm sure he'll find out somehow what I've done with it; let this be my message to him."
Verne smiled broadly, and Sylvie gave an emphatic nod.
The wolf still sprang, triumphantly leaping upon its cornered prey.
But surrounding it were werewolf claws.
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