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Victor Renquist had rarely encountered a human whose mind had been so drastically reorganized. The word brainwashing, as far as Renquist was aware, had fallen from favor, but in his considered opinion, the young man's brain had not only been washed, but also fluffed and folded. It was neat, malleable, and it followed orders without reflection or question. The young man was conditioned to be the perfect implementer. Original thought had been all but eliminated, and so had all but a permitted modicum of individuality. In another century he might have been called a vassal, a minion, or a bondsman. These days, Renquist supposed, he'd be a midlevel bureaucrat, and doomed in the bargain to make never more than a nominal advancement in the power structure. It didn't matter that the power structure he served, or the bureaucratic subdivision in which he performed that service, was one of the most disturbingly sinister human institutions Renquist had encountered since the KGB under Stalin. The young man no longer possessed, if indeed he ever had, enough imagination to postulate ethical questions or entertain doubts as to the morality or even the effectiveness of what he was doing. He had taken the concept of "his not to reason why" to the extreme of a perverted, near-unthinking pleasure in his own, almost canine obedience. This one would do just about anything his masters suggested, no qualms, no reservations, and with a willing eagerness and a probing attention to detail that Renquist found unhealthy in the extreme.
Victor Renquist, from his unique perspective, had seen this insensitive corporate amorality steadily growing, especially in the United States, since at least the 1970s, and suspected it was a fresh, and probably malignant phase of capitalism. Greed had been declared good, corruption was seen as a virtue of power and practiced with a vindictive glee. Admittedly the young man was an employee of the federal government, but that hardly negated Renquist's basic premise. Wasn't the federal government of the United States nothing more than the biggest, most labyrinthine, and certainly the most inefficient, greedy, and corrupt, capitalist corporation on the surface of the Earth? Normally capitalism and its convolutions were of little concern to Renquist, unless they pressed overly close to where he lived. With his almost infinitely extended life span, he had seen belief systems flourish, flower, then wilt and die, or mutate to the point that they became unrecognizable. He had seen nations change flags like dirty underwear. He'd watched regimes and dynasties rise and fall, and even empires totter and collapse. All the way from those long-ago days when Crusaders had fought their way through Turkey to Jerusalem, and when the threat of the Great Khan and his Golden Horde of Mongols had been massing in the East, he followed humanity's murderous folly as the Mamelukes rose to power in Egypt, at the very end of the thirteenth century, and, later, in the eighteenth, Abd al-Wahhab converted the belligerent Saudi tribes to his grimly intractable sect and sowed the theocratic seeds for the deadly flourish of the Al Qa'ida in the twenty-first. Renquist had ridden the waves of human history and survived, and found it little more than a bubble-stream of circular patterns repeated over. He had long ago come to the conclusion that, in deep reality, the only objective difference in competing social designs was in the color of their flags and the degree of misery they were able to perpetrate.
Not being human, Renquist normally distanced himself as far as possible from the machinations of those who sought to control the mass of humanity. If one human structure became too onerous or out of control, Renquist had always exercised the option to move on. Just at this moment, however, Renquist couldn't move, and he needed to give this young man's mental state some serious consideration. Detachment was impossible since the young man was not only Renquist's face-to-face interrogator and the immediate representative of his captors, but he also controlled the powerful laser that was aimed squarely at Victor Renquist's right eye.
"In my time I have met torturers with more grit and sinew."
The young man was surprised. "You see me as a torturer?"
"From where I'm sitting."
"Have you been harmed in any way?"
Renquist was unable to move his head to look at the young man directly, so he spoke to die dark and unblinking lens of the laser. "No, not so far."
"Then what makes you think I am your torturer?"
"You have the look."
"I've met a lot of torturers and seen a lot of torture."
"In my time."
The young man raised a sparse eyebrow. "In your time?"
Renquist would have gestured to the thick binder the young man held in his hand, except the nylon-and-steel-mesh restraints held him immobile. "You have the dossier."
"This dossier makes the claim you have lived over nine hundred years."
Renquist was unable even to nod. "Nearer to a thousand."
The young man paused and placed a hand lightly to the earpiece of his lightweight headset. He listened with rapt concentration, indicating to Renquist he was hearing more than a communication, and the entire interrogation drama was being choreographed from elsewhere. As far as Renquist could penetrate the conditioned firewalls in the human's mind, he had been told that Renquist was a dangerously psychotic serial murderer under consideration as the fall guy for a termination/suicide mission. The young man had further been instructed that he should maintain and, if need be, cling to that belief in the face of any or all evidence that might contradict the hypothesis. The young man's dossier was a blue loose-leaf binder, with red eyes only stickers and the combined NSA-FEMA logos. It contained the sum total of the data on Renquist that had so far been amassed by the two agencies, but the young man was under the all-enveloping impression that its contents were the collected ravings of a deadly psychotic, the imaginary parameters of a watertight fantasy world created by an advanced and dangerous paranoid schizophrenic. Nothing could force him so much as to entertain the idea that the information contained therein might actually be the truth or some approximation of it. After about thirty seconds of silent attention to the headset, he turned back to Renquist. "What makes you think I'm a torturer?"
"The goal is to elicit my cooperation or confession isn't it?"
"We'd like the truth."
"You have the truth. Your problem lies in accepting it."
The room in which Renquist and the young man faced each other was a near-perfect cube with scarlet walls, floor, and ceiling. Without question, its design was the product of some half-witted, but probably very expensive, psychological study. He doubted the hellfire shade of red, or the vaguely disturbing spatial relationships, really had very much effect on humans beyond an intimidating first impression, and on a creature like himself they had no effect at all. If his situation had not been quite so desperately perilous, he might have held the whole process in utter contempt. Only the laser precluded too much hubris. It was no mere pointer or gunsight. This was an industrial-strength instrument that would burn and penetrate, and probably cauterize as it burned. At the touch of the young man's remote, Renquist's right eye would be destroyed beyond all reclamation, a nanosecond before the gemstone beam speared the soft tissue of his brain. Victor Renquist's brain did have some chance of recovery. Tissue would regenerate with nosferatu cellular alacrity, and complex paths of function would be rerouted according to freshly devised synaptic mapping, but recovery from such massive trauma would take time; time in which he would be effectively helpless, and his human captors could do what they liked with him. They could follow any whim of their choosing from driving an iron stake through his heart if they were in the mood for re-creating the crudely medieval, or cutting him up in some state-of-the-art operating room like a frog in a biology class.
Confident the odds were effectively stacked against Renquist, the young man permitted himself an ironic smile at the nosferatu's last remark. "Our problem? You think we have a problem?"
The young man wore loudly striped suspenders over a pale blue shirt, a lighter shade of the same blue as his immaculate pin-striped suit. He had taken off his jacket in a gauche display of getting down to business. The young man had the kind of cool but still angry determination almost unique to African-American Ivy Leaguers. He had not loosened his tie, which was of a loud and jagged, black-and-yellow pattern. Renquist assumed that the tie, the braces, and the man's smoothly shaved head were cultural nods to his ethnicity. His job, as it was denned, was very simple. Questions, asked elsewhere, were relayed over the headset, and all the young man needed to do was to repeat them and wait for Renquist's reply or reaction.
"You think we have a problem?"
"You do not know how to handle me."
The young man walked slowly round Renquist. "We seemed to have handled you fairly efficiently up to now."
The statement would bring no argument from Renquist. He was seated in a somewhat more upright version of a dentist's chair, secured at the wrists, ankles, and waist by straps of reinforced nylon from which not even he could tear loose. Two more straps were crossed over his chest, while his skull was clamped in a vise of stainless steel and rubber that held him at the very precise mercy of the laser. He was also the focal point of a great deal of electronic attention. A high-tech mass of medical paraphernalia had been attached to his body--the sensors, electrodes, and blood pressure cuffs that, had he been human, would have monitored his vital signs. His speech and image were also being relayed elsewhere, and, he supposed, recorded for posterity. Three video cameras were aimed at him. A studio-quality microphone was supported on a boom about fourteen inches in front of his face, and black cable snaked away behind him to a point that he was unable to turn his head or body to see.
Renquist could, of course, have scrambled all the data about himself by nothing more than a strenuous but uncomplicated effort of will. He was quite capable of converting the video images into abstractly menacing fractal patterns, the audio to a voice from the abyss, and his vital signs well off any conceivable scale. To do so, however, while flamboyant theater, would have been tactically asinine, and he hadn't walked the Earth for nearly a millennium by dint of his stupidity. Such a display might put the fear in his human captors, but it would also, at the same time, reveal the extent of his undead capabilities in one comprehensive package. The information the humans already had on him was unquestionably a mass of misconceptions, myths, and inconsistencies, and Renquist very much wanted to keep it that way. He didn't mind their being afraid, but he didn't want them very afraid. Extremes of fear caused humans to spook, to lash out, to kill the monster, and, as the monster in question, he had a supremely vested interest in not being killed.
Even as the orderlies were strapping him into the chair, he had formulated maybe not a plan but a set of guidelines as to how much he was prepared to reveal to the humans. He could easily keep his vital signs flatlined at some inexplicable and neutral level that should confuse and frustrate whoever was recording them. He also decided that he would allow them to run their cameras and microphones without any interference from him. The individuals monitoring the remotes would only see what they already knew--the unimpressive spectacle of him strapped helplessly in the chair in the red room--and they'd only hear what the young man with the tie, braces, and shaved head would hear. Again, very little would be revealed of his true nature.
The young man halted in front of Renquist, positioning himself between the laser and a fixed video camera. "You must agree we took you very easily."
Renquist would have been foolish to claim otherwise. They had come at him at high noon at the Watergate, while he slept in his sealed, tenth-floor suite, and was at his most vulnerable. He had been under the illusion that hardly anyone was aware of his presence in Washington, except those who were supposed to know; and he could only conclude that one of them had decided to take the escape route of betrayal and had dropped a dime on him somewhere in the security/intelligence community. He hadn't been slow in recognizing the grim humor in that he should be taken by federal agents in a hotel that had, for over thirty years, lent the suffix "gate," to a score of federal government scandals.
Victor Renquist was making one of his infrequent visits to the nation's capital, performing renewal and maintenance work on his network of political influence peddlers, and also reminding a select few in the corridors of power that their shameful secrets only remained secret because he made sure they stayed that way. In addition to this overdue assessment of the state of his covert influence, he also wanted to observe firsthand how the power structure might have shifted and been modified under the new administration. He was also curious to see what might have changed since the president had seen fit to appoint Mervyn Talesian as his Special National Security Advisor. Renquist was one of the very few who shared the knowledge that Talesian and the ancient Merlin were one and the same, and he was only party to this knowledge because he had been one of the group who had woken the creature from its fifteen-hundred-year sleep.
It was far from being the first time that Renquist had been taken by humans. Many had tried, but none had held him for long. His survival was all he needed as proof that humans had never succeeded an imprisoning him on anything but the most temporary basis. If they had, his essential nosferatu limitations were such that he would simply not have survived. Through his long existence, the tsar's secret police had tried to make him their captive, as had the Gestapo. On no less than four occasions, the Inquisition had come very close, but, each time, he had managed to sidestep their vicious piety and equally vicious instruments, Orthodox vampire slayers and Lutheran witchfinders had all set their traps for him, but he had always eluded them. The Knights of Sevastopol had held him, then lost him. In more recent times the Clan Fenrior had made him their prisoner, at the time when Merlin had awakened, but the Clan Fenrior was, of course, hardly human. The unique factor in his current detention was that no mortal men had ever come at him with such an arsenal of technology as these twenty-first-century Americans.
The NSA-FEMA assault team had arrived fully loaded, with a SWAT-style battering ram and Mossberg pump shotguns. The federal ninja in gas masks and Kevlar were interagency heavies from the common XYY-chromosome pool of the dedicatedly violent; men and women whose tactics and training were based on both the positive and negative lessons taught by incidents tike the ATF attack on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco. This fed A-team first tried to gas him down with CS or something similar, but that had done nothing except make him angry and prove that their data on nosferatu vulnerability were severely limited. They also soaked the suite with all kinds of microwave emissions that diet manage to make Renquist feel a trifle queasy but would never have stopped him had he not decided to give up voluntarily. On the more elementary levels, these Feds knew their business. One had threatened to rip down the metal foil over the windows that protected Renquist from the sunlight, while the others trained their riot guns on him, at the same time informing him in professionally neutral tones that the weapons were loaded with stolid, chrome-steel slugs coated with liquid Teflon. The projectiles would not only pulverize his head, but quite easily go on to plough through a wall or floor.
Renquist was well aware how survival was the better part of the valor, and, as he raised his hands in the universal gesture of surrender, he had wondered what had happened to the people staying in the adjoining rooms and how they were reacting to the sudden appearance of this armed, armored, and highly determined miniforce. It was only later that he learned that two full floors of the Watergate had been cleared before they'd actually moved to lift him. The cover story was that terrorists had issued a bomb threat. In die new century, government agents only had to use the word terrorists and all those around them became blind to any flouting of the Constitution or any other illegality.
With both Renquist and the suite secured, the squad in the dark blue jumpsuits and helmets had called in the men in white coats, who brought the thick rubber body bag and the strap-down wheelchair. Renquist had offered no resistance when they'd spread out the body bag and ordered him to lie flat so he might be zipped into it. His only remark had been to the pair of fed ninja who were gathering up his personal belongings. He'd gestured to the ancient fur rug that covered the bed. "Please bring that with you. It's mine, and it's come a long way with me."
He'd watched until they had started to fold the rug, and then lay back and prepared himself for the darkness of the prison. In theory Renquist could have stopped the intruders in their tracks simply by freezing their minds, and, indeed, that had been his first instinct after being woken by the attack. In the next instant, however, he'd seen the futility of such a move. Outside was bright, brisk, Washington winter daylight, with temperatures fractionally below freezing. How far would he get without encountering a lethal beam of direct sunlight? Maybe, with an unnatural degree of luck, he could have made it to the dark bowels of the Watergate complex, to subbasements where he could lurk like a cinema alien, among vents, conduits, fuse boxes, and emergency generators until sunset, then make good his escape, but Renquist didn't allow his immortality to depend on unnatural degrees of luck. Far better to give in and go with the goon squad, to hold his not inconsiderable array of resources in reserve until they could be deployed under more advantageous conditions.
He had observed that the assault team's headsets were broadcasting a wide band of white noise as though that was supposed to protect them from attempts at mind control on his part. The use of such devices made clear that whoever had ordered and planned this abduction knew at least a little of the nosferatu's psychic capabilities. The thinking behind the devices was completely in error, and he could have mentally cut through the cushion of sound like a knife through butter, turning the brains of the intruders inside out; but that was another display of power he'd decided to hold back for later. He offered no resistance as they enclosed him in the rubber-smelling dark of the body bag and strapped him into the wheelchair, and he had continued in the same state of passivity all the way to the scarlet-walled psycho chamber, where he now found himself confronted by the young man with the shaved head, the loud tie and suspenders, and the laser pointed at his eye.
"What would you have done if I hadn't come quietly?"
"You would have been insane to do otherwise."
Renquist laughed. "Where in the dossier does it say I'm sane?"
The young man didn't answer, and no help seemed to be forthcoming from the headset. Renquist might have chosen the path of least resistance, but it didn't mean he had to be totally docile. This interview in the red room had to be some form of initial examination, and it was safe to assume that the young man was only a lightweight, sent in for the warm-up, while the heavy hitters waited until later. The young man was already slightly perplexed. What he thought of as the subject in the chair wasn't at all what he'd expected, and Renquist decided he would exploit this revealed weakness by adding a little induced disorientation. He let a psychic suggestion float free like an evil perfume on the air, then gave it time to take hold before he asked the casual-sounding question. "Are you afraid of me?"
The young man frowned. "What makes you say that?"
"You have me strapped down very securely. Isn't that indicative of a certain trepidation?"
"Routine measures after an arrest."
"So I'm under arrest, am I?"
"You could look on it as that."
"I don't recall being read my rights."
"We both know you're a long way from any Miranda warning, my friend. And besides, you have a consistent record of homicidal episodes."
The young man opened the binder as if he was about to quote from what he believed was Renquist the serial killer's file, but as he found the page he wanted, Renquist upped the psychic ante, and, in a small, imposed hallucination, caused the type on the page to dance with tiny flames. The young man quickly snapped the book shut as though he believed he could put out the illusion by depriving it of air, and, at the same time, Renquist lightly brain-slapped him into near dizziness. The young man didn't connect the sensation, though, with anything Renquist might have done. His thinking was too ordered and his imagination too dulled to forge that link. His first reaction was a heart-attack alarm and a burst of adrenaline. Renquist could read from his panic that heart disease ran in his family. His grandfather and uncle had both gone that way, and his father seemed on the same path. Renquist wondered. Should he push the cardiac button a little harder?
* * *
"Bauer is losing his equilibrium. His heart rate's up, and any minute he'll start to sweat."
"What's his problem?"
"He seems to be having some kind of anxiety attack, but I'm showing no external cause."
"How are the vitals on the vampire?"
"Unchanged, but weird as ever. It simply doesn't seem to have electrochemical reactions., or it's able to control them totally."
"How's that possible?"
Schultz and Lustig craned forward, staring at the bank of flat-screen color monitors with rapt attention. Coulson leaned back with the relaxed patience of one who has believed from the beginning that the entire exercise was an ill-conceived waste of time. Jack Coulson could afford a dispassionate and superior attitude. Schultz and Lustig were company men. He was the hired gun recruited from outside to solve their problem for them. Both his job and his pleasure were to be as irritatingly critical as he could be. He inclined his head so he could better see the display of Bauer's vital signs. "The kid looks like he's building up for a fucking heart attack."
The small, dimly lit room in which Schultz, Lustig, and Coulson watched the interaction between Bauer, the junior agent, and Renquist, the alleged vampire, was not unlike a small TV control room, and indeed, within the limitations that it served a small and very exclusive studio, that's exactly what it was. Of the twelve screens in front of the three men, seven showed Renquist strapped into the custom-designed chair from various angles, one showed the increasingly uncomfortable Bauer, while the remaining four blankly flickered. Bauer put a hand to his headset, the signal for one of the three to feed him the next answer. Schultz and Lustig turned and looked at Coulson. "So how should we respond?"
Coulson shrugged. "I'd pull him out of there right now."
"The Old Man ordered him in. We can't pull him out yet."
"It could be a life threatener."
The voice of Renquist came over the audio speakers. "Shall we talk about the irrationality of fear."
Lustig spoke into the mike of his own headset. "Get a grip, Bauer. This is no time to be going to pieces. Get him off the subject of fear. The role of the interrogator is to instigate, not respond."
Renquist kept up the pressure in Bauer. "Fear is a matter of the possible rather than the actual."
Bauer's vital signs became even more erratic. Schultz glanced at Coulson. "You think it's doing this to him?"
Coulson shrugged. "How the hell should I know? Despite all the paperwork, we don't understand squat about this thing."
"Still no doubts to its authenticity?"
Coulson shook his head. "None whatsoever. But that still makes this Renquist a totally unknown quantity, and we should get Bauer out of there right now."
Lustig muted the link with Bauer. "Bauer was selected for his formulaic thinking and lack of imagination. We thought it was the best defense against any possible influence Renquist might attempt to exert on him."
"His neckties should have been a warning he wasn't the one."
Schultz's eyes narrowed. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Coulson didn't answer. Renquist was speaking to Bauer. I think, young man, it would be a very good idea if those who are feeding you your orders ended this and perhaps attempted to communicate in a more civilized manner."
Coulson laughed. "It seems the vampire agrees with me."
Lustig turned and stared at Coulson. "Is this a conspiracy?"
"We may have to face the fact that it may not only be stronger, but actually more intelligent than many of us."
Schultz's eyes narrowed. Company men never trusted hired guns. "But we have it. It doesn't have us."
Coulson smiled. "And I'd pray hard that situation is never reversed."
Lustig angrily reopened the link. "Turn it back on him. Ask him if he's afraid?"
Bauer complied. "Are you afraid?"
Renquist actually laughed. "Of course I'm afraid. What would you expect. I'm in extreme jeopardy, but don't imagine that will yield you any particular advantage."
Finally Coulson leaned down and picked up the headset he hadn't previously been wearing. "Ask him what he would consider to be a more civilized means of communication?"
As Bauer repeated the question, Lustig looked bleakly at Coulson. "You really think we can simply negotiate with that thing?"
"Its history would indicate so, and its present behavior certainly confirms it."
"We might attempt a simple conversation that dispensed with all this machinery."
Coulson's smile broadened. "I mean, it would appear it's negotiating already. As a matter of record, Renquist is nothing if not a pragmatist."
"But you can't trust that thing."
"Only as long as the trust is in its interest. I wouldn't turn my back on it, even for an instant."
"But we take Bauer out?"
Coulson gestured to the screens. "Is this getting us anywhere?"
Lustig made a gesture of resignation. "So we pull out Bauer. Who's going to teil the Old Man."
Coulson looked bleakly at Lustig. "Blame me. I don't have a career to protect."
Now Schultz turned on Coulson. "The vampire. We have to keep it alive. What about its…"
Coulson removed his headset. "You mean what euphemistically might be called its survival needs."
"We're going to have to provide for it. We knew that from the start."
Schultz shook his head. "The thing's a horror."
"Compared to the horrors-we want to send it up against?"
* * *
Renquist knew something had changed a microsecond before the young man reacted. He pulled off his headset, glared once at Renquist, and walked past the imprisoning dentist's chair without a word. Renquist couldn't, of course, turn his head to watch the young man go, but he knew he'd made his exit by the faint waft of air and the sound of a door opening and closing. Now Renquist was alone, watched only by the cameras and the dead eye of the laser, with very little to do except wonder if he had won some kind of victory over his unknown captors or merely precipitated himself into worse unpleasantness. They could, of course, decide he was too dangerous to exist and fire up the laser, dispatching him into the oblivion of the true death. It would, at least, be fast. Better, he knew, than burning up in the sun or the traditional and hideously painful stake through the heart. He speculated, though, that if they were going to use the laser--whoever they might be--it would not only be fast but soon, and as time passed he felt it safer and safer to assume that a spear of amplified light was not going to be his immediate fate. This was confirmed when the door was opened again, more noisily than the young man had closed it. Men moved into his field of vision. They were dressed in the same navy blue coveralls and Kevlar body armor, and carried the same riot guns as the team that had stormed into Renquist's suite at the Watergate, and, for all he knew, behind the woolen face masks, they might have been the very same ones.
Three lined up in front of the chair to which he was secured with shotguns pointed at him in a way that left Renquist in no doubt that the weapons were loaded with the same Teflon-steel slugs as the ones used in his capture. He could also sense others behind him, and he deemed it best to remain still and not say a word. Humans with firearms were too easily spooked to be handled with anything but extreme care. A voice came from somewhere behind him. "Okay, secure."
A fourth Kevlar-clad figure entered Renquist's field of vision. He was attempting an attitude of threatening authority, but his voice and aura betrayed anxiety and tension. "You're being moved."
Renquist was tempted to ask where, but refrained. "Yes?"
More humans were coming into the red room. Orderlies in white lab coats surrounded his chair and, taking care not to position themselves between Renquist and the shotgun, worked with the precise speed of individuals who knew their business and wanted that business over as quickly as possible. They unfastened the straps and moved back, as though relieved not to have to stand dose to him any longer than necessary. After the orderlies were through, Renquist decided to speak without having first been spoken to. He radiated all the calm he could under the circumstances. "Should I stand up?"
"Very slowly and without any sudden moves."
Renquist kicked his feet loose from the ankle straps and eased himself up. Once standing, he again kept very still. One of the troopers pointed with his gun, past the chair to the side of the room Renquist hadn't previously been able to see. A flush-fitting door stood open, the same color as the walls around it so it was all but concealed when closed. He also observed, from the thickness of the door, that the cubical red room was aggressively soundproofed. He had long made a practice, in times of danger or crisis, of making mental notes of even the most seemingly irrelevant details. He had learned from experience that one never knew when a detail might suddenly spring into relevancy or even become the missing piece that solved a critical puzzle.
"Okay, Mr. Renquist, through the door nice and easy."
He had to duck slightly to pass through the door. Renquist was six feet tall, but the door seemed to have been designed for people standing five feet six and under. He couldn't imagine any technical reason for the inconvenient height unless it was a psychological trick, forcing all who entered the chamber to bow. Renquist recalled how the Christian Church had tried a similar technique at various times in the Middle Ages. Fads had erupted for building church doorways so low that the congregation must all abase themselves entering the presence of their supposed god. The trick had been particularly prevalent along the routes of the various Crusades, when humiliation, oppression, and slaughter had reached their eleventh- and twelfth-century zenith at approximately the same time as Renquist had passed through the Change and come to nosferatu estate. Not that Renquist had ever entered churches except under the most exceptional circumstances, as in setting torch to them or seeking refuge in the heat of battle. The concept that the nosferatu were repulsed and terrified by religious artifacts and could not set foot on consecrated ground was, of course, a complete fabrication of human folklore, most certainly amplified and fostered by the priests who had always been prime among the archenemies of the undead. This is not to say that the nosferatu didn't avoid such places out of unadorned good taste.
On the other side of the low, narrow red door, Renquist found himself in a long, neon-lit corridor that could have been a part of any corporate office building anywhere in the world, except, for some reason that he couldn't quite consciously define, he had the impression of being some distance underground. This impression was strong enough to make him wonder if he had been brought to one of those legendary, but never publicly acknowledged strongholds like Iron Mountain, where dark and unaccountable government business was conducted in deep, sheltered sanctuaries allegedly safe from even an all-out, thermonuclear attack. The small American eagles incorporated into the weave of the dark blue carpeting confirmed that he was in federal custody. Bit by bit, the pieces of the picture were gathered.
Renquist again stood relaxed and still as the tall Kevlar troopers, stiff in their armor and utility belts, ducked through the door behind him. Now that they were on the move, he was even more careful to do nothing to trigger a sudden panic-flurry of uncontrolled gunfire that would unquestionably be directed at him. Once through the door, two troopers moved up beside him, and the rest deployed behind. "Just walk with us, sir."
Although doors occurred at regular intervals in the corridor, all were dosed, and Renquist could detect no signs or sounds of life or activity. Indeed, to Renquist, even the sound of their footsteps, the nylon rustle of his guards' body armor, and their collective breathing was muffled. The sensation was sufficiently present to cause him to wonder if unseen humans were trying out another invisible technological trick on him, a heavy dosing of microwaves or high-frequency transmissions? If that was the case, the only result seemed to be to render him ever so slightly deaf. Thus far his captors seemed to be having little success with their attempts at covert control of their captured vampire, and the vampire himself hoped desperation or the need to save face wouldn't drive them to apply more overtly destructive force. In the meantime, he kept pace with his guards and asked no questions.
* * *
Jack Coulson walked quickly down the corridor leading to the conference room, moving with a sense of extreme urgency. It was imperative he arrive there before Renquist and the goon squad. He needed the psychological edge of being calmly seated before the vampire was ushered in. Instinct told him that if he was to get anywhere in his attempt at an unprotected, one-on-one negotiation with the creature and not lose his life or worse in the process, he must show absolutely no fear. The company men saw him as rashly arrogant, and this added an extra edge to the need to prove himself right. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that Renquist had somehow manipulated Bauer to the point of believing he was on the verge of a coronary. As for as Coulson was concerned, the only remaining question was whether the vampire had managed to conjure Bauer's anxiety from scratch, or did it need to work with an emotion that was already there? He did not, however, wish to learn the answer the hard way and was doing his best to plan accordingly. To be in the room first was the foundation of all that would follow. He must be seated--comfortable, composed, and outwardly calm. If even a tiny part of the collected data was accurate, the creature was possessed of extraordinary powers; but it was reportedly a reasoning, logical, highly educated, and very intelligent entity. He couldn't see that its first reaction would be to fall on him, tooth and claw, with only the taking of his blood on its mind. That was more an image from an antique B-movie than anything that related to the current situation. The long if incomplete record of Renquist's movements through the world, and the creature's alleged manipulation of politicians and princes, bankers, bureaucrats, and big-time criminals made any such initial savagery less than credible.
Coulson was well aware that if his theory didn't work out, and his appeal to the thing's rationality failed, he could look for little or no help from the company men. In opposing their absurd and bizarre brew of technology and witchcraft, Coulson had alienated almost all of those with whom he was supposed to work. Some of them, like Schultz and Lustig, would be positively delighted to see him fail. It would prove them right and him wrong, and there would be few repercussions. Hired guns were always expendable. It went with the unpredictable and mist-shrouded territory. In his case, a fatal error would actually be cost-effective. If he died, the company would be free of its obligation to make good on bis exorbitant fee, since no one would be left to collect. Coulson had no spouse or family to receive a discreet government pension or lump sum payout from the company's black budget. Indeed, to Schultz and Lusrig, his death would be an all-around career-enhancing advantage, at least in the short term, until they found themselves forced to deal directly with Renquist without Coulson to act as an intermediary and scapegoat.
He fished in the pocket of his suit coat for the hastily scrawled map. This was the third time that Jack Coulson had been inside the NSA-FEMA Paranormal Operations and Research Facility, but he still didn't really know his way around. The underground part of the complex was maze-like in its geometric construction and faceless in its uniformity. It was a labyrinth without landmarks., in which it was all too easy to make a fool of onesself by getting lost. He seemed to be okay though. According to his calculations, he needed to make one more right turn, and the conference room where he had his date with Renquist was the third door on the left.
"Jack! Jack Coulson!"
The voice was unmistakable. It was the rasp-from-the-tomb of Herbert Walker Grael, known to his underlings as the Old Man. To his face, they called him Mr. Director, since both in authority and title he was the Director of the Paranormal Warfare Facility, and perhaps much more besides. Herbert Walker Grael always struck Coulson as resembling a short and disgustingly ancient lizard, perhaps already partly mummified, in a dark three-piece suit, always with an idiosyncratic and signature red carnation in his button hole; the flower that Coulson had privately dubbed la fleur de mal. In something close to a departmental ritual, a fresh carnation was delivered each morning by special courier. In most sectors of the intelligence community, such idiosyncratic excesses had been abolished in the cold wave of reform ushered in by the new millennium. Somehow, in defiance of the shirting times, Grael managed to hold on to his.
Grael was about the last person Jack Coulson wanted to see just then, but he was also Coulson's employer, so he halted and turned. The Old Man was shadowed by his ever-present companion and bodyguard, the ubiquitous Vargas, a hulking Salvadoran with the features of an Olmec statue who had reputedly been selected, some fifteen years earlier, from a paramilitary death squad to exclusively protect and serve the Old Man.
Coulson turned and nodded in acknowledgment. "Director Grael."
The Old Man advanced on Goulson. His walk was a trifle unsteady, and Vargas tried to take his arm, but Grael shook him off. "I can manage on my own, damm it,"
According to both protocol and good manners, Coulson should have walked back himself and saved the elderly director the effort, but Coulson remained exactly where he was. A certain level of insolence was permitted the hired gun. If the director didn't like it, he could go elsewhere to get his plausibly deniable dirty work done for him. The Old Man was breathing hard by the time he reached Coulson. Word was he suffered from advanced emphysema, although he never showed any signs of dying from it. Word was also that the Old Man was too mean to die. "So you pulled Bauer out, in direct contradiction of my original orders."
The Old Man didn't mess around with niceties or courtesy. Coulson stiffened and nodded. Time was wasting. "He was getting nowhere and seemed about either to go into cardiac arrest or at least make a total fool of himself."
"So you're going through with your own damn fool plan?"
"I am, and if you'll excuse me, I have to go. The operation is already under way."
To Coulson, the Old Man looked like an unholy amalgam of corpse and reptile that should not still be rightfully walking around, much less wielding--alone, unelected, and completely unaccountable--close to the same powers as did the President of the United States. It was openly admitted that Grael was in his eighties, but other, more subterranean estimates claimed he was, in reality, pushing one hundred. Grael was, by far, Coulson's best and most lucrative paymaster, but Jack Coulson loathed the Old Man and took some pleasure in collecting the better tidbits that circulated concerning the hidden horrors of his life and personality. Lustig, after a couple of tequilas, and confident he was away from all eavesdropping devices, liked to flex his imaginary independence by telling tales out of school. It was a drunken Lustig who'd claimed the director still had a sex life, stimulated by Viagra-like chemical complexities that would not be available to the public for many years to come, if ever. Seemingly, though, his partner had to be completely inert. How had Lustig put it? Grael "simulated necrophilia by inducing insulin coma, then bringing the bitch back with a sucrose shot." Close up the Old Man's skin was the color and texture of albino parchment, and Coulson swore he could smell formaldehyde. Grael looked Coulson up and down. "How do you know you won't end up with nothing more than your blood drained?"
"But you intend to prove your point anyway?"
Even before Lustig had shot his mouth off, earlier informants had sworn themselves blind that Grael was very dose to being the human fountain of all evil in the power elite. He had more than once been credited as a core conspirator in the murders of both Kennedy brothers, Marilyn Monroe, Lee Oswald, Jack Ruby, and all the others who had died in the resultant cleanup. He was also reputed to have been as much the political power behind Sidney Gottlieb and the MKULTRA mind control experiments as CIA Director Richard Helms, and later actually controlled the unraveling mind of President Ronald Reagan in his latter days in the White House. Another source placed the Old Man as a shadow figure behind Charles White's mad dog LSD experiments in San Francisco in the early sixties, when North Beach hookers had been hired to dose their unsuspecting tricks with acid while Charlie White, and the agents under him, watched and filmed the unholy results from behind one-way mirrors. Coulson had also heard how Bill Clinton had done his Arkansas best to uproot Grael and banish him to a long-overdue retirement. Seemingly Grael had swung his blackmail and disinformation machine into play and, using Clinton's taste for women who were young and at least visibly alive, poisoned the air around the president. Clinton had been impeached and all but convicted, and then his statutory term had run out. Grael, on the other hand, remained bunkered in Deerpark with his carnations and apparent corpses.
In close proximity to Grael, these nasty tales became all to easy to believe. Coulson smiled grimly. "If I don't prove it, you'll have a perfect record of the vampire making its kill. That ought to be worth something to someone."
"You haven't forgotten that the investigation of this thing isn't our primary objective?"
"Of course not."
"That the recruitment of the vampire is only a preliminary to the real mission?"
Coulson was becoming impatient. Time was pressing. "No, I haven't forgotten anything. My priorities are as ordered and intact as always, but, in this totally unique situation, I believe it's advisable to concentrate on one phase at a time."
"I'm sure you'll do it your way, Jack. You always do." The director's eyes were a watery blue, with a frozen detachment that hinted he might have actually been born without the normal checks and balances of mortal morality, rather than merely discarding them as the course of his long and infamous career unfolded. Coulson could all too easily imagine those weird eyes watching the slack face of a simulated corpse as he indulged his supposed sexual preference. If Grael really was close to a hundred years old, it occurred to Coulson that he must have spent at least the previous thirty years warding off death, and the subject of dying had to be constantly on the Old Man's mind. It was all too possible that a subtext to this business with Victor Renquist was that Grael hoped a by-product of the operation might be his learning the secret of supposed vampire immortality. That worried Jack Coulson. The task at hand was hard enough and quite sufficiently fraught with unknowns and pitfalls. He didn't need Herbert Walker Grael attempting to run agendas within agendas. Also, Coulson's reading on the subject had taught him that the quest for eternal life was a dangerous game played with deadly fire. History clearly proved that searches for immortality usually ended badly; invariably in the deaths of many. Chin Shih Huang Ti, the builder of the Great Wall of China, was a perfect example. He had searched for immortality in the second century b.c., and finished up systematically slaughtering all his hundreds of shaman, priests, astrologers, and alchemists when they failed to produce a satisfactory antidote to death. Coulson could easily believe the Old Man capable of similar petulance when disappointed. The idea that Grael was tempted by the possibility of a personal world without end was reinforced by the Old Man's next statement. "Also remember that, when all this is complete, I want the thing back alive, warm and walking."
Coulson frowned. "That might be easier said than done."
"Then I need the body for dissection."
Coulson glanced at his watch. The director was screwing with his timing. "Whether the vampire is alive at all is surely debatable in the strictest sense?"
Grael's eyes were as hard as pack ice. "Don't split hairs with me, Jack."
"We also have yet to be certain what happens to one of them when they supposedly die."
"Didn't you say you were pressed for time?"
"Then you'd better get on. Nothing is achieved by standing here talking."
The director turned and walked away, this time leaning on Vargas. Coulson stared at his bent departing back for a moment, using a long-practiced lack of expression to mask his disgust. Did power really corrupt or did it merely attract the already corrupted? Mercifully, the Old Man was, for the most part, only a theoretical problem, and someone else's to solve. Coulson turned on his heel and hurried to the nearest wall-mounted internal phone. He needed time. He keyed in the number of the room where Schultz and Lustig still waited.
It rang once, and Schultz answered. Coulson's tone made it clear he was in no mood for argument. "I just had an encounter with the director. I need Renquist to stay where he is for a few minutes."
Schultz was less than helpful. "They've already started moving him."
"Damn. Where is he now?"
"They've got him in the corridor. Right now he's getting the alpha waves, but they'll be at Conference Room D in just a moment."
"That's the trouble. I'm not in Conference Room fucking D."
"I already told you. The Old Man waylaid me in the corridor right after I left you."
"What are you going to do?"
"I want you to call the escort. Have the goons to walk him around the corridors for a while. I need about five minutes."
"Don't try, okay? Just do it."
* * *
Renquist was puzzled. They had been moving along corridors for what seemed like an inordinate length of time. It might be that the same phenomenon was interfering with his hearing was also afflicting his sense of direction, but he was close to believing his escort had been doing nothing but walking him round in a variation on simple circles for the last three or four minutes. The corridors, with their blue, eagle-patterned carpets, white walls, and unflattering neon, might all look the same, but he'd had the foresight to count the left and right turns at the various junctions and intersections, and he was convinced they were deliberately meandering. He was at a loss to know why One explanation was mat somehow he was being deliberately stalled, as part of a calculated plan; but if that was the case, this plan of the humans had a definite Alice In Wonderland quality. On the other had, it was possible that some glitch had occurred in the preparations for whatever interrogation process awaited him. He could take a certain modest comfort in that option. A lapse in efficiency on the part of one's adversary was never a bad sign.
Renquist and his escort finally turned into a corridor that differed from all the rest in that yet another armed guard, again in dark blue coveralls, body armor, and baseball cap, stood in front of one of the anonymous doors. The sense of expectation in the new guard's aura strongly suggested to Renquist that this was their destination. No sooner had he entertained the thought than the guard came to a loose, law enforcement version of attention and opened the door. Renquist glanced at the trooper beside him who appeared to command the escort. "Inside?"
The man nodded, and Renquist turned into the doorway, curious at what he might find.
The red room had been weird, the corridors had been blank and austere, but the room beyond the door was spacious, with a government/corporate smug opulence. It's walls were paneled, a draped Stars and Stripes hung in one corner on a gold-topped flagstaff, and a large portrait of the current president took pride of place among the framed landscapes and military prints. The room's purpose was dearly to accommodate fairly large formal meetings. The carpet underfoot was still blue and patterned with eagles, but it felt richer and more dense. The highly polished walnut table was long enough to accommodate twelve or fourteen and leave enough room so no one was banging elbows with his or her neighbor, or invading their defensible space. The row of lamps with green glass shades, which were suspended in a line down the middle of the table, lent a soft air of businesslike intimacy that suited the fact that, at the moment Renquist entered, just a single male was seated at the head of the table, in the traditional seat of power. Without looking up, he waved curtly to the lines of high-backed leather chairs. "Take a seat please."
Renquist didn't immediately do as the human instructed. He remained standing, slowly looking around the room. He could tell from the auras of his escort that his action, or lack of it, made them nervous, and that, in itself, provided Renquist with a degree of satisfaction. Only after a leisurely inspection of the room and its decor did he finally follow the human's orders. He selected a chair about halfway down the table, close enough for conversation but with enough distance to preclude any sense of connection unless it was absolutely warranted. He pulled back the chair of his choice and turned it so he faced the human across a long diagonal. The human glanced up, but not at Renquist, simply to dismiss the guards with another curt wave. "You won't be needed any longer."
As the guards withdrew, Renquist decided he'd had quite enough of this. "And what about me?"
"I'll be with you in just a moment."
"Don't do that."
"Play the paper shuffling, 'I'll be with you in a moment' game."
"Is that what I'm doing?"
The man pulled his paperwork together, gathering the loose pages, tapping them once on the desk so their individual edges were aligned, and placing them in another blue folder with the NSA-FEMA combined logo. "And you don't like it?"
"It's not a matter of what I like or dislike. If s simply not credible."
Dressed in a darkly elegant and expensively tailored suit, the man had the look of education and intelligence, but, at the same time, he also appeared to have been through the mill. A fast and undetectable psychic scan showed that, unlike the young man in the red room, this human had a mind of his own and retained his own internal demons. No brainwashing or conditioning had ordered his thoughts or shaped his attitudes. He totally lacked the rigidity of one who had grown and prospered in the military, or as an agent of law enforcement. His face had the battered resignation of an individual who, although he didn't appear to relish violence, was painfully familiar with both it and its dirtier mechanics. His nose had been broken at some time in the past, and he had a scar on his upper lip as though he had ducked from a knife or broken bottle but had not been quite fast enough. The laugh lines around his eyes, however, spoke of a certain amused insolence, the knowing smile of the subversive or the rebel. Even his dark hair, although thinning slightly along a distinguished hairline, was worn longer than any federal agent's. The man at the head of the table might work for the government, but he was definitely not a part of any company hierarchy. Two hundred and fifty years ago, he might have been a gentleman buccaneer who had ultimately made good, received a pardon from the monarch and an appointment to the governorship of a colony. Since such characters no longer existed, Renquist could only assume that the adversary he faced was some kind of outside consultant, needed by those in power but far from wanted by them.
"My behavior isn't credible?"
"It's also unworthy."
"In what way?"
"I am fairly certain that I'm the first of my kind you have faced like this, but you pretend to be too busy with your pieces of paper even to look at me."
"I am being that obvious?"
"I know you'd like to avoid appearing excited or apprehensive, but that's hardly the way to do it."
"You say your kind? What do you mean by that?"
"You know very well what I am."
The human drew an abstract pattern with his forefinger on the folder in front of him. "So you admit you're a vampire?"
"We do not use that word. We consider it offensive?"
"What do you prefer?"
"I am nosferatu."
The man half smiled. "You state that like a declaration."
"You could take it that way. I'm in no way ashamed of what I am."
The man paused, as though considering his next question before asking it. As far as Renquist could tell without going too far and alarming him, the freelancer had a genuinely open mind and was seeking to learn all he could. "How would you define a nosferatu?"
"Are you trying to sound like a psychiatrist? You certainly don't look like one?"
"I wasn't aware I even sounded like one."
"You have a similar oblique approach."
The man stared down at the fingers of his right hand as though inspecting them for flaws. After a few moments silence, he looked up. "Are you able to read my mind?"
"To a degree."
"To what degree?"
"I'd be a fool to tell you that, now wouldn't I?"
"Would you agree to refrain from doing it for the duration of this interview?"
"This is an interview?"
"I don't know. So far I've been abducted and strapped in a chair with a laser pointed at my eye. I suppose this is the soft approach."
"You didn't answer me."
"No, I didn't."
"So will you do that?"
"Not read your mind?"
"I'd be grateful. And you might benefit from my gratitude."
Renquist turned and stared at the portrait of the president. Renquist's faith in the power and justice of democracy had never been overly strong. "I'd be giving up a considerable advantage."
"It would help me."
"Why should I help you?"
"By helping me, you'll find you'll be helping yourself."
"I have no reason to believe that. I have so far been abducted and confined. There's been little help forthcoming that I can see."
An impasse had been reached. Renquist leaned back and let the human devise the next move. The man took a deep breath. "Can we come at this another way?"
"By all means."
"If you stayed out of my mind, it would place us on a more even footing. That could be productive."
"I would still be doing you a favor."
"You have a lot of audacity, my human friend."
"You begin by kidnapping me, then you require a favor?"
"I stand between you and some much worse people than I."
"Have you considered I might read your thoughts without your knowing it?"
"That's a chance I'm prepared to take. 1 believe I'd sense something."
"So we're using an honor system?"
"I suppose you could put it that way."
Renquist didn't respond for some moments. Instead he gently stroked the outer edges of the man's mind. As he expected, the human didn't react, at all. So much for mortal vanity. He decided that, for the rime being, he would go along with the man's presumptuous request and see where it took them. The human clearly didn't understand that Renquist, should he so desire, could reach into his brain, twist it inside out, rip loose any and all information that he needed, and reduce the man's remaining shell to blubbering idiocy. Renquist would play the game for the moment and keep the true extent of his powers a continuing secret. "Suppose we struck a bargain?"
"If I don't read your mind, will you answer my questions?"
Now it was the human's tufn to fall silent. He stopped moving his hands and even took them off the folder. Finally, he made a decision. "I will if I can.
* * *
So this was the vampire in the flesh. If nothing else, it had a massive self-assurance. As far as any of those who had participated in its capture could tell, it was at their mercy, except it in no way acted like a captive. Instead, it was offering deals.
"Why don't you start by telling me your name?"
Renquist gave a formal nod. "And I am Victor Ren-quist."
Coulson gestured to Renquist's file. "I already know that."
"You're not a federal agent?"
"What makes you say that?"
"I have dealt with a number of so-called company men over the years. You're not like them."
"I'm an outside consultant."
"A hired gun?"
"That's one way of putting it.""
Coulson knew that the deep and inherent danger in dealing with Renquist was the temptation to lapse into thinking the vampire was a man and treating him accordingly. To all outward appearances, the being facing him across the table was a dignified and cultured man in his early forties, a dandy almost, verging on the slightly eccentric, with dark curly hair almost as long as that of an old-time rock star, a single silver ring in his left car, and a large onyx on the third finger of his right hand. Perhaps the skin was unnaturally pale, but that, on its own, was far from sufficient to reveal the creature as the undead monster it was in reality. To imagine this urbane if bohemian exterior transforming itself into the savage and ravening predator of legend was close to impossible. And yet, if all the reports were true, hundreds, indeed thousands, had seen Renquist as exactly that, and it had been their last vision of the living world. The only possible giveaway was the nosferatu's eyes. Where the depth of human eyes was always finite, Renquist's were windows into something unfathomable, everlasting, and potentially frightening. As Renquist asked his next question, Coulson made a mental note never, ever to lock eyes with the vampire.
"So why have you been selected to conduct this 'interview'?"
"They seem to think I have a certain expertise in the realm of the…" Coulson searched for the right word. "…unusual."
Renquist raised an eyebrow at the euphemism. "The unusual?"
"That's their stock-in-trade in. this place."
"And what is this place?"
"Officially it doesn't exist."
"Are we dealing in official smoke and mirrors, Jack Coulson? I thought we were endeavoring to get past that kind of thing when I agreed not to read your mind. Don't forget that I also am not supposed to exist. Not by government order but by simple human rejection and disbelief."
Coulson focused on Renquist's mouth. It was a way of looking into the vampire's face while still avoiding the eyes. His lips were full if colorless, but there was no sign of any prominent or penetrating teeth. Were the teeth of the nosferatu retractable, or was there more to learn about their feeding habits than was suggested by the accepted texts on the subject?
"The estate is known as Deerpark."
Renquist slowly nodded. "I've heard of this place."
Despite his efforts not to react, he was surprised that Renquist even knew the name of Deerpark, and he was aware that his surprise registered. "You have?"
"It has long had a certain reputation of being a government center for research into the extreme and … what was the word you used … unusual?"
Coulson had not expected Renquist to be this well informed. "All governments need places to hide the darkside from their subjects."
"That is certainly true. Wasn't this the place where the very first lysergic acid experiments took place?"
Coulson sighed. "I guess. Back when. Legend has it they prepped Sirhan here before he whacked Bobby Kennedy."
"And research into improved interrogation techniques?"
Coulson shrugged. "Some torturers have been through this place, but, as far as I know, the School of the Americas at Fort Benning was the real sado-psychotics' Disneyland."
"And this was where they trained the children? The ones educated from infancy as bait for highly placed pedophiles in foreign governments?"
"So I understand."
Renquist laughed. "Don't look so uncomfortable, Jack Coulson. You Americans are no worse than many, and actually better than some. I am not one to make value judgments." Renquist paused and looked around. "I have the feeling we're some distance underground. Is that correct?"
"Deerpark was once just the mansion on the hill, but now the entire hill is honeycombed with corridors and tunnels. You're very perceptive."
"I think in some way my kind is closer to the wild than yours. We have a well-developed natural sense of direction."
"And you're also at the top of the food chain."
"Indeed we are."
Coulson laid a hand on the closed folder. He couldn't allow Renquist to run the encounter completely. "Do you mind if I take a turn and ask you some questions?"
"I need to know just one more thing."
"My feeding requirements?"
Coulson had been wondering when the question would come up. When the plan to trap Renquist had been approved by Grael, Schultz, Lustig, Brauer, and a half dozen other company men had drunk themselves jubilantly stupid in a Washington bar later the same night. Netting the vampire was a much-needed justification of their work in very uncertain times. A chant had even broken out. "We're getting a vampire! We're getting a vampire!" Coulson, as drunk as any of the others but holding it better had, at that point, asked the same thing Renquist was now asking. "If you get a vampire, who's going to feed it?" By so doing, he had stopped the parry in its inebriated tracks. Lustig had been the first to recover, offhandedly suggesting that Washington had enough junkies and crackheads to satisfy any vampire.
Coulson regarded Renquist with all the neutrality he could muster. "Mercifully that is not my direct problem or responsibility. Plans have, however, been made."
"An exclusive diet of drug addicts is not advisable. They make me sluggish and stupid, and eventually I sicken."
Coulson looked hard at Renquist. "I thought you agreed not to read my mind."
"I'm not reading your mind, I was just anticipating the obvious and pragmatic. Crackheads will make me ill."
"The nosferatu are that fragile?"
Renquist shook his head. "No, my friend. Humans are that toxic."
* * *
As far as he could hold in any esteem a creature he might later have to kill, Renquist was starting to like Coulson. The man was nimble-witted and seemed reasonably honorable for a human. In consequence, Renquist had been more or less true to his word. He had stayed out of the man's mind as much as was reasonably possible while still protecting his own very vital interests. He had, however, scanned to some depth when the matter of feeding had been broached, and had observed the memory of the night in the bar. Coulson still felt shame at the behavior of the idiots who employed him, and Renquist had used that shame as a cover to observe without Coulson becoming aware of the intrusion. Renquist could not resist slightly tweaking the human with the remark about a diet of drug addicts. Coulson needed to be kept insecure and guessing. The worst thing a nosferatu could do when confronted by a tough, smart human professional was to fall into the trap of underestimation. Humans might not have the same power as the nosferatu, but they were a species loaded with dangerous contradictions. The majority were dull, self-interested, and easily influenced, coerced, and overcome. But the weak and stupid were by no means the absolute rule. Every so often an alpha would appear among the epsilons, one who couldn't simply be bulldozed by superior physical and psychic strength. The alphas could conjure tricks of their own and prove worthy adversaries when it came down to a simple clash of intellect. Renquist had no doubts that Coulson more than qualified as an alpha.
"You have questions for me?"
"A great many, I'm afraid."
Renquist shrugged as though it was only to be expected. "Questions are the first burden of the detainee."
"You are not in the least what I expected."
"Do not relax too soon, Jack Coulson."
"Believe me, Victor Renquist, to relax is not my intention." He picked up the folder. "This is the dossier the organization has on you to date. Much of it strains human credulity, but…"
"But my very existence strains human credulity, so you're not sure where to start?"
"Perhaps we should start at the beginning?"
"The beginning?" A sudden wave of incalculable and unbidden sadness threatened to engulf Renquist, The beginning was now so very far down the passage of centuries, he could hardly relate to it. It had become like a story he had heard, told about another person. He fought down the cold and powerful emotion as Coulson opened the file to a page marked with a Post-it. "You're the supposed son of the Earl of Cambray."
Renquist qualified this with a wry smile. "The bastard son. My human mother was Gwendoline the Saxon, not Roger of Cambray's lady." Renquist paused for a moment, gauging Coulson's reaction without noticeably entering his mind. "Of course, the true parent of the being you see before you was the Great Lamia."
His human interrogator smiled. "The Great Lamia?"
"She made me what I am. Contemporary accounts credit her with great, if not unsurpassed, skill at the Changing."
Coulson turned ring-bound pages in the dossier as though seeking for a confirming reference. Renquist quickly stopped him. "You'll find nothing about the Great Lamia in there. Long ago I spent more than fifty years seeking any trace of her, but all was blank. I can only assume she vanished into one of the black holes in nosferatu history."
Coulson thought about this, again turning pages in the dossier. "There would appear to be a great many holes in your history."
"Would you expect otherwise? The history of my kind, as recorded by humans, is little more than a messy brew of lies and fables. Our own written history has been repeatedly destroyed, and that which remains is well hidden. The books of the nosferatu have been an anathema to religious leaders from Ikhnaton to Pope John Paul. They have been considered as deserving of burning as were we ourselves."
Coulson seemed to have no response to this, so, after a short pause, Renquist continued. "The human need to bring destruction upon us seems to have been something of a cyclical thing, usually a product of some mass hysteria. Not unlike the burning of witches. Indeed, the two often coincided."
Coulson frowned. "You make it sound as though it was a long time ago, but I thought I read in the research that there was a final extermination of…nosferatu…as late as the twentieth century. A Catholic bishop…"
Renquist nodded. "Bishop Rauch."
Renquist made a dismissive gesture. "Why don't I just tell the basic story myself and save you reading some secondhand account. I was there, after ail."
Coulson indicated the floor was Renquist's. "By all means."
"This Rauch instituted a purge of the undead in France and Germany, in the aftermath of the First World War. It became known as the Great Slaughter of 1919. Hundreds, if not thousands of us were staked, burned, or beheaded, and at least five important libraries destroyed. Rauch had the perfect recruits for his holy carnage. He offered whores and alcohol to the new veterans of four years in the trenches and on killing fields of the Western Front, the ones cheated of their youth by shot, shell, and gas, who had nothing to go home to except hunger and revolution in the streets. He enlisted the Freikorps, who would later cleave to Adolf Hitler. These hollow-eyed former cannon fodder, still in their stinking uniforms, needed something to hate. He found willing followers in the men to whom the industrialized meat grinder of barbed wire, artillery, and the machine gun had become the only normality."
"And you say that thousands of your kind were massacred?"
"Such were the estimates. They hunted us through the deadly bright murderous days, scouring the countryside for our hiding places to the point that some of us who survived actually took shelter in the very trench and bunker systems that had been so recently fought over."
"I find it hard to believe vampires…sorry…nosferatu could exist in such numbers without being generally noticed."
"We had foolishly proliferated during that war. Death on such a scale was the best natural cover we'd ever enjoyed. When fifty thousand humans could die in a day, we of the nosferatu saw no reason to place restraints on ourselves. Some even believed that humanity was going to butcher itself into functional extinction, and we would replace them as the dominant species."
Coulson thought for a few moments. WI have only the most perfunctory knowledge of this process you refer to as Changing, but wouldn't it have been very easy to restore your numbers in a comparatively short space of years."
Renquist almost laughed. This human was learning fast. "If nothing else, the Slaughter taught us circumspection. When the nosferatu become too visible, disaster inevitably follows."
"So you're not one of the ones who wanted to replace the human race?"
Renquist smiled and shook his head. "Why should I want to do that? I have enough responsibilities."
* * *
Coulson was discovering that his best course of action was, for the moment, to accept everything the vampire said at face value. By suspending disbelief he could carve out a reasonably flat playing field across which to face Renquist, an area of territory in which he could operate without having to immediately confront the hurdle of whether or not he truly believed that a whole other sentient species walked the Earth. He had even started thinking of the monster as "he" rather than "it." He also knew that whatever might be achieved with Renquist was going to have to be achieved slowly. He needed to study, observe, and avoid assumptions. To jump to erroneous conclusions and act on them might very well prove fatal. If Director Grail wanted a fast result, he could either accept his disappointment or pay off Coulson and assign some other asshole to deal with the vampire. In the meantime, this would be a slow chess game, not a mugging.
Coulson had decided, after the first exchange with Renquist over the matter of mind reading, initially to assume a passive role. Strict Sun Tsu. He would simply watch the creature as he ran through a set of highly routine, historical questions taken from the information in the dossier. Later, Schultz and Lustig could run over the audio- and videotapes of the conversation looking for possibly revealing inconsistencies and anomalies. Right there and then, he'd allow Renquist to talk freely and see where it took them.
"You saw action against the Turks?"
Renquist seemed hardly interested. "The Turks were a serial problem.?"
"But you resisted their advances into Europe. It states here you raised and commanded your own unit of cavalry."
"Only by night."
"But you fought side by side with humans.
"I had my boyars. They were content to do battle in the darkness. I think we were about equal in our levels of martial savagery."
"They didn't find you strange?"
Finally, Renquist permitted himself a faint and modest smile. "Perhaps, but they also worshiped me."
"Later you turn up in England under Elizabeth I, apparently working against the Spanish for her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham?"
'that's part of the record?"
"It's not true?"
"Oh yes, it's perfectly true. I worked for Walsingham."
"And how did you hide your true nature from him?"
"I didn't. Walsingham didn't care what you were as long as the mission was accomplished. You have to remember that Sir Francis had his back to the wall. England was in grave danger of becoming part of the empire of Philip II. If he didn't coin the phrase by any means necessary, he certainly lived by that maxim."
Coulson could not help but be awed. Even if the story were a total fabrication, he found it fascinating. "You actually met Walsingham?"
"At one point, just prior to the Armada, I met him very frequently."
"He's credited by many as being the inventor of modern counter espionage."
"He was." Renquist gestured round the room. "Don't you think he had a place like this?"
"What do you mean?"
"Sir Francis had his own 'Paranormal Division.' He had his own Deerpark with his necromancers, alchemists, mind readers, witches, and astrologers, not to mention his poisoners, and torturers. He didn't give a damn if one of his assassins was a monster, under the cloak and behind the dagger, as long as the target died. That's why it might be a good idea if you came out with the proposition right now."
This final statement took Coulson completely by surprise. Renquist had seemed so relaxed and uncaring, then suddenly, just as Coulson was relaxing his vigilance, the vampire struck. The proposition?"
"If you're seeking to recruit me to your cause or conspiracy, it will not be the first time such a thing has been tried."
Renquisr's stab in the dark was so dose to the mark that Coulson was momentarily at a loss. The thing was reading his mind after all, or was it just phenomenally smart? "What makes you think anyone wants to recruit you?"
"Either that, or you want to dissect me. I would prefer, for my own peace of mind, to think it is the former."
Coulson took a moment to control his surprise. "Shall we just go on with the questions?"
"I would have thought better of you, Jack Coulson."
"Indeed I would. You don't seem the kind to follow an imposed and preordained structure."
"Unfortunately, the decisions are not always mine."
"Quite so. I understand. So let's continue with the catalogue of my adventures. We've covered the Turks and Walsingham. What would you like to know about next?"
"The Iron Duke?"
"We have a record of you being at Waterloo."
"I wasn't at Waterloo."
"The Battle of Waterloo was fought by day. Mainly in the afternoon."
"It is often repeated that, at the height of the battle, when the British were hard-pressed by the French, Wellington exclaimed, 'Give me night or give me Blucher.' Blucher and his Prussians came before sunset. I followed with the night. My function on Wellington's staff was more complex than mere combat."
"I can imagine."
Renquist's expression turned bleak. "I doubt you can."
Coulson thought he was starting to see a pattern emerge in the way that Renquist played the game. Long lulls of indolent indifference were followed with short unexpected jabs to keep him off-balance. He knew it was little more than surface sparring and wondered when the vampire might decide to take the confrontation to a deeper level. Coulson could happily postpone that escalation indefinitely, so he went back to the file. "You were in St. Petersburg?"
"I was in St. Petersburg a number of times down the years."
"In 1917, at the time of the revolution, you worked for the Romanoffs."
Again Renquist smiled. "In 1917, at the time of the revolution, there were many who believed I was on their side, but trust me, Jack Coulson., my objectives were all my own."
"One story has you participating in the murder of Rasputin."
"I merely smoked a cigarette and watched. It was entirely Prince Usopoff's party, although I must confess I was happy to see the Mad Monk go. He suspected too much about me and would never have kept it to himself."
* * *
Coulson hadn't exactly gone down in Renquist's estimation, but he had hoped for a little more frankness from the man. He had offered him a chance to cut short the preliminaries and get down to the real reasons that so much trouble had been taken to bring him to Deerpark, but Coulson had sidestepped, erring on the side of caution and correctness. Renquist had expected better of him than just a return to a litany of questions that did little more than confirm what was already in the company's dossier. Coulson had reached the period during World War II when Renquist was once again in England, this time representing the Undead Cartel. His task had been to monitor the work of an occult warfare unit working out of Ravenkeep Priory under the command of the Duke de Richleau. Like Walsingham four hundred years earlier, Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister, had entertained any idea, no matter how outlandish, if it could conceivably help defeat Hitler and the Nazis. Renquist, in common with most of the nosferatu community had thoroughly approved of the overthrow of Nazism, but some of the elders, including Dietrich, Renquist's ancient mentor, had feared that de Richleau and his people might stumble too close to crucial nosferatu secrets.
"Were others of you also monitoring the SS?"
"Of course. I had the easy brief. The SS were considered much more potentially dangerous. Remember, they had been born out of the Freikorps, who went on the rampage for Bishop Rauch. The upper echelons of the SS knew very well what we undead were all about."
Coulson was about to move on to another set of questions, but Renquist held up his hand, as though calling a halt. "How long do you intend to continue with this?"
"I'm a little fatigued. Your boys in blue woke me from my sleep, and this has been going on for some rime now. Also I am growing hungry."
Renquist put sufficient menace on the phrase "growing hungry" to attract Coulson's undivided attention. "Hungry?"
"You told me plans had been made."
"Give me a moment to check."
Each position at the table came equipped with both a phone handset and a speaker for conference calls. Coulson picked up his handset and keyed in a four-digit number, obviously an internal call. He waited a few moments for someone to answer. "Yes, this is Jack Coulson. I need to know if the arrangements have been made for our guest." He paused while whoever was on the other end of the call attempted to check. "Fifteen minutes? I can count on that? Okay, fine."
He hung up and looked at Renquist. "It seems that everything is being organized to make you comfortable."
Renquist found himself wryly amused by the euphemisms. So he was their "guest," and a human victim was an "arrangement." Humanity really had taken the art of self-deception to unequaled levels.
"We have to wait fifteen minutes?"
"Something like that."
Renquist nodded, then folded his arms, saying nothing, making it clear that, as far as he was concerned, die question and answer session was at least temporarily over. Coulson had other ideas. "There is one more thing I'd like to know before we conclude this first session."
"I'm curious about the DuMont Library."
The question came as such a surprise that Renquist came near to betraying himself. All he could do was lean forward, downplaying alarm to mere interest. Tou know about the DuMont Library?"
"About two years ago you broke in there and removed some very old books?"
Renquist answered slowly and cautiously. "They were ancient books."
"Books of the nosferatu?"
"And you feared for their safety?"
Renquist treated Coulson to a long look, but exerted no psychic influence. "I feared humans would attempt to translate them."
Coulson's information was completely accurate. Word had come to Renquist that the books in question were in imminent danger. Previously they had been safe, part of a highly esoteric personal library belonging to a human who could be trusted in his isolated neurosis. After the man's exceedingly messy shotgun suicide, however, the collection, along with all of the rest of his personal effects, was slated to be sold at auction by the IRS to cover the eccentric's outstanding back taxes: and, if that happened, the hand-lettered volumes with their unique flamelike script, and the arcane and potentially dangerous information they contained, could fall into literally anyone's hands. The interconnected nosferatu community in North America, Europe, and Asia had looked to Renquist to clash to Savannah, Georgia, by a chartered night flight, commit burglary, and then hightail it back to California before he was caught by the sun. Renquist hardly believed that the Feds had hauled him in to answer for his discreet breaking and entering. That would be plainly absurd. What worried him was that any human at all should know about the incident. "Where did you get this information?"
Coulson turned pages in the folder. "I'm not sure. I didn't make up this dossier. It was handed to me when I hired on. There should be a source somewhere in one of the footnotes."
"You're willing to reveal the source?"
Coulson stopped turning pages. "If I didn't, I suspect you'd abandon our agreement and go into my mind and look for it."
"I would in this instance."
"So what would be the point of my trying to keep it from you?"
Renquist smiled. "None whatsoever." He liked the way Coulson was ever the realist.
"Wait a minute." Coulson read for a few moments. "Could the story have come from de Richleau's files?"
Renquist shook his head. "The de Richleau archive only goes up to 1945."
"Hold on." Coulson again turned pages. "I think I have it. Does the name Julia Aschenbach mean anything to you?"
This time Renquist hid his shock better. He managed merely to purse his lips. "I know that name."
It wasn't easy to keep his emotions so tamped down. A deep-seated rage threatened to boil over and destroy the enigmatic and guarded calm he'd sought to cultivate since his capture. The news fully merited an outburst of fury and indignation. He didn't just know the name Julia Aschen-bach. She was one of his own, not only nosferatu, but a member of the very colony over which he ruled. The betrayal went deeper, however. Julia was Renquist's personal creation. He had been the one, in Berlin, back in the 1930s, who had brought her through the Change. That had been the root of many of the conflicts between them. The neophyte all too often initially resented the elder undead who brought them to their new nocturnal immortality, but with Julia the resentment had lasted longer than the first few weeks, or even months, of hard acceptance and adjustment. It hadn't helped that Renquist had almost immediately abandoned her to fend for herself in the full flow of Hitlerian madness.
Julia's relationship with Renquist was a temperamental pendulum that swung between intense hatred and a recurring desire to bond with him and become his consort. In both states of mind she proved herself dominating, duplicitous, and an intense liability. She connived and deceived, and even plotted against him and his accumulated power. Her manipulations of the already fraught inner tensions of the nosferatu colony had indirectly caused the destruction of at least four of her kindred undead, and she had been lucky not to pay an ultimate price for her destructive scheming. During her seventy years as nosferatu, in a flamboyant and frequently reckless career, Julia had numerous brushes with intelligence and counterintelligence operations on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. This on its own would have been neither a surprise nor a concern to Renquist. He had his own history of such transactional encounters. When the undead offered their skills and services to humanity, espionage, blackmail, disinformation, and assassination were all leading items on their bill of fare.
"It would seem that this Julia Aschenbach has been having regular contact with this and other agencies."
Even Julia's connection with the underbelly of the federal government would not have bothered Renquist unduly. Certainly it was dangerous, but Julia was an habitual risk-taker who liked to play dose to the edge. Shopping items of information about her fellow nosferatu and the colony that had been expressly devised for all their mutual safety and protection was something else entirely and quite beyond the bounds of decency. Although he did his best not to reveal it to Coulson, Renquist was murderously furious. The human, unfortunately, appeared to notice. "You seem concerned about this."
Renquist sighed. "Now you sound like the psychiatrist again."
"I think I've been the subject of enough curiosity today. You said something about fifteen minutes?"
"I did," Coulson again picked up the phone. "Is everything prepared for our guest?"
Apparently it was, since Coulson hung up without any further questions. "I'll call the guards to escort you to your temporary quarters."
"I'm fascinated to see what's been devised."
Renquist pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. Coulson did the same. He came round the table, and, to Renquisfs surprise, actually extended a hand. After a slight hesitation, Renquist grasped it and noted that, despite making the offer, Coulson repressed a slight shudder.
"There are some things I need if you intend to keep me here."
"Aside from the obvious?"
Renquist smiled. "Aside from the obvious."
"And they are?"
"I believe your people brought all my luggage from the Watergate?"
"I could use some dean clothes, and the fur rug. It has long been my habit to sleep on that rug."
"Those things shouldn't present a problem."
Renquist was now happily giving orders. "I need a supply of drinking water."
"That should have already been provided."
"I will also need a small ornamental silver tube that should have been somewhere in the suite."
"The one that contained a hidden blade?"
"Exactly as you describe."
Coulson frowned. "I can't see that happening. The security here isn't about to let you have a weapon of any kind, no matter how small."
"It's hardly a weapon, the blade is little more than two inches long."
"Security tend to go by the book on these things."
Renquist began to grow impatient. "That could be a little shortsighted. It can be a problem to feed without it."
Coulson blinked. "But I thought…"
"You thought I had retractable fangs?"
Coulson became extremely uncomfortable. "Yes, I suppose I did."
Renquist laughed, enjoying the human's unease. "That was the olden times, my friend. I had the fangs removed a long time ago."
"Do all of your kind have their fangs removed?"
Renquist dismissed the question as though it were a minor matter. "In Europe there are some who, how can I put it, are still…naturalistic…about these things, but here in the USA and in Japan, fangs find little favor. They are considered too obvious."
"I have a lot to learn."
"So do I get the object?"
Couison shook his head. "1 really don't know. I'll ask, but somehow I doubt it."
Renquist shrugged. "Then my feeding here could become a very messy business."
Copyright © 2002, by Mick Farren
Posted December 9, 2008
The Paranormal Operations and Research Branch of the National Security Agency needs inhuman help so agents abduct Nosferatu Victor Renquist. They take their guest to a special locale buried deep in the Paranormal Warfare Facility to insure no outside interference as they coerce Victor into cooperating via a laser beam ready to turn his eyeball and brain into a fried egg. The century old director Herbert "Old Man" Grael demands Victor assist the agency with infiltrating the Nazi UNDERLAND facility. Though he would prefer to tell the American undercover government agency to stick it where the sun does not shine, Victor puts together a team consisting of his most loyal friend, an NSA operative, and a darklost in betweener originally intended as a snack. However, greeting the small squad is a lot more than just the Nazi survivors. For beneath the surface mantle resides a thriving planet-wide civilization that worships the Dhrakuh Central Mind tied to visitors from outer space. UNDERLAND is simply mixing Jules Verne, H.G. and Orson Wells, and Bram Stoker into the world of Lovecraft, something only the insane or the superconfident would dream let alone dare doing. Yet Mick Farren accomplishes this seemingly impossible feat with a wild blending of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and historical into an exhilarating modern day thriller. Though the story line contains a bit too many sidebars for us mortals to fully follow, fans of each genre will appreciate this strong third vampire entry that features the extraordinary imagination and talent of Mr. Farren. Harriet Klausner
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