Dear Elizabeth Naylor –
Excerpt #1 is the first chapter which was published at the end of The Witch’s Dream. Just in case you and others got a copy that didn’t include it, here it is. And thank you very much for sending me a scratching-your-head moment. Very helpful.
BLACK SWAN FIELD TRAINING MANUAL Section I: Chapter 1, #1
The plural of vampire is vampire.
When the initial rush of activity subsided, he had found himself all too often alone with his own thoughts; a condition that was tediously familiar since he had spent hundreds of years that way. Without the distraction of his friends’ banter, since his proposed staff had left Edinburgh, he had begun to see his task not just as a job, but as a mission, one immersed in the duality of joy and gravity. Though, lately it seemed gravity was winning.
He had never considered himself to be impatient. Quite the contrary. Everything he had ever pursued in earnest, from painting to music to writing, had depended upon patience. But, his awareness of the enormity of the burden he had accepted had grown over the past months and he had turned to brooding about the time that was passing.
Every day that nothing was accomplished was a day when more people had their humanity taken from them, another day when vampire remained imprisoned in bodies infected with the foulest disease imaginable, and, also, another day when people died.
The project was moving painfully slowly. Everyone who had originally been assigned to work with Baka was gone: married, retired, whatever. Everyone except Heaven – who had turned out to be anything but. If he was to be brutally honest with himself, he would have to admit that one of the main reasons for the slow progress was his distraction with his appointed assistant.
The large work space, intended for several people, held two people most of the time. He worked from early in the morning till late at night, challenging both the hours in the day and the fact that he was one excruciatingly short-handed task, force leader.
When Heaven was present, her moods ran the range of a shallow bell curve from disagreeable to surly to sullen. He admitted that he had provoked her on their first meeting, for reasons that were a mystery to him. Something about her had instantly put him on edge, made him feel anxious, and inclined to strike out.
Even though that feeling persisted, he had attempted to make amends so that they could work together amicably, but his attempts at accord had failed. Miserably so. She was prickly all the way to her luscious core, spurning every effort on his part to develop a rudimentary standard of civility. No matter how many times he tried.
He not only had to work with a person who detested his very presence, but, adding insult to injury, it seemed he couldn’t shake an inexplicably strong attraction to her. He found himself staring at the curve of her cheek when her head bowed over work. Or the shine of her chestnut hair when she walked in front of a window, right through a bank of sunrays. Or the way her lips pursed in silent protest and disdain whenever he gave her something to do.
It was damned aggravating to be held captive, figuratively, by a woman who detested him. To make matters worse, he seemed to have lost interest in pursuing other women, which really wasn’t like him at all. After being freed of the vampire virus, he found himself in a world where sex was king. Women dressed provocatively. Women were provocative. And they were free to share sex if it suited them to do so without needing permission outside their own conscience.
He had made the most of that window of sexual opportunity between the cure and the day Heaven walked into his war room.
For over five months, she had behaved as if simple courtesy was more than she could manage. That meant that “nice” was a goal way too distant. Baka knew it wasn’t an expression of her nature in general because he’d often watched her from across the dining hall laughing and interacting with other associates and employees. No. With others her manner was open and unguarded.
A thousand times a day his eyes sought her out while he surreptitiously pretended to be doing something else. He found himself imagining having her lift her head and turn the sunshine of that smile his way or, even better, to angle her face up at him with invitation on her features while she pressed her beautifully packed curves against his body. The thought of that made him hard. Painfully so. Again.
He was staring at the clock on the wall as he did that time every day, waiting for the separation ritual to begin. At exactly fifteen after five, Heaven checked her wristwatch, closed an open folder, pushed her chair back, stood up, shoved her arms into her sweater jacket, put her purse on her shoulder and, like every other day, started to walk out of the office without so much as a passing glance angled his way. Much less a wish for goodnight. But, that night was going to be different. That night his voice stopped her when she put her hand on the door pull.
“Yes?” she asked over her shoulder without looking at him directly.
“Why do you hate me so much?”
She didn’t hesitate for an instant before answering, “I don’t hate you. Whatever gave you such an idea?”
Before he could frame an answer to that question, she was gone. He heaved a big sigh. Fuck me.
Life had become a conflict without prospect of resolution. He perpetually struggled to concentrate when she was there because the space seemed to vibrate with a low level, but annoying irritation. When she wasn’t there, he hated it even more.
Baka had been a person with a well-developed sense of morality and a well-functioning conscience before he became a vampire. During the last hundred years of life as a vampire, having survived long enough to blessedly recover his understanding of right and wrong, he had voluntarily allowed himself to be taken into custody by The Order hoping that they would put an end to him. But they devised a far worse punishment. They decided to keep him alive on artificial sustenance so that, on occasion, he could serve as “consultant”. Of course that also entailed imprisonment and many decades of a solitary life.
He could have committed suicide, but submitted to the ongoing torment because he knew he deserved whatever crucible they might devise.
No. He had never been short on conscience. And that conscience was rubbing a hole in his brain telling him that it would be wrong to simply sit at a desk and plan a strategy on paper while, at the same time, doing nothing. So, keeping his own counsel, for better or worse, he determined that he would continue to work as a bureaucrat during the day, but would spend his nights – at least part of them – looking for others he might coax back to the light with the help of a very special serum.
He had worked with Monq at Jefferson Unit labs to develop a delivery solution. Taking a page from the methodology of the late Gautier Nibelung, they had decided that the safest and most effective approach would be dart gun. Each dart was outfitted with a tiny canister that would puncture on impact releasing a formula that was part stun and part cure. The proper dose of stun solution had been determined by tests on Baka himself. So he knew it worked. First hand.
Obviously vampire must be incapacitated while the viral antidote works. As medicinal remedies go, it is fast working, but not instant. There is a delay of two to four hours between introduction to the system and complete reversal of the disease, depending upon the age and constitution of the individual.
His plan wasn’t perfect. It depended on encountering one – no more than two – vampire at a time and extracting them, while paralyzed, without engaging other vampire. Further, all that had to be accomplished by him. Alone.
Tricky, but the alternative was waiting for a task force to be vetted, assembled, and trained. And waiting was the one thing he couldn’t manage. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever done, but, hell, he’d had a long life.
To his advantage, he still had certain attributes that were extra human. Not like comic book heroes. More like human plus. No one knew if these benefits would fade away over time, but, for now, he was a little stronger, a little faster, and could see in the dark a little better than most people. All traits very useful for vampire hunting.
It just so happened that he found his assigned base of operations in prime territory that qualified as a vampire magnet on all counts. In Edinburgh’s Old Town there was a large pedestrian population that came out at night and it was built on top of an underground system that was not utilized to any extent that would interfere with the needs of vampire. All this was literally in sight of his office – five minutes’ walk away.
In a darkly poetic way, it was fitting that vampire would thrive in Edinburgh’s underground city which consisted of a system of tunneled streets with walls so close you could almost stand in the middle and touch both sides. The caverns and cells that faced the streets cut into the much softer sandstone under the rock that the above-ground Old Town is built upon. It’s a place with grisly history where thousands of hapless poor lived in darkness, packed together without sanitation and with the vilest of criminals. The legend is that plague victims were not removed and buried or burned, but sealed in their cells.
Some of the underground “vaults” under the bridge were reportedly used during World War II air raids, but, even if that was true, no one had been back since.
Modern day Ghost Tours offer a shallow excursion into Mary King’s Close – shallow because individuals don’t want to stay in the underground very long. Words like “creepy” are frequently used even by hard-core insensitives. That left a lot of maze for a vampire haven.
Baka had been a vampire long enough to know all about how they think which was why he had been supremely valuable to The Order as “consultant”. He knew that the days of the Samhuinn festival would be a gorge fest for vampire. The Royal Mile, just over the heads of vampire living in the Underground, would be crowded with visitors to the city, visitors intent on celebration and revelry, danger being the last thing on their minds. It would be a blessing to vampire in the original sense of the word’s older cousin – bloodletting.
He finished his day, went to dinner alone, and slowly savored every bite of actual food. Afterward, driven by a heartfelt desire to do some good in the world, he pulled on a pair of cargo pants and equipped the dozen pockets with as many canisters as they would hold. He opened his backpack and stuffed it with two not-for-sale-on-any-market, rapid-fire dart pistols designed by The Order’s own, genius inventor, Thelonius M. Monq. To that he added five revolving canisters for reloads, a thinsulate, a lighted helmet guaranteed to give fourteen hours of use in exchange for three AAA batteries, and six pairs of handcuffs.
When he put the handcuffs in side zipper pockets he wondered if he was being ambitious, prideful, or just plain stupid. It gave him pause, but, when weighed against the burden on his heart, his second thoughts didn’t carry enough weight to stop him. Like many natural intuits, he ignored the foreboding of his own instinct and proceeded with the plan, foolish though it might be.
He descended the stairs to the main foyer wondering if, even partial redemption for a long life of misdeeds, is possible. The fact that he was not accountable for his infamous history should have given him some peace of absolution. But didn’t. He said good evening to the doorman, threaded his arms into the backpack straps, and headed out into the night.