The vampire leapt backward, landing at Ghastek’s feet, and hugged the floor, his forehead pressed to stone. Ghastek’s face showed no strain. None at all.
Raphael stepped back, the knife vanishing into the sheath at his waist.
On the platform, Danton slumped into a heap, moaning softly, white clumps of foamy spit sliding out of his mouth. A medical team with a stretcher emerged from the side corridor and loaded him up, strapping him in.
Both remaining journeymen stared at Danton in horrified silence.
“You may go,” Ghastek said.
“A shame, that,” Ghastek said softly.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“Fear. Done correctly, the contact with the undead mind, while repulsive to some, is completely harmless.”
The vampire uncoiled and rose straight up. It had been quite tall during life, but its body had shifted to a quadruped locomotion. Yet it stood straight as an arrow, probably in pain but staring right into Ghastek’s eyes. The Master of the Dead studied the twin points of furious red. “Fear of contact, however, can bring about horrible consequences, as you saw.”
The vampire dropped on all fours. “Perhaps we had best continue this discussion in my office.” Ghastek smiled drily. “Please.”
I walked next to him, Raphael on my right, the vampire on Ghastek’s left. “Navigating a vampire is similar to riding a large wave: you have to stay on top of it or it will crest and pull you under. Danton, unfortunately, permitted himself to drown. If he’s lucky, he should be able to regain enough cognitive ability to feed himself and tend to his own personal hygiene. If he’s unlucky, he’ll spend the rest of his life as a human vegetable. Would you care for an espresso?”
The vampire sprinted ahead.
“No, thank you. Watching a man foam at the mouth tends to short-circuit my thirst and appetite.” What happened to Danton deeply bothered me, but I knew the People’s contracts, and everything that had transpired was completely within the law. The journeymen signed their lives away when they chose to work for the People.
“Again, my apologies. I could have postponed the test, but Danton had avoided it twice already after daring to brag about how well he would do. I don’t tolerate displays of baseless egocentricity. The test had to proceed as scheduled. He’s a rare case. Most of our journeymen manage to fail without quite so much melodrama.”
We climbed the stairs and headed through the maze of the hallways until Ghastek opened the door to one of the rooms. Spacious, it resembled a living room rather than an office: a semicircle of sectional sofa upholstered in a warm red shade, a plain desk in the corner, books lining the shelves. To the left, through the door, I saw a small kitchenette and a vampire mixing a drink. To the right, floor-to-ceiling windows offered a view of the stables from above.
“Please sit down.”
I took a spot on the sofa. Raphael sat next to me, and Ghastek opposite. The vampire squirmed into the room and offered Ghastek an espresso. The Master of the Dead smiled quietly at his drink and sipped with obvious pleasure. The bloodsucker dropped to the floor and sat at his feet. It moved so naturally and Ghastek was so relaxed, I found it difficult to believe that the Master of the Dead controlled the vampire’s every twitch.
“I believe we’ve met before,” Ghastek said. “In Kate’s office. You pointed guns at my vampire.”
“You questioned my reflexes,” I said.
“I was quite impressed by them. That’s why I requested that you disarm.”
“You expected the journeyman to fail?”
“Precisely. This particular vampire is appraised at $34,500. It would be bad business sense to put it into a situation where it would endure a dozen bullets shot through its skull.”
What a cold, cold man.
Ghastek sipped his espresso. “I assume you’re here to call in the favor I owe to Kate.”
“How is she, by the way?”
Something in the perfectly neutral way he asked the question set my teeth on edge.
“She’s recuperating,” Raphael said. “And as a Friend of the Pack, she’s enjoying the Pack’s protection.” He had been staying quiet so far and I knew why. Anything he said would be used by the People against the Pack. He minimized the amount of conversation, but he made the message crystal clear.
Ghastek chuckled. “I assure you, she’s quite capable of protecting herself. She tends to kick people in the face when she finds them offensive. Is it true she broke a red sword during the Midnight Games by impaling herself on it?”
An alarm blared in my head. “I don’t remember it quite that way,” I lied. “As I recall, a member of the opposing team meant to strike with the sword. Kate interrupted his strike, and when he tried to free the blade, he cut himself on it. The blood from his hand shattered the sword.”
“I see.” Ghastek drank the last of his espresso and handed the cup to the vampire. “So what may I do for you?”
“I would like you to answer a series of questions.” I had to phrase the questions very carefully. “This interview is conducted in confidence. I ask you to not discuss it with anyone unless required to do so by law.”
“I’ll happily do so, provided your questions are within the range defined by the conditions in the original agreement.”
The agreement specified that he wouldn’t do anything to directly harm himself, his team, or the People as a group.
“Are you familiar with the area known as Scratches, located west of Red Market?”
“Is it true that the People routinely patrol a large area of the city surrounding the Casino?”
“Do any patrol routes pass through Scratches?”
So the vampire wasn’t the People’s observer. “To your knowledge, are the People currently conducting any operations in the Scratches?”
“Are you familiar with Greek paganism?”
I watched him carefully, but he showed no signs of being surprised by the question. “I have a moderate knowledge of it, within the limits common to most educated individuals. I’m not, by any means, an expert.”
“Keeping in mind the previous question, how would you define the term ‘shade’?”
“An incorporeal entity representing the essence of a recently departed, a disembodied ‘soul,’ if you will. It’s a purely philosophical concept.”
“If confronted with a shade, how would you explain its existence?”
Ghastek leaned back, braiding his long fingers. “There are no such things as ghosts. All ‘spirits,’ ‘lost souls,’ and so forth are superstition. To exist in our reality, one requires a solid form. So, if confronted with a shade, I would surmise that it’s either a hoax or a postmortem projection. For some magically capable individuals death comes slowly, in that even after their bodies cease their function and become clinically dead, their magic keeps their minds functioning for an extended period of time. In effect, they are mostly dead. In this state, some persons may project an image of themselves, especially if they are aided by the magic of a trained necromancer or a medium.
“Folklore is full of examples of such phenomena. For example, there’s a tale in Arabian Nights that features a sage whose head was struck off his body after death and set upon a platter. It recognized people familiar to the sage and was able to speak. But I digress.” He invited the next question with a nod.
“Are you aware of any necromancers unaffiliated with the People and capable of vampiric navigation who are currently active in the city?”
Ghastek’s face registered distaste, as if he had smelled something unpleasant. He plainly didn’t want to answer the question. “Yes.”
“Please identify the individuals described.”
Oh wow. Spider Lynn was one the seven premier Masters of the Dead in Atlanta. All of the People’s Masters of the Dead branded their vampires. Lynn’s brand was a small stylized spider. “When did she leave the People?”
“She withdrew her membership three days ago.”
According to Raphael, that was Alex Doulos’s date of death. It could be a coincidence, but I highly doubted it.
“She also purchased several vampires out of her stable,” Ghastek volunteered.
“How many can she pilot at once?” Raphael asked.
“Three,” Ghastek said. “Up to four on a good day. Her control becomes shaky after that.”
“Why did she leave?” I asked.
“She became disillusioned. We all seek to attain our goals. Some are willing to wait and others, like Lynn, lose their patience.”
“How would you describe her?”
Ghastek sighed. “Precise, ruthless, single-minded. She was neither liked nor disliked. She did her job well and required little attention.”
“What caused her to leave the People, in your opinion?”
“I don’t know. But it was deeply profound. One doesn’t walk away from fifteen years of hard work without a reason.”
I rose. “Thank you very much for your time.”
Ghastek nodded. “Thank you. When I made the agreement with Kate, I never imagined the restitution would be so easy. Let me see you out.” The vampire moved by the door. “A word of caution: if Lynn Morriss has decided to make her new home in the Scratches, I would advise you to stay away from it. Lynn is a formidable opponent.”
“Do the People plan to take any action against her?”
“No,” Ghastek said with a small smile. “There is no need.”
Outside I hopped into our vehicle, the taint of vampiric magic clinging to me like greasy smoke. “I feel soiled.”
“Like walking into a room after a day of work, falling into bed, and realizing the sheets are covered in cold K-Y jelly,” Raphael said.
I just stared at him.