Fifty Years from Now
“You have to do it.” The old woman with the snow-white hair lay back against the soft, green pillows and closed her eyes. “It’s critical.” A fire was blazing in the big stone fireplace, and even though she was covered with blankets, she still shivered.
“No one will believe me.” It wasn’t that she hadn’t thought of the very same thing at least a hundred times. She just couldn’t shake the feeling that it was pointless. No one wanted to remember what had happened all those years ago, and that included her.
“Oh, my darling. When exactly have you ever cared whether anyone believed you?” She laughed, though the sound came out more as a cough. Her frail body shook with the effort.
She had a point. Once she’d cared about a great many things. Friends, family, honor. A long, long time ago. For many years now the only thing…the only one…she cared about was the woman on the sofa. She was her whole reason for existence. She made this interminably long life bearable. She made everything that came before and after important.
Now, this phase in life was ending. They had lived and loved and shared the moments that made what their world had become something worth enduring. They had helped to save so many, though the ghosts of those who had perished still haunted her. No matter how many years rolled by, she could still see their faces as if they were standing in front of her right now.
Her own single-minded, blind revenge had been sweet yet at the same time bitter. She had won a battle waged over the course of a century, but in the years since, she’d wondered too many times to count if the cost had been too high. Her victory had come at a very high price, and for that reason, regret had been her constant companion.
Her gaze fell upon the old, frail woman. As she looked at her familiar face, she didn’t see her age or infirmity, for in her mind’s eye she could still glimpse the youth and vigor that had first captured her interest. The smile and the sparkling eyes. The quick wit and the sharp mind. Exciting didn’t even begin to describe the relationship they’d had. Still had. It was different these days, but it had lost none of its shine, at least not to her.
“I care what you think.”
The old woman pushed herself up to a sitting position and with bony hands tucked the blankets beneath her legs. Wispy white hair floated around her face, feathering against her high cheekbones. Tiny red stones hung from her ears, reminding her of a day many decades past when she’d walked into that strange room and seen her for the first time. Even then, when everything in her world was going sideways, she’d known that the beautiful woman with the sweet little earrings was someone special. And it hadn’t taken her long to discover exactly how special.
Coughing interrupted her foray into the past, and she jumped up to bring her companion a glass of water. She held it to the old woman’s lips as she took a sip. Despite the fire, the hand that patted her on the cheek was as cold as if she’d just come in from a blizzard. “Thank you, my sweet. Now, sit down and write. I won’t rest easy until you’ve finished it.”
It wasn’t an idle threat. If she didn’t finish it, neither of them would have any respite. She returned to the table and stared down at her hands. Unlike the woman on the sofa, hers were strong and unlined. “I still don’t think it will make a difference to anyone. It was all in the past, and it should stay there. No one wants to remember.”
The old woman slid back down on the sofa, and her eyes fluttered shut. Her voice was soft as she spoke. “It matters, and people need to know. They need to remember whether they want to or not. You can tell them. You have to tell them. For me.”
She was born a princess and should have died one too. The universe, it seemed, had a different idea, for she hadn’t died at all. Or at least not yet. Sasha Rudin sat alone in her living room with a glass of wine in one hand and a gourmet cupcake in the other. Some things had changed in the last century, the quality of the baked goods she held being one. For her first nineteen years, her father had celebrated her birth with a lovely cake the harried staff prepared, but this—she breathed in the intoxicating scent of chocolate and salted caramel—was light-years away from those celebratory cakes. And she suspected the baker who made it did so with far more joy than her father’s obedient staff.
Yet, even the luscious treat with the delicate whipped frosting didn’t chase away the shadows that plagued her every year when the fourteenth of June rolled around. Time didn’t lessen her sorrow. She stood alone with her cake, missing them as she celebrated in solitude once again. She missed them all, even that horrible creature who’d sucked in her mother with his empty promises. What a strange paradox. In life she’d hated that man, and yet in death, she would give anything to see his face once more.
“Happy birthday to me,” she whispered before she devoured the cake and drank the wine. For anyone else, it probably would have been a sensory delight. For her, both tasted more like sawdust than gourmet items, and she still didn’t feel any better.
How she wished to. Her wishes never came true, and in the back of her mind she knew they never would, for so many reasons. Perhaps if the one who evaded her was finally brought to justice, then she could enjoy these simple pleasures. She had her doubts that the taste of the delicate cake would ever delight her again, but meting out the justice the monster deserved would at least bring her a measure of peace, and she would give anything for peace.
Instead, it was to be another lonely birthday filled with sadness and frustration, and the knowledge that one more year had passed in failure. She set down the now-empty glass and went to stand before the floor-to-ceiling windows that covered one full wall of the living room. Others like her would never consider building a wall of windows that would allow unfiltered light into their personal space. Sasha was different. She wanted to know it was here, to know that her home was filling with the warmth and rays of the daylight sun.
Even if she couldn’t enjoy it.
Knowing that her world still had it was enough. She could sleep in her space and remember what it was like to have that sun on her face, to feel it warming her skin. To sit on the patio with her sisters and laugh as the dogs ran through the grass barking and playing. To hold another’s hand and let love fill her heart.
Yes, she wanted to remember it all. Remember it and stoke the fury that had been with her every single day for well over a century. She would pay—the one who took it all from her—and that was a promise. This birthday was unlike the others because after all the empty years, something felt different, and she believed it was the universe letting her know that the time was upon her. Hard work, persistence, and single-minded ambition had brought her to this place and this time. They had prepared her for the battle that was coming. Payment was due, and she was the one who would stand before her to collect.
More than revenge had her stirred up. Even though the year just past had been frustrating, tomorrow was the start of a new year, and it was going to be different. Things in the world were not as they should be. Every corner was shadowed as though danger lurked just around it. When she walked the streets at night, they felt darker and more ominous than usual. On the air were whispers that left her uncomfortable. It was time in more ways than one for a revolution of sorts. As she had used the years to prepare herself, so too did others, and that had her worried. It was why she had not come to this birthday unprepared. It would not be the first revolution for her, though she truly hoped it would be the last.
The fact that she continued to celebrate her birthday year after year, decade after decade, said something about her, and she was under no illusion what it was. She’d been waiting for this shift for over ten decades. For some reason she couldn’t explain, she’d believed all along that a day would come when the fight would commence, when all her hard work would come to fruition.
This birthday was that day, and the realization made her square her shoulders and bring her chin up. The posture displayed more than resolution and strength; it was her birthright. Her sisters would be proud of the woman she was today, and how she wished she could share with them. She had gone to what should have been her death with the same posture, and if that day was to come now, she would once again stand before the instrument of her death with pride. Some things could not be taken away.
Her phone rang, and she turned her back on the windows as she reached for her cell. “Talk to me.”
Only select people had this number. The calls were infrequent and always critical. This one didn’t surprise her.
“Something’s cooking.” Rodney Cornell never wasted words, an admirable trait. She didn’t have time for extraneous details and justifications.
“I feel it. What have you found?”
When one was a survivalist, most assumed that person was also off the grid. Not so for Rodney. He managed to juggle his underground lifestyle with an intricate system that allowed him to monitor everything on the grid while staying undetected and keeping his location secure. Perhaps it might be more appropriate to characterize him as a spy. Nothing got past this genius of a man, and she was proud he was her ally and not a foe. The fact that she also quite liked him was a bonus. He knew exactly what she was, what she was looking for, and had been at her side for almost two decades. He was as ready as she was.
Even though she was expecting the news, his words still startled her. Theorizing about something and having it become reality were two very different things. “Bastards.”
“Yeah. Motherfuckers, if you ask me, but it’s what we’ve been waiting for. We got this, Sasha. They’re not going to know what hit them.”
She gripped the phone. He was right, of course. They were prepared. Regardless, it had the same feel to it as all those years ago when they were herded from the palace and into house-arrest seclusion. The experience had been disconcerting. Back then, none of them had an inkling of what was to come. Today she knew what was just beyond the horizon. “Yes, it is the moment, and I’m ready.”
To kill them, she didn’t add. Then again, she didn’t have to.
“Look, Lydia. I’ve got to have more of a challenge. I don’t want to do another Marla book. She’s wearing me out. I want exciting and edgy, not more of the same thing I’ve been writing for the last decade. Not to sound trite, but I’m bored to tears.”
Dee Arkin paced as she talked to her editor, Lydia Lyons, on speakerphone. Her hands were pushed into her pockets so she could resist the urge to run her hands through her hair and destroy the blue-tinged Mohawk she’d spent half an hour perfecting. It said a lot that she spent more time trying to get her hair right than working on a new book. At the moment, she’d do anything to stay away from her computer.
“Marla has made you rich.” The near whine in Lydia’s voice got on Dee’s nerves.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Her Marla Watty detective novels had indeed made her stinking rich, no argument there. But she’d been working on a book much darker and more edgy. She desperately wanted Lydia on board with her for the project but doubted she could get her there. Her ace in the hole was the fact that she’d made Lydia and the publishing house a lot of money, and in her mind, they owed her the time to do this. If it failed, so what? Everybody was entitled to a bomb now and again. If it didn’t, well then, they should all be happy.
“I want to do this.” She stopped pacing and stared at her computer, where research files beckoned. It had been years since she’d enjoyed the process this much. “I’m going to do this, with or without you.”
Over the phone, Lydia’s sigh was faint and not intended for Dee to hear. She smiled. Her point had been made, and Lydia was smart enough to know when to give in. The high-powered and ambitious editor didn’t want to lose her cash cow. “Fine. I’ll send you a contract for this onebook, and then you have to promise to send me another Marla installment. Deal?”
Not quite. “With an option for a second book.” She could push too. People tended to think she was easy to manipulate because she was a typical writer: a bit introverted and quiet. She spent so much time inside her head and by herself, they regarded her as passive. They’d be wrong in her case. Pushover just wasn’t in her DNA.
“Come on, Dee…”
“An option, Lydia, or I’ll go somewhere else.” It wasn’t an idle threat. She had enough money to do what she wanted, and right now she wanted to write this new book.
“Fine. Don’t be talking crazy now. We’ll make this work. You want to write a new book, write it, and I’ll publish it.”
Dee smiled broader, glad Lydia wasn’t here. Lydia always liked to believe she was the one driving the deals. “Email it to Don.” She’d already briefed her agent, Don, and he was expecting both a contract for the new book with the option and the Marla book. Lydia wasn’t going to risk losing her by turning down the new proposal.
Now that she had what she wanted, the computer didn’t seem like such a demon anymore, and she was eager to pick up where she’d left off. She ended the call and sank into her desk chair. Lydia and Don could hammer out all the minute details; she was free to write.
Dee rested her chin on her hands as she pulled up the files she’d saved earlier. It had struck her the first time she’d been through the multiple pages, and the second time around didn’t clear it up any more. How could it be right? She didn’t particularly believe in conspiracy theories, yet this sure felt like that’s exactly what it was. And it was exactly the thing that made her crave time to work.
Her Marla Watty detective series had started out pretty fun to write, and she’d made some great friends in the local law-enforcement community who had helped her keep realism in the work. What she’d come across as she researched for her new novel was outside her norm by a long stretch. She was working on what she thought of as a paranormal book and, more specifically, a vampire book. She’d always wanted to do something along those lines, being a big fan of the nineteenth-century vampire stories Carmillaand Dracula. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu,and Bram Stoker had captured her imagination the first time she read their works. Then the success of the Marla series had swept her life away, and she hadn’t been able to get back to the germ of an idea that had been percolating since the first time she seriously considered becoming a writer.
The moment had come to take the idea and make it a reality. She couldn’t turn away even if she wanted to. Of course, she didn’t intend to do that. She’d waited too long to do this.
She was puzzled too. She was coming up against the strangest things as she researched. Typically she used historical information to craft the heart of a story. Yes, it was fiction, but she wanted her fiction to feel real, which meant doing her homework before she began to write. In her mind the best fiction started with a solid base of reality.
Writing a vampire story was counterintuitive to her normal starting point. After all, vampires were strictly an invention of folklore and fiction. Granted, folklore often had its birth in reality, but from what she’d learned thus far, vampire legends were rooted in misunderstandings of the decomposition of human remains and premature burial. The former made perfect sense to her. The latter gave her the creeps. Really, how did one accidentally bury someone who was still alive? Yet she came across the situation again and again in her research. Apparently it wasn’t as difficult as she thought. She shivered, grateful she lived in an era of great scientific knowledge.
The misinterpretations at the root of vampire lore weren’t what was bothering her right now. The rest of what she’d stumbled on had her scratching her head. It had all started with a single name, and no, it wasn’t Vlad Dracula. It was a Hungarian nobleman named Imre Thurzo, born in 1598. Nothing too unusual about him except that he was noted to be the last male member of his family, and he reportedly died in 1621 at the ripe old age of twenty-three. Again, no biggie, given the times. People often died at tragically young ages. Many family lines petered out when the male heirs were unable to produce offspring.
So, why did Imre catch her attention? Easy. The deeper she dug, the more he kept popping up. In 1708, in 1845, in 1927, and most recently, in 2016. Had to be a relative, right? The historical data that pegged him as the last of his family lineage had to be wrong, and he’d left some descendants out there somewhere. That’s what she thought until she dug and found his likeness again and again. The guy obviously loved himself, because she found at least a dozen images, and each and every one of them showed exactly the same face. Different clothes and hairstyles, same face. Same smile that, to her mind, suggested a bit of narcissism. Something about his expression sent a chill through her. This guy liked himself way more than the average mirror-loving pretty boy.
Now she wanted to know more. Dee loved the search engines available to her these days, including the services she paid for that gave her access to more in-depth information, and she continued her archeological dig. She’d already saved what she’d found so far, and it was like a treasure map leading to a fascinating mystery. Imre was her starting point, and he sparked her imagination even more than it already was. She could picture him, with his blue eyes and arrogant smirk, as the perfect vampire. The man of royal birth who became an immortal. Yes, this was exactly the kind of thing that got her blood pumping and her mind working furiously. A novel was almost writing itself inside her head.
The discovery of the improbable immortal Imre led her to the model for her next character. This time it was a woman named Katrina Petrin. Like Imre, she appeared to have been around far longer than was possible for a human. The first mention of her name came up in 1766, then six or seven more times all the way up to and through the twentieth century. Like with Imre, her first inclination was to believe that the subsequent mentions were of Katrina’s family members. Also like Imre, the images weren’t just similar; they were identical. Her gut told her that they were relatives while her eyes insisted they were the same person.
She tried to discover if anything linked the two anomalies, and nothing did, at least that she could find, except that they came from adjoining geographic regions. She kept thinking that if they had truly been alive all that time, surely they would know of each other. Then again, in totality it was pretty crazy, so maybe she was just making up what she wanted to see. Writing the story the way she wanted it to go. Wasn’t that a writer’s prerogative?
By the time darkness blanketed the house, her office was lit only by the glow of her laptop screen. The words flowing across her screen were too engrossing for her to even bother to reach up to turn on the desk lamp. She kept her head bent, her fingers flying over the keys, but couldn’t run the queries as fast as she wished. Once she figured out where to dig, she found a gold mine.
Ignoring the lights was one thing, but her back was another, and it was telling her or perhaps more accurately was screaming at her that enough was enough. When she tried to sit up in her chair, her shoulders remained drawn together, and her back arched forward like she was a crippled-up hundred-year-old instead of not quite forty, with a straight spine and shoulders. Her physical-therapy friend would kick her butt for sitting all hunched over a keyboard for God only knows how long. She’d neglect to tell her that the next time they hung out. By then she might actually be able to straighten up again.
When the sharp pains faded, Dee reached out and flipped on the desk light. It was like suddenly being hit by the stereotypical interrogation spotlight. First she’d had needles in her back and shoulders, and now she had needles in her eyes. If this happened at almost forty, she could hardly wait to see what the next few decades held.
It took a couple of seconds for her eyes to adjust, and when they did, she glanced over at the clock. Then she snapped her gaze down to her computer and the tiny clock in the right-hand corner of the taskbar. Wow. Where had the time gone? She’d sat down here at a little past two, and it was now a quarter of eight. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gotten so wrapped up in her work that she completely lost track of time. The one thing it told her was that she was on the right path. It was the kind of thing that made her mind whirl, and it had been a long time since she’d felt this way.
Most of what she’d dug up was in digital files on her laptop, but she’d found at least twenty pages of information intriguing enough to go old school and print out. Now that she was shaking out the kinks, she realized she was starving. There had to be something to eat in the kitchen, and she could peruse the stuff she’d printed while she chowed down. Old school had its uses. Besides, she was on a roll and saw no sense in quitting now.
She grabbed the pages from the printer, turned off the desk light, and headed toward the kitchen, flipping on overhead lights as she went. It was a little weird to do that, yet for some reason she was compelled to have lots of light. Brought back memories of childhood when she was scared of the dark. A little laugh escaped her lips as she hit yet another light switch.
In the kitchen, she laid the sheets on the island and pulled open the refrigerator door. A pathetic sight greeted her. The shelves were nearly empty of any food of substance, while the door held six bottles of really good beer and a nice, unopened bottle of pinot. Yeah, if she didn’t get this thing filled up with something decent to eat, AA would be knocking on her door.
But what the heck. Since her choices were slim, she grabbed one of the bottles of beer and the two sharp-cheddar cheese sticks that remained from a family-sized bag. Seriously, one couldn’t go wrong with cheese and beer, right? She snagged her papers and headed out of the kitchen without turning off the lights.
In the living room, she sat down on the power sofa and pushed the button to bring up the footrest. She clicked on the television, not because she felt like watching it but because it was great white noise. She opened the beer, peeled the plastic off the cheese sticks, and began to nibble as she started to read. This was some seriously interesting shit. The research, not the food.
She’d finished both cheese sticks and most of the beer when her head came up. It sure sounded like someone had pulled into her driveway, which was unusual given that her house was at the rear of a two-acre parcel. If people used her driveway to turn around, their lights were a mere whisper in her windows. Tonight it was different.
Dee stood up and stared out the window. A car pulled up slowly in front of the house, its lights illuminating her brick steps and beautifully maintained shrubs. She waited to see who it was, given that she didn’t recognize the car. Nothing happened. She set the bottle down and was just about to head to the front door when the car continued through the circular drive and left.
“Well, wasn’t that strange as all get-out,” she muttered. Was it finally time to install the driveway gate all of her friends kept urging her to get? She’d never wanted to make her home a fortress, yet right now she had an uncomfortable feeling that maybe her friends were right. Random cars driving all the way into her personal space just didn’t happen, until tonight anyway.
A ding from her pocket let her know an email had just come in. She was still staring out the front window thinking about the car and the gate as she pulled the phone out. One new email from an address she didn’t recognize. She thought about sending it immediately to the trash without bothering to look at it. Curiosity won, and she opened it and read.
Leave it alone or we’ll kill you.
Katrina was pissed. Stupid humans didn’t know when to leave well enough alone. She shouldn’t be surprised, or even upset, for that matter. It wasn’t like this hadn’t happened before, and on multiple occasions. Most of the time she operated quite nicely under the radar, even with today’s technology that gave everyone global reach. She, and others like her, did their business and built their empires on the down-low while the humans went about their lives fat, dumb, and happy. It was safer for her and her kind, and those fat, dumb, and happy humans made for an excellent source of untainted blood.
Every once in a while a human came along with too many questions and too much tenacity. They grabbed what they shouldn’t and refused to let it go. It was such a pain in the ass when this happened, and now was the worst time to have someone sticking their nose into her business. It was far easier when the humans kept their attention on their own world and didn’t worry about things like the very long lives of those like her.
When Eli had brought her the news earlier tonight, she’d been furious. She’d wanted to race down to the garage, jump into her fastest car, and go wrap her fingers around the woman’s neck right before she sank her teeth into her flesh. After she’d drained her, she’d dump her body in the middle of the street as a cautionary tale for anyone else who thought it was a good idea to dig into her affairs. Fortunately, age and wisdom paid off, and she stayed put. Violence had its place, but in this day and age it had to be wielded with a very deft hand. This was not the moment to go old school, even as satisfying as that would be. She had to deal with this threat quietly and effectively, utilizing the tools the twenty-first century had to offer.
“I’ve got the details on her.” Eli came through the open door and dropped a file folder onto her antique desk. “She could be a problem that we don’t need right now. We’re going to have to do something about her sooner rather than later.”
She opened the folder on top of the massive hardwood desk she’d been using since Woodrow Wilson was in office. It didn’t really fit in with the way people worked these days, but she couldn’t get rid of it. Even she had moments of sentiment, and this represented one of them. The woman who’d given it to her was one of her most satisfying human lovers, and the desk brought back fond memories. She didn’t have many of those.
“Let’s take a look at this pest.” She was flipping quickly through the pages, scanning for anything that jumped out at her. Typically, it took only a quick perusal to find a human’s Achilles heel, and then it was an equally quick matter to use it to shut the problem human down.
“Sort of a double-edged sword, Boss.” Eli was standing behind her gazing over her shoulder.
She cringed and wanted to backhand him. It wasn’t the way he stood so close that he was infringing on her personal space; it was his insistence on calling her “boss” that irritated the hell out of her. She’d talked to him about it no less than a hundred times. After each lecture he’d be good for a day or two, and then it would be right back to “boss.” A man…a vampire…his age should be able to get it and stop the annoying behavior. He wasn’t stupid. Truthfully, she suspected he got it all right. He just didn’t care. In the vampire world, he was young, and that was the problem with the younger generation. They could be incredibly impertinent.
Ignoring the irritation, she tapped the folder. “Explain.” She had to let it go for now. She had bigger things to concern herself with. They’d have another lesson on respect once this was all done. Perhaps a permanent lesson.
“She’s a New York Timesbest-selling author.”
Seriously? That’s what he was worried about? “She’s a writer. So what? We’ve dealt with more powerful humans than that before. She makes her living on lies, not a big threat to us. What else have you got?”
Eli was shaking his head. “I have to disagree with you. I know you’ve cut the legs off some bigwigs. That was in another time. In this century, things are a lot different. This writer could be a big deal because she’s stinking rich and what they like to call a bulldog. Once she’s on to something, she doesn’t let go. With her resources, she could cause the kind of problems we can’t afford.”
“Like the Consortium.”
“Like that. However she’s done it, she’s beginning to put the pieces together, and I don’t believe she’ll let go until she figures it all out. No one on the council is going to take that well, and they’ll blame you.”
He was right, even though she had nothing to do with her. It was a case of proximity, and she was in her region. That alone made her Katrina’s responsibility. “Then we will make her let go before she causes us any of said problems.”
He nodded, which didn’t surprise her. After all, he’d been around her long enough to understand she took care of issues without a single second of hesitation. It had been that way for her since the beginning. When she said she was going to do something, she did. Emotions didn’t enter into any decision. “Agreed.”
“But what?” She could hear the yeah butin his voice, and that surprised her. The little “boss” issue aside, Eli didn’t challenge her. Ever. He was a very good boy.
He leaned over her shoulder and began to flip pages. On each one, he’d point to something. “Look at this. Everything in this report here indicates she’s not likely to give it up without a fight. She thrives on challenge. She wasn’t gifted with success. This woman fought for it and earned it. That tells me she’s not going to let this go. Look at the time she’s already spent on her research. She’s getting close to putting the pieces together.”
In some respects she could admire that particular quality in the woman. In any woman who had daring and determination and who fought against the status quo. She also hated it. She herself was exactly that kind of person, and for her, it worked. It better, given how many years she’d had to sharpen her skills. She wouldn’t be in the position she was right now if she hadn’t herself been a bulldog.
In her foes, it was a different story. She much preferred those who knew when they were up against their betters and retreated. It didn’t sound like that was the case here. Listening to Eli right now made her want to take every gift available to her and draw it all down on the dumb bitch. If she wasn’t smart enough to know when she had no chance, she deserved what she got.
Eli must have seen something in her face or picked up from her body language. As was his way, he sought to defuse the situation before her rage took hold. “Easy, Boss. I’m telling you, we’ll get her to stop. I’ve already put it into motion. You can keep your focus on the plan.”
“Put what into motion?” Lately it seemed to her that Eli was intent on showing her he could be a leader of sorts, and while under other circumstances she might appreciate his enthusiasm, this wasn’t “other” circumstances. This was a normal run-of-the-mill, stop-her-in-her-tracks kind of situation. In fact, it wouldn’t be the first time in the last twenty years or so that she’d had to take action against someone who was too nosy. In the good old days she could go many decades without a human causing her grief. Now she was lucky if she got five years before a gnat appeared. God, she hated this century. The more access to information people got, the more problems it created for her.
“You’re going to like it.” A small smile flirted at the corners of his mouth. He was an incredibly handsome man, and someone inclined toward his gender might be swayed.
Something in his expression made her wary. Sometimes he could be entirely too creative and she had to rein him in. “And you know we’ve got to be careful.”
“It’ll be fine, Boss. It always is. Have I ever let you down?”
“No, Eli. You’re a good soldier.” She got tired of always having to reassure him.
His smile grew bigger, and his eyes seemed to glitter with a look of satisfaction. “You have no idea.”
He was wrong about that. She knew exactly how good a soldier he was. After all, she’d made him and then molded him into a man who would serve at her side without question. She didn’t take on projects that would fail, so yes, she knew. With a sigh, she waved her hand in the air. Eli recognized the gesture and exited without another word. Good boy. He knew her moods, her signals, her unspoken commands. It was one of the reasons he was still at her right hand a hundred and twenty years after she’d noticed him harvesting in a Nebraska cornfield. Even then, with him in dirty work clothes and wearing that awful cap, she’d seen something in the young husband and father that had saved him. She’d realized he had potential, and in the intervening years she’d not been disappointed. He was a rare find, and that’s why she’d brought him into the inner fold. At this point no one would ever guess his roots were common because she had trained him so well he could pass for royal born.
Only the best of the best became part of her group. It had to be that way if they were to achieve their ultimate goal. She had been dreaming of this since the day she’d been turned and was finally going to make it a reality, this latest little complication aside. The annoying writer would be handled as they all were, and then…
Well, then the world would be hers. She closed the folder on the naughty writer and folded her hands on top of it. She breathed in deeply and centered herself in preparation for the night. Serenity filled her, and as it did, a familiar sensation came over her. She was hungry, and from downstairs the hum of voices whispered on the air. That made her smile. God bless Eli. He had such a way with intimate little gatherings. He managed to find just the right people, and Katrina never went away hungry. She wouldn’t now either. Tossing back her long, silky hair, she headed out of her office. She could deal with this latest pain in the ass later.
Tonight, she planned to party and to drink.
She intended to kill.
Sasha was restless, and it had less to do with celebrating yet another birthday and more to do with what she anticipated: a war. It had been coming for a long time, a very long time, but to know that it would soon be a reality made her buzz with excitement.
She’d been a smart girl right from the beginning, and her parents had nurtured her intelligence. Even given her mother’s nearly all-consuming obsession with her brother, she’d nonetheless made certain Sasha and her sisters were afforded everything their wealth and position could provide. Sasha’s natural intelligence was honed to a fine point by the time…well, by the time everything changed. That early foundation had been critical in the years that were to follow, and she silently thanked her parents every day.
Her mind turned back to the day that was seared into her memory so deeply every detail was as clear as if it had happened yesterday. The familiar fury rolled through her. She’d spent the first few decades after her change fixated on what-if scenarios. What if she hadn’t fallen in love? What if she hadn’t trusted the wrong person? What if she’d confided in at least one of her sisters? What if. What if. What if. It had nearly driven her insane. Finally, she let go of that way of thinking and focused instead on the one who had done this to her. It was the image of that face in her mind that continued to incite rage in her soul, and it kept her going year after year, decade after decade. That one would pay, and at long last, the time was nearly upon her. She knew exactly what she was going to do.
In her office, her computer pinged, and Sasha frowned. A glance at the clock and she shook her head. What human would be working at this time of the morning? Yet that ping told her that someone was searching names they shouldn’t be. Someone was digging into a past that could very well lead them to the grave. She’d managed to save a couple of such inquirers through the years, but far more paid for their curiosity. The way things appeared to be going, she might not have the time or energy to help this unfortunate soul. Still, she was curious who had made it past the firewalls and into the inner sanctum.
At her desk, Sasha sank into the chair and opened up the screen. It was amazing what the techs could set up these days. No one could slide through anything without her knowing. It was helpful enough that her company was an international leader in security, both physical and cyber, but those she employed were also at the top of their game. It gave her a reach that was worldwide and infinitely detailed, not to mention fun.
Like now. She was looking at the search history of one Dee Arkin. The name rang vaguely familiar, and it took her a minute to figure out why. Then it hit her, and she shook her head. The author whose face was often on billboards and television commercials had just blown through a carefully constructed security screen. The treasured jewel of the thriller genre, where her strong, female detective hit just the right notes with the male and female reading public, was more than just a storyteller. No doubt that fine touch had made her a multimillionaire. These more-money-than-brains people often caused her problems and had been the same throughout the decades. These people had both time and enough cash to gather information, so that’s what they did. Sometimes they got their hands on material they shouldn’t. That’s when Sasha had to step in and stop them before they were in too deep. The Consortium did not take kindly to humans who meddled in their business.
Most of the time she was successful in diverting the curious, and they went on their way without ever really knowing what had happened. Every once in a while, a person who was like a dog with a bone they wouldn’t let go of had an ending that wasn’t quite as ideal. If Sasha didn’t reach them before the Consortium scouts did, she couldn’t do anything to help. Timing was everything, and on occasion, hers sucked. The task of saving humans from themselves was a job that had no end date. She tried not to care. It didn’t work.
Her search pulled up a photograph of a woman with a pretty face and a stylish short hairdo with bright-blue streaks. Sasha shook her head. Why anyone would want to look like that, she didn’t know. It made her stand out and be noticed, and as she thought about it, she realized that was probably why. Dee Arkin obviously wanted to stand out and be noticed, which was one hundred and eighty degrees from what Sasha wanted. She liked to stay out of the spotlight. Actually, that wasn’t quite correct. She needed to stay out of sight, period.
When someone lived as long as she had, it was imperative to play games of smoke and mirrors. No one could really know she was the same person who had started the company in 1923 and was still at the helm in the twenty-first century. As far as the outside world was aware, her great-grandfather had started it, and she, of course, had posed as him because no one in the early twentieth century would take a woman seriously. From her supposed great-grandfather, the company had been passed along until she became the most recent of the Rudin family to run the company. The “family’s” skill in their trade was legendary, and no one else had ever been able to duplicate their results.
Of course, no one ever knew the true secret of her success and, by default, her company’s. When a company was founded by a vampire, run by a vampire, and employed the services of other vampires, well, it was bound to be successful. Immortality had its distinct advantages. Through much patience it yielded success both in terms of finances and revenge. She’d been enjoying the financial side for nearly a century. Now it was time to revel in revenge. It was coming; she could feel it.
Sasha got up and left her computer. She began to pace as she thought through the best way to deal with the writer, stopping when she reached the glass cabinet displaying many wondrous things she’d collected over the years. She opened the door and picked up the birthday present she’d purchased for herself and which had arrived by armed escort an hour earlier.
Thoughts of the problem writer disappeared as tears filled her eyes. Memories flooded her mind as she recalled the day in 1902 when Papa had gifted the blue and gold Imperial Egg to Grandmama. He’d had it made especially for his mother as an Easter gift, and she’d been delighted. To hold it now after so many years was a miracle. She ran a finger across the delicate gold work and smiled. Papa would be proud of her persistence and focus. Since it had been listed as one of the lost eggs, it had taken decades to track it down and much persuasion before the private collector had been willing to part with it. She didn’t mind twisting arms, literally and figuratively, when necessary. Much of what had belonged to her family had been stolen. Some had been recovered and was now on display in museums around the world. Her goal for years had been to find the rest, those pieces like this egg that were listed as lost. She was taking back what was rightfully hers. If those private collectors cared to be reasonable, fine. If not, then she did what she had to.
Her attention was drawn away from the egg as she noticed a change outside her window. Carefully she returned it to the cabinet and walked to the doors leading out to a balcony off her office. She stepped outside and studied what moments before had been a clear night. Now a cool mist rolled toward her like a storm coming off the ocean. However, she was hundreds of miles away from the Pacific Ocean and three stories off the ground.
Closing her eyes, Sasha breathed in deeply, willing the sudden tension in her body to ease. Memories of the family and life long past faded as she centered herself in this moment. Her senses tingled in a way she hadn’t experienced in decades, and the alarm normally brought on by the sight of such a mist eased. It had been a very long time since she’d witnessed the mist or any of the visitors it heralded. “Why are you here?”
From the murky depths a woman floated out, her features coming into focus as she moved closer to Sasha. She was tall, with pale hair and sky-blue eyes, the blue so alluring it had broken more than one heart. She walked with the grace of a dancer, which wasn’t surprising considering she had once commanded the stage as a prima ballerina. She had lost none of the magic of body movement that had made her a star throughout the world. “He sent me to bring you a message.”
The rat bastard. He knew that now, of all times, they couldn’t take the risk. “I don’t need you.”
“Really? That’s how it’s going to be?”
“I don’t need you.”
Celine Hauer stepped close. She still smelled of flowers and sunshine, just as she had the first time Sasha had seen her on a summer night in Paris where she’d been a dancing vision in toe shoes and chiffon. That had been more than fifty years ago, and many things had changed. Now Celine wore leather pants, heeled boots, and a form-fitting shirt. The softness that had appealed to Sasha when they’d met was no longer evident. Neither was the flicker of emotional attraction that had kept them together for a decade. It had died right along with the softness. It was the second time she’d been seduced by words of love, only to discover the words were as hollow as the woman who spoke them.
“They’re going to come for you.”
Not such big news there. She’d been waiting for them or others like them for pretty much her entire life. “Tell me something I don’t know. Something, oh, I don’t know, useful?”
Celine’s eyes darkened. “You don’t understand. You never did. They’re more powerful than you can imagine, and they will kill you. They will kill anyone who doesn’t go along. She’s leading them, and she will not stop until everyone kneels in front of her. She wants you, more than anyone, on your knees.”
Celine was wrong. She could imagine how powerful they were. Their mistake was going to be underestimating her. Her mistake was to think she was the same young woman she’d been a hundred years ago. “I’ll never bow to them. I will never kneel to her.”
“Then you’ll die.”
Sasha squared her shoulders and locked eyes with Celine. “So bring flowers to my grave. Try to push out a tear or two. Make it look like you care.”
Celine closed her eyes and shook her head. “Why? Things could be so different if only you would listen. Why won’t you do the right thing? I’ve never truly understood why.”
“You don’t need to understand. Please, Celine, just go.”
“Let me help.” She almost sounded sincere. Sasha wasn’t fool enough to fall for it a second time.
It was her turn to shake her head. “I don’t need the kind of help you bring, and as long as you stand with them, you can’t do a damn thing for me.”
“Please, just go.”
This time Celine dipped her head and backed away until the shadows swallowed her. She wasn’t sorry to see her go.
Sasha stood watching as the mist that had accompanied Celine disappeared, replaced by a curtain of darkness and a fresh breeze. A chilling thought raced through her mind as she lingered there, and she pulled her phone out of her pocket. She had someone on the inside, and for him to approach Celine, he had to think things were going south in a hurry.
She hit Rodney’s name on the contacts list and listened to the ring. He picked up on the third ring. “How close are they?”
Dee stared at the words and felt ice slide down her back. Threats weren’t all that unheard of in her line of business. One of the things she’d learned after becoming successful was how some people fixate on authors. Look at what happened to Stephen King. His wife found some weirdo fan standing in the kitchen of their home. Other big names had similar stories. She’d gotten some very disturbing mail herself, and it wasn’t anything she’d care to call fan mail because it was too creepy. She didn’t want that kind of fan, and she sure didn’t want to find anyone standing in her kitchen.
Maybe that’s all this was now, except she couldn’t quite wrap her head around that idea. All along, this project had felt different, and at the moment even more so. Whoever had sent the message might think they knew her, but they didn’t. If they thought they were going to scare her, they were mistaken. If they thought the note would make her stop, wrong again. She was more determined than ever to forge ahead.
The only thing she’d done different lately was to get into serious research on Katrina and Imre. Leave it alone? Not going to happen. She refused to quit until she figured out exactly what their story meant and why someone would try to scare her off. Something was buried beneath the pictures and the names, and she wanted to know what it was. Besides sating her curiosity, it was bound to give her tons of material for her new book. The answer to the reason behind the threat had to be there as well. Energy surged through her despite the late or, rather, early hour. Midnight was long gone, and she wasn’t even remotely tired.
Kicked back in her office chair, she stared at the results from her latest search. The more she pondered where to take it next, the more she wanted to call her best friend, Prima Moon. She’d so dig this latest twist and could probably give her some great insight. Prima was a real-deal psychic. People could be as skeptical as they wanted, but it wouldn’t change a damn thing. She’d seen it up close and personal since she was a kid, and Prima was as genuine as it got.
It would be very cool if Prima could put her hands on the computer right now and give her a feel for the message. She would likely say it wasn’t really her thing, but Dee was so convinced of her super powers that she figured Prima could pick up something just from the printed words. Of course, she could see the look on Prima’s face about the time she asked her to give her something otherworldly off the computer. She’d roll her eyes and tell Dee to get out. And then she’d tell her something amazing. She always did.
Dee picked up her cell phone and stared at it. The time on the display showed 3:15. No, she wouldn’t call. That would be all kinds of rude. The polite thing to do would be to wait until morning. Nothing here was critical enough for her to pull Prima out of bed. Yes, she’d call her in the morning. Then she hit her speed dial and let it ring. Her fingers tapping on the desk, she listened and waited.
“Really? Three in the flipping morning.”
“Quarter after three, actually.” Dee smiled. Prima was the only person she knew who’d make a joke when she was awakened in the middle of the night. Most people would assume the worst, and maybe if it had been anybody but Dee, she might have. They’d known each other a long time, and it would take a lot to surprise either one of them. It also wasn’t the first time she’d called her in the wee hours.
“What’s up?” She could hear the resignation in her voice. Prima knew that she was going to tell her something that would banish sleep for her, just as it was doing for Dee.
“I need you.”
“Nice to be needed, but better to be needed after eight.”
“We night owls need you at all times, not just banker’s hours.”
Prima laughed. “You are such a weirdo.”
“My fans would be shocked to hear you say that. I prefer to classify myself as an eccentric writer.”
“Indeed. Well, let your fans be subjected to your insomnia for a few decades, and we’ll see if they still think you’re a cute, eccentric writer or if they side with me on weirdo.”
“See. You think I’m cute.”
“You’re a pain.”
“Details. Details. I’ll make you a latte.” She had a fancy-dancy machine in her kitchen that made killer espresso. The perks of making a nicer-than-average living were nicer-than-average toys.
“This better be good.”
“Well, yeah, that too. But whatever has you scared, it better be good.”
“Who says I’m scared?”
“And who do you think you’re trying to bullshit?”
It was kind of dumb on her part to think she could bluff a psychic. “Touché.”
“I’ll be there in forty-five. Make sure that latte is hot and ready.”
Dee ended the call and headed to the kitchen, where the espresso machine waited to perform its magic on dark roast, water, and milk. She had her orders.
Eli looked up from his laptop and smiled. “One shot fired.”
He was prone to barge forward on any project, and that’s exactly what he’d done tonight. Katrina was far more methodical and would have preferred taking time to find out what level of threat this person was going to be and then develop a plan to neutralize her. Eli liked to shoot first and ask questions later. Sometimes that was great. Sometimes it made a huge mess. It remained to be seen how this one would turn out.
“What did you do?” She was almost afraid to ask. His glee at his own action was evident, and she was afraid he might have gone overboard. That could cause all kinds of mayhem she didn’t want to deal with right now.
“No grand gesture yet. A little warning, that’s all. If she’s like most humans, she’ll get the drift and back off. They’re such cowards. Shout boo at them, and they crawl right back under the covers.”
That he’d exercised restraint was surprising. Eli was young and idealistic. In some respect those qualities were very admirable. She would need his youth and vigor for the task ahead. They were heading into a war many centuries in the making. It was internal as well as external. Most of the old ones were entrenched in the ways of the past, and though she believed she had them all on board at this point, many were truly comfortable in the shadows they didn’t want to abandon. They were going to need a push to get them into the light, so to speak.
Others, like Katrina, wanted much more, and the enthusiasm of the up-and-comers like Eli would give them the power they needed to make the long overdue move. However, the young were so enthralled with the strength of their new reality, they believed themselves invincible and thought it would take only the strength of a vampire to win this war.
They were wrong. Eli was wrong. Humans were persistent, and a great many were far from powerless. She had never underestimated them and didn’t plan to now. It was one of the reasons she’d survived, thrived, for as long as she had. For everything to work as she’d designed would require perfect moves. All the chess pieces had to be in place. No surprises and no missteps.
“Tell me exactly what you did.”
He did, and while it was fairly low-key, she wasn’t convinced it would be effective. Sometimes Eli didn’t think through the big picture, and some day that would get him into trouble and she wouldn’t be there to save him.
“She won’t stop.” Katrina had come up against the type before. They were determined and, worse, fascinated. This Dee person would see a message like the one Eli had sent her as a challenge and keep right on digging. In fact, she’d probably dig even harder. Yes, she was going to be a problem.
“She’s smart enough to realize it’s in her best interest to back off. She’ll take heed.”
He was confident about his threat’s effectiveness, and she did like that about him, even if at a fundamental level he was wrong. Confidence came in handy if placed correctly. Somehow she would teach him the path he’d need to take in order to survive. Later, once her plan was fully realized, she’d need someone like Eli at her side. So far, they made a good team, and he was the lead contender for the job. It would take too much time to train someone else to step into his place. “Email me everything you have on her, and we’ll talk later.”
“It’ll be fine, Boss. Trust me.”
She held up her hand and shook her head. “I trust you, Eli. I never would have turned you if I had any doubts about your loyalty. It is a two-way street, though, and you must trust me as well. I have a great deal more experience with the fickle nature of humans. I will be the one to make the call on your writer.” In terms of loyalty, he was true. But his misplaced confidence in his abilities had her worried.
His face paled, which was a feat given how pale his normal complexion was. Sunned wasn’t a look any of them sported. “Boss, I’ve never trusted anyone more than you.”
She waved her hand. Of course he did, though she was pleased to see that her words hit home. “Go now. Send me what you have. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
He studied her and seemed satisfied with whatever he saw in her face. She surmised it was her superiority. Regardless of the power and strength he’d embraced when he was brought into her world, he also understood that he would never match her. It was more than respect; it was reality. The smart ones figured that out quickly. The not-so-smart ones? They weren’t around to attest to what had happened to them.
When her computer popped on, reflecting that a message had been received, she sat down and opened the zip file Eli had sent. The first folder held a picture of a handsome woman with short, spiky hair and eyes that shone with deep intelligence. An interesting face and one she would remember. She opened the next three folders and read with growing fascination. She wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill writer. Much more to this one, and Eli had read her right. As had she. This woman was going to be a problem. Katrina continued to stare at the picture on the screen and smiled. True, the timing was bad, but sometimes challenges could lend a little spice.