VAMP



A beautiful, brilliant venture capitalist…and a connoisseur of human blood

VAMP

a serialized novel by A.C. Houston

Chapter 1: Roast Beef, rare

I think we’re ready for lunch now.”

Sam glances up from her computer at the forty-something man she now calls her boss as of two weeks ago. He is an easy study: driven, self-absorbed, humorous only towards a purpose, but still, a risk-taker of sorts. She smiles at him, hoping her expression conveys its intended attitude — energized and willing, but also callow.

“Sure!” she chirps, rising quickly from the black office chair.

“Can you fax these right away to Baker and Ashton?”

Sam gracefully takes possession of the sheaf of documents that her boss is thrusting at her. Without real eye contact he adds, “After you do the lunch.”

He’s gone, back into his conference room, back to his prospects. Sam sets the to-be-faxed paperwork on her desk and walks toward the coffee and kitchen area of the small corporate office. She passes coworker Mary on her way, giving the small sturdy blonde a nod of camaraderie.

The catered sandwiches are sitting on the counter by the coffee maker, still covered in plastic. Sam had ordered them this morning and they’d arrived half an hour ago. They are an assortment including vegetarian wraps, various poultry and cheese combinations and roast beef. Rare.

Sam carries the sandwich platter into the conference room, not making specific eye contact with anyone, but aware of sets of male eyes taking her in, along with the food. The four men in the room are all multitasking their way through conversation and tapping virtual keys on little digital devices.

What delightful little power totems, Sam muses to herself as she pulls off the cellophane wrapping of the sandwich platter, comparing the smart phones at the conference table here to the polished tobacco pipes and cigars of an earlier era.

One of the men reaches immediately for a sandwich, it’s roast beef. He takes a bite of it and continues talking to her boss. Sam can’t resist a quick glance at the bitten sandwich, the beef is really blood-red rare, and it’s making her suddenly hungry.

She looks away from the sandwich and straight into the eyes of a young, good-looking blonde male in a blue work shirt. It’s not a real work shirt, it’s an expensive Italian-made, casually elegant camisa. The new uniform of successful entrepreneurs. The man isn’t yet thirty, and his muscles are solid, well-defined, no doubt sculpted under the tutelage of a personal trainer. Sam instinctively glances at his neck, at the fine smooth carotid artery. Guy must have a rest pulse of sixty, maybe even fifty-five. Aerobic fitness definitely adds to the pleasure.

Sam realizes she is smiling at the guy, and immediately softens her dark brown eyes. Don’t broadcast dominance.  He’s not smiling back, but she knows he wants her, wants her strong, agile body beneath the form-fitting jeans, her smooth skin and the dense red hair that falls to her shoulders. But he wants her on his own terms.  He’s an easy study, too, another risk-taker. But, he’s a calculating mesomorph, not a romantic.

She turns from the table and leaves the room, returning promptly with a basket filled with exotic brands of bottled water, and bottles of organic fruit juices which include cranberry-pomegranate — a gorgeous shade of red. With meek and professional efficiency Sam sets the basket down near the sandwiches and then sets down the tray of chocolate cupcakes she has also carried in.

Blondie with the runner’s pulse is burning holes through her blouse with his hazel eyes. Probably O or A positive, but he reminds her a lot of an A negative she was recently acquainted with. Let it go, she tells herself, you need his brains at the moment more than you need his blood.

“Enjoy your lunch, gentlemen!” Sam smiles at them as a group and closes the conference door behind her as she leaves the room. Time to go see about faxing those documents.

Chapter 2: Reconstituted Red Mimosas

Zaira Farago pushes open the French doors of her spacious bedroom and walks onto the expansive balcony perched high above the cold dark waters that pound the rocks of the New England coastline below. The November wind is blowing from the sea tonight and has a real bite to it, but Zaira is flush and pink from a long hot soak in the marble bath.

She inhales deeply as she continues to rub a towel through her still-damp hair. Despite the low lighting from the room’s interior, the white towel against her dark red tresses is striking in contrast to the black robe of thick terry cloth that Zaira has wrapped about her. She flicks her tongue lightly across her teeth, enjoying the freedom from the annoying little caps, touching the familiar canine points, top and bottom. A smile of amusement crosses her face, recalling past times with the Hungarian cousins. All the cousins agreed that Zaira had the prettiest teeth — dainty, not too long, with beautiful, lethally-pointed white tips. She takes another deep breath, absorbing the scent and touch of the ocean air, her mindset deepening into the pleasure of the familiar comforts of home, where she can discard all pretense.

Leaving the French doors slightly ajar to enjoy the sound of the surf, Zaira returns to her bedroom and settles down on a divan. She picks up the champagne flute next to it and takes a long sip of the concoction that is her own specialty for these weekend homecomings; light dry prosecco, fresh blood orange and human blood.

The blood is not fresh, it’s from her last case of the shipment Cousin Ambrus sent her from Santa Rosa. His real wine collection he always joked.

Ambrus owns and runs a winery as his day job, but has focused his nocturnal energies on entrepreneurial endeavors such as developing cryopreservation techniques that don’t require the use of glycerol solutions to keep red blood cells intact. His passion has been to preserve the original, natural flavor of the human ‘terroir’.

Zaira thinks that Ambrus’ passion has paid off quite well, despite their Great-uncle Istvan’s derisive summation that he would never touch blood not freshly drawn by his own mouth.

Zaira tried to get this same great-uncle to join her as an investor on promising human research aimed at developing artificial blood. She’d researched several promising biotech firms that were developing oxygen therapeutics for the military and pitched them to her obdurate uncle. But, Istvan would have none of it. He told her he would not invest a forint, farthing, euro or dollar in any hemoglobin product that had the shelf life of Parmalat.

Zaira tops up the champagne flute with more prosecco and more bottled blood. Great-uncle Istvan is just old school, but Zaira feels more open to the possibilities. Although she agrees that nothing surpasses the physical and emotional well-being experienced through a fresh draw, her current life-style doesn’t always make that a realistic choice.

She considers her home base. It’s nirvana to come here after a week or two or three in a Guise, after dwelling in close proximity to humans and their mortality-driven lives. And, she does have to make do with the various packaged forms of preserved sangre while in the field. It simply is not practical to prey on the people she currently works with in her Sam Guise.

Zaira takes a long sip of her red mimosa and laughs quietly at the thought of getting a draw off her coworkers. Mary is smart and tough as nails, it would be a lot of effort to corner the girl in a dark alley, which is what it would take. Too much drama and a certain amount of risk. Gil, the talented, but pudgy Python programmer, would be an easy target. He’s a great little geek and Zaira is rooting for him. The company’s recent rosy prospects have a lot to do with Gil’s great technical work. But, she has seen what he eats in his office: greasy burritos and chips, candy bars and big sugary drinks with caffeine. The kid’s lipid profile must be loaded with triglycerides and LDL cholesterol — the bad stuff. She’d need a couple of days of fasting and system cleansing after dosing on Gil’s blood. And what would be the point with Dean, the founder of BubbleTrendz? She’s close to investing a couple of million dollars in the two-year-old startup; it’s not wise to sap the strength of a horse she’s betting on.

Betting on that horse is still the issue, though. She needs more data. It’s why she’s hanging out as Sam Rush, cheerful little office administrator. Zaira has learned it’s an effective way to learn the inside scoop on a team, the real strengths and the real weaknesses, the potential hazards facing an investor. So for now, she’ll continue to survive on convenience mart blood, and avoid the messy complications that seeking prey would entail. She’ll trade flavor for freedom. It’s why she’s able to do what she’s doing, whereas Great-uncle Istvan has decided to endure the boring isolation of his reclusive, drafty old Transylvanian manor, tending to his mushroom plots, satisfied to drink the fresh, but repetitive-tasting blood of the long-suffering local inhabitants and their descendants.

Zaira is startled from her reveries by the low chime of the front doorbell downstairs. A quick glance at the clock shows it’s well past four in the morning. Unexpected nocturnal calls are rarely good news. Instinctively she curls her fingers, catlike, instantly strengthening and sharpening her tapered fingernails. She tightens the sash of her black robe and leaves the cozy den of her bedroom, quickly descending the wide hardwood steps of the curved staircase on her graceful bare feet.

She opens the large, carved front door of her house and her keen, ancient-young eyes are filled with surprise. Standing before her, a long traveler’s cape whipping about him in the wind, is her cousin Joska. From his pallor and the deep circles under his eyes, it’s clear at once that he came here by long stride. He’s obviously in need of blood.

Chapter 3: Family Ties

Joska manages a bow and he and Zaira exchange a brief greeting in the ancient tongue.

“Come in at once, cousin!” she tells him, switching back to English, her adopted language of the past century and a half.

Joska staggers through the door, smelling of smoke and earth and leaves, and salty air. Zaira takes him firmly by the arm and leads him from the vaulted foyer, past the grand staircase, through the billiards room and into the butler’s pantry. It’s a large room with high ceilings and great banks of wooden-framed, glass-enclosed cupboards, an important room, not an alcove. This room was built in the 19th century and its architecture expresses a social order of a time when houses of this stature employed professional butlers who oversaw entire staffs of servants.

Zaira seats her cousin at the large oak table that now occupies the center of the room. She opens one of the cupboards and retrieves a tall bottle which she sets on the table in front of her cousin. She fetches a shot glass, unstops the bottle and pours an ample amount from the bottle into the small glass. Joska picks up the shot glass and downs its contents in one gulp. Zaira pours a second, and Joska drinks that just as fast. Then a third.

“I’m sorry to serve you such plonk, but I haven’t got a single drop of fresh sangre in the house. Too busy these days.” She watches her cousin down his fourth glass and smiles. “It seems to be doing the job well enough.”

Joska pours the fifth shot himself, his cheeks have acquired a flush of color and his eyes have brightened. He pushes his cape back from his shoulders and nods his gratitude to Zaira. His breathing is still too fast, too wheezy, but that, too, will subside.

“You certainly know how to make an entrance, Joska. Why didn’t you just take a plane? And call me? I do own a cell phone.” Zaira watches her cousin push damp ringlets of black hair back from his brow.

Joska lets out a long, controlled sigh and pours a sixth shot. But he’s taking his time at this point, regaining his physical composure. “I need a favor of you. Manners required this. I’m European, after all.”

Zaira is impressed. Joska felt that manners required him to make a long stride all the way from Transylvania to the north shore of Boston; burning through his metabolic resources like a Titan rocket booster, sustaining the incredible mental focus and physical endurance to hurl himself over land and sea without rest for nearly forty-eight hours. He could have damaged himself irreparably through such effort. And, the prognosis for a permanently weakened vampire is not sanguine.

“I’m all ears,” Zaira tells him, settling herself into a chair next to her cousin and curling her bare feet under her.

Joska inhales, his breathing is even, easy at last. He looks into Zaira’s now-curious eyes. “We have a cousin,” he begins, searching for his words.

“We have lots of cousins.” Zaira scolds herself privately; this is difficult for Joska, she shouldn’t be teasing him.

“It’s Sandor. You may not remember him, he’s young. I mean he really is young.”

“Are you telling me he was birthed?”

Joska nods.

“Amazing! When?”

“Only eighteen years ago. He’s a nice kid, but he’s rough around the edges, so to speak.”

“I can well imagine. It cannot be easy for him to be surrounded by relatives who have been shaping their own strong attitudes, opinions and tastes through centuries of experience.” Zaira looks frankly at her cousin. “I expect he’s pretty rebellious, right?”

“You could say that. But not in simple, obvious ways.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he doesn’t like to drink blood.”

“How has he developed, flourished up to age eighteen?”

“Of course he drinks it, but he complains and he’s ridden with angst, guilt about it all. He has never hunted prey himself and refuses to do so. You can imagine how that sits with Great-uncle Istvan.”

“Then what does he drink. There, in Translyvania?”

“He toyed with vegetable juices until he almost expired from anemia. Only transfusions under sedation restored him. We’ve got Ambrus sending bottled stuff, but Sandor drinks only small doses and only from opaque containers. He remains a gaunt youth.”

“How can I help you with this?” Zaira can smell Joska’s tension and it’s making her uneasy.

“Great-uncle Istvan thinks Sandor should come here to live with you. At least for the time being.”

“Because I have no time these days to hunt prey?”

“In part.”

“But I drink blood and sometimes I leave open containers about, when I’m in a rush.”

“You’re a modernist though, and he might appreciate that. All the distractions here. I must tell you, I wasn’t prepared for the grandeur of this ocean-front mansion. You’ve done well, Zaira.”

She laughs, pleased. “I’m glad you like it. I really should throw more parties, though, invite the family. The place has eight bedrooms and a wonderful old cellar for those who prefer that sort of thing.” Her smile conveys ironic resignation. “I bought it at the top of the current real estate bubble. It’s lost some value, could take a while to come back. But, I am an investor.”

Joska nods solemnly. “I haven’t been in the stock market since Dutch tulips.”

Zaira looks at her cousin more seriously. “I’m in the middle of a deal right now, I’m in guise a good part of the time. I only escape here every few weeks for a little R&R. Taking care of a teenaged vegetarian vampire sounds like more than I could carry off with any probability of success.”

“You know what a small community we are back home.” Joska looks at her. “Well, Sandor has been speaking of outing us to the local villages and towns.”

“Who’d believe him in this day and age?”

“You’d be surprised. And coming from our own, you know he could do it. If he really has a mind to. Need I remind you of that spell of unpleasantness a century or so back? Those vigilantes weren’t just carrying garlic and mirrors, they were brandishing carved wooden stakes.”

The cousins sit in silence at Zaira’s table in her lavish butler’s pantry. Zaira frowns to recall the clash that Joska is speaking of. Indiscretions and excesses of one of her ancestors, that no-count Count as Istvan referred to him, had cost the lives of three of their family and led to open hostilities for decades in the rural mountainous community they had shared for so long with humans. The wooden stakes were barbaric, but they were the one way, the only way, to fell a vampire. The rest was bunk, ruses invented by her people to throw decoys over their trail, when the hunter occasionally became the hunted through miscalculation or bad luck.

“What will I do with him?” Zaira asks, her skepticism building at the growing list of disastrous scenarios in her mind.

“Could you take him with you where you work? In a guise?”

Joska’s naivete about the business world is touching.

“I’m a gofer, a minion, at present, that’s the guise. I have no authority to hire anyone.”

“Oh.” It’s clear that Joska had considered his duty to present the asking, and to do it gallantly. He was counting on her to accept the request and to brainstorm a workable way of succeeding at it. She cannot send him home with the shame of failure. She’ll just have to make it up as she goes.

“I’ll do this, ” she tells him, noting the sheer relief in his face now. “But, Joska, please send him by plane, okay? If he’s as gaunt and picky an eater as you describe, he’ll never make it by long stride.”

Chapter 4: Sandor’s Arrival

Sam stands impatiently at the fax machine, waiting for the last page to come through. She’s already scanned the first page and it looks compelling, Dean is savvy and he’s probably going to accept it. But these investors want thirty percent of the company and that will make it difficult for Sam to get the thirty-five percent she’s now contemplating. Dean won’t want to lose control of over fifty percent of his company.

She removes the second page of the incoming fax just as Dean is approaching her, coffee mug in hand.

“Is that from Joel Anderson’s office?” he asks briskly, eyeing the pages.

“Here you go.” She hands him the draft term sheet with a cheerful smile, her teeth smooth and human-esque in their little white caps.

He gives a brief nod of appreciation as he continues down the hall, eyes pouring over the numbers on the pages in his hand.

Sam glances at the digital clock on the microwave as she walks past the coffee station. Time to head over to Logan to pick up Sandor. Too bad she needs to leave early today; she’d like to find out Dean’s reaction to that term sheet, whether he’s going for it. If so, she’ll need to move quickly. But, can she trust leaving Sandor alone in Boston while she’s in New York? A lot of balls in the air suddenly.

As she walks back to her desk, she passes Gil’s office. There he is, iPod earbuds in place, fingers at the keyboard. Three candy bar wrappers lie crumpled and discarded on his desk. Sam flicks her fingers in a hello, but Gil doesn’t notice, he’s deep into his Python code.

Sam suddenly realizes if the Anderson deal goes through, Dean will be hiring more programmers, he’ll scale up rapidly with such an infusion of capital as was being offered in that fax. This company has momentum and they all know it. She’s got to get to New York and get her partners on board fast. Before the window of opportunity closes.

~

Sam paces back and forth, beyond the customs area of Terminal E, too warm in her brown leather jacket, annoyed and concerned that Sandor’s flight landed well over an hour ago and he still hasn’t appeared. She’s repeatedly consulted the only photo of him she possesses, sent to her cellphone by her cousin Csilla, the only relation who apparently had the foresight to do so.  The photo shows a tall, angular youth with dark hair and eyes, aquiline nose and a somber demeanor. She’s been scanning all the males who look about eighteen years old, as they exit the customs area, and they are all husky, strapping lads with lighter hair and complexions and not one of them looks somber. What should she do? She scans the crowd again, sharply, and suddenly there he is, just outside of customs.

He is easily six feet tall and very thin. His wrists and hands protrude awkwardly from a dark gray fisherman’s sweater, and his corduroy pants hang loose on his frame and look a little worn. His hair is black as a raven’s wing and his skin is a strange ashy alabaster. In the moment before he spots her, she thinks to herself that his physiognomy perfectly fits most humans’ stereotype of what a vampire should look like.

Sam approaches the young man and grasps his hands in her own. “Sandor, greetings and great welcome! Your presence honors our blood!” Sam delivers these words in their common ancestral language; she knows he’s deeply familiar with these ritual salutations, having lived his short life thus far in the mountains of Transylvania.

Sandor directs his intense eyes at her and reciprocates the welcoming pressure of her hands with a quick, light squeeze. “Zaira, it’s good of you to take me in, but must we always speak of blood?”

“Do you speak English?” she asks him, deciding quickly to change tack.

“Of course.”

“And how was your journey?”

“Long. Tedious. I was detained both in London and here because I don’t have any luggage. Only this.” Sandor points to the modest backpack on his shoulders.

We’ll need to shop for clothes, she mentally notes.

“You must be tired from your long trip. Would you like to rest first, or see some sights?”

“Zaira, I will do as you wish. I am your charge now.”

He makes her sound like a prison warden.

“Well, you are certainly free to come and go as you please, Sandor. I’m quite busy and hope we can find things of interest for you here. But there is one thing, please always call me Sam. I’m in guise now, you know what that is, and I’m Sam Rush. I work as an office administrator in a small company-“

“What kind of firm?”

They are walking outside in the chilly air amid the throng of people with wheeled bags, oversized rucksacks and totes. Sam and Sandor queue up in the taxi line. She’d taken the T over to Logan, in character with her frugal work identity, but of course she’ll take a cab now. Maybe she’ll have the cab drop them in Harvard Square, expose Sandor to student life, the pubs and cafes. Perhaps he could make some friends his own age. He will only ever get this chance once in all the centuries — of being the same age as those around him.

She explains BubbleTrendz.

“My firm, the one I’m investigating in guise, identifies interesting, timely information — trends. Their applications analyze and present these trends to businesses that would benefit from such distilled data.”

“How do they benefit?”

“Well, they might realize that potential customers would like their product even more if it had some additional features, or maybe people are becoming bored with a certain fashion style or dining fad, and a business could respond and change course before it’s too late.”

“Social media marketing.’

“So you know this stuff.”

“I have friends on Facebook.”

They are waved to the next cab in the line and get in. Sam tells the driver to drop them at Church Street in Harvard Square.

~

Sam sits across from Sandor in a dark, Irish pub, sharing a plate of french fries with her cousin. He’s drinking seltzer water and she’s sipping a dark oatmeal stout. One is okay if she drinks is slowly. And this amount of carbohydrate won’t throw off their blood chemistry.

The place is noisy and crowded and Sam would love to revert to their ancient Uralic-based language; to the pub crowd here they’d just sound like a couple of Eastern Europeans having an intellectual discussion in a comfort dialect. But, she’s already picked up on Sandor’s prickly ways and precociousness. He’ll battle her about language at this point just to play the contrarian. He apparently has an interest in technology, explore that angle.

“Do you play video games?” she queries, discreetly checking her Android for incoming messages from her New York office.

“I question the morality of playing them.”

“The morality? What do you mean?” She hadn’t expected that.

“They’re generally too easy for me.” He says this without a speck of conceit or hubris. “But the structures of most of them, at some level it’s always about quarry, prey. It’s too close to what we do. It doesn’t feel like a game.”

The conversation stops with a thud. Sam takes a long, leisurely sip of her dark beer, using the seconds of imbibing to think of something to say where they can start again on neutral ground. She’ll need some time with this boy before she thinks it wise to take the big issues head-on with him.

“Have you ever written your own computer programs?” she asks.

“No.”

“There’s a smart guy at this company I’ve told you about. He writes the applications in a computer language called Python.”

“Like the snake?”

“I suppose so.”

“And, do you drink his blood, this Python programmer?”

It’s too much. “I do not, Sandor. I thought you requested that we not speak of blood?”

The youth glowers at his seltzer, but says nothing.

“Would you like to meet him? The programmer?” Sam realizes she needs to devise some  basic schedule for Sandor if she hopes to leave for New York in two days. She would bet her entire proposed investment in BubbleTrendz that Gil will be perfectly safe with Sandor.

Chapter 5: Structuring the Deal

“Promise me you will drink some of Cousin Ambrus’ bottles while I’m away? Don’t worry that it’s the last case, he’s promised to send more.” Zaira looks across her living room at Sandor, who is scrunched into her elegant red Roche Bobois couch.

He looks up from the thick paperback he’s had his face buried in. “Do you have any coffee thermoses? With sipping lids?”

Oh yes, the opaque containers.

“I’m sure there is something on one of the shelves in the butler’s pantry,” she tells him. “I’m serious, though, Sandor. You really must tend to your nourishment. I’ll be home in forty-eight hours.”

He nods and returns to his book.

She isn’t satisfied yet. “I should tell you that I don’t know my neighbors up the road well at all. I really doubt anyone will call or drop by. So, you’ll be fine?”

“Yes, Zaira. I’m going to use the computer in the library if that’s alright? I want to learn about this Python programming language.”

Delighted relief flashes across her face. “What a fun idea! I’ll introduce you to Gil next week and you’ll already have something in common.”

Instinctively she sweeps forward in a bow and utters a farewell in the old Uralic language.

~

High above midtown Manhattan in a glass-walled office, Joel Anderson leans back in his  custom-designed, ergonomic executive chair. The gleaming walnut and titanium desk in front of him is spacious and free of clutter, with only the thinnest, latest model laptop lying open on it. The laptop’s backlit LED screen is the only light in the dark room, except for the sparkling city outside, far below the glass walls of the spacious corner office..

The features of Joel Anderson’s face are revealed in a noir-ish chiaroscuro by the cool blue light coming from the laptop. His is a smooth face of thirty-six years, clean-shaven, regular features, and just the tiniest curl of a sneer at the corners of his mouth. His brown hair is clipped in an edgy, current style by the hand of some Italian celebrity hairdresser.

Still leaning back in his chair, Joel’s hand moves forward and clicks a button on the mouse, his eyes scanning whatever has just appeared on the laptop’s screen. He suddenly swivels his chair around to face the night sky, not looking at anything in particular, just pleased at how much of New York is visible from this window.

The deal had been amazingly simple to close. The terms were favorable, Dean Divers was okay with yielding thirty percent. But, none of this is even the point. Joel clasps his hands behind his head, his subtle natural sneer widens into a genuine smile. Investment creates wealth, innovation. That’s enough for some people. But, power is the real coin of the realm.

“Don’t be evil,” he says under his breath, in a mocking tone.

~

Ironically, only blocks away from Joel Anderson’s lofty office, Zaira sits at a choice table in an absurdly expensive restaurant with her two investment partners, Anatol Kaminsky and Deborah Roehr. She convinced them that offering two million dollars to BubbleTrendz in exchange for twenty-five percent of the company was a good starting tactic. She expected Anatol to balk at the twenty-five percent, and he did, but he came around. He and Deborah both want a piece of the action in “this hottie startup”,  as Anatol had drolly referred to it. They all agree that Dean won’t relinquish control of half his company, and Anderson’s offer is asking for thirty percent at two million two. Zaira’s hope is that Dean will take the flat two million and hang on to the additional five percent. The faxed term sheet has been sent and maybe he’s already reading it.

Zaira is wearing a sculpted white wool suit by a prominent New York designer; the fabric is almost luminous in the candlelight and contrasts with her dark red hair. She sips sparingly from the glass of 2005 Lafite Bordeaux that Anatol has insisted upon ordering. Without the ingredient of human blood in this drink, Zaira’s biological tolerance for it is sharply diminished. She’s been careful, as always, with her entree as well.

“You eat like a bird! No wonder you’ve got such a fabulous figure,” Deborah quips good-naturedly as she spreads Normandy butter on a bite of bread. Deborah is blonde, more ample than Zaira, but sensuous and satisfying to look at. She’s dressed in designer black, her thick hair coifed to frame her face to maximum advantage.

Anatol sports salt-and-pepper sideburns and a thousand dollar suit. His eyes hint of a distant Tartar ancestor, his smile is sophisticated, but good-natured.

These are the partners of KFR, Kaminsky, Farago and Rhoer, a venture capital firm established three years ago. Two humans and a vampire incognito. Incognito except for her name. You have to keep your name is Zaira’s resolute belief. Despite the guises, somewhere in your life you have to keep your name. Otherwise, the centuries will just erase whoever you might be.

Chapter 6: The New Hire

Zaira just makes the 7:25 a.m. commuter train at the Salem station. She’d arrived home from New York only hours earlier to find Sandor at the computer in the library, engrossed in the details of Python. The lad needed a bath, but she didn’t bring this up and took precious minutes to let him show her his weekend’s handiwork; a bare bones but functioning web content management application. He’d learned there were open source sites where applications could be submitted and he planned to submit his when he believed it had sufficient capabilities to be of general interest.

It was impressive how quickly he’d taken to writing computer code and encouraging that he was so taken by it. Zaira had discreetly checked the remaining case of blood from Ambrus to see whether Sandor was consuming enough nourishment; his apparent consumption was not great, but probably sufficient.

Zaira had taken a hot bath, slathered on her special skin care lotion, and donned an outfit from Sam’s wardrobe — gray jeans and a black pullover. She made a note to herself to show the skin products to Sandor; he was genuinely young now, so his skin had a natural tolerance for daylight. That would diminish with time. Investing in dermatological research and founding her own skin care company in the mid-20th century is where Zaira had earned her first millions.

~

Now she rides the train toward Boston with the hundreds of other commuters, some still sleepy, some slurping hot cups of coffee and chatting amiably with their daily companions, some reading newspapers, others enshrined in personal digital cocoons of iPods, laptops, cellphones. Zaira leans back in her seat deep in thought. It’s going to be a hectic week. She doesn’t feel wholly comfortable leaving Sandor to his own devices in the big house by the ocean for a week by himself. But, her little Somerville rental is small, with only one bedroom. He could sleep on the sofa, and Boston and Cambridge would be close-by for him to explore. Then, Joska’s words come back to her: Sandor has been speaking of outing us to the local villages and towns.

Would he really do such a thing? He’s young, he has never lived through one of the Confrontations, his moral compass is driven by idealistic naiveté, not experience. Would an attempt at outing them in this diverse, urban center of universities, research labs and computer firms have the impact it likely would back in their historically-rooted rural community in the Carpathian mountains?

She can’t risk it. She needs more time with him to build some rapport. Only then will it be wise to pursue the hard topics. She’ll just have to do this commute to and from Marblehead all week. But, hopefully Dean will be signing the term sheet with KFR and she can quit her guise at BubbleTrendz. Maybe she’ll take Sandor on a trip to see California or the Pacific Northwest. Or maybe Brazil. Expand his horizons.

~

Time to be Sam. Zaira walks the last block to Kendall Square gradually adjusting her expression and attitude. Psychology dial set to perky she laughs to herself.

Sam enters the front door of BubbleTrendz, and as she passes the conference room, she sees Mary talking to a young blond guy in there. He’s signing forms that Mary is passing to him. Sam turns the corner and sees Dean pouring himself a mug of coffee in the kitchen area.

“Morning!” She gives him her most cheerful smile.

“Hey Sam!” Dean looks happy. Has he read their term sheet?

“Do we have a new hire? I saw Mary with someone in the conference room.”

“We do. A superstar Python guy. He’ll be the programming project lead on the Star app suite. Can you set him up in the office next to Gil’s? I’ve ordered new equipment for him, UPS should be delivering it this morning.”

“That’s great that we’re expanding,” Sam continues, hoping he’ll tell her more.

“It is. We’re also going to be looking for a couple of programming interns to work with the new guy Evan. Mary is putting together the job reqs. Think about where those folks could work, maybe the area across from your station? We may be looking for a larger space soon, but we’ll make do for right now.” Dean turns and heads toward his office.

Looking for a larger space can mean only one thing, Dean has acquired fresh capital. Sam decides she’ll text Deborah and Anatol as soon as she’s at her desk to find out if Dean has responded to their term sheet. She doesn’t want to consider the other possibility yet.

She sees that Gil is already in his office and decides to drop in. He’s a night owl and usually doesn’t come in until after eleven in the morning. Maybe that’s why he looks particularly disheveled today, being here at nine.

“You’re here bright and early!” she tells him. “Did you interview that new programmer?”

“No. I didn’t have any input in the process.” He’s clearly unhappy about this.

Sam is surprised at the news. Gil is a top Python hacker, Dean would surely want his opinion about the programming abilities of new technical hires.

Gil continues in a crestfallen tone. “You left early on Friday. Dean stayed late and I overheard him talking to Mary at one point about bringing in a new programmer on Monday. Monday! I figured he’d come by my office and say something, but after he talked to her, he just left.”

Sam lowers her voice to tell him confidentially,  “There was a fax on Friday that came in from a venture capital firm. Did you hear anything about that?”

“Yeah! He told Mary we’ve signed on Anderson and Cunning as partners.”

With s sinking feeling, Sam realizes the hard truth: Dean has signed on with Joel Anderson. She has made a major miscalculation. A little stunned, she asks Gil, “I”m really surprised Dean didn’t want you to interview this programmer.”

Gil shakes his head. He looks wretched and baffled. “Me, too. He’s being put on the Star apps suite. I wrote the whole thing! It just doesn’t make sense.” Gil swallows, finding it difficult to say out loud the thing that hurts the most. “And they’re getting the guy a 12-core Mac Pro.” Gil looks downright sick and says softly, again. “Twelve core.”

Sam knows enough to realize that this means the new hire is getting lots of computing power for his own use, a lot more than Gil, apparently. She ponders the situation; she likes an entrepreneur who moves quickly and decisively as Dean seems to be doing. But something feels out of whack here.

Chapter 7:   Curt Introductions

Anatol’s brief message clarifies all. Dean had reviewed their term sheet and emailed his decline. Had he signed on with Anderson even before reading their alternative offer? Well, whatever happened, he’s got his capital and he’s still got control of his company. Case closed. Sam wonders whether she should give notice today.

“Sam. let me introduce Evan.”

Sam looks up from her smartphone and smiles at Mary and the tall blonde guy standing next to her. He’s early twenties and dressed in polo shirt and slacks — a little preppier than most hackers.

“Can you get him settled in?” Mary asks, trying to disengage herself from this responsibility.

“Absolutely! Welcome, Evan.”  Why am I being so accommodating when I’m about to leave, she wonders to herself.

Evan smiles at Sam, but not with his eyes.

Mary nods at Evan, then turns and walks away.

Sam realizes at once that Evan is not an easy study, his temperament is opaque to her. Tiny warning tendrils sprout at the edges of her thought as she leads him to his new office. As they walk past Gil’s office, Sam decides to introduce the programmers to each other right away. Gil is feeling bypassed by Dean, and being introduced to his new rival sooner rather than later is probably the best course.

She introduces Evan to Gil, then enlightens Evan to Gil’s credentials as the first person hired by BubbleTrendz, emphasizing Gil’s extensive programming accomplishments that include the app suite for their Fortune 500 customer, Star Rock Financial Group. Gil remains in his chair and Evan doesn’t approach him to shake hands.

Mary is suddenly standing in the doorway. “Sam, the UPS guy is here with a box. Can you take care of it?”

The super-duper computer for Evan has arrived. Gil knows this, too, but he manages a short “welcome to Bubblez” directed at Evan, before turning sullenly back to his screenful of Python code.

~

Sam signs for the box and shows Evan to his office. Mary has already given him the authorization passcodes to access remote client site data repositories, and he  doesn’t need Sam’s help to unpack and set up his computer, so she leaves him with a red BubbleTrendz coffee mug and a red BubbleTrendz T-shirt, size large, and tells him to feel free to drop by her desk if he has any questions.

Mary has left paperwork on Sam’s desk to be filed. It includes Evan’s contract and the job specifications for the internships. Sam learns Evan’s full name, Evan Blood, and has a private smile at life’s little ironies. The young man appears physically fit, but he has a sour smell to Sam’s keen vampiric nose, and it’s a turn-off for wanting to draw off him. Still, if she weakened him a little, it might help Gil in some way. Startled by her own train of thought, she realizes she is feeling considerable resentment toward Dean. Would she feel entirely differently about Evan, if Dean had agreed to her own term sheet?

~

Two hours later, Sam passes by to check on Evan; he’s sitting at his desk typing rapidly at his keyboard, his face remote and focused on the screen in front of him. Sam has been checking Dean’s office regularly, wanting to find a moment to tell him she’s quitting, but he’s been on the phone all day with the door closed. She’d like to take an afternoon train back to Salem, aware that she’s left Sandor alone for most of the time since he arrived in Boston. She needs to call Ambrus and order more cases of blood. If she and Sandor travel, will they be able to make do with packaged product, or will she need to hunt? Will he let her teach him to hunt? Or will he try to stop her altogether?  Any journey she’s about to take him on will require some careful planning.

Getting up from her desk yet again, Sam walks past Gil’s office and glances in quickly. He’s got his hands to his head, face staring at the screen unhappily, puzzled. “What’s going on?” he says, thinking aloud.

“Got a problem?” Sam asks, a bit curious now.

He turns to look at her. “I haven’t been able to access the Star directories for the past twenty minutes. This never happens, they have Godzilla-sized servers and backups.”  He suddenly asks her, “Can you try accessing their home page? From your machine?”

He follows Sam to her desk and she enters the Star Rock Financial Group url.  After moments the same message that Gil was getting appears — server is currently unavailable. She looks at him questioningly.

“I think it’s a denial of service attack,” he says quietly. They look at each other, then walk down the hall to Evan’s office.

Chapter 8: The Immortality Talk

Evan is still typing at his desk when Sam and Gil reach his office. He closes a window on his screen and turns to look at them. “Does this happen often? The denial of service attacks?” he asks Gil, scrutinizing the shorter, heavier programmer’s face.

“It’s never happened before. And why are you certain that it was a denial of service attack?” Gil counters, trying to see what else is still up on Evan’s monitor.

“I was inside Star and everything just stopped. When I looked at Star’s incoming traffic I noticed lots of requests from specific IP addresses, then they quit coming, and things got normal again.”

“I’ll need to look at the logs,” Gil announces, and leaves Evan’s office abruptly.

Sam decides to look for Dean one more time. She encounters Mary instead and learns that Dean has left the office for the day. She gets a disapproving look from Mary when she then announces her own intention to leave early today. She thinks about quitting on the spot, but decides she wants to see Dean and tell him in person. For some private satisfaction?

Gil reappears and blurts out at Mary, “I’m locked out of the Star account. How am I supposed to get any work done? I’ve got some uncommitted changes-”

“You need to take this up with Evan,” Mary shoots back. “Dean has made him programming manager of all the accounts.”

“As of when?”

Mary doesn’t like Gil’s tone. “This morning.”

Sam watches Gil storm off to Evan’s office, then turns to Mary, momentarily forgetting her role as Sam. “Gil has done great work here. Furthermore, he’s honest and conscientious. Why isn’t this new guy reporting to him?

Sam realizes she has shocked Mary. Mary opens her mouth, stops, then finds her words. “Dean is the founder of BubbleTrendz. I guess he’ll make decisions as he sees fit.”

Sam checks the cheeky rejoinder she has on the tip of her tongue and gives Mary a deferential nod. We’re still in guise, she reminds herself.

~

When Sam arrives home, Sandor is still glued to her computer in the library. He wants to show off the new features of his application before he uploads it to the free software site. Her mind is distracted, but she makes the effort, this is her main link of communication with him right now.

After Sandor’s demo, she excuses herself and draws a hot bath and makes herself a Red Mimosa. While the bath is filling, she texts Ambrus and orders a dozen cases of ‘wine’ to be delivered via a licensed liquor broker. All the careful protocols of the state with its long Puritan tradition amuse Sam; they’re conscientiously trying to regulate the movement of alcohol across state lines. Wonder what they’d think if they knew what was really being shipped.

Sam sinks into the frothy tub, becoming Zaira again. She reaches for the Red Mimosa and takes a long sip, puzzling over the events of the day.

~

Dinner, such as it is, is consumed from two silver thermoses. Zaira is trying to accommodate Sandor, annoyed at her own pandering to his squeamishness. He sips slowly, sparingly, through a straw.

“There’s a job opening at your company for a Python programmer. Actually two openings,” he announces looking at her across the dining room table. They’re eating in the dining room tonight, not the butler’s pantry, in the hopes that dinner will seem more festive.

Zaira flashes a look of surprise at him. “That’s true. Internships.. How did you know?”

“Job sites on the Internet.”

Zaira shrugs. “Well, I’m ending the Sam Guise tomorrow. They didn’t take our offer, they went with someone else. Time to move on to the next thing.”

“Could I apply for that job? It’s entry level.”

Zaira is mildly shocked. “Work at BubbleTrendz? Please don’t feel you need to work, Sandor, money is no issue at all, believe me. I was actually thinking you and I might take a trip.”

“I just took a trip.”

He’s right, he hasn’t been in Massachusetts one week yet and she’s contemplating Brazil and Hawaii.

Zaira looks at him frankly. “You’d have to go in guise. You’ve never done that, have you? Capped your canines.”

“Maybe they could just accept me as I am?”

His naiveté is breathtaking. She tells him gently, “We look pretty wolfy to humans when we smile at them with our natural teeth. It scares them.”

“Why do teeth matter so much?” The youth sighs in frustration. “I suppose I could wear caps. It would be fun to write programs that are actually being used. You spoke highly of Gil, he could teach me a lot.”

“They’ve hired a second guy as of today, and the interns will report to him. I’m not sure I like him as well as Gil. The company is about to expand, it might not be as casual and friendly as it has been. And, I’m leaving, Sandor. I would have quit today except that Dean, my boss, left before I had a chance to tell him.”

“Could I go in with you tomorrow and inquire about the internship? I don’t have a resume, but I can show them my application code.”

“Why is this so important?” she asks him, suddenly frustrated by these new complications. She’s not even certain she’s got teeth caps that will work for him. She reaches for the bottle of blood on the table and pours more into her thermos, taking a long swallow. She is aware of Sandor’s eyes watching her, unhappy and judgmental.  She asks him, “How will you take your meals in the workplace?”

“I won’t eat at work. I’m used to fasting.” He looks directly at her, then looks down. “You should try it sometime. Fasting.”

Sandor, I assure you I’ve experienced long spells of being without, um, sustenance. It isn’t a healthful thing for a vampire. You’ll understand this better when you make your first long stride.”

Zaira feels her own blood pulsing in her temples. She hadn’t meant to stray on to this topic.

Sandor launches into what’s on his mind. “Are you really okay with all this? I mean, no wonder they hate us, the humans. I would if someone took hold of me and sucked my blood.”

“Sandor, humans raise animals and slaughter them for food. Vampires rarely kill prey, usually by accident.”

“It’s not fair! They are so weak compared to us. They live short, perilous lives, and we live seemingly forever.”

She had not intended to have The Immortality Talk with him so soon, but he was heading straight into the belly of the beast.

“There are not many of us, compared with them,” she tells him quietly. “If they really believed in our existence nowadays, they’d put us on the Endangered Species list.”

“You don’t need many when no one dies.” He looks at her with pure defiance in his eyes.

“You know full well how we can be killed.”

“Why can’t we find a way to change ourselves?”

“Do you expect a tiger to change itself? Or an eagle? And, Sandor, humans are not without their faults, they are capable of conducting horrific, large-scale wars amongst themselves.”

“I have read histories,” he retorts, “I know what they’ve done. But why is that an excuse for our conduct?”

“We’re vampires, dammit!”  Don’t raise your voice, he’ll only get madder. “Sandor, no one knows whether we are truly immortal. What does that mean? Great-uncle Istvan is perhaps the oldest among us, and he doesn’t remember history farther back than ten thousand years or so. Perhaps our minds shift and rearrange our memories over such time spans. We can’t be certain.”

“How old are you?”

“Some of my earliest recollections are of Phoenicians. I might be three thousand years old, though.”

She looks at him with tolerance. “You have no idea how young you are, your life now is more in tune with humans because you match their own experience. But, this will change, Sandor, and you must accept it.”

“It’s not fair! I’ve read the greatest human literature, their aspirations and loves; they walk in the shadow of tragedy, their mortality stripping away their joys, the meaning and worth accumulated throughout their lives. It’s amazing that they aren’t all terminally depressed! They show bravery in the face of all this, and what do we do? We catch them and drink their blood.” He looks down, covering his head with his arms.

“Sandor, there’s good reason to believe the sun will become a red giant one day, and it will likely cook the earth at that point. It seems extremely unlikely that the chemistry of our bodies could survive that. Forever is a very long time; we aren’t immortal if you measure our lives on a cosmic time scale. It’s just that our biological clocks are running far more slowly than the other living beings around us. We didn’t choose to be this way, we just are.”

“I’m going to my room.” Sandor leaves the table without another look at her.

Zaira remains sitting there a long while. This was not the dinner she had envisioned with her young cousin. Were all teenagers so volatile in mood?  Would it be good for him to work among humans, learning this Python language? More exposure to people might serve to temper his idealism about them.

She takes another sip from her thermos. The liquid suddenly tastes flat, old.  It’s been too long since her last fresh draw. She needn’t tell Sandor.

~

Zaira leaves her house an hour later, dressed in a short black dress, high heels, makeup and pearly canine caps. She walks to her carriage house and opens the wide door, going inside. The rarely used red Porsche Carrera is parked there, gleaming and waiting for her. Time to cruise the bars of Lynn and Swampscott.

Chapter 9: The Ancient Ecstasy

There is live music playing at one end of the bar when Zaira enters the waterfront establishment. Pairs of male eyes follow her as she walks closer to the music and selects a bar stool next to a thirty-something guy in a sports jacket. She removes the short sable jacket from her shoulders and drapes it over the back of her bar stool. This is a nice bar, but fairly local with a lot of regulars, and the music is not so loud that conversation is not possible. She’s hoping she won’t have to go down market this evening.

“What’ll you have?” the raspy-voiced female bartender asks her pleasantly. “Nice necklace,” she adds, surveying Zaira’s choker of black pearls.

Zaira thanks her with a nod and orders a gin and tonic. When the drink arrives, she swirls its swizzle stick and looks up at the large flat television screen above the bar. Monday night football. She’s hoping this ploy will give the guy in the sports jacket the opportunity to appraise her more thoroughly. He does.

She turns toward him and smiles. “Have you been to a Pat’s game this season?

“I’m taking a client to one next week. You like football?”

Zaira crosses her legs and takes a tiny taste of her drink. “When the game is close it’s exciting. Otherwise, no.”

She can smell his rising pheromones. Will it be too marked in this North Shore pub to be seen leaving with the guy after just one drink? She dare not drink a second without a blood chaser. She’s not known to the locals, so it’s probably okay to pick up the pace.

She swings toward the man on her stool. He’s dazzled by the cut of her strapless black dress, her smoky almond eyes that tilt upwards at the corners, alluring and exotic outliers on the bell curve of human beauty. She’s hooked him and she’s reeling him in with a quiet, polished expertise.

She’s vaguely aware of people seating themselves to her left at the bar, a woman and a man. The woman bumps Zaira’s sable jacket as she seats herself. The expensive fur slides to the floor. The woman picks it up and restores it to the back of Zaira’s stool and dispenses an energetic apology.

“I’m so sorry! What a gorgeous jacket.”

Decorum demands that Zaira acknowledge the woman and absolve her, which she does promptly, intent on resuming her hunt. But the woman has caught her eye and doesn’t release it immediately. She shakes her head in mock disgust and points to her companion, a polished-looking guy in a turtleneck sweater.  “He can’t take me anywhere,” the woman quips, still in mia culpa mode about her knockdown of the fur. Her blue eyes widen. “Aren’t you the gal who bought the old Pearson property about a year ago? We’re just up the road in the yellow Queen Anne. I thought you looked familiar.”

Zaira is caught off guard. Have they been watching her comings and goings?  Flustered, she tells the woman, “I’m not around very much, I’m afraid. It’s a weekend place mostly.”

“I’ve seen you at the Salem commuter station,” the woman continues. She’s now on a mission to get to know her neighbor better: an interesting neighbor who wears jeans to work and sables to a bar on a Monday night.

It’s hopeless. Having barely touched her gin and tonic Zaira settles her bill, and gives a hasty farewell to the blue-eyed woman. She doesn’t make eye contact again with the guy in the sports jacket, who is probably wondering what he did wrong.

~

Zaira drives on to Lynn and looks for a dive, a place she is certain that none of her tony Marblehead neighbors will patronize. Too bad, Sports Jacket looked healthy and young, a quickie feast for certain.

The place she finds has loud music from a CD player. There is a short pool table in the back; two men are standing there with pool queues and make occasional shots while they drink their beers. The four other customers in the bar, all male, are distributed along the bar like birds on a wire, silently hunkered down over their drinks. It’s a dismal little place and Zaira knows she looks like a total incongruity. She walks boldly up to the bar, sits down and orders another gin and tonic. She’ll need to make her choice quickly here, but make sure he’s also had enough to drink.  She doesn’t want a  struggle tonight.

~

She finds her quarry. He’s one of the pool players, a fisherman in his early twenties who has been knocking back a lot of beer with whiskey chasers. When he notices the strapless black dress and red hair at the bar he leaves the pool game and comes straight over to investigate.

Zaira turns to welcome him, and he slides onto the bar stool next to her, still testing the waters of his apparent lucky night. Zaira realizes she has created a minor drama in this little bar with her surfeit of glamour, but she is far more determined than embarrassed and presses on, locking eyes with the guy in faux fascination at his banal, inebriated banter.

They leave together and she hooks her arm through his to steady him as they walk toward her car parked two blocks away. He makes a couple of fumbled efforts to kiss her along the way, but he’s easy to manage without thwarting his enthusiasm.

“I love the ocean at night, don’t you?” She offers this trite bait as she turns over the Carerra’s brawny engine.

“Baby, the sea is my life!” he whisper-shouts at her, sending a blast of whiskey breath toward her. She gives him a dazzling, powerful smile that subdues him a little, while she pulls away from the curb and heads for the water and a deserted beach.

~

Zaira parks the car along a stretch of road in Swampscott. The tide is out, and there is a long stretch of muddy sand and rock below, accessible by steps. She descends the steps with the young sailor, who has his arm clasped tightly around her waist, his face pressed against her shoulder and red hair. It’s late and her acute night vision sweeps the beach ahead. There are no evening beachcombers to be seen. Good.

She lets the guy apply his drunken caresses to her as they walk along the damp sandy strand, farther and farther from the lights. With a quick light gesture she removes the caps that have been covering her canine teeth and tosses them onto the sand. She is no longer bothering with conversation, her attention wholly focused on the right moment for the strike. It’s now.

Zaira stops in the sand, and the sailor, misinterpreting her action, pulls her to him and then begins to take her to the ground as he nuzzles her neck and chest. She seizes him by his biceps, gripping him fiercely and looking into his eyes, beginning the mesmerization. He stares into her eyes, his lips parted, his body softening, wilting under her power. She lowers him to the ground and lies over him, holding the back of his head with one hand, and palpating his jugular vein with the other. She lowers her face to his neck, her red mouth now wide open, and suddenly sinks her teeth into his throat. The man’s momentary struggle is but a twitch; he lies prone in her arms, and she takes long, sensuous draws of the fresh pulsing blood. It tastes incredibly wonderful after the bottled fare she’s been living on. She wants to gorge, but she needs to be careful not to fatally bleed him. The deep pleasure of the experience activates her hormones and, gradually, she begins to feel sated, instinctively licking the wound. Her frothy saliva, now rich in natural coagulants, stops the flow of venal blood.

She rolls off the sailor and with easy strength pulls him upright and drags him, still unconscious, along the sand toward the protected rocks of the cliff. She finds a large flat rock and sets him down on it and positions him sideways on it with his face pointing away from the wind. The tide won’t start coming in for another two hours, and he’ll wake up in less than twenty minutes. For a moment she considers leaving her sable jacket draped around his shoulders for extra warmth, then remembers the woman in the bar who admired it. A neighbor. It could be traced to her too easily. Zaira checks the man’s pulse and his breathing. He’ll be cold when he wakes up, but he’s young and strong. He won’t freeze here in his leather jacket.

Zaira, high heels in hand, walks barefooted across the dark beach toward the staircase that leads up the cliff. She licks traces of blood from her mouth, and feels the familiar surge of rejuvenating exuberance, the ancient ecstasy that one only experiences after a fresh draw. Will Sandor ever allow himself to discover this?

Chapter 10: Blood Work

Zaira in Sam Guise arrives at BubbleTrendz just before nine the next morning. Dean is not yet in, so she walks by to check on Gil. He’s been hacking all night, the remnants of assorted junk food and junk food wrappers lying on his desk.

“I snooped some files after Evan left,” he tells Sam in a lowered voice.

“Then you got back into the accounts?”

He nods. “But that’s not so relevant to what I found.” Gil glances toward the hall, then continues in a quiet voice, “I got into the Star logs, don’t tell Evan though, and I saw the multiple accesses from a few users. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of attempted logins.” He looks Sam in the eyes. “One of the users was Red Feathers.”

Sam looks baffled and Gil tells her, “Red Feathers is the handle of a friend of mine who works two blocks away. He hangs out at the coffee bar that’s near here and uses their public Wi-Fi. He’d never do stuff like this.” Gil stops speaking as Evan walks past in the hall. He turns back to face his computer screen and whispers, “I’ll tell you later.”

Sam encounters Mary after she leaves Gil’s office. A slender young woman is with Mary. She’s dressed in jeans and sweatshirt and her short, dark hair has streaks of red artfully blended into it.

“This is our new intern,” Mary announces by way of introduction.

The young woman smiles and extends her hand to shake with Sam. “Hi. I’m Rina.”

Sam likes her quiet confident smile and the light Russian accent. “Is that short for Irina?”

Rina laughs. “Yes. Most people don’t know that. Are you Russian?”

Sam shakes her head. “I just happen to know a lot of Eastern Europeans.” Let’s leave it at that.

“You’ll be reporting to Evan,” Mary tells Rina. “Let me take you to his office to get started with things.”

Sam wonders whether Gil has seen Rina yet. Dean suddenly appears, heading for his usual mug of morning coffee.

“Two new hires in two days,” Sam remarks brightly as she exchanges greetings with Dean.

“Anything come in this morning from Anderson?” Dean asks her.

“I haven’t checked the fax this morning.”

“Would you?” Dean turns and heads off to his office.

There’s something at the fax and it’s another term sheet from Joel Anderson. An offer to buy another thirty percent of BubbleTrendz! Sam stares at the pages in astonishment. They’re proposing to take a controlling share of the company! Dean won’t go for it. Will he? If he’s so willing to give up that much of the company, why dismiss her own offer over the weekend so summarily? Why not play the investors off each other like suitors, to get the best deal, the best price for the shares of equity?

Sam fingers the pages of the fax, staring into space in contemplation. There was that possible denial of service attach on Star’s website yesterday. Or was it just some technical glitch with their servers? No, Gil had found something last night that he wanted to tell her in confidence. Something to do with a guy named Red Feathers.

Sam walks in to Dean’s office and hands him the fax with a perky smile, although her eyes are scanning the nuances of emotion expressed in his face for any clues. It’s clear at once to her that he’s pleased to have the fax, which means he already knows what information it contains. She decides in an instant — she’s not going to quit her job just yet. Not until she figures out what’s going on with the Joel Anderson contract.

~

Marty Gaynor sits on the edge of the examination table with his shirt off. He’s got a terrible, pounding headache, not like any hangover he’s ever experienced. And, he’s really thirsty. But, it’s the puncture wounds on his neck that have him here. He touches them again for the hundredth time and winces slightly. The area is bruised and tender. The two round scabs close together are what really bother him.

A young male doctor enters the examination room and greets Marty cheerily, briskly. The doctor is carrying a clipboard and scans the form attached to it.

“When did this incident occur?” the doctor asks him.

“Last night.”

The doctor, who is only five years older than Marty, checks his clipboard again. “Your blood work from the lab indicates a low hematocrit.” He looks at Marty frankly.  “You’re pretty anemic.” He puts his stethoscope to Marty’s chest and begins to listen.

Marty fidgets a little, wanting a cigarette. “Jeez, no wonder I feel like shi-I mean no wonder I’m kinda woozy.”

The doctor is now inspecting the wound, gently palpating it.

“Were you attacked by an animal?” the doctor asks, becoming more interested in the twin marks. He’s wondering if someone stabbed the guy with prongs in a barroom brawl, while he continues the examination with professional tact.

“What kinda animal on a beach would bite like this?” Marty asks incredulously.

“Were you in a fight?” No point in avoiding the topic at this point.

“Naw. I was hangin’ with my buddy at a place we go, you know, in Lynn.” Marty lowers his head, a little shy now. “This wicked hot redhead walks in the bar, I mean she’s wearin’ a fur and shit.” He clears his throat, “She starts chattin’ me up and she’s a real looker if you know what I mean?  Before you know it, I’m in her car and we’re drivin’ to the beach. I’ve had a few, you know? So then we’re walkin’ along the beach and, well, huh-hm.” Marty stops and clears his throat again.

“You had sexual relations with the woman on the beach?” the doctor inquires clinically.

Marty shakes his head slowly. “I honestly don’t remember.” He gives an embarrassed laugh. “I mean, I’d been knockin’ back a few, prob’ly more than was a good idea, and I just woke up on the beach. I was lyin’ on a friggin’ rock and it was cold and I felt this awful pain in my neck and found this!” Marty touches his wound again.

“There are clean crusts over the jugular punctures,” the doctor says inspecting the wound more closely.

“My jugular! Are you sayin’ I could have bled to death?”

“Do you remember what model of car you were in?”

Marty shakes his head. “It was expensive, a sports car. I was pretty wasted. Sorry.” Marty slumps on the examining table, feeling this punishment is out of line with whatever misconduct he may have committed last night.

The doctor looks at him evenly. “I’m going to swab the wound area for a sample. If it was an animal that bit you, the lab tests should indicate what kind.”

“Could I have rabies?”

“It’s unlikely. However, if the lab reports show an animal inflected the wound, it would be advisable to administer post-exposure prophylaxis.”

“You mean get shots?”

The doctor nods. “Immunoglobulin followed by a series of rabies vaccines over a period of days.”

Marty looks grave. “How many days? I’m goin’ to Florida next week. My cousin’s got a deep-sea charter in the Keys. I’m crewin’ for him.”

“The likelihood that you’ve been exposed to rabies is low.” The doctor collects his lab sample and then washes the wound with a virucidal antiseptic. He smiles at Marty. “We should have results back from the lab within an hour. If you’ll take a seat in the waiting room, we’ll call you as soon as we know.”

The doctor leaves the room and Marty glumly puts on his shirt.

~

The young doctor has a nurse call the animal control officer in charge of Swampscott to advise him of possible rabid nocturnal animals on local beaches. If the officer should find the carcass of a raccoon or other animal near or on the beaches, the medical clinic would appreciate taking possession of the carcass for analysis.

The young doctor decides he’ll look at the lab results first, before writing up a report for the police.

~

The lab results come back within the hour. It’s not what the young physician was expecting. There is foreign DNA in the sample, but it doesn’t belong to any of the usual suspects among the New England mammalian or reptilian fauna. Nor is it human DNA. The pathologist suggests sending the sample out to a larger testing lab for further analysis.

Marty is told not to leave town until the second report comes back.

Chapter 11: Blood Honor

When Sam gets home, Sandor is lying on the couch in the living room listening to the stereo blasting the music of the Finnish metal band, Nightwish. He turns down the music’s volume when he sees his cousin, and sits up.

“Boxes came for you today. They are in the butler’s pantry,” he tells her. “I lied about my age and signed for them. The delivery man didn’t ask to see identification. Anyway, my age seems like an irrelevant detail at some level. Was I wrong to do that?”

“No, Sandor, thank you for signing. Are they from Cousin Ambrus?”

“Probably.” Sandor sighs unhappily.

“That’s really fast, I only ordered the cases yesterday,” she muses aloud, heading to the butler’s pantry.

There are only two boxes and they are from Ambrus. Sam, slipping back into her Zaira world, opens one of the boxes and reads the note tucked inside; these are some of Ambrus’ best ‘estate reserve’ he’s sending her, in the hopes that she can cultivate Sandor’s palate. Zaira smiles at the sweet, thoughtful gesture. Ambrus had sent these along even before her latest order for the dozen cases. For a moment she reviews her activities of last night. Can she teach her young cousin how to hunt for himself? Right now the task appears insurmountable. She turns to see Sandor standing behind her.

“How was work today?” he asks, his deep morose eyes looking expectantly at her.

“Weird, actually. The founder appears to be giving up more than half the company to an investor. There is something strange going on, and I’ve decided not to leave just yet.”

“Have they filled the positions for the interns?” he asks tentatively.

“One. A nice Russian, a graduate student in computer science.”

“I could apply for the one that’s still open.”

“Sandor, I don’t think-”

“Couldn’t I go with you tomorrow and see? They might not choose me, but you promised to introduce me to Gil.”

It’s true that she had once mentioned the possibility of introducing Sandor to Gil. It’s unlikely they’ll hire Sandor; he has no prior work experience, and he may be less enthralled with the idea of working there when he appreciates what commuting and working with humans actually entails. Give in to his request, be accommodating, collect some points for the battles yet to come.

Zaira looks Sandor squarely in the eyes. “Alright. Come in with me tomorrow. But you must promise me, Sandor, that you will say nothing of our family and our ways. Nothing! Can you really commit to this with your blood honor?”

“Must I have a guise?”

Zaira sighs and ponders this quickly.

“You may use your own name and we may be cousins. But, I must find caps for your incisors.”

She looks at him sharply for an affirmative, and he nods.

“Blood honor you will not betray our family nor our race.” she demands of him again.

“B-blood honor.”

~

Joel Anderson adjusts his white leather seat and grabs a handful of hot cashews from the bowl which the flight attendant has just set down next to him. Now she brings a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and sets that down next to the bowl. The corporate jet will arrive in Chicago in about an hour. The jet is enabled with Wi-Fi, but Joel doesn’t need to communicate with anyone at the moment. It’s his little private time aloft between deals, on the road to conquest.

The six startups now in his portfolio, the newly-formed Scorpio II Fund, should be sufficient. The fund’s name is whimsical; he happens to be a Scorpio born in autumn, just like his older brother. But, the name carries a deep emotional semantics. Joel takes a long swallow of the orange juice and kicks off his expensive loafers, looking at the cumulous cloud layer outside the window of the jet, frowning in contemplation.

Shep Anderson, his brother, is four years older than he, and a world-renowned violinist. Their mother had musical talent and had pursued a brief career on the stage as a lyric soprano, singing in the second-tier opera houses and concert halls of Europe and America. Her marriage to an orchestra conductor was even briefer than her career as an opera singer, and Joel and Shep had never really known their father. They were raised in the frugal home of their mother, who gave voice and piano lessons and also worked part-time as a music librarian. When it became clear that Shep possessed a musical gift, their mother sacrificed everything for his training and musical development. She poured her being into overseeing and nurturing his blossoming career. Joel tried to dazzle her with his good grades in school and his enterprising ways, but he hadn’t inherited an ounce of the musicality his brother possessed, and Joel knew that when his mother smiled at him, the smiles did not spring from the same source as the smiles she gave to Shep.

Joel snatches another handful of cashews and eats them almost defiantly. He’s impatient with these memories, they’re just impotent ghosts. His brother is an artist, but artists have always needed patrons to sponsor them, to build the great venues to showcase the art. The pharaohs and kings of history, the wealthy and the powerful, have been the world’s patrons. Few men truly appreciate what power is, and they never attain it. But Joel knows that his own gift is the ability to see power and seize it without hesitation. His instrument, his weapon, is a quick, disciplined mind and an unflinching and unsentimental assessment of the world. Love is for chumps and cowards who can’t shape their own destiny. Like Dean Divers, Joel thinks to himself with a faint smile of contempt.

Chapter 12: Lab Results

Zaira finds tooth caps for Sandor that will suffice for the short term. They look a little odd on him and she tells him not to smile, if possible. That shouldn’t be too difficult given his temperament. She makes a note to contact her uncle in Romania. He has a dental practice and she can order a custom-made supply of caps for Sandor.

Sandor is quiet on the commute into North Station, engrossed in a paperback copy of The Elegant Universe.  He’s more curious about his surroundings on the Red Line which is bustling and full of students and young professionals. Zaira-cum-Sam looks at Sandor’s woolen sweater and reminds herself that she must buy him some clothes: a winter coat and new jeans, some nice shirts, boots.

“People seem intelligent here,” Sandor tells her as they climb the steps out of the Kendall Square subway and emerge onto a street of building complexes. “They look animated and purposeful. I suppose it keeps you focused when you realize you’ll only have seventy or eighty years to accomplish your goals.”

Sam is startled by that zinger. It’s a true observation, and Sandor has touched on the deepest existential challenge in the life of a vampire; through the march of the centuries and millennia, how can the joy of surprise, of excitement and anticipation about the world be kept alive? Sam wants to alert Sandor to this predicament, to prepare him to face it so that his spirit will survive the ages. Sam has witnessed the alternative in members of their race — a lifeless life without end.  She has not been without her own struggles in this regard.

~

Gil, Rina and Evan are standing together in the kitchen area when Sam escorts Sandor into BubbleTrendz. Rina is listening thoughtfully to Evan describe his idea for a new app for their financial clients, a polling metric for customer relations. Gil is listening, but his eyes are focused on the floor, not on Evan. Poor Gil, Sam thinks to herself, realizing how tired he looks. Lately, he’s been showing up at work hours earlier than is customary for him, given his nocturnal nature. She remembers Gil wanted to tell her something in confidence, something about the computer glitch on Monday. But, it’s time to introduce Sandor.

“Hi, everyone!  This is my cousin Sandor who just came over from Hungary. He’s interested in applying for the internship, it turns out he’s a Python programmer!”

Evan sweeps his eyes over the tall, pale Transylvanian. “You have a work permit?”

“No. I arrived less than a week ago. But, I’ve brought my Python code,” Sandor tells him, pulling a memory stick out of his pants pocket.

“The internships are for students,” Evan says, although he’s now looking at the memory stick in Sandor’s pale long-fingered hand. He looks into Sandor’s eyes. “If your code is truly exceptional, we can probably work something out, apply for an H-1B.”

Sandor looks questioningly at Sam. “Show him what you’ve written,” she tells him encouragingly, feeling a sudden surge of loyalty for her cousin. He showed courage to come here today, unasked, to offer up his creative work to a potentially hostile, unreceptive world.

“Let’s go to my office and talk,” Evan tells Sandor authoritatively. “And, why don’t you come along, too?” he says to Rina, smiling.

The invitation is not extended to Gil, and he continues standing in the kitchen with Sam, after the other three have left. Sam knows he must be smarting a bit from Evan’s barbs of exclusion and dominance. She asks him, conspiratorially, “What was that about the red feathers?”

Gil gives her a sudden, meaningful look. “My friend Ben is Red Feathers. He’s a totally cool guy, a great Java hacker, and he wouldn’t initiate a DoS against a financial services website. No way. He’s got a great gig in biotech, he’s a total science geek, straight arrow guy.”

“Couldn’t there be more than one Red Feathers handle out there?” Sam asks, instinctively monitoring Evan’s office to see whether he’ll reappear suddenly.

“There could. But, get this.” Gil speaks more softly now. “Evan hangs out at that same coffee bar, too. A lot. I mean, he’s Mayor of it on Foursquare. That place gets a bazillion Foursquare checkins. To be Mayor there is significant.”

“So, what are you saying, Gil?”

“People use public wi-fi there and they’re not usually encrypting stuff. A lot of social media uses cookies to authenticate the user, and it’s possible to snoop those cookies via wincap, hijack the connection, steal the authentication info.” Gil looks her in the eyes.

“Do you know for certain that he-” Sam doesn’t want to mention Evan by name.

“It’s not a smoking gun, but he’s there all the time and could easily do this. I just think it’s pretty weird that we never had a glitch like this with any of our client sites, and the first day he shows up, bam! Big denial of service attack.”

“And he wants it to look as though others are instigating it?”

“Exactly. It’s why he’d steal IDs.”

“But why would he do such a thing?” Sam is trying to fit the jumbled bits into a whole: Evan’s sudden prominence at BubbleTrendz, the apparent denial of service attack, Dean’s strange compliance with an investment takeover.

“That is something we’d better find out. And soon,” Gil tells her softly, his eyes alert.

~

The young doctor who examined Marty Gaynor’s neck wound is surprised by the report that comes back from the external lab. He’s surprised enough to telephone the geneticist who wrote up the report. The geneticist repeats his analysis over the phone; the sequences he was able to extract from the sample sent to his lab were not close matches to published sequences in non-human species of primates, but were ‘in the ballpark’. Without more samples of the DNA on which to run more sequencing, the geneticist cannot determine the species this chemistry belongs to.

“There’s no possibility that it’s human, correct?”

“Correct.” The young physician hears the sigh from the other end of the phone connection. “From what I’ve been able to learn — which is admittedly incomplete — this animal, this being, should be more distantly related to humans than Neanderthals. But probably more closely related to us than chimpanzees.”

“That’s incredible.”

“It is, if it’s really true. Is it possible to obtain more samples? I can’t reach a more conclusive analysis without more data.”

“Very doubtful,” the doctor tells him with genuine disappointment now, realizing that the thorough cleaning of the wound probably eliminated any remaining traces.

“Well, I guess the story ends here for now,” the geneticist tells him. “But, if you obtain more samples, please send them to me.”

The call is ended, and the doctor brings up Marty Gaynor’s medical record on the computer. He locates the phone number for his patient and calls him. He intends to be precise and firm about the soundness of recommending that Marty undergo the treatment of rabies shots; primates can carry the disease, after all. But, the doctor decides to remain vague about what type of animal. His choice of words, ‘a nocturnal mammal of the northeast’ is not, strictly speaking, a lie. The only important medical issue is to ensure that the patient is protected from possible exposure to rabies, which the shots will provide.

~

The young physician meets his girlfriend later that day in downtown Boston. She’s an attorney with a large law office. It’s the one day a week their schedules permit having lunch together. He tells her about the strange wound on his patient and the even stranger and inconclusive lab results. She listens, a little distracted by incoming texts on her cellphone. Finally she looks at him and smiles. “I don’t know, Ted, maybe the guy was bitten by a vampire.”

He smiles back. “Why didn’t I think of that.”

Her eyes twinkle flirtatiously. “Two little holes in the neck and he has blood loss? Maybe you should be recommending garlic wreaths and, what is it, silver candlesticks? Or is it mirrors they don’t like.”

“The lab results eliminated a human agent. It’s why I’m not making a police report.”

“Could someone have stabbed him with a two-tined implement, and then some raccoony kind of critter crawled over and licked him while he lay unconscious on the beach?” She shakes her head, smiling. “Naw, I don’t think raccoons go to the beach. Anyway, you said it was some kind of primate.  Have any monkeys escaped from a zoo?”

Ted looks at her seriously. “It wasn’t a monkey. The lab ruled out homo sapiens but not all conceivable hominids. It’s a baffling case, Alicia. I’ve got to accept that.”

Her smile fades. “It’s kind of spooky if you ask me.”

Chapter 13: Shots

Evan is impressed by Sandor’s Python application. Sufficiently impressed that he wants to hire him. Evan talks to Dean and Dean tells Mary to make it happen. Sandor will share an office with Rina, the one located next to Evan’s.

Sam sees two positives in the unfolding situation: Sandor has found an interest to keep him occupied, and he’ll be doing it under her own watchful eye as she stays on at BubbleTrendz in her Sam guise.

Dean stops by Sam’s desk to let her know he’ll be in New York all day tomorrow, then back in the office on Friday.

“I’m meeting with some potential new customers. More finance guys. I may be faxing you some forms. I may need you to write up some letters.”

Sam listens to Dean with a serious, energized expression, deepening her brand as Little Miss Responsibility. But, it’s also time to probe for some information. Looking up at Dean, she asks as innocently as possible, “Did anyone mention to you that the Star Rock website became inaccessible to us, to the developers, on Monday afternoon? It was only about twenty minutes, but Gil said it never happened before. I thought you’d want to know.”

Dean shrugs. “Evan told me, and he’s on top of it. Star is aware of the issue as well.” It’s clear that he’s a little surprised, even annoyed, that she would ask him such a question. It’s not related to her duties as an office admin.

Sam ponders Dean’s reaction after he leaves. Even discounting for the touch of chauvinism in his dismissal of her question, he didn’t seem genuinely surprised or concerned about the apparent denial of service attack on his most important customer, or that it had occurred while his own programmers were accessing the inner workings of the Star website.

~

After work Sam takes Sandor to Somerville, to show him her one-bedroom apartment there.

“This is where I normally stay during the work week,” she tells him. “I use the big place on the ocean only on weekends.”

“I like the ocean better,” he says, surveying the small place, “but this is close to work. I think I’ll be working many hours there.”

“When I’m in town, I stay in full guise.”

“Even your teeth?” he asks her.

She nods. “I keep bottled blood stashed in the kitchen.”  Sam surveys the living room. “The futon folds out into a bed, and this can be your room. I’ll buy you a good laptop of your own, too.”

“I’ll have a computer at work. And, I can save my money and buy my own laptop.”

“Sandor, let me buy you a gift, okay? Consider it your welcome-to-Boston gift.”

Sandor gives her one of his rare little smiles. Sam reminds herself that she must call her Romanian uncle for better-fitting caps for his teeth. She looks at him brightly.”And, speaking of gifts, let me treat you to some new clothes. There are some nice shops in Harvard Square. We could go now if you like.”

~

Marty Gaynor sits at the bar looking glumly at the pint of draft beer in front of him. He’s wearing a wool turtleneck sweater which hides the wound on his neck.

“I’ve gotta take shots for a month,” he tells the bartender, “and they don’t even know what bit me.”

“Don’t mess around with rabies.” The bartender shakes his head as he opens two bottled beers for customers.

Marty let’s out a small sigh under his breath. “I’m s’posed to be in Florida next week. Got a job with my cousin on his boat. He can’t wait all this time while I’m gettin’ shots.”

“How many shots do they give you?” the bartender asks.

“I got some kinda booster shot today. But I still need four more. And the doc says they gotta wait between each shot. It’ll take a month total.” Marty’s tone is discouraged.

One of the customers, an older man, turns toward Marty. “At least they don’t do them in the stomach anymore. Boys, those must’ve hurt something awful.”

Marty looks at him with alarm. “My doc says they’re just in the arm, like any shot.”

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about. You’re gettin’ off easy, compared to how it was.”

Marty turns back to the bartender. “Did that redhead ever show up again?”

The bartender gives Marty a teasing look. “That was your lucky night, all right.”

Marty doesn’t continue the banter. “She was strange, Mike. If she walked in here right now I wouldn’t even talk to her.” He lowers his voice and touches his neck. “I can’t prove it, but I think she had somethin’ to do with this.”

“Are you sayin’ she had an animal bite you?” Mike, the bartender, looks perplexed at Marty.

“Maybe she bit me.”

“What kind of weirdo would do that? Anyway, I thought you said the lab report proved it wasn’t human-caused.”

Marty takes a sip of his beer. “I don’t think they’re tellin’ me everything. Why couldn’t they just say it was a snake or a bat or a-”

“I don’t think the Commonwealth has vampire bats,” the older customer volunteers.

The man next to him smiles and joins the conversation. “Maybe we’ve just got plain old vampires?”

The older guy nods cynically. “Sure, just like they had witches in Salem.”

“That gal was somethin’ the other night,” Mike tells the older man, then directs his eyes at Marty and smiles. “I guess you thought so, too.”

Marty looks a little rattled and says nothing.

Chapter 14: Developments

“Great view, isn’t it?” Joel Anderson watches Dean Divers gaze admiringly out across lower Manhattan from the expansive conference room of blond wood and recessed lighting.

Dean Divers, only slightly less blond and less tall than Joel Anderson, nods, then turns away from the window and directs his gaze at Joel. “So, should I be moving BubbleTrendz to New York? Closer to the action now?”

“No need.” Joel smiles. “Not in this digital age.”

A smartly-dressed assistant enters the conference room. “Everyone is here now.”

“I guess we’re ready then.” Joel lifts an arched eyebrow almost imperceptibly and the assistant leaves, returning moments later with the new arrivals.

~

Sam checks the fax machine at regular intervals throughout the day, but there is nothing from Dean and his alleged bankers, nor from Joel Anderson’s office, for that matter. She tries not to spy on Sandor who is now provisionally working in an office here at BubbleTrendz, sitting at a computer next to a human — an attractive young Russian named Rina. Sam can occasionally pick up fragments of Rina’s voice from down the hall, including light-hearted laughter once or twice.  Sam reprimands her own anxiousness.Relax! Let him enjoy his Python code. He’s not going to out his vampire brethren while he’s immersed in a programming problem.

Sam’s cellphone jingles an incoming text message from Deborah of KFR: S&P dipped 2000 points 3 min ago! Back to normal now! ??? -d

Sam fires off her surprise in a return message, then heads for Gil’s office.

Her eyes connect with his in a meaningful gaze. “A flash crash on the stock market has apparently just occurred,” she announces.

Gil activates his stock quote app and studies it a moment. “It doesn’t show here, but these quotes are delayed. How long ago was it?”

Right, he doesn’t have the realtime stock data that Deborah is looking at. “Less than five minutes ago. A friend of mine gets real-time quotes.” She lowers her voice. “Is it hard to figure out what might have caused this?” She doesn’t mention names, but he reads her meaning.

Gil nods emphatically “Damn near impossible for me. The stock exchange is not our client, I have no way of accessing their logs and, anyway, there’s no reason a priori to assume the flash crash was caused by a denial of service.” She has clearly piqued his interest concerning the possibilities, though.

The two of them have already commiserated on various odd events of the past week. Sam decides to delve a little deeper. “Are you aware that a second offer has been made to Dean from Joel Anderson’s group?” Gil’s expression shows that he is not. She continues. “It came by fax yesterday. If Dean accepts their offer, Anderson will control sixty percent of BubbleTrendz.” When Gil says nothing she adds, “Do you think he would really accept their terms?”

Gil says nothing for a long moment. “A week ago I would’ve said ‘no way’, but now? I have no idea.” Gil gives her a puzzled, worried look. “Dean’s changed.”

~

The meeting has continued for more than an hour and Dean is feeling differently than he expected to. He knows it’s because he can’t read Joel today. First, the bankers have not shown up for this meeting; Dean had been led to believe it was a major reason for this get-together. Joel has not provided much in the way of an explanation, either, and has rambled on about ‘our networks’ for the past thirty minutes. A little miffed, Dean thinks to himself that if ‘hurry up and wait’ is the game today, he’s about to deal himself out. He wishes he’d not signed those papers earlier today, even though they are conditional on the bank deal. He reaches a decision and stands up.

“Joel, thanks for your time today. Sorry we missed Craig and Longhorn, but I’ve got a lot of work waiting for me back in Boston.”

Joel’s eyebrows arch slightly in surprise. “Don’t worry about the bankers. The deal is going through. No question about it.”

Dean locks eyes with Joel. “I think we’ve got a good thing. It’s unusual and I like the twist or I wouldn’t be here. But, frankly, I’d like to button up the paperwork on this.” Dean shakes his head lightly. “Is there some reason these guys couldn’t make it today?”

Joel glances at the two other men in the room; one is the man whose roast beef sandwich Sam had stared at, the other is another man who was also present at that meeting, a red-haired man with fashionable-length stubble on his chin. Joel looks at Dean and smiles. “Relax. Sit down. We’ve still got a lot to cover.”

Dean remains standing. “So what are these networks you keep mentioning?” he asks, feeling an unexpected surge of adrenalin as he looks at Joel.

“It’s a big deal in the works here,” Joel tells him evenly, with a placid face. But Joel’s pupils are like points of ice. “We’re inside a lot of firewalls, we have access to a lot of stuff. But we need it to deliver on the space-age analytics our clients will be getting from us, right?”

Dean knows he’s expected to nod at this rhetorical question posed by Joel. He doesn’t.

“We’re in a unique position to help our clients protect themselves from cyber attacks.” Joel smiles at Dean again, and with a sickening clarity, Dean realizes that Joel’s smile is wholly sarcastic. Joel gets up from his seat and walks to the window, looking out at the city below. “One service we can provide is to test the security of these systems by showing our clients how they can be compromised, overridden.” Joel is silent for a moment, before adding, “We show them how bad it could be, but also provide the solution to those worst-case scenarios.”

“Are you saying you want to hit their sites with botnets as an exercise? ”

“The NSA plays those kinds of cybar warfare games with hackers all the time,” Joel replies casually.

“Joel, my clients trust my company. We’re providing business analytics to them, that’s all. They trust my guys.” Dean is now focused on one goal, exit the deal and exit the office. It’ll be a major legal expense to undo the original thirty percent, but that’s what he’s now considering.

“Dean, I think you’d better sit down.” Joel is no longer smiling.

~

It’s close to five-thirty and Sam is about to tell Sandor that it’s time to leave for the day. Not a single fax came in this afternoon. She and Sandor will stay in Somerville tonight for the first time. As she is reflecting on what they might do that evening, Sandor walks toward her, with Rina and Gil.

“We’re going to a pub near Central Square. Would you like to go with us?”

Sam is startled by Sandor’s sudden social inclinations. She scans the faces of Gil and Rina; Rina is smilingly expectantly at Sandor and Gil is casting shy glances at Rina. A budding romantic triangle she thinks to herself.

“Sure!” she tells them, surprised at her own happiness.

Chapter 15: Identities

The small pub is full of loud happy noise. Rina waves to a couple of friends sitting at the bar as the foursome from BubbleTrendz heads for a booth. Sam wishes she could be alone with Gil here to puzzle things out more leisurely, but she can see that, right now, he is preoccupied with Rina. They settle into a booth near the back; Sandor slides in against the wall and Rina immediately moves to sit across from him. Sam hesitates to let Gil decide where he’d like to sit and, when he sits down next to Sandor, she scoots in next to Rina.

They order a pitcher of beer and some bar food. Sam glances discreetly at Sandor and he gives her the faintest acknowledgment — an almost imperceptible nod of his head that conveys to her: yes, I know to go sparingly here with food and drink.

Sam mostly listens to the three programmers talk shop; she occasionally looks at her cellphone to read two additional messages from Deborah and to scan Twitter for news of the flash crash. There isn’t substantive information, just a multitude of repeats and retweets about the huge, momentary blip-dip in the markets.

Rina looks flushed and radiant. Sam realizes it’s because the young Russian is flirting with her cousin Sandor. It appears to be a one-way effort; Sandor is evidently equally immersed in both his companions from BubbleTrendz, now relentlessly peppering Gil with questions about the Ruby programming language, now looking attentively into Rina’s eyes when she embellishes Gil’s explanations.

Sam listens to the dialogue, delighting in the intelligent, passionate conversation pouring forth from these truly young people, none of whom has circled the sun even twenty-five times. When you have centuries, millennia, you develop quite an elaborate matrix for the seasons and what your own preferences are for what constitutes a vintage season.

~

It’s after ten when Sam unlocks and opens the front door of her small Somerville apartment. The air is a little musty in these rooms which have been closed up and unoccupied for a while. Sam turns up the heat and goes to the kitchen to find some bottled blood.

With momentary chagrin she remembers there are no opaque drinking containers in the place. Then she bristles; she shouldn’t be pandering to Sandor’s phobias. He’s a vampire and he needs human blood to thrive. Nothing is going to change that.

She pulls two wine goblets off a shelf, then pops the seal on a box of preserved blood, Type O. She pours a generous amount into each glass. Admittedly it tastes like crap, but the nutrients are intact. A packaging process developed by her ex-brother-in-law Ferenc. She’d funded his explorations into the process and they both would have made a small fortune if only there were more vampires walking the earth. Unfortunately, the market is quite small. Nevertheless, this ‘fast food blood’ with the long shelf life certainly comes in handy with the lifestyle she has chosen to live in the early 21st century.

“Don’t you have a thermos?”

Sam, now Zaira, turns to look at Sandor’s disapproving face behind her.

“I don’t.” Her eyes flash at him. “Just drink it, okay? It’s really not hard to do and you will feel the difference immediately.”

Sandor’s tall frame leans slightly away from her. “Could you drink that knowing it came from Gil or Rina?” he asks pointedly.

She takes her time before answering him. “If my survival depended on it, yes.” She shakes her head slowly at the accusing disappointment in his face. “But it wouldn’t kill them because I am practiced in the art of the hunt. You would do well to learn something of it before passing so much judgement.”

“I want to be a hacker, not a bloodsucker!” Sandor storms out of the kitchen and flings himself on the couch.

Zaira takes a deep breath and resolutely picks up the two goblets and walks quietly into the living room. She sits down on the chair opposite her angry young cousin and sets the two goblets gently on the coffee table between them. The dull red processed human blood shimmers in the soft light. Zaira picks up one of the goblets and raises it to her cousin.

“Let’s drink to our ancestors, to the beautiful Carpathian mountains, to our long-lived traditions. Be proud of them, Sandor.” There is true passion in her voice now as she looks at him with deep familial honesty.

Sandor looks into her eyes and she is startled by the profound longing within them.

“I want to be human,” he tells her softly.

Just as softly, she answers him. “That, my dear cousin, cannot be.”

~

By noon the next day Dean has still not shown up at the office. Sam asks Mary whether Dean’s meetings ran over to Friday, but Mary is noncommittal. Sam concludes that Mary may not know what’s going on either, but is reflexively pulling rank on the mere office manager.

Evan is at his desk early and works intensely throughout the day. He doesn’t stop for a lunch break. Sam encounters him briefly in the hall mid-afternoon and directs a swift penetrating glance at him, but his face is an impervious block as he walks past her in what is clearly a social snub. Evan’s social postures mean nothing to Sam, but she does wonder whether he knows anything about the New York meetings.

Work is slow that afternoon so Sam spends time on the Internet trying to find meaningful clues about yesterday’s flash crash. As she bounces back to a major news site the headline that is moving across the top of the page rivets her to the screen:

Apparent suicide in midtown Manhattan identified as social media entrepreneur.

Chapter 16: A phone Call

Dean!? With her heart pounding, Sam quickly locates the story online and reads more.

Passers-by were horrified at the sudden fall of a man onto the street from a midtown Manhattan residential building. Police have taped off the block while the investigation is underway. A woman who lives in the neighborhood and was returning from lunch was an eye witness. “I just happened to look up and my god I see a man coming down, his blue shirt and then … he, he hit the ground. It was terrible.”

Officials are not yet making a public announcement as to the man’s identity. One spokesman, who wished to remain anonymous, stated that it appears to be a suicide, although they have not ruled out the possibility of foul play. Investigators are waiting for  results from the coroner’s office.

Wasn’t Dean at some midtown office?  Sam’s uneasiness grows as she contemplates the lack of communication with Dean, his non-appearance at BubbleTrendz today. Feeling quite unsettled  she goes looking for Gil and finds him at the coffee station. He knows more.

“They’ve just identified that guy. It’s Perry Hinds!”

“The guy who founded NetPlow?”

“Yeah, that one.” Gil gives her a sad look.

“He had the world on a string. Why would he do that, assuming it was suici-”

“The guy was a known bi-polar.”

Sam and Gil turn to see Evan standing there, fetching himself a red bottle of some power drink from the refrigerator.

“Did you know him?” Sam asks Evan with a touch of hostility in her voice.

He shrugs dismissively. “I’ve worked with Joel on a lot of projects. Joel bought in to Hinds latest venture, Xxalo. I spent some time around the guy. It was common knowledge.” Evan takes a big swallow from his red bottle and looks at Sam. “I didn’t take him for such a drama queen, though, doing that jumper thing in broad daylight in downtown Manhattan.” Evan heads briskly down the hall, having lost interest in further conversation.

Gil glowers after him. “It’s not clear Perry Hinds did jump. He might have been pushed.”  He adds more assertively, a shade louder. “Evan possesses more arrogance than curiosity. Bad trait in a hacker.”

~

There is still no word from Dean by close of day Friday. Sam, preoccupied with this observation, is collecting her things to leave. She glances up to see Sandor standing at her desk.

“I’m planning to work late tonight,” he tells her. “Could I have the key to the Somerville apartment for the weekend?”

Sam is unprepared for this sudden request. “Oh. I thought we’d go back to the ocean house for the weekend, for some relaxation after your first big week?”

“I don’t mind if you want to go. I’m going to stay in town, though.”

His choice of words doesn’t give her many options without just flatly denying him the key to the apartment. He’ll probably be fine in Somerville. Why is she so concerned?

Rina approaches them. “All kinds of stories in the news today,” she reports, smiling at  Sandor, but including Sam in the conversation. “Some guy is claiming he was bitten by a vampire, a beautiful woman!” Rina smiles broadly, relaying more of the story in her warm Russian accent. “”Two little puncture wounds on his neck. Could be anything, except,” her face is alight with curiosity now, “It’s an unknown DNA from the sample what they took. Maybe related with people, but not a known monkey.”  Rita sees the sudden change of expression on Sam’s face and validates it. “Weird, isn’t it?” she reflects more seriously.  “Sometimes reporters don’t get the story right, though. Especially science.” Rita gives Sandor an anticipatory smile that is clearly laced with flirtation. “Do you think there could be another hominid we don’t know about?”

The palest tint of blush crosses Sandor’s cheeks and he gives Rita a somewhat desperate smile but says nothing.

After Rina returns to her office, Sandor directs a penetrating gaze at his cousin. In a quiet tone he remarks “I thought you didn’t hunt prey where you worked.”

Sam is shocked by his direct accusation. What’s the point in denying it. Angrily she gazes into his eyes. “Exactly where do you think the substance in the bottles you drink comes from? Yes! I went on a hunting expedition and the recipient of my, well, attentions, is perfectly healthy. I’m certain of it.”

Sandor looks down. Sam is dismayed, disconcerted by his expression. He looks tragic.  “You have to come to terms with this!” she tells him in an emphatic whisper, her eyes scanning the hallway for their coworkers. Her hard look softens. “Come with me this weekend. Sandor, we’re related to each other. We need to get to know each other a little.”

“I’m staying here. I can hang out in cafes. I can sleep in my office.”

Sam shakes her head in defeat, rummages in her bag and presses the key to the Somerville apartment into Sandor’s hand.  “Please eat something? I trust you.”

~

Zaira leans her head back in the foamy tub, a classic Red Mimosa within hand’s reach. She has the French doors to the balcony opened wide and their full-length ivory chiffon curtains are billowing in the sharp breeze that’s coming in off the ocean. Steam rises from the spa-like heat of the jacuzzi and Zaira’s red hair, piled high on her head, is damp from it. She is annoyed with herself for continuing to brood and fixate on Sandor, not allowing herself to slip into her cherished personal sanctuary. She’d read the two stories in the news about the incident with the sailor. Clearly she’d been careless, clearly she should have driven a hundred miles away to seek prey. Is this why she’s angry tonight?

Her cell phone jingles the tone for Anatol, her investment partner.

“Zaira? I know it’s late to be calling, but I also happen to know that you are a night owl.”

His pleasant, ironic voice is like comfort food. She laughs. “I’m in the jacuzzi with a red mimosa.”

“A red one? With pomegranate?”

She smiles, her incisors uncapped. “Something like that.”

“Of course you know already about this high publicity suicide today? The Hinds guy?”

“Do you think it was a suicide, Anatol?”

There is a pause on the connection. “I’m not certain.”

“He has — he had — a connection with Joel Anderson’s group. The guy who scooped us with Dean.”

“I know. Perry Hinds also fired one of his employees.”

“Why does that matter?”

“The Xxalo employee is being indicted on charges of hacking into the computer systems of the stock exchange.” After a pause he adds, “That’s not so easily done.”

“Something to do with the flash crash?”

“Possibly. Probably is my guess.”

Zaira lets out a long sigh. “Dean Divers attended a meeting yesterday in New York with Joel Anderson. I have reason to believe he was going to sell a controlling share of BubbleTrendz to the Anderson group. I also understand through my sources that Dean has not returned to Boston today as expected.”

“Ever had direct dealings with Joel Anderson?” Anatol asks her.

“Not to date. I have a feeling I wouldn’t like him much.”

“Nor I, although I have to admire the fact that he’s grown a two billion dollar investment fund from scratch. He’s a damn smart guy I imagine.”

Saira smiles cynically. “He outsmarted us on the BubbleTrendz deal.”

“I lost over a million dollars in five minutes during that flash crash. Fortunately I recouped it, but you can believe I will be tracking this ex-Xxalo employee story.”

“I’ll see what I can learn through back channels here,” Zaira tells him as she watches the wings of an owl flash by the balcony. A fellow hunter.

“Thank you, Zaira. And please enjoy your champagne with the pomegranate. I must try one sometime.”

She cannot resist smiling into her cellphone. “You shall.”

Chapter 17: A Sudden Request

It’s Saturday night and Zaira feels conflicted. She has successfully refrained from calling Sandor on his new Android cell phone, even though she’s been brooding over numerous scenarios of how he might be caught off guard, how he unknowingly (or knowingly) might be putting them at risk. At risk? She reproaches herself for hypocrisy. She’s the one who may have put them at risk with her recent escapade on a North Shore beach. And it’s the very thing she’s contemplating doing again this evening. The memory of the sweet rush from a fresh draw had been dancing around in her mind for hours. Should she just get in the car and drive to Maine? New York would be a better choice. There would be a lot of anonymity in a large metropolitan center. She selects a Mahler symphony on her sound system and paces back and forth across her spacious living room, dressed in fitted black pants and sweater, her red hair flowing loose. She’ll need to put caps on her teeth, some red lipstick, perfume and a good piece of jewelry. And high-heeled boots. Her cell phone rings. It’s Sandor.

“How are you doing?” she asks him, a bit too cheerfully.

“I’m at work, writing code.”

“Is the apartment comfortable for you?” she continues, shamelessly probing now for information.

“It was fine. I’m calling you because your phone at work has been ringing this afternoon and then this evening. Four times I think. The message light is blinking.”

A little shiver runs up Zaira’s spine. “Is anyone else working there tonight?”

“No.”

“Are you alone?”

“Yes, no one is here, Zaira.”

“Please call me Sam whenever you are at work.”

“Sorry, I forgot.”

“Okay, I’m driving in. I’ll see you in about an hour.”

“Why?”

She hears his tone. “I’ll leave you to your code, Sandor. I won’t intrude. But, I really should check my messages.”

“Don’t you have them forwarded to your cell phone?” he asks incredulously.

“No. I keep my identities separate.”

She makes a quick course correction; no red lipstick and no jewelry. She pulls her hair into a pony tail and dons her tooth caps. Sneakers and a light parka replace the planned stilettos and fox jacket.

~

Zaira parks her red Carrera on a narrow side street in front of old 19th-century brickwork buildings that were once metal-working shops and now house small, bioinformatics companies. The car is several blocks away from BubbleTrendz; the night air has a bite to it and it invigorates her as she walks past a lone student, and past a cluster of laughing friends on their way to somewhere, texting their plans to other members of their social tribe. She quells a sudden predatory urge as she passes another lone male.  Absolutely not here.

The lights are off when Zaira enters BubbleTrendz; only two exit lights are glowing.    Because of her superb vampiric night vision, she doesn’t reflexively turn on more lights, but simply walks to her desk in the dark. She sees the blinking red message light of her phone and picks up the receiver. There are five short messages — all from Dean. The first one came in around ten this morning and the last one was less than an hour ago. Why would he call her at nine o’clock on a Saturday night with a question about office supplies? It’s surreal. She decides to hang around for a while, fairly certain he’ll call again. And, as she’s here, she may as well go by Sandor’s office.

Sandor’s office is dark except for the glow from the flat screen monitor. He is leaning forward in his chair, shoulders hunched, motionless, except for his long, thin fingers which are striking keys on the keyboard in sudden bursts of intensity. Zaira-cum-Sam watches him, fascinated that he finds computer programming so fascinating. She knows he is aware of her presence; they’d picked up each other’s scents the moment she had opened the front door of BubbleTrendz. She waits for him to acknowledge her, which he does presently.

“So you drove in. There was another call just after I talked to you-”

“Yes. They’re all from Dean. He called this evening about printer cartridges.” With concern in her voice she adds, “That’s just between you and me. Don’t mention this to Evan, okay?”

Sandor shrugs and turns back to writing code. “I can’t believe you drove all this way just to check messages. Are you going to stay at the apartment?”

“No, I’m going to wait a little and see whether Dean calls again. Then, I’m going out.” Catching his eye she says softly, “Don’t ask.”

~

Sam arrives late to the office Monday morning. She’s still a bit dazed and exhausted from her impulse long stride over the weekend. Not especially strenuous as such jaunts go, but she was out of conditioning for them, for the rarified metabolic state they required. Fresh blood had been invigorating, but if there was a net gain, she doesn’t feel it yet.

Disappointed, she sees that the message light is not blinking on her phone. She hears male voices near the front door, one of them is vaguely familiar. Maybe Dean is back today, bringing the new partners with him?

“Sam, please make fresh coffee and order some pastry and fruit from Lila’s.” Sam turns to face Mary, who is clearly peeved that Sam showed up twenty minutes late today.

“So Dean’s back?”

Mary doesn’t reply to this, but turns and walks toward the conference room where she welcomes three men who are standing there. Sam watches Mary usher them into the room. Dean is not among them.

Sam realizes she has seen one of them before — the guy who ate the rare roast beef sandwich in that same room only weeks earlier. But she knows he is not the leader of the group. The taller blonde guy might be Joel Anderson, his alpha human scent is unmistakable. She grabs her jacket, about to dash out to pick up breakfast goodies at the local high-end bakery known as Lila’s, when her phone rings. She starts at the sound and pounces on the receiver.

“Yes?”

“Sam?”

“Dean! Will you be coming in today?”

The pause is strange, ominous.

“No. Sam.  I’m sorry if I seem odd, crazy, but somehow I believe I can trust you. You’re the only one.”

“Printer cartridges?”

“I couldn’t tell you in a recorded message.” Sam hears his short intake of breath before he tells her in a quiet voice, “I have to be careful — I’m on the run now. I need money, it’s why I’m calling you. I want you to get cash with your BubbleTrendz credit card, it should be good for at least a thousand dollars.”

“How much do you actually need?” she asks him softly, scanning the hall with her eyes.

“I don’t know. I have to go now.”

“Where shall I send the money?”

“I’ll call you later.” Through the phone connection she hears new alarm in his voice. “Are there visitors today?”

“Three men, a tall blonde guy and-”

“Joel Anderson. Sam, do not trust him.”

“Why is he here?”

Dean’s wary tone now has an edge of bitterness.

“Because he believes I’m dead.”

Chapter 18: Delayed Pastries

The morning air is bracing as Sam dashes across the street where Lila’s Bakery is. She walks past the shop and down the block and turns into the branch office of a local bank.

Good thing I brought the checkbook with me Sam reflects as she rummages in her bag, waiting in line for the next available bank clerk. Dean will need more than a thousand dollars and she won’t be able to withdraw enough from an ATM machine in one transaction.

A woman ahead of her is discussing some issue unhappily with one of the two bank clerks on duty. Sam watches the other clerk who finishes up with a customer but then walks away from the window.

A more senior bank officer is now at the window with the clerk who is tending to the unhappy woman, whose voice has grown more agitated. Sam fidgets impatiently and looks up at the clock, she’s been waiting in line for twelve minutes. The other clerk reappears at the window and beckons Sam over.

The bank clerk briefly studies the hastily written withdrawal slip and asks to see ID which Sam hands to her.

“How would you like this? In twenties?” the clerk asks Sam.

“Hundreds, please.”

~

When Sam returns to BubbleTrendz with a platter of Lila’s pastries, Mary is in the kitchen and gives Sam a mild glare.

“What took you so long?  I’ve already made the coffee. Just take that platter on in to the conference room.”

“I’m sorry. There was a line.” It’s a half truth, but Sam is not going to discuss her bank errand with Mary. Without taking off her jacket, Sam goes to the conference room and sets the pastry platter on a side table next to the coffee urn. The three visitors are standing by the window holding cups of coffee and talking in low voices.

“Good morning, gentlemen!” she says brightly, saluting the three men quickly with a perky smile.  They regard her as an attractive minion and say nothing, but wait for her to remove the wrapper covering the pastries. Joel Anderson immediately walks over and selects a brioche, bites into it and resumes his conversation with the other two men. Sam can smell his aggression, his power chemistry. A dangerous human to be avoided. But she needs information. She looks at Joel with feigned apology.

“I’m sorry that Dean is not here yet. He’s usually the first one in the office, but-”

“We’re not expecting Divers today,” Joel responds quietly, dismissively.

“Oh. Is he still in New York then? He was supposed to be back here last Friday and I was expecting faxes from him.”

Sam is aware that Joel is looking at her incredulously, at her presumption to enter into a conversation with him as equals. But, it’s obvious that he has now reassessed her status: she’s more than an office bimbo, she’s a potential obstacle to be dealt with swiftly.

With calculated measure she continues to look at him, eyes wide but unintimidated. Joel stares at her with unmasked annoyance.

“Sweetheart, make me a cup of tea. Earl Grey. Black.”

She shrugs and stays put. “I’m just a little concerned about my boss now,” she says with a touch of deference directed at Joel.

“Okay, doll. They don’t tell you much here, do they. I’m you’re boss now. Dean Divers sold me a controlling share of this firm on Friday. He reports to me now. That’s not too hard to understand, is it? Now, make me that tea. And make it strong.”

~

After serving Joel his tea, Sam takes a quick glance at Mary’s desk when the latter woman appears to be gone. There is paperwork from BubbleTrendz’ attorney and Joel Anderson’s name appears in several places on the top page. Is it a transfer of ownership contract? Should she call the lawyer’s office and ask him whether he has heard from Dean since last Friday?

Sam’s thoughts race as she walks back to her desk. Is Dean just cracking up and concocting a crazy story after signing away sixty percent of his company? Seller’s remorse?

Sam reminds herself of Dean’s sudden treatment of her as his only confidante. He’d been a decent guy to work with, but his behavior toward her bordered on the aloof. Until these recent phone calls. But, she trusts her instincts. It’s why that envelope of money is stashed in her purse. She hears Mary’s voice and sees the three men following Mary down the hall. Time to look busy.

It seems Mary is taking the men on a brief tour of the place and they linger a bit at Evan’s office. Sam’s acute vampiric hearing picks up most of the conversation and it’s obvious Evan has worked with those guys before. She’ll discuss that in private with Gil when she gets the chance. Her office phone rings and she picks up the receiver with a pounding heart.

“Sam?”

“Yes. I have it for you.”

“Thank you! Were you able to get a thousand?”

Sam’s eyes scan the hallway as she half-whispers into the receiver, “Four thousand. Forty bills in an envelope. Where shall I send it?”

“I’m in New Jersey. I’ll be here for a couple of days, until the money gets here. Tell no one!” Dean sounds desperate as Sam scribbles down the address, a motel in some beach town outside Atlantic City.

“They’re still here,” she tells him in a hushed tone. “He says he’s running the company now, that you sold a controlling share to him. He didn’t reveal where he thinks you are.”

“He’s not what he appears to be.”

“What he appears to be is not exactly Prince Valiant.” Sam chuckles despite the situation.

“He’s a dangerous man, Sam.”

“Dean! What should I do here?”

“I don’t know yet. But sending the money is the first thing. How did you manage four thousand?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Sam! You didn’t–”

“It was absolutely no problem. And there’s more if you need it.” She realizes she’s sounding more like Zaira now than Sam.  She hears Dean let out a long breath over the phone line.

“Sam, you’re a great little office manager, but I had no idea what a gem of a human being you are. I underestimated you greatly. I’m sorry.”

“You trusted me. I’ll try not to let you down.”

“I know that.”

Sam sees the men leaving Evan’s office and immediately brings up a display of inventory on her computer, pretending to look it over while speaking into the phone. “I’m fine with printer cartridges for now. What was that number to reach you? Let me just repeat it back to you.”

In a quiet voice she relays her personal cell phone number to Dean as Joel Anderson walks past her desk.

Chapter 19: Mission Accomplished?

Dean Divers finishes the bad cup of coffee made in the small coffee maker in his motel room. He glances at the alarm clock next to the bed. The guy at the front desk said the mail usually arrives by eleven. It’s two minutes after eleven now. He’ll wait three more minutes to not seem overly anxious. Dean is confident the money will be there; Sam is very capable. Sam is more than capable he reminds himself, scrutinizing his face in the mirror. He needs hair dye and different clothes. He needs a rental car but he’s not going to get one — too risky, too easy to trace.

Dean walks into the front office of the motel. The clerk is not visible, but sounds from a small television can be heard coming from a back room. Dean sweeps his eyes across the counter and across the desk behind it. No sign of mail. The clerk appears.

“Morning. What can I do f’you?”

“Any mail come in this morning for me?”

“What’s the name?”

“William Hall.”

The clerk returns to the back room and Dean’s spirits leap to see a letter-sized brown mailer in his hand.

“Here you go. Will you be checking out today?”

“I’m staying through tomorrow.”

The clerk nods. “I’ll just need you to pay for the room then before twelve. Or we can charge it to your card.”

“I’ll pay you now.” With the envelope secured under his arm, Dean hands over the last of his cash to the clerk.

~

Sam files paperwork as she focuses on the cell phone in her pocket, vigilant for its motion. It is set to vibrate because she doesn’t want Mary or Evan to be aware of incoming calls to her. Dean agreed to call her at this number from a pay phone when he had the money she sent to him. It’s mid-afternoon Wednesday and Sam is fairly certain he should have it by now. However, pay phones are hard to find nowadays and he doesn’t have a car.

Sam remains on edge from Joel Anderson’s appearance at BubbleTrendz on Monday. Except for Dean’s warning, the available evidence supports Joel’s assertion that Joel is now running the company. Joel has not reappeared at the office since Monday afternoon, only the red-haired guy with the stubbly beard, Rolf, returned yesterday and today. He is using Dean’s office, mostly with the door closed.

Sam suddenly hears an exasperated “Jeeesus!” emitted from Gil’s office and goes down the hall to see what’s up. Gil isn’t normally a shouter. She sees him at his desk, scowling at his screen banging at keys on his keyboard.

“Gil?”

“Another DoS at Star!” He nods slightly as a way to acknowledge her presence but continues scrutinizing the information in front of him on the monitor, his expression desperate, incredulous. Evan appears at the doorway and looks sharply at Gil.

“What are you doing, Gil?”

Gil glares at Evan. “Denial of service attack at Star. Again.” Seeing Evan’s accusatory eyes Gil adds, “You don’t know this?”

“Don’t touch another key.” Sam sees Evan’s icy expression and rapidly assesses what is unfolding.

What?” Gil’s eyes narrow in bewilderment.

“You need to leave your desk. Do it quietly and there won’t be a problem.” Evan is now standing over Gil, his arms folded, his body taut.

“You’re accusing me?” Sudden contempt floods over Gil’s face as he stares at Evan.

“Leave your desk. Leave the office now.”

Gil rises from his chair, still not believing his ears. “This is ridiculous! I’m the one trying to figure-”

“The game’s over, Gilbert. We’ve been tracking you. You’re fired. Security will escort you out. Your personal effects will be sent to you.”

Sam sees the security guard, Tom, from the main lobby desk of the building who has apparently been summoned. He looks somber, unhappy to be doing his duty at the moment. Sam turns to Evan.

“Surely there’s some mistake here! Of all people, Gil would never-”

“I wouldn’t interfere unless you consider yourself an accomplice to this cyber criminal and need to be fired, too,”  Evan tells her in a flat tone.

“You condescending toady!” Gil is flushed red, furious, breathing hard as he regards Evan.

“Let’s go, Gil,” Tom says softly, “I’m sorry, but you need to leave here.”

Gil walks with Tom but says with quiet determination, “You won’t get away with this, Evan. It’s a farce and you know that.”

Evan with equal determination rejoins, “I strongly advise against considering legal action. We’ve got you nailed, dude. So, if you leave quietly and never attempt to hack the website of Star Rock Financial Group again, Joel Anderson will not press charges against you. I wouldn’t press my luck if I were in your shoes.”

As if to underscore Evan’s point, red-haired Rolf has approached the group, quietly speaking into his cell phone about what seems to be an important matter. He’s letting Evan handle the situation, just endorsing it with his presence. Sam turns to see that Sandor and Rina are standing in the hall with shocked concern on their faces. Sam catches Sandor’s eye  and narrows her pupils rapidly. He’s young, but he understands this classic warning signal that vampires communicate to each other when silence is required.

Evan turns to his team. “Okay, everyone, let’s get back to work!”

Sullenly, Sandor and Rina return to their office.

Back at her own desk, Sam ponders what to tell her cousin — and when. If Sam is to help Dean she needs to learn what Joel Anderson is up to, and she’s going to need the help of at least Sandor, but probably Gil, too. And maybe Rina. As Sam continues to ponder how to tell her trusted co-workers that Dean is in danger, there’s a sudden vibration in the back pocket of her jeans.

~

Joel Anderson paces across the expansive floor of his New York office at a slow, deliberate gait. He glances casually at his wristwatch — a sporty, luxurious European chronograph of rose gold. Then he looks at Kurt, the blond guy whose rest pulse Sam had speculated about in the BubbleTrendz conference room.

“This isn’t like him. He’s prompt.” Joel raises an eyebrow at Kurt, inviting a response to his observation.

“Two days. Not like him at all. Shall I call him?”

“Give him another half an hour. I don’t like to micromanage people.” Joel scans the city skyline, contemplating the dark waters of the East River flowing far below. His cell phone rings. Joel answers and smiles at the familiar voice.

“So, Bernard. What do you have for us? Good news I hope?”

Kurt watches the face of his boss with well-trained acumen. He knows Joel is the master of cool, but that the tiny nuances of his facial expressions must be read accurately or at one’s peril. Joel’s smile remains on his lips, but has moved on from his eyes. He inhales slowly, deliberately before speaking into the phone. “I don’t understand why we’re talking probabilities here. The answer should be 100 percent, right?  100 percent.  But you’re telling me 98 percent. That’s a sloppy number, Bernard. If you can’t tell me it’s 100 percent, you can’t tell me it’s 98 percent. It could be 50 percent.”

Joel is pacing across the room and there’s an iron quality to his body language, a ruthless purpose that Kurt has seen many times. Joel listens and then continues, shaking his head. “I need 100 percent, Bernard. Call me back when you have figured this out and have a clean number to report. Okay then!”

Joel pockets the phone and looks Kurt in the eyes. Kurt knows to state the conclusion so his boss won’t have to. “Bernard screwed it up. Wow. This surprises me.”

“He doesn’t work for the Department of Surprises. Playing the odds are for gamblers, not winners. I’m afraid you’ll have to take care of it now, Kurt.”

Kurt nods in acknowledgment and receives a smile in return. Kurt knows it’s as close to a gesture of camaraderie as Joel bestows on anyone.

Chapter 20: Black Running Shoes

Rina, Sandor and Sam are jammed together at a small table in a loud Cambridge pub. They’d left work a few minutes early today with glum, defiant faces. Leaving early was their symbolic protest against Evan’s treatment of Gil. A pitcher of beer and a plate of nachos now sit on the small table in front of them, but remain largely untouched.

Rina has texted Gil and left voice mail but he hasn’t replied to any of her messages. Privately, Sam is increasingly worried about him. She believes without a doubt the thing was a setup and that Gil is certain of this also. But, will Joel Anderson and his thugs leave Gil alone at this point? Or is it the first step in an even worse scenario from their playbook? Sam feels she is running out of time, especially after her phone conversation with Dean an hour ago.

Rina leans her elbows on the table, pushing her dark, red-streaked bangs from her forehead.  “Can you believe that Evan could do this?” she says softly. “I just couldn’t realize he was such a prick.” She shakes her head in disgust. “I really want to punish him.”  The words ‘prick’ and ‘punish’ carry a special punch conveyed by her Russian accent.

“Gil had no motive to hack the client’s site. He wouldn’t risk his job for such a silly prank.” Sandor drums his long pale fingers uneasily on the table top. He’s wearing the new long-sleeved black shirt Sam bought for him.

“That’s absolutely right, Sandor. I had absolutely no motive for something I did not do.”

They look up to see Gil standing at their table.

“Join us!” Sam pulls back the remaining chair at the small table and Gil takes a seat next to her. He digs into the plate of nachos. Rina hails the waiter for another mug and she then fills it with beer and sets it in front of Gil. Sam watches with slight amusement as Gil immediately downs two-thirds of the contents of the mug and tops it up himself. She recalls that he barely touched alcohol at other social occasions with coworkers.

“Where the heck is Dean?” Gil asks in a resigned voice. “He’s just abandoned Bubble Trendz. I thought it was his dream.”

“Don’t you think it’s pretty strange that he’s not back when the new guys are here?” Rina says.

Gil nods. “I never expected this from him. Guess I’m the fool, though. Guess the money was always what he was really after. After all, he’s the one who hired Evan.”

Sam looks at him with dismay. They’ve all got it so wrong. Without further reflection on the matter and without a clearly defined plan, Sam states simply, “This takeover by the Anderson group is a hostile one and I’m not even sure it’s legal.”

Sam sees the startled looks on the faces of Rina, Gil and Sandor. She doesn’t want to say Dean’s name in public, even here where there is only a remote chance of the wrong people overhearing it. In a low, soft voice she tells them, “Our guy, the boss, has not abandoned his company. But this is not the place to discuss it.”

“What are you saying, Sam?” Rina asks in a hushed tone.

Sam knows there is no turning back now. She’s going to put her trust in all three of them. She should have talked it over first with Sandor alone, but it’s too late for that. Quietly she says, “Let’s get out of here and go to my place. It’s close-by in Somerville.”

~

Dean is startled at his own reflection in the restroom of the fast food restaurant where he just finished a quick meal. His normally fair hair is a dark brown, and there is five days’ growth of stubble, also dyed dark brown, on his face. The hair dye looks a little harsh in the fluorescent light, his tired pale face looks chalky in contrast. You’re a pretty seedy-looking character he thinks to himself, staring through the cheap pair of sunglasses he bought at a drugstore. He wonders whether he should have shaved his head instead. It’s still an option for later. How much time does he have? This is the crucial variable: whether Joel Anderson now knows that he is still alive.

Dean exits the restaurant with a take-out coffee cup in hand and walks along the bustling road of a nondescript stretch of gas stations, car dealerships and fast food chains. The bus station is still another half mile away. He maintains a brisk walk, glad for his cardiovascular fitness. It’s probably the reason he’s alive right now.

For at least the hundredth time, Dean replays those minutes of his life in New York City last Thursday afternoon. From the start of it, he’d felt something was off. Then, Joel Anderson had turned suddenly, unexpectedly, mild after an overly long and harsh explanation of why their clients would appreciate having the holes in their computer security systems revealed to them. He’d then introduced Dean to a new fellow, Bernard, whom Joel said worked with the bankers and would be able to take Dean over to their offices to meet them after all. Joel would join them within the hour.

Bernard presented himself to Dean with quiet, deferential manners, but he didn’t project the air of someone in finance. For one thing, Bernard’s well-muscled physique asserted itself through an ordinary off-the-rack suit, more jock than stock analyst. They didn’t speak much in the elevator on the way down, despite Dean’s efforts to engage him in talk in the hopes of getting Bernard to reveal more of himself, more of the bankers’ angle in all of this. Bernard only mentioned in the briefest sentence that the office they were going to was ‘two blocks west’ and mostly avoided eye contact, looking neutrally ahead.

As they pushed through the heavy glass revolving doors and entered the loud, busy Manhattan street, Bernard’s strong index finger pointed the direction they should go. He seemed even bigger and bulkier than in Joel’s office and Dean felt himself moving slightly away from the man whose proximity was just overstepping the boundary of Dean’s personal space, even giving allowances for the throngs of people crowded along the street.

“You grow up here?” Dean remembers asking Bernard as they crossed the first intersection at a light. Bernard said “no” and kept his gaze focused ahead. That was the moment when Dean glanced down and noticed Bernard’s shoes — black running shoes, not the expensive Italian loafers favored by investment bankers.  A bolt of instinctual clarity flashed through Dean’s mind and body and he knew at once what he must do. Run.

He bolted from Bernard’s side into traffic, running at full speed, his peripheral vision guiding him past collisions with taxis and a delivery truck, a bicyclist. He didn’t look back, he knew Bernard was coming after him. He just ran, elbowing past pedestrians, sheer terror driving him forward at amazing speed. He ran for blocks, adrenalin coursing through him, his lungs fiery with exertion, eyes ever vigilant for the safest escape route. When he spotted a wide alley he raced into it and flattened himself against the worn brick exit door of some building, catching his breath, trying to listen for his stalker above the pounding of his own heart. At once he realized this was a mistake — he would be safer in a crowd. Bernard was a hired assassin and would welcome the opportunity to catch him in an alley.

His calves shaking with fatigue, Dean darted once more onto the main avenue, now trotting, allowing himself a furtive glance to one side and the other. Ahead in the cold bright sunlight was an entrance sign to the subway and he descended the stairs, moving quickly, trying to disappear into the crowd. He bought a ticket and jumped on the first train, having no idea where he was going. Exhausted, he found a seat and slowly quieted his breathing and wiped the perspiration from his brow, trying to relax his demeanor, blend in. No passengers paid attention to him, all were absorbed in texting, reading or just their own thoughts as the train rattled on. But Bernard could be anywhere and there might be others as well. Many hours and several train rides later, Dean had found a secluded pay phone, one of few remaining, and placed his first call to Sam.

Dean’s thoughts refocus on the present as he continues walking along the side of the highway. He would bet every cent of the deal he signed with Joel Anderson that Perry Hinds’ death was not a suicide leap from a building. He knew Perry. The guy was a great entrepreneur at the top of his game. Probably just like Dean, Perry had learned too much through initial negotiations with Joel and then had refused to sign on, so Joel threw him out a window. Dean shudders. It was probably Bernard who had done the throwing. Has Bernard confessed his bungled job to his boss? What’s the punishment for such a thing? This is the one consideration that gives Dean hope that Joel doesn’t yet know that Dean remains a free man.  But why is Joel Anderson playing such mean ball? What’s at stake — some extortion of companies to avoid having their databases hacked? That’s not a plan to take a two-billion-dollar investment firm to the next level and Joel Anderson is no fool. Something bigger, more sinister, is afoot and Dean hopes he’ll have enough time to figure it out, and to convince the one man he can trust and who might be able to stop it. Philip, his college friend, who works for a nameless agency in Washington.

Dean sees the bus station ahead and finds himself looking forward to a few hours of rest on his journey south toward the capital. Time to sleep and time to figure out what exactly to tell Philip. He hasn’t been in touch with his friend in several years, and Philip will need data, not stories. He can show up at Philip’s in his disguise and on the run, and Philip won’t conclude that he is a delusional psychotic.  But, Philip will want to look at hard evidence. Dean discreetly touches the money belt under his shirt and thinks gratefully of Sam. Can she help him with this?

Chapter 21: Old Friends

Fatigued and hungry for blood, Sam opens the door to her Somerville apartment and switches on a light. The others, Rina, Gil and Sandor, follow her in.

“The suspense is killing me, Sam! What’s going on?” Rina cuts to the chase.

“And where is Dean?” Gil asks her, a little short of breath from the brisk walk.

Sam feels their eyes on her, full of questions for which she has answers to only a few. But it’s time to tell them what she does know. “Dean is hiding.”

Hiding?

“He’s on the run. Joel Anderson is trying to kill him.” There is no point in understating the facts.

Gil stares at her, pale with shock, but also understanding.  “Why Dean didn’t pull me in on Evan’s hiring starts to make sense now. But, Dean was totally blindsided by those guys. Totally.”

Sam continues. “He’s been calling me from undisclosed locations, and asked me to send money, which I did.” She sees Gil’s expression. “I lent him my savings. It’s okay.”

“Why kill him?” Rina asks, her brown eyes wide, incredulous.

Sam spots an empty carton of boxed blood on the coffee table and snatches it up as nonchalantly as possible and tucks it under her arm. “Dean discovered that Joel was intentionally hacking into client sites, allegedly as a security service to them-”

“Yeah right,” Gil interjects derisively.

Sam nods at him. “You were absolutely right to believe Evan was behind the Star break-in. Dean thinks Joel is running a velvet glove extortion racket.”

“Let us protect you from what we can do to you?” Gil adds, mockingly.

“Why would companies put up with it?” Rina demands.

“Because it’s happening all over,” Gil replies quietly. “Paying off cyberhackers is the cost of doing business nowadays it seems.” He sighs.

Sandor shakes his head. “The flash crash on the stock exchange was more viral than hacking the database records of a business. Was Joel Anderson involved there?”

Sam looks at her tall, sallow cousin. “Dean doesn’t know.”

Gil walks to the couch and plops down, head in hands. He looks up at Sam. “We’ve got to help Dean, keep him away from Joel and…not let on to Evan that we know what’s up.” Gil laughs bitterly. “That won’t be hard for me, given that he fired me.”

“Should we try to steal Evan’s passwords? I’ve never done such a thing.” Rita’s voice is dark with excitement and apprehension.

“That’s a start,” Gil replies, “but you’ll have to get system logs and not leave footprints behind you.”

“I can probably get those,” Sandor offers, “It would be safest when Evan is not there.”

“He could go for coffee with Sam,” Rina suggests.

“He doesn’t like me.” Sam smiles at Rina. “He likes you, though.”

Rina grimaces. “He scares me a little.”

“He should,” Gil says emphatically. “Joel Anderson trusts him and that’s enough to scare me.”

“I’ll make something hot,” Sam tells them, turning toward her kitchen with the empty carton still under her arm. “We have to come up with a plan. Dean’s life may well depend on it.”

Sam quickly disposes of the empty blood container in the cabinet beneath the sink and  puts on a kettle of water. Sandor stands in the doorway of the kitchen and their eyes meet. She hopes he understands the meaning in hers: we must not reveal ourselves in the situation here.

Aloud she asks him, “Do we have anything?”

“There’s ginger tea,” he replies and fetches it from the cupboard.

Sam takes a sudden, sharp look at Sandor and tells him in an intense whisper, “You’ve lost the cap on your upper left canine! Don’t smile.” She sighs anxiously. “I’ve got to order you a proper set.”

Sandor shrugs at her and carries an opened box of crackers to the living room. Rina, who has seated herself cross-legged on the floor by the coffee table, looks up at Sandor and shakes her head, smiling. “You don’t eat anything. I’m going to cook you a good Russian dinner.”

Gil glances at her wistfully and Sandor’s face blanches a paler shade of white.

A few minutes later, Sam returns with steaming cups of ginger tea.  A dose of blood will have to wait until later. The foursome return to the solemnity of the  situation and the unknown menace they are facing.

“Who is Joel Anderson?” Gil muses aloud softly, “And what is he after?”

~

The geneticist in upstate New York who analyzed the swab taken from Marty Gaynor’s neck wound receives a new DNA sample from the Ninth Precinct of the New York City Police Department. The news of the NYPD’s medical case has already reached the papers and has been written up in the sensational style of modern journalism. The media are abuzz with references to alien raceslost tribes and humanoids.

Upon reading such accounts, the geneticist had contacted the forensics lab, telling them of the human-like sequence he had recently analyzed and puzzled over. Baffled by their own results and curious whether a comparison of data might shed light on their case, the Ninth Precinct has sent him what they have.

What he finds lead to further discussions with a colleague, a renowned geneticist. Their analysis confirms that, although certain sequences show significant overlap with human genetic code fragments, there are other fragments alien to any known human DNA. Of even greater interest is the closeness of certain sequences between the New York sample and the Boston sample.

The renowned geneticist is impressed and mystified by the similarities of the unknown code fragments. He sums it up in one sentence. “We’re either dealing with a genetic bottleneck of some species of uh, hominid, or these are possibly samples from a single individual of such a species.”

“How could a human-like being have avoided detection until now?” exclaims the other geneticist, thrilled and baffled by the possibility of a profound scientific discovery.

“Indeed.” His renowned colleague gives him a frank look. “And can we now locate the individual or individuals — the beings — whose samples we’ve analyzed.”

“That’s a job for the Ninth Precinct detective in New York.” The geneticist picks up the phone. “There’s also a doctor, a GP, in Boston who might prove useful.”

~

It’s not a good neighborhood and Dean is doubtful the phone booth on the street corner is actually in working order. He waits for a scruffy, emaciated man, probably a junkie, to walk past it before he approaches it himself. Dean slips inside the booth, his eyes now making an accustomed sweep of the surroundings. He inserts a coin, hears a dial tone and dials. The phone seems to be working,  it’s ringing. Then he hears Philip’s voice.

“Yes?”

“Philip. It’s Dean.”

“Well hello! You’re in the D.C. area?”

Startled, Dean remembers that Philip’s phone is almost certainly displaying the number of the pay phone, including its local area code.

“Uh, yeah. I am. Philip, I need to talk to you.” Dean looks around outside the booth, Bands of tension arch across the back of his neck. “I’m in a real pickle and I need your help.”

“Are you in some kind of danger?” Philip sounds technical, already in problem-solving mode. It gives Dean a shot of confidence.

“So it seems. Ever hear of Joel Anderson? He runs an investment fund, Scorpio II.”

There’s a pause before Philip answers. “Yes.”

“I sold a chunk of my company to him, Philip. And I was trying to sell him more until he creeped me out by his open admission of cyberhacking as part of his business model.”

Dean hears Philip clear his throat quietly, it’s one of Philip’s familiar, comfortable idiosyncracies. “Mr. Anderson is a POI.”

“A person of interest?”

“We’re not on a clean connection here, Dean.”

Dean sees two men across the street and scrutinizes them. They walk past a seedy-looking convenience mart and disappear around the corner. “Philip, this guy has thugs. One was going to kill me I think. I didn’t stick around to find out.”

“In New York?”

“Yes! How do you know?”

“He’s on our team.”

“Bernard? Not possible.”

“We can’t continue this conversation on this line, Dean.”

“Can I come to your place?”

“Sure. Better yet, remember that bar in Georgetown where you flirted with the female bartender from Chile? It’s still there. Nice and noisy, very private.”

“Okay.”

“Will I recognize you?” There is a measure of humor in Philip’s voice.

“Maybe not. I’ve shaved my head and I’m wearing big black geek glasses.” Dean is amazed at how easily this lie slips off his tongue, but he makes sure there is a touch of humor in his own voice when he relays this to his old friend.

Chapter 22: The Neighbor’s House

Dean has the cab drop him several blocks from the bar in Georgetown. Instinctively he pulls his baseball cap lower over his forehead to shield his eyes which are no longer hidden behind dark glasses. He thinks consciously about how he is walking and adds a slight sideways bob to his gait, not a characteristic motion of his normal stride. More camouflage is a good idea right now. In dismay he realizes that his seedy appearance is marked for the respectable urban neighborhood. It’s a preppy place full of young professionals in dark business clothes who are segueing from their day jobs as lawyers, lobbyists and Washington policy wonks into their high-octane nighttime social lives of conversing, competing and carousing with their peers.

Dean stops across the street from the designated rendezvous point, a tony-looking bar with large glass windows and a red brick facade. Dean stands in shadows so he’ll be harder to see from those glass windows, in case anyone is watching. The pub appears to be under the same management as the last time he was here a few years ago; the letters of its name still glowing in purple electric light above the entrance: Pro Bono.  Dean remembers that night with Philip. It was less than three years ago but it feels like a lifetime tonight.

Groups of young men and women continue to enter the bar across the street, but Dean doesn’t see Philip among them. It’s possible he’s there already. And if so, he’d wait at the bar, letting Dean find him. He’s on our team. That sentence from Philip is why Dean isn’t just walking straight into Pro Bono. The guy, Bernard,  in New York was a thug, an assassin. He wasn’t smart enough to be a covert agent working with Philip. Dean feels certain of this. So what’s Philip doing mixed up with Joel Anderson? Dean can think of no scenario that is reassuring. The worst thing is that he has now lost his window of time, Joel Anderson knows that Bernard didn’t kill him, that he escaped. And they know he’s called from a Washington D.C. phone booth within the past hour. The only thing in his favor, at least for now, is they’ll be looking for a guy with a shaved head wearing glasses.

Someone was probably sent to that phone booth right after he hung up. It’s dangerous to be here as well. Dean isn’t sure why he risked it, even in disguise. Is it because he still, irrationally, holds out hope that Philip can be his trusted friend? Is it because he’s hoping to somehow learn something important here by watching and waiting? A police cruiser drives slowly past him and Dean realizes he can’t stand there any longer without drawing attention to himself. The Georgetown police don’t want scruffy types loiterering about in a fashionable district like this.

He turns his coat collar up and walks down the block, glancing repeatedly across the street. A black town car pulls up in front of Pro Bono and a tall older man, dressed in a tailored black overcoat, gets out of the car. The man’s thick white head of hair seems vaguely familiar, perhaps a senator who’s been in the news?  The man waits for a companion who is getting out of the town car and Dean recognizes at once the sandy hair and thin pale figure of Philip. He turns away, glancing only peripherally at them from beneath the visor of his cap. They look around the street briefly and Dean imagines he sees Philip make a subtle hand signal to someone who isn’t visible on the street.

Dean feels a jolt of adrenalin and forces himself to take a long breath. This is no time to panic. He gets a better look at the older man’s profile and suddenly knows who the man is. It’s a terrible realization, given the situation here. He’s Philip’s boss — the head of the nameless agency that Philip works for.

It’s time to get out of there. Dean’s keen eyes now see the likely recipient of Philip’s hand signal. A broad-shouldered man in business clothes has just emerged onto the street from a narrow brick walkway two doors away from Pro Bono. The man is scanning the throngs of people walking along the street. Dean feels the adrenalin pouring through his body like white water rapids, the muscles in his legs are taut with power, his feet feel light, ready to run. But he reins in this impulse and walks unhurriedly, adding the little sideways bounce. Then he turns the corner and looks feverishly, desperately, for an available taxi.

~

“So this thing is not being over-hyped, in your view?”

Lieutenant Barton stares frankly across the table at Dr. Jeremy Wells, the young physician who treated Marty Gaynor’s puncture wound.

Jeremy Wells shrugs. “I can’t speak for the media, how things get reported there. But, Simon Louis Krall received a nobel laureate in medicine. He’s a world class geneticist.” Wells looks evenly at the Boston police detective. “So, no, it’s assuredly not hype if he states publicly that these samples were taken from a human-like species that we’ve not encountered before.”

Jeremy Wells feels a shivery thrill at his own words just spoken aloud in this small north shore coffee shop.

“Human-like.” Lieutenant Barton shakes his head. “A Neanderthal could walk down the street in a suit and probably nobody would notice he wasn’t one of us, right? So this new humanoid guy, whatever you want to call him, maybe he could blend in, too?”

Jeremy Wells nods. “Sure, wearing a suit is pretty simple. But, speaking a language, assimilating into a culture, heck having a culture, are the harder questions here.”

“So you’re asking where is his group, his peeps?”

“Exactly. This being, this primate, came from somewhere, was the product of some biological reproduction.”

Lieutenant Barton sips his coffee. “So, was a crime committed or was it not? You get a snake bite and it’s an animal attack, you get stabbed by a mugger and it’s a crime. Two patients with puncture wounds and no real memory of what happened. Could be either.”

“It’s why I didn’t initially file a police report. The lack of testimony and the absence of any human DNA on the wound.”

“You’ve never identified the woman your patient reported being with?”

“No. He admitted to having an extremely high level of blood alcohol during that encounter. His recollection of her was vague.”

“I talked to some guys at a tavern your patient goes to. The owner and several of the regulars remember the night your guy encountered that woman. According to their description she was way out of place there, a bombshell redhead in furs and jewels. An A-list Manhattan call girl if she’s a professional and if she’s a professional what the hell is she doing in a two-bit dive in Lynn?  It makes no business sense.”

“There are certain personality disorders, thrill-seeking obsessions.”

“They described her as very smooth.” Barton reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief which he unfolds to reveal a tiny, slightly translucent white object. He offers it to Jeremy Wells.

“Know what this is?” Barton asks him.

The young doctor inspects the tiny object with curiosity, turning it over in his hand and holding it up to the light. “Well, it actually looks like a cosmetic cap for a tooth. It’s made of an unusual material.”

“I took a walk on that Swampscott beach where the alleged assault occurred. I found this in the sand at low tide.”

“A cosmetic dentist can probably tell you the make sand material.”

“Could such a tooth cap be applied to cover a sharp tooth? The kind of tooth, let’s say the kind of fang, that could make a puncture wound?”

Jeremy Wells gives the lieutenant a surprised look. “Caps are affixed permanently, they aren’t like gloves that you take off and put on again.” Suddenly he smiles a little incredulously and shakes his head at the detective. “Come on, Lieutenant, you aren’t suggesting–”

“Now Doc, I’m not going to say the ‘V’ word. And you aren’t either, even though I know it’s crossed your mind.” Lieutenant Barton sees the stunned looked on Jeremy Wells’ face and picks up the tiny tooth cap. “I’ll just ask whether you know a good dental specialist I can show this to.”

~

It’s early afternoon the day after the ominous meeting at Sam’s Somerville apartment. Sam has been on edge, wondering when the next call or message from Dean will come, wondering how increasingly dangerous it is for him to attempt to reach her at BubbleTrendz, even via her private cell phone.

Rina can barely stand to look at Evan and he notices this change in her attitude and now assesses her with a harsher scrutiny. It’s not clear whether Evan will be eager to slip out for some social time with Rina at this point.  Even if he did leave for an hour, Rolf is still there, coming out of Dean’s office at odd intervals to wander the hall, fetching himself a cup of coffee, peering into offices.  And there’s Sandor. He looks especially pale today and Sam knows that Sandor has trouble masking his emotions far more than even Rina. They cannot afford to have him lash out at Evan just now, they need to keep their heads down and wait for the opportunity to plumb Evan’s files, snare him with digital proof. Dean will know who to contact once they have proof.

Sam’s cell phone vibrates in her pocket. Dean! She almost tears the phone from her pocket. It’s Anatol, her investment partner.

“Are you watching the markets?”  His rich voice is uncharacteristically strained, distant.

“Not this afternoon.”

“Zaira, Hong Kong is in free fall. Gold is down twenty percent in the past thirty minutes! The Dow is down a thousand points. It’s insanity.”

Sam realizes another call is coming in. “Anatol, whatever you do with our positions I’m with you. There is a call I must take now. I’ll get back to you!” She switches to the new caller.

“Sam?”

“Dean! The markets are tanking! I-”

“Sam, it’s bad. It’s much bigger than BubbleTrendz.”

“What then?” She glances up and down the hall, no Rolf at the moment.

“The one person I trusted to help me, help us, is working for Joel Anderson.”

There is a long silent pause between them. Finally, Sam asks. “Where are you?”

“Delaware.” He sounds defeated, exhausted.

“Dean, listen. Come back here.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Not to BubbleTrendz. To my place.” When he doesn’t reply she offers more. “I have a house outside the city, remote, where you can hide out indefinitely. You can reach it by bus to Salem then a taxi. Go after dark.”  Glancing sharply down the hall, Sam whispers the address of her Marblehead mansion to Dean, promising to meet him there.

“Sam, I don’t know what’s going to happen. With us or with the world. But, thank you.”

~

That same afternoon Stephanie Nichols offers coffee and a slice of homemade cranberry-lemon pie to Lieutenant Barton. He had politely displayed his credentials to her, saying he was merely seeking some local information. She’d cheerfully consented to help in whatever way she could.

“Mrs. Nichols do you and your husband go to The Cat’s Cradle often?”

“It’s a place all the locals go, Bob and Jan have been running that place for twenty years I guess.” She adds cream to her coffee and stirs it.

“You get many non-locals there?”

She gives him a puzzled look, so he adds, “Have you ever seen a young, red-headed woman at The Cat’s Cradle? The flashy kind, you know, with jewels and a fur?”

“Yes! We were there recently and a woman had this gorgeous fur which I happened to accidentally knock from her chair — how embarrassing is that — and then I recognized her as my neighbor!  She lives right down the road.”

“She lives here?” This unexpected tip is exciting.

“Uh huh. She bought Jack Pearson’s property about a year ago I think it was. Jack passed away and his children didn’t want to maintain the house. It is a grand old place although I’d certainly want to do some renovations. We don’t really know her, I’ve rarely seen her. Oh, but I have seen her at the Salem train station.” Stephanie smiles at him. “But no fur then, it was blue jeans and a leather jacket.”

“What kind of car does she drive?”

“Beats me.” Stephanie Nichols grows more serious. “She doesn’t have anything to do with these, well these vampire stories going around?”

“Vampire stories?”

“A beautiful bejeweled female vampire bit a local sailor. Hey, people need stories to get through the long winter nights!” She laughs. “Face it, a female vampire is more glamorous than Big Foot running amok in New York City. I read those stories about that DNA thing. You cannot believe everything you read, though. New Yorkers are prone to hysteria, just look at Yankees fans.” She grimaces, then gives the lieutenant a confidential wink. “We New Englanders are made of tougher stuff, we’ve weathered our Salem witches after all.”

“What’s your neighbor’s name?” Barton asks.

“I honestly don’t know I’m embarrassed to say. We should have her over for drinks one of these days.”

“Which house is it again?”

“Just straight down the road. Turn left from our drive and you can’t miss it. The big gray stone place with the sea wall. Oh my god.”

“What is it?” Barton looks at her sharply, waiting for more.

Stephanie Nichols points to her flat screen TV which had the sound off during their conversation. “The stock market is down over 1300 points!”

Chapter 23: Rendezvous

Dean has the taxi drop him at the turnoff to the private road. It’s dark now and a lone man walking will be less noticeable than a lit cab pulling up to the house. Despite his fatigue from days of chronic vigilance on the run, he notes the significant affluence of his surroundings. Some of it must be true old North Shore money, and some of it probably belongs to the cohort of Boston entrepreneurs who built the early tech firms along Route 128. The homes are grand Victorians and Colonials, some with widows walks and towers.

Dean reaches the end of the road — the great stone mansion by-the-sea, dead ahead, bears the address Sam gave him. He now concludes that Sam is from a seriously monied background. Why would such a girl of privilege take a job as an office admin with a tiny startup? When he first hired her, she’d seemed like a sweet, efficient kid. Then, fleeing for his life, his instincts had pointed to her as the one to trust. His instincts had not steered him wrong. She has become his lifeline.

He walks around to the right of the majestic house, his eyes continuously searching for anyone who might be watching. The pounding surf beyond the sea wall is even louder here. Harder to hear soft footsteps approaching he warns himself. He is reassured to see the stone carriage house Sam mentioned and, sure enough, there is a gardening shed visible beyond it. He goes past the carriage house and continues to the shed, enters, and finds the key in a gardening glove. Thank you, Sam! He follows a brick path past gnarled old oaks and a rambling wall of woody shrubs, bare and dormant for the winter. The brick path leads him to the door at the back of the main house. As he fits the key into the lock of this unfamiliar residence, he feels suddenly uneasy, like some low-life home intruder. The key clicks and the massive door opens.

With only a flashlight to guide him — anyone watching will see a lighted window — he makes his way through an old-fashioned service entryway and into the immense butler’s pantry where Zaira had revived her cousin Joska with shot glasses filled with human blood.

~

Lieutenant Barton had missed Dean’s taxi. Barton had gone directly to the stone mansion after his conversation with Stephanie Nichols; he’d rung the front doorbell and, when no one answered, he’d walked around the side, noted the carriage house and briefly looked for a way to open its door. Then he’d left. He returned after dark and parked his Crown Victoria on the shoulder of the main road where he could watch traffic coming and going on the private way.

The local Salem cab is easy to spot. It appears to have four passengers; one, a male youth, is riding shotgun with the cabbie. Barton loses sight of the cab as it turns onto the private way, but he notes its departure a couple of minutes later as it comes back onto the main road. Only the cabbie is in it. Lieutenant Barton decides to wait a little longer.

~

“Sam! It’s incredible!” Rina surveys the elegant marble foyer in deep admiration as Sam quickly closes the front door behind her and locks it.

“So this is your uncle’s house?” Gil asks, making an effort to mask his own awe.

Sandor glances disapprovingly at Sam. She ignores her cousin and leads them to the kitchen; they are carrying bags of takeout — spicy-fragrant Asian dishes. Sam switches on the light as they enter the room. Through the archway that connects to the butler’s pantry they see a tired man with brown hair and a beard. Despite everything that’s happened, he manages a smile and gets up from the table. “It’s me, guys. Sorry for the melodrama. It’s been a pretty strange week. Sam, I’m really indebted to you for this.”

“Hey.” Gil nods a greeting to Dean.

Dean approaches him and places a hand on Gil’s shoulder. “I owe you an apology. I made some serious miscalculations.”

There are many things that cross Gil’s mind to say in response to this; he looks down and replies, “Maybe if I’d interviewed Evan, from the start, I — we, might have seen a red flag. He’s truly creepy.”

“Serious miscalculations.” Dean repeats the phrase.

Rina and Sandor, who barely met Dean before his disappearance in New York, look on, wondering what they should do.

“Did anyone see you come in?” Sam asks Dean as she begins to unpack the bags of food and lay them out on the table.

“I don’t think so. I had the cab drop me off up the road. This is quite the location, Sam. I hope it’s secure — for all of your safety, not just mine.” He sighs. “Things have really changed.” Dean looks keenly at Sam. “You’re certain that your uncle is okay with this arrangement? Won’t he be coming here soon?

“He’s out of the country. This will be fine.” She turns to her cousin. “Sandor come help me check the windows, make sure all the drapes are closed.”

When they are out of earshot of the others, Sam tells him, “Sandor, I apologize about the uncle business, but after all, I’m in guise, so that’s already a much bigger deception.”

“Yes, lies beget lies.”

“They cannot ever know the truth about us! You must understand this.”

Sandor glowers silently as they return to the kitchen. Sam holds Sandor’s arm a moment as she pulls two slender coffee thermoses from a cupboard. She then pulls an unmarked carton from a shelf, opens the top and pours a dark red liquid into one thermos, then the other. She speaks sharply to Sandor under her breath. “You must drink this and please eat sparingly of the food. Avoid the pickled ginger, it can give you terrible nightmares.”

Sandor moves away from the small thermoses. “I’m not hungry.”

“Sandor! You must drink this. We are facing unknown difficulties and will need to talk into the night. You won’t be any use without strength. Understand?”

Rina appears in the archway. “Is everything okay? Come eat something.”

Sandor picks up his thermos, screws the lid on discreetly, and follows Rina into the butler’s pantry.

“I’ll be right there,” Sam says. She lingers in the kitchen and pulls the cellphone from her pocket to review the twenty messages from Anatol. The news is bad.

They’ve gathered in the living room after devouring the Thai and Japanese takeout. The large picture windows are now covered by heavy velvet curtains, but the sound of the pounding Atlantic surf is still audible. Stunned, they listen to Dean describe his strange hostile meeting with Joel Anderson, his harrowing flight through Manhattan streets, hiding out incognito in flop motels, and finally, the terrible conclusion that his trusted friend is in league with Joel Anderson.

“You’re absolutely certain who that guy is, the one with your friend?” Gil asks.

“He’s the top spook at the agency, Gil. He reports to people at the highest level of government.”

Sandor, who has been web surfing on his laptop, shows the screen to Dean. “Patrick Slaughter. Is that he?”

Dean scans the digital image and bio. “Yes, unfortunately. That’s not a recent picture, but it’s him.” Dean covers his face with his hands. “What have I entangled us, BubbleTrendz, in?”

“But how come he would do cyber-extortion?” Rina asks. “Seems kind of small potatoes for such a politically powerful guy.”

Dean looks at Rina gravely. “The extortion stuff is only part of it.”

“The DOW lost over two thousand points today,” Sam tells them. “SEHK, I mean the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, is down nine percent.”

“I can’t prove it yet, but I’m sure Joel’s gang is behind that,” Dean tells them vehemently. “It’s like they are detonating well-placed bombs in the global financial markets. They don’t have to blow up real buildings or people to create fear and chaos.” Dean looks squarely at his employees. “Joel Anderson didn’t care a rat’s ass about our pioneering social data marketing apps. He just wanted access to a big financial driver like Star.”  He adds, with a measure of self-reproach, “We worked really hard to win Star as a client. They were our breakthrough.” Dean looks Gil in the eyes. “Your code made that happen. Star trusted us and I let them down, let all of you down. I got sucker-punched by Joel. It’s scary how smooth he was.” Dean adds quietly, “Perry Hinds got worse than sucker-punched is my guess.”

They are startled by the bell chime. Someone is at the front door. Dean looks sharply at Sam, “I need to disappear.”

She thinks quickly. “Upstairs — second room on the right. There’s a walk-in closet with long coats that will conceal you.”

As Dean races up the staircase, Sam adds, “There is also a balcony in that room through French doors. It would be tricky to climb down, but might be possible — if it comes to that.” She turns to the others, “Deep breaths, everyone. Hang out here and look natural, talk about something — computers, music, sports. I’ll deal with whoever is at the door.”

“What is there here to use as a weapon?” Sam sees the focused, determined look on Gil’s face.

“The candelabra!” Rina points to a large brass candle holder on the mantle. Gil rushes to the mantle and grabs it, hefting it, holding it firmly in his hands. It’s the most physically brazen act Sam has ever witnessed Gil perform.

She tries to reassure them. “Guys, it’s probably just a neighbor. I’ll be right back,”

Sam notes that Sandor is unconsciously twitching his fingers and his nails are beginning to sharpen up. She walks past him and whispers, “Your hands! Not yet.”  But, Sam begins to curl and uncurl her own fingers as she heads to the front door.

Chapter 24: Tricky Conversations

Sam opens her front door to face a middle-aged, dark-haired man dressed in an overcoat. He’s displaying an official badge prominently at eye level. “Lieutenant Barton, Boston Police Department. I’d like to speak to the owner of this residence. Would that be you?”

He assesses the young woman standing in the doorway: jeans, dark red ponytail, high cheekbones. Attractive, yes. But, glamor girl material?

“Officer, is there a problem? Has there been an accident?” Sam keeps her fingers gently curled to conceal the sharpened nails. Her hands are positioned quietly at her sides.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.  I assume I’m speaking to the owner?”

Sam thinks quickly to avert a possible trap. “This is my family residence.” She beckons him into the foyer. A detective. He’ll have already found my name on the title to this house.

“Are you Zaira Farago?”

“Yes.”

“Farago. Unusual name. Eastern European?”

“Yes. Hungarian, actually.” Where is he going with this! Will she have to kill this human right here?

Lieutenant Barton surveys his surroundings. “This is a beautiful old place. Historic. You purchased it a year ago?”

“Approximately. Lieutenant, I am entertaining company. How can I help you this evening?”

His steady, even gaze is unsettling. She suspects that her appearance and attitude seem incongruous to him. Get into your perky Sam persona, don’t be condescending to this detective!

Lieutenant Barton waits a moment before speaking. “What model of car do you drive, Ms. Farago.”

“I don’t like to drive. I take the train into Boston. And, I like to walk.”

He notes the evasive answer and asks, “Do you know your neighbors up the road, the people who live in the yellow Victorian?”

“No. Sorry.” Trying to sound helpful, she adds, “Are they in some kind of trouble?”

“They frequent a local place, The Cat’s Cradle. Ever been there?”

“Is that in Swampscott?” Her pulse is increasing. Stay calm.

He nods. “Were you there a week ago Monday night?”

Not good. “Monday, or was it Tuesday. I stopped in briefly.” She gives him a wide-eyed Sam look. “Why?”

He notes the slight upward tilt of her eyes. Dark, almond eyes. He tries to visualize her in a fur, diamond earrings, smoky eye makeup, hair down. She might be damned gorgeous dressed like that. “We’re investigating an incident that happened near there. I’m just making some local inquiries. Thanks for your time, Ms. Farago.”

Relief. “You’re welcome, Lieutenant.” He turns to leave and she opens the door for him. She hopes her gesture appears gracious and unhurried.

He stops in the open doorway, takes something from the inner breast pocket of his coat, and shows it to her. “Have you ever seen one of these?”

Oh god! One of her caps! She forces herself to examine it for a moment while he holds it out for inspection. She shrugs. “Is it a tooth or some dental thing?” Her now razor sharp nails graze her palms.

“A tooth cap, evidently. A quite unusual one. I’ve shown it to two cosmetic dentists. They’ve never seen one like it. It was recovered at the site of the incident.”

Sam gives him a pleasant, blank look. “Oh, so maybe it’s a clue?” She shrugs again, her pose waif-like, girlish. “I don’t think I can connect the dots here.”

“That’s my job.” He puts the small white object back in his breast pocket. “Ms. Farago, could you give me a phone number to reach you? In case I need to contact you again?”

~

Sam returns to the living room and Gil perceives at once that she is shaken. He continues to hold the candelabra. “That was a cop you were talking to, wasn’t it?”

She nods and calls up the staircase, “Dean, it’s all clear down here.” Her nails are still too sharp. She slips her hands into her jeans pockets.

“What does he want?” Rina asks nervously, also noting the change in Sam’s demeanor.

“Nothing to do with us. Or Dean.” Sam avoids eye contact with Sandor. “Something to do with a local bar, some altercation. He said he was a detective, covering his bases, inquiring whether locals knew anything relevant.”

“Did he show you some ID?” Dean is now at the foot of the staircase and looks worried.

Sam nods. She observes Dean’s expression and adds, “It really had nothing to do with this. I’m certain.” She knows that she looks and sounds rattled.

“Sam, we can’t be sure.” Dean begins pacing the floor. “Police could be enlisted by Joel and company. They have immense resources available to them. To think otherwise is suicidal.”

Gil places the candelabra back on the mantel of the fireplace and turns to Sam. “I overheard some of your conversation.” He gives her a baffled look. “So, who is Ms. Farago? Why would he call you that?”

Sandor recoils and is about to speak. Sam cuts him off. “It’s my uncle’s wife. The house is in her name. I didn’t want to explain more to that detective than I had to. That’s all.” She tries to catch Sandor’s eye, but he is staring lividly at the floor.

“This may not be a safe haven,” Dean says flatly. “I need to keep moving.”

“But, that detective doesn’t know you were  here,” Sam counters. But, will he figure out the connection between Sam Rush and Zaira Farago?  This thought definitely worries her.

“Sam does have a point,” Gil says, looking at Dean. “If Joel suspected you were here, why wouldn’t he just hit the place? Why send a cop to ask bogus questions? That would be giving us a jump on things. I don’t think that detective is connected with them.”

“Sam, could public records link you to your uncle and aunt who live here?” Dean asks. “Have you ever mentioned their names to anyone at BubbleTrendz?”

The question flusters her, despite her effort to hide it, and Dean notices this. “What, Sam?”

Sam can smell Sandor’s fury and angst. She dare not look at him. “Dean, no one at BubbleTrendz — except the people in this room right now– have ever heard of my family members or know of this house.” She hesitates, then decides to continue. “The detective did ask for my phone number, although there’s no land line here.” She gives a fatalistic shrug. “I gave him a false number, not my cell.”

“Sounds like he plans to be in touch. He’ll return here when he can’t reach you.” Dean is clearly unhappy.

“Probably true. So, I’m the one who can’t stay here.” Sam looks at Dean. “But, you are safer here right now than anywhere else.” She looks at Gil. “Maybe you should stay here, too.”

“Evan fired me while you were gone,” Gil explains to Dean. “Accused me of his own crimes. Perhaps they’ll decide firing me wasn’t sufficient.”

“And if this detective returns, who are we?” Dean says.

Sam shakes her head. “Don’t answer. Keep the lights off, the doors locked.” Her expression brightens. “This nineteenth-century house has an enormous cellar. The previous owner turned a section of it into a man cave — with no windows. There’s even a half bath down there.”

“Electrical outlets down there?” Gil asks, now opening the laptop he brought with him.

“That, too,” she tells him.

“Do they keep a car here, your aunt and uncle?” Dean asks.

“I’m afraid not.” How many more lies will she need to tell tonight? But, the red Porsche must not be seen  by the watchful eyes of Lieutenant Barton.

Sam can’t tell Dean that there is a red Carrera, ready and able, parked in the carriage house. She also can’t tell him that, lucky for Sam, the car’s registration and title bear the name of Paula Graves of Rockville, Maryland — Zaira’s guise before becoming Sam at BubbleTrendz. She can’t disclose that Paula had been following developments in artificial blood technology conducted by a small research firm in Gaithersburg. Promising work it appeared, until office assistant ‘Paula’ concluded that the effort was mired in governmental regulatory issues and that the cofounders, both brilliant ex-academics, were becoming increasingly adversarial with each other over patent issues. No product would be forthcoming for years. Not a good investment for Kaminsky, Farago and Rhoer. So, mild-mannered Paula Graves, who never drove her car to work, quit her job and vanished. And Sam can never tell Dean that the Carrera had been an impulse buy when Zaira had felt suddenly, unexpectedly, homesick for her own kind. She can never tell him of her joyrides on country roads in the middle of the night, solitary drives which had proven to be a surprising solace for a lonesome vampire.

Instead, Sam tells him, “I’ll take a cab in the morning to the store. Sandor and Rina can help me shop for provisions. That should set you two up for a while.”

Dean smiles wryly at her. “No wonder I hired you. You’ve got a solution for every problem, don’t you?”

“Only the easy ones,” she replies, thinking again of Joel Anderson and the market crash.

Gil presents them with a screenful of news on his laptop: multiple stories about the financial meltdown, two suicides on Wall Street.

“My god, what’s going to be next?” Rina says softly.

“Monday isn’t going to be pretty,” Gil says, scrolling through pages of calamitous market news.

“We’ve got to figure out Joel’s next move and stop him,” Dean says quietly. “Time is running out.”

— to be continued




2 Responses to VAMP

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