El Paso. It was not as bad as he thought. Sure, the air was hot, but all of Texas was like that. At least the house had air conditioning. It was a good looking house too, well-kept and artistically landscaped. Dr. Elder had driven him five and a half hours south and east to the border city two days ago. It had a pale brown, stucco-looking exterior with white framed windows. A wonderfully patterned stone patio wrapped around most of the outside of the house with a few weather hardy trees to break up the air. The interior was fairly plain, exceptionally clean. The entryway was bare, save for the bench near the door itself and a small rug. Past the entry was a dining and kitchen area, tiled with a plain wooden table and four chairs. A mud room was still further back, a living space to the left, and one bedroom beyond the living space. It was a small house, and he was not with his preferred company, but it was not a jail cell.
A jail cell is probably where he would have ended up had he gone with Lance and Hawk. “Talking” had not likely been their only intention. They must have found out he had killed Drake, he was unsure how. It would have been easy enough, he supposed, to discover that he had bought a plane ticket and flown to Romania. From there, it was not a far jump to assume he had gone there in pursuit of Drake. But he had seen it in their faces, they knew one way or another.
“Kasey, dinner is served my friend. Join me won’t you?” Elder looked at him from the dining area. Marrok stood up from the lone couch in the living space and made the short walk to the table, seating himself opposite of the doctor. A filet of salmon, glazed with lemon, sat on the plate before him. There was a side of sweet potatoes, a few heads of cauliflower, and a large glass of what he assumed to be wine.
“I do not drink,” Marrok reminded his “host” as he had the day before.
“Ah yes, I had forgotten.” Elder moved to the refrigerator with an empty glass and returned with a glass of water. “There you are,” Elder said as he sat down. Marrok took a bite of the salmon, it was good. He had not learned much of the professor these past two days despite their close proximity, but he had learned that he was a good cook.
“You have still not explained to me what is going on.” Marrok said, taking another forkful of salmon from the plate.
“You have been quite silent yourself,” Elder’s response was parental.
“You asked me what happened in Romania, I told you.” Elder seemed to grunt in agreement. Marrok chewed another mouthful before continuing, “It is your turn, what are you?” Elder leaned back in his chair, pondering a response.
“Your concern would be better placed on the gentlemen from the airport, don’t you think?” Elder asked.
“Lance and Hawk?” Marrok questioned.
“Precisely,” Elder leaned back into the table. “Did you know what they were before the airport?”
“Fine old man, I will bite. What are they?” Marrok sighed in frustration.
“What are they?” Elder echoed. “Are you quite serious? Heavens boy, had you brought that question to light the other day, we could have shared a word or two in the car. You must work to correct your social deficiencies.” Elder leaned back in his chair again and chuckled low to himself.
“Major Edward Lance and your friend, the marshal, James Hawk…Well my friend, they’re Knights.” Dr. Elder waited for Marrok to respond, but the ranger’s unchanged expression suggested that he did not know anything of those imbued with “the Knight’s Blood.” “Alright then, another history lesson for you Kasey, albeit a slightly abridged one. Knights are of a fairly special, truth be told... a legendary bloodline. The first knight, Arthur Pendragon, as I’m sure you are familiar, gained his abilities having overcome the challenge of acquiring Excalibur as his own. Excalibur bestowed upon the young Pendragon an exceptional array of gifts elevating him to an almost superhuman level. Heightened senses, tremendous speed and strength, and what I would call an ‘extreme capacity’ for learning encapsulate the powers he was blessed with when he pulled the sword from the stone.”
“And so Arthur Pendragon became a legend in his time, an early King of Briton like his father, Uther. But he made a name for himself and carved Briton’s freedom from the Saxons, among other threats, with the blade of Excalibur. Perhaps most notably, he was rumored to have killed more than nine hundred Saxon warriors at the Battle of Badon sometime around 516 A.D. Yes, medieval times indeed, times of adventure, when the mysteries of the world were still recognized and openly acknowledged by its inhabitants.”
“King Arthur was not the only carrier of the Knight’s Blood in his time. No, in fact they were of considerable number for the time period, thirty two in all if I remember correctly. As Arthur’s campaigns continued on and his fame grew, warriors of courageous and formidable stature joined him. Those who proved their worth and their character were knighted by the King and joined his mesnie, gaining the powers that Excalibur offered as they accepted the offer of brotherhood from Arthur. They became known as the Knights of the Round Table and were legends among men, as you may or may not have been aware.”
“Now, this was all more than fifteen hundred years ago. Things have changed. The geography of the world spread, the political landscape changed with each decade, and the knights would have been fools to maintain their small company against the world’s advances. The Knights of the Round Table became the thirteen regional courts that are now spread around the world, one of which is in the United States, as a matter of fact it is the Court of Lancelot.”
“Obviously, I am not privy to the inner workings of the organization I refer to as ‘The Courts’, however, I do know some of their structure. Knights are still made by the blade of Excalibur, though I know not where or when the ceremonies take place. I know they act in secret, and in the interests of the oaths their forefathers gave to King Arthur more than a century and a half ago. Each court is loosely affiliated with the others, but fiercely loyal and honor bound to each other at the same time. They select their recruits very, very carefully, and then train them to exceptional levels physically and mentally. Believe me when I say, they are formidable alone, and quickly become an insurmountable obstacle as they come together against a perceived foe. They are quite relentless, much like you Kasey.” Dr. Elder chuckled to himself as he finished the explanation.
“So Lance and Hawk, they are knights of these courts?” Marrok asked.
“It is very likely they are of the Court of Lancelot, given where they are.” Elder replied.
“How is it that they have jobs if they are what you say?” Marrok questioned.
“They all do Kasey. They enter the workforce, the public eye, in their early twenties when their training is complete. As I said before, their recruiting process is still a bit of a mystery to me. I do know they start young and they generally work in a public service of some kind given their affinity for keeping the world safe, doing good, and the like. They report to their court, go on trips from time to time, and do God knows what usually.”
Marrok thought back to Major Lance’s absence before he had gone after Drake. It had not been the first occasion. It was not impossible to believe that his boss was leading a second life. But how did Lance know that he was a werewolf?
“How did he know about me?” Marrok asked. “He had silver bullets, they both did.” Elder raised an eyebrow before answering.
“I do not know, but I am interested to learn that myself.”
“Do they know about you?” Marrok asked, remembering his frustration with the professor’s secrecy.
“Do they know what about me?” Elder smiled.
“Anything?” Marrok retorted. Elder kept his grin and stared beyond Marrok for a moment.
“I suppose they might,” Elder smirked. “Now, if you don’t mind, I believe I’ll go to bed. We have a long road ahead of us.”
“A long road?” Marrok was not pleased. “I think it’s about time you were straight with me old man.” Marrok stood up from the table and eyeballed the old man down in his chair. “Give me one reason I should stay and put up with your bullshit,” he demanded in a growl.
“I’ll give you two,” Elder stood and met Marrok’s gaze. “One, you’re on the run you fool. You’ll want my help. Two, you want to know more about the world around you, I can see that clear as day. I’m your bridge to that world, am I not?”
Marrok turned to walk away, back to the couch in the other room where he would spend yet a second night. I’ve never lost a fight, he could not stop me from leaving if I decided to go, he thought to himself.
“Neither have I.” Elder said from behind him. Marrok turned back and smiled a hungry smile at the professor.
“Don’t push me old man,” Marrok said in a low voice.
“Indeed Ranger, good night to you.” Elder turned back to the kitchen.
The next morning began with cracks and pops, seemingly from every joint in Marrok’s body as he woke up and stretched out on the couch. He was much too big for the two cushioned furniture piece, the aches and the stiffness in his bones confirmed it. He managed to stand up and make his way back towards the kitchen. He hoped the small house had a coffee maker. Marrok was surprised to see Dr. Elder standing at the countertop, having already brewed a pot of the black stuff. Elder poured a cup and held it out to Marrok as he came into the kitchen.
“Thank you,” said Marrok as he took the cup.
“You’re welcome,” replied Elder. “Now drink that and get yourself together. We’re going out.”
Marrok thought about arguing, but what good would it do? He was not sure what he could do about his situation without Elder’s assistance at this point. He had no idea if he was officially a fugitive. He had no way of knowing if Lance and Hawk were officially after him without asking them. Given the uncertainty of his current circumstances, Marrok was not willing to risk asking. Perhaps the best thing to do at this point was to let the old man lead and see what came of the mess he had made by killing Drake. Marrok did not regret what he had done, but he found that a part of him wished that he had not left Alice that morning to get on the plane.
He took a swig of the coffee and brought it back out to the couch with him. He pulled on his boots, buttoned up his jeans, and slid the t-shirt from the back of the couch back over his torso. The house had air conditioning, but it had gotten hot over night. Marrok brought the now empty cup back out to the kitchen and rinsed it out before leaving it in the sink. Marrok turned and looked at Dr. Elder, “Let’s go then.”
Elder led them both out to the driveway where the Audi was still parked. Marrok’s bones voiced their displeasure with more cracks and pops as he squeezed his large frame back down into the small car as he had a few days ago. He hoped it would be a short drive. Elder drove them down a few residential streets before they had made their way back out onto highway 54. They spent a few minutes on it before exiting very near to Fort Bliss, the large army base in El Paso. Marrok felt no nostalgia for the base as they went by. He had spent a few years stationed there when he was still an aviator, the memory of long hours flying over a desolate training area just north of the base felt like ancient history. Marrok had been stationed and deployed several places, Fort Bliss did not exactly stand out among them. He thought to himself that the place seemed newer, built up, and had more amenities than he had remembered.
Soon the base had passed behind them and they continued south down a fairly empty road. A few minutes passed by before the distant buildings in front of them became closer, until finally they had come to an intersection in an isolated strip of what was probably still El Paso. Elder made a left turn and then a right into a parking lot. The lot was small, as was the building directly in front of them. There was not a large sign announcing the name of the establishment, but there were two stacks of words on either side of the front of the building. On the left, three words on top of each other in old black paint read, “pasteles, refrescos, servesas.” Parallel and on the right was, “desayuno, almuerzo, cine.” It struck Marrok as one of those hole in the wall, or off the map kind of places. Those were the kind that usually had the best food though.
The car ride had been silent, walking through the door proved to be the same. A young man was across the room and behind the counter, he noticed them as the bell above the door rang announcing their presence. The young man smiled and gestured to them encouraging that they could sit wherever they pleased. There were ten tables at most, and maybe only twice as many chairs. Glass-door cabinets lined most of the walls showing off a wide variety of doughnuts, cakes, and pies. Half of a wall in the far corner was reserved for refrigerator space, coolers which contained a mix of soda and alcohol. A lone coffee machine was at a table up near the counter, it was a larger than a normal coffee maker with a large pot. A stack of cream and sugar were on either side of the machine. Styrofoam cups lined the wall behind it. Definitely a hole in the wall kind of place.
“Do not be deceived Marrok, Raphael Vega makes the best breakfast burritos in the state of Texas.” Elder smiled at Marrok from across the small table.
Shortly, the young man behind the counter came out to greet them. “Hello, I am Tony. What would you like?”
“Is Raphael working today?” Elder asked.
“Si,” replied Tony with a smile.
“Very well. I shall order two of the infamous breakfast burritos then. A glass of water as well please,” Elder said.
“Certainly sir, and for you?” Tony looked over to Marrok.
“Dos burritos y café. El compra.” Marrok gestured towards Elder as he completed the second statement. Tony smiled at the remark and walked away.
“Very well, I shall pay then.” Elder smirked. Marrok added fluent in Spanish to the list of things he knew about Dr. Mark Elder. The list of things he didn’t know was likely much longer.
Tony was quick to return with a cup of coffee and a glass of water. Marrok took a sip from the Styrofoam cup, it was good coffee. Dr. Elder had a drink from his glass and placed it back down onto the table. “Kasey, my friend, I have a proposition for you.” Marrok stared back at him in silence. Elder sensed the ranger’s lack of curiosity, but continued on. “I presume you have a suspicion as to the identity of the shadowy figure in your room that night.”
“I’m not sure I care who he is,” Marrok replied. Elder shook his head, brushing Marrok’s disinterest aside.
“As I’m sure you recall from our conversation earlier in my office, Dracula was presumed to have been killed during his encounter with Van Helsing and the Marroki woman all those years ago. However, rumors that he had escaped his fate have been circulating for centuries. And I believe I mentioned before that his body was never recovered.” Marrok maintained his disinterested stare as Elder rattled on. “Marrok, don’t you see? You’ve managed to confirm something that many of us have only speculated on for hundreds of years. My colleagues and I, not necessarily in tandem mind you, have spent many long afternoons and nights concerning ourselves over mysteries such as this one.”
“Glad I could help,” Marrok said bluntly. He took another sip of his coffee.
“Yes, you have been brilliant thus far. There is, however, more to be done.” Elder’s words bore solemnity as he eluded to another task.
“I do not work for you,” Marrok replied dryly.
“Indeed, but we could work together and remove another red piece from the board,” said Elder.
“I am tired of whatever this game is you are playing,” Marrok said, ignoring Elder’s professorial tone. “I think I know where this is going, I am not a hit man.”
“My dear Kasey,” Elder leaned back in his chair as he began, his eyes growing wide and his mind seeming to shine out of them, “all of life is a game. Politics, business, war, peace, careers, family, friends, these are all small games which play into the much larger one. There are winners, losers, achievers, and quitters. There are rules which we follow, bend, and break. If-”
“-What do you want with me,” Marrok growled as he interrupted the rant. There was a spark in Elder’s eye.
“Perhaps the question is Kasey Marrok, what do you want?” Elder took a moment to pause for effect. “Now that I know the demon still lives, I cannot ignore him. Make no mistake, Dracula’s demise is the next game I intend to play. Hand for hand, I may be outmatched – he has been playing the game far longer than me or anyone else. I have the beginnings of a team strategy in mind, a strategy which you happen to fit into quite nicely.” Elder paused again to discern anything at all from Marrok’s continuing and emotionless stare. There was nothing there to be learned. “I will not make you come with me Kasey, but I do believe the adventure may do you some good…innocent people would also benefit from your success if that sways you.”
Tony reappeared from behind the counter with two plates, each with two tightly wrapped burritos and picante packets. Tony smiled graciously as he set the plates before them, and asked if there was anything else he could get them. Elder waived him off, and the waiter left. Elder returned his gaze to Marrok who seemed to be staring a hole through the table, lost in thought. “Let’s face it,” Elder began as he picked up a fork, “you may be in a spot of trouble. A quest of this magnitude, pending its success, would elevate you to somewhat of a world renowned status in circles of what I would call our world. It would be difficult for nights of any court, including Lance and his friends, to hold ill will against you should we succeed in this venture. Honor is the currency of the courts, and your figurative pocket book would be bursting at the seams with it should Dracula fall by your hand. Whatever intentions they had for meeting you at the airport would be forgotten.” Elder let his words sink in for a few seconds. “So…what say you Kasey Marrok?”
Marrok considered his options. He could go to Hawk and find out how much trouble he was actually in. He felt, however, that the odds of leaving such a meeting without further endangering his freedom were slim. He also knew he could not trust Elder. The old man had known about the knights the whole time and had sent Marrok off to Romania anyway – likely knowing full well that they would have a problem with it. An eerie realization crept into his mind. He was a new puppet who had been tricked onto the stage. Elder had lured him into the limelight and slowly had begun to attach the strings from above. He could feel the puppet master slowly tying another string to him as he considered the proposition. It was all a game. Marrok was not sure he wanted to play.
“I will think about it,” said Marrok.
“I’m not sure there is much time for you to think about it,” retorted Elder.
“I am not sure I give a shit about your timetable,” Marrok replied indifferently. Marrok wasn’t sure he cared about anything else that would come out of the old man’s mouth either.
Elder sat straight and drummed two fingers on the table, weighing the conversation. It did not seem that “going out,” had played out the way the professor had expected. He looked up at Marrok, “Very well, you have two days. Stay in the house if you like, I’ll return to hear your answer. I have another errand to run in the meantime.”
They ate their meal in silence. Neither of them bothered to look up at the other. Tony came out one more time and asked if there was anything else he could do for them, there wasn’t. Elder asked for the check which was brought out promptly. The professor left some money on the table, it was a handsome tip. “I’ll see you in two days,” Elder said as he slid the bills under his glass.
“You are not going to give me a ride back?” Marrok asked.
“I thought you wanted some time to think about things. Long walks have always helped me clear my mind.” Elder smiled as he said it. With that, Elder walked out the door, the bell above announcing his exit.
Marrok let out a sigh and walked up to the counter, motioning for Tony to come near. “Do you have a telephone?” Marrok asked.
“Si,” replied Tony.
“I need to call a taxi,” said Marrok.
“Where did your friend go?” Tony asked.
“He is not my friend,” replied Marrok. Not even close.