MYSTERY GIRL DISAPPEARS AFTER COLLISION WITH TRUCK!
The headline screamed from the newspaper Gabriel threw down on the table in front of Crystal.
“What have you been up to?” He demanded in a voice strained with anger.
“I took the girls out to a movie,” Cantara lied, “and we ran into a rogue band of vampyres. You really should do something about it.”
He knew she was lying, but dare not call her on it. That was the problem with these specialists - there was no controlling them ever since Jean-Claude’s death. He wondered how the little man had managed it – nothing short of a demon lord intimidated them, and they were far too ancient and experienced to take someone as young as himself seriously. To them, the Church was a kids’ club. And yet it was his job to keep them in check and their existence a secret in an increasingly wired world. A hundred cell phones had to have videoed the collision between the vampyre and the truck, and God alone knew what miracle was keeping it from flooding across the social networks.
“And you just happen to take this one with you?” He jerked a thumb at Aiko, not knowing, nor caring to know her name. The Church had no business dealing with their kind.
“I could hardly leave her here on her own,” Cantara countered.
“Cantara, Aiko and I were there,” Crystal interjected. “So, it was no big deal.”
Despite his hard-ass attitude, Crystal liked Gabriel, and so did Aiko. The tall, lanky Texan had spent most of his life fighting the enemies of the Church, and before that, the enemies of his country during two tours in Vietnam with the Marines. He had been part of the Brotherhood‘s Choirs for so long that keeping its secrets had grown more important to him than protecting the unsuspecting populace from demons.
“Crystal, darling,” he chided, his voice gentle. “The worst thing that could happen to any of us is for the civilians to find out our secret. The tabloids already print too many stories that skate so close to the actual truth it gives me nightmares.”
“No-one’s going to find out about anything we are up to,” Crystal assured him, shovelling another spoonful of blood into Aiko’s mouth. “That hidden nest of vampyres was more a threat to our secret than anything we did last night. Hungry vampyres grow reckless. The landlords in that neighbourhood will be looking for their rent, and they’re going to be wondering where all their tenants went.”
“I’ll have my people search the neighbourhood,” Gabriel mumbled, “and see that Anastasia does something to hush it up.”
Still mumbling to himself, he turned and walked out of the apartment. The moment the door closed, Cantara crossed her arms and stared down at the two girls.
“If you two do not stop treating Aiko like a doll, she’s going to lay a beating on you,” the djinn warned. “And I might let her.”
“But she’s hurt,” Gwen complained.
“It’s barely a scratch,” Cantara countered. “With her rate of healing, she’ll be ready to run a fifty-mile marathon by tomorrow night.”
“Maybe by the end of the week,” Aiko returned, a bemused smile on her face. She did not know which was worse, her two sisters’ ministrations or the djinn and her over-optimistic prognosis. The way she felt she might not move for a month. Or run away screaming in the next five minutes.
“And which one of you dressed her in that ridiculous outfit,” Cantara continued.
“What?” Gwen demanded, offended. “That is one of my best shirts!”
“She looks like she’s five,” Cantara complained.
“She looks fine,” April cut in as she walked in through the door. “At least I won’t get any more letters from the school with her dressed like this. But get her a pair of regular socks. Those knee socks look ridiculous! And she might want to replace that skirt with a pair of jeans. It’s getting cold out.”
“And her hair is probably too short for the ponytails,” Cantara pointed. “Wouldn’t you say so?”
“Not a good look on her,” April agreed.
“Come into the bedroom, Aiko,” April instructed, “I want to look at those injuries of yours.”
“I am fine –“
“I will be the judge of that, young lady,” April interrupted. “And don’t give me any of that vampyre nonsense.”
When April and Aiko disappeared into the bedroom, Cantara turned to the girls. “We need to discuss last night.”
“We’re meeting at Brendan’s apartment later on this evening,” Crystal explained. “We have some research to review and the bios of five potential recruits to vet. We don’t have the numbers for an operation like last night.”
“Reinforcements would help,” Cantara encouraged. “But your Intel was a little light. Who was responsible for that?”
Before either girl could reply, April and Aiko returned to the room.
“I have to go into the diner to cover for Beth,” April warned. “I don’t want the four of you getting into any more mischief while I’m gone. Gabriel’s mad enough to slap the lot of you in irons, and I might let him.”
“We’re going to do our homework and watch a little television,” Crystal promised.
“Oh, and Mom,” Gwen added. “There’s a party tonight at Brendan’s. Aiko and Cantara will take us.”
April gave her daughter a hard look.
“It’s only a party! And it’s at the school, for God’s sake. How much trouble could we get into?” Gwen complained.
“Knowing you four,” April sighed, exasperated, “you’ll probably summon one of the Battles of Hell. And if I find you’ve been ῾zinging᾿ any more vampyres, you’ll be scrubbing pots at the diner for the next month.”
“It was only Aiko,” Gwen defended, her voice trailing off under her mother’s sharp look, “and Cantara.”
“And that makes it better?” April demanded. “Young lady, the Wiccan cathode is a tool for healing and charging our crystals.”
“You zinged vampyres with it!” Gwen accused.
April laughed and then threw up her hands. “That was under extreme circumstances. Wiccans don’t go around picking fights with vampyres. And that goes for all four of you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” all four chorused.
“You can go to the party as long as you bring Alvaro,” April relented, kissing her two girls on the forehead, and then Aiko for good measure. “He almost knows how to behave himself.”
“I think I am growing frightened of that human,” Aiko commented dryly once April had left the room.
“She’s one tough woman,” Cantara breathed in agreement. “She reminds me of my mother. And she’s an old battle-axe from way back.”
“That’s nothing,” Gwen complained. “You want to see scary, try leaving the house wearing a belly top when she’s around! You’d think showing a little skin will destroy the entire Western Civilization.”
There were very few times in a vampyre’s life when they needed sleep, and rarely in her own. One was when she was injured. Aiko finished her homework – not a pleasant task when you were twelve hundred and considered yourself beyond the trivial pursuits of mortals – and then retired to nap for the afternoon. She woke in the early evening to find herself tucked in beneath three blankets with a stuffed toy Sesame Street Counting Count beneath one arm. She hissed in annoyance. Just once she would like to bite those two girls. It would be quick and almost painless.
Aiko carried the toy with her out to the living room, intending to shove it down one or both her sisters’ throats when Alvaro surprised her.
“I see you still sleep with your teddy.”
She changed directions mid-throw and drilled him off the head.
“It was a joke, little sister,” Crystal laughed, glad she had not been the target of that missile.
Alvaro got up and moved towards her. He cupped her chin gently in his hand and raised her eyes to his own.
“Human siblings tease each other to show affection.” He really was a pretty vampyre, Akio thought as she stared into his golden eyes, listening to his seductive voice. If only Crystal would let her kill him once she was done with him.
“And how are you feeling today?” He asked, still holding her chin.
“I am well,” Aiko replied.
“You might want to go brush your hair and put some clothes on if you are going out with us,” he suggested kindly.
Only then did she notice her kimono was partly open. Ducking her head, she replied, “hai.”
Turning, she retreated into the bedroom. Nudity meant little in Japanese homes, but she did not want Alvaro to think she was trying to seduce him. Already Gwen and Crystal had too many foolish notions about their relationship. Aiko would catch them grinning and sharing sly looks when the two vampyres came together, and she was damned if she would give them any more ammunition. Their lurid imaginations were causing her enough problems as it was. And with their warped sense of humour, they would probably strip her naked, wrap her in a bow, and have her deliver her to him baked in a cake.
Aiko took extra care dressing, even allowing Crystal to help her with her make-up. She had chosen to wear a pair of embroidered black jeans, a blue silk blouse over a black camisole, and a pair of black runners she had borrowed from Gwen. Crystal had lent her a pair of stud earrings, and a light blush of make-up added some colour to her pale complexion. Inspecting herself in the mirror, she turned to change a third time when Crystal grabbed her with a laugh.
“You look beautiful,” she teased. “Trust me, he’ll notice.”
Aiko gave her a dark look and showed her fangs. “I do not care if anyone notices, let alone him. One is careful when crafting a disguise. It is all this is about, finding a disguise that will let me blend in with my enemies.”
Crystal laughed harder.
When the girls returned to the living room, Alvaro rose in a display of old-world manners. He crossed the room and offered Aiko his arm as they prepared to leave. Almost she refused him when she caught Crystal’s smirk over his shoulder. She would definitely bite the succubus, and soon.
All thirteen of the others were waiting for them down in Brendan’s apartment when they arrived at the school. Alvaro noticed how they all greeted Crystal like courtiers greeting their queen and started to suspect that this was something more than a party. For some weeks now, he had questioned the girls’ activities - their nightly training sessions, vampyre interdictions, and search through the Brotherhood’s archives. They were up to something no-one would approve of, something dangerous. He decided to keep a close eye on their by-play tonight, and his sharp vampyre hearing intercepted Crystal’s instructions to Aiko to keep him busy. As pretty as she was, he was too old to be distracted by a pair of eyes.
“Whatever you are about, Crystal Raven,” Alvaro interrupted, “I know it has nothing to do with sex, drugs or alcohol. So it can only have something to do with your unhealthy obsession with vampyres of European descent.”
“Busted,” Morgana teased. “There go our plans for a drunken, coke orgy.”
Alvaro never let his eyes leave Crystal.
Crystal sighed miserably. It was Aiko’s turn to smirk. Her world was full of too many people whose business was secrets for her liking.
“If you give your word of honour not to mention anything you hear in this room,” Crystal hedged.
“It’s that bad, is it?” Alvaro drawled, a twinkle in his eyes and his thoughts sober.
“We have a plan to end the war between the Church and the vampyres,” she explained. “We’re putting together a team and the intelligence to carry out that mission.”
“And this plan?” Alvaro pressed.
“We’re going to kill my father.”
Alvaro studied Crystal’s face for a long time. “Even if it was possible, do you realize the repercussions of his death?”
“I can’t guarantee that you, Aiko or I will survive,” Crystal replied calmly.
“Wait a minute!” Gwen interjected, sounding at that moment so much like her mother. “Why is this the first we hear about this?”
“Because the risk is not yours,” Alvaro answered for Crystal, reading her every thought on her face. “And because if you knew the truth, you would not be part of this insanity. You are learning to manipulate your friends too well for my liking.”
“Our kind has no place in their world,” Crystal replied, still talking only to Alvaro. “They should be skinning their hearts and their knees, not chasing demons in the dark.”
Truthfully, Alvaro had thought the same thing for several centuries now. Born of Hell, he had told Aiko, our kind was never truly part of God’s design. Scholars for centuries had raised doubts that they even had souls - a debate he had settled to his satisfaction long ago. If they had no souls, they would not fall in love, write poetry, or appreciate beauty. And still, from Hell they came, and to Hell they would return. In the meantime, how many thousands of innocents would die? Now, offered a final solution, his vague notions suddenly took on a reality that was too immediate to ignore.
“And what now?” He had moved Aiko into his arms and now rested his chin on the top of her head. She made no move to shrug off his attentions, and he suspected she had long ago realized the implications of what they planned here.
“We know what we have to do, but not how,” Crystal explained. “Yesterday’s test of our assets revealed several deficiencies.”
“Yes,” Cantara replied dryly. The girl sounded so much like a commander dressing down her troops that Cantara did not know whether to laugh or frown. “Your intelligence was a little light.”
“I agree,” Drake replied, taking responsibility for that shortcoming. “Mainly because we don’t have enough Goths.”
He turned, bringing up a screen of five headshots from a digital projector they had borrowed from the school.
“We have identified five possible recruits,” Drake continued. “In keeping with your instructions, we have begun looking outside the Academy system.”
“The first one is here in the States. Charles is a fire-starter, which might come in handy. He also has good instincts and has a skill for hiding.”
Cantara smiled. They had obviously hacked into the Brotherhood files. “Do you want to tell them, Alvaro, or should I?”
“Charles,” Alvaro said gently. “Is a demon. He is on the Brotherhood watch list and has already killed three people - the parents and younger sister of the boy he has possessed.”
Crystal’s eyes lit up with some idea that Cantara quickly shot down. “Don’t even think about it, girlfriend! There will be no playing with demons on my watch.”
“What?” Crystal protested. “I’m a demon.”
“And we’re already having second thoughts about you,” the other woman warned.
“That other one’s a skinhead,” Razor interjected. The specialists often talked above their heads like this, and he had no intention of listening to another of those conversations. Besides, they had serious work to do.
“Who?” Morgan questioned. “The German?”
“No,” Razor replied. “The Brit. He only dresses like that to try to fool the cops. It didn’t work.”
“What’s your point?” Drake asked.
“My point is he is currently incarcerated in an English prison,” Razor pointed out, “doing a stretch of five to ten. Unless you want to break him out, he’s unavailable for the duration.”
“I like the African,” Gwen breathed. “He looks tribal.”
The other girls stared up at his broad shoulders and his well-defined chest visible in his picture.
“Yes,” Kristen sighed, “absolutely tribal. If it’s a choice between him and the Brit, I vote for him.”
“It’s too bad you’re not allowed to date anyone in your own band,” Drake teased. “No crapping where you eat.”
“And what about us?” Morgana demanded, giving him a shot in the arm.
“We are grandfathered in,” he replied blithely. “Special dispensation for pre-existing relationships and all that. Besides, I’m bandleader – the rules don’t apply to me.”
And he ducked the hail of balled up paper from almost everyone in the room.
“Since Cantara and I will be taking over your training,” Alvaro interrupted, nodding at Cantara, “we will take care of any personality conflicts.”
“Celibacy, until they’re at least three hundred, might be a good rule with this lot,” Cantara teased, keeping her face straight until Morgana threw a box of staples at her.
“Good,” Crystal summed up, ignoring the byplay between Morgana and Cantara. “Drake and Alvaro will head out to interview our potential recruits when we leave for the volleyball tournament.”
“It was nice of you to volunteer me,” Alvaro replied dryly.
“You’ve been volen-told, dude,” Gwen shot back, imitating Gabriel. “You have to get used to it in this outfit.”
Crystal held out the trash can, “here’s the complaint department. Please, file any objections in triplicate. Now.” She turned to the group at large. “I have a question for the Wiccans. In Jean-Claude’s notes, he mentions a Wiccan text – Wards of the Dark – but I can’t find a copy of it anywhere.”
“Crystal,” Gwen replied, uneasily. “Not all Wiccan texts are written. The most important ones are passed down by oral tradition from mother to daughter.”
“Unless you know the lineage,” the Nordic twins added, one starting, the other ending their sentence. “There may be no way of finding it.”
“Not all knowledge is safe to disseminate,” Gwen offered miserably, repeating a lecture she had often heard during her training. “There are some things that are too dangerous to let fall in the wrong hands - and some matters too dark to explore. This Wards of the Dark might be one of these. I’ve never heard of it, and I swear my mother has made me read every Wiccan text ever written, and maybe a few that haven’t been.”
“Sorry,” Gem shrugged. “It’s not one that I’ve ever heard of, and I haven’t the foggiest idea how to find it either.”
“We need to find that text,” Crystal urged. “It’s the key to everything.”
“Is there anything else?” Gwen prompted, “did he write anything in the margins? Jean-Claude always wrote in the margins.”
“Only the words ῾Black Donnellys᾿,” Crystal replied.
The other Wiccans shared a troubled look. The Black arts were something they seldom spoke of outside their own circles, and the Black in his cryptic message conjured images of dark rituals in graveyards or the site of massacres.
“I remember him talking to my mom about it,” Gwen broke the silence, her eyes taking on a faraway look as she tried to recall that long-ago evening. “My mother asked him where he had come across the reference, and Jean-Claude had said somewhere in his undertakings.”
“That doesn’t help much,” Crystal muttered, disappointed.
“No,” Gwen hedged and then brightened. “But he might have written something about it in his travel journals.”
“Travel journals?” Crystal urged, excited. Anything to do with Jean-Claude was precious to her. It irritated her that no-one had ever said anything about travel journals before this.
“It’s a huge ledger,” Gwen described, “with a black and red cover. I think there are actually three of them.”
“I remember packing something like that into one of the boxes yesterday,” Cantara interjected.
“Has April sent the boxes to storage yet?” Crystal demanded, having refused to pay any attention to what had happened to Jean-Claude’s possessions. Giving Cantara his room had felt too much like a betrayal. She was becoming so contrary in her grief.
“I don’t think so,” Gwen thought. “I think they are still downstairs in the basement. I don’t think she can bring herself to part with them.”
Sometimes Crystal forgot those two had been together for so long – forgot that she was not the only one hurting from Jean-Claude’s loss. When she had first come to live at the brownstone, she had been jealous of April for a long time, jealous of the obvious relationship that lay between her and Jean-Claude. When he died, it must have felt as if she had lost her husband for a second time, and while she never showed it, both girls knew she was still struggling with that grief.
“After we find the journals,” Crystal said quietly, “we’ll call the storage company and have them pick up the boxes on Tuesday morning. Cantara or Alvaro can let them in.”
“We would be glad to,” Alvaro return chivalrously.
Later, after Alvaro had escorted them back home, the girls retreated into the basement and rooted among the boxes until they found the journals. It took longer than they had anticipated. Every box brought back memories and pain they had all felt while boxing up these same mementos three days ago. Despite the urgency of their quest, every time they came across an artifact with any special emotional attachment, they needed several minutes to fight back their tears and sorrow. When they finally found those three volumes, it was such a relief that they raced upstairs, leaving the boxes open, their contents half spilled across the floor.
All three girls now lounged about Crystal’s room, each reading one of the hefty tomes. Crystal was amazed that someone so young – only in his late forties – had travelled so extensively. His work with the Church brought him to some very strange places, less than a handful considered tourist destinations. The killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda after the massacres, the sites of a dozen gristly murders and mass graves. He was in places so remote it took weeks to hike into them, and others, like the slums of Brazil or South Africa, that were little better than garbage dumps. And every destination represented hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles of travel.
Aiko found the reference. It was a place called Upper Canada, but when they looked for it on Google Earth, they could not find it. Canada itself was north of their location, and they assumed Upper Canada must be the top part of the map. They were missing something obvious, as you often did when you were looking too hard for something.
“I’m ready for bed,” Crystal complained, voicing her frustration. “We’ll ask the others if they have any idea.”
Gwen was already asleep, flopped on the bed in such a sprawl that there was no room for anyone else. The other two girls stood looking down at her, debating whether they had the energy to roll her off the bed.
“I will sleep again tonight,” Aiko offered. “You may share the pull-out bed with me.”
“As long as you promise to behave yourself,” Crystal teased. “I see how you look at me with lust in your eyes.”
Aiko raised a startled eyebrow. These gaijins were strange in the extreme. She never played with her food. If only she knew for sure which one of them was the food.