Chapter 1: A Decision
Albert Manlii tilted his head and closed his eyes in concentration, zeroing in on two particular voices among the many sounds flooding in from all directions. His heart tightened as the two humans spoke in low voices, hatching a scheme that had no hope of success, but nonetheless posed a grave danger to the vampires.
Albert stood in the stairwell, a level down from the apartment that two senior members of the vampire faction’s security team had been monitoring. By “senior,” he meant older in vampire years—which didn’t correlate with apparent years for any but the most recently turned. Point being, their hearing was far more acute than that of junior vamps, let alone humans, and walls as unsubstantial as those in typical apartment buildings such as this were no deterrent.
“What’s your impression, boss?” Ivan murmured.
Melody lifted a brow as she awaited Albert’s verdict.
“Have they mentioned their theory to anyone else?” Albert whispered.
“Not yet.” Melody shook her head.
She didn’t emphasize the word, “yet,” but the importance was clearly implied, or they wouldn’t have summoned him for the added impact of listening for himself rather than simply informing him at the progress meeting scheduled for later that afternoon.
Months ago, Albert’s blood-mate, Neil had run into his ex-boyfriend, Cameron—one of the two humans the vamps were listening to—on Neil’s very first day out on his own as a recently turned vampire. He’d faltered, which wasn’t entirely unexpected under the circumstances, and let down his guard long enough for Cameron to look past all the superficial changes that had been made to overhaul the façade of Neil’s identity—everything from his physical appearance and style choices, to a regional accent, and even a signature scent—so a casual observer would indeed see him as Neil, and not Phillip, as he’d been known as a human.
“Has anything shown up on text or email between them?” Albert asked. They had the means of wiping that kind of trail, but it would be better to put an end to the risk before it went that far.
“Not yet.” Ivan echoed Melody’s reply.
Albert closed his eyes and sighed. Yet. They both seemed to think it was important to underscore that point. Almost as if they questioned his judgment under the circumstances. They needn’t worry. He knew enough to pass the decision to the appropriate team leader—in this case it would be the head of the security team—if he felt his own reasoning on this particular case would be skewed by concern for Neil.
Albert glanced at Ivan. “Has Eunice listened to them and given an opinion?” Eunice was Ivan’s blood-mate, a trained psychologist, and excellent at reading people. Her thoughts on this were critical to the final ruling.
“Yes, she thinks that between them, Cameron and Dennis have convinced each other the existence of vampires is a very real possibility.” Which was what Albert had expected Ivan to say.
Dennis wouldn’t otherwise have given more than a passing thought to Cameron’s ex, but the man was obsessed with the topic of vampires. If there was a popular book, television show, or movie featuring them, he’d read or watched it, and quite a few of the more obscure ones, too.
Ever since Cameron had mentioned having seen an uncanny doppelganger of his deceased former boyfriend, Dennis had latched onto the supposition Neil was a vampire as if he wanted it to be true. Like he wanted to be the one to prove the legends really were based in truth.
While initially reluctant, Cameron had been drawn in by Dennis’s fervor and lines of reasoning. The fact the targets hadn’t mentioned their belief to anyone else wasn’t so much a sign that they didn’t take it seriously, but that they understood how crazy it would sound and weren’t prepared to air it.
Maybe they never would, but could the faction take that risk?
Albert continued to breathe steadily despite the fact vampires didn’t need to do so to survive. There were a number of reasons for it that were critical to their need to walk undetected among humans, but the calming effect it had on him was a welcomed collateral benefit. Neil wasn’t going to be happy with Albert’s decision, and Albert’s heart sank at the thought of telling him about it.
Typically, just like most junior or mid-level vamps, Neil wouldn’t be privy to details of faction business such as this. His status as Albert’s blood-mate didn’t change that. That was for their own safety and for the security of the entire vampire population.
However, like all vamps, Neil had access to news articles, and one way or another, the outcome of this decision would make the news. But unlike most other vamps, Neil would recognize the names—or at least the name of his ex-boyfriend, Cameron Ferguson—and he would know, and blame himself. So yes, Albert needed to explain the situation to Neil in advance.
The three vamps in the stairwell stiffened as Dennis asserted that they needed evidence. He wanted pictures of Neil that could be compared in detail to Cameron’s old candid shots of Phillip. Speculating based on Cameron’s eye-witness memory of particular features that seemed to go exceptionally beyond a mere “Gee, this guy really, really reminds me of my dead ex,” wasn’t enough. Dennis wanted to run photos through professional face recognition software. He wanted to make a point-by-point study of the moles Cameron was “pretty sure” were exactly the same.
And what about Neil’s employer, Cameron wanted to know. They’d backed up Neil’s assertion that he’d recently transferred from another branch. Were they in on it, too? They had to be if Neil really was Phillip, and good God, how widespread was this coven of vampires?
Albert shuddered. He’d always hated that word: “coven.” It brought up too many negative associations from the old days when many had believed in and vilified vampires. Of course, back then when many’d had no good way to get the blood the needed outside of live feedings, their horrible reputation had often been deserved.
“Okay.” Albert’s shoulders slumped. The decision was reluctant, but it shouldn’t have been this difficult, not with Cameron and Dennis talking about seeking evidence and implicating the vampire-run delivery service. It should have been a slam-dunk. “The threat has escalated to the point where it’s serious enough to take pre-emptive action. We’ll work out the details at the meeting this afternoon.”
* * * *
“Do you have calla lilies?” Albert kept his breathing shallow in the overwhelmingly strongly scented floral shop. “Or maybe anemones or poppies?”
If the florist thought anything unusual about the request, she didn’t show it. “We have all three.” Her cheerful saleswoman smile remained intact as she ushered him to the other side of the shop.
Perhaps it wasn’t all that rare for a customer to rattle off a list of flowers whose commonality was their lack of scent. They were essentially unscented to most humans, anyway. Relatively tolerable for vampires in a closed apartment space. At least the vamps’ self-healing properties prevented the strong scent associated with many varieties of cut flowers from causing a painful headache.
She pointed out the flowers he’d asked about among containers full of colorful blooms along the display wall. The anemones were pretty and available in a variety of colors. They would make an attractive short-stemmed bouquet. The poppies were brilliantly colored and perfectly lovely. But the calla lilies were elegant with their graceful long stems and simple, unpretentious blooms. They symbolized “magnificent beauty,” but to Albert, they seemed to say “I love you” more clearly than the other two.
“I’d like to get a dozen of the calla lilies. Could I get those arranged in a vase, please?”
“Of course.” She busied herself gathering the stems while Albert browsed the corner full of potted plants.
In all his two thousand years on earth, this was his very first purchase of cut flowers. He’d never felt moved to gift that symbol of love, desire, and devotion to anyone before.
Looking at the potted plants, he was drawn to the idea of making his and Neil’s apartment homier with the addition of some living greenery. The vast majority of his life had been spent surviving, satisfied with any small space he could scratch out and call “home.”
But even in the more or less safe existence he’d found in recent centuries, his apartments had basically been places to house his accumulation of favorite books, miscellaneous keepsakes, media devices, and a few basic decorations. He had felt as “at home” visiting friends as he had in his own apartment.
Now home was where Neil was. And now, for the first time, giving that space a cozier and more tranquil feel seemed important.
An entire corner of the shop was devoted to “detoxifying” indoor plants. Not that vampires needed to be concerned about toxins in the air affecting their health, but supposedly these would freshen the indoor air rather than intensify the reek.
He added a peace lily plant and some cut-flower preservative to his order, and the saleswoman provided a perfectly-sized box to help him carry his purchase the short distance to their apartment building.
Neil met him at the door when Albert finally arrived. A wide smile spanned Neil’s face, and Albert couldn’t have prevented his reflexive grin if he’d tried. Although it had been less than a year so far, no matter how long they lived together, the sight of Neil’s joy at Albert’s homecoming would never get old.
Sure, part of Neil’s enthusiasm was because he was still riding high on the joy of simply being alive. Albert had “recruited” him that past spring when Neil had been known as Phillip, and had been mere weeks from dying. But the bounce in Neil’s step, and his obvious delight when in Albert’s presence was also due to that mysterious attraction the vampires had come to call “blood-mates.”
By all accounts, their bond would be for life. All vampires who’d found blood-mates were likewise affected—drawn to each other with an intensity unequaled in the human sphere.
While there were no stories of vamps with more than one blood-mate at a time, Albert had heard of several who’d found a second after their first was killed. One particular account concerned a blood-mate couple who’d befriended a third vamp, and only after one of the original pair had been killed, had a fresh blood-mate connection developed between the remaining vamp and the friend.
“What’s all this?” Neil took the box from Albert and placed it on the counter dividing their kitchen and living room spaces. “Are the flowers for me?”
Albert pulled Neil to him, and Neil responded as he always did, wrapping his arms around Albert’s neck and drawing a deep breath with his nose buried in Albert’s neck. “Of course, Amor Meus.” Albert trembled while his hands gently rubbed Neil’s back. “Who else would I buy flowers for?”
Neil snickered and leaned back to peer into Albert’s eyes. “True. Did you know, no one has ever brought me flowers before?”
“No? And did you know that I’ve never purchased flowers for anyone before?”
“Seriously? Never? But y’all are so…” One side of Neil’s mouth curved up into a sweet half-grin. “…so ancient.”
“That I am.” Albert stepped back, reluctantly trailing his fingers the length of Neil’s outstretched arm as they pulled apart. “Although, if I’m going to be completely honest, I have picked wildflowers in a field in years gone by for a woman playing the part of my wife. We both knew it was for appearances’ sake, so it hardly counts.”
“Anyone I know?”
“No.” Albert added more water and a preservative packet to the vase while Neil found a home for the plant. “We eventually parted ways, and I never learned what happened to her. She might still be alive.” It was a big planet, and even long-lived faction leaders and council members couldn’t claim to have personally met all living vampires worldwide. He could put out an inquiry if he really wanted to know. But while he’d liked her well enough, they’d been partners out of practicality rather than out of any kind of genuine attachment, so he felt no burning need to discover her fate.
Neil rejoined Albert in the kitchen. “I was afraid we’d miss the movie date, but we’ve still got time to meet everyone.”
Ah, yes. Albert hadn’t forgotten, of course. Vampires didn’t “forget.” But he had pushed their evening plans to the back of his mind as he’d focused on more pressing concerns.
A fun outing was just what he needed after a rough afternoon of brainstorming with key security personnel who’d been part of the surveillance rotation for this case, and with his department heads. They had a plan now. It would take a little time to get everything in place, but it would work. Cameron and Dennis would be given a choice: become vampires and have just as much to lose if vampires were exposed…or die. Either way, their existing identities would have to die.
Vampires worldwide were accustomed to causing both new recruits and their own retiring identities to “die” and/or vanish seamlessly from society—they’d infiltrated enough key services and industries to facilitate that. Those situations were always ones where few, if any, questions would be asked about the deceased. Their recruit choices were carefully selected, and they each lived out their vampire identities deliberately making themselves unmemorable to the humans with whom they were forced to interact.
On rare occasions, trickier cases popped up unexpectedly. But it was very uncommon to have to make a couple disappear. Especially a pair who had friends and family who would ask questions.
“Plenty of time.” Albert ran his fingers through Neil’s highlighted blond hair. “Tell me, how were your classes today?”
“Wonderful.” Neil pulled Albert toward the refrigerator and retrieved their daily ration of blood, then attached the adapter and handed the bag to Albert.
“Thank you, dilectus meus.” Albert’s fangs snapped out, and he quickly drained half and passed it back to Neil, who did the same.
“Biology is my favorite,” Neil added. He was just over a month into university classes toward getting his pre-med degree. “Although it still feels weird that most of it no longer applies to me. I could live without the calculus class, but it’s not as hard as it would’ve been before gettin’ this super-memory.”
“I’m happy to help if you have difficulty grasping any concepts.”
“I know. It’s okay, though. I get everything so far. It’s just not my thing.” Neil drew his phone out of a pocket and checked the time. “We fixin’ to leave? You ready?”
“Yes.” Tomorrow was Saturday. Albert would have all day to bring up the dreaded subject of Cameron and Dennis. The last thing he wanted to do was to tell Neil in a rush without time to fully explain. Albert took Neil’s hand, pressed a kiss to the inside of his wrist, and reveled in Neil’s gentle shudder.
2019 Addison Albright