Plan B didn’t often come into play, and Albert Manlii loathed the necessity for it. His people were meticulous in their research, so they could rule out humans that were likely to reject their proposal. But once they’d played their hand and extended the offer, either the potential recruit accepted it, or…Plan B.
It was too dangerous to let a human walk away with that kind of knowledge. Period. Just as it was impossible to know with one hundred percent certainty how a human would react to the offer, they had no assurance that the human wouldn’t talk afterward, and that those they spoke to wouldn’t think that maybe there was something to that crazy talk of vampires.
“I just can’t,” the woman said a second time. The firm set of her jaw confirmed her resolution on the matter.
Albert sighed and signaled with a scratch behind his left ear. “I understand. I appreciate your calm consideration, and I’m sorry you won’t be joining us.”
He turned and strode away. He was a good twenty-five yards from her when the dull thud of her body hitting the floor reached him. He didn’t look back.
* * * *
Albert straightened abruptly in his seat. His chin raised as he turned toward the open window and sniffed the air. It was a male scent, of that he was certain. Not too young, but not too old, either. If he were a betting man, he would peg the age of the owner of those intriguing pheromones to be somewhere in his thirties. Close to his own age. Or…not.
His lip curled self-depreciatingly as it was wont to do. After his thirty-fourth birthday, he’d lost track of his precise age. He’d spent too many decades over the first few hundred years after he’d been turned despondent and distracted, struggling to survive. He needed to add about two thousand years to get his true age.
He drew in a deep breath and shivered as that enticing aroma swirled, beckoning him to the window. The man behind the scent approached from the west. He walked slowly, his head down and shoulders slumped as if they carried the weight of the world—or more likely, the burden of his own imminently pending mortality.
Albert tapped his phone screen and dialed a number from memory as he strode out of his apartment.
Eunice answered immediately. “Yes, boss man.”
He sighed, but let the nickname go. Not letting inconsequential matters aggravate him was one of the reasons he made a well-liked and effective faction-leader. His associates respected him in the true sense of the word, rather than the fear-based perversion of it.
“Got a potential for you to check out. Hold on.” He hustled down the narrow staircase and exited the building.
The man, mere yards away when Albert pushed out the door, looked up as if startled. Albert nodded and gave a reassuring, light, and friendly smile. The man’s eyes lit for a fraction of a second before gloom reclaimed them. He returned the nod, and Albert paused on the stoop and fiddled with his phone’s screen to give his target a chance to put some distance between them.
Target. It was imperative he allow himself to think of the man only dispassionately. Against all common sense, Albert drew in another whiff of the man’s scent and shivered. He closed his eyes as the pheromones permeated throughout his body. Finally, after all these years, he’d found someone who affected him this way. That brief glimmer in the man’s eyes didn’t help Albert’s resolve to remain impartial. Did the man feel it, too?
Throughout this, Eunice remained silent—other than sounds of breathing. Of course, they didn’t need to breathe, but movement that had been involuntary in life was now cultivated habit, crucial to maintain the appearance of life so as not to attract undesirable attention. Besides, airflow over the larynx was required for talking, and they used their elevated sense of smell to their advantage.
Albert held back. With the slight breeze, he should be able to track the man by his scent even if he lost sight of him, but to be safe, he strove to keep the stranger in view. He plugged the wired earbud into the audio jack and fitted it into his ear.
“Okay,” he said. “Early to mid-thirties, or possibly a bit younger since the disease isn’t doing his appearance any favors.”
“Cancer?” Eunice asked. A reasonable educated guess since it was both the most likely fatal disease to affect a human of that age, and the one Albert was best able to pick up.
“Yes. I don’t recognize the type, so something uncommon, but it’s advanced.” Part of him felt sorry for the man, but his self-preservation instincts overpowered that emotion. It wasn’t as if there was anything he could do to save the guy’s life anyway. “You’ll need to work quickly.”
They pulled in one or two new recruits each year. Sometimes more, sometimes none. Finding willing converts in the right age range was by far the most efficient and least dangerous path. People whose lives were about to be tragically cut short were often cooperative.
Of course, age and potential willingness weren’t the only considerations. People unlikely to cut off all ties with current loved ones and upend the lives they’d built didn’t get approached. Large supportive families that might push to view the body of the “deceased” usually eliminated individuals from consideration. It was too risky. Raw intelligence was a requirement, and while a good education was helpful, it was less important in the long run.
They needed people capable of cross-training to fill a variety of positions over the years—centuries—millennia. In these modern times with social security and identification cards, none of them could keep the same identity for more than fifteen to twenty years—twenty-five max—without their lack of apparent aging becoming problematic. Since many of the specialties they needed to infiltrate networked across the country, one person couldn’t necessarily assume the same position in a different state when they took on a new identity. Fact was, most prospective recruits never made it past the early assessment stages.
“Anything else you can tell me yet?” she asked. Eunice would coordinate the evaluation.
“Only that he’s out walking alone, and he seems depressed.”
The average person with functioning empathy would likely back away in horror from someone expressing what appeared to be such an extraordinarily cold-blooded response, but Albert absently bobbed his head, agreeing with Eunice’s assessment. It wasn’t from lack of compassion, though. If the man fit their guidelines for recruitment, he would be offered a chance for…well, not precisely everlasting life, but at least he wouldn’t die quite so soon.
“Current location?” she asked.
He gave her their position and heading, and the sounds changed, indicating her movement. She would join him now, and if she caught up with him before their target arrived at his destination, she could get a preliminary impression before initiating a thorough background check on the man. Her instincts were good, so hopefully she’d make it in time.
The man passed a couple opportunities to get on the subway as he continued his slow walk. The turns he took indicated he had a certain location in mind rather than aimless walking. Albert wouldn’t say the man was enjoying the warm spring day so much as that he seemed to be taking it in as if trying to impress the memory of it on his soul.
Albert lost his connection to Eunice while she hopped on the subway, but she called back before the man got where he was going.
When Eunice stepped into place beside him, she got right to the point. “That him in the navy windbreaker?” It was a rhetorical question, considering his appearance relative to the healthy people around them. Everything from the sluggishness of his stroll compared to the hardy strides of the others, to the way he turned up his peaked face to gaze at every blossoming tree they passed, not taking their beauty for granted, gave him away.
At a mere five-hundred-and-change years old, Eunice’s sense of smell wasn’t as fine-tuned as his, so at this distance, and with other people distorting the trail, she probably couldn’t use it to pick him out, but she could read people like a well-worn favorite novel.
They strolled in silence for a few more blocks, then stepped into a coffee shop across from the brownstone the man entered.
Albert bought them a couple coffees—to fit in while they pretended to drink—while Eunice reserved a small table at the front window and kept an eye on the man’s building.
“This’ll be easy,” she said when he rejoined her. “He opened a window, so I can identify precisely which apartment is his.”
“Great. Even better.” The fact the man was in a small building like that had already made the job of identifying him relatively simple. “What was your impression?”
“I like him. Just by his body language, it’s clear he’s disheartened, but that’s to be expected. But he’s a ‘stop and smell the roses’ kind of guy. He’s accepted his fate, doesn’t like it, of course, but he’s trying not to wallow in it. I didn’t detect anyone else in his apartment, and his opening the window as soon as he got home is consistent with the possibility that he lives alone.”
“Okay,” Albert replied. That confirmed his own instinct about the guy, and her observations regarding his living arrangement were—while not definitive—a solid plus. “Get the teams right on it. I don’t want to risk losing him if he’s a good match.” He didn’t have to explain about the risk that the man might decide his quality of life didn’t justify pushing for every possible remaining day and elect to go out on his own terms. They’d lost a number of good potential recruits that way.
They sat for a few minutes, feigning drinks from their cups, before tossing them in the trash and moving on with their responsibilities.
* * * *
The faction’s security team had chosen this nondescript building, located on a busy street, because it blended. Nobody noticed it. If one were to quiz a random person who passed it every day for details about the structure, they would be at a loss to describe it.
Albert was just a random average-looking person pushing through an ordinary door of an uninteresting building. People on the street moved along without a second glance. There was nothing to see here.
Not calling attention to themselves was front and center on their manifesto. Not just Albert’s faction, but the entire world-wide organization. It was critical to their ongoing survival.
So, this unremarkable building was the perfect place to house the conference room where his faction’s department heads got together for twice-weekly status meetings, as well as special gatherings like today. Their tech people made sure nobody could listen in, either purposely or accidentally. They did the same for their businesses and for each and every member’s home. They would know if anyone was attempting to listen in, but no one was…because they didn’t draw attention to themselves.
Albert had spent the last two days trying, and failing, to push aside the feelings that had swamped him ever since he’d caught that first whiff of the potential recruit’s tantalizing scent. He straightened his back and tightened his jaw as he marched up the stairway.
The faction had to come first. He’d survived more than two thousand years without a blood-mate, and he could continue to do so. He had to consider the results of the investigation dispassionately and put the needs and safety of the organization ahead of his own personal wants.
Interesting that it would be a man who would affect him so. True, he’d shed his early prejudices against such relationships eons ago, and he’d even had a share of male lovers over the years. But he hadn’t considered that his eventual blood-mate might be a man.
He used basic keys to get through the first door’s knob and two deadbolt locks that wouldn’t look out of place to the casual observer. The second door, down a short hallway, used an electric keycard, and a third, just beyond, required a handprint scan to make it through.
Everyone was assembled when he stepped into the conference room. Eunice slid a folder to him as he sat at the head of the table. The name “Phillip Brewer” was written in Eunice’s neat handwriting on the tab.
“How did our hospital team miss this guy?” Albert opened the folder and glanced at Juan, whose team members held various jobs in hospitals. Administrative people who could access medical records, and custodial staff, who could observe patients firsthand to identify potentials while remaining unnoticed in the background. The hospital team was their usual source for prospective recruits.
“He hasn’t been in the hospital,” Juan replied. “He has gall-bladder cancer. Rare, and deadly. Spreads fast. Just over a month ago he was fine, then he started feeling sick and went in for what he thought would be a routine examination, maybe pick up a prescription. But it wasn’t. It led to tests, which led in short order to the diagnosis. It was already too advanced for any kind of treatment to do any good. He’s got only a couple weeks, and he’ll be moving into hospice soon. Unless…”
Albert nodded and flipped through the file. He scanned the unimpressive high school transcript and drummed his fingers on the table. No sign of a college transcript in the folder. Neither was necessarily a deal-breaker, but his lips compressed as his hopes of turning Phillip dropped a couple notches.
“Holly?” Albert prompted. Holly oversaw the investigative team. She had investigators on the ground, but much of their expertise was in the digital realm. Thus, the array of information gleaned from computer systems to which they shouldn’t have had access.
“As you see, his formal schooling results are mediocre, but we’ve gotta factor in that his mother was sick, and he worked full-time hours while in school. He was also a varsity baseball player.”
“Mother’s current status?” Albert asked.
“Deceased. Father is alive, but the recruit is gay, and the bastard disowned him when he came out. Dad doesn’t live here, either. No boyfriend at the moment.”
Albert sat straighter, and a smile slipped through his composure. “Any other ties?”
“While he’s not a complete loner, his friendships seem fairly superficial.”
Eunice added. “I don’t foresee a problem with him being unwilling to cut ties or anyone questioning the ‘cremation.’”
Albert turned another page. “Quora printout? Eunice, what does this tell us?”
Her grin was a positive sign, and the glint in her eye was a clue she knew that he’d sensed a connection to Phillip. As someone who’d already found her blood-mate, she would recognize the signs. “The grades didn’t reflect it, but there were extenuating circumstances. He’s both intelligent and reasonable. He’s been active answering questions on Quora, and they’re all well thought out, balanced, and thorough.”
Albert leaned back in his chair and let his smile break free. Many would think that a collection of vampires would be terribly cynical and uncaring, having lived many years with the opportunity to witness the worst of humanity. Except, the good continued to outweigh the bad.
As it was often said, experiencing the world frequently opened minds and steered people toward the political left, for the same reason large cities tended to be more liberal while sparsely populated areas were more conservative. The more diversity individuals experienced, the better they understood people and empathized with their plight.
It hadn’t always been so, but modern vampires were progressive, organized, and liked to recruit others who wouldn’t rock the boat, and wouldn’t have built-in prejudices against the existing members of the faction, who were a vastly diverse group. They avoided socializing outside of their membership for the same reason they avoided new recruits with strong family or friendship ties, so a potential recruit’s character was a valid consideration.
They’d long ago weeded out the troublemakers who could have brought down the entire population of vampires. Nowadays, vampires were something people made up in stories, but nobody seriously believed they existed.
“Any other positives to point out?” Albert asked.
“He could pass as a younger Edwin,” Juan said.
And Edwin could pass as a younger Lloyd. This was a weighty mark in Phillip’s favor. Certain positions were critical for them to have members in place. They needed medical examiners to issue birth certificates for their future identities, and to issue death certificates for new converts and retiring identities who couldn’t simply disappear without an appropriate paper trail. Positions that required that much education needed to be held by the same identity for longer stretches than one individual could manage appearance-wise. Among other things, that meant the identity would have to transfer cross-country when the replacement took it over, but it worked.
“Better and better.” Albert lightly slapped his hands on the tabletop. “Any reasons against approaching this recruit?”
“Rush jobs carry a greater risk,” Holly said. “My team has identified the locations where Phillip worked, and where his friends and recent exes live and work, but we could have missed something. We’re going to have to rely entirely on him to identify businesses that he patronized before he became ill.”
“Noted,” Albert said. They would have to be sure Phillip avoided those places for at least a decade. Easy as it was to be just another face in the crowd in such a vast metropolis, people did become familiar with others if they frequented the same neighborhoods. Even with the appearance-changing measures they took, if a recruit got around enough, it was better to transfer them to a new city altogether.
He clenched his jaw to keep from asking about the projected size of Phillip’s avoidance zone, and whether it was wide enough to preclude Phillip staying in their faction. He couldn’t be unbiased in that decision.
“And his age is a negative,” Carson said. “He’s barely over thirty and looks a bit younger. Likely we’ll have trouble rotating him into any of the more elevated human jobs we need. Not a huge problem, especially with him looking like a younger Edwin. It’s just that we need more ‘upper thirties’ to ‘early forties’ right now.”
“Okay,” Albert said. “But do we want to reject an otherwise solid prospect who falls within our overall useful age range, even if it’s not the one we’re currently short on? We have plenty to keep our young adults busy out in the human world, and we have plenty of behind-the-scenes positions where age doesn’t matter.”
Carson nodded. “He’s unskilled labor at the moment, but we agree he’s trainable. Erica could use another in her delivery service while we figure out what to do with him. He’s young enough you could send him to college if you want to groom him for a tech position or to get a medical degree to start an identity chain.”
They also did their own specialized training, but sending the younger-looking vamps to universities helped them gain a broader education, which was useful in the long run. At a minimum, critical thinking skills never hurt anyone, and could provide important input for the faction in the future.
“Eunice.” Albert turned to the psych specialist. “What’s the approach risk? How’s he likely to deal with an offer?”
“First, I suggest we move quickly. He’s a logical person. He accepts what he thinks is his only possible reality. I think there’s a good chance he won’t move to hospice when the pain overpowers the meds he can self-administer.”
“That logical thinking works in our favor. He’ll scoff when you first tell him you’re a vampire offering him a chance to continue his existence, but I don’t think he’ll react in anger. Showing him solid evidence will immediately affect him. He’s not dogmatic. He’s swayed by facts, data, and proof.”
“Would it be better to give a subtle but attention-grabbing display before explaining it and making the offer?”
“Probably,” Eunice said. “While there’s a reasonable chance he won’t react with anger based on his typical personality, he’s in an altered state of mind. He might take offense if he thinks you’re kicking him while he’s down, trying to con him into some nefarious scheme.”
“Understood.” The team leaders waited patiently as Albert took a more careful look at each page in the file. When he was done, he fed it through the large shredder. “Shall we vote?” There were nods around the table. “All in favor of approaching Phillip Brewer with an offer to join our ranks, raise your hand.”
The vote was unanimous.
“Fantastic.” Eunice directed a cheeky wink at Albert. “He’s been taking an early afternoon walk in the park every day.”
“Carson, can you have Plan B backup in place by then?” Albert cringed at the thought of it. He wanted this recruit to accept them in a way that he’d never felt before.
“Of course,” Carson replied. Depending on the layout, he would have three to five of his operatives positioned around the rendezvous point. They’d each wear a pair of special eyeglasses. Not unusual in their outward appearance, of course, but in the built-in technology they’d developed that was incorporated into them. Without appearing to do anything more than gaze in the direction of their target, Carson’s team members could activate a special beam directly at the subject’s heart. That heart would stop instantly, and the reason for it would be utterly undetectable in an autopsy.
They would wait, of course, until Albert was far enough away to not be suspect in any way should there be random bystander witnesses to the victim’s collapse. And it went without saying that the rendezvous would be arranged in a place without the menace of security cameras.
“Perfect. I’ll show you the path he’s been taking after we adjourn.”
“Holly,” Albert said. “I’m giving you veto power over living arrangement and job placement decisions, should we be successful in securing Phillip Brewer’s acceptance of our offer.” Excepting Eunice, every set of eyebrows around the table hiked. Albert would relinquish that right for only one reason, so his statement acted as an announcement that he felt an impending blood-connection to Phillip, rendering him incapable of impartial decisions. “And if any of you are uncomfortable keeping such judgments in-faction, don’t hesitate to speak up, and we’ll put the matter before the council.”
2018 Addison Albright