Are you really on the run if you just never came back from your holiday? In your typical office job, probably not. If you work for a secret cadre of government-controlled magic users, maybe. It’s probably smart to err on the side of caution.
Sadly, when the safest place you can hide from your bosses is a place full of bitter, Machiavellian vampires, you don’t get much of a choice.
If he’s going to survive going on the lam in the United States, Jameson Parker is going to need to make himself useful. But when doing so puts him on the outskirts of a darker situation, he’s going to have to decide whether he’s got it in him to cut all ties to those he left behind, or if there’s still too much of the rebel in him to take a back seat.
Either way, someone’s going to get hurt.
Below is the first chapter.
‘Killian von God, would you kindly stand up and make yourself known?’
I had been in America for nearly three months. That it had taken that long for people to notice me was a little insulting, quite frankly. Sure, I was technically on the run, but look at my alias. I mean, come on.
Killian Von God.
Do you know how hard it is to get a grizzled back-street printer to run you off a fake ID or two with that name? It costs a fair bit extra just to get them to ignore their own weird sense of ethics. I had only expected it to hold up for a month.
But here I was, three months later, finally being sought out. It was refreshing.
‘I say again. Killian Von God, make yourself known.’
The man speaking had commanded the room from the moment he walked in. He was attractive, but it didn’t suit him, like a shaved bear wearing a model’s face, and something about the way he held himself felt off. Despite his looks and demeanour, he seemed as though he would be more suited to loping about on all fours rather than standing upright. The three other men that fanned out behind him didn’t have this problem. Hired muscle.
The four of them had calmly walked into the bar I had made my temporary office, stood in front of the door and drew machine pistols from inside their coats. No threats – other than the guns – just the unspoken indication that no-one was leaving until they were done.
‘In accordance with The Vow that Binds, thrice I ask: Killian Von God, identify yourself.’
Well then, that was what I had been waiting to hear.
I downed what was left in my glass – water from melted ice cubes with the faintest hint of bourbon – and stood up. I winced and threw back my hood. ‘Hi.’
I had expected violence. I always expect violence, I’m the sort of personal that inspires violence half the time, but I feel it is more than a little justified when people start brandishing automatics in a quaint little bijou bar. You don’t do that if all you want is a chat. Certainly, not a friendly one.
The leader of the group smiled kindly and nodded his head, and his posse strode over to me. They grabbed me firmly under each arm, the third placing his hand on the back of my head, and frogmarched me out into the street and into a waiting car. I think it was what Americans would call an SUV, but a cultured Brit like myself would call unnecessarily big.
A moment later, the leader joined us, sliding himself into the seat beside me with about as much grace as you could expect from a man who would see a wall as a challenge.
‘I appreciate you not making me ask a fourth time, Mr Von God,’ he said. He looked genuinely relieved.
That told me a lot. ‘If what I know of The Vow that Binds is correct, it was in all our best interests that I not push my luck.’
‘That would be an astute observation indeed, Mr Von God.’ He tapped one of the other men on the shoulder and the car pulled away.
‘While I have a fair idea,’ I said. ‘Would you mind telling me where we’re going?’
‘Worried we might be about to dump you in a quarry somewhere, Mr Von God?’ Again, no threat in the words, but that didn’t exactly make them easy to hear coming from a man of his stature.
‘That would be a concern of mine, yes. It’s the suits. I’m never really comfortable around a man in a suit.’
The giant shrugged. ‘If what The Baron has heard about you is true, that would explain a great deal.’
The Baron. Like I said, I had a fair idea it would be him behind all this. There weren’t likely to be many people interested enough in me to send out the mook squad, but The Vow that Binds narrowed that short list down to just one. It pays to be certain when you’re dealing with vampires.
Now look, I know you rolled your eyes when I said vampire. I rolled my eyes when I said it, but I promise this isn’t going to get all weird and sexually unhealthy. Proper vampires aren’t all sexy and sparkly, or sexy and broody, or sexy and Byronic. They’re stern, vicious, severe monsters, sure, but they are old school. The longer you can live, the less amenable you are to change, and so things like rules and etiquette and duty and all sorts of feudal and chivalrous mumbo-jumbo nonsense still holds a lot of sway.
It was this reliance on the notions of etiquette that had kept me alive these long months, there was no doubt about that. This wasn’t the first time I had run into agents of some baron or other as I had made my way across the States. Sticking as I had to the smaller towns meant I was more likely to avoid competent law enforcement, yes, but this was prime expansion territory for a vampire with a fang to grind. I might have run into a couple of outriders, and I might have sort of set them on fire. A bit.
Now, ordinarily, that’s pretty much cause for a blood feud. But let’s just say that vampires and my ilk have a truce of a sort, grudgingly, and being the fuddy-duddies that they are, that sort of behaviour on my part can only result in a long chat about Respect with a capital “R”. Provided I hadn’t killed anyone important, and I’d tried to be very carefully not to do that.
It was pretty telling that they were allowing me to gaze out the window as we travelled. So accustomed as I was to the idea of being forced into a black bag custom-made by CIA tailors, the fact that they were allowing me to see where I was going helped set my mind at ease. Which, on reflection, was daft. It could have just meant that it didn’t matter if I saw their inner sanctum because I was going to be walking out dead.
But I had planned for this. In a way. So, I was fairly sure they wouldn’t kill me. At least not outright. I was a curiosity at this point, albeit a bit of a deadly one, so I was hoping I’d get time to say my piece. I may have been on the outs with Whitehall, but any association with them at all gave me a small amount of protection.
The car came to a halt outside what looked to be a tenement building. Flaking white paint on the front combined with uncut sickly grass to give the place the sort of ambience that tells well-to-do people that they might want to give it a wide berth, but without going so far as to scream crack den. The bear clambered out of the car and signalled me to follow him. His posse remained behind.
I felt the big man was walking at a slower pace than he was used to for my benefit, although I still had to quicken my own to keep up. Thankfully it wasn’t far to go, just a few twists and turns through the old corridors, down a flight of spackled stairs, and then right into a bloody throne room.
I mean, it was clearly a basement. It had that whole basement vibe, with the high windows that just peer out onto the pavement, and the low ceiling and the beams and everything. The concrete floor. And yet, somehow despite all this, it felt regal.
A big part of that might have been the wingback chair that had been set on a tiny dais by the back wall. Not exactly a throne, but it had that discordant gentrified quality that said it might as well have been. Besides, it was flanked with all sorts of things that you would need to hand if indeed it were a throne: a dedicated landline telephone, a newspaper, a semi-automatic handgun, that sort of thing.
And the man sat in the not-throne was doing his best slouch of villainy. You could be sitting on plastic lawn furniture, but if you get that slouch perfect then it doesn’t matter, it’s a damn throne.
‘Baron?’ I ventured. ‘Killian Von God at your –’
He interrupted me with a voice like cracked papyrus. I mean that in both the swanky metaphorical way, and in the way that he had an Egyptian accent. ‘Nice of you to start our first meeting with a lie, Jameson Parker. I like a man who is honest with his intentions, especially when such intentions are to hoodwink me.’
‘I meant no disrespect –’
‘You meant to use me as a shield from the rather sizeable mess you kicked up in the Old World, as I understand it. Quite a gambit. I must admit, a warlock able to make it to the Americas is the sort of man that might have my attention. In spite of his disrespectful actions.’
‘I see Whitehall have been reaching out,’ I said. Knowing I was – or had been, the current situation was sort of murky – a warlock was not particularly difficult to deduce. Knowing Killian von God was a pseudonym was also a pretty easy thing to deduce, but getting my real name took connections.
‘They have agents out looking for you, as I’m sure you knew they would. Just as I am sure you knew the political situation would make things difficult for them.’
I considered lying, because I always consider lying, but I didn’t see any harm in being truthful this once. ‘Yes. I knew that, in all likelihood, they’d send a few trusted warlocks after me, completely carte blanche, and I also knew that the, what some would call, prejudices your people hold for mine would make it difficult for them to comb their way across the country in an official capacity.’
Okay, calling vampires prejudiced was a bit of a low blow. People of power have a habit of killing vampires, and organising whole secret orders just to hunt them down. It’s sort of a side effect when you start delving into those tome-things. The general lifestyle of a vampire doesn’t read well. The reason you won’t find a single vampire in Europe is because of this – they either left or got themselves hunted down during the reign of Queen Vicky.
So yeah, using the word prejudiced was a bit crude. But I had a part to play, after all.
‘A rogue warlock, however,’ the Baron said, shifting in his chair. ‘Can piss on politics.’
‘Not the way I would have put it, but accurate.’
He regarded me in silence for a moment. There’s no tell-tale visual cue that the man you are sat across from is a vampire. They are no paler than ordinary people, they don’t sparkle in sunlight – thought it does fatigue them after prolonged exposure – and the whole fang business is a purely aesthetic choice of the more traditional clans. The only way to know that you are in the company of one is to feel it. They have such confidence in themselves, in their immortality, that some often mistake what they feel as that sublime arrogance that radiates off all manner of douchebags.
Hidden amongst that douchebaggery, however, nestled in the utter contempt you will feel for that person, sits the twinkling eyes of the confident monster. Everything else is camouflage to keep the prey compliant.
That’s how you know.
Now, that said, I wasn’t scared of the Baron. I’d known what I was walking into beforehand, so instead of scanning him for proof of his vampiric nature, I was trying to read him as a man. He may have, technically, been sort of dead, but he was still at his core human, albeit with a raft of supernatural modifications.
There was a weariness about him that he had tried to hide, but not well. Not in the sense that he was unable to hide it, he had let it seep out to see how his court would react. He was shrewd. The sort of man that would start nothing, but give ample cause for the other man to act first. Then, when the Baron had his hand around his enemy’s throat, there would be no call for mercy.
Which gave me pause. I had been hoping for one of the more unhinged – no, that’s unfair, let’s go with impulsive – vampires to be the one that brought me in. You knew where you stood with an impulsive man. If he was going to kill you, he’d kill you. You might get a big speech first, but the writing would be on the wall long before that. Pensive men were unpredictable. They did things like consider and regard.
‘Some would say, Jameson Parker, that you might be a spy, sent by Whitehall to acquire some intelligence on the state of play between the clans. Especially considering recent events.’
They build their own narratives.
‘But I find it hard to believe that such a spy would have it in him to pick so obvious an alias. His tradecraft would be too well embedded.’
They build you up, keep you guessing.
‘But you understand that I can’t take such a thing on face value. Before we can do business, I would need an assurance.’
Place you at the top of their tower of cards.
‘Do a favour for me and mine, and I will see to it that Whitehall and their agents are impeded in their search to the fullest of my ability.’
‘And what favour do you ask of me?’ I said.
Then they pull out a single card, just to see what happens.
‘I would appreciate it if you could kill a man for me.’