We return once more to our shadowed version of Providence, a city of vampire gangsters and spectral femme fatales.--------------------------------------------------------------------

The Giovanni vampires tail the cultists for the better part of a week, Menecrites with the living, Antonio and Karl with the dead. Monday night, Antonio has them meet in his office to go over what they've learned. He knows time is pressing, but he's dealt with LeMourru often enough to be wary - - he won't rush in until he's certain he will win.

The patriarch of the family sits with his elbows on the big mahogany desk, hands laced under his chin. His eyes are distant as Nadia whispers to him. Karl arrives first, with his own wraith, Julie, trailing in his wake. He has a fist full of receipts and an expression that seesaws between bewilderment and irritation.

The eyes of the two wraiths dart fleetingly to one another – – a token acknowledgment. Simply because they're dead and working for the same people doesn't guarantee that the two ladies get along. Nadia presses herself a little closer to Antonio, clearly possessive. Julie makes a big show of yawning in a spectral pantomime of indifference. Karl shoots Julie a look, clearly not in the mood.

Menecrites bursts into the room, bringing a welcome distraction from the tension strung upon the air between the two wraiths. He's dressed smartly in a suit and tie, a matching handkerchief meticulously folded and tucked into the breast pocket of his vest. He carries a creased manila folder under one meaty arm.

"Sorry I'm late, boss. I had one last thing to check before I put everything together." He pats the document-stuffed folder with no small amount of pride.

Antonio gives Menecrites a perfunctory nod. He pushes back from the desk, stretching in his chair. "So what we got, boys?"

With a baffled air, Karl tosses his receipts onto the desk. He says, "Bees. These people are crazy about bees."

"Hunh?" Antonio responds. Abruptly, he settles forward on the chair, the rollers hitting the tile with an audible clack.

"I checked in at all the shops in town, trying to catch purchases that tied them to occult activity," Karl explains. He adjusts his hat on his brow -- Reynaldo hadn't caught him this time in order to tell him to take it off indoors. "What I found is these cultists have a thing for bee-keeping. They've cleaned the city out of related supplies."

Antonio pages through the bills of sale, squinting at the writing as if this could somehow help what he was seeing make more sense.

Menecrites shuffles a little self-consciously, muttering, "Well, you just blew anything weird I had right out of the water."

Karl shrugs helplessly. "What they're doing with the bees is anyone's guess. I don't know any occult practice I can connect with it.”

"Not just Alexander's Elder Cult and Bridge Club, then," Antonio murmurs.

"Say what now?" Menecrites sputters.

The family patriarch laughs a little at his cousin’s response. He tilts his head in Nadia's direction, forgetting that Menecrites has trouble seeing the dead. "That's what she called 'em. I guess when they're bored, they play a lot of cards. Bridge Club."

Karl makes a frustrated noise. "I have no idea what these people are up to."

With a flourish, Menecrites presents his manila folder. "Then allow me.”

Both Karl and Antonio focus curiously on him. Menecrites is fairly brimming with giddy pride. He says, “I don't got the benefit of spooky dead things for spying on people, but I do got a lot of eyes and ears on the ground.”

He opens the folder and spreads its papers in an arc in front of Antonio. The elder vampire’s brows tick up and he lifts one of the pages to read it more closely.

"This is a timeline," he murmurs with some measure of surprise.

"Yeah. It's like I'm organized or something," Menecrites says.

“Eight AM, breakfast. Nine to one, gardening. Group lunch. Indoctrination. Séance.” Antonio rattles off activities as he goes down the list. “You’ve got their whole day mapped out.”

“Their whole week,” Menecrites corrects.

“Nadia couldn’t get inside the place,” Antonio admits.

“Neither could Julie,” says Karl. “It’s warded or something.”

“Well, everybody gets a visit from the milkman and the ice man, and those guys report to me,” Menecrites explains. “I got my buddy Cicero over in the cemetery trimming the bushes, and he’s got a real nice view. Then there’s the gal at the grocer’s – those crazy blue shirts might make a lot of honey with all them bees, but they don’t grow all their food. They got people coming into town pretty much daily.”

Antonio continues reading over the papers, nodding vaguely at his cousin’s points. “This is good work, Menecrites,” he says.

“Wait,” the big half-Greek says. “It gets better. Look over on the next page, boss. Wednesdays are like cultists’ night out.” He leans over and taps a finger in the middle of the sheet. "The place is never empty, but that’s our best window. A whole bunch of ‘em go out and party at the dance houses and stuff. They don’t come back till at least midnight. Three or four stay behind, with Jeff York playing babysitter.”

“Seems like his regular job,” Karl agrees. “The only vampire Julia saw coming and going with any regularity was Jeff. No sign of LeMourru.”

“Nadia saw LeMourru once,” Antonio says darkly. “He didn’t arrive by any obvious means, just kind of showed up on the inside of the house. Surprised her.” He sets Menecrites’s meticulously lettered timetables down. Nadia lays a spectral hand on his shoulder and Antonio’s looks softens for a moment. The expression swiftly fades.

“You think he’s learned how to obfuscate?” Karl wonders.

“Nah,” Antonio counters. “That’s not his style. He loves that pretty face of his too much to hide it like that.” Pensive, he picks at a slight bend in one of the corners of the manila folder. “I bet he’s got a haven under the building or something.”

“Then we have to get in there,” Karl responds. “The wraiths can’t get past the perimeter, so we don’t have much choice in the matter.”

Menecrites noisily clears his throat, waving his hand between Karl and Antonio. “Hello,” he says. “Already thought of that. We should break in Wednesday.”

Karl’s eyes flick to Menecrites, his pale lips pressed into a disapproving line. “You said yourself the place is never empty. What do we do with the mortals? We can’t risk being exposed, and you can bet they won’t just sit around while we rifle the place.”

“Killing them is always an option,” Menecrites responds. In unison, Karl and Antonio shoot him dirty looks. “Hey,” he says, shrugging, “Don’t tell me you weren’t thinking it.”

Antonio takes a breath and sighs unhappily. “Oh, I was,” he acknowledges, “And a couple years ago, I’d have been all for it. But if I know Alexander, he’s just waiting for an excuse to expose us.” He tears off the ragged corner of the folder with his nail. Sharply, he flicks it away, tracking it as it flutters to the tiles. “Nah, we gotta find a way we can raid the place that will hold up in court. You can bet he’ll try to drag us into some shit otherwise. That’s why he’s practically drowning in mortal patsies in that house.”

“If they were doing something obviously occult, I might be able to spin public opinion,” Karl offers.

“You just said their only weird thing is bee-keeping,” Antonio responds.

Karl shrugs. “I checked in with Shipton to see what kind of books they’ve picked up.”

“And…?” Antonio asks.

“Nothing.

“The Tremere could be lying,” Menecrites offers. “I mean, being a Tremere and all.”

Karl snorts. “He was lying about something. Which is why I had Julie watch the place,” he replies. “And if he’s selling them occult books, he’s doing it where those transactions can’t be observed. So, again, a brick wall.”

Antonio’s eyes have grown distant. He taps one nail against the blotter on his desk. Almost to himself, he murmurs, “Honey.”

Menecrites piques a brow at the family patriarch. “Squeeze me?” he quips.

Karl scowls at the enforcer with a look that eloquently damns Menecrites’ inability to be totally serious even at the most vexing of times. Menecrites either misses the look or ignores it – it’s an even bet. Antonio’s too immersed in his thoughts to catch any of it.

“I got an idea,” he says at length. “All that honey. They could be using it to make mead.”

“Julie didn’t see anything like that,” Karl objects.

Antonio barks a laugh. “I didn’t say they were actually brewing stuff. It don't matter. This will be the very definition of railroading. All we gotta do is plant a few casks in that house. Anything gets ugly, my police contacts can take care of the rest. We’ll be bustin’ up a bootlegging operation, after all.”

Understanding dawns across Karl’s face as he follows Antonio’s train of thought. The Doge of Providence, suddenly animated, slams his hand down on the surface of his desk in his excitement. The sound is enormous in the windowless basement office. His eyes glimmering with purpose, he says, “Menecrites – how quick can you get your hands on some honeywine?”

“Shouldn’t take much, boss.” Menecrites grins. Antonio’s excitement is infectious. “Then we hit the place Wednesday night, right?”

“Like you said, cousin,” Antonio replies, “that is the best possible time.”

Bee-Keeping

Take me to the next chapter.

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