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All the Pretty Vampires

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All the Pretty Vampires

Since the cover reveal for my upcoming book, Conspiracy of Angels, I've gotten a number of questions about the series -- what's it about? have you stopped writing non-fiction? who's that hot gal on the cover holding the big knife? -- but the most consistent question has been about vampires. Specifically, Will there be vampires in this series? The short answer, of course, is yes.

I mean, how could I not have vampires in my series? I've spent over two decades of my life hip-deep in the modern vampire community, appearing on everything from the History Channel to CNN to talk about it. I've lectured at universities around the country on vampires in fiction, folklore, and pop culture. And I've written foundational works on the phenomenon of psychic vampirism that have helped to shape an entire generation of practitioners. Vampires are, as they say, my thing.

On the other hand, expressly because I have done so much on vampires since the early 90s, I didn't want to make vampires the sole focus of the Shadowside world. So, while Zachary Westland's world definitely includes vampires, they are not the only things my main character encounters, nor does that main character sport fangs himself.

Fans of vampires in fiction will, I think, be delighted and intrigued with my take on this immortal archetype. I've held off talking about the vampires in the Shadowside series until now, however, because I'm not so certain what the vampire community itself is going to think. As a writer who addresses paranormal and supernatural topics in both my fiction and my non-fiction, I'm aware that, for some readers, the lines between real life and the story might seem blurry -- but those lines are not blurry for me.

Vampires

Certainly, in crafting the world of the Shadowside, I have drawn upon my extensive knowledge of psychic phenomenon, occult practices, and paranormal events. The verisimilitude that drives the Urban Fantasy genre is part of its allure to me as a writer -- the technique that weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft called "supernatural realism." Simply put, with supernatural realism, a generous commingling of facts wedded to the fantastic helps to make the fiction that much more immersive and exciting.

That said, the vampires in Conspiracy of Angels and the later books of the Shadowside series are not based off of anyone in the modern vampire community. Satire -- even self-satire -- was not my goal with this series. The vampires of the Shadowside instead draw upon the vampire archetype as it has been expressed in the time-honored fiction that I love. They have fangs. They drink blood. They wear their sunglasses after dark.

They do not sparkle.

The vampires of the Shadowside are not the good guys. Most are right bastards. They weave skeins and skeins of intrigue, manipulation, and betrayal -- because any being that long-lived would have to -- both in order to survive as well as to alleviate the boredom of an endless march of nights.

There is a distinctly monstrous element to my vampires, and while they make an effort to pass as human, they absolutely do not function on human rules -- as main character Zachary Westland discovers swiftly and to his detriment.

Of course, Zack isn't exactly your garden variety mortal either. As he learns more about who he is and what this means for him, he discovers that, even against ageless, scheming vampires, he can hold his own.

--M

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The Whately Mansion Saga

The Story Thus Far: The vampire Alexander LeMourru acquired the Old Whately Mansion for reasons known only to himself. Formerly the scene of unspeakable murders, Alexander and his crew have refurbished the ramshackle mansion, making it home to a curious collection of blue-shirted cultists. They keep mostly to themselves, save for opening the place to the litterati of New England for grand seances on the weekends.

Alexander has long been a thorn in the side of the local Giovanni, a family of vampires and necromancers thoroughly entrenched in the shadowed underworld of Providence. Led by the stern and sometimes hot-headed patriarch, Antonio, the famiglia has determined that whatever Alexander is up to in the old mansion, it is not in their best interests.

After a week of preparation and recon, Antonio, his enforcer, Menecrites, and the grim, solitary necromancer Karl Beck headed out to discover what secrets the old murder house might hold.

No plan survives the field. The three sought to capture Alexander's cat's paw, Jeff York, unawares, but the spirit of Old Man Whately gave them away. While the Giovanni had hoped to infiltrate the mansion bloodlessly, they are hardly the sort to shy away from conflict once it becomes inevitable.

Adapting to complications none of them could have foreseen, Antonio, Menecrites, and Beck successfully take York as a hostage -- but not without some losses. Jeff pulled what appears to have been an Oblivion bomb from his pocket, and in the resulting explosion of negative energy, Julie, Karl’s wraith, as well as the wraith of Old Man Whately, were both consumed by the darkness. The bomb also did a level of aggravated damage to all of the living (or undead) beings standing in a ten foot radius around its epicenter. This included Jeff York.

As everyone recovered from this development, Karl discovered that his ring of unseen presence was no longer working. With a sinking feeling, he checked his other soul-forged items, only to discover that they now were also inert. The spirits bound to power them had been devoured by the concussive wave of Oblivion just like Old Man Whately and his companion, Julie.

This led Antonio to check his prize swordcane, forged with the soul of the Assamite once sent to kill him. Upon inspecting the blade, veins begin to stand out on Antonio’s forehead. His hands tremble for a moment, and then, closing his eyes, he puts forth a monumental effort to maintain control and not give in to frenzy. But it is very clear that Antonio is not pleased with this development.

In the parlour, one cultist, a young woman, lies dead, shot between the eyes by Menecrites in a mercy killing. Although Menecrites’ gun is equipped with a silencer, the girl’s desperate screams prior to her death caught the attention of at least one cultist who remained in the upstairs portion of the mansion. From the sound of things, that person has come to the top of the stairs and is calling down to York to see if everything is ok.

The story continues tomorrow ...

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Staring into the Abyss

Providence. 1929. The Whately mansion -- once abandoned on the heels of a terrible string of murders, now refurbished and home to a mysterious cult, with the vampire Alexander pulling their strings.-----------------------------------------------------

Jeff York and an unfamiliar mortal woman stand in the front parlour of the Whately place – oblivious to the three members of family Giovanni observing them from down the hall. No words pass between Karl, Antonio, or Menecrites. No words are necessary. They have fought together often enough that a single look conveys everything. Meeting Karl’s eyes, Antonio gives a single, slow nod.

There is a taut and breathless moment where time feels suspended – and then a flurry of action unfolds. Karl reaches into the pocket of his overcoat and withdraws an enchanted ring. With a smooth series of motions, he pulls off one of his leather gloves and slips the ring onto the index finger of that hand. His lips move with a word of command – mouthed, not spoken. He barely imbues the syllables with breath. But his intent is enough. In the next instant, he vanishes, the cloak of shadows in the wraith-forged ring obscuring his presence.

At the door to the sewing room, Antonio touches a pendant at his throat. With a murmured word, he, too, disappears as he activates the obfuscation of the enchanted item. Although their presences are unseen, both Antonio and Karl still make audible sounds. They each move with slow and measured steps so their footfalls do not reveal their positions. They creep toward the lighted parlor.

Menecrites hangs back in the darkened sewing room, taking up Antonio’s previous position at the door so he can watch as things unfold and step in when he’s needed.

Jeff is still chatting with the girl. She’s pretty, in a classy kind of way. She looks nineteen or twenty. Although she wears the collar of her blue shirt buttoned up tight, bruising on her neck suggests that she has been bitten some time in the past few days. York seems interested in biting her again, and he pulls her close as he leans in to feed.

It’s the perfect distraction. They want to catch York unaware so they can restrain him and use him to learn where their true quarry is hiding -- Alexander.

Antonio and Karl move swiftly down the long hall, past the locked basement door. They step invisibly into the parlour at approximately the same time. Almost as if they had planned this part, Karl steps to the left, Antonio to the right. They circle around, closing in on Jeff. When they get within ten feet, however, Jeff suddenly looks up.

“Wraith!” Julie hisses, trying to direct Karl’s attention to something swooping down the hall.

“YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS IN MY HOME!!!” the spirit bellows in a hollow voice audible only to Karl and York’s flesh-and-blood ears.

The wraith – an old man with a shock of white hair and a long, grizzled beard – goes directly for Karl. He balls his hand into a fist and pops Karl squarely in the jaw. Karl staggers backward – more from shock than from pain. He’s seen this wraith before. It’s Old Man Whately. And the dead bastard still packs quite a wallop. Karl daubs the back of his hand against his split lip. It comes away smeared darkly with blood.

York looks up from his dinner and whirls around, trying to spot the source of the disturbances. He sees Old Man Whately as the wraith lashes out – although, for Jeff, the enchantment on Karl’s ring means he can’t quite see Karl himself. York focuses first on Julie, but it’s clear that she is not whatever Whately is striking. It’s obvious enough that someone is hidden. Jeff squints at the air in front of Whately, and his eyes shimmer with power as he struggles to see past the illusion.

Antonio prepares himself to take a flying tackle at York, not wanting to completely lose the element of surprise.

In the next moment, York starts off by moving obscenely fast. In the space of two eyeblinks, he reaches into an inner pocket of his jacket, grabs something the size and shape of a red rubber ball, and tosses this item hard onto the polished wooden floorboards. He aims for a spot about a foot in front of himself and roughly between Karl and Antonio’s cloaked forms.

The item hits the ground and shatters. Antonio and Karl both tense, expecting to be caught in a fiery explosion. There’s not enough time to get to cover.

Instead of flames, the thing erupts into boiling waves of darkness. A numbing concussion of frigid shadows ripples out from the point of impact, sucking the air from the room and temporarily blinding all present. The shockwave hits with a silence so intense, the air seems to shriek with absence. Bitter talons of ice lash against every scrap of exposed flesh, biting somehow deeper than flesh, bone-deep and soul-searing. All thought, all reason is driven before that numbing wave and it’s all anyone can do to keep their feet. Karl stumbles and Antonio is nearly driven to his knees.

Karl and Antonio each take one aggravated wound.

The wraiths shriek and the sound tears at the very air. They’re tossed like autumn leaves in the silent gale rushing from the epicenter, and the pulsing waves of dark shear gobbets from their forms. Old Man Whately howls as he lifts his hands to cover his face – and the memory of flesh is torn down to the bone. Julie pleas for help from Karl, clinging with bitter desperation as the darkness eats her before his eyes. She’s blown like rags along the air, a tattered, screaming form, and then – nothing.

Both Antonio and Karl’s enchantments are ripped away as well, and in the wake of the awful storm of darkness unleashed by York, the two vampires stand, shaken and staring. York looks as shocked as they do. Menecrites catches only the tail of it from his position down the hall. He pokes his head back out the door once the worst of the shockwaves has passed.

The mortal woman is screaming. The sound rises and falls, desolate and empty of all reason. She screams till she runs out of breath, then takes a hiccupping sob and screams some more.

She’s on the floor and she crab-walks back from the point of impact. Her back hits the wall and she doesn’t stop, just keeps trying to crawl backward into it. She claws at her eyes, fingers hooked and nails gouging.

York looks down in stupefaction at the item he dashed onto the floorboards. There are bits of broken glass and bands of some metal – probably copper – scattered in a two-foot radius. From this epicenter, that chilling darkness lingers, though the waves are nowhere near as powerful as the first concussion that caught everyone unaware.

“Shit,” York swears unhappily at the shattered remnants of the bomb.

Antonio doesn’t waste another moment. He tosses his swordcane to one side and levels the Toreador with a powerful flying tackle. He’d prefer to just kill the bastard, but he needs to question him. He catches York by surprise so the smaller man can’t engage his supernatural speed. The two of them tumble down in a heap.

Menecrites dashes into the room. Karl is still stunned by what he witnessed happening to both of the wraiths – Julie especially. The stoic necromancer isn’t one to brood on his feelings, but watching his companion torn apart before his eyes has nearly unmoored him. He stands frozen in place, staring at the air where she had been.

As Antonio wrestles with York, the mortal woman’s shrieks change in pitch and frequency. She slams her head backward into the wall, still digging at her eyes. Her hands are bloody. Her mouth moves in nonsense sounds and she’s still trying to push herself backwards with spastic kicks of her legs.

Before anyone can suggest otherwise, Menecrites pulls out his gun and shoots her once between the eyes. It’s a mercy killing, efficient and quick. She falls silent at last.

Antonio throttles York, landing punch after punch on his face.

“What the fuck was that, York? What the fuck was that?” Antonio bellows. "Menecrites! Hand me my swordcane. I'm gonna take this bastard's head."

Through the ruin of his mouth, York begs for his life, screaming, “I had no idea it would do that! Please! I’ll tell you everything! Just don’t kill me!”

Abyss To be continued …

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Into the House of Death

1929. Night has fallen on Providence, and in one ill-fated house near the town cemetery, darkness comes to call.-------------------------------------------

Wednesday night comes, and they all pile into Antonio’s Packard. He kills the headlamps a few blocks from the Whately place, then cuts the engine as he turns into Kirkwood Cemetery. He lets the car coast for as long as he can, maneuvering it along the narrow gravel path that twists amidst the stones.

Once the car stops, he engages the parking brake and they all get out, taking stock of their equipment. Antonio has his trusty sword cane, an item enchanted with the bound spirit of a vampire assassin once sent to kill him. Antonio killed the Assamite and claimed his soul instead. The Giovanni patriarch has his gun as well, and guns are good enough for mortals. But the cane – especially with the screaming spirit bound to its hidden blade – that has a real bite.

Menecrites opens the boot and pulls out two large glass bottles, trying not to clink them together. The bottles hold a murky brownish liquid that could pass for urine in the wrong light – bootleg mead. It’s not the best stuff. In fact, it’s barely drinkable. But it doesn’t have to be good to be incriminating. Menecrites tucks one bottle under each arm, nodding to Karl and Antonio that he’s ready.

Julie the wraith hovers near Karl’s shoulder, humming to herself. Her reedy voice intermittently crosses to the flesh-and-blood world with a sound like wind sighing through the naked branches of frozen trees. Nadia is nearby as well, but Antonio whispers to her, asking her to stay near the car and keep an eye on things from a distance. If things go south, he wants her to hustle back home and let cousin Luci know to hit the place with everything the family’s got.

On foot, the three Giovanni head toward the house, moving silently among the canting, weathered stones of Kirkwood Cemetery.

Lights are on in the parlor and some of the curtains are drawn. As they watch, the familiar figure of Jeffrey York passes in front of one of the windows. The glimpse is brief, but they all recognize Alexander’s cats’ paw.

The rest of the house is dark, except for what might be a reading light in one of the upstairs bedrooms. With a gesture from Antonio, Karl heads around back. Antonio and Menecrites crouch as they pass near the windows to the parlor, gliding soundlessly through the grass as they move toward the side of the house. Once they’re clear of the lighted windows, Menecrites stashes the mead in the bushes. Antonio studies the windows on this side of the house for a likely point of entry. The foundation of the house is fairly high, so all the windows are a little out of reach, but between himself and Menecrites, that shouldn’t be much trouble.

As Karl approaches the back door, he calls upon his particular path of necromancy, reaching out to the spectral echo of the physical world. Most of the Giovanni necromancers can summon and compel spirits, but Karl’s from a line that has a different sort of knack. It’s one reason the Italian family “adopted” their German cousin. Karl can peer directly into the realm of the dead. Better than that, with effort, he can reach across and even walk through it. It’s a tasking ability, and not without its risks, but it’s a talent Karl’s had since the days he became a vampire.

Stepping carefully onto a regrettably creaky back porch, Karl has a momentary flash of déjà vu. It was this door precisely where he had previously broken into the Old Whately Place with Jack all those years ago. This was the house where he’d first learned spirits could physically hurt people. This was where he’d seen undeniable evidence that attested to his own skills.

He pauses at the door, his gloved hand hovering over its knob. Closing his eyes, he reaches inward to what feels like a dark and fathomless well. Cold power rests in that space, and he dredges it up. Even his undead flesh feels the chill as it bursts forth, flooding him. When he opens his eyes again, the world has bled of all color. The house before him is decrepit again, and all its angles have gone wrong – he’s looking at it through the shadowlands.

Karl presses forward, starting to step across, but he quickly realizes that the house exists very solidly in both the skinlands and the shadowlands. If anything, the place has more substance in the shadowlands, probably because of all of the stories told about it. The fear and horror associated with the place have soaked into every board, making the place unassailable. No wonder the wraiths couldn’t get in. Alexander didn’t even need wards – all he had to do to block the spirits was close and lock the physical door.

Karl steps back across, never actually moving from his position directly in front of the back door. Then he takes a couple of lockpicks from of his coat pocket and jimmies the lock. Julie teases Karl gently over having to resort to this.

He shoots her a look and whispers, “I suppose you could do better?”

She sticks out her tongue playfully, but quiets back down.

Elsewhere, Antonio and Menecrites move quietly to a side window. No lights burn in the room beyond, and some empty wooden crates lie close at hand in the yard beside an wheelbarrow. Quickly and silently, Antonio and Menecrites stack the crates. Antonio hands his cane off to Menecrites, then steps up first. Drawing upon his skills of stealth and security, he lets himself in through the darkened window. Then he reaches down for his cane. Once it’s in hand, he helps Menecrites through the window behind him.

The half-Greek enforcer is not as silent as Antonio, and for a few breathless moments, the two of them stand, stock-still in what appears to be a sewing room. They listen to the rest of the house, but after a few moments, it seems obvious that no one heard them enter. The door leading out of the room is slightly ajar, letting in a sliver of light from the hallway. Motioning for Menecrites to stay put, Antonio creeps soundlessly forward to the door.

At the back door, Karl succeeds in picking the lock. Julie pats him on the back with a ghostly hand. Ordinarily, he would send her in first to scout the place out, but if the vampire Jeff York is in residence, there’s a chance that he’ll see her. The Giovanni vampires might have the market cornered on necromancy, but they can’t control who is and who isn’t a natural spirit medium. The in-born skill makes Jeff especially inconvenient to them.

Murmuring so low not even vampire ears could hear him, Karl instructs Julie to stick close, following a step or two behind him. Crouching low to the ground, he turns the knob and cautiously pushes the back door open. The hinges creak and the sound seems loud as a car wreck to Karl’s ears. He halts, then listens. Nothing. He resumes pushing the door open slowly, but the hinges groan again in protest and, preparing for the worst, Karl gives in and just shoves the door all the way open.

No one seems to hear – or, if they hear, they’re not making any noise of their own.

Karl decides that he’s in the clear for the moment. He edges through the doorway with Julie close behind. The necromancer finds himself in the kitchen. The only light is the ghostly blue flickering of the pilot light on the stove. It streams weakly through the latticed burners. The kitchen is large, with a sizable butcher’s block standing in the center of the room. A rack of pots and pans hangs above the butcher block. Karl makes note of the collection of knives sitting on the block, including a well-honed cleaver. Those might be useful later.

Moving as quietly as possible, although he’s not particularly skilled at stealth, Karl steps toward the door on the far side of the kitchen. He can see weak light coming in around the edges. That way lies the front of the house and Jeff York.

From the darkened sewing room, Antonio peers carefully through the crack in the door. Directly in front of him is the side of a staircase, a thick, highly polished banister leading upstairs. There is a door at the base of this staircase. It probably leads to the basement. The door is closed and has a sizable lock. The lock is clearly new – its brass fittings are shiny compared to the knob and hinges on the door. Faint, rust-colored symbols are visible along the very edge of the door, where it lies flush against the jamb. Wards of some sort.

Filing that piece of information away for later, Antonio glances down the hallway to the right. There’s a dining room, unlit. At the far end of the dining room is a door that probably leads to the kitchen. As Antonio watches, Karl steps carefully through that door and surveys the dining room. Antonio locks eyes with Karl and motions for the black-clad necromancer to stay put for a moment. Karl nods, taking a step back so he stands deeper in the shadows.

Looking to the left, Antonio sees that the hall continues toward the front of the house, leading toward the parlour. York is there, standing in about the middle of the room. The gaslights in that room burn away all the shadows. Their dancing, yellow light paints weird patterns across the flocked wallpaper in the hall.

Standing close to York is a young woman. She wears the powder-blue button-down shirt and the long, navy skirt that is to be the uniform of the female cult members. Her russet hair is twined in a French braid and knotted at the base of her neck. York appears to be hitting on her. He is wearing a powder-blue button-down shirt as well, but he has a navy suit jacket over it. He wears matching navy trousers. From the way the suit jacket hangs on one side, Antonio can tell that York is wearing a shoulder holster. So he has a gun, at the very least.

Karl stands rigidly in the shadows of the dining room. He doesn’t breathe. He doesn’t move a muscle. He watches in silence as Antonio cranes his head out of the door to a side room, peering down the one lighted hall. After a moment, Antonio turns back to face Karl. Gesturing silently, he holds up two fingers to indicate that there are two people in the lighted room. He mouths a name that Karl knows well: “York.” Then he raises a finger to indicate one other. Mouthing “York” again, Antonio gestures to indicate that Jeff has a gun.

Karl nods. Menecrites steps up behind Antonio. It’s time to put the next part of the plan into action.

Haunted

Take me to the next chapter.

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A Council of Shadows

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

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An Honest Night's Work

It's 1929 in a version of Providence that's home to vampires, cultists, and the restless dead. A family of Italian necromancers have a choke-hold on the city, and they're looking to take down their rivals, lead by Alexander LeMourru.-------------------------------------------------

Nightfall finds Menecrites on the docks. The big man leans against a stack of weathered crates that don’t look like they’re going anywhere any time soon. His dark eyes luminous beneath heavy brows, he watches the ceaseless activity of the dockworkers as they load and unload the ships. It’s late, but this is a thankless job, and many of the men work well into the night.

Menecrites can hear half a dozen tongues shouted back and forth between the vessels in the busy harbor. Italian he knows, and he recognizes Polish, though he doesn’t understand anything more than the tone. Irish, Russian, Czech – and some lilting, rhythmic thing that must hail from the Caribbean, given its speaker’s exotic appearance. The world has many names for this diverse collection of people, few of them kind.

Menecrites sees them for what they are, these stevedores and roustabouts. They’re hard-working men, all trying to put food on the table through an honest night's labor. Immigrants and half-breeds, most of them can’t call any one place their own. The city doesn’t welcome them, but without their raw muscle, it would wither and die.

These are Menecrites’ people – the ones no one else will claim. He understands their struggles because he, too, stands out as someone who doesn’t properly belong. It’s not about being a vampire – that identity is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of family Giovanni, he doesn’t think of it as strange. No, Menecrites is half-Greek in a family that treasures its pure Italian bloodline. When his mother named him, she might as well have pressed a brand to his head. She bequeathed to him her dark coloring – black eyes and hair, skin less olive than brown. Maybe Antonio doesn't think that's a big deal, but all the others – especially back home – they treat the half-Greek like something they scraped off their shoe.

All Menecrites really wants from the world is some respect, but even Antonio doesn’t always manage that. It’s in the little things, like how they often talk around him in the meetings. Half they time, they only remember he’s standing there at the very end. And no one ever asks his opinion on any of the tactical decisions. The occult stuff, he understands. That’s not his bag, and he’s ok with that. Leave the spookfest to Luci and Karl. But would it kill them to ask what he thinks about the family business once in a while? Maybe thank him for some of the work he’s done? All they ever do is bitch at him when things get broke, after they gave him clear orders to go out and break them.

“They mean well,” he sighs. Though good intentions don’t mean things are changing any time soon.

He tracks the activity of a knot of workers who seem to be knocking off for the night, idly tapping the baseball bat he’d brought along against the side of his shoe. Menecrites has potence – the vampire gift of supernatural strength – so he hardly needs a baseball bat to protect himself no matter what part of town he finds himself in. But he’s learned that the bat makes a statement, and that statement is, Menecrites doesn’t fuck around. He almost never has to throw a punch when he walks around with the Louisville slugger casually balanced on one shoulder. That’s pretty handy for keeping his supernatural levels of strength discrete.

And the bat is such a regular thing that it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow among the usual gang of dockworkers. They all know Menecrites. He gives them jobs for extra cash, sneaks them a little hooch, and pals around like they’re society guys.

He falls into step with the group of roughnecks as they head away from the harbor. They chatter among themselves in accented English, crude and boisterous and unabashed. None of them stares at Menecrites like he’s out of place, though with his neatly-pressed shirt and his smart pants, he’s too well-groomed for this lot.

A couple of them greet him – they’ve seen him before. He pulls a flask from his back pocket and starts passing it around. It’s Prohibition, and good liquor is hard to find. His family regulates most of it – the stuff in the flask isn’t the usual coffin varnish these guys are used to.

“Hey, fellas,” he says at length, after pretending to take a belt from the flask himself. “I maybe got some work for you.”

“For more of that giggle water, sure,” one of them says. He’s a big guy – bigger than Menecrites himself. His skin’s so tanned and weathered from his labor outdoors, it’s impossible to tell if he started life white or brown. His features could be anything. His accent’s local. Menecrites treats him as he sees him – a man unafraid of hard work.

“I’ll do you one better,” the vampire says. He fishes in his pocket for some money. He holds up a ten dollar bill. That gets attention. The whole group stops walking and clusters around him, eyes bright as they listen.

“We don’t do breaking law,” says a squint-eyed fella with an accent so thick, he might have gotten off the boat last week.

“No worries there, buddy,” Menecrites says. “This is honest work. All you gotta do is watch.” He points two fingers at his eyes for emphasis. “There’s these people in town. You probably seen them. They dress kinda funny. Blue shirts, blue pants --”

“My sister talks about them,” says a whip-skinny man with a porkpie hat. “She works over at the grocer’s. Says they’re real strange.”

“You ain’t just whistling Dixie,” Menecrites laughs. “They’re strange as they come, and they’re up to something. You guys, you don’t gotta do nothing but keep your eyes open. You see them in town, you watch where they go. They talk to people, you see who they are. Then you tell me.”

“We could bust ‘em up for ya, Mr. Giovanni.” That comes from one of the regular guys – Cicero. His skin’s so black, it makes lanterns out of the whites of his eyes.

“Nah, Cis, we don’t need nothing like that now,” Menecrites responds. “You know I don’t make you go bustin’ kneecaps.” He grins as he shifts the bat on his shoulder. “That’s my job.”

Most of the men chuckle. They know the score. The new guy looks dubious, but he falls in step, laughing awkwardly along with the rest.

“I got a sawbuck for every guy that brings me useful information. Emphasis on the useful part,” Menecrites adds. “Don’t try to fool me – I ain’t stupid and I ain’t a charity.” The dockworkers nod and Menecrites flashes a brilliant grin – so well practiced, he manages to hide the pointy ends of his canines with his lower lip. “Play right by me and I’ll take care of ya. You know I’m good for it.”

“There gonna be trouble?” Cicero asks.

“Only for these blue-shirts who’re making trouble for us first,” Menecrites replies. “They’re into some not-so-good stuff, so don’t let them catch you. I wouldn’t want any of my boys getting hurt.”

Cicero takes off his hat and thoughtfully rubs his bald pate. He's been in Providence long enough to be worried -- not about the Giovanni, but about what must be brewing on the horizon with the blue shirts.

Menecrites sees his look, then hands off the ten-spot to Cis. “You all heading to that juice bar down the street?” Only the new guy hesitates before he nods. Menecrites’ grin widens. “Buy a couple rounds on me.”

Longshore Workers

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Her Breathless Kiss

Providence. A city of secrets, each stranger than the last. The year is 1929 and the vampire family Giovanni seek to maintain their version of order in this darkened mirror of New England, where ghosts and vampires are not the worst one can encounter in the long hours of the night.--------------------------

At the Fratello Brothers Funeral Home, Antonio steps inside his office and moves aside a bookcase to access a hidden room. There’s no real mechanism involved. He’s got casters on the bottom and a rough little track, but most of the work is by main force alone. The puissant vampire physically lifts the solid mahogany bookcase out of his way, settling it back into place when he’s done. He’s glued down most of its books (who has time to read all that stuff, anyway?) and has hand-holds in the back so he can more easily shift the six-foot-tall piece of furniture from the other side.

It’s not the prettiest door to a secret passage, but it’s functional enough for Antonio. Sure, he could have had Menecrites get one of his contractors to fix a door up real nice – but then others in the family would know about the room, and the whole point’s about secret spaces.

The hidden room beyond the bookcase isn’t much – just an old broom closet. Reynaldo probably knows about it. The old ghoul originally belonged to Antonio’s sire, Scapelli, and he’s been around longer than most of the family’s full-blooded vampires – at least as far as the Providence branch is concerned. Reynaldo knows more than he lets on about pretty much everything, but over the centuries, he’s also learned to hold his tongue – a valuable quality in a family like the Giovanni.

Antonio knows he probably doesn’t have to keep this work-room a secret. It’s more for personal reasons that he does, and he’s all right with that. Antonio’s research into the family’s trade-mark skill of necromancy is something he likes being private about. Not too long ago, Antonio could barely whistle up a shade, let alone bind a ghost. A dirty little secret – and one engineered by his scheming sire, Scapelli.

Scapelli had manipulated Antonio’s heritage over generations of family Giovanni’s living relatives, forcing marriages and cross-pairings the way other men might breed prized hounds. Some he brought across as vampires, others he kept as breeding stock, using each and every one of them to forward his own inscrutable aims.

Scapelli felt he’d gotten a real prize with Antonio – the Giovanni was a remorseless killing machine, strategic, efficient, and brutally strong. But the old bastard hadn’t wanted brains in his lapdog, so he’d done his damnedest to keep his protégé stunted in all other arenas, the better to rule through Antonio as the power behind the throne.

Except Scapelli erred in cultivating Antonio’s hard-headed pride. No one makes a fool of Antonio Giovanni and lives to brag about it – not even the elder vampire who’d pruned their twisted branch of the family tree since the time of the Medicis. Antonio made sure that Scapelli was good and dead. He didn’t do the deed himself – blood-bound to Scapelli, he couldn’t have no matter how much he wanted to – but when an opportunity for freedom arose, Antonio did what Scapelli had groomed him always to do: he seized it, and he never looked back.

Now free of the old patriarch’s corrupt influence, Antonio does his damnedest to be the vampire the family needs to rule the city of Providence – not merely a cold-blooded killer (though there’s surely a place for that), but someone with skills on all fronts and a head for politics that would have put Machiavelli to shame.

Antonio strikes a match against the wall and lights one of the candles on a nearby shelf. He doesn’t need much light, and the room is small. One candle is more than enough.

There’s an old steamer trunk pushed up against one wall with a piece of silk cloth draped over its pitted surface – nothing so formal as an altar, simply a workspace, a little prettied up. There’s a ritual dagger and a chalice for offerings of blood. But the thing he’s interested in is a woman’s brooch. Silver, slightly tarnished, with one leaf bent, it’s a single, delicate rose. It serves as a fetter for Antonio’s favored wraith.

Nadia.

The spirit is as enamored with the taciturn Giovanni as he is with her. A woman who, in life, fell victim to her own father’s ceaseless rage, Nadia sees Antonio not as her oppressor, but as her savior. He'd freed her from the place where she’d known only suffering and grief, hunting down her father and making him pay.

The hard-headed Doge of Providence spent weeks secretly frequenting the site of Nadia’s murder, struggling to pierce the Veil so they could speak. He hadn’t planned on anything more than using her. That’s what the family did with most wraiths – summoned them, bound them, compelled them to serve. But once he got the hang of communicating, Antonio found himself growing fond of Nadia. Now a bond lingers between them, the unliving and the dead. The wraith is not a servitor, but a friend.

She is also the only woman Antonio feels that he can love without remorse. He’s a brutal man, and he knows it. With his volatile temper and his violent way of life, he’s left behind a bloody swath of people he’s tried to hold close. He has a marriage of convenience to a mortal woman arranged at childhood by Scapelli – and while the hardened former hit-man sometimes wishes he could love his wife, the best he can do most nights is keep her safe from harm.

But Nadia – Nadia is already dead. She’s lived through the worst life had to offer and come out the other side. More than that, she sees Antonio for exactly what he is – and it has never made her flinch.

Antonio takes up her rose, running his thick, blunt thumb along the delicate filigree of its stem. A thing of beauty, fragile and precious. A symbol of all the things which – beyond the walls of this secret room – Antonio is denied.

He’s too practical to brood on it for long. Every moment he delays, Alexander builds his power and the cultists do who-knows-what in the Old Whately place. There’s work to be done, and the dawn doesn’t wait.

“Nadia,” he calls to the air as he cradles the rose in his palm. “I got work for you, doll.”

Almost instantly, she fades into view. She wears the memory of a flattering knee-length dress, her shapely legs crossed primly as she sits upon the trunk. Death has leached most of the color from the fabric and from her skin, but hints of auburn cling to the carefully dressed waves of her hair.

“Whatcha want, tough guy?” Her voice is all syrup and honey upon the air.

Antonio wastes a moment just looking at her. Nadia’s a real swanky gal, built like a starlet. It's a shame her father robbed the world of her light.

“I got some trouble with that pinko Toreador, LeMourru,” Antonio says. “He’s holed up in the old Whately murder house, gathering power before he makes another move. I need eyes on his people so we know the score before we bust the place up.”

“You know I’m always up for a favor for you.” She drifts from the trunk, circling behind him in the small room. He feels her presence near his shoulder like the promise of a touch.

“He’s got a gang of cultists – mortals. Probably ghouled. I want to know what they eat, where they sleep, and when they take a dump. There’s a couple of vampires in there, too, more than just LeMourru. Jeff York, for one. I need descriptions. Names.”

Spectral fingers trail idly through his hair as she listens. Softly, she murmurs, “York. I remember that one. He can see me."

Antonio nods. He reaches a hand up to her hand. They can’t touch exactly, but her fingers press against his just this side of connecting. He says, “And LeMourru, you remember -- that guy’s dangerous. He’s got that oblivion power, nihilism. He can hurt you.”

“He’s hard to look at,” she admits, shifting to his other shoulder. Her voice is a breathless whisper against his ear. “Swirling darkness. Hungry void. I won’t forget what’s attached to him.”

Antonio closes his eyes. At the same time, he curls his fingers tightly around her tarnished silver rose. For a moment, he allows himself to dream of a different life. A life where he doesn’t have to wage campaigns of terror and bloodshed for the sake of the Family. A life where Nadia is still a breathing woman of flesh and blood. A life where his own existence isn’t one circumscribed by endless, violent nights.

Nadia clings to Antonio’s arm. He doesn’t realize how tightly his shoulders have tensed. But she notices. She knows his moods. He takes a breath – he doesn’t have to, except to speak – and exhales slowly. He lets the fantasy life that can never be drift from him like smoke.

“You spy on ‘em, Nadia, but the minute you see LeMourru, you beat feet, you hear me?” he says. “I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

With slow reverence, he places her fetter back in its position upon the trunk. The candle gutters and in its dancing shadows, Nadia leans close and presses spectral lips against his cheek. Her kiss is lighter than cobwebs, but it lingers like the burn of a brand. When she retreats, the stuffy little broom closet feels vast and empty as the yawning maw of hell.

Nadia

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Providence: Forbidden Books

The year is 1929 and the city is Providence -- but this is our world through a glass darkly, a place where magic and monsters hold sway in the night and the visions of Lovecraft are not portents of madness, but searing and horrible truths. ---------------------

Forbidden Books

The next night, Karl checks in at Shipton’s Books. A string of little brass bells hanging near the door tinklingly announces his arrival. Travis Shipton, the local purveyor of rare and magical tomes, fusses behind a long, wooden counter. When he sees the dour necromancer, the rail-thin thaumaturge grows as pale as the ruffled bit of lace at his throat.

“Ah, um, Karl. It is Karl, isn’t it?” Shipton asks, his words clipped with a dated British accent. The book vendor straightens his brocade waistcoat. Born some time in the middle seventeen hundreds, the city’s lone Tremere had never adapted to modern fashion.

“Cut the crap, Shipton. You know who I am,” Karl responds. His wraith, Julie, makes a face at him, but her antics serve only to annoy. Karl waves her off. The anachronistic Tremere is oblivious to her presence, and just as well.

Shipton purses his thin lips. “I haven’t done anything,” he says, with the air of someone fearful of being caught.

“Well, if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you won’t mind giving me a little information,” Karl prods.

Shipton maneuvers slightly so a large stack of books sits between them on the counter. He eyes the Giovanni necromancer warily, the briny blue of his irises glimmering with a faint sheen of power. Karl scowls when he sees it.

“You don’t need to use Auspex to see if I’m lying,” Karl barks. “Play nice and I’ll be out of here quickly.” He slams a list of names down onto the counter. Shipton jumps back as if expecting the list to explode like a pipe bomb. Karl says, “I want you to tell me what books any of these people bought in the past month. See? Simple.”

Shipton takes the list gingerly, pulling an old pair of pince-nez from his vest pocket and perching them on his nose. He squints at Karl’s handwriting, which wasn’t amazing on the best of days, and he’d written the list in a hurry.

“Ah, yes,” Shipton says, tapping a particular name. “I know this group. My ghoul Liza calls them the Blue Shirts. That’s all they wear, you see. Blue shirt, navy slacks for the gentlemen. Blue shirt, long navy skirt for the ladies. There’s been rather a lot of them of late.”

“I know,” Karl growls with more ferocity than is strictly necessary. Shipton nearly drops the list.

“You don’t have to be so cross with me. I’m not your enemy,” the Tremere objects.

“Yeah? You’re not my friend, either,” Karl retorts. “You’re selling books to these people, and they’re causing trouble for my family in this city.”

Shipton takes off his ridiculous antique spectacles, tapping them absently against the creased bit of paper. His eyes dart around the over-laden shelves that reach to the rafters, searching for something. He frowns, saying, “This book store existed before your family came to this town, and I have no intention of shutting my doors for the convenience of a few short-tempered Italians.”

Karl starts to hurl an excoriating response at the old Tremere, but Shipton stands his ground for once. No power is exchanged between them, but something in Travis’s eyes gives Karl pause.

Snippily, the Tremere says, “Before you threaten to tear off my head with your customary brutish zeal, let me remind you that I’ve been nothing but helpful to you and your people when events in this city have gotten … ” Shipton falters in his search for a fitting word, finally uttering, "Complicated." He tosses the list back onto the counter, making no effort to hide his irritation. “And none of these people have bought anything I would class as a dangerous book. I’d have mentioned something to Luciano at the Occult Council if they had.”

Karl glares at Shipton, balling his fists so tight the leather of his gloves creaks in protest. Shipton knows better than to stare back directly into Beck’s eyes, but he squares his shoulders and gives a haughty little lift to his cleft chin as he fixes his eyes unwavering at a point to the left of Karl's head. Beside her master, Julie the wraith whispers soothingly. She doesn’t see anything amiss in the store.

“If anything changes, you tell me,” Karl says at length.

“Not Luciano?” Shipton inquires.

“Cousin Luci is not to be bothered. You come to me,” Karl reiterates, drilling his meaning into each individual word. “We clear, Shipton?”

“As a gypsy’s glass,” Shipton says with a disdainful sniff. “Now buy something or get out. This is a place of business, after all.”

Karl leaves, slamming the door behind him so hard, the little string of brass bells crashes noisily to the floor.

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Antiquarian Books

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Providence: A Family Affair

We return to the world of In Providentia, set in a fictional version of Providence, Rhode Island that blends elements of Lovecraft's New England and Vampire: the Masquerade's World of Darkness. The year is 1929, and the Giovanni necromancer Karl Beck has been sent to investigate the history of an ill-fated house that is now headquarters to his family's rivals, Clan Toreador. ----------------------

Fratello Brothers Funeral Home Funeral Home

Karl slips from the city archives where he’s been doing research all night. It’s nearly four in the morning. He’s got a little dark left. He heads back to the Fratello Brothers Funeral Home, where he’s sure to find Antonio and the others at this time of night.

Sure enough, the head of the family is meeting with his right-hand man, Menecrites, while Grandpa Reynaldo tidies things up for the night. Karl nods to the old family ghoul as he enters, taking off his fedora and hanging it on a nearby coat-rack when Reynaldo frowns and reminds him of his manners. Karl waits on the bench outside Antonio's office as the Doge of Providence -- Antonio preferred that title to the Camarilla standard of "Prince" -- finishes up with his enforcer.

Once they're done, Karl steps in and plops the old newspaper clippings onto the broad cherrywood desk Antonio keeps in his windowless basement office. Menecrites leans against the doorjamb, his thick, muscled arms folded negligently across his chest. Antonio’s a big man himself, and while he sits in an expensive suit behind the desk, Karl knows the elder Giovanni’s veneer of humanity is a thin one. Karl’s never been one to be afraid – not even of the family’s powerful patriarch, but he’s wise enough to be cautious. Especially when bearing news that Antonio could construe as bad.

“I've been looking into the Whately Mansion,” Karl begins.

Antonio nods smartly, indicating that Karl take a seat in one of the leather chairs arranged in front of his desk. “Go on.”

“Well, I've found some things that are … interesting,” Karl hedges.

He could practically feel Menecrite’s eyebrow climb at this, even though his back was to the enforcer. Antonio says nothing, just sits still as a corpse, his dark eyes gleaming attentively in his sallow face.

Clearing his throat, Karl goes on. “Back before I met any of you I visited this place with my old occult group. The place was supposedly haunted but it was also supposed to contain some sort of lost treasure. All we ended up finding was a very angry wraith of Old Man Whately who scared off the person I was with by nearly breaking his jaw. Needless to say we didn't look around too much and we left.

I never thought about the place again until we found Le Mourru there, and since then I have done some digging. It turns out about 50 years ago Old Man Whately butchered several people in his home. He then performed taxidermy on them and arranged them throughout the house as if they were guests or residents. This guy even killed an eleven year old boy named Kevin Blackwell, and then proceeded to hang him from the rafters, complete with a set of angel wings he constructed from different things including human bones. Whately was never found but he was pronounced dead and since I saw his wraith, I would say that is correct.

Now I am telling you this for a few reasons. The first is that my old associate Jeff York has a wraith of a little boy and I am guessing that the boy is probably Kevin Blackwell. If York doesn't know what's going on, Kevin might. Secondly, Le Mourru picked this place for a reason, and when this is all said and done we need to find out why. It could be the wraiths, Whately was quite powerful, but I doubt that. There has to be something there, whether it was a treasure of gold or something mystical that attracted Le Mourru. My guess is the second one.”

Still, silence from Antonio. Menecrites shifts in his post at the door, the only thing giving him away the subtle whisper of the starched collar on his shirt.

“All I am asking here is that we don't blow up or bulldoze this place until we figure out what is so special about it,” Karl concludes, sparing a glance for the enforcer. Menecrites hadn't encountered a problem yet that he thought couldn't be solved with a wrecking ball.

Antonio tents his fingers, leaning back in his chair far enough that the springs creak.

“Very well,” the patriarch says. “We won't destroy this location until we know more. After all, it could be worth something. As for York's wraith; how is he controlling it? Has he picked up necromancy somehow? We can’t allow that.” Antonio’s scowl made his dark eyes glitter. “The guy’s a natural medium right? Maybe the wraith wants something, maybe we can give it to it. If it really is this murdered kid, that might be how we can learn what’s up with the location.”

Menecrites moves to stand behind Antonio and a little to his left. The big man looks down at the clipped articles, brow furrowing as he reads.

Pensive, Antonio taps the edge of one nail against the wooden surface of his desk. “We also need to know what influences control this site. I will use my contacts in local business to run a deed search, pull a few strings in bureaucracy to get my hands on the deed itself, then I’ll get my police contacts to dig up the file on the murders. Karl and Luci can use that to gain information on the wraiths, maybe figure out a few of their fetters. If we’re lucky, there’s some old evidence somewhere in the back of the courthouse that the police can pull. One or two things there might be useful.”

He turns to Menecrites and says, “You tap into your contacts, too, and see who controls this site.” Menecrites nods, making notes of some of the names. Antonio turns back to Karl. “You did good tonight, Karl. We’ll get these bastards and run Alexander out on a rail. Or maybe I’ll just run one through him.”

A chilling smile curls the elder Giovanni’s pale lips.

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The House of Death

The year is 1929. The city is Lovecraft's Providence, set in a fictional version of New England where magic is real and vampires roam the night. Some of those vampires belong to the family Giovanni, a clan of necromancers who have held control over the city of Providence for many years. The Giovanni's power in Providence was recently challenged by an elder Toreador, Alexander. Although Antonio and his boys got Clan Toreador to back down, shaming them publicly, Alexander and his minions have taken up residence in what was once an abandoned house, infamous for a string of grisly murders. With death such an integral part of the family business, the local Giovanni are investigating Alexander's involvement with this ill-favored residence because they know he is planning something -- the only question is what. The first member of the family sent to investigate is Karl Beck, a master necromancer related by blood, if not by birth. -----------

The Whately House

Something has been bugging you, Karl, about the old mansion the Toreador seem to be using as their home base. It nagged at you so bad, you decided to do a little research on the place. When you saw the old newspaper article in the archives of the Voice of Providence, it hit you why this place seemed so familiar. You had been there on a dare when you were just getting involved with your group of human occultists.

Jack was the one who told you about the place. He'd heard rumors that it was haunted and that the ghost of Old Man Whately was always searching for his lost treasure. Whately had been the eldest of the Whately siblings. He was a cantankerous sort, never married, and he had a reputation for dabbling in unwholesome activities. He lived and died in the house in the 1870s. Or, at least, everyone believed that he died there and, although his body was never found, the presence of his ghost seems to argue against any earthly survival.

At the time that Jack led you to sneak up on the house at night, you didn't know all the details of why the Whately place was reputed to be haunted. Jack's story about the haunting was garbled at best, and as far as you could tell, the self-appointed leader of your rag-tag group of black magicians was scoping the place out mostly to see whether or not there were any items in the house worth stealing. You half suspect that he dragged you along because he was actually afraid of the threat of the ghost.

Your little venture into breaking & entering (does it count, really? by then, the house had stood abandoned for nearly twenty years) didn't end in either of you getting rich by discovering Old Man Whately's hidden treasure. It did, however, prove to you that you had an innate ability to perceive spirits. Because you saw the angry old specter long before the wailing image of Whately hauled off and clocked Jack squarely in the jaw. It was a night of firsts for you: you had one of your first legitimate encounters with a spirit, witnessed by another person, and you encountered a spirit that could reach across the Veil and wallop a living being.

Jack was scared shitless. You were actually pretty excited. The specter took great offense to the fact that Jack had vandalized the back door in an attempt to gain entrance to the abandoned house. He didn't seem to care much about you -- but then, you hadn't busted his back door down. Jack was so freaked by the whole experience that he barely made it five feet into the old mansion before he ran like a scared little girl. You stayed behind, cautiously, and explored a little, but all you found was a dusty, run-down, abandoned house. There were signs that the place had looked impressive in its day, but by the time you & Jack got in there, there was really nothing to see. You do remember finding a door that probably went to the basement. This door was locked and, given the outburst the spirit had accomplished when Jack forced the backdoor, you didn't think it would be in your best interests to force this door either. It seemed thoroughly stuck from the other side anyway, so you called off your explorations and tried to find where Jack had run off to in his blind panic.

The newspaper article you found recently sheds a little more light on the mansion and its tale than you knew back then when you and your old gang dabbled in breaking and entering:

The Voice of Providence Saturday, April 15, 1900 Evening Edition

(continued from page 2)

Deputy Roderick Kemp made the grisly discovery on a sultry afternoon in the summer of 1875. The corpses included the body of Detective Solomon Godwin, 35, Arnold Powell, a drifter, and young Kevin Blackwell, an eleven-year-old-boy who had been missing since March of that year. The Whately mansion as it stands today.























Dr. Jacob Frost, the Providence coroner, worked hard to identify the remains of the other bodies, however, in most cases, decomposition was so advanced that identification was impossible. In all, the remains of at least fifteen individuals were discovered in the home, which, by all appearances, had been abandoned for at least two weeks. No sign of Whately himself was ever found, although it was the opinion of the Providence police that Whately was dead.

Since the house became the scene of one of the most dreadful murder cases Providence has ever seen, it has stood abandoned on its lot not far from the Kirkwood Cemetery. Many tales have grown up around the house, including a persistent rumor that Old Man Whately haunts the property, protecting his hidden gold. The rumor of hidden treasure associated with the house came about from the fact that Whately, the eldest of five siblings, was the sole inheritor of the Whately fortune. Despite this, Whately lived a relatively simple live, remaining in the seclusion of his home and coming into town only to buy supplies every two or three weeks. On these occasions, he was often observed wearing the same patched and soiled set of clothes, with wild, unkempt hair and beard. To all appearances, he lived in poverty, which of course begged the question of what happened to the family fortune.

In twenty-five years, the mystery has never been solved, but it has become a rite of passage for some of the daring young men of Providence to invade the abandoned home, particularly on nights of the full moon, to dare the specter of Wheatley to manifest and drive them from his house of horrors.

--------------------------------------------

Further research led you to a longer recounting of what was discovered in the house, from the memoirs of Deputy Kemp:

Guided by Providence: The Memoirs of Roderick Kemp

Chapter Five: The Whately Place

Now, this was an investigation that I was involved in back in 1875. It’s twenty-five years after the fact, and I will carry the details of this investigation to my grave. In all my days working in law enforcement, I never saw anything so awful, and I thank God every day that I never encountered anything like it since. Some nights, I still wake up seeing scenes from the inside of that house. I knew Thomas Whately. Not real good, but I had seen him now and again, growing up. I don’t know how a man can become such a monster, but Thomas Whately was a kind of evil that should never walk the earth.

Well, you’re not all reading this to listen to me proselytize about man’s inhumanity to man or to conjecture about the metaphysical nature of evil. No, you want the details. So here goes.

Everyone knew that Old Man Whately was up to no good. But since he kept to himself and rarely went out of his house, no one bothered to really call him on it. There were a couple of incidents involving missing persons that a detective Godwin tried to trace back to the Whately house, but his investigations went nowhere. And then Godwin himself went missing, and no one seemed brave enough to suggest that maybe this disappearance was also tied to Whately. Godwin was a good man, and a few of us on the Providence force, we kept niggling at the case, trying to get someone to do some honest-to-goodness investigation into the issue. But nothing ever went forward. Maybe he paid people off. I don’t know, and I don’t care to think about it now. Whatever it was, no one was ever brave enough to confront Whately directly.

In the end, Whately's true crimes were not revealed because the old man was caught. His crimes came to light because Whately himself mysteriously disappeared. And, eventually, the stench coming from his abandoned house became too much for the neighbors, even though there was a good amount of space between them & the Whately house.

A reluctant deputy was sent to check on Whately at his property. He found that the front door was sagging open and a terrible stench wafted out on the summer air. The buzzing of flies was audible through that open door, so loud that the deputy at first thought some kind of machine was on inside the house, running. There were no lights on in the old house, and most of the windows were covered over with heavy cloth. Most of this cloth was nailed directly into the walls around the windows. When the deputy yanked the first of these makeshift window covers off to let in some afternoon sunshine through the streaked and yellowed glass, he found himself staring at the most macabre scene he had ever witnessed. Shortly after that, he was just staring at the gravel on Whately's driveway, as the poor deputy knelt, hunched over, puking his guts out. Of course, by now, you all know that reluctant deputy was me, Roderick Kemp, though back then everyone called me Roddy. I thought the smell was the worst thing I’d ever been exposed to, but that was before I cleared off the windows and got a good look at what was causing that smell. Hell could never look so grim as that house on that June afternoon.

Inside the parlour, arranged in chairs as if they were just over for tea, were three corpses. They were well-preserved -- almost mummified. One of them was the missing detective. One of them was Arnold Powell, a drifter. One was a woman, never identified.

Five more corpses, similarly preserved and staged throughout the house were discovered. The most unsettling of these was the corpse of Kevin Blackwell, a young boy eleven years of age. He was in that attic. Whately (it could only have been Whately) had strung the boy from the rafters. He had also painstakingly fashioned wings for the child, cobbling them together with the bones and feathers of several birds, as well as a few bones from a human -- never identified -- who left no other remains in the house.

The stench of rot came from the basement. Whately's most recent victims were in a jumble down there. Dr. Jacob Frost, the Providence Coroner at the time, identified the parts of at least seven bodies in the festering abattoir that lay beneath the rickety wooden stairs. A bathtub with saws and other implements as well as a worktable with needle, thread, and some taxidermy equipment, suggested that Whately had been planning to put these corpses together in much the same fashion as the others -- only he seems to have been interrupted.

No sign of Whately himself was ever discovered. He must have been dead. I made a thorough search of the house – and I’m not too proud to admit that I had to make that search in pieces, as I had to vacate the premises on more than one occasion to vomit in the yard. After a while, I wasn’t even bringing anything up, but that didn’t stop the smell and the horror of it all from getting to me. Like I said at the outset, I never saw anything like it in all of my years, and I am happy to have never encountered anything so terrible ever again. We never did figure out who all of those body parts in the basement belonged to. Frost, the coroner at the time, he did his best, working late nights to piece the bodies together. But even he had to admit defeat, and Frost was a smart man. Scary smart, though some called him crazy. I think that was just because he preferred to always work at night and he spent so many long hours locked away with the corpses. But my insights on Dr. Jacob Frost – well, that’s all material for another chapter.

Take me to the next chapter

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Gamer Tales

As many of you know, I've been a gamer since about the time I could roll dice. I was in fourth grade when my remarkably progressive public school introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons, encouraging my gifted class to play the game as the perfect union of math and creativity (if you remember how to calculate old school ThAC0, then you definitely remember the math part!). D&D was set in worlds inspired by the fiction of Tolkien and other fantasy greats and while I enjoy high fantasy well enough, I didn't find a game world that really gripped me till Vampire: The Masquerade came along in 1991. They had me at vampires, but the World of Darkness against which White Wolf's storytelling system played out was what really seized my imagination. Set in a modern world a step off from our own where magic and monsters existed in the shadows, the V:tM world had all the grit of Film Noir wrapped up in the syrupy decadence of the fin de siecle art. It was Urban Fantasy before the genre existed. I loved it, especially because the White Wolf gaming system placed more emphasis on the story and the characters than it did on the stats and the dice. It provided a fertile platform with which to weave tales and watch characters come to life.

When the V:tM system took the leap from table-top gaming, where 3-6 players met up in someone's dining room or basement and whiled away the night engaging in a shared story, to LARP, or Live Action Role Playing I had found my niche. Live action was where role-playing games met improvisational theater and collided into something amazing. Costuming, make-up, physical props all could be brought to bear. A simple rule structure governed the magic and powers that were still an integral and interesting part of the game world, but the real strength of a character in a LARP came down to how well you could embody that character.

And for the role-playing naysayers, no, I don't mean that we ran around nightly believing we had turned into our characters. I mean we learned to act. LARPs got gamer geeks like me -- bookish, introverted, and often socially awkward -- out of the basement and into a social life. And I say without regret or apology that everything I learned about public speaking, I learned through playing Vampire: the Masquerade. Yes, it was make-believe, but it was great practice for interacting in groups, learning to spot social manipulations, and comprehending the real power of the spoken word.

And, for a writer, the LARP allowed for a very special experience: creating a story and characters that then came to life right before your eyes. I loved it -- and for many years, LARPs were my medium. I wrote massive multiplayer games for conventions like Origins and GenCon, weaving stories that could sustain nearly non-stop play over periods of three to four days. It wasn't uncommon to have 150+ players in those games, and every one of them had a pre-generated character with a backstory that was a short story all by itself, each of them interlocking so the whole thing was one gigantic, living web of plot.

If I have any regret at all from the years between 1995 and 2000 when my LARP writing peaked, it's that all those stories are nearly impossible to share outside of the medium of the LARP itself. The world I'd created for my chronicle -- the Vampire: the Masquerade term for an ongoing gaming story -- was a rich and unique creation were White Wolf's World of Darkness intersected with Lovecraft's Providence -- with a healthy dose of gangbusters for some wild fun. Set in the 1920s, my fictional version of Providence was a confluence of the weird, with each layer of the city's history peeling back to reveal increasingly bizarre twists. I've still got maps, volumes of the town newspaper I wrote up to pass out for each game, lists and descriptions of businesses, a Who's Who among the town, and meticulously outlined house rules -- reams of supplemental material that grew with each event, indelibly shaped by the choices and actions of the players once they had their characters in their hands.

I've dragged all of you on this rather long ramble about my gaming glory days because I have found on my hard drive something that I can share that captures some of the richness and intensity of this method of storytelling. Sure, I've got skads and skads of those character histories, never mind all the supplemental gaming material -- but those are merely pieces and, if taken in stasis, they do not reveal even an intimation of the whole. To appreciate why this method of storytelling so ignited my imagination, you'd have to see the story as it played out. And almost all of the stories from Providence were like one of those great Tibetan sand mandalas -- something seen while created, appreciated in its fullness for a moment, and then gone.

Except ... in 2009 I did a Providence reunion at an Oberlin college gaming event. And because many of my core characters were played by close friends with whom I have never lost contact, we needed -- for the sake of the story -- to tie up a few loose ends from the game in 2000 when I quit running the big games to focus on more traditional writing.

And because we were far-flung at the time, that particular installment of the Providence storyline did not take place in real-time out in the world. It took place through an exchange of emails, and once I had each player's action for a turn, I compiled everything and wrote the story.

It's still here on my hard drive, all 20k words of it or so. I'd given some thought to editing it into a stand-alone novella, removing the gamespeak, tweaking the tense (it's all in present tense, to capture the real-time feel of the action associated with LARPs). But that was harder than it sounded. And many elements of the Providence story make little sense when removed from the Vampire: the Masquerade setting -- especially my favorite clan of vampires from that game, the necromancer family Giovanni.

But I have a feeling at least some of you will appreciate getting a taste of this favored outlet for my creativity. So, at the risk of confusing a few readers with the gaming jargon that is a necessary part of the tale, I invite you all to come on a little ride with me and meet a few old friends -- Antonio, Menecrites, and Karl, Giovanni all, if not by birth, certainly by blood.

To be continued ...

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New Chapter, New World

Some of you know me from Paranormal State. Some of you know me from my many books. All of my major publications have been non-fiction. Until now. I am very pleased to announce the next chapter in my career as a writer. Conspiracy of Angels, the first book in the Shadowside Series, is slated for a 2015 release with Titan Publishing.

I can't thank my agent, Lucienne Diver, enough for being my savvy book advocate and navigating the very thorny wilds of the book publishing world as they stand today (talk about harrowing!). Yes, I have lots of books in print, so you'd think it would be easy to sell another one. But selling fiction is a totally different animal than selling non-fiction, and without Lucienne's support, I'm not certain I would have endured to conquer that rough beast.

Moving into fiction has been my gift to myself after twenty years of writing, publishing, and living the contents of my non-fiction books. I love teaching through the non-fiction, but my heart needs also to tell stories.

And this story is one that has burned in me, driven me -- and one I hope you will love.

The notes start in 2008. I know that much for certain -- I can still picture the client's house where I sat between takes, scribbling out the ideas. I burned with that fever of inception where the thoughts and images flew faster through my mind than my hand could possibly move across the page. I saw the character so clearly that a friend would later have dreams of him while I wrote the first draft of the novel.

I knew his name was Zack. It's short for something, but at first, even he doesn't realize that. And his world was my world, just a half a step off -- a world rife with spirits and other powers struggling for closure, for context, for control.

I didn't want a world of easy answers. I didn't want a world of black and white -- all my work with Paranormal State had taught me, when it comes to spirits, some things that appear evil are merely wounded and grasping for help. But monsters do exist.

Zack's world is a haunted world, and he can see the things that lurk in the dark. He doesn't always understand them -- and he doesn't always understand himself. Nevertheless, he feels compelled to make a difference. That's why you have talents like this, right? To do something with them. To make the world better for having you in it.

But it's not easy. Zack's allies are as deadly as his enemies, and he's never really certain who he can trust. He finds himself tangled in a web of betrayal, with people and powers seeking to become more powerful still.

Zackary Westland. The man who's lost his past.

You have to wait another year to meet him -- we both do -- but when the time comes, I want you all to lose yourselves in the wonders and dangers of his world.

Welcome to the Shadowside, my friends.

--M

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Resurrection

I ran a Vampire: the Masquerade LARP set in the Providence of H.P. Lovecraft for many years. Called In Providentia, the chronicle was the primary focus of my creative fiction from college right up until the first publication of the Psychic Vampire Codex. I still miss those days where I wrote for the sheer fun of the story, watching the characters come to life through the acting talents of my closest friends. In return, they would get full, personalized tales, like the one reprinted here. This scene takes place between the long-standing character of Luciano Giovanni and his sire. I think this piece dates to 1998 or so. Resurrection

Luci’s head began to clear as the soul-rending scream reverberating through the Skinlands and the Shadowlands subsided. In its place was a low mewling barely audible even to Luci’s keen vampire senses.

Shakily, the master necromancer rose to his feet, trying to focus his awareness upon the room around him. Before him on the floor lay Dominick, naked. The blood and bones of the circle were scattered and all the candles had been snuffed. Dominick curled in the midst of it, huddled a tight little ball, trembling like a newborn. The mewling sound was coming from him.

“Dominick?” Luci asked, his voice seeming harsh in the hushed aftermath of the ritual.

Dominick didn’t immediately respond. Luci wasn’t even certain that his sire could hear him.

Gingerly, Luci moved toward Dominick, reaching out to touch him. He must touch him. Three years have passed since he saw his sire destroyed. All those long years of struggle, searching for a way to bring him back. One touch to prove it was no illusion.

At the merest brush of Luci’s fingertips, Dominick convulsed. Startled, the master necromancer stumbled back, a cry nearly escaping his lips. If his heart had been beating, it surely would have stopped in that moment. Everything he’d seen, everything he’d done, and still Luci felt both amazed and terrified by what lay before him.

Dominick raised his head, his face a rictus of pain. He drew a huge, shaking breath – surely nothing more than an instinctive response, because even before his destruction, Dominick’s lungs had not demanded air in nearly two hundred years.

Luci hung hesitantly back, uncertain how or even if he could help his sire. As he watched, Dominick slowly tried to get to his knees. Every motion was agonized and ungainly, as if the elder vampire’s muscles no longer remembered how to move.

“Dominick?” Luci asked, finding his voice once more. “Are you ok?”

Forcing himself to his hands and knees, Dominick raised his head, opening his eyes for the first time since his resurrection. With a voice like the rattle of dry November leaves, he rasped, “Do I look ok?”

Luci couldn’t respond. He was lost in those eyes. They were every bit as unnerving as Dominick’s voice. Once a dark, rich brown indicative of his Italian heritage, it was as if death had washed their color away.

Dominick took another breath, shuddering. “Get me some clothes, Luci.”

The voice was not so dry this time, nor so strained. Still full of gravel and phlegm, it still held hints of the fluid, cultured tone from Luci’s memories.

“Clothes, right,” Luci managed. How had he overlooked such a simple necessity? But perhaps he had not believed that it would work, even after all the effort and research he had invested in the rite.

After a moment’s hesitation, Luci turned to search the store rooms not far from his lab. There had to be something appropriate. As he headed down the hall, he found himself haunted by those strange, pale eyes. Had he done the right thing? Dominick’s death had been unfair, a wrong to be righted. Finding a way to restore the elder vampire had consumed Luci for many years. But now … was it a triumph or an abomination that Luci had magicked up in the other room?

There were always several changes of clothes for everyone in storage down here. In the Giovanni line of business, there was no predicting when something would go wrong and someone would need a suit free of bullet holes and blood stains. Luci went automatically to the closet that used to hold Dominick’s effects. Most of the shirts and pants hanging up now were tailored for Antonio, who had replaced Dominick as the head of operations in the Providence branch of the family. After some digging, however, Luci managed to find a few items more suited to Dominick’s leaner frame. There was even a pair of old leather shoes. They were a bit scuffed, but they would do.

Feeling suddenly awkward, Luci knocked on the door to his own lab before walking back in. Dominick didn’t answer, so Luci just went in, then stopped in the doorway, the pile of clothes clutched to his broad chest as he looked around for his recently resurrected sire.

Dominick had dragged himself from the circle and now knelt in the shadow of Luci’s massive oak desk. He hugged himself, shivering as if in the grips of a terrible chill.

Wordlessly, Luci went to his sire’s side, holding out the neatly folded clothes. Dominick’s head whipped around and he locked eyes with Luci. Once again, the master necromancer found himself nearly drowning in those strangely pale orbs.

For years, he had prayed to have his sire returned to him. Dominick had been his friend, his mentor, his constant companion through the long nights of undeath. With unwavering courage, Luci had delved into the darkest corners of his art, tirelessly seeking a method to restore the other vampire to some semblance of life. Pouring through endless numbers of dusty scrolls and forbidden texts, Luci believed that he finally knew enough to accomplish the impossible. But now, staring into those colorless eyes, he realized he had known nothing at all.

“Let me help you, Dominick,” he said gently, then stooped and tried not to think too hard about dressing his naked sire.

Dominick twitched and gasped at each little touch, biting back a cry as the fabric of the shirt settled across his shoulders. It was as if he felt nothing but pain. A little guiltily, Luci wished that Reynaldo was there. The aged revenant had dressed each and every one of them at one time. It was hard to imagine Dominick, who had been a vampire longer than Luci had been alive, even Dominick a small, naked child in Reynaldo’s arms.

Some truths about the family were too strange to contemplate for very long.

Finally, dressed and a bit more coherent, Dominick stood with Luci’s aid. His legs were still trembling and uncertain and the ground beneath his feet felt ungodly strange.

“I should take you back to meet the others,” Luci managed to say, guiding his sire forward as the other man leaned heavily against him. It was strange to realize how small Dominick was. At this point, Luci was used to the burly bulk of Antonio and Menecrites. Even Karl, from such a distant Giovanni line, stood like a mountain. Yet Dominick had more of Reynaldo’s lean frame, almost effete.

They walked together unsteadily down the hall, the sire relying each step upon the childe. And then they were out in the night, the autumn leaves skirling about them. Dominick gritted his teeth against the feel of even the wind upon his risen flesh. Everything was pain – but at least he was alive again, after a fashion.

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Playing by the Rules

Some day, I'll have to release a novel with a variation that's like a director's cut. In the process of completing a manuscript, there are so many scenes that get recast or wholly removed. This is one such scene -- another altercation, because I love writing fight scenes. At this point, the root work it's drawn from has changed so much, it's nearly impossible to tell where it came from.  I still like it, though.

Playing by the Rules

“Um, you can let go of me,” I said. I pulled away slightly.

He dropped his hands without comment.

Lucid hazel eyes bored into me. No eerie light was required to add to their intensity. In that quiet tone that nevertheless invested each individual syllable with tremendous weight, he asked, “What do you want from me?”

“Uh,” I faltered.

Suspecting that someone might actually be an inhuman monster was a whole lot different than actually confronting them about it. My mouth went dry, and all of my reasonable-sounding conclusions about what Khalid was and how he might have known my mother nearly eighty years ago suddenly seemed anything but reasonable.

He pressed his sculpted lips into a thin, unhappy line, saying, “Please, stop feigning ignorance. It’s insulting to the both of us, don’t you think?”

I fought to recover the confidence I’d had just moments before. Heart in my throat, I mumbled, “That depends on what I’m being ignorant about.”

Khalid rolled his eyes. “I know it was you the other night. I could feel your observation. For someone who can hide their nature so completely in person, at a distance you are regrettably clumsy.”

I blushed to my hairline. So I really saw him doing those things, and he caught me watching him. I ducked my head guiltily, letting my hair swing forward to hide how red I was. Nervous laughter escaped my throat. I tried to talk, to utter anything intelligent, but my mouth and my brain were at war – and they weren’t including me in the negotiations.

Khalid studied me with his piercing eyes, mistaking my flush of embarrassment for one of anger. “Thalia, I don’t have to be your enemy. Truly, I don’t want to be.”

Finally, in a rush, I managed, “Was that what you said to my mother?”

I expected to see some reaction of shock or incredulity. Raised eyebrows. Something. But he simply shook his head, his frown deepening. “I don’t know what Elondra told you before she passed, but I assure you, she misjudged me.”

“So you did know her,” I gasped. My legs went all watery. I started teetering, dimly aware that I was nearing shock.

Khalid reached out again to steady me. I jerked away, nearly tumbling backwards. I dug the heels of my boots into the damp grass of his front lawn just to stay standing. He kept his hands extended, still trying to catch me as I swayed drunkenly.

“Please don’t touch me!” I cried.

He took a step backward, nodding his head politely. “As you wish,” he murmured. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his trench. Casting a worried glance over my shoulder, he murmured, “But I’m not so certain we should have this discussion out here. Others are gathering.”

My eyes flew to the oak tree – or at least, to where I knew the oak tree should be. It was too dark to see anything save for a hint of the gnarled branches looming next to the massive old Victorian. A little late, I realized I hadn’t left any of the lights on in the house. Not so much as a porch lamp.

“You can see them?” I breathed. My heart’s frantic rhythm echoed in the tremor of my voice.

“The crows?” he asked. “Yes. And I can sense the others. Can’t you?”

“N-no,” I managed, shaking my head. “Er … I’m not sure.”

His finely arched brows drew together and he tilted his head slightly as he regarded me. “What kind of game are you playing?” he wondered.

I didn’t have an answer.

“Thalia, please,” he begged. “I’m only looking to take back what your mother stole from me. Is that really so unreasonable?”

“Do you mean the painting?” I asked. I forced myself to focus on the details. Details, not fear. I needed to let go of the fear.

Behind us, something raised a ululant cry. We both jumped. It was definitely not the crows.

Eyes fixed on something in the distance, Khalid asked, “Are you sure you will not reconsider taking this inside?”

“What, so you can attack me behind closed doors?” I demanded.

“You know I can’t hurt you,” he snapped. A little of that cold light leapt behind his eyes. “Your mother made certain of that. But even if the choice remained to me, I would prefer to resolve this without violence. Why can’t you people understand this?”

By the end of it, he was nearly shouting, so I shouted right back. Anger was always my best refuge from fear.

“What people? What choice? I don’t even know what you’re talking about!”

He regarded me narrowly. “Either you are even better than your mother at hiding the true nature of things or you are not lying,” he murmured. Then his head snapped up, his eyes widening as he stared at something behind me. “Thalia, look out!”

Before I had time to react, Khalid shoved me roughly to the ground. I dropped everything as I went down, car keys and cell phone flying in opposite directions. I started yelling about it, but I was interrupted by a familiar, bone-chilling hiss.

The creature was back.

I scrambled backwards in a panic. In front of me, Khalid shrugged out of his trench, tossing it aside. Under the coat, he wore slim black jeans and a long sleeved shirt of deep amethyst silk. For reasons I could not fathom, he began unbuttoning the shirt as he stepped to meet the creature lurching into his yard. The hideous thing was swift but ungainly, still clad in the torn and soiled clothes from the previous night. Nictating membranes flicking, the intruder narrowed its eyes at my neighbor.

“I have no quarrel with you, brother,” it slurred, ashen lips barely able to close around its mouthful of teeth.

“I am most certainly not your brother,” Khalid answered stiffly. “And you will have a quarrel with me if you don’t get off my property.”

The creature hissed and skittered suddenly on his wrongly-jointed legs, circling to the left in an attempt to dart around the other man. But as fast as the monster was, Khalid matched it speed for speed. The gray-faced creature loosed an irritated snarl.

“There is no need for me to fight you,” it complained. For a big, nasty monster, it sounded bizarrely petulant.

“You are giving me a reason,” Khalid replied. He finished unbuttoning his shirt and tossed it to the grass in the direction of the coat. Wiry muscles rippled beneath the brown skin of his slim and hairless chest.

The creature looked as puzzled about Khalid’s stripper act as I was. But I wasted no time trying to figure it out. As those two were posturing in the yard, I scrambled to my feet and headed for Khalid’s porch. I desperately hoped his front door was unlocked.

“What is she to you?” the creature demanded. It danced back and forth, testing Khalid’s reactions. “If you want her also, we want her for the same reason. She has something that belongs to my sister. Let us both take her then, and make her surrender what was stolen.”

“We may want the same thing,” Khalid acknowledged coolly. “But I somehow doubt that we share the same method.”

With an aggravated snarl, the creature leapt. It sailed through the air, heading straight for me. Khalid moved faster than my eyes could track. He placed himself squarely in the creature’s path. I thought he would attack, but he only blocked the impact, bringing up his arms and thrusting the aggressor back.

Looking slightly dazed, it angled its head querulously like a dog, studying Khalid. “If you want me gone, then attack,” it hissed.

“I would prefer you simply leave.”

Its second set of eyelids flickering, the monster lunged – but didn’t carry through. Instead, it watched as Khalid prepared to meet the blow, but lowered his hands as soon as his attacker drew up short. A strange, staccato hissing emanated from the creature. I realized it was laughing. It was a hideous, chilling sound.

“You are one of the bound ones!” it cackled, pointing with a bony finger. “How much did they take from you? Can you even hunt for yourself? My sister cannot.”

Through gritted teeth, Khalid replied, “I may not be whole, but I assure you, I am quite capable. Come at me,” he taunted. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

“Why not strike me now, leech?”

Khalid’s nostrils flared at the insult, but he simply stood his ground. I tried the door at my back. It was locked. Of course. I started looking around the porch for anything I might use as a weapon. Unless I wanted to assault Khalid’s attacker with one of the previous resident’s garden gnomes, I was out of luck.

Without warning, Khalid ran at the creature, his usually melodious voice raised in a primal yell. I only saw him from behind, but his expression must have been terrifying, because even the monster was taken aback. It lashed out as soon Khalid was within range, its long, ragged nails laying open the other man’s chest. Khalid had to see it coming, but he didn’t try to dodge or even defend against the blow. He just left himself open. With an ugly cackle, the creature pressed the advantage, grappling with Khalid and driving its claws into his bare stomach. The deep, bloody gouges looked almost black against Khalid’s dark, muscled flesh.

“You cannot fight back!” the monster cackled. “I will tear the flesh from your bones, and you cannot fight back.”

“I can now,” the wounded man responded. His voice was quiet, but carried deadly threat.

Eyes flaring gold, Khalid snarled fiercely. As his blood flowed, he stopped merely defending and instead matched the aggressor blow for blow, tearing gobbets from the creature’s cadaverous flesh. The pinkish goo that served the monster for blood flowed sluggishly, but soon it covered Khalid’s face and hands. The fight was vicious, but half the time they were both moving so quickly, I could barely keep track of who was doing what. I just saw flashes of Khalid’s dark limbs, gleaming like the polished wood of some living statue where they weren’t covered in blood.

Unlike the previous night, once the monster started losing, it didn’t simply dissipate into a skirl of shadow. Khalid drove it back to the edge of the yard, finally pinning it to the ground. Battered and bleeding, the creature thrashed weakly, trying to drag Khalid’s hand from its throat.

“Traitor!” the creature spat.

Through gritted teeth, Khalid responded, “If that’s the way you want to see it. Now go. Unless it’s your aim to kill me?”

Khalid sounded almost hopeful.

The creature loosed a vicious, gurgling hiss. “If you do not end me, I will end you.”

“Is that a promise?” Khalid asked, swiping a long strand of black hair back from his face. He was smiling.

“For this insult? Yes,” the monster spat. “I will come back night after night and face you until one of us falls.”

“Perfect,” Khalid answered, and his eyes were twin lanterns in the dark. “You have just threatened my life.”

With that, he snapped the creature’s neck.

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The Rest is Silence

This little piece grew from a scene in a roleplaying game. I often escape to RPGs when writer's block rears its head. There is a certain immediate gratification in sharing stories and character development with other players. He swept her up, carrying her off to the little room deeper in the crypt. Then he laid her gently on satin sheets of the deepest red. He laid a chill finger lightly against her lips, whispering, "The rest is silence."

From there on, he spoke only the language of lip against lip, teasing her with the frisson of light nails dragged down bare skin.

He broke the edict once, after pulling away to slip off his shirt. Languorously she lay, studying the intricate pattern of the ritual scars curving across his torso. She was still clothed. She lifted her eyes to his, her question clear.

"For you? Nothing you do not wish. Nothing you do not invite," he murmured in response.

And then he bent over her, his white hair spilling forward to tickle her cheeks. He sought her mouth, his teeth sharp against her lip, nipping but not yet hard enough to draw blood.

He trailed kisses along her jaw, down to the little hollow where her pulse surged beneath soft skin. He laid his lips there, lightly, breathing the scent of her. He teased himself with the promise of her life and heat, eyes closed to hide the crimson fire that burned within their depths.

A kiss there, then the flick of his tongue. He held his lips upon her thudding pulse. His teeth grazed the sensitive skin, and for a moment, it seemed he teetered on the edge of seizing her -- ripping flesh to release the crimson heat within -- but he drew away, heaving a breath as he mastered himself. She watched him the whole while with half-lidded eyes.

When he bent to her again, he trailed kisses all down her neck as the nails of one hand traced lazy circles of sensation upon her other cheek, eventually twining lightly in her hair.

When he finally reached the base of her throat, he lay his body across her, wiry muscles shifting along his bare shoulders and arms. He leaned his face against hers, nuzzling, his breath soft upon her skin. And then in that place where shoulder meets neck, he took her, sealing his mouth around the flesh and teasing with his tongue before finally slashing with the two sharp teeth.

Stars stood out briefly upon her vision with the two brilliant points of pain. And then rolling, cresting pleasure followed the sweet flow of blood - not much, it seemed, just enough to taste, enough for his magic to connect. She felt his tongue dart along the edges of the little wounds, summoning a tangle of sensations. Pain and pleasure, sharp and soft all in a jumble.

As her blood flowed to him, the death-touched power flared upon his scars. He seemed lit from within by a glimmering dark-light, and all over his shoulders and torso, he gleamed with elegant runes. They pulsed in time with her speeding heart, and then the magic took her, too, gliding along her nerves like lightning, dancing on the inside of her skin.

They lay twined together, his mouth locked upon her flesh. But neither of them were close to their bodies. They were someplace else. Floating, immersed in sensations that had no adequate name.

When he finally drew away, she had no idea how long they had lain connected in that sweet and aching moment. He pressed lips still rouged with her blood against her mouth, questing with his tongue. She could taste herself upon him - copper and sweet.

She met his eyes again, silent in her question. His own eyes, crimson, spilled with stolen light.

"The rest we save till later. A promise, yes?"

She nodded.

He sealed it with a kiss.

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Fragment: First Blood

I rarely play with high fantasy, but here is a fragment from a little tale set in a world where a vampire-like race had once ruled. Ousted by the mortal populace, they were driven into hiding, and now their younglings are sent out to live among mortals for a period of time to learn how to hide their nature so their bloodlines can survive without being hunted any further. I had been at Castle Basaril for barely a month, but I already knew it was a bad idea to get on Chancellor Veyan’s bad side.

The Chancellor was a thin-faced man with a nose sharp as a razor. His rheumy blue eyes were too close-set and they always seemed to turn slightly inward, as if peering at the high, pointed bridge just in case it disappeared. His lips were almost as thin, and they seemed frozen in a perpetual sneer.

In my duties at the castle, I tried to avoid him as best I could. Given the fact that my real reason for working at the castle had everything to do with learning how to blend in among the mortals, I did my best to remain invisible to the Chancellor and all his men. So when the Chancellor called on me to attend him in his private chamber, I knew it was bad news. What could he possibly want with a page of my lowly rank?

As I entered, he looked up at me with those bleary eyes, the blue more vivid because they were so bloodshot. He gestured for me to shut the door and take a seat. Wordlessly, I did. I sat awkwardly in front of him, staring at my shoes. Someone of my rank was not supposed to meet his eyes unless instructed.

“Shaelindor, isn’t it?” he asked in a high, reedy voice that grated on my sensitive ears.

“Yes, my lord.”

“We have some things to talk about, and I want you to look me in the eye as you answer.”

Frowning a little, I looked up. I tried not to stare. He had such wrinkles about his eyes and lips, and the skin hanging from his jowls reminded me of wax beginning to go soft and melt. I thanked the Silent Lady that I would never look like that. Quietly, I said, “Yes, my lord.”

“You come from Keselwyn, in the Eastern Provinces, do you not?” He spoke to me as he would a lad of seventeen. Of course, that’s what he believed me to be, and there was nothing in my official papers that would suggest otherwise. I gritted my teeth and endured it.

“Yes, my lord,” I said humbly for the third time. I dug the nail of one finger into the palm of my hand and hoped he didn’t notice.

He consulted some paper in front of him. “And by my count, you have been here almost three months.”

“It will be three months on the Hearth Festival, sir,” I responded, still fidgeting.

“Hmm…” he muttered, and as he said this, he pursed his lips so the wrinkles around them grew even more pronounced. I tried to look at the tapestry behind him while still appearing to meet his gaze.

“Well, Shaelindor of Keselwyn, I’m not sure how they do things out where you’re from. By my reckoning, Keselwyn is not what we here in Basaril consider rightly civilized,” he sniffed with obvious disdain, “But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt this one time.”

I felt a cold lance of fear jolt down my spine, and I sat a little straighter, my heart racing. Could the servant-girl I visited in the night have been awake after all? I used my best calming spell to lull her into a deep sleep before I made the cut so I could feed. Discovery was a terrifying prospect, but I forced myself to remain calm. “About what, sir?” I wondered.

He sniffed again, shuffling the papers. “We hold our women very dear here in Basaril, young man. Their greatest asset is their virtue because this insures that they will bear their husbands strong – and legitimate – children. In Basaril, we take a very dim view of those who would lead our virtuous daughters astray.”

I continued to keep my silence, admitting to nothing. My heart pounded harder, fear now mixed with indignation at what he was implying. I would never think of a mortal woman in that way. Copulating with an animal seemed more appealing.

“I have word from a credible witness that you were seen leaving the Lady Vitessa’s quarter the other night. Now, the lady Vitessa is a young woman of irreproachable virtue, and this is one of the qualities that has made her a desirable match for her future husband, the Knight-Champion Ardenthal. Her father, Lord Solaris is exceptionally proud of the marriage he has recently arranged for his middle daughter, and he would be deeply aggrieved should anything arise that might threaten that happy union. There should not even be a whisper of doubt as to the lady’s virtue.”

Here he settled his watery gaze on me and let it sit for a few long moments. I tried not to squirm.

“Now,” he continued, “I am certain that even someone like you who hails from such a backward little province and holds his rather minor position at the sufferance of Lord Xarxes – even you are not so unwise as to engage in any act that might call into question the lady’s virtue. In fact, I am certain that you wandered by the lady’s quarters by accident while you were out after hours taking a stroll. And with that in mind, my advice to you Shaelindor of Keselwyn, is quite simple: in future, take your strolls elsewhere. That is all.”

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Speculations

Author's Note: A continuance of the story-thread from "Hidden Chambers of the Heart." In this snippet, Matthew seeks to learn more about what he witnessed between his former lover, Elizabeth, and the mysterious and reclusive artist, Percival Lawrence. You may recognize Matthew from my paranormal romance novel, This Heart of Flame. These snippets are excerpted from the 1998 unpublished work that gave rise to Matthew and his world. Speculations 

After what I saw that night in suite number ten, I found myself consumed with the possibility that Percival Lawrence was a vampire. I had to know more. Knowing Halaina’s own interest in the topic, I approached her butler, Robert.

"You don't think I could borrow Halaina's copy of that vampire novel, do you?"  I asked.  I felt strangely self-conscious about wanting to read it, but I knew I didn't have the patience to wait until I was through teaching classes tomorrow to try finding it at a bookstore.  With the play in town, every copy was probably sold out anyhow.

"Dracula?"  Robert inquired.

"Is there more than one?"  I responded, trying to recall some of the titles Elizabeth had mentioned to me.

"Christina Rosetti's uncle wrote one as well," he informed me.  "It's called simply, The Vampyre.  Halaina owns both of them."

"Could I borrow them both then?"  I asked. Robert quirked a brow at me and guiltily, I tried explaining, "I haven't been sleeping much the past couple nights, and I'm looking for something to occupy my time."

Still looking somewhat skeptical, Robert nodded and said, "I'll run up and get them presently.  Sarah, could you watch the front desk for a few moments?"

The coat-check girl hurried over, smiling at both Robert and me.

"Thank you, Robert," I said sincerely.  While he was away, I chatted with Sarah.   On a whim, I asked, "You don't know anything about Percival Lawrence, do you?"

"He tips well," she chirped.  "And he's always polite."

"How long has he been coming here?" I pressed.

She thought about it, then shrugged. "At least as long as I've been here, and that will be two years in the spring."

Two years.  I hadn't been frequenting Arkana for more than two months, and already everyone seemed to know there was something unusual about me.  How had Percival been coming here for two years and escaped notice?  Perhaps he and Elizabeth had only been playing out a fantasy after all.

"Is there anything unusual about him?"  I pursued.

"There's something unusual about everyone here," she responded with a little smirk.  "That's what this place is for."

I had to concede to her there.  I stopped pressing the issue and chatted with her instead about inconsequentials until, with a terrible clatter, Robert arrived back down in the elevator.  He had three volumes tucked under one arm.

"Halaina sent down a third book as well," he said, holding them out to me.  "It's a collection of stories by LeFanu.  The story she said you should read is entitled 'Carmilla.'  She marked the page.  Also, be very careful with Polidori's book.  It's from the 1820s and the spine is getting weak."

"Thank you, Robert," I said, glancing at each of the three covers.  Wesley was right.  Dracula was lurid.  Bright yellow, with red lettering, it had a picture of the Count crawling head-first down a castle wall.  There was nothing at all romantic or compelling about the portrayal.  Did the publisher even realize what the tale was about?  "Give Halaina my thanks as well.  I'll have these back to her before the week is out."

Robert nodded.  Sarah ran off to retrieve my hat, cloak, and cane.  Remembering what had stood out in her mind about Percival Lawrence, I gave her a sizeable tip and headed out into the night.

I spent the remainder of the night and most of the next morning reading.  If I had been expecting Stoker's book to be great literature, I was sorely disappointed.  The first fifty pages were almost enough to discourage me from reading any further, and once I got past the limping introduction, the tale, with all its tedious melodrama, wasn't much of a reward.  Polidori's shorter novel was no better.  The introduction to the characters Aubrey and Ruthven seemed promising, but then the tale degraded into a series of lurid events and coincidences that seemed a stretch of the imagination even in a Gothic romance.  LeFanu's story was more satisfying, although the ending seemed a bit contrived.  By the time I was ready to head off to the college, I found myself more confused about the subject of vampires than when I had started out.

All three stories agreed on one point: vampires drank blood.  Beyond that simple fact, individual interpretations varied widely.  Both Dracula and Carmilla preferred to sleep during the day, and when they had to be up before sunset, they struggled against an overwhelming sense of torpor.  Ruthven didn't seem to mind the day, so long as he had his requisite moonlight.  Dracula had an affinity for wolves, while for Carmilla it was great cats.  Garlic, wild roses, mirrors, stakes through the heart -- all the rest of it was a confusing jumble of nonsense.  Trying to get to the heart of what each story portrayed, I came to the conclusion that a vampire was something -- Stoker had used the term undead -- that had once been mortal and human, but had somehow become changed.

Of course, here was where I had a little laugh.  All three stories implied that this change involved the working of infernal powers, a fact which I knew to be patently false.  Thomas White had made the same mistake of assuming that those creatures he understood to be demons, and therefore infernal, could somehow confer upon him immortal life and magickal powers.  Immortality wasn't something I could give away, though sometimes I'd have loved to exchange it.  And I didn't know anything of magick.  In fact, I made it a point to avoid the kinds of people who did.   I knew about spirits and ghosts, but only because I cohabited with them for the better part of my existence.  Once White had exhausted all my knowledge in that area, there was precious little he could get from me except sex and slave labor.

I mulled things over while I walked to the school.  I knew one thing for certain.  My kind had nothing to do with the creation of vampires.  If we did, I'd know a great deal more about them than I did.  I almost wished I had devoted a little more time to folklore.  Considering what I was, it seemed only reasonable that I would, but frankly I'd avoided all things occult precisely because of my nature.  My existence was strange and complicated enough without adding anything more to it.  Whenever I had a say in the matter, I devoted my time almost exclusively to carnal and aesthetic pursuits.  But now I wondered if there wasn't a bit more to the world around me.

Fiction was clearly no help, so after my afternoon lectures, I strolled over to the university library. I was surprised to discover the extent of their collection on mythology and folklore. After spending more than two hours pouring over various esoteric texts, however, I only succeeded in confusing myself further with regards to the undead.  The more I read, the further away seemed the possibility that Percival was anything other than an ordinary man with a less than ordinary fetish.  Yet my brief foray into the texts on demonology which I also found in the university’s collection convinced me that no one who claimed to know anything about the supernatural had any idea what they were talking about.  If the texts on demons were so far from the truth, then it only made sense that any information I might find on vampires was equally skewed.

Of course, I should have realized all that from my readings the night before.

Finally, I abandoned my research, admitting to myself that I had no head for the occult anyway, and neither did any of the other scholars whose works I had spent the afternoon studying.  I decided to meet Percival Lawrence on my own terms.  I wasn’t certain it was the wisest idea, but I determined to seek him out in his home. Charity was a small town. It shouldn’t be difficult to learn where he lived.

 -- M. Belanger

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Hidden Chambers of the Heart

Author's Note: This is another excerpt from the 1998 work which gave rise to most of the characters in This Heart of FlameHere, the incubus Matthew discovers that he is not the only one at Club Arkana who has a secret, and to sate his curiosity, he secretly spies on his ex-lover Elizabeth with her new beau, Percival Lawrence. (this snippet occurs prior to the events of "Keeping Secrets," published earlier to this blog): Hidden Chambers of the Heart

Elizabeth sat at a small table tucked far away in a remote corner of the club.  She was still looking pensively at herself in the mirrors, but she was no longer alone.  A man sat across from her, reading to her from a book that lay open between them.  She strained forward to hear him, her eyes gleaming.  She had every look of heightened arousal about her; the flush on her cheeks stood out starkly against her pallid face.  Her features were suffused with an agonized yearning, yet strangely she did not look at her companion.  Her rapturous eyes were fixed upon her own reflection in the mirror, as if part of her arousal lay in seeing it etched upon her face.

I held back, studying the scene.  Her companion was none other than Percival Lawrence, the member of the club who had stormed from the stage production of Dracula a few nights before.  Although it was hard to be certain, I suspected that he was reading to her from that self-same story.  The lurid yellow of the binding was just visible beneath the outspread pages.  My curiosity aroused, I found an unoccupied table nearby and settled down to watch them.

Over the music of the orchestra and the murmur of the patrons, I could almost hear him.  I couldn't catch any words, but it seemed that there was something deep and richly mellifluous pitched just beneath the usual sounds of the club.  As I strained to listen, the velvet undertone faded away, and he closed the book with a sense of finality.  It was indeed Dracula.  Elizabeth looked from the mirrors along the wall and regarded his eyes through the smoked glasses Halaina said he always wore.  He lifted a hand to caress her face.  He wore his nails longer than most men, but on him, it gave his long fingers an added elegance.  He whispered something to her, earnestly regarding her with dark, half-hidden eyes.  She shivered and placed her gloved hand over his, pressing it further against her cheek.  Then, fluidly, he rose, turning his hand around to clasp hers.  With a genteel and studied grace, he led her toward the back rooms.

I was going to leave them to their private pursuits, and let my issues with Elizabeth drop right then.  It was clear to me that she had found another surrogate for her obsessive fantasies, only this time she had chosen a darker angel for her romance.  Percival certainly fit the part with his unnatural pallor and dark, burning eyes.  I found myself wondering what he would do to her with those graceful long-fingered hands.  Curiosity got the better of me, and I strode from my table, hurrying to see which room they would escape into so I could find the corresponding viewing chamber.

I made it through the mirrored doors just in time to see Percival closing a door behind them.  To my disappointment, it was suite number ten.  One of the few rooms back here that afforded no peepholes for voyeurs. Then I remembered Halaina’s secret panel, giving her the only access to that supposedly private room from her personal suite.  Feeling supremely naughty and all the more excited for it, I walked back to Halaina’s rooms and, not even bothering to turn the gaslights on, slipped immediately into the little closet that served as a viewing chamber. I settled quietly as possible onto the trunk pressed against the wall and leaned my eye up against the peep hole.  The lighting in the next room was frustratingly low, but once I adjusted, I could see the two figures clearly enough.

Percival had taken his jacket off and lain it over a chair, but still retained his shirt, vest, and trousers.  The book, I noticed, sat on the seat of the chair, partly obscured by his jacket.  Elizabeth was still fully clothed, wearing a gown of deep burgundy satin accented with ribbons and lace.  The wide band of black velvet she had taken to wearing was still snugly in place on her throat.  The hint of a smile playing about her darkly rouged lips, Elizabeth bent over a Victrola, her little hand slowly working the crank.  While she was thus occupied, Percival carefully removed his dark glasses and set them aside.  The change was remarkable.  His eyes were deep-set and very striking.  For a moment, I was reminded of the actor Alexander's burning gaze which, turned even briefly upon the audience, sent the ladies swooning.  In the next moment, Percival had shaken loose his hair.  The gleaming dark waves fell a little past his shoulders, spreading across his back and curling softly around his face.  The frame of dark hair made his face seem gaunt and starkly pale.

Elizabeth finished with the Victrola, and the music of a waltz rasped into the room.  Brahms, I thought, though it was distant and thready from where I sat.  Percival approached her, took her hand in his and bowed over it, bringing it gently to his lips.  She whispered something, and her eyes were enormous, glinting as they had when she had been lost in her reverie on angels that night with me.  Then he took her in his arms and they danced, slowly, sedately, keeping flawless time to the music.

I leaned back from the peephole to give my eyes a rest.  It was strange.   I had never seen Elizabeth this subdued, at least sexually.  She clung to Percival as they danced, and I could hear those sonorous silken tones of his rumbling underneath the music of Brahms.  He seemed to be soothing her.  He stroked her hair, leaning his cheek against her cheek and murmuring in her ear.  She shivered against him and looked ready to weep with the intensity of her feelings.

They danced together until the end of the song.  Then Elizabeth paused to switch the music.  Now the Victrola played something low and almost threatening.  Minor chords filled the room, deepening the shadows.  Mozart's Requiem.  It didn’t strike me as exactly a romantic air. Elizabeth reached up and unfastened the ribbon at her throat, letting it drift to the floor.  Then she returned to Percival, and they swayed together slowly in a modified waltz step to the new music.  Percival bent as if to whisper something in her ear, but this time he lightly kissed her jaw.  She shivered again, her eyes half-lidded.  She let her head drift back, arching her neck a little toward him.

Still swaying as the music crescendoed, Percival bent and kissed her throat.  The way they were standing, I could see her face over his shoulder as her features alternately flushed and grew pale.  Her lips were parted and her eyes tightly closed. She looked for all the world like a woman at the very apex of her passion, and yet all Percival continued to do was bend with his lips to her throat.

I desperately wanted to see what he was doing, but his back was mostly toward me, and when he bent over her neck, his long dark hair fell like a curtain across his face, covering her throat and cascading down her bare shoulder.  Elizabeth arched suddenly against him, back bowing against her corset, her head thrown back and her eyes tightly shut. Her fingers were hooked like claws into the back of his vest. I could hear mewling little cries escaping her throat. Percival remained transfixed, his face buried against her throat, those long-fingered hands steadying her at her shoulders and her waist.

I strained against the wall in the closeness of the closet.  They still did not move, only grew more intense in their posture.  What kind of hold did this fantasy have upon her, if she could be thus transformed by a simple kiss?  Or was it something more?  I thought of Halaina and her discussions about the compelling figure of Dracula.  But of course, that was a play. I had never met a vampire, nor did I know that they could exist. Yet now, I felt the thrill of possibility aching in my chest.  Could Percival be such a creature?  And was I, an incubus, in a position to doubt such a thing?

But maddeningly, all I saw in the room beyond were two people locked in an intense embrace.  And even without his curtain of hair, I doubted I would have been able to see anything significant.

Suddenly as it had begun, it ended.  Elizabeth gave a little gasp, and seemed to swoon in Percival’s arms.  He caught her delicate body easily, lifting her onto the bed.  He eased her against the pillows, and all the while his back was to me.  He leaned over her, and I heard the resonant tones of that soft, deep voice.  Her name, perhaps, said soothingly several times over.  The long-nailed fingers of one elegant hand tenderly stroked her cheek.  She stirred beneath his touch, her eyes fluttering against pale lids.  Percival left her stretching languorously on the bed while he bent to retrieve the ribbon for her throat. Now his face was to me, but there was nothing I could read into his pallid, foreign features.

Then something strange occurred.  As Percival crouched for the ribbon, he brought his head up sharply, searching the room in my direction.  He was poised on the balls of his feet, elbows resting on his knees, the ribbon held loosely in the fingers of one hand.  It was a strangely feral pose.  There was no way he could see me. I was hidden on the other side of the wall, and even the little peephole that afforded my vision of the darkened room was minuscule, cunningly hidden among the pattern of the wallpaper. Nevertheless, he fixed his gaze on me.  It was impossible, yet there he was, looking directly at me.  His posture tensed more severely and for a moment, I could have sworn his dark eyes gleamed with a light of their own.

“When I discover who you are,” he growled, the velvet tones of his voice carrying clearly to my ears, “There will be a reprisal.”

I sat in the closet, stunned, every nerve jangling. Percival shot a final look of warning in my direction, then turned swiftly to where Elizabeth still dozed upon the bed.  Hurriedly, he retrieved his jacket, book, and glasses, then helped rouse Elizabeth.  She seemed dizzy and weak, murmuring and leaning against him. He helped her stand, practically carrying her. Never once did he take those smoldering eyes off of me. Shaken, I had to pull away from the peephole. I couldn’t bear the weight of those eyes one moment more. There was definitely something unusual about the artist Percival Lawrence, and sitting in the shadows of Halaina’s private rooms, I vowed that I would discover the truth, regardless of his threats.

 -- M. Belanger

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The Gambling Man

Author's Note: Most of you know I'm a gamer. In 1995, 1996, and 2000, I designed, wrote, and ran the Vampire: The Masquerade live action role-playing events at the gaming convention Origins. I did not do this single-handedly (long-time friend Jason B. Crutchfield wrote a number of characters for the 2000 game) but I wrote the lion's share of the story and character histories for each of the 150-200 characters provided to players at these games. And in typical me fashion, I didn't skimp on these stories. Most of the character histories were short stories in their own right. These character histories constitute a massive body of work that really only holds any relevance within the context of the game. But some of the characters are fun to pull out and revisit again, like the Toreador Dean Marshal Callahan. Dean Marshall Callahan: Clan Toreador

Dean’s mother worked as a saloon girl in their little Missouri town.  By night, she also did some horizontal business out of her one-room apartment located above the aforementioned saloon. That’s how Dean came into the world.  There were a number of men who might have been Dean’s father, but the most likely candidate was the town’s sheriff, due to Dean’s striking resemblance to the man.  While Dean took after his father in appearance, he inherited his moral values from his mom.  He pretty much grew up in the saloon, and from age twelve onward he was gambling, smoking, and flirting with the other girls.  He made pretty good money at cards, supplementing his mother’s income when business was slow.  He also had a knack for playing the piano, and this served him for a legitimate job.  Around the age of fifteen, he had saved himself a good chunk of cash and, feeling a little restless in the soul, took off down the Mississippi on a riverboat.

Dean was a rambler.  There was no doubt about it.  But he had the kind of talents that suited that sort of life well.  He always made his way in the world, whether by playing cards or setting down at the piano and entertaining folks with his tunes and his beautiful voice.  His natural charm and charisma got him a long way, and even when he got caught cheating at cards, his easy smile and eloquent words could usually get him through without a fight.  Dean spent many years traveling up and down the Mississippi, stopping at a town now and again, but mostly always keeping on the move.

Only the outbreak of the Civil War convinced Dean that it was time to lay low and maybe settle for a while.  Around that time, he was in the Carolinas.  Even he wasn’t sure quite how he’d got there.  He ended up in Charlotte and established himself at one of the local watering holes, playing the piano and playing a few hands of cards when the money ran low.

It was here that Dean met Gerald Langtree.  Gerald was a southern gent if Dean had ever seen one.  He had fine cut clothes, elegant but never flashy.  He was always polite and courteous, and was especially deft with the ladies.  Gerald started being a regular customer at Dean’s little hideaway, always coming in after dark had settled on the town and staying nearly all night long, listening to Dean play and sometimes indulging in a game of cards.

Now, Dean’s gambler’s instincts told him there was something up with Gerald.  It wasn’t a bad impression – just that the man had a secret.  And this secret was something that intensely fascinated Dean.  And so in their many conversations together, Dean tried dragging this secret thing out of Gerald, always probing gently into Gerald’s past and asking leading questions.  Gerald opened up to Dean like a flower, telling him about his family home in the Carolinas and all the long-gone days when Gerald had nothing more pressing to do with himself than paint and study his art.  He told Dean how the estate was burned down in a slave revolt and looted by Yankees, of the harrowing escape Gerald had to make by night taking only the clothes on his back and what money he could shove in his pockets.  Gerald lamented the loss of his family home, but what seemed most important to him was all the artwork that had been burned.  He said the art hadn’t been very good – second-rate at best, but at least it showed him how he’d progressed over the years and how far he’d actually come.

Dean developed a real liking for Gerald.  And despite all the wild adventures Gerald recounted to him, Dean felt like he still hadn’t managed to get at the heart of Gerald’s fascinating secret.  Then one night, Gerald approached Dean at the saloon and asked if he’d come with him to one of the back rooms for a private discussion.  Dean had never seen Gerald so serious in all his life, but underneath that seriousness was a private kind of joy.  Intrigued, and guessing rightly that he was soon going to learn the secret he’d been digging for all these long nights, Dean left his spot at the piano and followed Gerald back.

That night was a night of revelations and wonder for Dean Marshall Callahan.  In that back room, Gerald explained to Dean that he was an immortal, a Toreador vampire to be exact.  He asked Dean if he’d want to join him in that way of life, and maybe travel the country together, enjoying the night.  Dean couldn’t see anything wrong with Gerald’s offer – and the thought never crossed his mind once that Gerald was bluffing, because a hard-core gambler like Dean knew a bluff when he saw one.

It didn’t take a whole lot of thought on Dean’s part to say yes.  Gerald warned Dean that he wasn’t the only vampire out there.  There was a whole society of them as well, and that society had all manner of rules.  Gerald was going to be breaking one of those rules by embracing Dean, as he didn’t have his elders’ permission to do so.  So he and Dean would have to leave Charlotte, even though the war was still going strong, and lay low for a while

The two traveled West, dodging soldiers as they went.  They saw some serious brutality during the few skirmishes they bypassed, and it left a mark on the both of them.  Although both men were capable of taking care of themselves in a fist fight, an all-out war was another matter entirely.  It seemed like the wisest thing for them to do was to leave the fighting to the fighting men, and pass their own nights quietly in socializing and playing cards, waiting for the big fight to get settled.  They got back on the riverboats that had been Dean’s traveling home for so many years, and tried to pretend the war and all the concerns it brought with it did not exist.

Around about the 1940s, Gerald got word that his own sire was in the city of Columbus, Ohio.  Now, Gerald’s sire had been passing through the Carolinas, and he gave Gerald the embrace and moved on.  While he spent some time with Gerald, explaining the ins and outs of vampire culture, Gerald never really got a chance to know the man who had brought him into such a wonderful and dangerous life.  Gerald and Dean were getting tired of rambling across the country, and so Columbus seemed as good a place as any to settle.  The fact that Gerald’s sire, George Bellows, was the primogen of clan Toreador in Columbus only made the deal even sweeter.

Gerald and Dean have called the city their home since that time.  Although Dean’s rambling spirit has been nagging him to move onward to new horizons for the past couple of years, Gerald is the sort of man who puts down roots once he likes a place.  The desire to move and see more of the world is about the only thing that Dean and Gerald don’t agree upon.  Otherwise, they’re a tightly knit pair, each involved in similar aspects of the city, each helping the other out in issues of status, reputation, and clan politics.

Dean holds Gerald in high regards, practically idolizing him.  He suspects that Gerald feels that Dean is a better Toreador than himself, mainly because he’s always talking about Dean’s natural talent and artistic passion, in contrast to what Gerald considers to be his own lack of talent and vision. Dean’s been in the argument with Gerald before for many, many years – he thinks Gerald is selling himself short as far as talent goes, and tries to remind his sire of this whenever he can (without sounding like a broken record, that is.)  Dean seriously respects Gerald.  He’s the father Dean never had, in addition to being Dean’s best friend in all the world.  Gerald’s about the only person the cunning Dean trusts, and the two have had to watch one another’s back in more than one life-or-death situation in the past.

-- M. Belanger

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Keeping Secrets

Author's Note: In September 1998, all in a flurry, I wrote a piece of historical fiction (these days, it would be labeled paranormal romance). It ended up being about 200,000 words long and in desperate need of revision. Parts of it come together in later works (many of the characters from that initial, rambling piece ended up in This Heart of Flame), but I was never able to salvage the original book. I've picked and poked at it over the years, because there are scenes I wish I didn't have to lose -- but they exist now like islands that were once the tops of mountains, jutting up from the water after a terrible flood. One of these lonely fragments appears below. The narrator is Matthew, who also narrates This Heart of Flame. He's learned a secret about the artist Percival Lawrence -- a secret he breaks into Lawrence's house to confirm. Keeping Secrets

Percival's house was all darkness.  I let my horse trot up to the front lawn, then slid off his back.  Stroking his flank, I made certain he would wait for me.  He stepped out into the lawn and began patiently cropping grass.  Silently, I crept around the outside of the house.  I noticed a sliver of light, muted and weak, slipping out from one of the basement windows.  That was where I would look first.  I stepped around to the back door.  It was, of course, locked.  I planted my hands above and beneath the knob, pushing inward with gradually increasing force.  I heard the snap before I felt the thing give, and I caught myself just in time before all my weight carried me crashing to the floor.

The door swung inward, creaking.  I stepped into a kitchen as pristine as it was unused. The lack of foodstuffs hardly counted as proof, but I added it mentally to my growing list of peculiarities connected with Mr. Percival Lawrence.

Everything was utterly silent.  It was unsettling.  I closed my eyes, trying to feel where he might be.  Even to my subtle senses, however, the house seemed empty.  Either Percival truly was not home or his talent for going unnoticed extended even to the subtle level.  I suspected it was the later.  Regardless of what my senses were telling me, I was certain he was here somewhere.  The basement seemed the likeliest place.  I searched around for a way down, and was rewarded when I caught sight of a faint sliver of light creeping out beneath a door set into a set of stairs.  This door, too, was locked, but it pulled outward.  It was a relatively easy task to snap the lock and pull it open.

The stairs leading down were mostly in shadow.  Only a faint light filtered up from the rooms below.  I leaned cautiously onto the first step, hoping it would not creak.  I pressed my hands against the walls on either side of me to lessen the impact of my weight.  Satisfied that I could proceed in relative silence, I glided the rest of the way down.  All I could see at the bottom was a blank wall.

The stairs were enclosed, so I had to wait until the last step to even look around.  From what I could see of it, the basement had been made into a studio.  Crates and chunks of stone were arranged in a near corner.  The lightsource was coming from my left.  I crept round the corner of the stairs and started into that room when something leapt out at me.  It had been crouching in the shadow of the staircase, lying in wait.  Too quickly for me to react, I felt hands seize upon my shirtfront.  I was lofted into the air and carried backward, pinned against the wall.

I looked down at my captor.  If there had been any doubt in my mind what Percival Lawrence was, they were laid to rest in that instant.  Percival stood beneath me, holding me above his head, his features fixed in a snarl of rage.  His lips were drawn back from his teeth, and I could distinctly see his pronounced canines.

"You!"  he growled.

I let him dangle me in the air, the bricks of the wall pressing roughly against my back.  If he expected me to struggle or cry out, he was disappointed.  I was staring in wonderment at what I saw in his mouth.

He seemed to quickly realize this.  Not relinquishing his hold on me, he closed his eyes briefly, apparently trying to master himself.  The expression of fury seemed to melt from his face.  Abruptly, he let go of me, turning away with a snarl of disgust.  I slid down the wall, dropping heavily to the floor.

I crouched there, stunned to speechlessness for the next few moments, but not because of his rough treatment. Because of what I saw.

There were statues arranged throughout the room, half a dozen of them.  All were life-sized or a little larger.  They were magnificent, practically breathing with life.  Every detail was flawlessly evoked from the stone, nearly down to the pores on the skin.  I recognized a number of individuals from the club.  They may as well have been standing there before me.

"I thought you said your work was flawed," I said wonderingly. It was barely audible.  I had forgotten to breathe.

Percival rounded impatiently on me.  He was wearing a plain white shirt with the sleeves rolled up.  He was covered with a fine white dust, nowhere more thickly than his hands and upper arms.  It made his already pale skin as white as the marble of the statues around him.  Flakes of stone stood out in his loose, dark hair.

"What are you doing here?"  he demanded.  He made no attempt to hide his teeth now.  The pronounced canines were obvious and menacing.  "Never sneak up on me like that.  I could have killed you."

I straightened, dusting myself off.  My attention was still captivated by all the wondrous statues.  Even Halaina's work was not so fine.

"I don't break that easily,"  I responded a little tersely.  "Percival, you never said your work was like this.  These are amazing."

I walked past him to the nearest sculpture.  It was of Elizabeth.  I caressed her shoulder and arm.  It was like touching living flesh, except that it was cold.  Smooth, perfect, every muscle could be felt beneath the skin -- it was flawless.  Her face, the way she held herself, the tilt of her head ... he had captured everything vital about her in the stone.  I could have kissed those lips.

"Don't fondle the sculpture,"  he said, his voice sharp with disgust.

Reluctantly, I withdrew my hands from the statue of Elizabeth.  "Can we talk?" I asked, hoping that despite my rude intrusion, his answer would be yes.

-- M. Belanger

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