There is something about speeding through the night down crowded city streets on a motorcycle that drives adrenaline to a saturation point and thrusts recklessness to the top of the scale.
From out of the dark, miles of street lamps stretched along the wide boulevard like beacons on an airport runway. All along the way, cars and trucks and vans were merely obstacles to dodge, to whip around, to leave behind, but never to lessen the pace. Horns dopplered as Cash roared between vehicles, some of them oncoming, their headlights bearing down like the wild eyes of some charging beast. With an expert twist of the handlebars, he dodged disaster and threaded his way over the pavement, the two wheels often losing contact with the concrete, bouncing with a jolt as gravity latched onto the bike once again. Traffic lights were with him as though he commanded them, but at the first sign of yellow, he drove the bike harder and faster.
Cash had to take Sasha out of St. Louis. Hell had hit the city, a hell led by the Brujah from across the river, and they would not tolerate one of their own taking sides against them, especially taking sides with Gangrels. Poor Sasha, her blood was Brujah yet she hated them with all her being. Poor Sasha, her heart belonged to a Gangrel, to Cash, despite the blood-bound hate that centuries of rivalry between Brujah and Gangrel had forged. The miracle was that she loved him, that she had the strength to overcome that ancient enmity. He swelled with pride that she trusted him so, that she forged such a bond to him as they shared a common tragedy -- the loss of their Prince and friend, Julian Luna. If two people could survive what had befallen them, they could.
He felt Sasha's cheek against the leather of his jacket. Her arms clutched his waist. His helmet banged against hers each time the bike went air-born for a silent heartbeat then thudded back to the roadway.
Knowing she was close, knowing he could protect her, Cash let go his rampant anxiety. Little by little, the tension entangling him unwound. The gloss and glare of the city lessened, and as the hours moved far past midnight, traffic thinned to nothing. The charcoal heavens thickened with a thin veil of clouds, leaving only the brightest of stars and a ghostly ring around the moon to accent the darkness. On the Earth, the solitary beam of his headlamp cut a path out of the shadows ahead. That was all there was: Sasha, him, and this highway.
Sasha stirred behind him, and he considered pulling to the side of the road, to let her get off the bike and stretch, but back in St. Louis, Buddy had insisted that they drive south on Interstate 55 and not stop until they reached New Orleans where the Nosferatu were strong and held power. There, perhaps the lovers could find peace for a spell, even in the face of the inevitable Brujah hostility. The New Orleans Prince would not be spared the savagery that the Brujah had unleashed in Kindred cities everywhere. They would ravage New Orleans soon enough.
Continuing southward, Cash skirted Memphis, suspecting that its Toreador Prince had fallen victim to the Brujah. The long drive through Mississippi stretched as a timeless tedium accented only by lavishly lit interchanges, long haul trucks, and luminescent dashes dividing the lanes mile upon mile. Smelling daybreak rushing toward him, Cash accepted that he had lost the race with morning. If he and Sasha were to journey in daylight, they must feed, which meant they must locate prey and isolate the unsuspecting human for a few moments, long enough to delicately feast on a small portion of blood. If Cash were alone, he would hunt, but with his responsibility for Sasha, he could not feed them both. It would be safer to shelter until nightfall. For now, he would ride until morning threatened, then he would seek refuge and protect Sasha.
As the wheels hummed in concert with the engine's drone, Cash turned his thoughts to the night's events. He wondered about Buddy and the other Gangrels left behind, especially the ones at the hotel who had helped with the escape. And what about Lillie and the human Frank? Fleeing with Sasha, he had left Lillie and Frank to fight the Brujah alone. For a fleeting moment, guilt touched him, guilt that he had left Julian's woman with the human to battle the Brujah who swarmed from the hotel elevator. But he had done all he could, hadn't he? He had armed Frank and given him a car to escape the city. He had left Lillie with the seasoned police detective, and Cash trusted that Frank would know how to handle himself in a fire fight. So would Lillie.
Once again, Sasha stirred. "Where are we?" she yelled above the engine's roar.
"I don't know. The last sign said Brookhaven is just ahead. We need to stop for gas. Might as well make it Brookhaven."
In reply, Sasha merely tightened her arms around her lover and settled her cheek against his back once again.
With the adoring touch of his woman and the lullaby rumble of his bike to comfort him, Cash continued the journey. Beyond the rim of the highway, the world was a flat expanse disturbed only by the occasional stand of trees cutting out strange shapes in the pre-dawn night. The dark slate sky extended forever to the stars and beyond. Dimension was a plaything along this road. Height stretched from horizon to horizon while depth was smothered completely. Width applied only to the dashes defining the highway. Cash could almost hear them whisk by as the bike raced along.
When the green Interstate sign pointed to an exit for Brookhaven, Cash slowed and departed the highway, pulling onto a four lane blacktop where the lights of a truck stop glowed like an island in the dark. Stopping at one of the pumps, he kicked the stand down, steadied the bike, and freed himself of his helmet, running his fingers along his dark sandy hair. Sasha slid off the back and removed her helmet as well, leaning forward to toss her own hair free. Leaning back, she flung it over her shoulders.
There would always be something lawless about Sasha's rich dark hair. It draped her shoulders in curling cascades. She could have just awakened from sleep. She could have just come off the dance floor. She could have just sat lazily in a swing on a porch. Or she could have just climbed off a bike. The effect was still the same -- wild and untamed. With her pale skin even paler in the lights of the truck stop, she took a deep breath and sighed, passing her eyes over the rows of pumps, the awnings, over the block building with its dirty windows.
Cash opened the tank, prepared the nozzle, and slid one of Sasha's credit cards through the slot to pay for the gas. Lillie had been right. It was convenient having access to Julian's fortune, now Sasha's. It was also much easier than stealing.
After stretching a little in place, Sasha paraded around Cash and the bike, her hands shoved deep into the pockets of her jacket, her boots scraping the grit and gravel on the plaza. "What time is it?" she asked lazily.
"What happened to your watch?" Cash asked in return.
"Traded it for a beer."
"Back in St. Louis, in one of the bars along the river."
"Sasha, why'd you do that?"
"Didn't want it any more."
A curtain dropped between them, with Cash and the slosh of gasoline on one side, and Sasha scuffing across the plaza on the other. He hated it when she drew herself into one of those moods when nothing mattered. It was as if she dared him to care about her. Of course he cared about her. He adored her and he feared her, which amounted to the same thing.
"It's a little after four a.m.," he finally replied.
"Thanks," she said, not really acknowledging his answer, not even acknowledging his presence.
"We need to stop."
"I know" came her vacant response.
"Do you want to shelter together or separate?"
"C-a- a-ash!" she whirled around to him. "Don't be that way." She stepped up to the bike and leaned her forearms across the seat, studying or perhaps chiding him. "You and I aren't doing separate anything." She shook her head slowly and smiled sweetly, her mouth tempting him, her hazel eyes begging forgiveness for anything and everything.
Once again, she had mobilized all her forces, and he willingly confronted the fact that she possessed him. A slight grin made its way across his face, lifting one cheek, twisting his neat goatee. "All right. There's a motel nearby. I saw a sign."
"Yeah, you got a better idea?"
"How about someplace deserted," she replied with a touch of drama, "like an old abandoned house or a barn?"
"We need to recharge the battery on the cell phone."
Sasha then stood away from the bike and snorted. "I should have traded it for a shot of vodka."
"That phone is the only means we have of finding out about Lillie."
She blanched. "Ohmigod!. I haven't thought about her and Frank. Have you tried to reach them?"
"Too busy driving." The gas pump stopped as the tank filled to capacity. Cash replaced the nozzle and locked down the gas cap.
"Call her," she said, her voice clipped and anxious.
"When we reach safety."
"Well, shouldn't we let some prince know that we're entering the city?"
Cash laughed. "There's no prince in Brookhaven. If there are Kindred around here, there's maybe two or three tops. The place is too small. Its human population couldn't support Kindred."
"Oh." Sasha said simply, then she smiled and added, "Perfect."
"This is where we need to be!" She rushed around to face him. "Why don't we find a small place here and settle in for a while? We wouldn't burden anyone. No one would notice us."
Once again, he laughed. "You're noticed anywhere you go."
"And what do you mean by that?" She backed away. Her smooth brow furrowed.
"Don't get mad. I didn't mean no harm. It's just that…well…you attract attention. In a small town, there's gossip, and eventually someone would find out something he shouldn't." Cash then slid his helmet back on. "Come on. The sooner we get to a motel, the sooner we can try to reach Lillie."
The motel room was like many others on all highways everywhere -- beige walls, floral bedspreads, television set secured to the mirrored bureau, and a sterile white bathroom. Sasha tossed the saddle bags onto one bed and flung herself onto the other. Cash closed and locked the door behind them, and withdrew the phone from his jacket. Pressing the button for Lillie's number, he set the phone to his ear and waited. There came no answer, only a recorded instruction to leave a message. When the tone sounded, Cash said, "We're safe. Will check back later."
"It wasn't much of a message," Sasha said. "You didn't tell her anything."
"I told her all she needs to know right now." He set the phone on the bed stand.
"You said we were safe. Are we?"
"For a while," he replied, walking along the front window, peeking through the drapes, pulling down the slats on the blinds to peer between them.
"Aaaah." That was her only response as she pressed back into the pillow. "Come here," she then said, her voice so low it was almost a whisper.
"What for?" he asked distractedly, then let the slats snap shut.
"What do you mean: what for?" There was a wicked glint in her eye. "What's the matter? Don't you like me anymore?"
"Naw." He grinned, turning to her. "That'll never happen."
Sasha pushed up on her elbows. "You're not going shy on me again, are you?"
"I wouldn't call it 'shy'."
She let a hush drop between them. "Then what?" she finally asked, her voice lifting on a tease.
Cash settled onto the bed and pushed one boot off with the other. He smiled and inched closer to her. "You still feel like that forbidden fruit."
Sasha grabbed his shirt and drew his face to hers. "Tangy or sweet?"
"I don't know. I may need a little taste."
"Peeled or unpeeled?" Her breath caressed his cheek.
"Unpeeled." He worked his mouth to hers. "Definitely."
Theirs has been a forbidden love by any measure. He first brought her to bed when she was human, unsuspecting of his nature. Every time he touched her, he felt the rapture of that first moment, the first lingering intimacy, the first rare understanding that threads of desire and devotion bound each to the other. He floated on the drowsy waves of sensuality that rolled between them as they pressed their flesh together, and with the smell of the road still about them, the Gangrel and his Brujah entwined into one another.
Someone was in the room.
In a timeless instant, Cash snapped his handgun from under his pillow and trained it on the shadow in the chair. "One move and your head is pulp," he growled.
"May I turn on the light?" the shadow asked, its voice even, plain, and male.
Sasha rolled awake. "Wha--?"
"Stay down!" Cash ordered.
"The light?" the shadow insisted.
"Go ahead, then put your hands out where I can see them."
He watched the silhouette of one arm reach under the table lamp, and in a click, the shadow was shadow no more. Cash glared at the young man seated in the chair by the table, one ankle propped on an opposite knee, his fine white hands held up for Cash to see. And the face -- so smooth, like marble, so perfectly etched, patrician. Every curve had definition, as though sculpted by some loving hand. His light brown hair hung from a keen part down the center of his scalp to curl against his collar. He wore a white turtleneck under a brown leather jacket. His jeans were tucked into his sleek black boots, and there was a bit of dried blood at the corner of his mouth.
Sloppy eater was Cash's thought. "What the hell are you doing in our room?" he demanded of the stranger, a Ventrue.
"Who are you to make demands of me?" the stranger retorted. "I should be asking you what the hell you're doing in my city."
"It's a mere hamlet, perhaps, but I'm its Prince."
"Prince? Here?" Cash's voice went up an octave "And who made you Prince?"
"You did." Scorn accented his voice. "Right"
The stranger gave an off-hand shrug. "Well, someone had to take the job. I was doing my duty. I've always been civic-minded."
Sasha coiled the sheet around her body and slid from the bed, leaving Cash cold and naked.
"Hey!" he complained, snatching the bottom sheet over his nakedness..
"Oh, deal with it," she retorted, strutting to the intruder, the sheet dragging along behind her. "Well, little Ventrue Prince," she said,. "What's your name?"
"Simon. And you?"
"You don't need to know," Cash barked. "And you still haven't told us why you broke into our room."
"May I lower my hands? It feels somewhat rude to have them up like this."
Nodding, Cash motioned with his gun and fired his question again.
"To see you, of course," Simon replied. "And…well…to scold you for not announcing that you were here."
Cash squinted and rolled his head. "A Prince, here. Like we would have known."
"Well, I also admired your bike. I have seven." Simon smiled proudly. "And I notice that you have helmets. We don't actually have a helmet law in Louisiana, so I invite you to enjoy the sheer thrill of punching your way through the wind -- " His hands went animated. " -- as you soar down our highways to wherever they take you."
A stunned silence took hold of the room.
Finally Sasha broke it. "Seven?" she asked. "You have seven bikes?"
Simon beamed and ticked off on his fingers. "There's one for when I feel like riding red, another for when I feel like riding blue. Then there's the black one for those moods -- you know the kind -- and one is painted nicely with an exquisite Frazetta reproduction -- " In invitation, Simon gestured both hands to the door. "She's right outside if you'd care to see her."
"She?" Cash asked.
"Well, I suppose gender isn't truly appropriate, but it does seem logical to think of the Frazetta bike as a lady. She is quite demanding yet giving at the same time."
Cash grunted. "And did you give her a name?"
"Don't be preposterous. That would be a bit much, wouldn't it?"
Sasha smiled. "Well, Prince Simon, we didn't mean to disturb your realm."
"Oh please, Simon will do just fine. You can leave the Prince bit off in private."
"We'll leave it off in public, too," Cash snarled. "Just how long have you been by yourself?"
Simon's nostrils flared. "How do you know that I'm by myself?"
"It shows. Big time."
With a gentle press of his fingertips against his chest, Simon sighed. "I'm the only one left. For the longest time, it was just me and my sire. Oh, he was the most depressed person I had ever met, but I enjoyed his wit. Then one day, he just sat down in the sun and poof! -- that was the end, and I've been alone ever since. I couldn't deal with the loss very well." The Prince tilted his head in thought. "That was about three hundred years ago, give or take a decade."
Sasha went slack-jawed. "Why have you stayed here all this time?"
"Oh, my arrival here is fairly recent, just before the Civil War, in fact. What a mess that was. Whew!" he snorted and waved one hand about. "I came north from New Orleans when the British were being so rude with that blockade and all."
"That was way before the Civil War," Cash added. "By about 50 years."
"Well, does it matter?" Simon blurted, his voice indignant. "I'm not here for a history lesson from some Gangrel and a -- oh my!" His eyes flew open and locked onto Sasha.
"Oh my what?" she rejoined.
"You -- you're -- you're Brujah!"
"Nothing like noticing the obvious."
The Prince then turned to Cash and cunningly pointed the tip of one finger to Sasha. "You do know that she's Brujah, don't you?"
Cash slumped and sighed, "Every day."
After a prickly scowl to her lover, Sasha said, "You've been alone a long time."
"I suppose, but I make up for it by chatting with friends all the time on the Internet, especially those in Dallas." The Ventrue Prince giggled. "They're so clever and so badly behaved, the way they break into systems and rummage around in places where they shouldn't be rummaging."
Cash had had enough. He rose from the bed trailing a sheet behind him. "Look, we gotta get going. It's been nice."
"But you've only just arrived. I would have put you up in one of my rooms. I have fireplaces in all of them. Big fireplaces. They work, too."
"I could sit by your fire," Sasha teased.
"It's a beautiful house," Simon continued, "large with gardens and a huge porch. Really. I've owned it for over a century and keep passing it on to my nephew -- meaning me, of course. The residents here think I'm some recluse who has too much money left by some wacky uncle."
"Color me surprised," Cash remarked.
"Like I said -- we gotta go."
Sasha then perched on the arm of Simon's chair and toyed with his hair. "I don't know. Maybe we could stay a little while."
"No!" Cash said. "We have to go"
"Oh, don't be that way," Sasha drawled and ran her forefinger along Simon's jacket. "What could it hurt? Besides, I'd like to see his bikes."
"I said no."
Simon suddenly stood. Sasha leaped away. With a click and snap of metal, Cash aimed the gun again.
"The way you two bark at one another," Simon said, his voice strained with indignation. "It's very distressing. I apologize. I never meant to be so disruptive."
"Right," Cash growled. "You break in our room, sit here for who knows how long until we notice you, then you invite us to tea."
"I did not invite you to tea," Simon protested. "I'm leaving!" He then threw open the door and stomped out into the day's end, making it a point to slam the door.
"That better be the last we see of him," Cash remarked as he set his gun on the bedside table.
"You were so rude, Cash."
"Rude? Have you forgotten what's going on? Julian's dead. Sonny's dead. The Brujah are taking out Princes left and right. Lillie and Frank are who knows where."
Her eyes raging, Sasha stormed over to the bed. "Oh, you think I've forgotten all that? Well, Simple Simon gave me a laugh, and I sure could use it."
Like a bubble bursting , his fury left him. "I'm sorry…it's just that -- " Then a little laughed escaped him. "Simple Simon, eh."
Sasha too laughed. "Sorry. It just slipped out."
"I didn't know if I should shoot him to put him out of our misery or out of his."
"Maybe we could stay just one more day." When Cash gave her a wordless no, she shrugged. "All right. Maybe not. By the way, we haven't heard from Lillie. She should've called by now."
Cash retrieved the cell phone from the bed stand. "Damn!"
"We forgot to charge it."
"Cash! How could you do that?"
"Me? How could I? -- never mind -- " He threw his hands into the air. "You're right. You're absolutely right. It's my fault. I'm to blame. It was my responsibility."
"Well, just plug in the charger and check messages." She reached for the phone. "I'll do it."
"I can handle it." He snatched the phone away.
"I said I'll do it."
Battling a roar of frustration, Cash forced himself to calm and said, " Look, it's almost nightfall. You use the shower while I check on Lillie and grab our gear. I'll take a quick one after you're done"
"Come in with me," she cooed.
He didn't want to grin but couldn't help it. "As tempting as it sounds --" He nervously rubbed his hand over his hair. " --I can't."
Sasha then released her sheet letting it collapse onto the floor. Stepping over it, she strolled toward the bathroom, her ivory skin riding her curves and muscles. "Once again, you're right, Cash. Always right."
As the hot spray beat against the tub, Cash beat himself for choosing to be so grim and sober. He toyed with the notion of jumping in. Instead, he plugged the phone into its charger and checked voice messages.
The news from Lillie and Frank was brief. They had arrived in Pittsburgh, and although the mood was explosive there, the Prince retained control. Cash tried to phone her, but when there was no answer, he decided it was indeed a good time to shower.
Two travelers crossed the causeway over Lake Pontchartrain racing toward New Orleans, a jewel floating on the water. A speckled sky hovered over the city, glowing where it touched the skyline. The lake rippled on either side of the road, capturing city lights in delicate flickers.
Having phoned the Gangrels in New Orleans, Cash used Buddy's name as a way of introduction, but they already knew of Cash and his Brujah woman. The pair were expected; they were welcome. In fact, there was concern that they had not yet arrived.
Stopping at a traffic light, Cash called back to Sasha. "Do you have the directions handy?"
There was a rustle of paper then she replied, "We need to head east on Airline Highway. It should be just ahead."
Cash revved the engine then lurched forward as the light turned green.
Down boulevards lined with parked cars, the pair made their way to their destination. They followed the instructions given over the phone, passing through tightly woven neighborhoods sprinkled with small business districts. Masked by the lacey leaves of trees in a breeze, street lamps cast a soft glow over the pavement. One after another, they ticked out time, marked out progress. Cars and other vehicles crisscrossed their path, coming around from behind, moving across at intersections, turning away down the depths of some other avenue. Motion everywhere. Light everywhere. Engines, horns, music, voices everywhere.
Amid it all, Cash caught the sound of a motorcycle advancing from behind. It drew alongside and played tag for a few seconds then fell back. He barely had time to notice the single rider. Kindred. A Gangrel.
Sasha tightened her grip around his waist. Unsure of the stranger, sure only that he must protect Sasha, Cash stepped up speed. The rider roared up to keep pace -- an apparition dressed in black, anonymous behind a black face shield. Cash accelerated. The rider pulled forward and motioned a black gloved hand toward the curb. Cash slipped his own hand into his jacket and curled his fingers around his gun in its holster. His bike shimmied in the second that he removed his hand from the handlebar. He steadied it just as quickly, his weapon poised and ready. The instant the rider caught the glint of the barrel, the bike dropped around behind. Still, Cash could see the black helmet and faceless rider in the rearview mirror, keeping distance, keeping pace.
"I think we turn right on the next street," Sasha yelled above the double-din of the speeding bikes. As the intersection loomed closer, Cash swung left to widen the arc. He dropped gears, braking, counter-steering to hold the bike down through the turn, leaning into it, then he applied power coming out. As if she were part of his body, Sasha leaned with him, breath for breath, muscle for muscle. The rear tire dug into the pavement, and with a screech of rubber, they raced down the street.
The black rider followed. Then came another, a young man with no helmet and stark white hair. Double-headlamps glared in the mirrors, following at a safe distance.
"We gotta take a stand," he called back to Sasha. "When I see some place open, I'm pulling over. You jump off and take cover."
Leaning into the bike, he stepped up speed and plunged down the street until he saw it -- a darkened space devoid of light -- no street lamps, no lit windows, nothing but an empty lot cluttered with undefined debris. Throttling hard, he raised the front wheel and soared over the curb, landing in a scrap of weed and rock. Stalling the engine, he felt Sasha slide off, and diving into the dirt with the bike, he took aim at the approaching lights. They slowed. They pulled aside one another. The rumble of the engines settled to a low growl as the two riders let their machines idle in the dark street.
"You don't know who you're dealing with!" Cash shouted, his eye keen, his aim dead-on. His heart beat wildly, his breaths rushed against the night.
"Neither do you!" The black rider removed his helmet, holding it against his hip with one hand.
"Doesn't matter. I can take both of you out and be down the road before you hit the ground."
"It could be a bit of fun letting you think you can."
"Don’t have to. Don't want to."
Then the sound of two voices in conference came to Cash. In the lull, he glanced around for Sasha and found her behind a broken brick wall jutting out from a nearby building. When her gaze met his, he lifted his hand, halting her where she was. Finally, the two men turned off their engines, drawing Cash's full attention back to them.
"Look," one of the riders called out. "It's Cash. Right?"
Cash didn't reply. He tightened his grip on the gun.
"Cash, look, I didn't mean to spook you when I pulled alongside, but you didn't give me a chance, and you need to trust us. Right now, the Brujah who were following you are somewhere in the vicinity."
"What Brujah?" Cash challenged. "I didn't see anyone following me. Just you."
"There was a black Lincoln and a blue Lexus taking turns tracking you."
Cash flexed his fingers around his gun. "Like I said, I saw only you."
"I can't convince you that they were there, but they were. You just have to trust us. Our Prince sent us. I'm Antonio and this is Froggy."
Cash looked to the youth who scooped one hand over his spiked white hair and croaked a guttural, "Hi, good to meet ya."
Cash fought back a laugh. Froggy. The name fit.
"There's another with us," Antonio continued. "Joe. He finally got the Brujah off you and herded them down Broad Avenue, but they know where you're headed and are trying to cut you off. You overshot your destination by a few miles, though."
"I was kinda preoccupied."
Suddenly, another bike shot out of the night and pulled alongside Antonio. The rider leaned forward, his dark hair hanging loose around his face. There was a buzz of voices then -- "Cash! You gotta go and you gotta go now. We're going to withdraw. You and your lady Sasha can head in whatever direction you have a mind to, but make no mistake: we'll not be far behind. We're the only protection you have right now, and we have our orders to see you to safety."
The three bikes wobbled in a circle then bolted down the street.
With their engines still within earshot, Sasha flew out of the rubble and helped Cash right the bike. Just then a black Lincoln eased down the street, inching its way past the vacant lot. Then it stopped. In the next hurtling second, three motorcycles roared over the curb and into the lot, spraying rooster tails of dust and dirt. "Go!" one of the riders yelled. "Now!"
With no more hesitation, Cash shoved his handgun into its holster and jumped onto the bike. The instant Sasha's arms locked onto him, he thrust the machine forward. In the same heartbeat, a flash of gunfire erupted from the car. Phosphorus. They didn't linger for the second blast. Four bikes shot down the road. They hadn't traveled a block when the black Lincoln screeched in a U-turn and took chase. Cash focused on the strangers who said to trust them. He watched the black rider point to a cross street. The white-haired rider shot down into the darkness of the boulevard. At the next block, a second rider turned away, in the same direction. The leader then motioned Cash down the next street, at which point, the black Lincoln screeched in a turn, trying to take chase at the couple. Seconds later, one of the bikes blasted out of the darkness, cutting across the car's path. In an uncontrolled swerve, the tires of the Lincoln tore into the pavement as the brakes locked, careening the car into the side of a truck parked at the curb, where it stayed for a short pause, then backing away from the crumpled metal, it lurched and continued its chase, but the impact allowed Sasha and Cash time to extend their distance.
The black rider pulled alongside and motioned Cash to turn at the next intersection. As he geared down for the turn, the metallic explosion of another crash came from behind, louder, more intense. Seconds later, the two other riders came up from behind, and Cash heard their howls before he saw them. They roared up ahead, all the while howling and laughing and smacking high-fives as they weaved down the street.
With no more distractions, the four motorcycles entered a residential area where they finally slowed , turned again then stopped before a house much like all the other houses on the street -- large, Victorian, and elegant with age, surrounded by dark soaring trees. Enclosed by a low stone wall decorated with iron scrollwork, the house sat back from the street. A wide set of stairs led up from the lawn to the wrap-around porch where eight Doric columns supported the second floor balcony that also curved around the sides of the house. The same iron scrollwork of the fence served as a balustrade all along the balcony. Two Doric pilasters stretched up the front of the second story to the third where they supported an arch that framed the triple window at the very top of the gable. All along the porch and the balcony, tall double-hung windows stared vacantly onto the street. They were black and barren. The stately house was bereft of light save a dim yellow glow within the foyer behind the oval glazed window of the front door.
With the bikes finally silent, the chirp of life within the bushes filled the air, almost to distraction. A breeze plucked at the trees, stroking them into lazy rustles that caressed the night. One by one, the riders dismounted. The black rider pivoted his visor up then removed his helmet. Cash watched Sasha shake her wind-whipped hair with her fingers, letting it spill unfettered across her shoulders. So did the others. She caught sight of their gazes. They caught sight of her blossoming smile. It erased the tension.
The black rider came forward. His shoulders were wide and filled out his black jacket. His square chin sported a slight dent. Although neatly cut, his black hair stood out in wild disarray. Over his dark rich eyes, high brows gave his face an openness, an appeal, a warmth that attracted others to him. "I'm Antonio," he said, his smile dimpling his cheeks. "This is Froggy," he added, gesturing to the lithe but muscled youth who nodded and nervously dragged one hand over his errant white hair. "You already met, but this time, it's a little closer," he laughed lightly and continued the introductions. "This guy here is Joe." The third rider waved one hand and smiled. His longish hair hung like black silk over his ears with glints of electric blue cast by the city glow. "He's the quiet one." Antonio then lifted his hands in invitation. "And here's home. Your directions were to come here."
"So, where are we?" Cash asked as Sasha pressed against him.
Antonio flicked his head to the great white house. "The Prince of New Orleans lives here. Joe, Froggy, and I live in the carriage house at the rear of the property, above the old livery. We work for the Prince. We were sent to deliver you to his house. Come along." Antonio gestured to the street. "We'll take the bikes around back to the livery. They'll be safe there."
"Cash," Sasha uttered, looking uncertain.
"Please," Antonio said, his voice low and warm. "If you'd feel better about going into the front entrance, then I can take you through there." He paused under her continued stare. "You're safe here. Honest. Most of this street is Kindred. You're safe from the Brujah."
"But I'm Brujah!" she retorted.
"We know. We also know that you have little use for your clan."
Cash pulled her close. "Come on. Let's just go around the back, like he says."
One by one, the riders started their bikes and snaked their way behind Antonio down the street to the service alley entrance. Battered garbage cans, assorted sheds, and twisted wire fences lined the alley, except for a few houses where the entire rear was enclosed by a brick or concrete wall. Antonio led toward a wrought iron gate in one such wall. Pressing some remote control in his outstretched hand, he drove onto the grounds as the gate rolled open, and when the last rider came through, he dismounted and remotely locked the gate, motioning Cash to follow the others to a livery that had been converted into a garage. There, they parked their bikes. Two of the riders waved goodbye, as Antonio requested that Cash and Sasha follow him to the Prince's house.
As they stepped into the narrow shotgun hallway, lights went on everywhere, dispelling the shadowy darkness of the house. Two figures emerged from the shadows under the rear stairs at the end of the hall. They were Nosferatu -- pale, with smooth round scalps and bright eyes peering from deep sockets. Their canines dimpled their lower lips.
"Welcome," the woman said graciously. She wore a simple dove-gray dress with a hemline that dusted the floor and a collar that hugged her throat. She stood tall and lithe, awaiting the guests to come forward. Her sharp narrow nose drew a stately line down the middle of her wraithlike face. A set of keys dangled at her waist. They seemed as much a part of her as she seemed a part of this old house. "My name is Rebecca. Our Prince has asked that I make you comfortable so I've prepared some rooms upstairs for you." Rebecca then smiled sadly and cupped Sasha's face in one hand. "What a terrible ordeal you've undergone. Can I bring you something from the kitchen?"
"No, thank you," Sasha replied, shrinking from the intimacy this Nosferatu took with her.
"Jordan" Rebecca turned to her companion. "Please fetch their bags."
"We can manage," Cash interrupted.
"Please," Rebecca begged, "allow us to do as our Prince has bid."
Antonio then said, "Sorry to interrupt, Becca, but we have things to do. We'll be back in the carriage house if you need us."
"Thank you, Tony."
Antonio winced. The air went still. After a generous pause, he stepped close to Rebecca, moving in front of her, standing there firmly to secure her attention, hovering over her slight frame. He pinched thumb and forefinger on both hands, suspending them in the air, using them as accents. "No, it's Antonio…not Tony. An-to-ni-o. "
"Then please remember that it is Rebecca, not Becca. Re-bec-ca." And she delicately rolled the "R."
Antonio grinned, pecked her cheek with a quick kiss, and rushed out.
Brushing her cheek with embarrassment, Rebecca continued leading the Prince's guests up the rear stairs of the house. "He is a rogue, that one, but also the best that a Prince could ask for. I am relieved that he found you. We were all concerned that you had not arrived."
"Yes," Cash said, "I got that feeling when I phoned. Buddy gave me a number and said to use it."
Rebecca smiled and the light danced on her teeth. "Buddy. Ah, yes, Buddy. I do indeed miss him, but the Gangrel Primogen sent him to St. Louis many years ago to deal with some trivial matter, and he has remained ever since. He has always been so good about keeping in touch. He told us your story. It filled in the details of the hints we had already heard." Rebecca paused at the top of the stairs. "We are greatly troubled that you lost your Prince and had to flee"
"Have you heard anything about Lillie?" Cash asked.
Rebecca shook her head as she led them down the wide upstairs hall toward the front of the house. "Nothing, but then she is Toreador. Her movements would not have been of great interest to us, not like Sasha's."
Cash stopped. "Why? Because Sasha is Brujah?"
Rebecca also stopped. She turned back to face them. "It's not personal. Her clan happens to be destroying the peace of any city it doesn't own."
"But I have nothing to do with that!" Sasha exclaimed. "I don't even know what it's all about."
"Of course you don't. I believe you, dear. I do." Rebecca tilted her head to one side and spoke softly. "Someone we trust sent you to us. You're not a threat to us, but you pose a threat to the Brujah. You're a scandal to them. They fear that other clans laugh at them for the Brujah who loves a Gangrel. I admire you for your courage."
"I don't feel courageous," Sasha said. "I love Cash, and it's as simple as that."
Rebecca smiled at her and led them to a pair of doors at the end of the hall. Opening them, she gestured the Prince's guests to enter. At the front of the house, the room was spacious and well furnished in white French Provincial trimmed in antique green and gold. Heavy gold drapes kept out the night, as well as the day, when those hours arrived. A hunter green rug covered the polished wood floor, setting off the pale green walls. White crown molding trimmed the ceilings, matching the rosette that encircled the painted porcelain light fixture suspended from three chains.
"There is a private bath through there." Rebecca gestured to a door along the back wall of the room. "It's a nursery converted into a rather large bathroom. You'll enjoy it." When Jordan entered and set the saddlebags onto the floor near the bed, Rebecca moved to the hallway. "The Gangrel Primogen will arrive shortly. We were to notify him the minute you arrived."
"And the Prince?" Cash asked.
"He knows you're now safe here. Perhaps he will see you. Perhaps not. He sees so few visitors these days." With one last smile, she closed the door.
"Déjà vu," Sasha remarked. "Guests once again in a Prince's house. Aren't we the special ones."
"We need to find someplace permanent soon."
"How about Rio de Janeiro?"
"I don't know. It just came to mind with Mardi Gras and New Orleans and all."
"It's probably overflowing with Toreador."
"Would that be so bad?"
"You can party only so much, Sasha."
"What's wrong with a little party now and then?"
"Certainly not now."
Sasha belly-flopped onto the bed, sinking into the pleasure of its downy softness. "Mostly 'then'." She mumbled. Rolling away from the depression her body had made, she added. "If there's any way we can just go off and leave everyone behind, let's do it."
"I'm thinking about it, but this is just something we have to do right now. I promise that we'll disappear."
"We could have done that when we fled St. Louis."
"But first we need to lock down Julian's estate for you."
"I don't want it."
"Yes, you do."
"You're right. I do. I've grown attached to it." She stretched out her hand. "Help me up?"
"You pick the strangest times to need my help."
"I always need your help."
"You could fool me."
She tilted her head with a tease. "Help me up?"
Rebecca arrived to escort Cash and Sasha to their meeting with the Gangrel Primogen. Except for the creaking of a riser under the thick beige runner, the walk down the front staircase to the parlor was without word or comment. A tear-drop chandelier lit the entire staircase and the great front hall. With its banister of white spindles capped by a polished cherry rail, the staircase curved down to the marble floor near the foyer entrance. When they reached the first floor, Jordan slid open the pocket doors to the parlor and bid them to enter.
Elegant in its simplicity, the room was sparsely furnished with an occasional table, three chairs, and a sofa. Two matching cabinets filled with vases, figurines, and other delicate curios flanked a large portrait of an aristocratic young woman dressed in a flowing gown of red and dark blue, framed by two great trees and standing on a lawn with the ruins of a castle and a setting sun in the background. She wore a powdered white wig that set off her noble features, especially the sharp narrow nose that drew a stately line down the middle of her finely sculpted face.
Rising from one of the chairs, the Gangrel Primogen turned and approached them eagerly. "Welcome to New Orleans," he said, pumping Cash's hand. "Welcome." He kissed the curve of Sasha's fingers as they draped over his. "I am Henri Labatt."
So this is Henri Labatt, Cash thought, and now he is the primogen. Henri Labatt, the great Gangrel who had sired Stevie Ray. Cash had heard stories of Labatt, how he had civilized the Gangrels in the south, giving them focus and purpose, how he had burned out the Assamite assassins who traveled the rivers.
Labatt was a tall slender Gangrel with a silver mane swept back from his face and a full silver moustache above a smile that accented hair-thin wrinkles around his eyes. His shoulders were narrow and straight, lending a well defined form to his gray suit with its neatly buttoned vest. The light maroon tie added color. His cheeks were shadowed where his flesh lay against his skull, but his brown eyes were clear with a warm glitter. Even when his lips held no smile, those eyes certainly did.
"I'm sure that I speak for the Prince when I say that I'm so glad you arrived safely. Please." He gestured to a floral sofa at the front of the room. Ivory drapes cascaded behind it, framing it with the luxury of damask. "Make yourselves comfortable." He then turned to Jordan. "Thank you, Jordan."
Jordan nodded and closed the doors behind him.
Cash remained standing while Sasha sat on the sofa and Labatt seated himself opposite her, in a wing-backed chair next to another just like it. "Stevie Ray was my sire," Cash said without ceremony, not without some pride.
Labatt smiled. "I hoped he might be. I was distressed to hear that one of my own had been murdered so brutally."
"A Brujah was responsible."
"Has he paid?"
"At whose hand?"
"The Toreador Primogen."
Labatt's eyebrows shot up. "Indeed."
"Prince Julian asked me to take Stevie Ray's place as his personal bodyguard." Cash paused then muttered, "But I failed him."
"Prince Julian put himself in harm's way. In one instant, his recklessness cost him his life. That was all it took The Brujah have grown far too troublesome." Labatt paused and gazed on Sasha. "We know that they Embraced you against your wishes and without the consent of the Prince." He turned back to Cash. "They are multiplying in New Orleans without any regard for the dictates of our Prince. The Prince's Enforcers have been destroying the new ones as they find them. They've been busy. You met the Enforcers tonight -- Antonio and the others. We could use you, Cash. We Gangrels excel at finding these new Brujah."
"I can find them, too," Sasha asserted.
"They would destroy you," Labatt admonished.
"Do they know who I am?" she challenged.
"I'm not sure they would recognize you without Cash by your side, unless they caught sight of your abundant hair, unless they saw you riding a bike, unless they heard your name. Of course, they'd know you. There have been stories that come to us of you and your tragedy. The same stories reach the Brujah, old and new."
"Then I will help hunt them."
"No, you won't!" Cash said. "You don't know what you're getting into."
"I most certainly do!" She fired back. "I've been chased by Brujah thugs, fired at, run down. I deserve the right to retaliate."
Labatt raised his hand. "You are indeed Brujah, Sasha. You have the taste for vengeance, but sending you to hunt your own clan is something I'm not sure the Prince is willing to permit within his own city."
"I could do it on my own," she argued.
"Rogue Enforcers are not tolerated." The warmth left Labatt's eyes.
The silence that descended pressed Sasha back into the sofa. It hung over the room with only the wail of a distant police siren intruding upon the pause.
"A war has started," Labatt spoke once again, tugging one corner of his moustache. "The sirens you hear play out more and more. The war has strained the resources of the city's police force. It has strained fire and other emergency services. The humans of New Orleans have become collateral victims of this war, and the more the Brujah multiply, the more our own resources are strained. We need you, Cash."
The sound of doors sliding open drew everyone's attention to Jordan. "Excuse me, Monsieur Labatt. The Prince would like a word."
"What a singular honor," Labatt beamed, placing his hands on the arms of the chair, as if he would rise any at second. "Are we to go down now?"
"No. The Prince will come up from his chambers."
Like the Nosferatu Primogen in San Francisco, this Nosferatu Prince lived under the house. Cash remembered the rooms Daedalus took for his own under Julian's mansion. How dark they were, how so very old, yet timeless. How full of treasures that spoke of some other life, some other when, some other hope.
Jordan dimmed the overhead lights, then set about turning off the table lamps and ensuring that the drapes were fully drawn. Moment by moment, the room darkened to a low twilight. When he had completed these tasks, he paused and looked to the three guests as if announcing the Prince. Labatt rose from his chair. Sasha rose from the sofa. Cash stepped to her side. The three of them stood awaiting the Prince of New Orleans.
Cash felt a tremor rush through him the instant the ancient wraith walked through the doorway. Ancient didn't describe what he saw. The Prince was as old as time itself. His skin was yellowed parchment stretched over a delicate framework of bone. The veins in his hairless scalp were wandering tracks spanning his crown. His fingers hung like tendrils from his long hands, the forefinger of each tipped with a fine and prominent nail. The Prince was antediluvian, from an age beyond age, yet his gait was steady and solid. Time had touched his eyes with grace. Their blue luster sharpened, setting off the deep burgundy of his jacket with its black velvet lapels and black buttons. His pale lips parted with a smile that revealed his sharp canines.
The Prince seemed to fill the room.
"I know that Labatt has welcomed you to my city," he said. His voice was deep and rich, like a cello, and just as smooth. "I am Geoffrey St. Cloud. Welcome to my home." He presented his hand in turn to each of his guests, allowing them to kiss it "Please sit." Motioning to the chairs and the sofa, he took his own seat next to Labatt, patting the Primogen's hand in an affectionate greeting..
As everyone settled, he continued, "I am most distressed over the circumstances that have brought you here. It is a terrible matter, this strife that the Brujah have started. I have oak trees older than most of the Brujah who have triggered this conflict. My old eyes have seen centuries of aftermaths, and I have tried to counsel the Brujah Primogen. He listens to none of it. It has come down to this war. Inevitable." The Prince then sighed, "Like my trees, our strength to withstand the Brujah onslaught will be solid, but will also take time."
"I've asked Cash to assist us here in New Orleans," Labatt spoke up.
Geoffrey nodded. "Antonio tells me he is capable enough." Then to Cash, he said: "It is my wish that you add your strengths to ours. Have you any plans that would prevent you from joining with us to take a stand against the Brujah in New Orleans?"
"Not exactly, sir, but lately, Sasha and I have discussed going off someplace where we can live free from all the clans."
"Are you sure you wish to live clanless?"
"I know I do," Sasha said. "I want nothing to do with the Brujah. Besides, we met a Kindred living alone and clanless back in some little town just north of here."
Geoffrey nodded. "You refer to Simon."
"You know him?"
"He is known to a few of us."
"He's lived on his own too long," Cash added. "He's a fruitcake."
"A fruitcake?" The Prince smiled. "Kindred who live in isolation can indeed go mad." His words picked up mirth. "Simon, however, is not one of them."
"He seems insane," Sasha remarked. "He claims he's the prince out there."
Geoffrey reared back in a laugh and clapped his hands with delight. "A prince, you say. How like him! Perhaps I shall ask his advice on maintaining the peace." The Prince then let his amusement ebb away. "Simon is my eyes and ears in that lonely stretch of the river valley. If he wants to play Prince, he may. There is no one to challenge him. I certainly would not. Through him, I knew your progress."
"Buddy never mentioned anything about him," Cash said.
"Buddy does not know."
Distant gun fire spattered the night. Geoffrey lifted his head high and listened. "Within a mile, I would say."
"Do you know what it is?" Cash asked.
"There is a hotel in that direction. One of its clubs is popular with Gangrels. I suspect a Brujah ambush."
The doors slid open. Antonio stepped through. "Geoffrey," he interrupted. "I've sent Joe and Froggy to set up a perimeter around the block, but I could use Cash. I got a call from the bartender. Brujah shot up the street, and they're heading in this direction."
"Was anyone killed?"
"No, they were just noisy."
Geoffrey nodded with some new understanding. "Fledglings. They are flexing their muscles. It means so much to them to challenge the Prince. If Cash would add his presence to the perimeter, these new Brujah might believe we are stronger than we are."
"Tell me what you want me to do," Cash said rising from the sofa.
Antonio beckoned him to follow.
Sasha jumped up. "I can do something. Eddie Fiori had me holding up convenience stores and gambling houses. I can handle myself."
"He what?" Geoffrey asked with disgust.
"I was his sweet little armed robber," she replied with sarcasm. "I can handle a weapon."
"No, Sasha!" Cash ordered. "You stay here. It's not safe on the street."
Sasha turned on her lover. "I can do this!"
Geoffrey stood and settled the debate. "Sasha may do as she claims she can."
"What?!" Cash argued.
The Prince raised his hand and Labatt stepped forward, ready to intervene.
After a hot pause, Cash stood down, and the Prince said, "These new Brujah grow more impetuous with each inch they believe that we retreat. She can add her presence to my forces in the shadows. Antonio, take her downstairs to the armory. Arm her suitably. She and Jordan can make their presence felt out in front with you. A show of force is often more productive than a use of force." He then turned to Cash. "Are you prepared?"
"I left my gun upstairs."
"Take mine." Labatt reached under his own jacket and withdrew his handgun from its holster. "It is fully loaded with a fresh clip."
While Sasha made haste to join Antonio and Labatt pressed the weapon into his hand, Cash froze in disbelief. It took a solid nudge from Labatt to stir him from the room and out the back into the night. "This is a mistake," he said as the Prince disappeared to his subterranean chambers and Labatt walked him out to the old livery for his bike.
"You underestimate Sasha's ability to handle herself in conflict," Labatt remarked, his hair and moustache glowing with moonlight. "The Prince certainly doesn't. He's been Prince of New Orleans for nearly 300 hundred years. Long enough for him to recognize character and strengths and weaknesses. Power and force alone didn't secure him his place as Prince and keep him there. Geoffrey St. Cloud is clever and knows how to leverage his resources. He also knows his enemy. No clan but the Brujah has ever challenged him. No other clan has cared to. He's just and perceptive. No Brujah has ever caught him unawares. They won't tonight either. If he says Sasha can manage, she can manage."
"Are you sure she'll be safe?"
"I can't promise such a thing, and you shouldn't expect one."
When they reached the old livery, Labatt pressed a control on the wall. The sound of a gate opening whirred on the night. After securing the handgun, Cash kicked his bike to a roaring start and threw up a spray of dirt, heading toward the newest danger in this unknown city.
Dropping the bike to an idle at the end of the service alley, Cash cocked his head to the rumble of engines approaching in the distance. Throttling up, he headed out to join them. Within a few blocks, the zigzagging headlamps of two motorcycles came toward him. He then spied two black sedans coming out of a cross-street, screaming around the corner to give chase. Another car followed. Pressing himself low against the handlebars, he opened the bike wide and jumped the curb, bracing himself with his boot on the pavement as he steadied his bike and pushed onward. Hurtling down the sidewalk at maniac speeds, he passed the approaching vehicles, then screeching through a 180, he moved up behind, overtaking the rear car. A rear window in the sedan slid down. Cash caught a glint of emerging metal -- a phosphorus gun. Bearing down on the car, he roared closer, bracing for his strafing run. The gun steadied. He leaned farther into his bike. Pushing harder. He came at the window, at the barrel of the gun. Closer. Faster. Louder. He spied the shadow within the car. It spied him. Too late. In a timed reflex, Cash thrust out his hand. He thrust up his forearm. Bone and muscle connected with the barrel, slamming it to the top of the window, dashing it to the street. The car swerved against him, grazing his leg, banging to a halt against a car parked on the street, stalling out with a cough. Cash had already snapped his bike away from the car, pulling to the side of the avenue, where he whipped his rear tire around and slammed to a stop. His hand found the gun. He took aim at the stalled car.
The instant he would have pulled the trigger, two other bikes slowly swarmed around the car. Froggy and Joe. The other sedans held back at the intersection, farther down the street, hovering there in the eerie street light, too distant to help, close enough to witness what would happen. The moment hung there, waiting. In lazy circles, Froggy and Joe rumbled around the lone sedan with the open window, around Cash who stood hovering at the edge of violence, his boots planted firmly on either side of his bike, his hand within inches of the dark glass of the driver window, his finger within a flinch of firing. Everything hinged on him. He had the power to make it all explode. His chest heaved. His breathing was a parade of gasps racing through his tightened nostrils. All he sensed was a fiercely delicious inner trembling and the slippery slope of the trigger.
It was Froggy who finally rolled up beside him. There fell another pause when the night could go either way. Then, the rear window on the sedan whirred shut. The driver started the engine and made the first move to back away, inching backward farther and farther, all the while with Cash's aim tracking the driver. As the car crawled back to the other sedans, Joe joined Froggy beside Cash. The three of them lined up as the cars merged at the intersection, turned and sped off. Then there was nothing. No sirens. No speeding cars. Nothing but the low idle of three motorcycles.
The night stayed that way for one moment more, until Joe let go his bottled breath. "Whew! What a rush!"
"I hear ya," Froggy added then after a pause asked, "What about the club?"
"They shot up the front. It was new Brujah all right."
"Soon to be dead Brujah," Froggy added.
"Who gave them the big toys and the big cars?" Cash asked.
"The soon to be dead Brujah Primogen. Come on. Let's get back to the house."
With that, the three riders wheeled around and plunged down the street.
Laughing and mounting the steps to the carriage house over the livery, Froggy leaned back and howled a triumph to the moon, drunk on the ecstasy of the night's skirmish. Joe patted him on the back as they entered their home while still at the bottom of the steps, Cash released his own victory howl. He turned as Antonio arrived with Sasha. How exhilarated she looked. How rapt. Her eyes blazed with excitement. They gazed upon him with the heat of the thrill still raging through her blood.
"They came right by the house!" she said, rushing up the stairs into his arms, knocking him off balance. "Jordan and I were on the porch. Antonio was at the front gate, and they drove right by, slow, like they were checking us out."
Antonio came up behind them. His smile dimpled his cheeks. "They didn't know what kind of power we had, or didn't. All they knew was that we were waiting for them, and that was enough to give them something to think about." He then gestured up the stairs. "Come on up."
Cash and Sasha followed Antonio through the door at the top of the stairs, into the dwelling where the Prince's Enforcers lived. The front room was a masculine room with black leather chairs, stereo and audio equipment packed to the ceiling, and general clutter, such as discarded clothing, empty snack bags, and crushed beer cans. Froggy dropped to the floor in front of the DVD player and started rummaging through a disk collection. Joe disappeared into the back.
"Make yourselves at home," Antonio invited. "We got cold beer. Not much else, though."
Sitting on the corner of the sectional couch, Cash threw a mute glance to the wadded Taco Bell wrappers and Chicken McNugget boxes scattered on and under the end tables. Sasha shoved something plastic off a chair and lowered herself slowly, as if suspecting some kind of surprise.
Antonio smiled a crooked smile. "Becca hates to come over here. She says we wreck her sensibilities." He then panned the room proudly. "I look upon the ambience as an experiment in ways to push the environment to the limits of safety."
Her tone somewhat reluctant, Sasha said, "A beer would be fine."
"You want a glass?" Antonio asked, stripping away his shirt. He idly scratched the solid smoothness of his tummy and the silky down on his chest.
She quickly replied, "No thanks," smiling as best she could.
"Wise decision!" Their host then disappeared into the kitchen, returning moments later with three cans. As Cash popped the tab off his and Sasha carefully wiped hers with her shirt, Antonio flopped into a mounded black chair and wiggled his rear down into the leather to seat himself. He smiled at both of them, raised his can, and toasted. "It's just great to meet you two. We're brothers in a way, Cash -- you and I." He tilted his head in thought. "Or maybe we're cousins. Never mind! Labatt is my sire, and Labatt sired your sire so that makes us blood relatives." His smile deepened. "Cool, eh?"
Lowering his gaze to the can in his hands, Cash said, "Stevie Ray sired nearly all the San Francisco Gangrels. He was a good man."
"Labatt certainly thought so." Antonio then enjoined Sasha. "What about you?" The instant he asked, his big smile fell off his face. "Oh." He jammed his hand to his head. "I just did one of my patently stupid things."
"It's OK," Sasha replied. "Everyone knows I was Embraced against my will. I deal with it. If it weren't for Cash, I don't know what I'd do."
Antonio lifted his can to Cash. "Another good man."
"Hey!" Froggy yelled. "Where's my DVD of The Matrix? I had it right here last night." From his seat on the floor, he whirled around to Antonio, his eyes just as sharp as the white of his hair. "You were watching that Buffy movie. What'd you do with it?"
Antonio shrugged. "Nothing. It's over there somewhere."
Froggy turned to Sasha and threw his hand to Antonio. "See what I got to live with? Is Cash like that?"
She gave one of those blank looks that announced she was staying out of this conversation.
"By the way," Antonio quickly changed the subject, "she did great out there. She stood there and let those Brujah know that we were ready for them." He then turned to her. "No offense."
She merely smiled and took a sip from her beer.
"Speaking of tonight," Cash said. "How long has this been going on?"
"Almost a week," Froggy replied. "They usually drive by a couple of times some place, fire off a few rounds then bug out."
"A week," Sasha said in an expressionless mumble. "That's about the time they hit The Haven."
"Yeah," Antonio joined in. "And we hear that what happened back in San Francisco didn’t go down the way it was supposed to."
"What do you mean?" Cash asked, his stomach suddenly going cold and solid.
Antonio shrugged. "Not sure. We know a Toreador who runs a biker bar across the river. She says that more than just a few Brujah are seething about San Francisco. Something happened that wasn't supposed to."
"What?" Sasha asked, sliding to the edge of her chair. "What happened?"
"Don't know exactly. There was something about San Francisco that didn't go right."
"Didn't go right?!" Cash stood and lashed his hands at the air. "Maybe I'm just over-reacting, but what's not to go right? They wanted Julian dead. He's dead. They did it. End of story."
Antonio shook his head. "There was more to it."
"Where is this biker bar?"
"You don't want to go there, Cash."
"Hey! I know the places where I want to go, and that bar is one of them."
"The place turns into a Brujah bash on occasion, and it's obvious that a lot of the unsanctioned embracing comes out of that place. We Gangrels don't hang around there anymore so the new Brujah won't recognize us out on the street. They haven't learned to detect us yet."
"Why don’t you just go in and clean the Brujah out?" Cash asked.
"It's better to know where they congregate," Froggy replied. "We can pick them off later. The Toreador who runs the place stays out of everyone's business, and I feel bad that her place is being taken over. I don't think it will be much longer before they push her out."
Cash snorted. "The Brujah in San Francisco tried to push a friend out of her clubs, but the Prince kept it from happening."
"Does she still have her clubs?" Joe suddenly appeared at the hall doorway.
"No, " Cash answered.
Joe sighed. "Well, like your friend who lost her clubs, DiDi is about to lose, too."
"Joe's close to DiDi," Froggy explained. "They've had this thing for years."
A shrug lifted Joe's shoulders. "She's Toreador. What can I say? If I could get her out of my mind, I would."
Froggy then stood up. "But you can't so you won't."
"I'll go," Sasha blurted.
Everyone turned to her.
"Go where?" Cash asked.
"To this bar."
"Whoa!" Antonio held up his hands. "This is not leading to anything sane."
Sasha launched herself out of the chair. "Where's the damn bar! I said I'll go. I'm Brujah. I can go in there. If they know something about how Julian was killed, I want to be the one to find out."
"I'll go to watch your back," Cash said.
Sasha then smiled with sweet disbelief. "You're going to let me go?"
"It's a damn sight easier than trying to stop you. Besides, I'm curious."
Antonio looked back and forth as if the two had lost their minds. "Is there any chance of reasoning with either of you?"
"No!" came a chorused reply.
"We can find out by other means." Labatt appeared from nowhere. "There are ways."
"Maybe," Cash retorted, turning to the Gangrel Primogen standing at the door. "But this is personal."
"All the more reason to pause on your action." Labatt's voice rang heavy with admonishment. "Time plays no factor in finding out what the Brujah know about San Francisco. Whether we find out today or tomorrow makes no difference to the fact that it happened. Knowing the subtle questions to ask will take you further. Also, knowing how to pry is vital to turning over the rock that hides what you seek. However," he paused, lightening his tone, "I'm most curious about what has angered the elder Brujah about the death of the San Francisco Prince. Was it just another event in the current Brujah offenses? Or did it set off something that has gone out of control?"
Cash and Sasha looked at one another. An unspoken agreement passed between them. "We'll do it," he stated for the both of them. "We can find out what they know. Sasha can go in ahead of me. I'll slip in behind her. We're done talking about this. Whether you support us or not, we're going in there. Tonight."
With a sigh, Antonio slumped. "The name of the bar is the River Stone. It's just across the river, off the expressway at the edge of the bayou."
Cash dug the bike keys out of his pocket. "We'll need another bike if Sasha is to go in separately."
"Take mine." Antonio tossed Sasha his keys.
Labatt turned to Joe. "See that they are sufficiently armed."
The River Stone was right where Antonio said it was, standing alone amid a cluster of trees at the edge of the bayou. It was also as he described it -- a mint-green clapboard with a sagging awning of gray and green stripes, no windows and lots of noise. Sasha pulled into the lot and secured Antonio's bike alongside a neat row of motorcycles parked just to the left of the front entrance. Following not far behind her on the highway, Cash continued down the road long enough for her to enter the bar. After going on a pace, he turned around, parked his bike, and stepped into the din.
Cigarette smoke rolled throughout the room, leaving a stale stench that soaked into the walls, the chairs, even the clothing of the people milling about the bar on the right and the tight cluster of tables on the left. In the center, the dance floor stood empty while country music blared from the juke box glowing in a corner. Along the low raftered ceiling, pulsing lights splashed the atmosphere orange, blue, yellow, and green.
A few eyes moved Cash's way as he entered. The attention paid him was fleeting, and he moved on without attracting notice. His first task was to locate Sasha within the rolling colors of the atmosphere. She stood by herself at the corner of the bar where it wrapped into an "L." The instant their eyes connected, she gave him a slight smile and leaned her back against the bar, propping her elbows behind her. Draped there, she watched Cash as he slipped around the room to a table in a corner. He dropped into the wooden chair and leaned back on two legs, pressing against the wall.
Out of the haze, a figure approached the table, a young woman, willowy with pale olive skin that glowed in the murky light. Her auburn hair flowed in thick waves to her waist, bouncing with each step that brought her closer. Her eyes -- dark like chocolate -- captured him. "Can I get you something?" she asked, her long delicate hands grasping her tray, poised to take his order.
"Yeah," Cash replied, trying not to notice her white t-shirt, how it molded her young breasts -- her worn jeans, how they looked so old yet so fresh as they shaped her slim hips. Even in the smoky haze, he smelled her appeal. Even within the riot of music and laughter, he heard the pulsing of her heart, her blood, her life. She was human. "Beer," he quickly added.
"Draft, can, or bottle? I'd take a draft if I were you. The cans are warm, and someone smashed a bottle in the bin where we keep bottled beer."
"Draft is fine."
"Bud or Lite?"
Cash grinned. "When did ordering a beer get so complicated?"
"I'd say you were a Lite person. You're so lithe and looking so fine." She smiled. It was a tease. "Mug or pitcher?"
"Mug is fine," he replied with a laugh.
"Ah. A mug. That means you're not expecting company." She rolled her head to one side, letting her hair drape against her cheek. It turned ginger in the dance floor lights. She smiled. "You're new here. My name is Anna. It's always good to meet someone new. I'll be right back with that beer. Don't go away, now."
While Anna faded into the bar haze, Cash caught sight of Sasha, now flanked by two young men, both dressed in jeans with denim jackets, both paying her great attention, both Brujah. They found her quickly, Cash thought, as he watched her, appreciating how she handled the two. At the same time, he detested it. One of them nuzzled her neck. Cash stiffened in his chair, rising off the seat. Sasha's laugh lit her face, but her eyes swooped in his direction as she turned her head coyly away from the friendly Brujah. They told Cash that she had the situation under control. Forcing himself to drop back into his chair, he assessed the bar, its patrons, the activity. There were only three Brujah in the River Stone, including Sasha. The bartender, the staff, all the other patrons were human. Where was the Brujah rabble he had expected? Perhaps it was early yet.
Anna finally returned with her tray and a frothy mug. "That'll be a buck."
Cash dug two dollars out of his pocket. "Keep the change." He smiled and dropped the crumpled bills onto her tray.
She stared at them.
"Did I do something wrong?" he asked.
"No. Not at all. It's just that no one tips much around here. You tipped me the price of another beer."
"Please. It's OK. Think nothing of it."
Anna then slipped into the chair beside him. "Are you going to stick around? This place isn't so bad…once you get used to it."
"What? This bar or the city?"
"The city of course," she laughed. "The bar's a toilet."
"Why do you work here?"
"The owner's a friend of mine. I'm helping her out." She scooted her chair closer. "What about you?"
Cash sensed the life pulsing through her veins. He sensed her heat. He smelled her skin, her hair, her blood. He had not been this close to a human for a long time. He wanted to bask in the temptation, to thrill with the hot taste of something that nothing on this planet could match. The rhythm of her heart drew him into her.
Anna shattered the spell. "Hello?" she asked, waving fingers in front of his eyes.
Cash caught himself staring at her without seeing her. "Sorry. I -- I got lost there for a minute."
"Uh, do you have any pretzels or something?"
"Sure." Anna then slid out of the chair and strolled across the dance floor, looking back once then twice, smiling, until she reached the service end of the bar.
A long sigh escaped him. He glanced to her empty chair, to where a trace of her lingered. He glanced to the mug. Perhaps the beer would deaden him a little. In one gulp, he downed the cold beer and set the glass back onto the table, smacking his lips in at least that little satisfaction. Then he noticed something at the bottom of the mug, a piece of paper carefully taped to it. He peeled it away to find an address scribbled on the paper. Somewhat bemused, he stole a glance to the bar to catch Anna watching him, taking stock of his reaction. He let her see him put the paper in his pocket. He also glanced to Sasha, still holding court at the bar.
A shadow materialized out of the smoke and haze. A woman. A dark-haired woman. A Toreador. Sitting at his table, she set down a bowl of pretzels and pushed another frothy mug to him. "It's on the house," she said, her voice deep and even. Cash looked from her to the beer then back to her. The woman's face spoke maturity, but her age was anywhere on the scale. Black hair framed her pale face with its high cheeks, deep black eyes, and lips redder than blood. A single dark mole interrupted the smooth plane of her face near her mouth But it belonged there. It had purpose. In a way, it defined her. "A Gangrel," she murmured, almost purring. "Gangrels don't visit me anymore. I miss them. I like Gangrels." Her mouth spread with a smile, and she stroked a red-tipped forefinger along the fullness of her lower lip. "My name is DiDi," the woman added. "DiDi Diboccio. I own the River Stone. Anna is off limits."
Cash admired her bluntness. "Thanks for the warning, but Embrace hadn't crossed my mind."
"I would disagree. You devoured her with those pretty eyes of yours. And she is so taken with you that her little panties might fall right off, but no matter what -- she is off limits. You understand me, don't you?"
"Clear as a bell."
"Good. She works here to help out and uses the extra money for college. I would like to see her graduate. " DiDi then tilted her head. "Sometimes I feel like her mother."
"You have humans working here."
"And why shouldn't I?"
Drawn into this unwanted conversation, Cash felt separated from Sasha, as though his thoughts were being herded elsewhere. Forcing himself to focus, he stole a glance to the bar. Sasha and her admirers were still there.
"Those Brujah won't bother you," DiDi said, also looking toward the three at the bar. "They are far too absorbed in one another. I know one of them. The other two, I've never seen." She then swiveled her shadowed eyes back to Cash and motioned to the mug. "Drink up. I don't often buy."
Cash sipped a little off the top, breaking up the foam.
DiDi then sighed. "Business has been bad lately. Been losing too many patrons."
"To some other bar?"
"No, dear. They disappear, and they are those who would like to take over."
Cash glanced to Sasha quickly. She had moved around so that she could watch him at his table. Was that flash in her eyes one of jealousy? A jealous Sasha was often an irrational Sasha. He leaned back against the wall, putting distance between himself and DiDi, who smiled without humor.
"Those Brujah bother you more than most," she said.
"Brujah bother everybody, even other Brujah."
"I detest them." Yet, still she smiled. "They want my place."
"Then why do you keep it open for them?"
"Business, strictly business, and I'm telling you for your own good to just get on the horse that brought you here and ride on out. I've got a bar to run. I miss my Gangrels, but I'll miss them more if they're dead, which is how you could end up if those two peel themselves away from that sweet young thing long enough to sense your Gangrel ass."
Cash looked back to Sasha. She grabbed the collar of one Brujah who was about to glance to the table where he and DiDi sat. Cash smiled. Sasha had siphoned the Brujah's attention back to herself. He doubted that she was learning anything other than more Brujah bravado, but she was keeping their attention away from him.
DiDi leaned back in her chair. "So…she's with you?"
"What are you two doing?"
Cash dropped his chair on all fours and leaned forward, pressing his arms on the table.
"What are you two up to?" she repeated her question.
Without answering, he looked back to the bar. The three Brujah were gone. Panic-struck, he stiffened, then DiDi quickly tapped his hand and pointed to the dance floor where three bodies heaved and surged in tempo with music from the juke box. Sasha danced sandwiched between her two admirers, one of them behind her, with his arms around her waist, pressing himself into her back, with the other moving in rhythm facing her, his mouth a breath away from hers, his hands on her hips, taking great liberties with her body. Her arms writhed in the air above their heads. Her thick dark curls rolled on her shoulders. Her half-open eyes moved to Cash's direction, and in a flicker of uncertainty, he wondered if she were taunting him. An angry chill darted down his spine.
"She's very daring, isn't she?" DiDi remarked. "Must be that Brujah blood."
"Naw, she was like that when she was human."
"As a human. Indeed. So you knew her before her Embrace."
Cash sighed. "The Prince gave me permission to Embrace her, but the Brujah took her by force."
DiDi stirred uncomfortably. "I don't like the sounds of this. I suggest that you get her out of here."
"Right, like I go up to her and ask her to leave."
A shadow eclipsed the bar lights. Cash looked up, directly into a Brujah scowl.
"He's just leaving, Eddie," DiDi said to the newcomer.
The scowl nodded. "What is this? I walk in to see you sitting with a Gangrel."
Cash rose slowly. "Fine. I'm on my way out."
"I'll see to it."
"Excuse me," DiDi said. "You two need to take this outside."
Cash sauntered away from the table, his hands clearly visible, his smile lifting one side of his face. His eyes flashed to Sasha. Catching sight of him, she stumbled on the dance floor, colliding into her partners. Recovering from her clumsiness, she dragged the back of her hand over the cheek of the Brujah before her. She clutched his shirt, then drew him close, whispering something into his ear. The dancing ménage a troi broke apart with the men returning to the bar, and Sasha winding her way through the tables to the rear of the building. Cash suspected her excuse was the restroom. He continued his stroll toward the door.
Looking back to DiDi, he nodded and waved. "Thanks for the beer. You might want to check the ladies room" And the Brujah shoved him onward.
Back out in the night, Cash whirled around. "You Brujah are mindless goons!"
"Gangrels are rabid dogs -- and stupid." Eddie's lip twitched in a loathing that darkened his face.
"And how do you measure stupid?"
"Like this!" And the Brujah swung a fist at Cash's head.
Cash ducked and laughed and wiggled his fingers to draw him in. "Come on, Brujah. I know how to measure stupid."
"And how's that?"
"Like this!" a voice came out of the dark, and Sasha clubbed Eddie with a plank of wood, sending him to the ground with one blow.
"Good timing!" Cash remarked.
"A lady in the restroom showed me the way out through the kitchen."
Latching onto the Brujah's collar, Cash dragged him around the side of the building and snapped a gun to his head. "Tell me what you know about what went down in San Francisco."
"I left my heart there."
There was the thump of a fist striking bone. "Funny guy, but you're not as funny as you look. The murder of the San Francisco Prince -- tell me what you know about it."
"The Prince was slain."
" I heard it wasn't supposed to go down that way."
"What do the old ones know?" Eddie snarled. "The Brujah Primogen in San Francisco was right to have killed him. It set us free to do the right thing everywhere."
"And what was that?"
"Don't have a clue."
Cash dug the gun deeper into flesh. His nostrils flared. The temptation to pull the trigger was as great as his need to know.
"All right, all right," the Brujah said. "All the princes. Kill all the princes."
"Wasn't that the plan?"
"No. It was about humiliation." The word rode out on a sneer. "Humiliate the princes. Make them endorse the new Brujah prince. Negotiate. Screw negotiation!" He spat. "The plan was lame. Those who thought it up are chicken shit. Just kill the princes and take over."
"The Brujah have lost control," Cash said.
"No, Gangrel. You don't get it. We have control. We take control!"
"You don't even respect your own clan elders."
"Why should we?"
"You've gone over the edge."
"Are you delusional enough to think that we haven't won?" When Cash gave no reply, Eddie taunted again, "Are you?!"
"Is that all you have to say?"
"Thank you for playing!" With one blow, Cash knocked the Brujah unconscious, savoring the sudden quiet.
"It was Cameron who started all this," Sasha said, her voice almost a sob.
"The spark was there; he fueled it into an explosion. Did you find out anything?"
"No, they just wanted to talk about themselves."
"Am I that way?"
"We'll talk later. Let's get going."
Side by side, two motorcycles plunged down the roadway, one ridden by a slender man with a driving need to fix all that was broken; the other by a spirited woman with wild flying hair. The Mississippi River sprawled underneath them as they rumbled over the bridge. The instant they touched the other side, the city thickened around them, with neighborhoods lit against the night. The pair slowed and continued their way back to the Prince's mansion. When Sasha turned left at the next intersection, Cash followed, and down the street they drove, but something didn't feel right. She had taken a wrong turn. He motioned that they turn around and when Sasha nodded, they looped back in the opposite direction.
Before they reached the intersection, a yellow pickup truck passed them, nearly sideswiping Sasha, who steadied her bike then slowed to a crawl. Cash came back around for her. The truck screeched to a halt and stood crossways in the road. No one stepped out. No one came forward to see if Sasha were harmed. The truck simply sat there, its engine running with an erratic throb. Barely moving, their boots steadying their bikes, Cash and Sasha looked at one another. Without a word, they gunned their engines and roared away from the truck, making their way faster and harder back to the intersection. The truck spun its tires, digging into the pavement, and with the scent of spent rubber, followed. Leaning hard into the next turn, Cash skimmed the roadway. Sasha swooped right behind him. In tandem, they pushed their bikes harder, running the traffic light at the next intersection, and the next, dodging a van in the next. The more they dove into the Prince's neighborhood, the farther back the truck fell, until it veered off and disappeared. Shortly, the fleeing pair arrived at the gate. It slid open as if on cue.
Finally inside behind the closing gate, they parked their bikes. They had only a minute to themselves. There was a rapid rush down the stairs. Leading the parade into the livery, Antonio switched on the overhead lamps and stared with relief at the pair just returned. "Man! You guys came down the street like the devil was after you. I barely had time to open the gate."
Froggy and Joe flocked around them, but it was Labatt who asked the question. "What happened?"
Sasha spoke up, outrage thickening her words. "It was Cameron! The Brujah Primogen in San Francisco."
"The rumors were right," Cash replied, his own agitation rolling just under the surface of his control. "There wasn't supposed to be any assassination of the San Francisco Prince, or any prince for that matter."
"Cameron killed Julian," Sasha added, her voice trembling, "and he did it without Brujah sanction."
The livery jarred to silence.
The furrows in Labatt's face deepened. "Who told you this?"
"I ran into a new Brujah," Cash explained. "He was glad to gloat. Too bad he kept getting in the way of my fist."
"Start from the beginning," Labatt urged.
When Cash finished detailing the events, Antonio asked, "What about DiDi?"
"She's not too happy," Cash replied. "She confirmed that the Brujah are using her place to multiply their numbers."
Labatt quickly motioned Antonio to follow him to the house. As they disappeared into the dark, sirens wailed in the distance. Looking out to the night then back to Cash, Froggy asked, "Who was chasing you?"
"Brujah, I imagine," Cash answered. "It was a yellow pickup."
Froggy flashed his attention to Joe. "Oh shit." He started pacing, raking his hands over his sharp white hair. "DiDi's in trouble, man." His throaty voice cracked. "They saw Cash sitting at the table talking to her. He was asking about San Francisco. They may be stupid, but they can add two and two. We need to call her."
Joe darted for his bike. "Forget the call!. We go there now." He then stopped and turned to Cash. "The driver of the pickup was Jacques."
"The Brujah Primogen." Froggy dug his keys from the pocket of his jeans. "He's a dangerous bastard."
Joe snorted, "You overestimate him."
"Well, he didn't get to be Primogen kissing babies," Froggy argued. "He's big, he's mean, and he never goes into the River Stone, but he knew Cash was there, and he found out pretty fast."
"Maybe DiDi told him," Cash said.
Joe rolled his bike out. "DiDi would like to see certain parts of him strung up on various poles around New Orleans. She wouldn't tell him anything."
"They followed you two," Froggy added. "They now know that a Brujah is traveling with a Gangrel, which means they know who you are. They're going back to DiDi's to see what she knows about it. They won't be nice ."
"The place is full of humans," Cash added. "The Masquerade. It's in jeopardy. Are they reckless enough to reveal Kindred to the humans?"
"We need to get to DiDi's," Froggy said. "You coming?"
Sasha was not to be left out. "I'm going!"
"No, you're not!" Cash barked. "You've done enough. More than enough."
"But it's about Julian!"
"No, it isn't," Joe said, starting his bike. "It's about DiDi. You stay with Labatt. Tell him and Antonio where we've gone."
Thundering down the expressway to the River Stone, the riders rode three abreast. Ahead, the horizon flared orange. A monstrous black cloud billowed against the sky swallowing the stars. As if the three were one, they accelerated.
Filled with fire, the River Stone glowed like a raging sunrise whipping at the sky. Blazing tornadoes churned by the heat whirled and twisted within the bed of flames. Against the pulsing orange, silhouettes scurried around the emergency vehicles, fire trucks, and collapsed debris. Colossal streams of water hammered the blaze, barely denting its fury.
The three Gangrels rolled to a stop near a barricade where a police officer raised his hands to stop them. They hung back, gazing at the inferno with somber intensity. The force of its heat reached them even at such a distance. Then Cash sensed it -- the throbbing pulse of fear. The scent of terror. Nudging Froggy, Cash pointed to the cluster of trees to the right of the blaze. When Froggy raised his eyebrows in question, Cash quickly said, "Something's in the wood over there."
"No. It's human. If it wanted to come out to talk to the police, it would. I think we'd better check it out."
Froggy nodded and shifted to mask Cash's movement into the thicket.
With the roaring of the fire for cover, Cash noisily slipped through the brush, letting his hunger guide him to the human. He climbed over an unkempt hedge, following the heat of the fear. Its thumping pounded the air. He was about to dash to two trees when he smelled the scent that had enticed him earlier that evening. He knew that scent. He knew that essence. Anna. He moved toward it, toward the whimpers that he could feel close by. A few more steps and he heard scrambling just beyond the hedge, deeper into the trees. He ventured to call out: "Anna?"
The rustling in the undergrowth stopped. A tiny sob of fear reached his ears.
Keeping low, he moved closer. "Anna?" Then he saw her, a shapeless huddle in the brush and leaves -- wild-eyed and trembling, with a smoke-streaked face.
"You!" she gasped. "I thought I was dead." She then lunged for him and dove into his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist, burying her head against his neck, as if she could crawl into his skin for shelter.
Too close. Too hot. Too tempting. He battled the urge to fling her away. He shoved back his craving as he painfully perceived the river of life that flowed along her neck, that stoked his hunger. Sinking to the ground with her, he struggled against the powerful yearning he had endured for far too many days. "You're safe now," he whispered, still terrified of what he might do. "You're safe."
"Thank god it's you who found me. Thank god! Thank god!" Trembling seized her. "They killed DiDi?"
Cash went cold. "Who?"
"I don't know. I'd seen them before, and they were there tonight, but I never talked to them. DiDi told me that I should keep my distance because they would make up stories about me to brag to the others. But I'm not like that."
Cash then tried to pull her up. "Come on. We have to get you home."
Anna struggled and dragged him back, pulling frantically at his shirt. He looked down to her face, to her eyes. He never imagined it possible to open eyes that wide. Firelight caught her tears. They washed tracks through the smudges on her cheeks. Her breaths came in seething gasps. "They were -- " She stopped. She pressed her lips together and gulped for air. Her face betrayed everything that was racing through her mind, and he was afraid to guess. Finally, she gasped: "They -- were -- vampires."
He was conscious of a heated nausea. Damn the Brujah!. To Anna, he said the only thing he could, "You hit your head," offering a trivial explanation
"No, they tore DiDi open. I saw them."
"But it doesn't make sense. You must have been seeing things."
"No!" She shook him, gasping in her outburst. "I was alone in the kitchen," she managed to utter, then the words gushed. "We were closed. Everyone was gone but me and DiDi. She was going to drive me home. They came in. I heard her yelling like I had never heard before. They were screaming about some Prince or maybe a guy named Prince. I'm not sure. All I know is that it scared me to hear her like that. The words she used! Cursing -- I had never heard her use such words. It was almost as if she were chasing me out with her foul mouth. She called them everything from rotten weasels to the f-word then -- oh, I can't say it." She paused, biting her lip. "I hid in the kitchen, but I watched through the crack at the bottom of the window where the cook slides the sandwiches out to us. It was closed, but I could still see." Anna started quaking. "One of them -- " She started taking her breaths in enormous gulps.
"It's OK. It's OK. Calm down." Cash wrapped her in his arms and rocked her.
"One of them held her while -- the -- other -- "
Her account stopped there. She sank deeper into Cash while he drew her ever tighter. What was he to do? Froggy would soon wonder what had happened and would follow. Finally, he quietly asked, "Did they see you?"
She shook her head. "I stayed there until I heard something crash into the bar, something thrown through the door, then everything exploded. I stayed until I was more afraid of the fire than I was of the vampires"
"There are no vampires," he said. "It's just a word."
"There are, I tell you!" She pulled at him, jerking him as if trying to batter some sense into him. Then she stopped. "Wait a minute. Why did you come back?"
"Some friends wanted to come by for a drink."
"Friends? But you said you were new in town."
"I am, but I do have some people I know here."
"But the bar was closed."
"They know DiDi."
Anna then started crying, like a hurt kitten.
Cash glanced through the thicket to the fire that raged over what had been the River Stone. "We have to get out of here," he said.
She balked. "I'm afraid."
Drawing her tighter into his arms, he stroked her thick auburn hair, where it lay on her shoulders, where it fell down her back. "Forget," he whispered, pressing the back of his fingers to her temple, caressing it. "Forget."
"How can I forget something so evil?"
Cash then sighed, not knowing what to do. "Let me take you to my friends."
"Can I stay with you?"
"Not a good idea. You need to go home."
"I don't want to go home."
"Then you won't go home. You're coming with us."
Anna slowly withdrew from him and stood, pliant and unresponsive, staring to the fire. Cash rose and guided her out of the thicket, out to the bikes, to Froggy and Joe. The pair gawked at the sooted girl, her face stained yellow in the firelight. Then they gawked at Cash.
"She worked for DiDi," Cash explained under the weight of their disbelief. "She saw what happened."
Without a word, Froggy moved everybody out onto the highway and back to the Prince's mansion.
Cash quickly hustled Anna up the stairs and into the Enforcers' house. As he set her into a chair, Antonio dragged him into the kitchen. "OK," he hissed. "Froggy claims you said she saw what happened. She tells us, then you get her out of here."
"She saw the Brujah. She saw them as Kindred."
Antonio sizzled and rubbed his forehead. "DiDi?"
"She says the Brujah killed her."
"Joe's going to take this real bad. He's out trying to find her right now."
"I need to you make her forget. She's way too freaked out."
The sound of the door drew Cash back to the front room. It was Sasha. She looked at the sooty waif huddled in the chair. She looked at the sooty waif who darted to Cash, flinging her arms around him, sinking her head into his chest, driving him backward a step or two. His flesh responded to her touch. His need ached. He had to feed, but more importantly, he suddenly had to deal with Sasha.
"Labatt said you had returned," she remarked. "I thought you would come back to the house. I now see that you were a little distracted."
Peeling Anna from him and returning her to the chair, Cash smiled weakly and looked to Antonio who raised his hands and disappeared into the kitchen.
"Aren't you going to introduce us?" Sasha asked pointedly.
"Sasha, this is Anna. Anna, this is Sasha. Excuse me." And he rushed into the kitchen. "You have to make her forget," he urged Antonio.
Then from the front room, he heard: "Vampires?!" It was Sasha.
Cash rushed back. "Look, we need to get you home," he said to Anna.
Anna shuddered violently. "I can't go home. The vampires might come for me."
Antonio leaned against the kitchen doorway. "Vampires? You saw vampires? Did they have pointed little teeth?" He pressed his curved forefingers to his lips and bared his own teeth. "The better to bite you with?"
"They didn't bite," Anna howled as if reliving the terror. "They ripped her throat out."
A dark cloud fell over Antonio. Cash could hear his breathing, his racing pulse, the thunder of a heart in anger. He saw the eyes flash like silver. Antonio was about to Frenzy. Then just as quickly as it came, the dark subsided. He walked into the room on a cavalier air and said, "Well, there ya go. From all the movies I've seen, vampires bite and werewolves rip. Did you see any ghosts or zombies, too?"
Anna started crying. "I know what I saw."
"Did you tell the police this little tale?"
"Are you kidding?" she shrieked. "Only you know I was there, and that's the way it's going to stay. If I go to the police, the news media find me, and so can those…those…vampires."
Antonio walked to her, and gently taking her hand, said, "You need to forget." He lowered his voice and locked his eyes to hers. "Forget." For one long moment, they stared at one another, silent, unmoving.
"But I can't forget!" she cried, clutching the nearby Cash.
Antonio smiled and stepped away. He turned to Sasha. "Can you go see if Labatt is still available?"
"Can't Cash do it?".
"He's a little occupied right now."
Sasha soured and left to fetch the Gangrel Primogen.
"Who's Labatt?" Anna asked.
"He's our boss."
"Boss? What do you guys do to be up at this hour, with your boss, no less?"
Antonio smiled. "Actually, we're vampire hunters, in a manner of speaking."
She started crying again. "You're making fun of what I saw."
"No, I'm making fun of what you think you saw."
Cash then handed her the phone. "You need to call someone. Stay with a friend, someone you know and trust."
"DiDi was my friend."
"There's no one else? Someone you know at school?"
"So," Labatt said as he entered the room alone. "We have a student as our guest." His smile lifted his moustache and warmed the room, then a miracle happened: Anna smiled. In the next instant, Labatt glided to her and set his hands on her temples. "Forget," he said in a lulling voice.
Her smile collapsed. Her scream froze with her silent gasp. Her eyes stretched wide for one heartbeat longer, then the lids dropped over them.
Cash caught her crumbling body and carried her to the couch. "How'd you do that so quickly and quietly?"
"Practice," Labatt replied. "She'll remember little of this night's events, certainly nothing in the past hour or so. Let her discover the tragedy the way many will -- through the news." He then turned to Cash. " She has some scratches on her legs. Heal them for her, then see her home. Do you know where she lives?"
"Yeah," Cash said, "I have her address. But I need to talk to Sasha first."
Labatt nodded knowingly. "Quickly then."
Rushing through the back door into Rebecca's kitchen, he found Sasha sitting at the table, toying with a cup of pudding. "She worked at the River Stone," he said initiating some apology. "I found her at the fire and she was scared as hell. She saw that they were Kindred."
"They didn't try to Embrace her, did they?"
"They never knew she was there."
"How could they not?"
"I don't know, Sasha." Impatience muddied his apology. "Maybe they had recently fed and the hunger didn't hit. Maybe they were new ones. Or maybe they were just too pumped up."
After scooping out the last of the pudding, she threw the cup into the trash, and set the spoon on the counter next to the sink. "You could've been a little more informative with the introductions."
"What was I supposed to do? Tell her we're from San Francisco and rode in on a bike?"
Sasha glared at him. "To start, you could have said I am your woman. As for anything else, it doesn't matter. She knows nothing of the war the Brujah have started. Telling her we're from San Francisco is the same as saying we're from Toledo."
"Well, I just wasn't thinking, I suppose."
"As if this is news."
"Don't get that way, Sasha."
"No, Cash. Right now. Tell me. What way?"
'This way." He threw his hands out to her. "Obstinate, argumentative -- bitchy."
Sasha squared her shoulders and glared. "Are the keys in the bike?" she asked.
"No. In my pocket."
"Hand them over," she demanded, jiggling her head for effect.
Her lips thinned. "I want them."
"You can't have them. It's not safe out there."
"So what? Let's see -- I'm already dead, right? What else is there?"
"The Brujah could take you."
"I'm Brujah. I'll manage."
Rebecca appeared. "What is this disturbance in the Prince's house?" she scolded.
"Sasha wants the keys to the bike."
Rebecca turned to Sasha. "Why?"
"I want to go for a ride."
"Will it alleviate this hostility that overpowers you right now?"
Rebecca then turned to Cash. "Give her the keys."
"It's not safe."
"She is Kindred. She will handle herself."
"A Toreador was killed tonight."
Rebecca nodded. "Sasha is not Toreador. Give her the keys."
With a hasty huff, Cash pulled the keys from his pocket. "It's only a few hours to sunrise. Watch the time…if you had a watch." He then tossed them to Sasha.
Without a response, she plucked the keys from the air and left, leaving him whirling in another of her emotional hurricanes.
"Now, Gangrel," Rebecca said, her voice low and steady. "You have brought a human into our midst. That is a much greater problem than a strong-willed Kindred needing a few moments respite from your suffocating protection."
Flushing, Cash studied Rebecca's stern expression, how it never wavered as her eyes fixed on him, how it remained solid and steadfast. "Suffocating?" he asked.
Rebecca nodded once, her smooth head dipping with grace.
He looked away. "She's maddening."
"That may be."
"She was Embraced against her will."
"And she must deal with it. Give her the room to do so."
"But she doesn't understand. "
Rebecca raised her hand. "Then give her the room to learn."
Cash looked to the back door. "Well, she has the rest of the night now."
Rebecca paused, as if letting him soak in his new realization. Finally, she spoke. "You two possess a greed and a selfishness that make you each suitable for the other and for no one else. She will return because she has no equal but you." Rebecca then paused as if announcing the end of the conversation. "Now, you must deal with the human."
Cash plodded out the back door, and the minute he dashed back up the stairs, Antonio looked at his wristwatch and leaped out of his chair. "Not much time. Better hustle, Cash. Let me get you the keys to one of the cars."
Cash held up his hands. "I don't know the streets. Even if you drew me a map I wouldn't make it. There's no way I can get her home and return before sunrise."
"OK. I'll drive."
Scooping Anna off the couch, Cash secured her in his arms and negotiated the stairs with Antonio leading the way. Sliding into the front seat of the Cadillac, he settled her head against his chest and enclosed her with one arm. Antonio jumped into the driver's seat and palmed the steering wheel to back out and exit through the opening gate. With the turn around the corner, Anna flopped against Cash. He drew her even closer, nestling her head under his chin, not paying attention to the city whipping by outside the window. While the moment lasted, he fell into the scented sorcery that drifted from her auburn hair, into the heat that rolled from her skin. Human. He tasted her delicate life wrapped in his arms. The air pulsed with her heart. It murmured with the intoxicating rush of her blood. He floated free of time and place, of dark and light.
As if aware of Cash's torment, Antonio said, "We're almost there." Before long, the tires rubbed against the curb and the car jerked to a halt.
Cash examined the two-story block building with four neat doors lined up a row across the front with tightly shuttered windows in between. Thick vines of ivy crawled up the stucco walls, wrapping around downspouts. Anna's apartment was the second door down. He retrieved her keys from her jacket and handed them to Antonio. "Let's get her inside then leave." Behind the building, the dark slate sky gave way to streamers of fuchsia. Dawn approached.
As Antonio struggled with the front door, Cash struggled to carry Anna home. She was a slight burden. It was his own hunger that weighed heavy. Nudging open the door, Antonio led the way in. He found the switch and flooded the room with light.
"Hurry," Antonio whispered.
"Find the bedroom."
"Just set her on the couch."
Rushing across the room, Cash set Anna on the couch cushions and stood back. The heat of her lingered against him. The pressure of the desire to take that heat, to do what Kindred must -- it nearly crushed him. He looked at her and saw only innocence. He slumped. "She's going to wonder how she got home," he heard himself say.
"Let her." Antonio grabbed Cash by the shoulder. "She's safe. We're the only ones who know she was there. Now go!"
Cash closed the door behind him just as a swell of morning sunlight spread across the sidewalk between him and the car. He stopped at the brink of the shrinking shadow cast by the building.
"Come on!" Antonio urged, waving Cash over.
Ducking under his jacket, Cash sprinted to the car and dove in.
Antonio then dragged his thumbnail over his forearm. Winching a little with the pain, he presented the trickle of his blood to Cash, who backed against the car door. "Drink!" Antonio demanded. "You're weak, and the more you come in contact with humans, the more your hunger will devour you. Now, either you drink, or I leave you here. You can go back in and be tormented or give in. You don't have many choices."
Cash then grasped Antonio's arm with both his hands and greedily drank from the wound. Antonio winced again and threw back his head with the sensations coursing through him. Cash let go a little cry as he took the life that Antonio offered. He felt it warm the roof of his mouth. He felt it seep through him, tasting its rich color. He felt it awaken him from the biting numbness of the Hunger. When Cash withdrew, Antonio licked his own arm, lapping up the tiny bit of blood left behind, and in moments, the wound closed as if it had never been.
Cash wasn't even out of the car when Joe gave him the news: Sasha had returned, picked up her things, and left again.
"But it's morning!" he cried as if the declaration would bring her back.
"She looked like she'd just fed."
"Where did she go?" Cash then asked, huffing with fear for her.
"She didn't say."
"When is she coming back?"
"I don't think she is"
"Well, what did she say?!"
Joe shook his head and held up his hands to staunch the flow of answerless questions.. "All she said was that blood was thicker than water."
Cash dragged a frantic hand across his head. His anguish gave way to unreasoning fury. The darkness of the night filled with its brilliance. He paced across the livery floor, spun back., and stopped. He was unable to fathom that she would leave. She enriched his life in so many ways. She tore it apart with equal abandon. He was terrified for her. "She's gonna get herself killed," he declared.
"She can handle herself."
"Everyone says she can handle herself." How it frustrated him to hear that statement over and over. "Yeah, she acts tough. She's always acted tough, even when she was human."
"Well at least she's not ashes at the bottom of a burned out bar!"
Cash stepped back. He had been thinking of Sasha -- or rather, himself. Joe too had a loss.
"There's nothing you can do," Joe added. "She's going to do what she feels she has to do, even if it's go to the Brujah."
"I'm going after her."
"With what?" Antonio stayed him with a hand to his shoulder. "We're not lending you a car or a bike to go after her. You're on your own on that one."
"I helped you guys out last night, back on the street. I found out what happened at the River Stone."
"You helped, and it was great to have you added to our numbers, but Sasha helped, too."
There was a bang of a door flung open. The three Gangrels looked up the stairs to Froggy who was hanging out the carriage house door. "You guys need to get up here," he said. "The fire is on the early morning news."
The three scrambled up the stairs and into the carriage house living room just as the stand-up reporter delivered an account, using the smoldering shell as a background, along with footage of the fire itself. After indicating that officials suspected arson, the report ended with a note that no one had been found in the debris, and it was not believed that anyone was inside. As the program went into commercial, Froggy pressed the mute button on the remote control. No one spoke. They simply watched the silent action play out on the TV screen like a cartoon.
"They're dead," Antonio mumbled, his voice hard-edged and low. "I'm making sure that everyone of those Brujah bastards is dead."
"Joe and I can go to the wharf," Froggy said. "We'll scout it out today."
"Fine with me," Antonio remarked. "You two hit the wharf. Cash and I are going into the Quarter."
Cash was thoroughly accustomed to a dim world, dark and brooding like the night in which it revolved. It was a world with companions who moved as he did, who knew and accepted the exquisite shadows, the secrets, the peril. It was night that caressed him in a soothing embrace. But in the sunlight -- how alone he felt, how keenly he sensed his isolation, the isolation of which so many humans remain blissfully ignorant. For a long moment, he felt his long-gone humanity -- like a phantom limb. Daylight had that power.
It had been far too long since the last time Cash traveled freely in daylight. Julian rarely went out before dark, so Cash spent his days at the compound. Their last minutes together had been at the edge of comfort, at twilight, during the dwindling daylight moments.
Sleep was something he hadn't done in nearly 24 hours. It didn't matter; he could go as long as needed, as long as he was fed. The only thing pressing him now was Sasha's absence. Back in San Francisco, it wasn't unusual for her to disappear, often for days, but she knew San Francisco; she knew the regions that were attractive to those who might harm her, and she avoided them. Here, Sasha was as good as blind. Where would she go? Would she recognize the elements of danger that she knew intuitively back home? She had fed. She might be moving about close by. He might find her today. She worried him so. Sasha was Julian's. He must never let harm come near her.
With her still in his thoughts, he looked out to this strange city -- so old, so full of life, so crowded. What impressed him about the houses and shops was the delicate air of age about them. As Antonio slowly drove the car up a narrow one-way street, Cash took in the sidewalk scenes, how people had to dodge one another just to pass by, how the second story balconies sheltered the pavement, how the third story balconies sheltered the second. The buildings butted against one another, some with plain brick; others with a white coat of paint, or brown -- whatever the owner fancied, he supposed. There was no pattern or strategy for any of it.
When the car turned left where the street ended at a white building that could have housed offices or apartments or shops -- it was hard to say -- Cash felt that Antonio was moving toward the river. Then the air vibrated. He flipped his eyes to two men leaning against a lamp post on the corner. As Antonio drove by, the two Brujah made contact with the two Gangrels. Nothing was spoken. Nothing was gestured, but a whirlwind of threat passed between them.
"OK," Antonio said. "We found some new ones. I'm dropping you off in the middle of the block. Draw them down one street over. There's a small vacant lot. The Prince allows it to be used as a parking lot. I'll be waiting there."
"Let's do it." Cash stepped out of the car then turned to face the two Brujah staring at him from the corner. He drew back his shoulders, tucked his chin, and reared his chest while slowly stuffing his shirt into his belt, minding the gun in the holster under his jacket. His eyes never left the pair. Their eyes never left him. Then he dared a smile, letting it sit on his face long enough to annoy the two. Stepping backward a pace, he began leading them to the next street. While they were still half a block away, he turned his back on them and swaggered down the sidewalk. It was only seconds before he felt them nearing. He turned around to face them, walking backward, dipping his head with another cheeky smile. He heard a low growl. Crossing the street, he dodged one car here, another car there, then landed on the sidewalk on an opposite corner. The Brujah picked up pace, moving across the street, following him. In the shadowed canyon between the tall buildings, Cash spread his arms out as if in invitation. He smiled again, drawing his prey ever onward. They came closer, faster, and when Cash re-entered sunlight, he spied the lot covered with cars. Antonio would be among them. As he stepped onto the gravel of the lot, the Brujah broke into a run, dashing straight toward him. Cash flew in between the cars as the pair split up to cut him off. There was a thump. One of them was down. When he spied Antonio's black hair moving above a car hood, Cash spun around to his pursuer and positioned himself between two cars.
Looking ragged like a lean crow, the scowling Brujah scooted to a halt. "What do you want, Gangrel?"
"A Brujah bitch. She's got wild hair and a mean temperament."
"You couldn't handle one." The Brujah edged closer. "Stay away from Brujah women, Gangrel. They eat weenies like you."
Cash rolled his head. He lifted his shoulders and he whined. "Aw, I wish you hadn't said that." He paused a moment. He held his breath. Then he leaned his weight around, and landed one jarring punch on the Brujah's jaw. As the reeling form rolled onto one arm only to collapse into the gravel, Cash barked, "I am not a weenie!"
Antonio flew around one of the cars. "Under control?"
Cash nodded. "Under control. What about the other one?"
"Toast." Antonio then pressed a machete against the Brujah's neck. Next, he lifted the blade then sliced down. With the brief sound of metal against bone, he added, "And so is this one."
Such final death. It was how the Toreador Primogen had slain the Brujah Primogen back in San Francisco. Pressing his lips together, he flashed his eyes over the buildings, the cars, searching for others. "Now what?"
"The guy minding the cars is a Ventrue. He'll take care of these two." As if on a scent, Antonio lifted his head, his eyes darting this way then that. "More."
Cash focused on the street. "They're through there." He gestured to an open door, to the deep darkness within.
Antonio smacked him on the back. "Good job. Let's go."
Three more new Brujah were slain.
As they slowly drove the streets again, continuing their prowl, Cash sensed Brujah nearby. He threw a glance to the side view mirror. A maroon car followed.
"These are not fledglings," Antonio remarked. Another vehicle came out from a side street. It pulled up behind. A yellow pickup truck. "It's show time," he announced. "Check your clip." He then pressed his cell phone to his ear. "Get the guys" he said to the other end. "We're heading down Conti toward the Number Two. Meet us."
As Antonio slid the phone back into a pocket inside his jacket, Cash asked, "What's the Number Two?"
"The most dangerous cemetery in the city." And with that, he gunned the accelerator and sent the car faster on its way.
When they arrived, Cash studied the sidewalks where decades of shredded and faded handbills plastered the lamp posts. Beverage cans and fast food wrappers littered the streets, thrown up against the crumbling curbs by traffic. The dreary world of housing projects lay all around, and he wondered how humans could allow humans to live like this.
"No one really cares what goes on in there," Antonio said. "The police can't keep up with the gang banging and drug dealing. It's nice and dark at night, with lots of places to hide" Antonio paused as he turned the corner then continued. "Labatt's sire rests there. If Jacques is stupid enough to follow, we can trap him."
As Antonio brought the car to a halt by the curb, Cash heard something plastic crush under the tires. The car doors locked with a chirp, and he followed Antonio down the pavement where grass sprouted through the cracks, where the edges crumbled into gravel. They entered this city of the dead where endless rows of stone structures stood like a thousand tiny cathedrals, some with decorated pediments, some with crosses mounted atop gables, some with cherubs and angels, others with the broken stone of some artwork long forgotten and swept away. Low iron work fences enclosed each crypt along the row. Gates stood intact on some; they hung askew on others. How strange the air, the scent, the soul of this place. The dead lay all about. Antiquity lay surrounded by brutal poverty while luxury looked down on it all from high-rises in the distance.
Deeper into this dead city Antonio led Cash, and close behind, the Brujah followed, along with their Primogen. The instinctive stab of danger hit Cash. "Where's Froggy and Joe?" he asked as they rounded a row and continued plunging deeper into these stones of death.
"Close, I hope." Then Antonio skidded to a halt along the path near a crypt on a corner at the edge of the cemetery. He leaped over its ironwork fence.
On the other side of the cemetery boundary wall, a canopy of trees rustled in a breeze. The afternoon sun brightened all the leaves with a green that Cash had not seen in recent memory. Now was not the moment to dwell on it. From a narrow lane around a row of tiny mausoleums, the clatter of footsteps heightened. Cashed whirled to the sound, his weapon primed, and Antonio pushed against a carved lily along the left side of the crypt. With a grind of stone and metal, a panel came ajar. He reached in and dragged the tall panel open and called to Cash. "Come on!" A second later, he disappeared into the dark. Left alone as the footsteps pounded closer, Cash dove in after him.
The alcove was dank, musty, and smelled like earth.
Antonio pulled an iron ring to drag the panel closed. Still, light filtered in from two decorative portals along the top of the crypt, like small clerestory windows.
"What is this place?" he asked, muffling his voice.
"The resting place of Gangrels." Antonio then plucked Cash's sleeve and drew him to one of the narrow openings.
Outside, three Brujah, guns drawn, eyes darting, looked for the two Gangrels they had chased into this quiet place where both humans and Kindred rested in death. They milled about, their footsteps scraping on the walkway. Cash watched one of them step over an iron fence and walk around one of the silent crypts. The two others set themselves back to back. They sensed Cash and Antonio, and Cash feared his heaving breaths might give them away.
"See the big muscle-head in the yellow shirt?" Antonio whispered. "That's Jacques. He loves yellow."
Suddenly, the one Brujah jumped back across the fence and joined the other two. Together, they glanced back down the path, back toward the entrance. Cash glanced there too and caught sight of Froggy's white hair flashing between the stones. He and Joe were charging the Brujah.
"You get the one on the left," Antonio said, his low voice muted within the dark of the chamber.
Cash rested his gun on the portal ledge and lined the target up. "I'm on him. Tell me when."
In the space of a second, the scene outside exploded. Cash's bullet struck the Brujah, driving him backward. Antonio's struck Jacques, spinning him around. Joe rolled across the pavement, firing away as Froggy sailed onto a crypt and peppered the three Brujah with automatic weapon fire.
In a burst, it was over. One Brujah lay impaled on the spikes of an ironwork enclosure. Another crumpled lifeless on the pavement, his head a matted mess of blood and hair. Only one stirred: Jacques. Froggy leaped down and joined Joe to skirt around the Brujah Primogen, their eyes locked onto him, their weapons locked onto him, their hatred locked onto him. After Antonio and Cash emerged from the crypt and closed the panel, this city of the dead fell into profound utter silence. There were no sirens to disturb the air. The dead didn’t care, and gunfire was just background noise in this part of the city.
The four Gangrels stood over the bloodied Brujah. His chest had been ripped by gun fire. His blood oozed over his yellow shirt, soaking it with a wild rusty splash. Trickling into the ground, his life spilled away. Jacques struggled over the reddened earth. He propped himself up, bearing his weight on his hands.
"The Gangrels will pay for this," he growled. "So will the Prince."
"You're the one who's cashing in," Antonio replied. There was a tremble in his hand. The thrill of taking out the Brujah Primogen was giving the Enforcer the shakes. "No one will know how it all went down."
"You can't help but brag, Antonio. You've always been puffed up with yourself. The pretty boy," Jacques sneered, his voice breathy but under control. "You won't be able to keep your mouth shut. The Brujah will know."
"As tempting as it would be to take credit…" Antonio then shrugged and waved an imperious hand into the air. "I don't believe we will."
Jacques's left arm weakened. He collapsed onto his right, which gave way under his weight. With his face against the broken pavement, he watched those who had given him his final death. He struggled to move one hand underneath him, to pull it free from his dying body. Then a tiny smile played on his lips.
Something clicked. Something metallic.
Antonio lashed at Cash, shoving him backward. Joe and Froggy scampered behind a crypt. There was a muffled thump -- a flash -- and the day blew apart.
The next thing Cash knew Joe was patting his cheek. His head stung. He pressed shaky fingers against it, feeling his own blood. He tasted it. "Come on! Come on!" Joe rasped, as if struggling to draw enough breath to even speak. "Get up!"
Cash squinted and dug his way out of his stupor. He let Joe pull him off the grass, then he caught sight of Antonio -- what remained of him. A cry leaped from his lips: He struggled against angry tears. He curled his hands like claws and he growled.
Himself shaking, Joe dragged Cash down the walkway. "Froggy will see to Antonio and the Brujah. You and I are heading back to the Prince. This is not good." His voice rasped like cloth torn to shreds. "Not good at all."
Within the Prince's mansion, Labatt mourned. Antonio was his. He dropped onto a chair within the parlor and stared deeply into nothing. Cash and Joe left him there, having delivered the news.
In the kitchen, Rebecca quietly wept. Her face tracked red with her tears, she sat at the counter near the pantry, folding her kitchen towels, neatly aligning their corners, carefully placing one atop another.
As they stepped through the screened back door, Jordan called them from a window in the basement. He wanted Joe to assist with the weapons in the armory. He asked Cash to await the arrival of Froggy.
Settling onto a bench that wrapped around a great oak tree in the back lawn, Cash wallowed in the day's events, taking them apart, labeling them, trying to put them back together some other way. Somehow, he knew it would have worked out just as it did.
He ached for Sasha. How he loved her. How he loved this woman who loved him in return with a passion just as raw, just as deep, but who made it all so complicated. A dreadful truth settled upon him -- she had left him alone in the tatters of his life. What would he do without her? She had become his reason for being. Did the Brujah understand that she was bound to a Gangrel in so many tragic and endearing ways? Did anyone? Did she? Had she heard about the disaster in the cemetery? Would the news drive her back to this house? Then he wondered why he dwelled on her with such anguish. She tormented him and had done so since they first met, back in San Francisco, back before her Embrace. Yet, she had always loved him, even when her Brujah blood battled her passion for him. Rebecca was right. Cash had smothered her. He had tried to suppress the one thing that drew him to her -- her feral independence.
When he heard a car approach from the service alley, he sat up, listening for the sound of the gate rolling open. It didn't. The car passed by.
Antonio was gone. The Brujah were bringing death closer and closer. No matter where he went, death dogged him. Maybe Simon had the right idea -- peaceful isolation.
Another car approached. It slowed. The gates rolled open. Cash stood up.
Froggy parked the car just outside the livery. Cash rushed over as the trunk popped open and the back door to the house creaked ajar. He turned to see Rebecca daring sunlight, standing just within the safety of the shadows. Under her watchfulness, he and Froggy carefully removed Antonio from the trunk. Froggy then heaved his friend into his arms and carried him to the house. Like Rebecca, he too cried silently for the loss. Cash followed, and when Rebecca brushed her lips over the fallen Antonio, he tasted his own tears once again, this time in a sorrow that pushed aside his anger.
When Froggy disappeared with his burden into the basement, Rebecca slumped against Cash. He drew one arm around her and let her cry against his body.
Little was spoken the rest of the day. The evening itself was filled with silence. The night moved on, and sorrow continued its hold on the house and those within it. A clock somewhere chimed midnight. Some time later, three cars arrived, parking at the front curb. Labatt had been watching for them. Two men and a woman -- dressed for action -- quickly exited one of the cars and marched up the stairs to the house. Jordan let them in and escorted them into the great room across the hall from the parlor. With a few words, the household except Jordan and these three Kindred walked out to the cars, driving away in silence, winding through the city toward the old cemetery.
The police had been to the cemetery to investigate the vandalism. The remnants of their plastic ribbon barricade fluttered in a light breeze. Two officers emerged from the cemetery -- Kindred. Cash watched Labatt speak with them and gesture to the Prince's numerous escorts. The officers nodded and took up position at the front gate. Froggy and Cash set up a perimeter with a dozen other Kindred.
The moment arrived when the Prince would depart the safety of his car, and as he stepped toward the gate, all those along the way honored him with a tiny, yet courteous, bow. Once within the gate, Joe and Labatt ushered the Prince through the monuments, through the silent shrines to lives gone to dust. Rebecca followed, carrying the silver urn that held Antonio. A hood cloaked her face. The hem of her dress dragged on the pavement, rustling in the night like the insects so alive within this city of the dead. Antonio had been dispatched. He would rest with Labatt's sire and others of the blood line who had served the Prince and gone to final death.
Along the area Froggy had designated as his to guard, Cash walked furtively, listening for something, anything. Just beyond, in the dark of this ancient place roamed another figure, another Kindred. Beyond that one, there roamed another. All with one single mind -- protect the Prince on this mournful night. Danger tainted everything now. Cash had never known ongoing peril like this, nothing so deep as the menace that continued to threaten the Prince and his house. The Brujah would choose a new Primogen. They would look to the Gangrels for blame.
The night said nothing, but the future certainly did.
Before long, Labatt and the others emerged from their task. The Kindred who had spread throughout and around the grounds slowly converged, guarding the Prince, guarding Labatt. Their eyes darted into the dark, into the hedges, beyond the low walls, along the littered streets. Like Cash, they walked backward a few paces, assessing the night and what might be moving within its shadows. Slowly, they turned forward, walked a few paces more, then turned backward again to repeat their surveys.
When they arrived back home, Joe escorted the Prince and Rebecca into the mansion while Labatt and Froggy secured the weapons. Cash stepped beside the car while they unloaded the trunk. No one spoke. He turned his attention to the sky, gazing reflectively to the heavens stained by the lights of a sprawling metropolis. He had never bargained for this kind of pain. There was nothing he could have done to fortify himself against it. "I need to be by myself," he finally spoke.
Labatt stopped his task "Are you sure?" he asked, his voice heavy with concern.
The Gangrel Primogen turned to Froggy. "Have you a car Cash may use for however long he requires?"
"No one's using the Mercedes." He went to a cabinet on a wall at the back of the livery. Opening it, he removed a set of keys and tossed them to Cash.
"Thanks," Cash replied.
Labatt smiled. "Take care."
"I will." And with that, Cash drove off. No one was about the streets. It was as if they knew, as if they too mourned. The glare of street lamps passed overhead, striping shadows within the car. The streets narrowed.
In a whirlpool of dissolving hope, he drove, block after block, mile after mile, without direction, without destination. Yet with the first blush of morning, he knew where he was. He knew he would come here. After parking the car, he waited, not looking at the building with its four doors and shuttered windows, but seeing every line, every corner, every wisp of ivy.
How so far away it now seemed -- that life he had lived just days before -- before that fatal fracture in time at The Haven -- before the death of his Prince and friend Julian Luna. He had carried Julian to the sanctuary of his home, his heart like lead, his rage like a firestorm. He had ensured that Julian met his final death with peace, in the presence of those he trusted. Now…here in this ancient city, he had lost Sasha; he had lost a fellow Gangrel, Antonio.
However, he had found someone. Looking at the front door, he summoned the courage to exit the car. He summoned the courage to walk to the door, to press the door bell. After a pause, there was the click of a bolt being drawn. The door opened and Anna greeted him.
"Hi," she said, giving him the gentlest of smiles. Yet, she had been crying. Her eyes puffed and the skin around her lips was rosy and taut. "Did you hear?" she asked. "About the River Stone?"
He nodded, elated that her memories included him. He felt her watch him. His pulse quickened.
"Would you like to come in?"
He smiled weakly, and the door then closed behind him, shutting out time, shutting out the city, shutting out everything that wasn't Anna. All he wanted to do was fall into her auburn hair.
And so he did.
-- 30 --
Ó Beverly Freed 2000