Donovan shifted on the lounger and muttered incomprehensively, then he emitted a rumbling snore.
“Hey, y’all. So yeah, vampires are real and they’re not above doing the dirty to those who share their blood. Take a look at this.” The Tik-Tokker grinned. “You are not gonna believe it. It’s so shady.”
Video of the Coalition camps rolled across the screen. Occasionally, the camera zeroed in a dirty or bruised Millennial, or a guard pushing a group of people into a building, their ankles locked together with some sort of rope. They were seen eating off of metal plates and lined up to fill a metal cup with something from a barrel. It wasn’t water. The liquid was rust-colored and thick, like blood.
“And the dudes running the place have a Marie Antoinette fetish. You know—” The woman mimicked a knife across her throat. “Off with their heads?”
She giggled. A guillotine appeared on camera. About ten people were in line, each with a black hood over their heads and their arms bound behind them. One at a time, they were pushed onto a stage and forced to their knees, their necks positioned directly under the blade. With manic efficiency, a guard released the blade. Most heads flew into a barrel in front of the platform. The ones that rolled off onto the stage were kicked to their final destination. The headless bodies were tossed onto a pile on the ground.
“Oh, grosss,” the woman complained. She leaned toward the camera. “Kind of like a bad zombie movie, isn’t it?”
She sat back in her chair and made a face. “Whatever. I mean, like, are we supposed to believe that’s really happening? Isn’t that against the law or something?” She cackled. “As if.” She leisurely stretched her body, her crop top exposing a belly button ring. “I’m so shook.”
The woman tossed her hair over her shoulder and smiled. “Now, I’m not sharing this for the views. It is kind of sus. But if this shit is real, someone needs to get off the pot and do something about it. Aren’t there any woke cops out there who can play the James Bond card? Before anymore—” She swiped her finger across her throat and giggled.
Then the screen went black. Donovan shot up in his chair and blinked. Once. Twice. He shook his head and attempted to gather himself. What the hell? Sure, he had needed the sleep, even if it was only a thirty-minute nap, but the dreams he could do without. It had been less than forty-eight hours since the worldwide kidnappings. Donovan knew preparations for rescue were underway. But he also knew Bengotten and Hannigan were capable of even greater cruelty. He could only imagine the terror and the torture the victims were being subjected to.
It was difficult to understand how the vampire world was capable of this. He had long prided himself on their natural superiority, their ability to rise up above the petty politics and unjustified violence in the human and Were worlds. Yet overnight, vampires had become the monsters, the tyrants capable of such evil. That astonished him. For the first time in his long existence, Donovan was ashamed of being a vampire. If it was possible, he might very well submit to being turned into a human or a Were. He buried his face in his hands. Yes, he could live as a human. Perhaps he could ask Dr. Alvarez to find a way to turn off his vampirism, maybe using the gene-editing Marilyn could not stop talking about.
Clinging to the tree, Donovan watched as the monkey taunted him with the package. How the hell was he supposed to get it back? Slowly, he began to edge down the tree. Suddenly, a ladder hit his feet. Donovan gazed below him and smiled. That was where the worker had gone. To get a ladder. He eased onto it and carefully lowered himself. When he reached the sandy soil, he gazed at the worker and pointed at the devious monkey. “He grabbed the package. How do I get it back?”
The worker chuckled. “He will drop it in exchange for a treat.” He nodded at the monkey. “That one loves berries.” The worker motioned toward a blueberry bush and started pulling the berries from the bush. “These are hard for them to pick. If we pile them at the base of the tree, he will drop the package in order to get to them.”
Donovan cocked an eyebrow. “Really? That’s all it will take?”
The worker dropped a handful of berries by the tree and the monkey began to jump up and down, screeching excitedly. Donovan quickly picked another handful of berries and dumped them onto the growing mound. After a few minutes of berry picking, the worker motioned for Donovan to step back. They waited a moment. With the package in his teeth, the monkey leaped from the tree and landed softly next to the blueberries. He tossed the package away and dug in, consuming the berries with aggressive zeal. When he finished, he leaped back into the tree and swung away.
Donovan grabbed the package. It was a bit slimy, saturated with monkey saliva. “Ye Gods, I hope they didn’t dissolve the pill.” Carefully, he peeled away the packaging. Inside was a small box wrapped in several layers of plastic. He sighed with relief. Donovan removed the box and grasped it tightly in his hand, then he began to run. The faster he got it to the laboratory, the faster they would get some answers.
Consumed with the task at hand, Donovan failed to notice a plane hovering over the island. In a grid-like pattern, it flew back and forth, each time moving closer to the electronic grid. Finally tuning into the sound of the plane’s engines, Donovan looked up, just in time to discover that the plane intended to dive into the net. It was headed straight for him.
Donovan had no time to leap out of the way. The plane hit the net and burst into flames. The vegetation below was caught in the fire’s path. The force of the explosion flung Donovan into the dense jungle, where his head hit a tree. He struggled to remain conscious in what was now a sea of smoke and flames. His last thought before he succumbed to the darkness was that there was one thing they had not planned for—fire…and monkeys.
Marilyn frowned. “So that is why Sanguis was taken off the market? Because it was resulting in feeding frenzies?”
Jonathan shook his head. “Because it was not effective in preventing feeding on humans. Period. But recently, we were made aware of another reason it was pulled. A nefarious reason. One that was hidden from all vampires. Our preliminary findings point to a genetic response to the outer shell of Sanguis. For female vampires, that outer shell is poison.”
Confusion entered Marilyn’s eyes. “But we can’t be poisoned. Our system—”
Shirley interrupted, her expression hard. “What do you mean, exactly?”
“To ingest the contents of the pill, a vamp must crack the shell with their teeth and swallow it. The ingredients then enter the vampire circulatory system and the shell is intended to be discarded via normal processes. For this to happen, the body must be at the internal temperature of eighty-two degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the shell remains intact. However, when our bodies are overheated, that outer shell melts, and also enters our circulatory system. A chemical reaction occurs that makes the composition of the shell corrosive.”
A confused expression crossed Marilyn’s face. “When are our bodies ever overheated? We don’t experience temperature fluctuations like humans.”
Jonathan gazed at his daughter. “That’s not exactly true. When a pure-blood female vampire is in a period of fertility, approximately once a month, their temperatures rise approximately four point three degrees. Apparently, that is high enough to melt the outer shell of Sanguis and release its corrosive chemicals into the body. And for a reason we have not yet discovered, the corrosive elements attach to the DNA, in particular, the chromosomal matter that controls fertility. It effectively eroded those chromosomes, and that prevented the production of eggs essential to the creation of life. That has made female pure-bloods barren.”
Marilyn’s hands flew to her mouth. Her eyes filled with horror. She emitted a groan that sounded like a squelched scream.
Shirley grabbed her hands and held them, forcing Marilyn to gaze at her. “It’s okay, Marilyn. Now that they have found the reason, maybe they can fix it.” Shirley turned and stared at Jonathan. “You can, right? Fix it?”
Jonathan opened the envelope and reviewed the report. When he got to the last page, his eyes grew wide. “Donovan, it seems Shirley had a reason for that lightheadedness.”
Donovan gasped. “What is it?”
His father handed him the document and pointed at the bottom of the page. “She’s pregnant.”
Donovan grabbed at the wall. Overwhelmed with unfamiliar emotion, he settled onto a chair and rested his head in his hands. “Ye Gods,” he muttered. “I’m going to be a father.”
“And I am to be a grandfather, finally. However, I am afraid the Coalition may have a problem with this. They may not permit your marriage today or anytime soon.”
Donovan Trait turned to his father, his eyes filled with fury. “Why does it matter? We’re already married in the human world and we are about to repeat our vows before all in the Vampire Kingdom. This doesn’t change anything. It’s not like we are going to have a child out of wedlock. We have broken no laws.”
Jonathan Trait arched a fluffy white brow. “We need to discuss this, son.” He sat beside him. “The problem is, you explicitly agreed to allow the Coalition to oversee the conception and birth of any children born of this joining. Every step of the process was to be observed, studied, and documented. You know this.”
“So, they are going to force us to terminate the pregnancy and start over?” Donovan groaned. “It’s too late. I will not force her to start over. They can be voyeurs the next time. I am sure Shirley will have no problem with the monitoring of her pregnancy. It’s not like she can consult with a human physician. They would not understand that her child may have fangs in utero. And the blood work…” He shuddered. “I can’t imagine what…”
Jonathan frowned. “The agreement says from the point of conception, son. You know what sticklers they are. Our women became barren more than a century ago. We need to understand why. From a scientific perspective, we need to know exactly what was different, so we can find a solution.”
Donovan harrumphed. “Seriously? Did they wish to observe while I made love to my wife? That’s ludicrous. Horny old bastards.”
Jonathan chuckled. “Some of those old fuddie-duddies would stroke out if forced to watch a virile man like you seduce his wife.” His expression turned somber. “Let’s look at the facts as we know them. As a lawyer, that’s a process with which you are familiar.
“Human women can’t carry a vampire child to term. We know that. They miscarry. The human uterus is simply not strong enough to withstand the damage caused by a developing vampire fetus. Those fangs shred the amniotic sac. However, we also don’t know if a female vampire can carry a human baby to term. Shirley may not be able to provide the fetus with the nutrition that it needs to develop properly.
“In addition, we don’t know the point of conception, which means we don’t know if Shirley was fully turned when she conceived. We also don’t know what the genetic makeup of the baby will be and whether that will change as the pregnancy progresses. Furthermore, we don’t know whether the baby’s genetics will alter after birth. We don’t know what the child will need to survive. We don’t know much.
“That raises several questions, Donovan. Is Shirley’s life in danger? And is your child’s life in danger? Not just physically and genetically, but socially. The baby is an anomaly. To some, an adnomination. A freak. He or she will constantly be in danger. If you had kept to the agreement, she and the baby would have been protected. Now everything is at risk.”
Lilabeth fell back from Shirley’s breast, drowsy. Her tiny rosebud mouth formed into a yawn. Alexander, however, appeared to be suckling without restraint. When Lilabeth’s hand dropped from his, he stopped nursing and stared at his sister. He almost looked concerned. Upon viewing his sister in slumber, he returned to Shirley’s breast. Alexander’s hand again reached for Lilabeth’s, touching this time, not grasping. Allowing his sister to sleep.
Donovan walked to Shirley’s side and gently lifted Lilabeth. He cradled the child, holding her to his chest. He settled into a rocking chair and watched her sleep. She was a miracle. One the Coalition had threatened to destroy. Under his watch, they would never come to harm. He turned to Dr. Mendez and softly asked, “When will we know their genetic characteristics?”
“We’ll let them settle overnight and run the tests in the morning. We should have answers in a day or two. But this is the time for bonding. With each other and their parents.” He gazed at Donovan and smiled. “See how peacefully she sleeps in your arms. She senses she is safe, surrounded by love.”
Donovan kissed Lilabeth’s downy head. “Why did neither develop fangs?”
Dr. Mendez shook his head. “That’s a mystery to me. We were able to see them develop in their gums, but like human teeth, theirs never sprouted. There is so much we don’t know. Not only are we dealing with the merged DNA of a vampire and human, but we are also dealing with the altered DNA of a human in the process of being turned. We sort of know the what’s, but we don’t yet know the how’s or the why’s. That’s going to take some time. Our researchers are thorough and to the impatient may appear to work slowly, but when they deliver the results, you can be sure they are correct. We will get the answers you need.”
Lilabeth stirred and Donovan began to rock to calm her. With a small sigh, his daughter settled back into sleep.
Dr. Mendez smiled at the baby girl. “You know we have been working with incomplete and unverified information. For example, we have no reports of human females actually dying while pregnant with half-vampire fetuses. We know that female vampires are barren, but could the belief that female humans cannot safely carry a half-vampire fetus be a myth? Or disinformation?”
Donovan stared at the doctor. “Why would anyone—”
“To prevent vampire males from propagating with human females? To prevent the birth of half-breeds? There could be all sorts of reasons. My point is it could be a big lie. An attempt to maintain the purity of the vampire species.”
Donovan's eyes flared. That would mean the Coalition’s anger was not about violating the marital agreement, but about the possible discovery that they had lied. They might have been protecting themselves.
“Ye Gods. That’s diabolical.”
Tillie’s face reddened. Suddenly, she felt quite queasy. She started to speak, but her superior held up his hand.
“There’s more. This is a human-animal auction. It is not limited to Hucows. There will be Hupigs, Huhorses, and maybe even, Husheep. Fortunately, you are to focus on the cows. That is where we believe Lady Annabelle will be found.”
Tillie gazed at him. “What if she isn’t there? What if she has changed…er, species?”
“I suggest you cross that bridge when you come to it.”
“And what am I to do if I find Lady Annabelle? How do I extract her?”
“You purchase her at the auction. You have been given sufficient funds to bid up to one million Euros.”
Tillie’s eyes grew wide. “Criminy. That much?”
Lord Ryder nodded. “These cows are well-trained and well-treated. The females are pampered—weekly manicures, hair treatments, and such. A happy cow is a happy milker, as they say.”
Tillie’s eyes widened. “Lady Annabelle could be there willingly? She is not necessarily a captive, forced be a Hucow?”
“Exactly. And that is our dilemma. While the Queen hopes that she is there willingly, several factors are at play. Lady Annabelle may have freely joined a farm to become a Hucow, or she may just have danced on the wild side and somehow wound up at auction. In the alternative, she may have been kidnapped and forced to become a Hucow, or she may have been forced and now enjoys the lifestyle. There are all sorts of reasons she could be there and all sorts of reasons she prefers to stay. Our only mission is to get her out.”
Tillie frowned. “Why would they put her up for auction? Isn’t that a way to get rid of unproductive or uncooperative cows?”
“Not necessarily. Some farms simply raise and train Hucows, then sell them. Given their going rate, it is a lucrative business. A great way to supplement the income from a regular farm. Human cows bring much more lucre than actual farm-raised cows.”
Tillie sighed. “For just one day, I would like to forget that there is a whole lot of people engaged in activities that far surpass my imagination.”
Lord Ryder’s mouth curved up into a wry smile. “Then we would be out of a job.”
Tillie tapped her jaw, considering. “You know, this might be a better job for the Yanks. They are a kinky bunch. I believe there was a recent study that found them to be the kinkiest country in the world.”
Lord Ryder snorted. “If you were the Queen, would you want that bunch of kinksters to know your relatives are participating in like behavior? Why their intelligence services would find a way to use it against us for decades.” He shook his head. “No. This we do alone.”
“It’s not about you, it’s about him, Joan.,” a grumbly voice said. “You’re looking at this all wrong.”
Joan turned so fast she almost lost her balance. She glared at the old man who had spoken. He was around seventy, with ruddy cheeks and twinkling blue eyes. And thick white hair. Lots of white hair. Flowing over his shoulders, winding up in a very lush beard. On top of his head was perched a brightly colored red knit hat. She frowned. “Wait a minute. You’re Santa Claus. Without the red suit, but clearly, you’re him. I’d know you anywhere.”
The man bowed and with a smile, said, “At your service.” He gestured toward a park across the street. “Let’s take a walk.”
“Oh, no. I’m not going anywhere with you.” Joan shook her head. “I didn’t mean you actually were Santa Claus. Everyone knows he doesn’t exist. I just meant you looked like him. You’re just a man who looks like him. I don’t know you. Why would I…” She glared at him. “You’re not even wearing a red suit. And since when has Santa taken up armchair psychiatry?” She ran a hand through her blonde hair. “I must be hallucinating.” Despite her objections, she followed him across the street.
Santa laughed. “My dear, I have been dispensing advice since I was old enough to talk and make people listen. God chose my role a long time ago and I have gotten very good at it.” He looked toward the heavens. “Sorry, old boy. Still working on that humility!” He chuckled. “Man never stops reminding me.” He smiled at Joan. “Do you sense any ill-intentions from me? Of course not. I’m Santa. All I want to do is talk.”
Joan reached out and touched his shoulder.
He laughed again. A laugh that came directly from his belly. “Yes, I’m real. Well, as real as a centuries-old spirit gets. I even eat all those cookies children leave me each year. And let me tell you, that’s a heavenly feat.” Again, he looked skyward. “Yes, sir, I am well aware that borders on gluttony. A sin. You know darn well it has nothing to do with gluttony and everything to do with the magic of Christmas, an affirmation that Santa is real. I do it for the children.” He smiled at Joan. “Sometimes, He gets a little overbearing with his angels.”
He smirked. “Even God has his faults. He is by no means perfect.” A strong wind swirled through the plaza, nearly catching his knitted cap. He clapped his hand on his head to hold it down. He whispered, “And he doesn’t take criticism too well, either.”
Joan stared at the man. Surely, she was losing it. Santa a spirit, an angel? He and God didn’t even travel in the same circles. She shook her head, trying to make the hallucination go away.
Santa sighed. “I know, I know. You’ve been taught that I’m not real. That I’m a myth. That’s a rumor started by Satan himself, the old devil. He can’t stand the fact that people embrace the goodness in the world. And that I spread good cheer. He would much rather unleash a plague and make people miserable. He hates Christmas. He hates that the birth of Christ is celebrated, and his birth, well, is not. He really can’t stand the fact that love binds people so tightly during the holidays.” Santa shook his fist toward the ground. “The fool pouts all through the holidays.” He then sat up straight and gazed at Joan. “Christmas is really about love, you know. All kinds of love. The type of love he’ll never have. Love of family, love of children, love of—”
“What the heck do you want?” Joan blurted. “People are starting to stare.”
Donovan’s cell phone pinged. He pulled himself into a small alleyway, away from the stampede trudging back to their workplaces after lunch, and leaned back against a building to read a text. His face screwed up in confusion. The text read, The first thing we do, let’s kill all lawyers! Starting with you!
“What the bloody hell?” he muttered. “Is this some kind of joke?” Donovan’s eyes surveyed his surroundings. He gazed right, then left. It did not appear that someone had made him the focus of their attention. Everyone was scurrying about, like mice in pursuit of a big cheese. “Must be Finley,” he said. “Finley is always plying me with lawyer jokes. He thinks he’s funny.”
Donovan shrugged. Not funny at all. He left the alleyway and re-entered the mass migration on the sidewalk. He approached the crosswalk at Michigan and Superior and emitted a snort of frustration as the light changed and the crosswalk filled with cars. He was bumped hard by someone behind him. Donovan was forced to step into the street to regain his balance. A cab rushed by and narrowly missed clipping his side. Donovan jumped back onto the sidewalk.
A woman screamed and Donovan jerked his head around, trying to see what all the fuss was about. The woman was pointing at him. Donovan frowned and turned away. God save me from simpering females who saw the last issue of City Magazine. Donovan had appeared on the cover after being named as one of Chicago’s most eligible bachelors. Since then, he had learned that the female population was comprised of women of questionable morals and distressing behavior. He was growing weary of the attention. While his colleagues thought it a wise marketing strategy, it had brought him nothing but unwanted female attention. He had become prey.
Vampires were predators. They stalked their victims. Sometimes, they pursued them with a vengeance. That was why he had joined the legal profession. His predilections were well-suited to that particular world. Now, his role had apparently shifted and he was not pleased.
Someone tapped Donovan on the shoulder. “Sir? Are you alright? You’re bleeding. It appears someone stuck a knife into your side.”
Donovan’s mouth gaped and he turned toward the man who had spoken. Then he looked at where the man pointed. There was indeed a knife sticking out of his left side and a stream of his blood was flowing onto the sidewalk. He had a very high threshold of pain. He hadn’t felt the knife thrust into his side. If it wasn’t so appalling, he would be embarrassed. Donovan opened his mouth to reply. Then the pain in his side exploded and his vision dulled. Slowly he slid onto the sidewalk as if he planned to sit on the curb.
Then everything went black.
Tom cocked an eyebrow. “Warren, you’re a former Navy Seal. Isn’t there some sort of limit on the amount of time you can spend under the sea before it starts to seriously impair your health?”
Warren frowned. “Usually two weeks. After that, the lack of exposure to the sun and the constant high pressure oxygenated environment would begin to take a toll. There’s also a psychological impact. Think sensory deprivation. Your senses are out of whack because you’ve been dumped into a soundproof sponge. There is no normal sensory stimulation. No sunlight, no sound… Even taste and smell become compromised. Coming back to the real world would be an adjustment.
“In addition, those underwater stations are small. People are right on top of each other. Things we take for granted, like privacy, hot showers, home cooked meals, are in short supply. That can create anxiety, depression, and stress. No way he served that sentence consecutively. He had to take a break in between.”
Warren gazed at Tom. “That environment is more hostile than a prison. You may not be in danger from other inmates, but you are putting your life at risk. Three months sounds like way too much time to be stuck underwater though, especially if you’re not leaving the station for deep sea diving on a regular basis. They must be breaking up the time somehow, otherwise they’d have a pretty tough situation on their hands. A lot of contract workers would be headed to a rubber room. It would be extremely difficult to survive a month, much less three, down there.”
“Could they be treating the inmates like guinea pigs?” Hope asked. “Testing their limits? Tracking actual survival rates?”
Warren sighed. “Possibly. It’s not like they have to answer to anyone. They are located in international waters. No country in particular has legal oversight. I imagine they could be doing anything they want without recourse. Unfortunately, when the prospect of a reduced sentence is dangled in front of some people, they grab it, damn the consequences. If one or two inmates suffer some sort of harm or die along the way, they chalk it up to collateral damage.”
“And who’s going to know?” Cate shook her head. “Someone dies, they probably flush them down a chute into the deep sea and they become shark chum. No evidence left behind.”
Hope cringed. “God, that’s kind of evil. But that still doesn’t answer our original question. Where the hell is Fuzzy? Has he already served out his sentence? Has he been released, and if he has, where the hell is he? He’s the one we need to find. He could have a lot of the answers.”
“That lack of governmental oversight is troubling,” Tom said. “If Cassie McIntyre is down there, I can’t believe the CIA isn’t all over it. At least, our government should be doing a welfare check through the Red Cross or something.”
Warren grimaced. “Unless no one knows she is down there. Think about it. They are on the bottom of the ocean, more than two miles under the sea. It’s not like you can just go down there and knock on the door. Any regular monitoring would be impossible.”
Cate nodded. “And we haven’t been able to confirm that she embarked on the same path as Fuzzy. All we’ve got are suspicions. Right now, she’s missing. We need to sit down with her family and get more information. And we need to find other prisoners who contracted with Martimus.
“Otherwise, we’ve got nothing.”