August 23, 2010

The Death of Giovanni Santore

We had some discussion that we needed to take care of, but I had other things that I needed to do first. I left the others in the lab and went to my room. I needed to make a couple phone calls, out of earshot.

I called Father Nico first. One of the other priests answered the church phone, and gave me more unsettling news. Father Nico wasn't in. And the priest didn't know where he went. I'd never known Nico to leave the church. He was trying to stay under the radar. I wondered if he'd decided to have a meeting with the new Prince as well. If he had, it was possible that I'd be able to get more information about Gaius from him... I thanked the priest, asked him to let Father Nico know I called, and hung up. I hadn't know Nico too long, but the change set me on edge, regardless. Another mystery.

I sat on the edge of my bed, staring at my phone. I did not want to make this second phone call. I didn't want to be a source for Taskforce Valkyrie. It made me feel like a good little pet, which in turn made my stomach turn. It was also why I'd decided to make the calls in private. I didn't need the others dogging me about it. It was a touchy subject.

But for now, I needed to play by their rules, until I could figure out how to use the situation to my advantage. I didn't have to give them anything that I found important.

I dialed the number, an operator picked up the phone.

"How may I direct your call?"
"Captain O'Donnell, please."
"And who is this?"
"One moment please."

I was silently thankful they didn't believe in hold music. I only had a wait a handful of seconds before O'Donnell's voice came on the line.

"O'Shea.. what you got for me?"
At least I didn't need to waste time with pleasantries with O'Donnell. I appreciated that.
"A report.. quite a bit of shit going down out here."
"Alright, tell me what you've got, and I'll tell you how much of it we already know."
"The Prince was offed tonight.. new guy moved in."
"So we heard.. there is quite a stir on that one. Know anything about the new guy?"
"No. Not yet.. we just got back, and I haven't had a chance to start digging. All I know is that he's Roman.. and his name is Gaius Marinas."
"Fair enough, keep digging."

As though I'd stop even if he told me too.. but I didn't say it, I just kept going.

"Citysmith is dead."
"We know."
Fair enough, it had been over a month..
"So is the serial killer."
"We know that too. One of our ghoul plants informed us."
I frowned at the phone. Ghoul plants? My natural paranoia flipped to overdrive. What ghoul plant? Whose ghoul?
"Did you know the Santore's took over Citysmith's territory?" I said with a frustrated edge in my voice.
I was finally rewarded with a long pause from O'Donnell.

I didn't bother to bite back the sarcasm. "That's surprising, you seem to be so well informed." I silently hoped I hadn't just given up the wrong piece of information. I figured that would be common knowledge..
It was his turn to sound annoyed. "Not all of our contacts have the same expertise and connections that you do.. which is why I said 'tell me what you got, and I'll tell you what we've already heard' and not 'don't tell me anything, I've heard it all.'"
I made a noise in my throat that might've been assent, or might've been annoyance, depending on who you asked.
"Fair enough. I've also got some information about Birch that he gave me. And by gave, I mean I stole it, but its not the sort of thing I can give you over the phone. I've got it all on a flash drive."
"South Highland and 13th Street in 2 hours for the drop. Anything else to report?"
"No." I said, gruffly.
"Okay. Keep up the good work soldier." He hung up.

I put the phone away and resisted the urge to take a long, scalding hot shower. Not for the first time, I wondered what would happen when I finally dug the chip out of my shoulder and told them to shove it up their asses. I didn't doubt for a second that O'Donnell was anticipating such a move, eventually. It was something to keep in mind. How could I throw then for a loop?

I stayed down there for awhile, considering my options.

When I went back upstairs, Nadi and Ori were gone, and everyone else was sitting around a work table in the lab, discussing our next course of action. I pulled up a chair.

"So what do we do now?" Nobody asked.
"I don't know.. wait and see? I'm not sure what else to do at this point. All my contacts are indisposed right now." I said, thoughtfully.
"I'm not keen on sitting around waiting on shit to happen." Giovanni said as he worked on the gauntlet attached to his arm. "I need a test subject."
I glared at him. "Don't even think about it."
He rolled his eyes at me. "Not you!"
We heard the front door of the shop open. Gio got a downright giddy look on his face and slid off his chair and hobbled to the doorway, standing to one side.

Ori walked in, and Giovanni punched him in the arm as the werewolf walked by. The glove buzzed briefly, but nothing else happened.
"Damn!" Gio exclaimed.
Ori looked at him, slightly horrified. "Were you trying to electrocute me?!"
Gio shrugged and walked back over to the table, removing the glove. "What? I need to test the thing, and you heal really fast." Gio started rummaging through shelves until he found a large piece of metal.
Ori stared at him. "You're fucking nuts!"
"That's what I keep telling him.." I muttered.

Ori pulled up a chair while Giovanni set out working with a sheet of metal.
"So, I think we should go check out that warehouse." Ori suggested as he gave Gio suspicious sidelong glances.
I gave him a skeptical look. "But we already know what was in the crate."
He looked confused. "We do?"
"Gaius." I said simply.
"But that box was huge! And it took 12 of those weird looking guys to carry it! Why would it be that big to hold one short guy?" Ori protested.
I shrugged. "Hubris? You really think he'd sleep in a tiny little coffin?"
"I still think we should check it out. There might be more there."
"Doubtful" I muttered.
"Oooh, do you have a magic ball that tells you everything that's in the warehouse? That's so handy!" Ori said with a frown. "If you don't want to go, I'll just take Nobody."

I glared at him and crossed my arms. "If you want to go, then fucking go. I didn't say you shouldn't, and I didn't say I wouldn't. But I have somewhere to be in an hour. Wait until I get back, until Nadi gets back, and we'll go together. Just in case."

Ori made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "We'll go on ahead.. I just want to scope it out. We won't go inside until everyone gets there."

"I really don't think that's a great idea." I said, sourly.
"As far as bad ideas goes, its one of our more harmless ones." Gio said as he pulled the circuitry off his power glove. "Besides, all his cronies will be at that meeting right?"
I frowned at them all. "Maybe, maybe not...Fine. Becca and I will meet you over there. Don't be stupid."

And I got up and walked out of the lab knowing they didn't know how to be anything but.

I wasn't really trying to discourage Ori from digging up information. I was just pointing out the potential downsides.. and I felt like the others weren't being careful enough. There might still be defenses around that warehouse.

I put it all in the back of my mind, grabbed Becca, and headed out to the drop point. I wanted to get there earlier to scout it out, and it wouldn't hurt to spend some time with Becca.

The intersection was home to a Blimpie. Other than that, the area seemed pretty mundane. We got sandwiches and sat on the outside patio. Becca tore into hers like she hadn't eaten in a week. I watched her, more than a little jealous. I ate my own much more reservedly. Food just didn't taste good anymore.. and the knowledge that I'd violently puke it up as ash later sullied the experience.

"I remember sandwiches tasting better than this.." I grumbled quietly and took another small bite.

"Oh.. man, I guess that really blows, huh?" Becca said through a mouthful of bread, cheese and meat.

"It's certainly a downside." I made a face and put the sandwich down. "You know, I got accused of being bulimic a few times in high school since I was so skinny.. never actually was till now."

Becca started laughing and nearly choked on her soda. My lips twisted into a small smile. We chatted about nothing for awhile longer.. small talk mostly. We had more important things to discuss, but neither of us were stupid enough to do it out in the open. It also felt nice to be normal for awhile. I hadn't taken much time to do normal.. human.. things since I got to Chicago. I remembered now why Giuseppe had stressed the importance of them. It was nice to pretend that the world was a nice place for a few minutes. Even if it was all a lie.

We were there for about half an hour when a man walked past our table, stumbled, and spilled our drinks all over the place.

"I am so sorry! here, let me clean this up!" He fumbled for napkins and began mopping up the liquid frantically. I scowled at him and shoved a wad of napkins at him... with a thumb drive tucked inside. "Watch where you're going next time."

He continued to apologize profusely, made some feeble attempts to wipe up more soda, dropped money on the table to cover our ruined (but already mostly eaten) sandwiches, and hurried away.

Becca and I tossed the remnants of our soggy sandwiches and left in a huff. Or at least, I was in a huff. Becca was just telling me to calm down...until we were safely back in the car.

"I feel like a spy. Whats next? Stealing launch codes from the Russians?" Becca said with a grin.
I shrugged, dropping the feigned displeasure, scowl disappearing like it had never been there at all. "It seems silly, really.. but then, I can understand the desire for secrecy. You can't really be too paranoid when your dealing with the people we're dealing with." And I firmly believed that.

That said and done, we headed to the docks, and I hoped profusely that the others hadn't gone and done something retarded while I was gone.


It didn't take long to get to the warehouse.. but it was long enough for the shit to hit the fan. We pulled up near the building, a couple hundred yards away.. just as I saw fire shoot up into the air near the entrance. I recognized that fire. It was Dumah, Giovanni's shotgun.

I bailed from the car and took off at a dead sprint before the car had even stopped rolling. I smelled the blood as soon as I opened the car door. I was there in seconds, rounding a corner, knives already drawn, to see Nobody, Giovanni, and a burly vampire I didn't recognize standing around a cargo van with the drivers door open, the soft bing bing bing of the door ajar alarm echoing from inside the vehicle. Giovanni was already in his demon form, Dumah trained on the unknown vampire, and he was bleeding very heavily. It had already begun pooling at his feet. The vampire's shirt was on fire.

I took it all in in an instant. The vampire took one hand that bore huge hooked claws, and brushed away the fire that had hit him square in the chest like it was nothing. Gangrel. Probably the wolf we'd seen earlier at the Shedd. His muscles bunched as he prepared to launch himself at Giovanni again. I knew Gio couldn't take another hit. It was miraculous that he was conscious, my enhanced hearing could pick up on his thready pulse.

I did the first thing that came to mind when faced with an opponant that would tear me to shreds in a fair fight. I made the fight an unfair one. I blinded him. Shadows flowed from my fingertips and wrapped around his head like black, inky, bandages.

It didn't do a damn bit of good. He lunged before the darkness closed in, so his trajectory was already set. We watched, helpless, as he slammed his claws into Giovanni's chest with a sickeningly wet, tearing sound, and held him up, off the ground.

Time seemed to slow as Gio's eyes rolled back in his head and his body convulsed....

And I heard Giovanni Santore's heart explode in his chest.

Dark heart's blood poured down the gangrel's talons, it looked black in the moonlight.

His aura winked out...

Then flared a bright, sickly green until he was wreathed in flames.

It all happened in less than a second.. less time than it took the beast to react. Gio's heart burst on one beat, then continued pounding as though it hadn't just been ripped apart. Without any decipherable movement, Giovanni's body was now suspended just above the tips of the vampires claws. His eyes rolled forward again, and they burned with that same sickly green fire.

He stared down at the vampire with an angry and terrible look on his face, smoke pouring from his mouth and nose. It smelled of brimstone.

"You have no idea who you're FUCKING WITH!"

And he balled his fist and slammed it with impressive force right into the side of the Gangrel's face. We couldn't see his jaw crumble due to the shadows coalescing around his face a moment before the fist met with his chin, but everyone heard the sound of shattering bone and tearing flesh.. and before Giovanni's fist came out the other side, the vampire exploded into a cloud of mist that was quickly swept away by the lakeside breeze.

The van continued to sound its soft little alarm. Other than that and the drip drip drip of Giovanni's blood soaked clothes, the dock was silent.

We all stared at Gio as he lowered himself to the ground and folded his wings against his back. I was pretty sure I'd been the only one who heard his heart explode.. but the others had seen the shudder.. and we were all too familiar with what that usually indicated.

I recovered first. And I was pissed.

"What the FUCK?! You see why I hesitate to let you assholes wander off without me? What happened to staying your distance and just fucking observing?" I hissed, trying not to scream at them.

"Hey, we didn't go inside.." Nobody said defensively, but his argument held no conviction. Ori trotted up in wolf form, joining to party late. I assumed he'd been perched somewhere with his rifle.

I pointed at the padlocked door, lock hanging open on the chains. "Not for lack of fucking trying!"

I leave them alone for 30 fucking minutes and one of them practically gets gutted. I don't know how Giovanni was still alive, but I did know that he was damn lucky.. and that his luck would run out eventually. None of them were paranoid enough for their own good.

"Lets get out of here.. I don't want to deal with that guy again." Gio said suddenly, ignoring my smoldering demeanor.

Ori and Nobody hesitated. "We're already here.." Nobody said slowly. "And I'd hate for this all to be for nothing." Ori just jerked his shaggy head at the doors in earnest.

I glared at them, but bit back a comment. I was curious as well, and there were unlikely to be any other guards around... I hoped. If there was, hopefully Gio's little show would convince them to stay away.

Gio shrugged. "Oh..what the hell. Lets do this quick before that asshole comes back."

He turned on his heel and strode up to the door, picking up his goggles as he went. They had been thrown to the concrete in the scuffle.

We all stood to the side as Gio pushed the doors open, preparing for another attack. I was ready to douse what little light was there to mask our movements... but it was unnecessary. The room was devoid of threats.. and pitch dark.

I felt my pupils expand to consume my entire eye, and the scene faded from inky black to dim twilight.

The room was empty, save for a huge mound of white dust that was several feet high. We entered cautiously, continually scanning every corner for danger.

But we were alone. Wolf-Ori padded over to the huge pile of powder and began to dig, tossing the grit into the air. We watched, curious, as Ori latched his jaws around something, and dragged a dessicated corpse half way out of the pile.

He backed away and came to stand next to us. It was one of the weird looking body guards. His skin was shriveled and dry, eyes cloudy and unseeing. I crouched next to the body and looked him over. He looked like he'd been dead for only a few hours. There was no blood pooling in any part of his body. That, coupled with the look of him, told me how he'd died. Someone had been very hungry.

I could guess what had happened, but it was pure conjecture. I needed harder facts. I needed to make the other's epic fuck up worth something.

I stuck my fingers into the dust as though I was trying to get a handful of it, and focused.


I saw a large quarry, filled with unhewn marble, in a location I couldn't quite place. I watched as it flashed forward, a giant solid piece of rock being shaped and carved and chiseled and polished.. I watched the sarcophagus being fashioned over the course of several mortal lifetimes. Sculptors that spent their entire lives creating this work of art that now lay in complete ruin at our feet. I watched as Gaius laid down in the tomb, and saw it buried deep beneath the mighty city of Rome.

Then blackness.. a large cracking noise and a swath of light cut across my vision, the body guards face appearing in the crack...

Then nothing.

I heard, "Oriori" in the blackness.


"Oriori? I rise?" Gio asked. I must have said the phrase while I was out.

I wiped my hands on my jeans and stood. "He was sleeping in it.. and they opened it. Other than that, I know that it was buried beneath Rome for a very long time. That's all I got."

Giovanni looked thoughtful. "Wonder why they woke him up?"

I just shrugged. "I don't know. Could be they needed him to replace Maxwell, but why him, specifically? But who is they? Rashida? The Invictus? We can't know for sure..yet." I took another long look around the warehouse. We were very exposed, standing in the middle of the large, open space. "Lets talk about it back at the shop. I want to get the fuck out of here."

Everyone nodded agreement. As we walked away, Becca knelt and pulled something out of the fine, powdered marble. It was a pry bar.

"I'll be taking this.." She muttered, and walked out behind the rest of us.

The gangrel was still nowhere to be seen, thankfully, and we made it back to the shop without incident.

Interesting things began to happen once Giovanni approached the front door, however. The entrance swung open of its own accord, as per usual, but Giovanni stopped short, as though he'd hit an invisible wall.

"But you've already been inside." He said, presumably to himself. He paused, as though waiting for an answer, then rolled his eyes. "Fine.. Will you please come into my shop?" And he stepped over the threshold. "Are you happy?"

We all exchanged worried or confused glances, and followed Giovanni into the lab. I leaned back against one shadowed wall and eyed him closely. "What the fuck is going on, Gio?"

He gave that annoying smirk. "I'm two for two."

I grit my teeth and tried not to let him piss me off. It took a great deal of self control. "Yeah, I can see that.. how?"

I saw that damn twinkle in his eye that said he was about to do something that he knew would get under my skin. A second later, someone was standing behind him.. something that was wearing an old fashioned dress and parasol.. and whose head was completely engulfed in vibrant, dancing flames.

I visible flinched away from him, and he was awarded a rather nasty scowl. But he just smiled. "You're an asshole, Gio."

"Yzzacks, say hello." Gio said with a grin.

The voice sounded like smoldering coals, yet managed to have a quasi-feminine edge to it. It sounded amused. "Hello.."

Ori stared, open mouthed, and Nobody gave a low whistle. "Is that the.."

"Chaos demon that Theo brought over? Yup." Gio interrupted.
"That is fucking creepy." Ori muttered. Becca nodded in agreement.

I leaned back further into the gloom of my little patch of wall. "I heard you're heart explode, Giovanni. What the fuck is going on?"

"I died. I just didn't stay that way. Yzzacks and I have an.. arrangement now."

I crossed my arms and regarded him thoughtfully, making a point to look directly at the flaming demon, as uncomfortable as it made me. "What kind of arrangement?" My voice was dripping with suspicion.

Gio's only answer was a smile. I managed to keep myself from forcibly wiping it from his smug face. I was more concerned than angry. Concerned how this would effect him..and the rest of us. Demons were unpredictable.. and while it would no doubt lend itself to some interesting events, it also had the potential to screw all off us over in a very unpleasant and unexpected manner.

"So.. what about Cheshire?" Nobody asked, suddenly.

If I was breathing, I'd be holding my breath. I hadn't thought about that.

Giovanni just shrugged. "My death dissolves our agreement. This was mostly his doing, anyway."

"How so?" I probed.

"It was in his best interest to keep me alive." Giovanni said. "He's free now.. which will be interesting all on its own.." He pulled up a stool and settled onto it. He was moving differently. I'm not the only one who noticed.

"Hows the leg, Gio?" Nobody said suddenly.

Gio grinned and flexed his leg, swinging it freely. "Its great.. you know, that will probably freak me out later, but right now, I'm just going to enjoy it."

I rolled my eyes at him, though the movement was a bit lost, probably, since I was standing in the darkest part of the lab, seeking refuge from the flaming woman-thing standing a few feet away. "You just died and signed a bargain with something that looks like its perpetually on fire.. and carries a pretty little parasol, to bring you back to life and your worried about being freaked out later because your LEG is all better?" I scowled at him. "I'm so glad your priorities are in order." The sarcasm dripped off my words and formed a puddle at my feet.

Gio just shrugged. "Yeah, but she's new.. the leg has been fucked up for the last few YEARS of my life.. and, ironically, I had to die to make things better for me."

A ghost of smile crossed my face. With that, I understood a little better. I'd been through the same thing, after all. I made a soft noise that might have been a chuckle. "Story of my unlife."

Gio leaned back against a work table, resting his elbows on it. "But you see, the difference between you and me, Harper babe.." My brief moment of good humor turned to sour annoyance. " that I can still get a tan."

My smart ass comeback was cut off by the slightly disturbing laugh that bubbled up from the chaos demon standing behind Giovanni. "Oh and you will!" She (can demons have gender?) said. Talk about foreboding.

It was about that time that Nadi came back. We filled her in pretty quickly, and she, in turn, filled us in on what her research had given her. It wasn't much.

After six hours of research, she'd uncovered a single scrap of information directly referencing the Julii. It was "The Hidden Rome." A treatsie/conspiracy written by Marcellus I, circa 389 CE. It read,

"In caverns, do they sleep. Dead founders, dread Julii, burned by the fires of the Sanctified Lance. They must remain asleep, or be outright destroyed, for if they wake, the Striges will.."

And the rest had been burned away. 389 was the year the library in Alexandria burned.

"Well shit.. what the hell are the Striges?" Nobody said with a huff. He seemed as frustrated as I felt. It was not often that Nadi came back with only table scraps. On the other hand, I found myself sort of.. excited. The prospect of discovering aspects to such a difficult mystery would be pretty fucking worthwhile.

"A legendary creature of ancient Rome. A nocturnal bird of ill omen that fed on human flesh and blood.. similar to a vampire. However, it was more a product of a metamorphosis, rather than a risen corpse." Nadi said, with a small shrug of apology my way. I waved my hand dismissively. Can't argue facts.

"The Lanceum Sanctum.. are they the ones Deuce was talking about earlier?" Nadi asked.

I nodded. "Sounds like it. Its interesting that they may have a role in this, but it makes a certain amount of sense. What I want to know is.. how are they related? Why would the Lance want to destroy the Julii?"

"You know who might know.." Ori said slowly, eying me.

I scowled at him and leaned deeper into my shadowy part of the wall. "NO. I'm not calling that asshole unless I have ZERO other options."

"Oh! please! regale us with your other options! Because from where I'm sitting, he's all we've got." Ori glared back at me.

"No." I hissed, "He isn't."

"Oh? Who else then?" Ori crossed his arms defiantly.

"Rowan and Father Nico, to name two." I shot back.

Ori's voice got louder. "Who you can't get a hold of because they're probably in those meetings!"

My voice got quieter, but no less annoyed. "You're absolutely correct. So tell me.. where exactly do you think the leader of the Lanceum Sanctum in Chicago would be right now?"

Ori opened his mouth to respond.. then abruptly shut it and just frowned at me.

"Hah!" Nadi exclaimed suddenly. Our argument dissolved and we both turned to stare at her. She was tapping away at her cell phone..and something had amused her enough to get through her poker face. We all watched, absolutely stunned and transfixed, as Nadi let out another brief chuckle.. and then put her phone away.

"I am so turned on right now." Becca said, quietly.

"What was that about?" I asked as I turned my aura sight on her, then cursed inwardly as I remembered that she'd done something to get rid of her fucking aura.

"Nothing important.. so if we don't know much about him, what about his bodyguards? Why did they tell you this was a family matter, Harper? Why did she keep saying, 'All must serve'?" She smoothly changed the subject.. and I let her. I made a mental note to find out who she'd been talking too.

I took a long breath, and exhaled it slowly, letting it take away the distracting emotions. I needed focus.

"They're Khaibit.. same as I am. It's a Mekhet bloodline with the ability to manipulate shadows. Traditionally, the bloodline was part of the Cult of Set. The Order of the Phoenix protected the world from evil during the day, and the khaibit protected the world at night.. keeping it safe from the creatures of darkness.. by becoming darkness itself." I held my hand up in front of me. The others watched as inky shadows oozed from my upturned palm, twisting and writhing around each other, and around my arm, like black vipers.

"But the Cult of Set doesn't exist anymore." Nadi pointed out.

I closed my fist, and the shadows disappeared, almost as though they seeped back through my pores. "Not officially, no. The cult faded away, but the Khaibit still exist. Now, most Khaibit act as retainers. Butlers, assassins, or bodyguards to anyone who can afford them. Its seen as a status symbol to be able to afford a Khaibit servant." I made a face that spoke volumes of how I felt about that.

Nadi nodded, taking it all in. "So.. is it rare to find a Khaibit who doesn't have a master?"

"Pretty much unheard of. I'm an oddity. I'd rather focus on the traditional role, so I made it a point to never mention my bloodline to any of the other kindred."

Nobody's aura suddenly flared with colors of impudent glee. His voice was sarcastic and belittling. "So Giuseppe isn't your master? Pulling your strings?"

The troublesome emotions that I had quieted a few moments before flooded back to the surface. The beast howled in outrage at the direct insult to both myself, and my sire. It surge forward to take the reins and destroy and devour the insolent insect.. and hit a brick fucking wall. Visions of violence danced through my mind, but I let the movies play, and forced myself to react in a manner that would prove much more scathing.

A dangerously playful smirk crept across my lips. I turned my head almost lazily towards the changeling, eyes cool and collected, not a hint of the deadly passion going on behind them visible. "No more than you are."

His aura flared angrily. "Yeah, but I have a choice."

"Hah!" I scoffed.
"You wish." Giovanni added.
Nobody's aura turned sullen.

I could have ripped out his spine for the insult, but he wanted to make me angry. I wouldn't give him the satisfaction. But I'd remember the remark.

I did things for Giuseppe, and helped him with his plans, because I wanted to, I felt it important... And he'd helped me out of trouble more than once. He wasn't a master.. he was family. He and Mona both. To suggest I was nothing more than hired help was an affront to us both.

"So is Rashida a friend, then? If she's Khaibit too?" Trust it to Nadi to stay on track.

I made a face. "I wouldn't go as far as to say that. I'd be lying if I said I knew Rashida's motivations. She's helped me out before, but that doesn't mean much. I don't know what she's up too."

"I see." Nadi said, thoughtfully.

The others were being particularly infuriating tonight. These assholes could really try my patience.

We sat in silence a moment. We had so many question, and had very few ideas on how to get the answers.

And then the obvious source hit me right between the eyes. Figuratively speaking.

I broke the silence in a quiet voice. "We should request an audience."

Everyone looked up, stunned. I don't think it was the statement that surprised then, but rather the fact that I was the one suggesting it. One by one, their faces went thoughtful as they each realized the importance that action held.

We had been holding the new Prince at arms length, using stealth and contacts to garner any information on him that we could. We were treating him as we would treat Maxwell.

But he wasn't Maxwell. He was a new prince, one who was keeping the old advisors, and had new ones that knew more about us than we were comfortable with. I had planned to stay under Gaius' radar as much as possible, but I realized that was a fool's dream. Not only would Norris mention us, but Rashida would as well. She had already ensured we would witness the power change.

Not only that, but we were the ones who had set the plan in motion to defeat Ophios.. and he'd made it a point to mention that event.

We were too notorious to be left alone. My curiosity was raging, and we needed answers. I needed to know more about him. I needed to know what he would be expecting of the kindred in Chicago. While I was fine with the concept of forgiveness over permission, I had gotten the distinct impression that Gaius wouldn't fall short where Maxwell had. There would be no mercy for anyone who broke the rules, whether in ignorance or not.

And it wouldn't hurt to be polite.

The others seemed to have come to similar conclusions.
"Is there a protocol for that sort of thing?" Nobody asked.

I pulled out my cell and started scrolling through my contacts. "Depends on the Prince. I'm not even sure we'd be able to get in right now, what with all the meetings that are probably going on. But I can find out."

Alex Gutierrez. He was one of the few Dragon's in town that I knew of, and he might be able to help. He was a lawyer, one that still practiced, and a relatively young vampire. Not much older than me, I think. But the important part was that he was a lawyer, was probably familiar with this sort of politicking.. and he was likely to talk to me.

He'd given me his office number when I had returned to Chicago with Mona. A receptionist answered in a cheerful and professional voice.

"Gui and Associates, how may I direct your call?"
"Mr. Gutierrez, please."
"I am sorry, but Mr. Gutierrez is not currently available. May I have your name so that I can inform him that you called?"
Damn. I figured he'd be in. Then again, tonight was a busy night for many of Chicago's kindred. "Harper O'Shea. If you could just let him know I called, and would like to speak with him at his earliest convenience, I'd appreciate it."
I could hear the receptionist typing away at her keyboard. There was a brief pause, then her voice came back on the line.
"If you like, Ms. O'Shea, I can provide you with his personal cell phone."
Wait, what?
"Yeah.. that would be great.." I grabbed a pen and paper, wondering what just happened, but not willing to question my good luck right at that moment.
She read off the number, I read it back to her.
"I would suggest contacting him by text message right now. He is in a very.. important meeting, and a phone call could prove too.. disruptive." The receptionist said with a weight to her words that suggested she knew exactly where Gutierrez was, what he was, and what he might be doing.

I thanked her and hung up the phone, my expression bemused, if not slightly amused as well.

"What just happened?" Giovanni asked.

I held up the paper with the phone number on it. "Apparently, I'm in the system, and the system says I get the personal cell number."

Gio shrugged, unconcerned. "I suppose notoriety has its perks. So this Gutierrez guy is a vampire? I've heard of him.. how does he still practice law?"

"It doesn't surprise me that you'd recognize the name of a good lawyer, Giovanni Santore." I said blandly. "As far as I know, the story is that he has solar urticaria, so chooses to run his practice at night. He has a partner that takes care of anything during the day."

"Solar urticaria?" Gio's voice was twinged with suppressed laughter. "So he's.. allergic to sunlight?"

My mouth twitched into a faint smile. "The best lies are the ones that are technically true."

Gio chuckled and I set to contacting Gutierrez.

To: Gutierrez

This is Harper O'Shea. Your receptionist provided me with this number. I was hoping you could advise me on how to request an audience with the new Prince.


I only had to wait a moment before my phone buzzed in reply


From: A. Gutierrez

Working on that with N now. Did you see it happen? N says he saw your crew here.


To: Gutierrez

Yeah, we had front row seats.


From: A. Gutierrez

New Prince is keeping things pretty much the same, so schedule things with Norris. He remains Sen. Aside from M, no other big changes. Strange.


It really was strange. Alex's informaiton did little to sooth my nerves or offset my paranoia.


To: Gutierrez

Very. Any idea when a good time to contact N would be? I don't want to interrupt anything important.


From: A. Gutierrez

Might want to give it a night to calm down. I'll drop your name for, what, 7 tomorrow night? I can get you some more intel, too.


I was a bit taken aback by how helpful Gutierrez was being.. but I wasn't going to complain.


To: Gutierrez

That would be greatly appreciated.


From: A. Gutierrez

I'll mail you the bill.


I put my phone back in my pocket with a small smile. "7pm tomorrow night. Be ready, we don't want to be late. Figure out what you'll ask him now."

Nadi nodded, then said, "I'm going to do more research. I'll be back later." And walked out.

I didn't bother saying anything to the rest of them. I just nodded to Becca, and retreated down into my room. I had many more questions for Giovanni, but sunrise was close, and I had other work to do.

I turned on my laptop and set to work retrieving the mysterious text messages she'd been receiving. It wasn't a terrible difficult task.. but the result only served to reaffirm to me that she was not beyond pissing me off.

The first message was actually an email from Nadi.

--My mistress would like you to call at your earliest convenience.--

I read that three times, confused. What the fuck was she up too? The response came in the form of a text message.

--Tell your mistress that my earliest convenience will be precisely 3 hours after she starts being important. I'll need the time to make sure that I'm not dreaming, then decide whether or not I really give a shit. <3 SB --

My jaw dropped straight to the floor as I continued to read. I was too stunned to be mad.. yet.

--Can you tell me a specific time when that might be? I am a bad judge of such things.--

Nadi was texting with Solomon fucking Birch!

--Maxwell is a smear on the Shedd floor and there is a lot to do. Like try and figure out whether or not this gives me a reason to slaughter all of my enemies now, or whether I should let them destroy each other. Tell you what, snuggles... I'll call.--


--Important decisions for an important being. We look forward to your call. K. thx. bye.--

And the last line from Birch nearly made my yes bug out of my skull.

--You're the only one of them that I find worthwhile.--

The anger kicked in, after that. I swore to myself and was on my feet with my hand on the door before I forced myself to stop. I took a step back, and drew in a deep breath. I exhaled, and sat down slowly. I was honestly surprised that Nadi would pull this type of bullshit.. but I couldn't deal with her the same way I dealt with the others. First off, I didn't want her to know that I could hack into her cell. Secondly, I wouldn't be able to get her goat as easily as I could the others.

She had also, inadvertently, given me a useful piece of information. Information that neither she, nor Birch, knew I had.

Now I just had to find a way to use that to my advantage...and figure out what the hell I was going to say to Solomon Birch when he called my phone..

And really? Snuggles? What the fuck.

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