"Search and rescue's not exactly our thing," Dante said, his eyes on the civilian as a rumble of agreement kicked up from around the table of warriors.

"That's true," Nikolai put in. The Russian-born vampire grinned from under a long hank of sandy-colored hair that didn't quite conceal the wintry chill of his ice-blue gaze. "We're more of a bag-and-tag operation."

"There's more to this than just a few stray vampires out past curfew and in need of collars," Lucan said. His grim tone dialed down the attitude in the room at once. "I'll let Agent Chase explain what's going on."

"Last month, a group of three Darkhaven youths left for a rave somewhere in the city and never returned. A week later, another two went missing. More disappearances have been happening from Boston area Darkhavens every night in the time since." Agent Chase reached into a briefcase on the floor beside him and pulled out a thick file. He tossed it to the center of the conference table. From within the manila jacket, about a dozen snapshots spilled out--faces of smiling, youthful vampire males. "These are just the reported disappearances so far. We've probably lost another couple of inpiduals in the time I' ve been here meeting with you."

Dante sifted through the pile of photographs and passed the folder around the table, figuring they couldn't all be runaways. Life in the Darkhavens could be a bore to young males with something to prove to the world, but nothing was so bad it would drive groups of them away at a time. "Have there been any recoveries at all? Any sightings? This many missing inpiduals in such a short period of time--seems like someone ought to know something about it." "There have been only a handful of recoveries."

Chase brought out another file from his case, this one considerably thinner than the first. He withdrew a few photographs and fanned them out before him on the table. They were morgue shots. Three civilian vampires, current generation, and probably not one of them older than thirty-five years. In each photo, a pair of sightless eyes stared up at the camera lens, pupils elongated to hungered slits, the natural color of the irises saturated in the amber-yellow glow of Bloodlust.

"Rogues," Niko said, practically hissing the word.

"No," Agent Chase replied. "They died in the throes of Bloodlust, but they hadn't yet turned. They were not Rogues."

Dante got out of his chair and leaned over the table to have a closer look at the pictures. His gaze was drawn immediately to the crust of dried pinkish foam that circled the subjects' slack mouths. The same kind of saliva residue he'd spotted on his attacker outside the club earlier tonight. "Any idea what killed them?"

Chase nodded. "Narcotic overdose."

"Any of you hear chatter around town about a new club drug called Crimson?" Lucan asked the group of warriors. None had. "From what Agent Chase has told me, it's a particularly nasty bit of chemistry that's been showing up lately among the Breed's younger crowds. It's a stimulant and mild hallucinogenic that also produces a burst of enormous strength and endurance. But that's just the appetizer. The real fun starts about fifteen minutes into ingestion."

"That's right," Agent Chase added. "Users who eat or inhale this red powder soon experience extreme thirst and feverlike chills. They convulse into a mindless, animal state, exhibiting all the traits of Bloodlust, from the fixed, elliptical pupils and permanently extruded fangs to the insatiable need for blood. If the inpidual is left to quench that need, he is almost certain to turn Rogue. If he continues to use Crimson, this," Chase said, pointing to the morgue photos, "is the other outcome."

Dante cursed, half in frustration for the epidemic hysteria just waiting to erupt among the Darkhaven populations, but also for the realization that the young Bloodlusting vampire he'd killed tonight was a Breed youth, like these, hopped up on the shit Chase had just described. He had a hard time feeling bad about taking the kid out when he'd been coming at Dante like a ton of bricks.

"This drug, Crimson," Dante said. "Any thought on where it's coming from, who might be manufacturing it or distributing it?"

"We have nothing more to go on than what I've presented here."

Dante saw Lucan's grave expression and understood where this was heading. "Ah, and so this is where we come in, is that it?"

"The Darkhavens have asked for our assistance in identifying and, if practical or even possible, bringing back any missing civilians we might run across in our nightly patrols. Obviously, as a part of that, it is in our shared interest to put a stop to Crimson and those who deal in it. I think we can all agree that the last thing the Breed needs is more vampires turning Rogue."

Dante nodded along with the others.

"The Order's willingness to assist with this problem is greatly appreciated. My thanks to all of you," Chase said, letting his gaze settle on each of the Breed warriors in turn. "But there is one more thing, if I may?"

Lucan gave a slight incline of his head, gesturing for the agent to continue.

Chase cleared his throat. "I would like to have an active part in the operation."

A long, heavy silence stretched out as Lucan scowled, leaning back in his chair at the head of the table. "Active in what way?"

"I want to ride along with one or more members of the Order, to personally monitor the operation and to assist in the retrieval of these missing inpiduals."

Seated on the other side of Dante, Nikolai burst out laughing.

Gideon raked his fingers through his cropped hair, then threw his pale blue shades onto the table. "We don't take civilians along on our operations. Never have, never will."

Even Tegan, the stoic one, who hadn't uttered a single word one way or the other throughout the entire meeting, was finally moved to voice his disagreement. "You won't live to the end of your first night, Agent," he said without inflection, only cold truth.

Dante held his disbelief inside, certain that Lucan would shut the agent down with the power of his level glare alone. But Lucan didn't reject the idea outright. He stood up, his fists braced on the edge of the conference table.

"Leave us," he told Chase. "My brethren and I will discuss your request privately. Our business here is finished for now, Agent Chase. You may return to the Darkhaven to await our decision. I will be in contact with you."

Dante and the rest of the warriors stood too; then, after a long moment, so did the Darkhaven agent, retrieving his polished leather case from the floor beside him. Dante took a step out from the table. When Chase tried to move past him, he got the edge of Dante's thick shoulder blocking his path. Given no choice, he paused.

"Folks like you call us savages," Dante said harshly, "yet here you are, all posh and shiny in your suit and tie, asking for our help. Lucan speaks for the Order, and if he says we're going to bail your ass out on this little problem, then that's good enough for me. But it doesn't mean I have to like it. Doesn't mean I have to like you either."

"I'm not hoping to win any popularity contests. And if you have misgivings about my proposed role in this investigation, by all means, state them."

Dante chuckled, surprised by the challenge. He didn't think the guy had it in him. "Well, now, I don't mean to stand on ceremony, Special Investigative Agent Chase--'scuse me, Senior Special Investigative Agent--but what I do, what all of us in this room do, each and every night, is some dirty fucking work. We fight. We kill. We sure as shit don't run some kind of tourist program for Darkhaven agents looking to build their political careers on our blood and sweat."

"Nor is that my intention, I assure you. All that matters to me is my charge to locate and recover the inpiduals who've gone missing from my community. If the Order can stop the proliferation of Crimson in the process, so much the better. For all of the Breed."

"And how is it you feel you're even remotely qualified to go out on patrols with us?" Agent Chase glanced around the room, possibly looking for support from any one of the warriors standing around the table. The room was quiet. Not even Lucan spoke on his behalf. Dante narrowed his gaze and smiled, half-hoping the silence would drive the agent away. Send him running back to his quiet little sanctuary with his tail between his legs.

Then Dante and the rest of the Order could get back to the business of dealing death to the Rogues-- preferably without an audience and a goddamn scorecard.

"I hold a BA in Political Science from Columbia University," Chase finally said. "And, like my brother and my father before me, I have a law degree from Harvard, where I graduated at the top of my class. In addition, I am trained in three schools of martial arts and have an expert-marksman rating in a shooting range of eleven hundred feet. That measure being without the aid of a scope."

"Is that right?" The r?sum? was impressive, but Dante hardly flinched in reaction. "So, tell me, Harvard, how many times have you used your training--martial arts or weapons--outside of a classroom? How much of your blood have you spilled? How much have you taken from your enemies in the heat of battle?"

The agent held Dante's flat stare, the clean-shaven, square chin climbing up a notch. "I'm not afraid to be tested on the street."

"That's good," Dante drawled. "That's real good, because if you're thinking about going to the dance with any of us, you sure as hell will be put to the test."

Chase bared his teeth in a tight smile. "Thanks for the warning."

He brushed past Dante, murmured his good-byes to Lucan and the others, then strolled out of the lab with his briefcase clutched hard in his hand.

When the glass doors slid closed behind the agent, Niko ground out a curse in his native Siberian tongue. "That's some messed-up shit, Darkhaven pencil-pusher thinking he's got balls enough to ride with us."

Dante shook his head, sharing the same opinion, but his thoughts were churning on something else equally troubling. Maybe more so.

"I got jumped downtown tonight," he said, meeting the tense faces of his brethren. "I thought it was a Rogue stalking prey outside a club. I fought with the son of a bitch, but he wasn't going down easy. Ended up pursuing him down to the riverfront, where I ran into a whole new mess of trouble. A group of heavily armed suckheads came at me hard."

Gideon slanted a narrowed gaze on him. "Damn, D. Why didn't you call in for support?"

"There wasn't time to do anything but try to save my own ass," Dante said, recalling the viciousness of the attack. "The thing is, that suckhead I chased down there fought like a demon. Virtually unstoppable, like a Gen One Rogue--maybe worse. And titanium didn't affect him."

"If he was Rogue," Lucan said, "the titanium should have smoked him on the spot."

"Right," Dante agreed. "He showed all the signs of advanced Bloodlust, but he hadn't actually turned Rogue. And there's more. That dried pink foam you can see in Chase's morgue shots? That suckhead had it too."

"Shit," Gideon said, picking up the photographs and showing them to the other warriors. "So, in addition to dealing with the continuing problem of the Rogues, now we're coming up against Breed vampires hopped up on Crimson too. In the heat of the fight, how're we going to know what we've got in our crosshairs?"

"We won't," Dante said.

Gideon shrugged. "Suddenly things don't seem so black and white."

Tegan, his expression placid and cool, exhaled a wry laugh. "As of a few months ago, our problem with the Rogues became a war. Not a lot of room for gray in that picture."

Niko nodded his head in agreement. "If a suckhead wants to get in my shit--Crimson eater or Rogue --he's got one thing to look forward to: death. Let the Darkhavens sort through the rubble once it's all over."

Lucan turned his attention to Dante. "What about you, D? Care to weigh in on this?"

Dante crossed his arms over his chest, more than ready for that shower now and an end to a night that had only proceeded to go downhill since he got out of bed. "From what little we know of Crimson, it doesn't sound good. All these missing civilians, with more all the time, is bound to start a panic in the Darkhaven populations in general. Bad enough we've got this new complication of Crimson users to deal with, but can any of you imagine the clusterfuck situation of having the streets overrun with a bunch of Darkhaven agents trying to ID missing persons and apprehend them on their own?"

Lucan nodded. "Which brings us back to Agent Chase and his request to participate in this operation. He's come to us with the same concerns, not wanting to cause widespread panic yet needing to recover the missing and find a swift solution to the problem Crimson seems to be causing among the Breed. I think he could be a benefit to us, not only in the operation itself but down the road as well. It might be good for the Order to have an ally in the Darkhavens."

Dante could not contain his scoff of incredulity. "We've never needed them. We've been pulling their nancy assess out of fires for centuries, Lucan. Don't tell me we're going to start kissing up to them now. Fuck that, man! If we let them into our business, next thing you know, we'll have to ask their permission to take a piss."

He'd gone too far. Lucan said nothing, but a glance to the other warriors and then the door sent all but Dante out of the room. Dante stared at the white marble floor beneath his sodden boots, getting the sense that he'd just stepped into a pit of misery.

No one lost control in front of Lucan.

He was the leader of the Order, had been since the initial formation of the elite cadre of warriors nearly seven hundred years ago, long before Dante or most of the other current members had been born. Lucan was first-generation Breed, his blood flowing with the genes of the Ancients, those vicious otherworlders who came to this planet millennia past, bred with human females, and started the first line of the vampire race. Gen Ones like Lucan were few now and remained the most powerful--and most volatile--of all the Breed.


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