Authors: Jennifer Rardin
Meet the Author
You are what you drive. My personal ride is a fully reconditioned 1965 Corvette Sting Ray 327 convertible, inherited from my Granny May after Pops Lew passed away. He taught me everything I know about fast, powerful cars. How to drive them, keep them running, love them with unrelenting passion.
So maybe it was understandable that, despite wearing a helmet that currently hid my entire face from view, if a pit had suddenly yawned open before me, I would’ve happily leaped into it and hurtled to my untimely death rather than spent another second with my ass pinned to the seat of a 1993 moped.
Sometimes my job just sucks.
Nobody would’ve agreed with me less than my mo-buddy, Cole Bemont, who chugged along the Bay Trail beside me at a stately rate of speed, humming a little ditty into his helmet mike as he avoided crashing into yet another stray Texan. On this mild, sunny afternoon it seemed like half of Corpus Christi had read our adventure-seeking minds and said, “Cool. Let’s go get in their way.”
Skaters, bikers, and fishermen vied for space along the wide stretch of asphalt we shared with parents guarding strollers and scampering kids. To our left a bright white seawall punctuated by an inviting little gazebo divided land from water, a sparkling blue inlet to the Gulf of Mexico. To our right, a broad strip of grass led up a gentle slope, past a deserted bandstand to rows of hotels, restaurants, and the occasional dance club. Ahead of us a palm-lined parking lot and boat-happy marina marked the end of everyday recreation and the beginning of extra-special fun. Which was where we came in.
We’d taken upon ourselves the task of scoping out the Corpus Christi Winter Festival, which was even now rising from the trampled grass just beyond our vision. Afterward we planned to report our findings to our boss, Vayl. Once he rose. As in, from the dead. He’s a vamp, one of the growing minority who’ve cast their lot with society for better or, as has commonly been the case, for worse.
At any rate, Cole and I, having already been given most of the necessary details regarding our target, figured it might be fun, and indeed professional, to locate the spot where said target was digging in. It wouldn’t hurt to become familiar with the overall plan of the festival, either, considering the fact that we were going to become attractions ourselves all too soon.
Within minutes we reached the site. Hundreds of scurrying roadies and home business owners infused the place with an atmosphere of anticipation as they set up game booths, food trailers, and shops where you could drop a load of cash on potions, pendants, or candles whose scent made you dream of lost loved ones. As we wound our way past craft tables and warding booths Cole said, “Jasmine, promise we’ll stop there before we leave this place!”
He pointed to a stall whose four-foot-high hand-painted sign announced its name in neon orange letters as Boogie Chickens. According to the smaller print, you only had to invest a dollar to watch four Brahma hens groove to classic hits by the Bee Gees.
“We should hire them to open for us,” I said.
“It won’t work,” Cole replied. “I’ve seen that look in Vayl’s eyes before. You’re not talking him out of the belly-dancing gig.”
Vayl hadn’t even tried to soften the blow. He’d smacked me with it two days before, while we were still motoring through Indiana. When I’d asked him what our crew would be doing at the Corpus Christi Winter Festival he’d replied, “Our target, whose name is Chien-Lung, is taking a troupe of Chinese acrobats to divert copious crowds of Texans throughout the last week of February. Because his security is unparalleled, the best way for us to lure him into the open is to become entertainment ourselves. As a Seer and Reader of Tarot, Cassandra will be our main draw. Lung is obsessed with psychics and will not be able to resist attending her show. Before she arrives onstage we will whet his appetite with our own unique talents. Cole will juggle, I will sing, you will belly dance, and Bergman will attend to all electronic apparatus including lights, sound, and surveillance.”
I held up my hands as if they could actually stop this rocket. “Whoa! Now, wait a minute. I’m not belly dancing.”
“Yes, you are. It is a beautiful, ancient art. One you should be proud to share.”
“I can’t belly dance.”
“Yes, you can. It is in your fi—”
“Will you stop reading my goddamn file!”
Nobody had said a word. It reminded me of a classroom right after the teacher has gone ballistic and thrown a textbook out the window. I’d briefly considered making my own exit that way, but since we’d been traveling down I-70 in a gigantic RV at the time, that option had seemed a little extreme.
The whole show-must-go-on concept explained the presence of Cassandra, who’d helped us tame the last monster we’d faced, though the Tor-al-Degan had nearly chowed down on my soul before our black-braided beauty had finally sent the beast back to Kyronland where it belonged. It didn’t clarify Bergman’s presence, however. A mom-and-pop show like the one Vayl meant for us to stage didn’t require a brilliant, neurotic inventor to babysit the spotlight and the CD player. However, I was willing to leave that mystery until later. My integrity was at stake here!
“Surely there’s another, better way to get close to this Chien-Lung,” I said, very reasonably I thought, considering the fact that I wanted to rip off Vayl’s eyebrows and Super Glue them to his upper lip.
He didn’t reply. Just sat back on his beige couch. It exactly matched the one on which I perched directly across from him. But he ignored me, looked instead at Cassandra, who sat beside me, and said, “Chien-Lung is an ancient vampire with a dragon fixation. It is said that soon after he turned, he was caught draining the chieftain’s daughter. For this crime he was boiled alive.” Cassandra made a sound that landed somewhere between compassion and disgust, and smoothed an imaginary wrinkle from her bright red skirt. “He claims a dragon saved him, though not soon enough. He lost his sanity but not his brilliance. In him it has become an explosive combination.”
Vayl went on. “During at least three previous presidential administrations Chien-Lung enjoyed diplomatic immunity while he stole nuclear technology and influenced foreign policy toward China. Then he disappeared. Our sources tell us he was trying to complete his transformation from vampire to dragon.”
Without taking his eyes off the road (good thing, since he was driving) Cole said, “Hang on a second. Transformation? To dragon? What’s that all about?”
“He believes his vampirism is a larval state from which he can, when stimulated correctly, emerge as a dragon.”
Bergman, sitting beside Cole in the passenger seat, spun completely around at that comment. “You can’t be serious.”
“I did say he was insane.”
Yeah, but that’s no cause to call in the assassins
, I thought. So I asked, “What’s he done this time?”
Vayl raised his left eyebrow just enough to let me know he was about to say something momentous. “He has been conspiring with Edward Samos.”
Moment of silence while we all digested. During our last mission we’d averted a national disaster planned by Samos and a few of his newest allies. Only we’d been calling him the Raptor then, for want of a true identity. Unfortunately, only the partners had paid for their crimes. Samos had slipped our net entirely.
“What have they been plotting?” I asked, managing a casual tone despite the fact that I badly wanted to punch something.
“We were able to intercept a cell phone call during which they discussed exactly how Samos would arrange for Chien-Lung to get in and out of White Sands undetected.”
Bergman perked up like a dog that’s just smelled a T-bone. “I know that base,” he said. “I’ve sent a few things to be tested there.”
I was still so distracted by the belly-dancing news combined with this new bombshell I almost didn’t catch Vayl’s nod or the tightening of his lips. Sure signs of trouble on the horizon. I said, “Are you telling me the same son of a bitch who nearly released a plague on our country gained access to one of our military installations?”
Vayl clenched his jaw so hard I could see the muscles spasm in his cheeks. “The prospect horrifies me as well,” he admitted. “But we know Chien-Lung traveled to Las Cruces last week with his Chinese acrobats. He took the show to the base, and while he was there we believe he used the Raptor’s inside knowledge to steal a vital piece of technology.”
He looked at Bergman, who shifted uneasily at being the focus of the vampire’s gaze. “Miles, I am sorry. The item is your invention.”
“But the only thing I have at White Sands right now is . . .” Bergman’s eyes lost focus. He turned red, paled, then slumped so far forward in his seat I thought he’d passed out. “Oh my God,” he moaned, clenching tufts of his limp brown hair between his fingers. “Not M55. Not that. Not that.”
“What is that?” asked Cole.
“The researchers I was working with called it dragon armor. It’s a type of personal protection for soldiers in the field that actually binds to its wearer at the cellular level. It took me eight years to develop it and now you’re telling me it’s gone?” Bergman put his hand over his mouth as if to keep himself from gagging.
“We will get the armor back, Miles,” Vayl said, in a tone so reassuring even I felt better. “That is part of our mission. Though during the conversation we overheard, Chien-Lung and the Raptor did not reveal why they were working together, we can assume Samos feels his nefarious schemes will be furthered once he controls the armor. That we cannot allow.”
Despite the gravity of the situation I took a second to delight in Vayl’s continued connection to his eighteenth-century roots. Oh, he tried to fit in. Back at the home office (we work out of Cleveland, I think because the CIA’s tired of paying DC rental prices), Vayl and our boss, Pete, could trade football stories like they’d both played for Ohio State and hoped to God the Browns needed a fifth-string quarterback the year they graduated. True for Pete. For Vayl, well, as soon as he fumbled a word like “nefarious” you knew he’d never touched a pigskin in his life. Unless it was attached to an actual pig.
He met my eyes. “The second part of our mission is directly related to the first. In order to retrieve the armor, we must terminate its wearer. When Bergman feels better, he will help explain why.”
I couldn’t stand it any longer. I went to Bergman, knelt beside his chair, and took his trembling, chapped hands in my own.
He peered down at me through blasted eyes. “Oh, God, Jasmine, please. Please get it back.” He looked like he’d lost his only child. And in a way he had. That’s how much he invested in his creations.
“We will,” I said. “I promise.”
Bergman had barely spoken a word since. When we’d finally parked our colossus at a gas station/convenience store called Moe’s, I’d been relieved when Cole had suggested our present mission. It would finally give me a chance to escape the gloom that had permeated our ride so thoroughly I’d begun to feel like I was breathing thunderclouds.