EVEN VAMPIRES GET THE BLUES
A Deadly Angels Book #6
September 2015 (08-25-15)
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Hedeby, 850 a.m.
You could say he was a Viking Wheeler Dealer…
Everything he touched turned to gold, or leastways a considerable profit, and thank the gods for that because Harek Sigurdsson was a brilliant Viking with an insatiable hunger for wealth and all its trappings.
It didn’t matter that he had vast holdings in the Norselands, an estate in Northumbria, several hirds of warriors who served under him when called to battle by one grab-land king or another (Harek was a much-sought battle strategist), amber fields in the Baltics, trading stalls in the marketplaces of Hedeby, Kaupang, and the Coppergate section of Jorvik, a fleet of twelve longships and two knarrs, and numerous chests filled with coins, jewels, and rare spices. It was never enough! Not to mention three wives and six concubines…or was it seven?
Not that he wanted or needed any more wives or concubines. Like many Viking men (Hah! Men of all lands, truth to tell), he was betimes guided by a body rudder known for its lackwittedness when it fancied a woman. The Wise Ones had the right of it when they proclaimed: A cock has no brain. Well, at the ripe old age of twenty and nine, he had finally taken a sip from Odin’s famed well of knowledge. In future, when he came upon a comely woman, he would bed her, not wed her, then send her on her merry way with a pat on the rump and a pouch of gold coins. Cheaper that way and lots less trouble!
Harek had just completed a meeting with Toriq Haraldsson, his agent here in Hedeby. Toriq had once been a hersir overseeing Harek’s Norse housecarls. Unfortunately, the fierce swordsman had lost an arm in battle. Harek had no qualms about hiring the handicapped man as his business representative. Loyalty and honesty were more important in that role than fighting skills. Besides, Toriq had once saved Harek’s life in battle at a time when Harek had been young and not yet so adept in fighting. A berserk Dane had been about to lop off Harek’s very head. Suffice it to say, the wergild for a man’s head was enormous.
As they walked side by side on the raised plank walkways that criss-crossed the busy market center, men and women alike glanced their way, not just because of their impressive Norse height and finely sculpted features. Their attire…fur-lined cloaks, gold brooches fastening shoulder mantles, soft leather halfboots...could support a tradesman’s family for years.
Unaware or uncaring of the attention, Toriq scowled and grumbled under his breath. Toriq was not happy with Harek today.
“Spit it out, man. What troubles you?”
“This latest venture of yours…it ill-suits a man of your stature,” Toriq said, but then he had to step aside to accommodate a crowd that had gathered to watch a craftsman blowing blue glass into a pitcher. Other artisans were hammering gold and silver into fine jewelry. In fact, Harek noticed an etched armband he might purchase later. In other stalls, workers could be seen carving wood and ivory, or firing clay pots in kilns behind the trading tables.
Hedeby was an exciting city, always something going on. To Harek, the bustle of commerce, the sounds of money being made, were like music to the ears. There wasn’t anything that couldn’t be purchased here, from the prized walrus rope that was cut in a single spiral strip from shoulder to tail to…well…to his latest venture.
“Slave trading, that is what rubs you the wrong way?” Harek asked, now that he and his agent could walk side by side once again.
“Yea, and it should rub you the same, boy.” Toriq always referred to Harek in that way, even though Harek had long since been blooded in battle and thirteen years since he’d saved his bloody head. Toriq himself had not yet seen forty winters.
“’Tis just another way of amassing a fortune.” Harek shrugged, not taking offense. After all, Toriq was a free man, welcome to voice his opinion. Still, it did not hurt to remind him of certain facts. He glanced pointedly at the massive gold ring that adorned Toriq’s middle finger, a writhing dragon design with ruby eyes, worth a small fortune. “My ventures helped make you a wealthy man, Toriq.”
“That they have, and most appreciative I am.”
“And your eight children, as well?” Harek mentioned, trying to lighten the mood. “How else would you dower all those daughters?”
Toriq was always complaining about how expensive it was to support females, much as he loved his six daughters and his lone wife, Elsa. “All boys need is a sword and occasional change of braies and boots, but girls want gunnas and hair beads and slippers and brooches for every occasion and all the household fripperies that are a seeming necessity,” was Toriq’s usual refrain.
Not today, though. He just shook his head sadly at Harek.
“I am always looking for new ways to earn still more gold. Slave trading is no different than trading in amber or money lending, both of which have been our mainstay. I’m only surprised I haven’t tried it afore.”
“There is a vast difference, Harek.”
“How so? In every country, there are thralls. You have thralls yourself.”
“Nay. I have indentured servants. Due to their own circumstances, some folks are forced to sell themselves, but only for a time. Then they are free.”
“You are splitting hairs, my man. Vikings are known to free thralls if they are well-pleased. Some even wed their thralls or take them as concubines. Slavery is a fact of life. Why should I not profit from it?”
Toriq threw his arm out in frustration…and almost knocked over a plump maiden. After apologizing profusely, he turned to Harek once again. “You have riches enough to buy a small kingdom. Why can you not be satisfied with what you have?”
Harek was approaching frustration himself now, and he bristled. Criticism, even from a friend, could go too far. “A man cannot have an excess of gold. All the sagas say ‘tis best to save for rainy days.”
“Pfff! It could rain for forty days and forty nights, like it did for that Noah character the Christians babble on about, and you would still stay afloat. On the other hand, you would probably fill your Ark…rather longship…with gold, and it would sink from its very weight. Then, where would you be? Sunk by your own greed.”
Realizing the inadvertent humor in his remark, Toriq laughed and squeezed Harek’s forearm. “Peace, my friend. You gave me back my life when I thought I no longer had worth as a man. You know I will do whate’er you ask.”
“Even if it leaves a bad taste in your mouth?”
They had almost arrived at the harbor when a horn blared, announcing the arrival of yet another sea vessel. Hopefully, it would be Silver Serpent, Harek’s largest longship, which was expected any day from the eastern lands. With its human cargo.
Anyone entering or exiting Hedeby, located at the junction of several major trade routes, had to do so by foot or horse or cart through one of three gateway tunnels built into the massive, semi-circular ramparts of the fortified city. Once they passed through into the bright light onto the wharves, Harek surveyed the seventy or so ships and boats with flags of many colors denoting family or business or royal allegiance were tied at anchor or beached farther on for repairs.
The new arrival was indeed Harek’s slave trader. To his dismay and Toriq’s horror, they could practically smell the “cargo” afore the passengers even alighted.
And what a motley bunch they were! More than fifty men, women, and children of various nationalities, from ebony to white skin, wobbled on shaky sea legs over the wide gangplank onto the dock. There should have been a hundred. Harek bristled with anger, wondering what had happened to the others. Even a dimwit could see that this was a disaster that meant money lost. Even the most tightfisted farmer knew that you did not starve a pig before market.
As a whole, the starvling group, wearing raggedy garments, was filthy, some covered with dried vomit and other body emissions. Scabs, bruises, and lice were in clear evidence. Their eyes as they passed by Harek and Toriq were dead, except for a few in shackles that held his stare with murderous intent.
’The reeking ship will have to be scrubbed down with lye afore used again for any purpose,” Toriq noted, as if Harek had not already come to the same conclusion.
“I want these thralls bathed, fed, and clothed. A healer will have to be called to treat some, I warrant,” Harek told Toriq.
“It will be a sennight or more before any of them are fit for the auction block.”
“And time wasted means less profit,” Harek repeated one of his favorite proverbs.
“Meanwhile, I have a thing or two to say to the captain of this floating cesspit.”
“Where shall I take them?” Toriq studied the individuals, some of whom were shivering despite the summer heat. Obviously, they could not be housed in the slave quarters where goods and persons were stored before auction, not in this condition. If naught else, there would be fear of contagion. Odin only knew what diseases bred on these sorry bits of humanity.
“I have no idea where to house them. To Muspell, for all I care, at this point.”
Toriq tapped his chin thoughtfully, then said, “I will take them to the storage building behind the amber trading stall. It is mostly empty now. Elsa will know what to do about delousing these people and fattening them for market, though she will not thank me for the task.” That was as close as Toriq went to taunting him with I-told-you-so’s.
“Buy her a new gold neck torque with my regards,” Harek advised.
“You do not know women if you think that will suffice,” Toriq told him.
“Do whate’er you must then.”
It was, in fact, three sennights before Harek returned to Hedeby from a brief trip home to his Norse estate where he’d been summoned to handle a crisis involving a neighboring chieftain with a land dispute. The lackbrain Viking would think again afore trying to steal property from Harek in his absence, especially in his present mood.
His first wife, Dagne, resided there, and what a shrew she’d turned out to be be! Now that the first bloom of youth had passed Dagne at twenty and five, Harek could scarce bring himself to give her a conjugal duty-swive. ‘Twas hard to find her woman place in all that fat, Dagne now being as wide as she was tall. But did she appreciate his husbandly attentions? Nay! She was too busy complaining:
“There is not enough wood for the hearth fires.”
It is summer. You do not need to keep all the hearth fires burning.
“The cook is too mouthy and disrespectful.”
Probably because you invade her domain too much.
“One of the privies needs cleaning.”
Then, clean it.
“Why can’t we have a beekeeper in residence?”
Because you would tup him, as you did the blacksmith, the shipwright, the horse breeder, and the monk.
“The rushes in the great hall are flea ridden.”
Um, I can tell you where we keep the rakes, my dear.
“Your mustache is too bristly.” Then stay away from my damn mustache.
“I heard that Queen Elfrida has a new silver fox-lined cloak. Why can’t I have one, too?”
Because three dozen foxes would have to die to cover your bulk.
“There is a black bear in the north wood needs killing.”
I can think of something else that needs killing.
“I might be increasing again.”
And yet I have not been home for nigh on ten months. How do you explain that, my halfbrained wife?
There was a good reason why Norsemen went a-Viking so much.
In the end, Harek left his Norse estate, with good riddance, vowing to himself not to return for a good while. And renewing his vow never to wed again.
To his relief, Toriq had already handled the thrall situation in his absence. Not only cleaning and feeding them, but selling them at the slave mart the day before. “Four thousand mancuses of gold for fifty slaves! That is wonderful!” Harek exclaimed, doing a quick mental calculation. “Even with expenses…initial purchase price to the slavers, sixty seamen’s wages for one month, food and clothing for the thralls during the voyage, medical care where needed, the auctioneer’s commission, and a goodly bonus for you…there has to be a clear profit of at least twenty-five hundred mancuses.”
Toriq nodded. “A few of the skilled slaves…a carpenter, a farrier, a wheelwright, a weaver, and a beekeeper…brought a goodly amount by themselves.”
Good thing Dagne, with her sudden yen for a beekeeper, did not hear of the beekeeper.
“And, of course, the younger, more attractive women raked in considerable coin. I saved one especially nubile Irish wench from the bidding block. For your bed play, if you choose. Otherwise, my Elsa says she must go.” He waggled his eyebrows at Harek.
He slapped Toriq on the shoulder in a comradely fashion. “A job well done, my friend! Already I can see the possibilities for the future. Longships sent to different ports to gather new cargo. The Rus lands, Byzantium, Norsemandy, Jorvik, Iceland. With more selective purchases and better treatment, I guarantee there will be even better returns on investment.”
“Cargo? Cargo?” Toriq sputtered. “You are speaking of human beings, Harek. Many of whom are stolen from their homes.”
“You still object?” Harek was surprised. “I thought…I mean, you did such a good job. I thought you now accepted the wisdom of slave trading as a side business.”
Toriq shook his head vigorously. “I mean no insult, Harek, but you will have to find another man to handle this business. I did it this once, but no more.”
“No offense taken,” Harek said, but, in truth, he was offended. Perhaps that was why he was so dissatisfied with the Irish woman in his bed furs that night. Beautiful, she was, but Toriq had failed to mention that she could not stop weeping for her young son who had been sold to a Frankish vintner and a husband who had been left behind on a poor Irish farm. Never mind that it had been the husband who’d sold her and his youngest son into thralldom. He wished he could sell Dagne so easily.
Disgusted, Harek made his way to the sleeping quarters on his largest knarr anchored at the docks. There, instead of celebrating a new, successful business venture, he succumbed to a long bout of sullen mead drinking which led to alehead madness. Leastways, it had to be madness for the drukkinn apparition that appeared to him out of the darkness was not of this world.
A misty, white shape emerged. Ghostlike.
“Harek Sigurdsson!” a male voice yelled out of the mist, so loud that Harek jerked into a sitting position on the pallet in the alcove of his enclosed space and almost rolled off to the floor. He blinked and tried to see the hazy blur standing in the open doorway leading to the longship’s deck. The only light came from the full moon outside.
He stood, and, at first, he was disoriented. Who wouldn’t be with a head the size of a wagon wheel, with what felt like a battle axe imbedded in his skull?
A man…he could swear it was a man he saw standing there, and yet at the same time, there was no one there. Just a swirling fog.
“Who goes there?” he yelled out, thinking it must be one of the crew stationed on board overnight.
Now he was starting to be annoyed. “Present yourself, man, or suffer the consequences.”
No one answered. Good thing because he realized he had no weapon in hand. Should he grab knife? What kind of weapon did one use with a ghost? Would a blade even suffice?
He shook his head to clear it, to no avail. He was still under the influence of ale. Or something.
He could see clearer now and it was a tall, dark-haired man wearing a long gown in the Arab style who beckoned him outside. The gown in itself was not so unusual but the broadsword he held easily in one hand was, especially since it was his own pattern-welded blade. Then, there were the huge white wings spread out from his back.
What? Wings? Huh? It couldn’t be possible. He closed his eyes and looked again. Definitely wings.
Was it even a man? Or some kind of bird?
He had heard of shivering men suffering from wild dreams of writhing snakes or even fire-breathing dragons, but usually it was men trying to wean themselves away from years of the addictive brews or opium. Harek rarely drank to excess and never had an interest in the poppy seed.
But Harek had a more important issue at the moment. His bladder was so full he would be pissing from his ears if he didn’t soon relieve himself. Making his way through the now empty doorway, he staggered over to the rail. Undoing the laces on his braies, he released himself and let loose a long stream of urine. When he was done…shaking his cock clean, then tucking it back into his braies…he breathed a sigh of relief, then belched. Which was a mistake. His breath was enough to gag a maggot.
Which cleared his head enough to let him know he still had company. The man-bird stood there, scowling at him with contempt. The wings were folded so that he could scarce tell they were there.
“Who…what are you?”
“Michael. The Archangel.”
Harek knew about angels. In his travels, he had encountered many a follower of the Christian religion, and a pathetic religion it was, too. Only one God? Pfff! “I am Norse.”
“I know who you are, Viking.”
He did not say “Viking” in a complimentary manner. And, really, Harek needed to get to his bed and sleep off this alehead madness. Best he get this nightmare over with as soon as possible. “And you are here…why?”
“God is not pleased with you, Harek. You are a dreadful sinner, as are your brothers, as are many of your fellow Norsemen. ‘Tis time to end it all.”
“End it? Like, death?”
“You say it.”
“All of us?” he scoffed.
“We all must pass to the Other World eventually.”
“That is not what I meant. Life as you know it will end shortly for you and your brothers; in fact, it has already for some of you. And the Viking race as a whole will dwindle away gradually over the centuries until there is no country that will claim you.”
Huh? “That requires an explanation. Are you threatening me and my family?” Was this apparition implying that some of his brothers were already dead? Harek tried to recall the last time he had made contact with or heard from any of his family and realized it had been months. Inching backward from the looming figure, he hoped to reach a nearby oar, which he could use as a makeshift weapon. But he felt dizzy and wobbly on his feet. “I need to sit down.”
“What you need, fool, is to pray.”
What a ridiculous conversation! He could not wait to wake up and tell his friends about this strange dream. It would be fodder for the skalds who ever needed new ideas for their sagas. “Pray? For my life?” he scoffed.
“No. For your everlasting soul. Your death is predetermined.”
Enough! This madness had gone on long enough! “Speak plainly,” Harek demanded.
“Thou art a dreadful sinner, Harek. Dreadful! Your greed is eating you alive, and you do not even know it.”
He must have appeared confused. Bloody hell, of course he was confused. “What have I done that is so bad?”
The man-thing…an archangel, he had called himself…shook his head as if Harek were a hopeless case. “Your most recent activity is so despicable. How can you even ask?”
“Oh! The slave trading! That is what this is about.” Harek was disgusted up to his very gullet with all the sanctimonious condemnation of his business dealings. First, Toriq. Now some angel with flea-bitten wings trying to lord over him.
“I do not have fleas.”
That was just wonderful. The creature could read minds.
“And I am not a creature.”
Harek inhaled deeply for patience and almost fell over. He reached the rail for support. “In truth, what is so wrong with thralldom? Your own Biblical leaders…Abraham, David, Moses, had slaves.” On occasion, Harek’s father had hired monk scholars to tutor his sons, and, being a merchant, Harek had often traveled to Christian lands where the inhabitants considered it their mission in life to convert those “heathen Vikings.” He knew more than most Christians about their book of rules and sagas.
“You dare to compare yourself to such great men!” The angel pointed a long-armed forefinger at Harek, and Harek felt a jolt of sharp pain shoot through him.
“I only meant—“
“Silence! For your sins, you will die, taking your mortal form with you. For the grace of God, you are being given a second chance to redeem yourself.”
That caught Harek’s attention, but he was an astute businessman. He knew no great prize came without a price. A second chance was going to cost him, sure as…well, sin. “And what must I do to redeem myself?”
“You will become an vangel…a vampire angel…one of the troops being formed to fight Satan’s evil Lucipires, demon vampires.”
Harek had no idea what a vam-pyre was. Sounded like something to do with fire. But angels…that, he did understand. “I am a Viking. I hardly think I am the material for saintly angelhood.”
“You will not be that kind of angel.”
“For how long would I be required to fight these…um, demons?” He was still not convinced this wasn’t just a bad dream.
“As long as it takes. Seven hundred years at first. Longer, if you fail to follow the rules.”
“Whoa! Seven hundred years?”
“And there are rules?” What am I…a youthling who needs to be told when he can do this or that? We shall see about that.
“No great prize comes without a price?” Michael told him, repeating his own thoughts back at him. Again. “Do you agree?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“There is always a choice.”
What did he have to lose? Besides, he was an intelligent man. He would find a way to reverse the decision later, if he so chose. Harek nodded, and before he had a chance to change his mind, the archangel pressed the tip of the broadsword against Harek’s chest, causing him to lean backward, farther and father, until he fell over the rail into the water.
It should have been no problem. He was a leather-lunged swimmer when need be, but his body was suddenly riddled with excruciating pain. His jaw felt as if it were being cracked, then forced back together with an iron vice. In fact, it felt as if he had long fang-like incisors now. And his back! His shoulder blades seemed to burst open. The place where wings should go, he presumed, but, no, a quick pass of his fingers over those spots revealed that the skin had healed into raised knots. All this happened in the matter of seconds as he sank deeper and deeper into the murky depths. Choking on the briny water. Fighting to swim upward against a force determined to hold him down. His ears began to ring, and a sense of lethargy overcame him. Drowning. He no longer fought his fate.
Even so, Harek had time and brains enough left to realize that he’d forgotten to ask one important question:
What exactly was a vangel?
The weather outside was frightful…
Harek was bundled up to his eyeballs, wearing three pairs of socks, lined boots, long johns, snow pants, a red and black wool jacket over a turtleneck sweater, thermal gloves and a hunter’s cap with ear flaps. But still he shivered as he attempted to thaw the ice-frozen lock on the door of his friggin’ car, which probably wouldn’t make it down the friggin’ driveway to the friggin’ one-lane highway which led to the nearest friggin’ store where he could buy twenty-seven different kinds of bait, vodka by the gallon, but only one kind of friggin’ beer.
Not that he had any interest in fishing or numbing his senses with the Russian alcohol, which was clear as water but as destructive as a Saxon’s mace to the head. His brain was still his best asset. Besides, after one thousand, one hundred and sixty-five years as a vangel, his job was still to kill Lucipires and to save humans on the verge of being taken by the demon vampires. And, yes, his initial “penance” as a vangel had been for seven hundred years, but every time he, or his brothers, committed some little, or big, transgression, like fornication (celibacy came hard for virile Vikings, hard being the key word), or excess drinking (these modern folks did make incredibly good beer), or gambling (his weakness), more years would be piled on. At this rate, they would be vangels until the Final Judgment.
“What in bloody hell are you doing?”
Harek glanced up to see a big black bear standing in his driveway. A talking bear!
He yelped with surprise and held up the whirring object in his hand as a weapon—a blow dryer attached to multiple extension cords leading into the garage electrical outlet. He’d forgotten to put his vehicle in said garage last night after a night of drukkin gambling. Well, that sounded worse than it had been. A little beer and poker, that had been all. And today, all the car doors were frozen shut, the price of living in this godforsaken land in the middle of godforsaken nowhere where it was dark almost all the godforsaken time! No wonder the Russians drank so much! If only he had an AK-47! He could shoot the beast and have bear stew for a month. Yuck! If only the damn car doors would open, he could hop in and hope the animal would saunter away looking for a meal elsewhere. Yeah, like that’s going to happen!
But then, he realized that the bear was laughing. A talking, laughing bear?
“Is that the latest weapon here in Siberia?” the bear chortled. A bear with a voice very like his brother Vikar’s. Harek narrowed his eyes and peered closer, difficult with the dim light coming from the open garage. It was his brother Vikar! Dressed in a black fur cloak that covered him from hooded head down to his boots.
“Very funny! I was trying to unfreeze the locks on my vehicle with a blow dryer, if you must know,” he said, turning off the gun-like object and laying it on the hood of the car.
“You own a blow dryer?”
“Of course. Don’t you?” Viking men were vain about their appearance, especially their hair. He would bet his last poker chip that Vikar used one for his long locks on a regular basis.
Vikar’s shrug was his answer. And then he shivered. “It’s colder than a witch’s tit here. How do you stand it?”
“Not well,” Harek admitted, not about to confess his latest lapse into gambling the night before. He turned and walked through the garage and into the house, where the blasting furnace provided some welcome warmth. A dozen vangel men resided here with him. By the sound of the television at the other end of the house, he could tell that at least some of them were watching yet another rerun of “The Walking Dead,” that ghoulish show about zombies. Thank God for satellites, which allowed them some limited television reception. Otherwise, they would probably have all turned to vodka by now.
Harek took the last two beers from the fridge in the kitchen and handed one to Vikar. His brother shoved the hood back on his cloak, which indeed seemed to have been made of bear skin, and took a long draw on the bottle.
“What are you doing here, Vikar? I mean, it’s great to have the company, but even I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t have to.”
“I’ve been sent to summon you.”
“By whom?” Dumb question.
“Mike.” That was the rude nickname the vangels had given their heavenly mentor/tormentor.
“Why didn’t you just call me? You didn’t need to come in person.”
“I tried, but I kept getting a ‘no service’ message, even on our secure satellite phone.”
Harek nodded. Reception here was erratic. “Why does Mike want me?”
“I have no clue. Maybe he has a mission for you.”
Harek’s spirits brightened immediately. Maybe he was forgiven. Maybe this would be his chance to leave his dark, freezing, godforsaken abode. “Let me go change. I’ll see if I can schedule a flight.”
“No time. Mike will only be in Transylvania for a few more hours. We have to teletransport.”
Headquarters for the vangels was a creepy castle in the mountains of Transylvania, Pennsylvania. Not Romania. Teletransport was something vangels did only in emergencies.
“How about the vangels I have stationed here with me?”
“Just you, for now.”
Thus, it was that Harek found himself standing minutes later under a warm eighty-degree sun next to the blue water of an inground swimming pool beyond the back courtyard of the castle, looking like an absolute fool in his Arctic attire. The pool was a new addition to the rundown castle Vikar had been renovating for the past three years…a neverending job, or so he claimed. Vikar had disappeared, probably to change his clothing. Yes, there he came from the back door wearing naught but a thigh-length, flowered bathing suit, grinning at him.
“Since when do Vikings wear flowers?” he grumbled.
“It’s Hawaiian,” Viking said, as if that made a difference.
A few children…Vikar and Alex’s little ones, Gunnar and Gunnora, along with Sigurd’s adopted daughter, Isobel, were swimming at one end of the pool like little ducks. Vikings were known to take to the water, any water, from a young age. But everyone else was gawking at him. His six brothers, in and out of the water, including Vikar who dove neatly into the pool splashing everyone within ten feet, and some enjoying cold brews in frosted bottles. Their wives, those who had them, sat about under umbrella tables, sipping from tall glasses sporting skewers of fruit. And several dozen vangels basked in the sun and hot tub. Lizzie Borden, their cook (yes, that Lizzie Borden) scurried back and forth between the kitchen and the patio carrying trays of snacks.
There was also a tub of ice holding bottles of Fake-O, the synthetic blood vangels needed in between the real blood gained from fanging saved humans or by destroying Lucipires. Without it, vangel skin would become lighter and lighter, almost transparent, especially in sunlight. With it, their skin glowed with seeming suntanned health.
“Oh, this is fair! I’m off to Arctic Neverland freezing my arse off while you all enjoy a pool party!” Harek yanked off his cap, uncaring that his hair probably stood up on end making him look even more ridiculous, and shrugged out of his jacket.
Behind him he heard a voice say, “Art thou speaking to me, Viking?” The voice did not say Viking in an endearing manner.
It was Michael, of course. Not in the white robes typical of an archangel, or of the warrior attire often seen in Michael the Archangel statues, but good ol’ faded Levis with a white t-shirt and Nikes, his long, dark hair flowing down to his shoulders. Despite the modern garments, there was no mistaking that this was a celestial being, even without the sunshiney halo that surrounded him. At least he wasn’t wearing swimming trunks. Harek didn’t think he was up for viewing hairy angel legs…if they were, in fact, hairy.
Before Harek had a chance to respond, Michael asked, hands on hips, “Do you have my home site ready to load up on the computer highway for me?”
Harek barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. Michael tried to be modern by using contemporary language, but he frankly didn’t know a computer mouse from a rodent. He’d been wanting Harek to set up an Archangel site for him on the Internet, in keeping with social networking of the times, but he kept changing his mind about what he wanted. First, it was going to be an information place, which Harek had told him was too boring and that it would get no traffic. Then, it was going to be a blog, but Michael could never decide what subjects to discuss first. Then it was going to be an advice column, questions sent in by viewers and answered by Himself, but Harek had warned him that He might not like the questions he would be asked. Truth to tell, an angelic presence on the Internet was a good idea, if only Michael could make up his mind exactly what he wanted.
“Um…,” Harek answered.
“I would have thought with all the extra time thou had there in the colds of Siberia it would be done by now,” Michael remarked. “It is not as if you have rid the Russian lands of all Lucipires. Yakov still flourishes, I understand.”
Yakov, a former Russian Cossack, was one of the high haakai demon vampires on the council headed by Jasper, king of all the Lucipires. Yakov’s home base was somewhere in Siberia, in a place called Desolation, a site Harek had not yet been able to locate, precisely, although he was close.
“That is unfair! I have destroyed many of Yakov’s minions and saved many of his victims during my exile. I have fought beside my brothers on every mission to which I’ve been called. My kill and save records are nothing to scoff at.”
“Exile, is it now?” Michael homed in on that one, insignificant part of what he’d said.
But Harek recognized immediately that his word had been ill-chosen, and he, whose intelligence was his greatest asset, was at a loss for a better word. What in bloody hell am I doing, arguing with an archangel? He could tell by the silence around him and the disbelieving expression on his brothers’ faces that they were stunned by his audacity.
“As for your sudden emphasis on fairness.” Michael went on. “If life were fair, you would be roasting on a spit in that Other Place.”
“Sorry,” Harek murmured and raised his chin, waiting for whatever punishment would be doled his way.
But then Michael smiled.
He is smiling.
At me? When an angel smiled, a heavenly warmth enveloped the recipient. When an archangel smiled, an indescribable sensation of peace flowed forth. It was like a blessing.
Huh? Harek was confused. “In truth, We are pleased with your work, Harek. Why else would I have summoned you to head this new mission?” He put a hand on Harek’s shoulder and squeezed. “Come. We have much to discuss.”
Dazed, Harek followed Michael into the castle, through the back doors leading into the massive kitchen (Lizzie’s domain), down a long corridor (sporting murals depicting angels, what else? Angels with cute little fangs!), past a dining room (that could seat fifty in a crunch), a chapel (with hard-as-stone pews and kneelers), an office (where Vikar pissed and moaned about all his work leading the vangels, like herding cats, he claimed), a computer center (Harek’s pride and joy), salons converted into family and television rooms (vangels had a lot of time to pass between missions, there probably wasn’t a G-rated movie they hadn’t seen, and, yes, R-rated ones, too, for their sins), then into the front, formal living room. His brothers and several of the more experienced vangels, like Karl, Svein, and Jogeir, followed after Harek and Michael. Chairs had already been set up in a half-circle with a high-backed upholstered chair in its center.
Michael started the meeting in his usual manner, with a prayer. “Lord, bless and protect your warrior vangels as they embark on a new mission.” When they were all seated, Michael addressed Harek, “Are you familiar with Boko Haram in Nigeria?”
The Islamic extremists best known for abducting young girls for sex slaves and forced child brides. Harek nodded. This was his expertise. Intelligence information. Despite his living at the end of beyond, he had spotty Internet access to the latest news. He wished he’d been forewarned and could have gathered more data, but still he could say, “The terrorist cell Boko Haram, or BK, started as a religious insurgency movement fighting to make it “haram” or “forbidden” for Muslims to engage in any political or social activity associated with western culture, like the education of girls, but it has escalated into a militant insurrection intent on atrocities, sometime for mere shock value. It has been in operation for more than five years, but the mass kidnappings became one of their prime tactics a year or so ago. Despite worldwide condemnation, especially when they took captive almost three hundred school girls from Chibok in Nigeria, they are getting stronger and bolder. Bombing towns, setting fire to huts and businesses, stealing animals and what little food there is, in essence making thousands of people homeless.”
Michael exchanged looks with some of the others, as if to say, “That Harek! A walking encyclopedia, he is.”
“What? Is intelligence a sin now, too?”
“Only when it is accompanied by greed. Do not be so sensitive, Harek,” Michael admonished. Then, “Cnut, tell us what you know. And, please, spare us the lecture.”
Cnut was their security expert, head of a company called Wings International Security. Most of the vangels held outside jobs…doctor, Navy SEAL, prison chaplain, whatever…as a front for those times when they were not involved in vampire angel business. Lately, Cnut had taken to a strange hairstyle, strange even for a Norseman, based on that Ragnar Lothbrok character on the History Channel’s popular “Vikings” series. It was shaved on either side of his head with intricate braids forming a sort of scalp lock through the center, from forehead to nape and down to his shoulders.
But that was neither here nor there.
“I’ve been in Nigeria for the past few months, primarily around Maiduguri, and the tangos are amping up for an operation that might very well outdo the atrocities of the Chibok school attack.” Tango was a term they’d learned, and adopted, from their brother Trond, a Navy SEAL. It meant terrorist or bad guy. “Jasper is in the area and Lucies are infiltrating their ranks, right and left.”
That was news to most of them. Truly, the Lucies were like cockroaches, annihilate their nests in one area and they pop up in another. It wasn’t surprising, though, that Jasper would target such evil men. Hell, it might even have been Lucies who started the organization to begin with. Evil begets evil, or something like that.
Cnut set up an easel and put a large map of Africa on it that could be seen by all of them. “Everywhere you see an X indicates a place where an attack has taken place in the past two years. You can see how their range of operation is expanding. I’ve been able to pinpoint the location of some of their cells, those are indicated with a check mark. There’s no main headquarters to target because they keep moving, especially in the dense Simbisa Forest area. But here’s the thing. They’re planning something big in the next few weeks. Really big. Possibly hitting the Global School in Kamertoon, where there are multi-national students. It’s located halfway between the capitol of Abuja and the Simbisa Forest. Or they could aim for several of the Global Schools for girls, located throughout Africa, all at one time. The Global Schools are particularly repugnant to Boko Haram because they’re privately owned by an American conglomerate.”
“What do you want us to do?” Harek asked.
“I’ll need help,” Cnut said, waving a hand around the room. “Even with the two dozen vangels I have there with me, it’s not enough. Initially, though, I think it should be a three-pronged effort. Harek, if you and your team would come back to Nigeria with me, I can familiarize you with the situation, first hand. With your trusty laptop, you could probably get better intelligence than I could in half the time.” That was true. Harek knew more about computers than Bill Gates, if he did say so himself. “Then, you’ll travel to Coronado, California, where you’ll be our link with Trond and the Navy SEALs.”
Trond, who was a member of those elite special forces, sat up straighter. Apparently, this was the first he’d heard of his involvement.
Harek frowned with confusion. “Why would we involve the SEALs?” Usually, vangels worked alone. There was always the danger of discovery. He could see the headline now, “Vampire Angels Help Navy SEALs Save the Day.” Or vice versa.
“It is not the job of vangels to save innocents,” Michael answered for Cnut. “Let the human heroes rescue those children who have been abducted or are about to be taken. Vangels will destroy the Lucipires and save any evil humans who choose to repent.”
“What makes you think the Navy will welcome any outside involvement?” Trond asked, looking at Cnut and Harek.
“Even the Navy will appreciate the intelligence Harek will bring them, hitherto unknown information about the terrorists,” Michael said. “It will be up to you, Harek, to imply that Wings works for the Nigerian government,”
“A lie? You are encouraging me to lie?” Harek inquired of the archangel, going for a bit of levity.
Michael didn’t even smile, in fact he frowned, and his brothers rolled their eyes at Harek’s mistake.
“Is Harek going to become a Navy SEAL, too?” Trond asked hopefully. “I can’t wait to see him go through Hell Week. He’ll probably puke his guts out the first time he’s put through drownproofing.”
“I do not think that will be necessary,” Michael said, frowning at Trond, too, for his teasing in the midst of a serious discussion. “As I said, Harek can be at the SEAL compound as a representative of a private security company with information on one of their targets…Boko Haram,” Michael explained. “In the past, before 9/11, SEALs operated mainly on their own, but with terrorism rising by the day, and not enough time to train a corresponding number of new SEALs, they have had to work with other special forces and agencies.”
“Other countries even send their best soldiers to train with us, to learn the Navy SEAL way,” Trond added. “So outside persons on the compound aren’t unknown.”
Harek nodded, and could feel excitement begin to pump through his veins. It was always an adrenaline rush when a new mission began. Besides, the climate in California was warm. Anything was better than freeze-your-arse Siberia. And maybe, if he completed this mission well, he would no longer be exiled. Maybe he would even be sent somewhere pleasant, like the Caribbean, where he had a hidden retreat, earned with his stock market winnings. Maybe the powers-that-be, i.e. Mike, would realize that his talents were better used far from the frozen north. Maybe he would even be permitted to form his own technology company, for the good of the vangel cause, of course.
He could swear he heard laughter in his head.
His head shot up, and sure enough, Michael was looking directly at him, his eyebrows arched.
On the other hand, maybe not.
Camille Dumaine was dragging her feet as she walked from the beach at the Coronado Navy SEAL training compound…her thirty-year-old bones feeling every jarring step of her just completed six-mile jog in heavy boots on wet sand under a bright, ninety-degree California sun. Fun, fun, fun!
Didn’t help that she was sweating like a pig or that one of the swabbies in the newbie class had barfed all over her during “sugar cookies,” an exercise designed to punish. Also didn’t help that she heard a male voice call out, “Yo, Camo! The C.O. wants to see you.”
It was Trond Sigurdsson, whose Navy SEAL nickname was Easy. All SEALs got appropriate, and not-so-appropriate, nicknames when they first entered BUD/S training, Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL. Goose, Whiz, Stud, Dog, K-4, Geek, Spidey, Zombie, F.U., JAM, Slick. Trond, or Easy, was a mite lazy, known to always look for the easy way.
Same nicknaming was true of the elite WEALS, Women on Earth, Air, Land, and Sea, the sister unit to the SEALs, of which Camille was a charter member, two years of training and five years on duty now. Thus, Camille’s nickname of Camo, which wasn’t a play on her name, or not totally, but her ability to camouflage herself, no matter the setting. Being invisible in a crowd could be invaluable for a special forces operative, male or female, she’d learned on more than one occasion. It was one of the prime reasons she’d been recruited to begin with.
A chameleon, that’s what she would put on her resume, if she had one. Who knew, growing up in New Orleans’ upscale Garden District, that being of average height and weight, with plain brown hair and eyes, and just a touch of Creole coloring in her skin would be such an asset? Certainly not her, and definitely not her father and mother, Dr. Emile Dumaine and Dr. Jeannette Dumaine, world-renowned professors of Southern Studies at Tulane University and authors of numerous books on the subject, or her over-achieving brother Alain Dumaine, who was a NASA rocket scientist—(No kidding! There really are rocket scientists.)—currently teaching at Princeton Univeristy. But she had learned early on that, with the aid of make-up, clothing, a wig, even something as simple as posture or hand gestures, she could change herself into whatever she wanted to be. (“Honest, Mother, I wasn’t in the French Quarter after midnight. You heard the police description of those underage kids, “drunk as skunks.” And they thought one was me? Blonde, six foot tall, boobs out to here. Ha, ha, ha.)
“I need to shower first,” she told Easy.
“I think Mac means now. They’ve been holding off the meeting ‘til you got back from your run.” He sniffed the air and took a step back, even as he spoke, and then grinned. Easy knew well and good that SEALs and WEALS had to work just as hard, physically, after they’d earned their trident pins to keep in shape. Smelling ripe was not so unusual. “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle,” was a familiar mantra. “Just make sure you stand down wind,” Trond suggested.
A meeting? He mentioned a meeting? She went immediately alert. Rumors had been circulating for weeks about a new mission. One that involved taking down those African scumbags who had been kidnapping young girls for sex slaves. Boko Haram, or whatever terrorist-du-jour group felt compelled to perform atrocities for some self-professed higher good. Camille felt passionately about what was being done to these innocent children in the name of religion, and she wanted in on this mission. Partly she was infuriated as a women’s rights issue, but it was also her history as a Creole that fueled her fire. Camille’s great grandmother many times removed—her namesake, actually—had been “sold” at one of the famous pre-Civil War Quadroon Balls when she was only fifteen.
She watched as another man joined Easy. He had stopped to talk with SEAL Justin “Cage” LeBlanc. The similarities, and the differences, between the two men were immediately apparent. Both were very tall, probably six foot four, lean and well muscled, but whereas Easy’s attire…athletic shorts, drab green SEAL t-shirt and baseball cap, socks and boondockers…said military to the bone, this guy wore a golf shirt tucked into khaki pants with a belt sporting an odd buckle in the shape of wings, designer loafers without socks, and a spiffy gold watch. Whereas Easy looked as if he was about to work the O-Course, the other man carried an over-the-shoulder, high end, leather laptop case, more suited to Simi Valley. The most dramatic difference was between Easy’s dark high-and-tight haircut, and the new guy’s light brown hair spritzed into deliberate disarray. The pale blue eyes they both shared were the gravy on this feast for the eyes.
Camille wasn’t drawn to over-endowed men, especially ones who were so vain they moussed their hair in the morning, especially since she worked in testosterone central where muscles were the norm, but Holy Moly! This man, probably no more than thirty, was the epitome of sex on the hoof.
She licked her lips and forced herself to calm down. I look like hell, she reminded herself. On a good day, this superior male specimen wouldn’t give me a passing glance. After three failed near-marriages, I do not need another complication. Wash your mind, girl. While I’m at it, I better check to make sure I’m not drooling. “Your brother, I presume?” she said to Easy.
“How could you tell?” Easy said with a laugh. “Camo, this is my brother Harek Sigurdsson. Harek,” he nodded his head in her direction, “this is Camille Dumaine, the female Navy SEAL I told you about.”
Why would Easy be discussing me with his brother? Definitely not proper protocol for secretive special forces members to be made known to civilians, even a family member. And why do the SEALs continually refer to the WEALS as female SEALs, as if they aren’t a powerful force on their own? So irritating! She frowned at Easy, who just grinned. The idiot! Even if he was married to a fellow WEALS member and a good friend of Camille’s, Nicole Tasso, his charm was wasted on her.
His brother, on the other hand…whoo boy!
She took the hand that Harek extended to her as he said, “I’ve heard so much about you that—“
They both froze, extended hands still clasped. A sensation, like an electrical shock, except softer and coming in waves, rippled from his fingers onto hers, then rushed to all her extremities. It was like having world class sex without all the bother.
“What is that odor?” Harek asked, as if stunned.
Talk about an instant lust destroyer! “Vomit,” she disclosed.
He shook his head. “No. Roses.” He closed his eyes, leaned forward slightly and inhaled deeply. “Hundreds and hundreds of roses.” Turning to his brother, he asked, “Can’t you smell it?”
“Are you demented? She smells like she’s been rolling in…” Easy’s voice trailed off as something seemed to occur to him. “The mating scent! Finally! You’ve been bitten! Oh, man! Oh, man! Mike swore a moratorium on any more human mating. I can’t wait to tell Vikar and the others.”
“No! That’s impossible!” Harek stared at her now like she was some strange, repulsive creature. And what was it with those slightly elongated incisors of his? She hadn’t noticed them at first. Not that they looked bad. It was just that today, with all the modern orthodontics, folks, especially male ones pretentious enough to get designer haircuts (She would bet his cost at least a hundred dollars at some high-priced unisex salon.), would have corrected the imperfection.
“What scent? What bite?” Did he say something about mating? Human mating? Huh? As compared to non-human mating? And mating crap? Is that code for sex? “Oh, hell! I don’t have time for this nonsense. I need to see what the C.O. wants.” She tugged her hand out of Mister Sexy’s continued clasp and was about to walk away.
Easy, who had been bent over laughing, raised his head and said, “’Tis the musk men and women in my, uh, family give off when they meet their destined life mates.”
Well, that was clear as mud, especially since Harek was muttering, “No, no, no! Not now. Not her! I just got back from Siberia. I haven’t thawed out yet.”
You come from Siberia? Nobody comes from Siberia.”
“Well, I came from Siberia originally, by way of Pennsylvania, and then Nigeria…all those I. A. places.”
Is he trying to be funny? Dolt! No, he seems to be serious. Idiot, then.
“Harek is always being sent to Siberia as a punishment,” Trond told her.
“Our…uh, employer.” Trond’s blue eyes darted right and left, as if recognizing he’d revealed something he shouldn’t have.
“Your employer is Uncle Sam,” she pointed out.
“Another, higher authority,” Trond said enigmatically.
“No, I don’t come from Siberia. I come from Transylvania,” Harek replied distractedly, still shaking his head as if to ward off some repulsive thought. Her.
“Romania? You live in Transylvania, Romania?” Why she fixated on this irrelevant fact in the midst of all the other stuff was a puzzle, one she would consider…later.
“He means Transylvania, Pennsylvania. Our hometown,” Trond explained since his brother seemed speechless except for the continual muttering, “Life mate? No way! Not now. Not with her.”
“What the hell is a life mate? And why not me? Forget I asked that.” As for thawing out from Siberia, or Transylvania, or the frickin’ moon, if he was any hotter, Harek would combust. She gave the obviously distressed man a glare and turned on Trond. “As for musk and your family, in case you need a reminder, Easy, I am not a member of your family.”
“Yet,” Easy said ominously.
Harek looked as if he was going to throw up.
Welcome to my life, Camille thought.