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Sometimes Fate Don't Smile

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It's a fact of life, you know, some people just get all the luck. Some people, fate goes out of its way to be nice to 'em. Lines up all the chances for 'em, keeps 'em nice and clear of all the bad stuff goin' on out there. Some people, they got it sweet. The rest of us poor schmucks, we just gotta make the best of the shit sandwich. Fact of life, that's what it is.

Fact of unlife, too. People don't mention that so much. We like to pretend we don't got to worry much about luck. Big, bad vampires, able to take on the world, right? Ain't none of us sissy enough to be scared of fate lookin' at 'em funny. 'Course not. Hah! Yeah, right. Whatever you say, kiddo. You just keep thinkin' that. Fact of the matter is, fate screws us over or sweetens our deals just as much as it does mortal ones. More, probably. If you got it good out here, you're probably good for a good long way. If you got it bad, though, then chances are you got it really, really bad.

Me, you know, I ain't got it so bad. Ain't got it so good either, but I ain't got it bad. Sure, got a mug on me like a hundred miles of bad road, can't go down a street without people screamin' or leggin' it as soon as they clap eyes on me, but that's just the way it is for my kind. Sewer rats, yeah? Nosferatu. We got hit with the ugly stick right from the get-go, nothing we can do about that. There's ways around it, so long as you ain't too worried about your social life or nothing. Or your creature comforts either, but then I didn't have too many of those back when I was pretty either. That kind of shit costs money, and I ain't never had too much of that. The whole private eye gig don't tend to pay too much. Not if you got morals, anyway.

An' I do, by the way. Got morals. Even now. That's important to me. I'm tryna hold on to that. Gonna keep that as long as I can, monster or no monster. Might be a butt-ugly bloodsucking creature of the night, but that don't mean I gotta shit on people who don't deserve it. There's enough shit out here without people messin' around just for the hell of it.

That's why I do what I do, yeah? Well, that and habit. Once a private dick, always a private dick. Just tend to get a different flavour of customer now, is all.

Or not so much sometimes. I mean, bloodsuckers, yeah, but you get those in mortal flavour too, just not quite so literally most of the time. You got a different range of problems with Kindred, got a bit more of a supernatural spin, and yeah, when we go bad we can go real bad and in real nasty ways, but still. You gotta lot of the same, too. You got your mobs and your hatchetmen, you got your off-the-track numbers, you got your poor schmucks just tryna make it from night to night. You got your sharpers tryna play ya every which way, and you got your poor saps just genuinely in need of a hand. Trick is tryna tell which is which, just like always. Trick is makin' sure your mistakes don't get ya killed. Again.

He was pretty nice about it, though. My sire. The whole killin' part. He did it nice and gentleman-like, I gotta say. It was a nightmare and a half, yeah, but most of that wasn't his fault. That's just the way it happens for us. He showed me the ropes and all afterwards. Didn't hold no grudges about me pokin' around where I wasn't wanted. Guess he wouldn't, though. Kind of a thing for us, pokin' around. Must have liked my style, or I guess I wouldn't be here, huh?

So that's me. Michael Rains, private dick, professional poker-arounder. Always worked for me, little upsets like pokin' a vamp and gettin' whacked aside. I got me a terminal curious streak, real terminal here or there, and I guess I just like helpin' people too. I like lookin' out for folk, keepin' an eye on 'em, make sure they're doin' okay. I like helpin' out.

I like knockin' some people on the head, too. Them what deserve it an' all. That's risky now, though. It's easy now, sometimes too easy. Always had a bit of a mean streak when pushed, but these days I got a hunger too. Gotta be careful. Gotta be sure I don't take it too far.

But, anyway. That's beside the point, maybe. I wasn't here talkin' about me, I was here talkin' about luck, wasn't I? I was tellin' ya how some people got it, some people got all the luck in the world, and some people ... don't. Some people ain't got no luck at all. Business I'm in, I tend to meet a lot of those. Well. Tend to meet a lot of both, really. The ones who ain't got no luck, and the ones who go out of their way to make their own. The suckers and the players. That's who I tend to wind up battin' for. Against my better judgement sometimes. I got okay instincts, I guess, but there are some real classy players out there. Sometimes you're just gonna get played. Ain't no helpin' it.

Sometimes you know it's happenin', too. Sometimes you know you're gettin' strung along, an' you wind up doin' it anyway. 'Cause they're too big to mess with, maybe, or 'cause there's someone else involved, there's some poor bastard swingin' in the breeze, and fit-up or no fit-up you just ain't gonna leave 'em hangin'. Sometimes, it's a bit of both.

Had a case like that a while back, actually. Not that long ago. Might be educational for ya.

First, you gotta understand, I gotta bit of a rep around here. Folks see me as sort of a freelancer, though if push comes to shove I'm gonna side with the clan first and then the forces of law and order, such as they are for things like us. I try to look out for the little guy, though, and people know it. Don't matter who ya are, if ya need help I'm willin' to hear ya out. I try to stay out of the politics, you know? Keep it street-level or lower, that's me. So I get people from a lotta sides. Not the crazy ones, usually, not the out-and-out monsters among us, but for the big power blocks I'm considered a bit of a neutral go-between. Get a lot of jobs just runnin' messages, I'll be honest, but sometimes if people get a bit lost, wander into unfriendly territory or what have you, folks might send me in after 'em, see what I can see, like that? Shepherd for lost lambs, that's me. Lost wolves, too, a time or two. This job was one of those.

What happened was, I got a message from Aaron Talbot. Don't go public much, me, so face-time tends to be at a premium, but I got mailboxes around the city for when people need to contact me. Did a round one night, I found the same message in about five or six of 'em. Nice message, friendly-like. Pretty cream card, copperplate handwriting. Would I like to drop by the Blue Room at my earliest convenience, Mr Talbot would appreciate a word.

I about shit a brick. He ain't necessarily a big player, Aaron Talbot, he ain't been in the game that long, but he's what you'd call an up-and-comer. On both sides of the fence, really. On the human side, he's the shadow king of the local mob, sorry, the local legitimate businessmen, and on our side he's a canny blue-blood bastard who's been makin' gentle waves for a few years now. Nothin' pushy, you follow me, he don't overreach himself none, but a slow and steady climb. A man to watch, in other words. And a man to be careful gettin' involved with.

Not that I had much of a choice. He's the kind of person a body don't go makin' casual enemies of. Sure, I could blow him off, just not show, and in the short term I'd likely get away with it, but long term that kind of thing tends to be dangerous. We've got long memories, we monsters, and Aaron Talbot was the kind to develop a long reach to go with it. It don't extend too far below the surface, the sewers are Nosferatu turf and nobody else's, but it could make topside difficult down the line. That might not affect the likes of my sire too much, but someone like me, someone tryna stay as human as I can, that could be bad.

So, naturally, I moseyed on down to the Blue Room to see what old Castellan had to say. That's what the humans call him, by the by, at least the ones far enough into the mob to know he exists. Castellan. The governor, the guardian of the keep. He likes that, I think. It ain't exactly Prince or Primogen, but it's a good name for a guy who's heading that way.

It's a nice joint, the Blue Room. Classy sort of a place, the kind with a proper restaurant, big band jazz, nice dance floor. Lounge and bar, club rooms upstairs. Party up front, business in the back, but respectable-like. Least on the surface. Real legitimate business, I'm tellin' ya.

I had to go in around back, of course. Face like mine, I'd clear the place inside a minute, and that wouldn't have been very friendly. Or safe, but that's neither here nor there. I went in the back entrance. Ghoul there showed me up. Bit of a snooty sort, that one. Wasn't surprised. Club like that, big band jazz, up-and-coming singers, I was gonna guess there were a few Artistes hanging around. That kinda attitude tends to rub off. I didn't mind it none. Bigger fish to fry and all that. I was there to see Mr Talbot. Didn't have to give nobody else the time of night.

Got shown in to this nice big office. All browns and golds, warm lamplight, earthy-lookin'. I'm generally not so hot on interior decorating, given that I live in a literal rathole these nights and a metaphorical one even back when daylight was still a thing, but it was good. Nice. I liked it. Gave the man points for class. Gave him a few more points for a warm welcome, too. Man stood up behind the desk, thanked me for comin', held out his hand all friendly-like. Didn't so much as flinch, even though I'm clammy as a stiff and a bit greenish at the best of times. Man's got class, got nerve, got a poker face fit to go for broke. I gotta give him that.

"Mr Rains," he said, gesturing for me to sit down in his nice clean leather chairs, also without a flinch. "Thank you for coming. I wasn't sure if my message would reach you in time."

I sat down, because of course I did. You don't pass up comforts when they happen on ya, or a chance to test a Ventrue's tolerance either. I raised an eyebrow, though. Took off my hat, treated it serious-like. "Time's an issue, then?" I said. That tends to be bad. Time bein' an issue means a hot deal, and more than likely a lot of antsy folks on either end. It's hard to be cautious on a hot deal. Clients tend to get upset at ya.

He paused, though. Thought it over some. Enough to get me hopin' it wasn't that bad.

"Not ... exactly," he said, weighin' his words like they cost money. Which, admittedly, they probably did. "I'll admit, Mr Rains, I'm not actually sure how urgent the matter is. For my own part, though, I'd rather have answers as soon as possible. If he is in trouble, I don't want to leave him out there any longer than I have to."

Well. That was interesting. I bumped the other eyebrow up to join the first. A lost sheep, yeah, or possibly a lost wolf, and one who'd apparently vanished all sudden-like. Enough that the boss had no idea what'd happened, or even if anything had. Huh. Interesting, all right. And potentially rather dangerous.

"You got a body gone walkabout?" I asked. Polite, you know. Interested. Mr Talbot leaned back in his chair. He studied me, looked at me all thoughtful-like. He's got a hell of a stare, that man. He sucks you in, has you hangin' on his every word. He don't necessarily look like much. Forty-ish. Tired. Dignified. A hard-working man, you'd say, with a bit of something noble about him. He don't look like much, or at least he shouldn't. But he looks at you, and he's just ... you end up thinkin' about some tired, ancient warrior, lookin' out for his people. He's got presence. Hah! He's got Presence all right. He looks like a man you oughta respect. You don't watch yourself, you wind up givin' it to him whether he's earned it or not.

Don't know if he has, by the way. Earned it. All this time I still don't know. He's got a nasty streak. Got a habit of usin' people. Comes down to it, though, you can say that about most of us. Monsters all, ain't we. So I don't know. He's friendly, is Aaron Talbot. He's polite. He'll give respect where respect is due. You gotta watch yourself, though. He sucks you in before you know it. And if he wants you screwed, you ain't never gonna see it coming.

"I'm not sure, Mr Rains," he told me softly, that night in that warm brown office. "Certainly I haven't seen him in some nights, which would generally be unusual for him. I have unfriendly neighbours, particularly a certain rabble to the east. It would not be beyond the bounds of possibility for something untoward to have happened to him. However ..."

He trailed off, either for effect or because he was genuinely pondering how to phrase the thing delicately. With Talbot, could go either way. I made inquisitive noises anyway, trying to gently hurry him on a bit. Not wise, necessarily, but it wasn't like I had all night. He raised a cool eyebrow my way, but capitulated after a second or two.

"All right," he said, sitting up straight again. "I suppose I should be blunt, shouldn't I? We're both busy men, and time may well be a factor. You have a point, Mr Rains. All right. Here's how it is. One of my men, and by that I do mean Kindred, vanished about three nights ago. I don't actually know what happened. When he didn't show up for the second night running, I sent a few boys 'round to his place. It didn't look like there was anyone there, though that can be hard to tell with Simon. There are hospital clean rooms less sterile that his spaces tend to be. Still. He wasn't there, and asking around got nothing either. Nobody's seen him for at least three nights."

I nodded some. "But you don't know that he got taken. 'Cause, what? He's got reasons to bug out sometimes? He up and vanishes every once in a while?"

It happens, you know. Especially with the likes of us, but humans too. Flakes is flakes, after all.

"Yes and no," Aaron Talbot told me, steepling his fingers while he looked at me. "Simon is generally a creature of habit. He keeps to his routines. Almost religiously, you might say. It is unusual to have him vanish. But he has ... he has some problems. Ones that can make him a bit irregular at times." He paused again, and then sighed heavily. "Again, please bear with me. I am trying to be blunt, I just don't often talk about this. Simon is a Malkavian. It's normally not that much of a problem, some minor annoyances aside, but he does get ... agitated sometimes. He has these ... fits, I suppose you could call them. He has this thing about the baser elements of our nature. The Beast. It disturbs him. If something happens, if he gets too agitated or feels he's been pushed too close to it, he can ... take it badly."

My eyebrows crawled back up. Malkavians. Oh boy. "Take it badly," I repeated carefully. "Okay. Take it badly how, exactly?"

Castellan sighed. "Like I said," he said tiredly. "He has fits. He becomes incoherent. Sometimes he ... hits himself." I musta looked funny at that one, 'cause he tried to explain. "It's some sort of compulsion. Sometimes I think he's trying to beat the Beast back inside him. He hits himself in the head. Repeatedly, almost like a rhythm sometimes. He taps patterns normally, when he's just a little anxious or upset. It's worse when he's bad, though. And it does ... distract him. He finds it hard to keep of track of his surroundings in that state. He can wander, without realising where he's going. He can ... get himself into trouble."

And the odd thing was, the man looked genuinely distressed describin' this to me. I don't mean like, 'mob boss with flaky underling' distressed, or even 'look concerned for the cameras' sort of distressed, but honest-to-god upset and concerned. Like the man mattered to him. Like he was honestly worried for his little nutjob subordinate.

"... Sounds like a lot of work," I said, quiet and careful-like. "Man must be good at something, to be worth puttin' up with that kind of fuss?"

Again, not a safe question. Up-and-comers, you gotta be careful pryin' into their affairs. They can get twitchy about it real, real easy. Talbot only looked at me wryly though. That impression again, that tired old warrior keepin' watch over his people. He offered me a little smile.

"I could bullshit you," he said, with a bit of humour. He's got a good sense of it, does Talbot. Only lethal the odd time or two. "I could tell you I'm just the sort of man who takes care of his people. Even the awkward ones. It might even be true. You strike me as the suspicious type, though, so I don't think I'll bother. I am fond of him, yes. I value him, and I'll value his return." He paused, studying me again, and then he nodded slightly. "You have a reputation for honesty, Mr Rains, and impartiality too. You're the sort who doesn't let people get hurt for no reason. I'll be honest with you, then. I need you to find Simon for me. I need you to bring him back to me if you can, and if you can't I'm going to need you to tell me who got rid of him and why. Once you've done that, if you've any sense at all, you're gonna want to get out of my way real fast, because I'm gonna want words with them about it."

I blinked at him. Mostly for the baldness of it. The straight-up threat. You gotta understand, players like Castellan, they don't really do upfront. They come at everything side-on, delicate-like. It's all webs and angles with them. It's why I stay away from the politics. If you get someone like Talbot to the point of making an open, blatant threat, then you have really gone and pissed him the hell off.

"Who the hell is this guy?" I blurted out. Not even botherin' to be careful any more. We were in the slinging threats stage anyway. "You're gonna go to war for him? What the hell's he mean to you anyway?"

Talbot smiled coldly. Nothing amiable about it at all. "He's my accountant," he said, mild as milk and colder 'n February. "A very talented one, too. You'd be amazed what he can do with numbers. And money. Let's never forget the money. A very valuable man to have, Simon White. But that's not why he's important to me. Or not just, at least." He leaned forward, those tired eyes suddenly black and icy cold. Predatory. Here was a monster, yes sir. Don't nobody forget it. "He's my childe, Mr Rains. Adoptive, of course, but his own sire wasn't anything to write home about. Made him and abandoned him on a whim, as I understand it. They don't matter anymore, if they ever did to start with. He's mine now. And I want him back."

Possessive. Oh boy, you better believe it. Make a note, kiddo, don't ever mess with Aaron Talbot's things. He takes it personal-like. He gets upset.

Wasn't gonna act like I was scared, though, was I? I was, mind you. Like I said, Aaron Talbot ain't nobody to piss off all casual-like. Man scares the hell outta me. But still. Got some pride, don't I? Got some backbone. Ain't gonna act like he does. Man like that, you give him an inch and you ain't gonna get nothin' back.

"He coulda just eaten a sunrise," I pointed out. Gently, a bit. The man was upset. "If he gets like you say, if he has trouble tracking things when he gets bad, he mighta just stayed out too long, not realising what he was doin'. I'm gonna look for him, don't worry, but ... there might not be anyone to blame at the end of it, you know? He coulda just got bad, and then got bad luck."

'Cause some people do, don't they. Some people just got bad luck. Even just from what I'd learned so far, this poor little nutjob sounded like one of 'em.

Talbot took that on the chin, too. He flashed back to normal, so quickly I nearly wasn't sure what happened. One second there was this monster in front of me, teeth out and pissed off to hell, and the next there was this reasonable businessman once again. Just a tired, dignified working man, tryna look out for his people. Hell of a switch, I tell ya. Hell of an act he can put on, and I think what scares me most is I ain't sure which bit is which. I mean, I got my guesses, but I honestly ain't sure. Sometimes I wonder if he's acting at all.

"He might have," he admittedly wearily, slumping back into his chair. "Or he might have gone to ground somewhere, still confused, and just hasn't found his way back yet. Or, he might have gotten hurt, or taken, or killed. His haven's on the edge of a bad neighbourhood. I don't mean your sort of neighbourhood. Anarch turf. It normally doesn't bother him much, or me. He grew up somewhere similar. He might look inoffensive, but he's a nasty little knife fighter when he's pushed, and he walks like he knows it. He's hard to get the drop on, too. When he's sane, or at least saner, he's not the sort they'd mess around with. When he's bad, though, he's an easy target. I'm not saying anyone messed with him. I'm just saying it could happen, and I'm concerned, and I'd like you to find out. You're known for a freelance operator, Mr Rains. You can poke around places my boys can't."

And, well, what could I say to that, huh? This shit is what I do, and I don't go makin' enemies I can't afford. And, too, I kinda got his worry for the little guy. If it was genuine, anyway. If what Aaron Talbot was sayin' was true, I could see how Simon White would be the kind of guy you'd tend to worry over.

"Give me his address and I'll have a look around," I sighed. "If someone's got him, I can find that out. If he's gone to ground, too, I can probably find him. If he did eat a sunrise, though ..."

"I know," Talbot said. Sadly, I thought. Honestly sad. I'da bet on it, but it's so hard to tell sometimes what these people really think. "Do your best, Mr Rains. Even if all you can do is tell me what didn't happen. I'll pay you for your time either way. It's been three nights. At this point all I want is to know what happened to him."

So that was that, huh? That was me, an address in my hand, leaving that fine legitimate businessman to brood in his office in peace. I had a job to do. I had a lost little lamb with sharp little teeth to try and bring home. A bad luck kid, who'd gone astray.

First, though, I had to go and find somebody to sup from. I knew the neighbourhood he was on about, you see, I knew what kind of risky business poking around there could be. It's the sort of place a vampire wants to be in the full of his health, if you follow me.

I checked the underground bolt holes first too. Well, I was travelling by sewer to get there in the first place. Might as well, right? It wasn't somewhere I was one-hundred percent familiar with, but I did know a lot of the cellars and hidey holes around that section of sewers. I figured, if the kid was sane enough to head underground before the sunrise, I'd know most of the places he'd've wound up. And, too, check out a few potential bolt holes in case I was caught flat-footed myself. Never hurts to be prepared.

Didn't find the kid, though. Don't think I was expecting to. Thing about Talbot, you see, thing about blue-bloods like that, they might be paranoid but they generally do got a good idea when someone's really gunnin' for 'em. Malkavian or no Malkavian, three nights absence was suspicious no matter how you looked at it. I think I was figurin' on foul play all along too.

Which was why, around two in the morning, I popped open a manhole behind this one particular bar, and climbed up to take my business, or rather Aaron Talbot's business, to the head honcho around those parts.

Hot deals, right? A body ain't always got time to be cautious.

Leader of the local Anarchs was, and still is, a lady by the name of Angela Myers. Bloody Angie. Brujah. She's been around a while, Angie. Older than me for sure. Not sure how she and Talbot stack up against each other, but I reckon she's got a few years on him too. Not that she looks it. Bloody Angie is forever a fresh-faced nineteen, and she ain't necessarily that happy about it either. Nothing gets her dander up faster than people askin' if she's old enough to buy a drink at the bar. Heard she's broken more noses that way than any other. You gotta mind your step around Angie. Like a lotta rebels, she's a bit of a minefield sometimes.

She's mostly decent, though. I mean, as far as my business goes. She'll pick a fight at the drop of a hat, but she ain't sadistic or nothin'. She keeps her boys in line, mostly through judicious use of fisticuffs and the occasional baseball bat. It ain't normal to start findin' bodies around her turf. It ain't normal for people to start vanishin' around it either. If Simon White really had gone missing around here, and through foul play rather than his own lunacy, then it could only mean a couple of things.

Either Talbot was playin' me, or somebody else was playin' everybody, or Talbot's boys had finally crossed a line somewhere and Angie was proper gearin' for a fight.

That didn't feel right, though. Generally speaking, if Angie is gearin' for a fight, there ain't nobody that entire end of the city who don't know about it. She ain't like Talbot, she ain't sneaky about things like that. If Angie don't like you, Angie is right up in your face about it, and if Angie's goin' to war with you, she ain't makin' no secret about that either. I'da heard if Angie was goin' to war. The whole damn city woulda heard.

So I was feelin' fairly okay about droppin' by and askin' her about it. I mean, cautious, yeah, people like me tend to be cautious as a matter of course, but not worried about it or anything. Thing about Angie is, if you're in trouble with her, you know about it.

I went in up the drainpipe to the second floor. Angie's bar, the Brass Knuckle, gets a lot of kine customers. She ain't as uptight about it as Talbot would be, but a sewer rat like me still don't wanna go swanning in the front door. Upstairs is for Kindred only. They don't generally get a lot of Nosferatu, most of us around here are Camarilla still, but there's an open window and an upstairs landing if one of us does drop by. Angie's nice like that.

Comin' in the landing, I got met by a pleasant-lookin' older gent in a grey woollen three piece suit. Heh. Word of advice, kid, you ever come across him yourself, play nice, huh? That's Richard. He's Angie's second. Used to be a professor, I think, back in the day. He looks like the biggest boffin you ever saw, but I seen him punch a guy through two walls and a stack of crates one time. Be polite, okay? You'll lose less teeth that way.

"Hey Rich," I said. Hadn't been 'round in a while, but I knew the lay of the land. Rich waved a mild hello. "Angie around? I gotta talk to her."

"She's downstairs," he said, warm and easy. "You wanna head back to the office, I'll go get her for you." A pause, and then: "You look serious. Should I come along with?"

I weighed it up some, but honestly if I was picking a fight I was screwed anyway. No point tellin' him to stay away. Might help keep a lid on Angie, too. Rich is dangerous, yeah, but he's got a slightly longer fuse than Angie does, generally speaking.

"Might as well," I said. "Got bad news, and a favour to ask. You might as well listen in."

He nodded absently. Not surprised in the least. Oh boy. I was starting to feel like a lot of people knew somethin' I didn't, and that ain't ever a nice feelin' for one of us. Actually, come to that, it ain't never a nice feelin' at all. That's the sort of thing gets a body killed, permanent-like. I should know. It's what got me Embraced the first time around.

I went in back to wait for Angie. She didn't take long. Never does. She's a fast mover with a fast temper, Angie Myers. If somethin's up she wants to know about it ASAP.

"Mike!" she cried, thumpin' the door back and swingin' in like a tiger huntin' prey. Don't mean nothing, that. She moves like that anyway. "Trenchcoat Mike, as I live and don't breathe! You old sewer rat, you ain't been around in ages! Thought you'd got all high and mighty on us."

Snorted at that one. "Like that's gonna happen," I said wryly. High and mighty don't sit very well with a face that belongs in a catacomb catalogue. "Been busy, that's all. Gettin' run around downtown and the Towers, mostly. Just haven't had a chance to swing by."

Wasn't a lie. I don't tend to lie much. Keep my peace, yeah, but I'm not much for screwin' with people on purpose. Bad at politics, that's me.

"Yeah?" Angie asked, but like she knew that. Like she knew what'd brought me by this time, too. She had that stand about her. Not aggressive or nothing, but up on her feet, ready to go. 'Cause everybody 'round here knew more than I did, it seemed. I gotta listen to my sire more. I gotta pay more attention to who's been pissing in each other's coffee lately. "So why you comin' around now, gumshoe? Not that we ain't happy to see you an' all."

Yeah. She looked happy all right. Just about ecstatic. Oh joy. I sighed, and thanked good sense that I'd picked the side of the room next to the window.

"Aaron Talbot sent me by," I admitted bluntly, and barely flinched at the growl that rumbled up from her chest. Seen that comin', didn't I. Been a night for teeth so far. "Yeah, I know. He's lost somebody, though, down this end of town. Seemed honestly concerned about it."

Angie barked a laugh. "Honestly?" she scorned, and okay, normally I wouldn't blame her. Ask a blue-blood to be honest, it's like asking a sewer rat to be pretty. Possible, technically, but only with a lot of work, never for long, and not really all that likely. Aaron Talbot talked a good game, but he was still a mob boss at the end of the night. "Come on, Mike. You really got snowed that badly?"

I leaned against the wall next to the window, kept my hands where people could see 'em. Casual-like. Inoffensive, that's me. "Let's just say in this case I can see the concern," was all I said. I cocked an eyebrow at her. "Can't help noticing you're not all that surprised over here. You know somethin' about this, Angie? It ain't like you to be coy about this kinda shit."

She growled again, took a step forward. Didn't pull nothin', though, didn't try to plug me or anything, and Rich pulled her back again a second later. Slow fuse, Rich. Relatively speaking. Keeps the temper on simmer, so when he does let loose he can do it good and proper.

"It's the twitchy little guy, right?" he said, with only a hint of a slow boil around the edges. "Simon somethin'-or-other. Hides down in the basement flat on Ninth. Keeps a knife up his sleeve and another in his pocket. Neat suit, though. Shiny shoes. Hunts down Skid Row most of the time. That who you're lookin' for?"

Well shit. So they hadn't been keeping an eye on the guy at all then, had they. Hell. Maybe caution woulda been the better part of valour this time around. I'd already stuck my foot in it, though. No way out but through.

The window, possibly, but let's save that for a minute yet.

"You ain't gone and killed him, have ya?" I asked plaintively. "Angie, darlin', I thought you'd give a guy a warning before you all went to war on top of him."

She looked dangerous for a minute there. She looked genuinely, honest-to-god dangerous. Bit difficult to tell which bit of it she was mad about. All of it, possibly. Whatever it was specifically, for a good long minute there she looked like she was pondering tearing my throat out the old-fashioned way. With her teeth. She didn't, though. Like I said, I got a rep. No sides, no politics. Just tryna look out for the little guys. After that worrying minute, she simmered down. Just a bit. Just enough.

"If I ever go to war, Mike, you won't be in any doubt about it," she said. Quietly, but with Angie that's the dangerous part. If she's screamin' at you, she's lookin' to pick a fight. If she's whisperin', she's plannin' straight-up murder.

"We pulled him out of a gutter," Rich stepped in. Placid still. For the moment. "Night before last, not too far from Skid Row. He was beat to shit, looked like he was on the edge of torpor if he wasn't already in it. He was conscious, though. We didn't notice that at first. Scared the bejeezus out of Eleanor when he flopped over. He was trying to come up fighting. Had his knives in his hands and everything. Impressed the hell out of her, once she calmed down a bit and stopped trying to reflexively kick his head in. He was unconscious by then, unfortunately. She brought him here. Eleanor likes people who don't let little things like getting beat halfway to Final Death stop them."

Had to nod my head bemusedly at that one. I do tend to admire that in a body myself. Well hell. Good on ya, kid. Talbot had said he was a dirty little fighter when he was pushed, but I wasn't sure I'd expected to find proof. I wasn't sure I'd expected to find anything.

"He, ah. He still kicking, then?" I asked carefully. "Night before last, you said. Long time to keep him, and I know Talbot ain't seen him since. Wouldn't have thought you'd go outta your way for one of his boys."

Angie snorted explosively. It actually relieved me a little. Least we were back to the scornful bit of the conversation instead the murderous one. "I wouldn't, normally," she said, and oh, I had no doubts. "Aaron Talbot needs somebody to mind his people for him, he can come down here and try it himself. I'll give him a real nice welcome, guaranteed." Yeah. Yeah, I bet. She'd simmered down another bit, though. She might have looked almost fond. "We like this one, though. He's got some balls. Impressing Ellie ain't easy. We got him fixed up some. Or we tried to, anyway. Physically he's okay. It's up top we're starting to worry about."

Ah. Okay then. So instead of one nasty possibility or the other, we had a mix of 'em then. Talbot'd been a little bit wrong and a little bit right.

"He been hittin' himself?" I asked, leanin' forward off the windowsill and lettin' myself move into the room a little bit more. They raised their eyebrows at me. Damn near in unison. Little eerie, that. "Talbot mentioned it. Apparently the kid gets like that if he's having a bad night. Malkavian, you know? He gets too close to the Beast, he gets a little odd about it. Fight might do it." I paused. "Especially if he was pushed enough that he frenzied. You find any evidence of what he was fightin' at all?"

I hadn't heard anything about any massacres, anyway, and I probably would have done. Like I said, bodies around Angie's turf are rare enough. They're noticeable. Skid Row, maybe not so much, but it wasn't gonna hide the kind of carnage a frenzy might produce. If he'd been pushed that far, somebody shoulda heard. Unless his foe was Kindred, of course, and everything mortal in range had had the good sense or instinct to clear the hell out. Still shoulda heard something.

"We didn't," Angie said, and she was flat and angry again now. "Ain't found shit. Pretty sure it wasn't kine. Don't think he was sane enough to clean up that kinda mess. If it was Kindred, though, nobody's sayin' who or what kind or where from. He ain't exactly givin' us anything coherent either. And I need him to." She stepped forward, stepped up into my face. "Whoever they are, Mike, they're on our turf. Not Talbot's, not the Camarilla's, not the Nosferatu's. Ours. And until I know what's pickin' fights on my turf? That kid ain't goin' nowhere. Talbot can fucking sing for it."

Aw hell. Nothin's ever easy, is it? Nothin' ever goes smooth out here.

"He's Talbot's guy," I said, but careful-like. Conciliatory. "Might have been on your turf, but it was Talbot's man. You don't know it wasn't aimed at him and not at you. Or aimed at both of you, tryna kick off a war down here so somebody else can come in and mop up. The kid matters to Talbot, Angie. He's already this close to flipping his lid. You gonna tell me you don't think there's a chance you're both bein' played?"

"You think I care?" she spat, but I saw that flicker in her eye. She's not stupid, Angie. She might look like she is, all hot air and fists first, but she's not. She's really, really not. You just gotta get her calmed down, that's all. You just gotta keep her cool.

"You like the kid, right?" I prodded gently. "He keeps his nose clean around you. Don't put on airs, don't come messin' with any of ya? You like the way he fights. You wanna shit on him for somethin' that ain't his fault? Just 'cause he's Talbot's? I know you better than that, Ange. You're not the sort who's gonna kick the little guy while he's down like that."

Not unless they stepped on the wrong mine, anyway. From the sound of it, though, Simon wasn't really coherent enough to be managing that just yet.

"We're not looking to hurt him," Rich interrupted. Mildly. "We just need him to tell us what happened to him, Mike. If somebody's muscling in on us, we need to know. If somebody's playing us against Talbot, we need to know that too. If he goes back to Talbot first, then Talbot finds out and Talbot tells us nothing. He needs to tell us first. We can't afford to let him go until he does." He paused, and grimaced wryly. "Not that he's in a fit state to be going anywhere anyway. He's curled up in a ball right now, and anytime anyone goes near him it just seems to make him worse. I'm surprised he hasn't knocked himself back out already."

I chewed my lip a bit. Which is a bit of a stupid move, as a vampire, but it wasn't like my face was anything to write home about anyway. I thought about it some. And then, because I didn't have much other choice, I offered:

"How about I give it a go?" I said lightly. "You never know. New face, might knock something loose. Mug like this one especially. Tends to provoke whether I'm aiming for it or not."

Angie bit her lip too. "I didn't think we were aiming to frighten him any harder," she said. Not quite laughing to my face, but close. "You sure that's a good idea, Mike?"

"Har har," I drawled, but I didn't take offence. Ribbing is good, with Angie, and it wasn't like it wasn't cold hard fact either. "But seriously. I gotta tell Talbot something, and I'd rather be comin' back with his boy in tow. Let me give it a go, Ange. If it works it works, everybody gets something they want. If it doesn't, we're no worse off than if I never tried."

And something must have turned my way at last, fate must have finally eased up on me a little bit, because they both finally agreed. About damn time. Dawn was gonna be comin' up in just over two hours. We were cuttin' it real fine.

They took me down to a store room out the back. Concrete, windowless, fairly solid. Not that the kid was in much of a state to be trying to break out any time soon, but they were being proper careful about him. Coupla guys on watch, checked on often to make sure he hadn't whammied 'em or nothin'. Malkavians. You gotta be careful about that. I don't think he'd gone and tried much, though. He was in a sorry state when they let me in to have a gander at him.

He was a mess. Physically, I mean. Most of his injuries had healed, they'd been feeding him some. Rats, probably. Nothing human when he was so visibly unstable. His clothes were torn to hell, though, which I'm guessing wasn't helping his mindset any. Talbot and Rich had both said it, little guy liked to be neat. Liked bein' tidy. Bein' stuck down here, still stuck with the mess, I don't think that helped him much.

He wasn't beating himself up none, though. Not when I got there, anyway. He was huddled up on the floor, his fingers tappin' out some abstract sort of beat on the concrete, but he wasn't trying to knock his own head in. Angie looked surprised at that. Seemed that was a very recent development. Like since I'd arrived, maybe.

Hard to get the drop on him, Talbot had said. Goddamn Malkavians. He'd heard me comin' the whole way down, hadn't he.

Kid looked up at me then. He wasn't much to look at. Beige, mousy. The sort of face you wouldn't pick out in a crowd. His eyes, though, hit me like a cattle prod along the spine. Folks like me, we tend to pride ourselves on not being seen. I might not be the best at that sometimes, bein' a bit more open and honest than is generally encouraged, but I tend to favour the shadows a lot myself. Those eyes, though. They didn't allow for hiding. They took one sharp, hungry sweep, and came away with the colour of my soul.

Malkavians. Goddamn, goddamn Malkavians.

It worked, though. Whatever it was he saw, whatever it was he picked up. It pulled something loose inside him, tugged some knot into letting go. He slumped back against the concrete wall. His fingers went still and silent against the floor.

"Shadows," he rasped, looking at Angie behind me. "It comes in shadows. Didn't feel it until it was already too late. Meant for you to finish me. Cry havoc! Let slip the dogs of war!"

I froze. I'm pretty sure we all did. Shadows. Shit. Weren't nobody didn't know what that one meant. Shadows and catspaws and let slip the dogs of war. Goddammit. The Sabbat was all this city needed.

"Sliced it up some," Simon White went on. A flash in his voice, something childish and terrified and gleeful. "I got it good before it whaled on me." A change, though, spinning straight from glee to horror, his body tensing like a wire. "Didn't want to. Felt the thing inside me. Felt it clawing its way out. Had to stop it. Had to stop it. Couldn't."

Oops. Oh boy. But nope, no. We'd spent long enough on that one. I swooped down, caught his hands before he could start again. "It ain't here now," I said, smartly-like. "It's okay, kid. You're not frenzying now. It's gone back to sleep, all right? It's okay. Stay with me now."

And for a wonder, he managed it. Maybe he really had spent long enough trying to bash his own skull in. His hands twitched in mine, fingers tapping relentlessly against each other, but it didn't look like he was gonna need more than that. His shoulders eased back. He came back down out of the grip of his madness.

"I need to go home," he told me earnestly. Desperately. "I have to go home. The Beast can't get me there. It's safe. I made it safe. Me and Aaron. I need to go home."

Aw hell. Poor bastard little monster. Some people, you just gotta feel sorry for 'em, don't ya? Vicious as they might be when they're pushed. Some poor saps just ain't got any luck. But okay. All right. That's what they were paying me for, weren't they. Come down here and bring their boy home. That's why people come to me out here.

I turned around. Looked to Angie. She's decent, is the thing. An angry monster with fists like steel, but she ain't sadistic. She's got a thing about lookin' out for the little guy, same as me. And he'd impressed her some. He might have been Talbot's, he might have belonged to some blue-blood bastard, but he'd pulled his knives when he couldn't win, and he'd tried to get back up when he was down. She liked him. She'd liked him from the start. She'd never have let him stay so close to her turf if she hadn't.

"Get him out of here, Mike," she said tiredly. "Go on. Bring 'im home. You won't make it to Talbot's before dawn, but you got a bolt hole around here somewhere. I know you do. Get him out, get him stashed. We'll get to work on the shadow bastard. I'll drop you a line in a few nights, let you know how it's goin'."

I nodded. "I'll let Talbot know," I agreed softly. "Might even be worth your time to drop him a line as well. He's a bastard, we all know that, but if a Lasombra's come to town he's gonna be one of the first to want to swing. 'Specially since they tried to play him. Not saying you should trust him or anything, but you might get the bones of a truce outta that. You know. Just until you've kicked the Sabbat in the teeth."

Her lip curled, but she didn't disagree straight off. Rich, beside her, looked wearily thoughtful.

"We'll think about it," he said. "Right now let's get the war averted first. Go bring Talbot's boy on a quick tour of the sewers, Mike. We'll get the ball rolling on the rest."

So that's how that got started then. That's how I got played, that's how I got hooked into this nice little turf war we've had goin' on lately. I told ya, didn't I? Sometimes you just get played. Sometimes you know it's happening, and you let it happen anyway, just 'cause you can't leave someone swingin' in the breeze. Sometimes fate just likes to shit on us, I told you that. Some guys just ain't got any luck.

It could be worse, though. When you think about it.

You could be Malkavian.