It rolls off Erica in sharp, bitter waves, tangible to Bridget and to no one else in the sterile boardroom. The other members of the New York coven whom the Governor has chosen to be present at the meeting radiate similar emotions. Vera’s nerves have a sort of twitchy feeling to them. William exudes a moody mixture of hope and resignation. All three of them are tired.
Early morning sunlight, darkly filtered through glass designed to leech away its life and its warmth so as to protect their kind, sets them in unnatural shades. Thirty-six stories above the earth in a building of concrete and steel, the room, filled as it is with the dead, feels like a crypt.
The trio all wear dark suits and fabulously expensive watches; they are decorated in the trappings of modernity. A casual observer might think them lawyers or investment bankers or corporate executives.
The are executives, of a sort.
Every coven has its own customs and Bridget likes to dress to fit in. In a blue blouse and black suit with understated silver earrings and a simple silver rope necklace, Bridget thinks she prefers New York to many of the covens she’s visited recently. Some covens, despite being young, aspire to a past from before when Bridget was born—and that was a long time ago indeed. It’s nice to wear a modern style.
Bridget leans back in her seat at the table and tilts her head to the side slightly, reading the situation. Her blond hair is fastened back in a bun, but a few strands left artfully free brush against her cheek. She enjoys the slight hint of the untidy. It makes her feel human.
Some with Bridget’s gift for emotions and in Bridget’s position might let Erica stew in her own nervous hell, but that isn’t Bridget’s way. Erica has made many mistakes, but she is young, the youngest Governor of all the New World covens. She has potential—impressive potential, beyond what Bridget is accustomed to encountering. That much is plain. Her potential needs at least another century to mature though, possibly longer. Against the forces that she’s been fighting, in the fight that she inherited from her predecessor, it’s not surprising she hasn’t won.
Erica is the New York coven’s fifth Governor in five years. She doesn’t deserve the mess that she’s found herself in.
She hasn’t won.
But, Bridget thinks, Erica could, with the right assistance.
The situation limits the promises that Bridget can make, but she knows how to work within her means. For Erica, she’ll do what she can.
“The Council has ordered me to see to the Holts and their rot, not to you,” Bridget says. It’s hard not to make it sound like a threat, but Bridget manages. She has the authority to call upon the Council to decimate the coven if she feels it is warranted. Removing a Governor is a small thing in comparison.
For a brief moment, sharp anxiety cools towards relief.
Seated next to Erica, Vera has a different reaction. Her tense worry cycles to a similarly tense anticipation. Bridget glances at her, briefly. It’s the barest flicker of her eyes, but it’s more than enough to let Vera know that Bridget noticed.
When Jacs Holt eliminated New York’s previous Governor, Vera wanted the succession. By rights it should have been hers. She had been Second to the previous Governor and thus her claim had been stronger even than that of Meg’s consort William, also seated at the table with them now. Nevertheless, the Council passed them both over for the less experienced, Erica—the Erica who is now in such desperate straits.
The succession, the players in the coven’s politics, the coven’s many troubles—all of the facts were given to Bridget by the Council. What the Council did not give to her was its reasoning.
Bridget is not old enough and not cruel enough—and hopes that she never will be—to sit on the Council. But she knows its workings well enough to think that Erica’s promotion and fall were orchestrated. Erica is a pawn, Bridget is, perhaps, a knight, and somewhere deep in the shadows are the entities that move them about the board.
In any case, it’s clear to Bridget that Vera’s ambition has colored her interpretation of Bridget’s words. Vera hasn’t done anything to suggest disloyalty, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t ready to make another bid for Governor when Erica falls. She’ll have to be watched, closely.
“Our resources are at your disposal, of course,” Erica says. As she speaks, she holds her posture perfect, and she holds perfectly still as well. It’s the preternatural stillness of a body that isn’t quite alive. It suits Erica. She is a creature of appearances. Dressed in red and in black, blonde hair slightly curled, grey-blue eyes piercing, seated in a tall chair at the far end of the long boardroom table, she certainly looks the sort of woman who could command the allegiance of every vampire in the sprawling mass of modern New York.
There’s a beauty about her and her masterful projection of control.
What Erica is not, however, is a creature of substance.
Not yet, at least.
Bridget hasn’t come to remove Erica, but Erica will not be long in her role as Governor regardless. Once Bridget’s work is done and the Holts have been taken care of, the only continuing help that Bridget will be able to give to Erica will be to push her to step down peacefully. The Council promoted Erica beyond her competence and there’s no reason she should die for that. Someday she’ll grow into such a station, but only if Bridget can make her succeed now, and only if she survives.
Bridget nods to Erica. Keeping her voice warm, she echoes, “Of course.” Then, “Why don’t you tell me what information you have now?”
Erica’s eyes shift to Vera. Catching the signal, Vera takes charge. “As you know, the Holts are an old clan mostly extinct now due to infighting. The remaining members have been sworn to our coven since their arrival from Sicily a hundred years ago. They have always been involved with certain elements, against which neither we nor the Council have any law, but over the past six years the previous Governors came to suspect that they were tainting the blood supply with synthetic opiates as well, against the Council’s proscription.”
Here, Vera pauses. She watches Bridget carefully as she says, “I am under the impression that you need no briefing on the nature of that matter.”
As she speaks, she exudes wariness. Her words are a test of sorts. She’s seeking confirmation that Bridget is… worthy, perhaps. Good enough.
Vera is old, older than Erica though not as old as Bridget. She is smart, but, above all, she is competent. It was a misfortune that she was sired with thin blood from a poor line. In the hundreds of years since, however, she has steadfastly marched her way up the conventional hierarchy of her coven. She’s good at what she does.
Tilting her head to the side slightly, Bridget feigns a smile, even though a smile is the farthest thing from the nature of her thoughts. “You might say that I am an expert,” she says.
Vampires cannot eat food and they cannot drink wine or spirits. They cannot smoke, snort, or inject as humans do. What vampires can do is drink from human veins that have been laced with intoxicant. Since time immemorial this has meant stalking drunks in dark alleys. In the past hundred years, as humans have dreamt up new ways to take themselves to other places, vampires have followed happily in their wake. In that past hundred years, neither Council nor covens have cared. In the past decade though, the experiences available have become viciously potent, beyond anything else, and different in character.
The effects on humans have been unfortunate. The effects on the covens have been devastating.
With her gift for the emotions of others, Bridget thinks that the feeling is something that can’t be described as rapture because rapture isn’t a strong enough word for it.
It’s like being made of sunlight.
It’s living in the memory of everything that death stripped away.
And when it’s over—
When rapture ends—
In the aftermath, the desperate need to immediately chase the sensation of life to the point of self-immolation is understandable but, in the eyes of the Council, not desirable.
Many grave matters never rise to such a level.
Questioning the Council’s motives, however, isn’t something to be done aloud.
As an Inquisitor for the Council, a problem-solver of a sort, Bridget has traveled the continent patching some covens together and watching as others fall apart. There are more like Bridget, rushing from coven to coven, from Pensacola to Amarillo to Jackson, at the Council’s behest, but despite their best efforts the devastation marches on. The New York coven is too large and too diverse to simply dissipate from the rot like others have before it, and for that reason it is of vital import that order be restored. The only other option is a true purge.
Vera offers a curt nod.
William joins the discussion now. He is a very large man and all of him is muscle. It’s never been clear to Bridget if the blood of his line grants physical prowess beyond the norm, in the way that the blood of Bridget’s line tends to attune its bearers to the residue of emotion, or if his clan just has a preference for a certain look. “Meg,” he starts, naming the previous Governor. Then, he pauses.
It’s obvious to Bridget that his stew of fury and despair has momentarily silenced him. She gives him his time.
“Meg,” he starts again, “She was investigating Jacs Holt. Jacs had her people selling on the streets but the Governor before Meg had found she was working out of the blood houses too. Our houses. It started out with just the ones that already paid tribute to the Holts, but they were moving in on the rest, and some were setting up operations independently. Meg issued an interdict on the Holts and then the Holts put out a hit on Meg.”
William’s raw grief hits Bridget, sharp and sudden, more intense than even what he’d been wrestling with just moments before. Muscles in his face tense as he tries to imitate stoicism. Meg went to her rest months ago now, but, to beings without heartbeats to keep time, months and years are grains of sand on a beach.
Bridget keeps her composure.
She’s had many, many years of practice.
He doesn’t want sympathy—or, rather, his pride requires his pain go unseen.
Vera takes over again. She has worked with William for a very long time. They are, in Bridget’s estimation, a good team. “The sites operate like normal blood houses except that humans can pay extra for a hit and vampires can pay extra to bite a human on a high. It is a very lucrative business model. The Holts are using a combination of money and intimidation tactics to keep the human authorities from closing their operations down.”
Bridget nods slightly. She’s seen this before and she wants to remind her audience of that fact. Her authority here is a complex thing. She has respect by virtue of her age, and the coven fears what her affiliation with the Council means, but she needs more than that in order to be effective. The centuries have taught her that covens will take whatever rope they can. When they take too much, they hang themselves with it.
Like covens, the blood houses are as old as vampirism. They have existed in nearly every culture that vampirism has touched, sometimes at the fringes of what mortals will tolerate and sometimes fully worked into the fabric of society. They are, after all, significantly more civilized than the alternatives. In the present moment however, amongst humans, they are… controversial.
For humans, the bite of a vampire is its own special ecstasy and, for vampires, willing blood lessens the moral weight of dead existence. For the people running the houses, a pretty penny can be made off of everyone. So long as the vampires control themselves and the houses refrain from less benign variants of the trade, it’s a victimless exchange that leaves everyone sated. Adding to the blood, however, is a common and commonly dangerous way to change the equation.
“To their credit, the minders at the Holts’ houses seem to do a good job of preventing human fatalities,” Erica offers. “It’s a form of regulation through the free market. The humans are safer in the houses than on their own. For the human police, that may be enough to look the other way.” The way she says it, it’s almost as if she supports the whole enterprise, at least, on the human side. Her emotions waver, dangerously.
If her loyalties are compromised—well, that’s something to keep in mind. A Governor is meant to keep the balance between human and coven, but sometimes Governors stray from their allegiances.
“Is that so?” Bridget asks, letting her tone suggest strong skepticism.
In her experience, vampires drinking from junkies don’t stop and human bodies don’t deal well combining various forms of intoxication with blood loss.
“The Holts have trained their people well,” Vera says. Her approbation, similar to Erica’s, is obvious. Or perhaps she’s just trying to make the problem seem small. Manageable. Not something that requires drastic measures. “There are problems at the independent houses, but the Holts have a very clean operation.”
“It’s a business,” William adds.
Bridget shifts slightly in her seat. Unlike Erica, she likes to keep herself moving and projecting life, even if her heart isn’t beating. She’s an Inquisitor for the Council. She may sometimes need to seize respect from wayward covens but she doesn’t have to pretend to have power. She has it.
Every coven spawns its own novel problem.
Most novel problems can be solved with age-old solutions.
“I’d like to meet the Holts,” Bridget says.
Erica, Vera, and William don’t move—they’re dead—but the boardroom is immediately soaked in the rotten stench of fear.
The New York coven, the third oldest on the continent and by far the largest and richest, is weak.
Erica, Governor of her coven, speaks. “Inquisitor, I—“
“Call me Bridget,” Bridget cuts in, keeping her voice pleasant. “If the Holts do to me what they did to Meg, the Council will have no choice but to destroy this coven root and branch. You may wish to protect me.”
Silence hangs in the air for a moment and then Vera clears her throat. “With the Governor’s permission, we can facilitate this.” Finishing weakly, she looks to Erica for confirmation.
A quick flare of alarm precedes Erica’s rush to pick up where Vera left off. “Of course,” she says. “We’ll need to initiate contact, arrange security…”
“Would tonight work?” Bridget suggests. She is a new and unexpected guest in the city and she’d prefer to push forward quickly. If the coven is half as functional as it needs to be to survive the coming days, it can do as she asks.
More alarm, and now dismay—but followed by a brush of steel.
“Of course,” Erica says. “The coven looks forward to working with you. Bridget.”
Bridget smiles for Erica. “And I the coven,” she replies.
  
That night, it rains—because of course it does.
There’s some law of the universe that says that vampires can never conduct business in anything but the worst weather.
The coven supplies a large vampire, probably one of William’s cousins, with a black umbrella to hover next to Bridget, but she takes the umbrella from him and directs him to give her space. The vampire, Matthew-but-call-me-Fletch, shrugs and retreats back into the downpour where Vera immediately moves to let him share her umbrella.
It’s dampened by the rain, but Bridget gets a strong whiff of affection from them.
The New Yorkers are all dressed in near-identical long black coats over their black suits. They don’t need coats—vampires are creatures of cold—but, like silk ties and crystal-faced watches, it’s part of their style. The men wear black oxfords and the women wear black heels. The most color among them is Erica’s vibrantly red lipstick.
Bridget herself has chosen a white shirt, a white jacket, and matching pants. She doesn’t have enough trust in the coven’s ability to protect her to wear a skirt. She’s let her hair down but not a strand is out of place. She’s finally working with a coven that lives in the twenty-first century and she’s going to enjoy every delicious moment of modern fashion. Her heels click against the wet concrete sidewalk.
The heels were a compromise. They’re low and she can run well enough in them, though they’re not ideal. She has to wear them though. She’s short. After hundreds of years being short, it’s just something she’s had to accept about herself.
Two black SUVs pull up to the curb outside the Governor’s residence in Brooklyn and drivers step out to open doors for their party. Vera, William, and Fletch climb into the first car. Erica gestures for Bridget to join her in the second. Much like in a limousine, a barrier has been installed between the driver’s area and the rest of the vehicle.
As the cars rejoin traffic, Bridget glances back at the Governor’s residence. Someone some number of years ago had a sense of humor and it is a de-consecrated and repurposed church. For all their black suits and corporate airs, the New York coven does have personality.
“Bridget,” Erica starts, cutting into Bridget’s thoughts.
“Hm?” Bridget prompts.
There’s an earnest sincerity in the air as Erica meets Bridget’s eyes. It’s endearing. “Dealing with the Holts ends your mission but it won’t stop the problem here,” she says. “There are too many of us who’ve become dependent.”
“You have an idea,” Bridget says, anticipating that this is a pitch of some sort. Erica may be a bad hand at keeping control of her coven and she may care for humans too much, but she’s very, very intelligent. It’s something her line, famous for its members’ premonitions of the future, prefers in its siring. If she’s thought of something new…
“I’ve reached out to the human clinics,” Erica says. “They won’t help us. But if we take the Holts’ houses and convert them, run our own clinics, combine them with human services as well—it would be expensive and no one else has done it, but our coven has the resources. We could. You’ve been across the continent following this—have you seen it? Have you seen it work? Could it work?”
Bridget crosses her arms over her chest and leans back in her seat. Her seatbelt shifts uncomfortably, digging into her neck, but she ignores it. “Methadone for vampires,” she says, half-question, half-statement.
“Yes,” Erica says. The manner in which she says it, the taste of her in the air—she is full of anticipation both for an answer in the affirmative and for Bridget’s approval.
Erica does not lack for ambition, or, Bridget thinks, for a good heart.
Bridget frowns and looks to the car window.
Erica’s wanting stirs up an answering desire to give.
Bridget will have to manage that carefully.
Outside, they’re passing by tall skyscrapers of glass and steel, buildings that just two hundred years ago would have been impossibly high. In the early night, every window is lit as humans go about their business, locked in the brilliant frenzy of life.
She’s seen vampires put down like rabid dogs. Like monsters. She’s seen vampires locked in cages by their brethren and fed cold blood until they feigned sanity long enough to slip out into the sunlight. She’s seen every violence imaginable, and it’s left her tired. And she’s seen— “Once,” Bridget says. “And not through any sort of organization.”
Erica smells of excitement and of hope. The mix of feelings rolling off her are of a kind that Bridget hasn't experienced in... some time. “And it worked?” she asks.
“Doubtful,” Bridget replies. She tries hard not to become caught up in Erica’s disappointment. It’s difficult. Though Erica keeps a steady face up, she emotes profusely to Bridget’s senses and they’re in an enclosed space together. The end result is that Bridget feels somehow personally responsible for her bad news. “I didn’t stay long, but vampire and human romances rarely end well and I can’t imagine that dependence and withdrawal made it any easier for them.”
Erica’s mood shifts to… something else.
“They loved each other?” Erica asks.
Bridget shrugs as she looks from the window back to Erica. “Maybe.”
“You don’t think so,” Erica says, attempting to read Bridget’s answer. “You’re one of the ones who thinks we don’t love.”
“You’re seeing a human,” Bridget concludes, voice neutral. It’s the only logical reason for the strange mix of emotions Erica is exuding and her near-defensiveness. Erica has a consort, a man whom Bridget met briefly upon her arrival in the city and then promptly forgot, but vampires, especially the younger ones, aren’t known for fidelity and Erica’s consort was unworthy of her.
From Erica, chaos.
Bridget can hardly make heads or tails of it, and she doubts Erica can do any better. That tends to be the way of things when humans and hearts are involved.
“Yes,” Erica says, wary.
Bridget tries adding a touch of warmth. “Tell me about him?”
A sudden spike of anger. Or, rather, it’s too weak to be anger… resentment, perhaps.
“Her?” Bridget tries again. “I didn’t mean to assume.”
But she had, assumed, that is. Almost all vampires who live past their first century experiment. Most vampires who live past their second century find something they like and become set in their ways. Erica being… Erica… Bridget leapt to certain conclusions. Unfounded, it would seem.
“Her name is Franky,” Erica says. There’s a genuine fondness in the way she says the name. The contours of it, the quiet strength—the feeling comes from Erica, Bridget is sure, but it reminds her of something familiar but not quite close enough to remember. “She’s a cook,” Erica continues. “We met… at a club… a while ago.”
Bridget reads Erica’s embarrassment and knows better than to press. If she does press, she risks provoking rank hostility. Interesting though that the Governor of the New York coven would be embarrassed about the circumstances in which she met someone. It’s this sort of thing that made Bridget assume Erica’s human would be male, and generically so. That said, the feelings radiating from Erica, the ones that aren’t embarrassment, give Bridget an idea. This Franky could be one way to push Erica to take a step back from her perilous role trying and failing to run the vampires of the city.
That will be a task for a later date, however.
For now, Bridget is merely gathering information. She doesn’t want to embarass Erica. There are other ways of provoking someone that are more constructive.
“You seem quite fond of her,” Bridget says. “Perhaps when this is all over, I could meet her?”
It’s not a true suggestion. Bridget merely means to plant the idea in Erica’s mind.
Erica bristles. She doesn’t reply immediately. She’s looking for a polite way to strenuously object.
Bridget intervenes, offering Erica a way out of the predicament Bridget created for her. “I’ll likely be called away quite quickly though,” she adds. “So I doubt it would be possible.”
Erica forces a polite smile. The red of her lipstick reminds Bridget of blood.
Blood from a human is life.
Blood from a vampire—
Blood from a vampire is power.
“Great minds think alike,” Erica says, stiff.
Bridget smiles back.
The conversation lapses into silence.
It’s an almost peaceful silence. The car is one of the luxury models that muffles the sounds of both machine and city. The drive from Brooklyn to the meeting point is long—the traffic is heavy and Bridget wonders how it is that humans, vampires, anyone can live in such a place—but their mode of travel is so insulating that she feels distant from it all. When they arrive though, stepping out of the black SUV and into the rain snaps the world back into dark and dreary reality.
Bridget has targets to meet, goals to accomplish.
The location that’s been chosen is neutral ground, or so Erica and her lieutenants say. Neutral ground was a concept that meant more before the days of horseless carriages, steam engines, and helicopters. Bridget is uncomfortably aware of how much she is depending on the protection of the coven and the threat of the Council as she walks into this... negotiation.
The neutral ground is, to Bridget’s eye, some sort of homage to late medieval architecture. It brings back memories. “What did you say this place was?” Bridget asks.
“It’s the Cloisters,” Erica answers. “It’s an arm of the Met. It’s a mix of pieces of old European monasteries and churches. Imported. Nothing here is still sacred enough to keep us out, but there’s a touch of consecration still about and no one wants to pick a fight here.”
Bridget revises her opinions. It seems neutral ground does still have meaning after all.
Well-dressed security guards open the gates and let their party in without comment. Bridget doesn’t ask how it is that the meeting could take place here. A coven as rich and connected as that of New York can open any human doors it pleases.
Within the compound, Vera leads, Erica and Bridget walk side by side behind her, and William and Fletch bring up the rear. They pass by statues on pedestals, blocky and colorful figures in glass, figures of Jesus on the cross—all things that remind Bridget of childhood and adolescence. Her skin crawls. It’s not just because of the ghostly cobwebs of ancient sanctity that they disturb as they traipse, dead, through the world of the living. Childhood and adolescence are a time she’d rather not remember.
Vera takes them to a courtyard, surrounded by columned walkways. Here, they wait. As they wait, Bridget reaches out and runs her fingers over one of the columns. It’s made of pink marble. Its capital has been carved to show some inhuman monster that Bridget doesn’t have a name for.
The medieval monks had vivid imaginations.
Their party stays under the covered walkway. In the courtyard—it’s a garth, Bridget supposes, if all this is a fragment of a monastery—the rain continues to fall. It’s a hard and steady rain. There’s little wind about and so the sound of droplets hitting stone and grass is almost peaceful.
Peace is not something that Bridget has ever associated with church, with religion, with God.
Her family wished her to be a nun.
She was ill-suited to be a nun.
But, in the eyes of her family, she hadn’t been much suited for anything else either.
If Bridget entered a convent now—a dead creature formed from the absence of faith and the sacred—she would burn to white ash from the inside out.
“They’re here,” Vera mutters, drawing Bridget from her thoughts. Vera is holding a hand to her ear where she has an earpiece wired to a radio kept inside her coat. “They’re on their way through the building.” She pauses, then, “It’s Jacs and it’s Brayden. Vinnie hasn’t come.”
“Thank you, Vera,” Bridget returns.
It is good to have something to focus on that isn’t the past.
Bridget’s companions are tense. She’s tense too, if she’s willing to admit it to herself. Little will directly ride on the outcome of this meeting—Bridget only asked for it to have an opportunity to read what she can from the Holts—but first impressions are important.
If Bridget had a heart that still beat, it would be beating quickly.
“If you hear a voice in your head,” Vera mutters, “It’s Jacs. Don’t listen to it.”
Bridget nods. “I know their bloodline,” she says. “I’ve dealt with them before.”
Surprise comes from the entire party but it’s Erica who speaks. “You have?” she says. “You’ve come to our coven before?”
Bridget’s response is measured. “I knew their clan in the Old World,” she says.
She has no intention of revealing more, and there’s no pressure to—as she finishes speaking, footsteps approach. Five figures advance down the covered walkway alongside the courtyard. Only one of them is a woman and Bridget assumes that one, then, is Jacs. Brayden is the one who looks to be a teenager. The other three are grown men. They’re not as muscular as William and Fletch, but look able to handle themselves in a fight and were probably brought in case of that possibility.
Like Erica, Vera, William, and Fletch, Jacs and her group are dressed for New York. They wear black.
The five of Bridget’s party and the five of Jacs’ party fall into lines facing one another.
No one speaks.
Whoever speaks first admits submission.
Even without Bridget’s gift, she’d know that the tension in the air is thick to the point of suffocation.
It’s a pissing contest and it’s ridiculous.
“If you’ve nothing to say, I think we can conclude here,” Bridget finally announces.
Jacs sneers. “Did you think I’d come and beg?” she asks. She’s a tight ball of hostility and paranoia. There’s little in her that Bridget can work with. “Did you think we’re scared of you and the Council?”
“I thought we could have a discussion,” Bridget replies, avoiding any tone that might provoke unnecessarily. Jacs, no doubt, will provoke herself. She’s already started.
Bridget lets her attention shift, as briefly as she dares, to Brayden. He has the same hostility and paranoia as his sire, but beneath it Bridget thinks she senses doubt. It’s a weak glimpse though, and it may be wishful thinking on her part. More likely than not, he’s both useless and dangerous—an unfortunate combination.
“What is there to discuss?” Jacs asks. “I’m running a business. Are you going to interfere?”
Bridget answers Jacs’ question with a question. “Is there a reason I should?”
It’s bait. It’s obvious bait.
Jacs takes it anyway.
“I killed the last Governor,” she snarls. “Turned her into a bloody mess.”
The surge of red fury from slightly behind Bridget is, without a doubt, William. It nearly drowns out Vera’s panicky dread, muffled as if she’s consciously attempting to suppress it. An odd reaction for one of her age—but Bridget can’t spare Vera her attention at the moment.
“Vengeance for that is entirely a coven matter,” Bridget says. “I am here representing the Council.”
“So what does the Council want?” Jacs asks. In Bridget’s mind, another voice, ‘What more does the Council want? You killed my brothers and sisters, bitch. Are you here to kill me too? I’ll kill you first. I’ll make you suffer before I do it.’
In the same way that she can, if she so chooses, shutter herself away from the richness of emotion around her, Bridget could shut out Jacs as well.
“The Council commands you to stop supplying heroin, codeine, oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl… You are to abandon the trade in blood.” Bridget can’t stop her distaste leaking into her voice as she pronounces the syllables of addiction. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t continue her list. The Holts won’t comply. “Your other operations may remain.”
Jacs’ eyes narrow.
‘I remember you, Westfall,’ the voice in Bridget’s head echoes. ‘I remember you. And they say I don’t have a heart?’
“Or what?” Jacs asks, using her physical mouth, fangs barred like a fledgling as she defies the Council like the short-sighted and arrogant fool she is. “We’re as rich as the coven. We’re as powerful as the coven. We have more guns than the coven. What can you do to us?”
Bridget doesn’t like intimidation and she doesn’t like people who employ it. She doesn’t like herself when she employs it. Sometimes though, it’s important to make herself understood.
“I asked for this meeting as a courtesy,” she says. “I came to let you know the Council’s orders. I’m not here to answer questions you already know the answers to.”
“This meeting is over,” Jacs says. She raises a hand, gesturing to Brayden and her guards. “We’re leaving.”
Neither Bridget nor any of her companions move until Jacs has gone out of sight. Even then, they wait another few minutes for good measure.
Finally, Erica, sighing, “I don’t like that woman.”
“No one does,” William chimes. “Did you see the way Brayden was squirming this whole time? He doesn’t like her either.”
Bridget resists frowning to herself. Whatever Brayden was doing, she was so focused on Jacs that she missed it.
She hates making mistakes.
Erica crosses her arms. “So, Inquisitor,” she says, wary but not hostile. “What now?”
“Jacs is going to strike,” Bridget replies. It’s a foregone conclusion, to the point she’s stating the obvious. “You need to strike first. Pick one of the houses under her protection and burn it.”
The four members of the New York coven, the four leaders of the New York coven, immediately radiate fear and uncertainty.
Bridget is beginning to find their timidity trying. The Council wouldn’t have sent Bridget if Erica and her lieutenants had been willing to do what must be done of their own volition. Even before Erica, if Meg had moved against the Holts immediately instead of trying at some sort of long game, order would have been preserved. And what was it that they thought Bridget had been sent to do? Negotiate?
Surprisingly, Erica finds enough backbone to argue. “I prefer a more peaceful approach,” she says. She’s starting to dig in her heels. She intends to put up a fight.
“And what is that more peaceful approach, Governor?” Bridget asks. She asks mildly, but her choice of words is pointed. This is not the first time Bridget has done this work for a coven. It is dirty, bloody, and painful work. Peaceful approaches—if there is any such approach to rooting out a vampire cartel that could merit that adjective—don’t work.
“Well,” Erica starts, “We could—”
Whatever else Erica was going to say, a loud buzzing from her coat pocket cuts her off. Annoyed, she pulls out her phone, glances at the caller, silences the call, then shoves it back into her pocket. It’s hard for Bridget to evaluate any emotional read in the split second, but she has eyes. She saw the glowing name on the screen. Franky.
Erica starts again. “We could summon an Assembly. With you here, the clans will be willing to sanction the Holts. Coming from the Assembly instead of the Governor, the rest of the coven—”
Again, Erica’s phone rings. Already agitated, this time a spike of sharp anger flares from her. She makes to reach for her phone again.
“Why don’t you answer that,” Bridget suggests. It’s not a suggestion. It is unmistakably not a suggestion. A suggestion would not have served to prove the point Bridget intends to drive home.
Vera and William understand Bridget’s play immediately. Both of them shift, on edge, tense, ready to support their Governor. A beat behind them, Fletch catches on and adjusts his posture as well. He’s the youngest of the group by far but he’s a very quick learner.
On their part, it’s a bold move. Bridget is an Inquisitor of the Council. One does not rise to her position without age and power. That the trio of them are willing to risk themselves for Erica speaks of admirable, and unexpected, loyalty.
The phone continues to ring.
Erica’s emotional flicker is easy to read—it’s fear because she’s just as aware as her companions that Bridget’s words amount to a thinly veiled threat. Still, reluctant, Erica swipes the screen of her phone and raises it up to her ear. Whatever fear Erica may have on behalf of her human, fear for herself has surely won out. At her side, her officers exude a combination of relief and dismay. “What?” Erica snaps.
Vampire hearing is only somewhat more acute than that of a human, but standing so close to Erica, Bridget can hear the staticky other side of the conversation perfectly well.
“Erica, I need help,” the person on the other side says. It’s a woman’s voice. Presumably Erica’s Franky. She has a noticeable accent to Bridget’s ear. In conversation with Erica, it’s clear from how they both speak that Erica moves in the circles of the New York elite and Franky does not.
“I’m busy,” Erica says tersely. She glances to Bridget, then looks away towards the courtyard beside them. The rain has eased to the point of a mere drizzle now. “I’ve told you not to—”
“I need help,” Franky repeats, angry, “And it’s a fang thing.” When Erica doesn’t immediately cut her off, she keeps going, “You remember my friend Allie? Allie Novack? You said she was nice? She’s taken off from Kaz’ shelter and gone down the road to one of your houses.” There’s a pause, then, “Come on, Erica. They drag bodies out of that place.”
Again, Erica glances at Bridget. Her voice, now, sounds pained. “Franky, I can’t. I—”
Bridget raises a hand and makes a gesture for Erica to cover her phone.
“Hold on,” Erica says. She taps the screen of the phone, then, scowling, holds it out to show she’s hit the mute button.
Bridget doesn’t bother reading Erica. Erica doesn’t have any sort of poker face to speak of and she’s clearly upset. How was this woman, of all the candidates, chosen for Governor? Politics. “Get an address. Tell her you’re on your way,” Bridget says. “Reassure her that her friend will be fine.”
Bridget offers an encouraging nod. She thinks this is what Erica wants to do. The only reason Erica is hesitating is that she suspects some trap on Bridget’s part.
Erica’s wanting wins out.
Unmuting her phone, Erica raises it back up to her ear. “Franky, are you still there?”
“So are you going to help or what?” Franky demands.
Erica’s voice is wooden. “What is the address?” she asks. “I am on my way. Your friend will be fine.”
Franky gives an address, Erica offers another stiff reassurance, and then they both hang up.
As soon as they hang up, Vera speaks. “Will, Fletch, and I can wait for another car,” she says. She is both assuming that Bridget will not be accompanying Erica and also pushing for it.
“No, it’s fine,” Bridget says. “I’ll go with Erica.” She starts to move towards the door that they came to the pink marble courtyard by. Judging by the sound of their footsteps, the others fall in behind her.
They’re discontent, but even Erica doesn’t try to argue.
Outside, the black SUVs that brought them are waiting. Bridget goes to the second car, slides into one of the seats, and waits for Erica, who is only a step or two behind her, to speak with the blond woman driving their car and then get into the vehicle as well.
After she closes the door and before she reaches for her seatbelt, Erica turns to Bridget. “What are you doing?”
Bridget buckles in and doesn’t answer until she’s heard the satisfying click of the safety lock. More than half of car accident fatalities involve persons not wearing seatbelts. She’s far too old to die in a traffic incident. Vampires, especially those of Bridget’s experience, are stronger, faster, and far more durable than humans. Still, they are not invulnerable. When she’s finished she answers with a question of her own, “What do you mean?”
Glowering, Erica sees to her own seatbelt. “What do you want with Franky?” Erica demands as the car revs up and starts to move.
“Your human?” Bridget asks, pretending she doesn’t quite remember woman’s name. Humans are human. There’s no reason she should remember, though, for her own reasons, she does in this case. In truth though, Erica’s demand has taken her by surprise. She’d expected an objection to her exercise of control rather than one centered around Erica’s Franky.
“I don’t want her dragged into this,” Erica says, blunt.
Through the car windows, the view of trees gives way to unending cityscape once more. The address they’re headed towards is in the Bronx.
“You brought her into this when you fell for her,” Bridget says. She says it like it’s a fact. It is a fact. “You can’t protect your people by ignoring their calls and refusing your help.”
Erica bristles. Bridget has hit a nerve. “You think I don’t try to help her?” Erica asks. “Franky doesn’t know what to do with help if you slap her in the face with it.”
It’s a metaphor choice that says quite a lot. It also doesn’t invite exploration at the moment. Bridget redirects the conversation. “The coven needs to trust its leader.”
“You don’t like my leadership style?” Erica asks. As she speaks, her lips curl just enough to show a hint of fang.
“Is it working for you?” Bridget replies, voice mild.
“Yes,” Erica returns, not hesitating at all.
And this, from the woman who wants to shut down the Holts through the power of social ostracization.
Bridget keeps care to maintain a neutral face as a tense silence descends.
The drive from the Cloisters to the Bronx is mercifully short. When the car stops moving and the engine cuts, the view from the window is… Bridget knows better than to assume she’ll ever know what she sees when she goes to a new place. That said, she has been traveling between covens for centuries and she is rarely surprised by the landscapes she sees. This occasion is no exception.
The street is residential, a collection of brick buildings set back from the edge of the sidewalk by tired concrete stoops. Rusty fences protect small patches of bare earth. Down the block a ways is a run-down but still functional gas station with a couple men sitting outside it and drinking.
Erica doesn’t wait for the driver to open the door. She opens it herself and steps out into the street. The drizzle has subsided to nothing and the clouds are starting to clear to reveal stars, but the air still smells of rain.
Bridget follows Erica out of the car and then towards a person leaning up against one of the nearby fences. The figure is wearing dark jeans and a hideously vibrant blue-green hoodie. The color isn’t anything in particular except offensive to the eyes, but teal might describe it well. There are times in unlife when vampiric vision, the ability to see near-perfectly in all but complete darkness, is an unfortunate blessing.
At Erica’s approach, the person by the fence pushes forward and moves towards them. It’s a woman—Franky, Bridget assumes.
Under her vile hoodie, she has brown hair and very pretty eyes, accentuated with heavy makeup.
They’d be pretty even without the makeup.
“What took you so long?” Franky hisses. Her hands are jammed in her pockets and she glances up and down the street as she speaks. There are a few other humans about, but they’re not quite within easy earshot and they seem to be minding their own business. Even if Bridget couldn’t feel Franky’s radiant nerves, the human is acting as if she’s about to be mugged.
Erica has her arms crossed. “It’s a big city,” she replies, defensive. Standing next to Franky, she’s the taller of the two, though she’s wearing heels and Franky isn’t. “What did you want me to do?” Her tone is terse and suggests only a fraction of the smoldering stew of emotions she’s leaking into the night air. Desire, affection, confusion, fear, anger—everything that can be felt, she’s feeling all at once.
Whatever Erica’s relationship with Franky is, it is not easy.
“Can’t you fangs fly?” Franky says. As she speaks, she’s sort of bouncing her weight on the balls of her feet. Perhaps she’s cold. Bridget can’t feel the cold very well, but it’s getting to be the time of year for it. Franky nods her head in Bridget’s direction. “And who’s that?”
Erica drops her voice as if by dropping her voice she can stop Bridget from hearing. She can’t, and she knows it. “Don’t mind her,” Erica says. “Where’s your friend?”
“Other side of the street, five down to the right, blue door,” Franky says. “Get her out. Please, Erica.”
The way Franky looks at Erica, earnest hope and real fear mixed together—if Franky were to look at Bridget like that, Bridget doubts even she’d be able to say no. That is to say, Erica, utterly trapped in her tempestuous mess of an unliving heart, doesn’t stand a chance.
Erica melts. Her stiff posture breaks and, shifting forward, she reaches out with one hand to brush her fingers against Franky’s elbow.
“I’ll take care of this,” Erica murmurs, soft. She glances, quickly, to Bridget. It’s a warning and there’s enough bite in Erica’s eyes that it’s respectable. Bridget returns a small shrug. She won’t harm Franky in Erica’s absence. Erica then looks back to Franky. “Thin, blonde, ponytail, yes?”
Franky nods rapidly.
Erica leans in for a kiss, the briefest brush of contact, and then turns, striding with purpose towards the building Franky singled out.
In Erica, conviction.
In Franky, trust.
Bridget feels the faint ghost of lips against her own.
Strong enough emotions don’t always have clear sources. The affection lingering all about like a sickly sweet cloud could be from Erica or it could be from Franky. By the intensity of it, it’s probably some combination of both of them.
As Erica marches down the street, Bridget meanders closer to the human. If Franky knows how to locate Erica’s wayward spine, she’ll be more useful than Bridget anticipated. And… Franky does have very pretty eyes. “You have a lot of faith in her,” she says.
Franky shrugs and sort of dances again. Definitely cold, despite the ugly teal hoodie. Now that Bridget looks at it, it looks rather wet. Franky’s been outside watching the house for a while. “You’re wearing a bad color to be in this part of the city,” Franky says. “In this city,” she amends. “White’s shit for New York.”
“You look cold,” Bridget says. Moving smoothly, she takes off her white jacket. As she moves, Franky watches. Keenly.
When Bridget offers the jacket though, Franky leans back slightly. As she leans back, Bridget gets a glimpse of several fresh bite scars, accompanied by dark bruising, on both sides of her neck. “Hey, I’m experimenting with monogamy right now.”
With that many bites, if Franky weren’t experimenting with monogamy, she’d probably be dead. Not killing during a feed is hard enough even when the vampire knows how much has already been taken. Even monogamous, it’s a small miracle Franky is still breathing. Erica’s restraint is admirable and entirely in character.
Bridget cracks a half-smile, intended to put Franky at ease. She doesn’t withdraw the jacket. “I respect that. You do look cold though.”
Franky hesitates, then takes the extra layer and pulls it on overtop her damp hoodie. The combination doesn’t fit particularly well, but she does look warmer and Bridget’s feel of her is that she’s slightly less stressed. “Thanks,” Franky mutters.
“I’m called Bridget,” Bridget offers. Hands now empty, she slips them into her pockets, mimicking Franky’s earlier posture.
“I’m Franky,” says Franky. Beginnings of a grin tugging at her lips, her eyes travel over Bridget’s now jacket-less body. Catching the look, Bridget raises an eyebrow. Completely unapologetic, Franky shrugs. Apparently she’s still allowed to flirt.
Bridget raises her other eyebrow and Franky lets out a short laugh.
Not as cold but still not warm, Franky wraps herself in a hug before looking away from Bridget to go back to staring at the house down the street. Erica is standing just outside the open door, arguing with whoever’s on the other side. They haven’t raised their voices so, at such a distance, Bridget can’t make out what they’re saying.
What she can hear is a very aggressive sigh from Franky.
“So who the fuck are you?” Franky asks.
Across the street, Erica steps into the house and the door closes behind her.
“I’m a visitor to the coven,” Bridget says. It’s not a lie. She’d rather not get into the details with the human though. She deflects away from herself. “Erica says you met at club?”
Franky grins. “And she didn’t tell you what kinda club, did she?”
Bridget replies with a soft hum. Franky’s grin is infectious and there’s not much to be gained from fighting the way her own half smile is trying to turn into a full smile. As Bridget smiles, she feels Franky’s stress further ease. “No, she left that part out,” Bridget says.
Franky’s grin widens. “Well if she’s still not saying, I ain’t gonna.”
“Fair,” Bridget says, shrugging.
“Okay, my turn to go fishing,” Franky says. She continues to grin, but there’s definitely something mischievous about her now. It’s attractive and… it’s too bad about the monogamy thing. “Erica’s some kind of bigwig in the coven?”
Bridget controls her expression very carefully. It wouldn’t be surprising if Erica hasn’t told Franky much about the coven or about coven politics. Given Erica’s defensiveness about Franky being drawn into Bridget’s work, it would make sense.
Erica is more assertive about her human than she is about her coven.
Thus, as for Bridget’s answer—
“I suppose,” Bridget says. Franky already suspects something. Bridget is free to confirm the suspicion, as long as she doesn’t elaborate on it. Given that Franky refused Bridget’s inquiry only a few moments prior, it seems rather equitable as well.
Franky’s anxiety flares.
Perhaps Bridget misread the situation and gave the wrong answer.
“She’ll be okay in there, right?” Franky asks. She tilts her head towards the house.
Bridget’s eyebrows rise before she can think to stop them.
If Erica can’t handle a few thin-bloods and fledglings, the New York coven has bigger problems than the Holts.
“She’ll be fine,” Bridget says. “Trust her.”
Franky lets out a short laugh. “I do trust her,” she says. She pauses, then adds, “More than I trust me, for sure.”
Bridget is about to reply when, across the street, the door of the house opens again. Erica walks out with an unconscious woman in her arms.
Franky immediately begins bouncing on the balls of her feet again.
As Erica nears, Bridget asks, “Franky, do you have a lighter on you?”
Franky pauses her bouncing. “Yeah, why?”
“May I see it?” Bridget asks again.
Without further questioning, Franky pulls a plastic lighter from her pocket and hands it to Bridget. Bridget takes the lighter, then steps back. Erica has nearly arrived.
Franky doesn’t wait for Erica to get to them. She darts forward, swearing under her breath.
Awkwardly, Erica transfers the woman to Franky. The woman is not entirely unconscious, but she’s in a stupor. Erica, a vampire, had the advantage of preternatural strength in carrying the woman down the street. Franky has no such blessing and the woman ends up propped up against her instead of in her arms.
Even from a few yards away, Bridget can smell fresh blood. Erica probably had to disentangle and remove someone while retrieving the woman.
“I can’t tell,” Erica starts, “How is she?”
“Fuck, I don’t know,” Franky shoots back. “This is bad. Fuck. I think she’s been worse before?”
The both of them are anxious, and their anxieties are feeding off each other.
Bridget grimaces. She walks back towards them. The woman is just as she was described earlier, thin, blonde, hair in a ponytail. As Bridget nears, she can feel an intense contentment radiating from her and encroaching on the fear and worry of Franky and Erica. The continued strength of the feeling, even after an aborted feeding, suggests to Bridget that the woman won’t die, though these things are never certain.
Often, when drugs alone won’t kill a human, vampires will.
“If you want to be certain, you should take her to a hospital,” Bridget says. “But I think she’ll live regardless.”
Unsure, Franky looks from her friend to Bridget, then back to her friend.
“Bridget knows what she’s talking about, Franky,” Erica says. To Bridget’s sense, Erica doesn’t feel genuine confidence, but she certainly manages to project it in her voice. “If she thinks Allie will live, Allie will live.”
A voice in the back of Bridget’s mind—well, now Allie had better live....
Bridget reaches out with the hand that isn’t wrapped around Franky’s lighter and gently touches her fingertips to Allie’s forehead. The near-unconscious woman twitches, slightly. “If she stops responding, you will have to get help,” Bridget says. “And not the kind of help that vampires can give. Where is she staying right now?”
Franky swears again. “Kaz’ shelter,” she says. “But—fuck—they won’t take her back now.”
Erica, cynical, a side of her that Bridget hasn’t seen before, interjects, “Kaz loves broken women nearly as much as she hates men and vampires. She’ll take care of her anyway. And she almost certainly has naloxone stockpiled.”
Franky makes a face. Hopeful, annoyed, scared, conflicted—hers is an expressive demeanor.
Gingerly, Bridget shifts her fingers to push Allie’s head to one side, exposing the fresh bite marks on her neck. The wounds have mostly stopped bleeding. Vampire saliva is powerful stuff.
A bit of blood comes away on Bridget’s fingers as she pulls back.
It smells good.
Bridget ignores her hunger. She’ll feed later, probably on blood from a bag, microwaved. Not half as appetizing, but a hundred times more polite than licking her fingers now.
This leaves her with the problem of sticky crimson on her skin. She holds her hand away from herself, waiting for the blood to dry. Franky was right. White really was the wrong choice for the night.
“Take our car,” Bridget says. “The driver will drop you off where you need to go.”
Franky hesitates. “What about you?”
Erica, suddenly nervous, smiles at her human. “We’ll call for another one.”
Bridget joins in the smiling. “Go on,” she says, flicking her bloody fingers encouragingly.
Franky’s eyes narrow as she looks between Erica and Bridget, then she shrugs as best she can with her friend leaning up against her. “Okay,” she says. “Thanks.” Then, for Erica and Erica alone, her voice drops slightly. “I owe you.”
“I know,” Erica replies in much the same tone. “And I intend to collect.”
With Erica’s help, they load Franky’s friend into the coven’s car. Erica tells the driver, Linda, to take Allie to the shelter first and then to take Franky home. Linda doesn’t seem particularly surprised at the instruction. If she’s the driver who normally ferries Erica about, she’s probably encountered Franky and Franky’s problems before.
Bridget waits until the car turns the corner at the far end of the street before turning her full attention back to Erica.
Their eyes meet.
A wave of fear rolls off of Erica. It is eased, slightly, by a sense of accomplishment, but it is still unmistakably fear.
Bridget holds out Franky’s lighter. In the soft glow of the nearby streetlamps, its purple plastic body, half-full of lighter fluid, gleams.
“There’s a gas station down the block,” Bridget says, eyes never leaving Erica’s. “Burn the house.”
Erica starts, “It’s not one of the Holts’ houses. I—”