Trying to push down the guilt I felt for treating Orion the way I did, I managed to finish getting dressed with whatever I found in my quarters’ closet. I walked out into the middle of the underground facility and watched as the people around me worked diligently, lost in a world of business and hardly paying me any attention at all. I didn't know anything about this place at all, including which way to turn to find Dutch again.
"Exile! I heard you took a nasty spill last night!" A voice from behind me. I turned to see a young Irish boy, about 18 years old, with short dark brown hair and light green eyes. His accent was heavy, but easily understandable. "You must be getting slow now, ay?"
"Ummm...no. Just caught me by surprise I guess." I said, trying to keep my conversation as general and as vague as possible.
"I thought you said you couldn't be caught by surprise." He grinned.
"Well, this must have been the exception."
"Excuses, excuses. Listen, Dutch is waiting for ya over in holding cell 6 with Dixon. They say it's urgent. So I'd get moving if I were you."
"Um...yeah. You're right. You lead the way."
"Lead the way? What are ya talking about? I'm going out on assignment tonight. You're on your own."
"Right. Ok. So....holding cell 6 you said, right?" He gave me a strange look, nodding slowly. "Ok. Later." I started to walk forward a few steps when I heard the Irish boy clear his throat. When I turned around, he was giving me another strange look.
"Holding Cell SIX, boy!" He said. Then pointed his finger in the opposite direction. "Thatta way."
"Yes...SIX. That IS what you said, isn't it? Right. Thanks." I straightened up and began walking in the direction that he pointed out to me.
"An actual thanks? From YOU? You ARE a strange one tonight, Exile. You need rest." He said, and then began to walk away to get his orders for the evening.
I knew that I was going to be lost unless I saw a great big sign on the door that said 'Holding Cell 6' on it, but kept walking anyway, hoping to stumble across it somehow. Luckily, Dutch was standing in the hallway, probably on his way back to retrieve me. "Have fun tonight?" He said with a grin.
"The boy." He quietly reminded me.
"It wasn't like that."
"I'm sure it wasn't, and that's what scares me." He said. "I've seen you watch the videos, and look at the magazines, and I've even seen you occasionally have a fling or two with some of the most beautiful vampire call boys in town in that room of yours. And yet I've never seen you look at anybody the way you look at Orion. Whatever it is that you and that boy have together, it's more than sexual satisfaction. And that's a LOT harder to hide than what you're usually reaching for. Which is a simple 'splash' and a kiss goodnight." Dutch kept walking, and then swiped a key card through the slot at the door in front of us. "In this place, it's best to keep your relationships short and simple. Unemotional, if possible. Keep it sexual, and walk away when it's over, just like I taught you. Otherwise you get caught up in a lot of unecessary shit with the boys you bring home. Including Liam's little brother...which is another one you might want to stay away from if you know what's good for you."
"The guy you were just talking to. One of our best spies out there for collecting information. He seems friendly enough, but his younger brother Dotti crossed over at 15, and has only been in darkness a couple of years. Now, I'm not making any judgement calls, but I'm thinking Dotti is a little more stuck on you than you are on him. And considering Liam can, will, and HAS, killed for his little bro in the past, I suggest you tread lightly. He's a mean son of a bitch when he needs to be."
Shaking my head, I asked, “What kind of person am I? Orion? Call boys? Liam’s brother Dotti? Vampire porn? Be straight with me, Dutch. Who am I?”
Dutch reached forward and straightened my collar a bit. “You’re the Exile. And we need you. More than you know.” The doors opened up in front of us, and we walked down a long hallway to the holding room at the end. "Here we are. Dixon is going to give you a brief rundown of what you need to know, and hopefully we'll get you back to a slightly functional status before anyone notices you've gone bonkers."
He opened the door, and I walked into the room. There was only a single light hanging from the ceiling, two chairs, and an iron table in the center. And sitting in one of the chairs....was the man with the eyepatch. The one from my dream. What thee hell was HE doing here? "Exile...have a seat."
The mere sight of him completely brought on a flashback in full color. Instantly transporting me back to a time that began almost right where the dream left off. I could remember it so clearly all of a sudden. I remember sitting in the infirmary after my sparring match, my legs set and wrapped so they could heal over the next day or two, my bruises being tended to. And this man, Dixon, came into the room. "Nurse, would you mind giving me and this cadet some privacy?" They agreed, and everyone left the room. I remember Dixon sitting down next to me and saying, "About your match with Primo..."
But I stopped him. "I'm sorry to have failed you, sir. He was...much too strong. But I can work harder..."
This time, it was his turn to interrupt. "Primo...won't be joining us on the squad."
"What? What do you mean?"
"Exile...during your match, while Primo's physical skill and strength did its job, your rather strange techniques were much more exact than you may realize."
"I'm afraid I don't follow you, sir." I said confused.
He took a pause, and let a sigh escape his lips. "During that match, you managed to hit 142 different pressure points on Primo's body. Some on the chest, in the side, the neck, the arms, the legs. None of us even saw you do it. It was a delayed reaction, yes, but a powerful one. Whether you were aware of it or not, you won that match. By a WIDE margin. If you were taught to harness that level of awareness, to develop that special brand of precision...you could end up being one of the deadliest hunters to ever play this game." He told me, much to my shock. "And that's why I'm choosing you to be our newest recruit. I’m going to send in my recommendation to Vampire Elder Masato myself, and we’ll start you off with a smaller hit squad working for Mistress Katrina. If she likes what she sees in you, and you’re willing to take the Oath...I believe you’ll become quite an asset to the cause.” He said. “Welcome to the front line, son. I'll come see you when you recover fully."
He got up to leave, and I was still sitting there in surprised silence. But when he reached the door, I had to ask. "Sir?"
"Is Primo alright?"
He paused, his eyes avoiding mine for a split second, and his face hardened slightly as he denied me the truth. "That's not your concern. You're a killer now, Exile. The only thing that matters is that yousurvived." That was his only answer, and nodded towards me as he closed the door.
Yes, the imagery of the memory hit me like a lightning bolt, and it was hard to force myself back to reality. "Sit. Please." He said again, and I complied. "Dutch tells me that you suffered quite an extensive injury during last night's assignment. Is that correct?"
"Yes." I nodded. He looked down at the folders in front of him for a moment, and then back up at me.
"And you've lost select parts of your memory?"
Should I answer that truthfully?
"Yes sir." I said. Something about his calm made me nervous, but I sat up straight anyway.
"Ok, then. We have a lot to discuss, you and I. Hopefully, by the time you leave this room, you'll have enough of your background memorized to pass for functional. This is only a temporary fix until your memory comes back to you fully. Anyone spending an extended amount of time talking to you will know that you are not who you say you are, and that is going to cause a big problem. Your best bet is to avoid any major social interactions for the time being and try to concentrate on remembering what you can." He told me. "If you are exposed as a fraud...protocol states that the subject is to be terminated immediately, and replaced with another cadet. Do you understand what I am telling you?" The words chilled me slightly, but my instincts wouldn't let that show. No matter how much the idea terrified me inside.
"Alright then. Let's begin." He opened the folder, and the session started off with my real name. Adam. Adam Herrick.
As we talked over the next hour, Dixon gave me detail after detail about a life that I felt no real attachment to. But most of it was all business related. Facts, data, times, places...an ice cold analysis describing a hunter and his duty to the Elders in this world of darkness. Nothing about it seemed even remotely human. It was just this mechanical rambling about my effectiveness in taking the lives of others for the simple fact that I was ordered to do it. The more he told me, the less I believed that I even had it in me to do those things. I had murdered over thirty nine vampires since my stay there. Thirty nine. And while many were criminals, killers, and spice dealers...some were just innocent people. Vampires living in small habitats who never meant to harm anybody. Some were halflifes, just like me, who risked exposing us to the humans while having fun, or accidentally fed upon a human with a safeguard mark. As I looked at my list of so-called successes, I saw the Elders’ orders as being extremely cold, unforgiving, and occasionally they were downright insane. How did I come to work for such a terrible place?
"These are your teammates. They have recently been assigned to you." Dixon pushed forward a few files on the table for me to look at. It was full of photos and personal information on the three characters that picked me up in the van and brought me to this place in the beginning. "The first is Rachael Strickland. Codename: Widow. Very fast, very precise. You've worked with her on a number of occasions with nearly flawless results. We figured it only right to have you two on the same team, seeing as your skill set compliments hers and vice versa." He turned to the next page, where I saw the masked man. "Tariq Fontaine. Codename: Horizon. Martial arts skill is unmatched, trained with every handheld bladed weapon known to man, nearly unbeatable with a bo staff." I saw another picture of him with the mask off, and gasped. The skin on his face had been horribly burned, blackened and twisted, as though it were in the process of turning to ash. "The scars on Horizon's face came from a failed mission about 10 years back. Things ran long, immediate evac was necessary...in the process, he was exposed to a heavy dose of the dawn’s sunlight before we were able to get someone out there to bring him in."
"Didn't it heal?" I asked.
"Sunburns don't heal for vampires. Especially when they're this bad." He said, and then turned to the next pic. "This is Freak. No real name, no codename, just Freak. A nosferatu vamp that we enlisted because of his superior strength and supreme intelligence. It's a rare balance for that breed of vampire. Most nosferatu crossovers become bloodthirsty cannibals upon awakening, but Freak beat the odds on that particular call. He's quick, agile, strategic, a computer genius when he needs to be, and he's stronger than most vampires out there. He's a great asset to the team."
"You know...this...this is all great, but...what about me?" I asked.
Dixon saved my file for last. "Adam Herrick. Codename: Exile. Enemy profiler, team leader of the attack squad..."
"That's not what I mean." I said, pushing the folders aside. "I don't want to know my 'position' or my body count or what kind of hunter I was." I looked Dixon in the eye, pleading. "Tell me about ME! How did I get here? What am I doing here? Dixon...who am I?"
He paused, unable to speak for a moment, before there was a knock on the door. "Yes?" He answered.
"Advisor Sneed has requested Exile's presence in the dark room, sir. He says it's important."
Dixon exchanged a short glance with me, then answered, "He'll be there as soon as possible." He took all of the pictures back and placed them in the folder beore closing it shut. "You heard him. They require your assistance in the dark room. I'll escort you over myself if you need help."
"What was I like? What kind of human life did I have? Where did this eternity band come from?" I kept asking questions, but Dixon was very discreet about revealing anything else about me.
"Now is not the time. They are waiting for you."
"What about my life as a vampire? When I first crossed over. Did I start out here? Or was I brought here from somewhere else?" He got up from the table and walked past me towards the door. That's when I grabbed him by the arm. "Please, Dixon! Answer me!" I said. "I don't even know whether or not we're the 'good guys' here."
He looked down at me, an almost sympathetic shimmer in his eye, and he said, quite simply, "There ARE no good guys, kid. No bad guys either. There are orders, opportunities, successes....and failures. Nothing more." He lightly took my hands off of him, and added, “The beauty in doing what you’re told...is not having to live with nightmares that come after. Take comfort in that.” And with that, he opened the door and offered for me to go first. What choice did I have?
I simply...did what I was told.
Dixon didn't speak to me the whole time we were walking towards this so-called dark room, but as we traveled through the middle of the facility, I could feel a pair of eyes watching me. And I automatically knew who they belonged to, just from the feel of it. I looked up to one of the upper levels, and caught a glimpse of a blond head quickly ducking back down behind a stack of boxes. I knew Orion was watching me, despite being upset and hurt at what I said. But even though I couldn't understand what that inner conflict concerning him was all about, I knew that it had to be there for a reason. I had enough to worry about. I just need to get him out of my head. That's all.
Dixon took me to the right door and put a hand on my shoulder. "Listen, learn, absorb. Don't speak unless you have to. Whatever it is, take your orders and go. The less you say, the longer you can maintain your cover. Understood."
I nodded, and then he wished me luck. From the looks of things, I might need it.
I walked into the room, and saw my three 'teammates' sitting at a table in front of a wide screen video wall. Playing on it was a vampire that looked unkempt, dirty, and crying. He was strapped into a chair, being interrogated, and then the image started over again from the beginning. Elias Sneed, the tall emaciated man, sneered as I entered the room. "So nice for you to join us...late." He grumbled.
I didn't answer, I just sat down next to Rachael at the table and saw the others look at me to see if I was ok. Shortly after, Sneed continued. "As I was saying, this is our next target. Daniel Gray. This footage is from an earlier attempt to keep his fetishistic behaviors under control. He has most recently been located somewhere in the Wrigleyville area, hiding out in the basement of an abandoned bar in that part of town. It seems that our friend here has a craving for young human boys, high school age, sometimes younger." Sneed pressed a button on his control, and the video switched to display a grisly scene of young bodies stacked on top of each other. Blood stained the floor in a large puddle on all sides of the heap. And the bodies themselves...looked fresh. Still wearing all of their possessions. Shoes, jackets, watches, necklaces. Strange. "The reports on Gray have been disturbing to say the least. His activities are getting out of hand. After he lures these boys into his habitat and has his way with them, he bleeds them almost immediately after. No motive. Not even to feed. We suspect that Gray has accumulated a body count of at least 22 boys since we first began surveillance. The Elders have determined, from the evidence given, that he is a definite threat to our survival. Exposure of this magnitude will come down hard on all of us if this problem is not taken care of quickly."
The video switched back to the video of Gray being interrogated again. He looked so helpless, with wrinkles on his face and bags under his eyes. He was maybe in his late thirties when he crossed over, but looked as though he had experienced a rough human life before that. I listened to the man beg for help, saying that he was innocent, crying for the interrogators to stop. They showed him a picture of the bodies, and he turned away, shutting his eyes tightly as tears ran his down his cheeks. I heard Freak ask a question after looking at the crime sheet in front of him. "It says here that the mission is urgent and should be taken care of by tomorrow night. Why the rush?"
Sneed answered, "Our friend, Mr. Gray, has a few hiding places in town that we cannot gain access to, and has been known to wear disguises in order to get past our lookouts. He's skilled at practically disappearing into thin air. After this interrogation video was made, he slipped right through our fingers. We assume he was 'rescued' by some of his associates out on the streets. Of that we are unsure. But during that struggle, one of our hunters made a rather large gash on his right arm. A mark that we are sure will take a minimum of three sleep cycles to erase. It has already been one evening, tonight makes two. Elders Masato wants him found before the scar disappears and we lose sight of him again."
I kept looking at that video, and something just didn't feel right. In fact, everything about it felt all wrong. I kept looking at the video of his confession, and something inside of me began to flare up. Some hidden instinct that told me where to look and what to look for. This story and this video....it just didn't match up.
"You are to go out, find Daniel Gray, and execute him before he can do any more damage. Your papers and mission details are in front of you, and we will meet back here tomorrow evening to assemble a task force capable of..."
"Wait..." I said out loud, that feeling inside of me not allowing me to just give myself over to the story Sneed was giving me. I know that Dixon and Dutch both told me to keep my mouth shut, but...this felt wrong. The team looked over at me, and even though I felt a bit paranoid about speaking up, this gut feeling of mine wouldn't allow me to stay silent. "Something's out of place here."
"I beg your pardon?" Sneed let his face scowl up, his large angled eyebrows giving him an even more evil appearance than usual.
"This doesn't sit right. This man...he's not your killer. You've got the wrong guy."
Sneed groaned. "The Elders were very specific about this. Mistress Katrina wanted you to head up this mission personally. There were no errors made."
"I'm telling you...this is NOT your guy." I demanded.
"The bodies were found in his fucking basement." Tariq sneered. "The guy's got a history of liking young boys, he's known for moving from state to state, what more evidence could you possibly need?"
"No...no this doesn't fit. Go back to the shot of the bodies." I said. Sneed gave me a dirty look at first, and then clicked the remote to show the bodies again. My mind seemed to zero in on every detail automatically, and just like I had suspected, none of it made any sense. "Who did this profile, originally?" I asked.
"Mistress Katrina herself. And I made sure to double check all the facts before handing them over to the Elders. Who in turn agreed with our analysis wholeheartedly." He said with a snotty tone.
"What are you thinking, Exile?" Rachael asked, the first to actually pay my thoughts any real attention.
"Look at the bodies closely. Look at their wrists. Look at their ankles." I said.
Tariq replied, "I don't see anything, kid."
"EXACTLY! No restraints were used. Not a single mark. No ropes, no chains, no handcuffs, nothing. And look here...the bodies are piled up in this one corner, but if you look around him, the rest of the basement is squeaky clean. No turned over furniture, no broken glass. No signs of a struggle at all. You mean to tell me these kids came down here willingly? They walked into a room with an accumulating collection of dead bodies in the corner. They weren't kidnapped, they weren't tied up, they weren't forced into this basement." I said. "Look at what the bodies are wearing. Right there, a platinum necklace. Not a fake. That looks like the real thing. And there, this one is wearing a high school letterman’s jacket. Everywhere you look, name brand clothes, name brand shoes. Popular hair styles too."
"Is any of this supposed to mean something?" Sneed asked.
"Go back to Gray's interrogation video." He, hesitantly, did as I asked, and the same teary pleas for help played on the screen again. "Look at him. Just take a good look." I said, as the others watched on. "This guy isn't 'hip'. He isn't 'cool'. He's wearing a freakin’ BOWTIE for crying out loud. He's dirty, he's unattractive, he lives in the dark basement of a bar...he's just...plain. He stutters when he gets nervous, he's crying his eyes out....he's about as average and uninteresting as it gets. And here...when they show him the photo of the bodies in his basement, look at his reaction. He's not turned on by that. He's disgusted. Who takes the time and effort to select the pick of the litter when it comes to cute boys...but can't bare to look at them again when made aware of what he’s done? That’s not in tune with any kind of uncontrollable fetish at all. I don't think he's the type to just bleed teenagers for no reason.” I told them. “No drugs, no sedatives, no restraints, no problem kids in the whole bunch. In fact, the boys in that basement looked like they were getting through their high school lives just fine."
"So?" Tariq asked.
"SO...exactly how does a guy like Gray get a super beautiful high school football jock to follow him back to his basement without using force or some kind of intoxicant?" I asked.
"Perhaps he offered them money." Freak offered.
"No...these kids don't need his money. When these boys need money, they ask mommy and daddy for it, and they probably get it, no questions asked. But this guy? He's no psychopath. Look at him. He's a VAMPIRE! He's gonna live forever and yet he has all the confidence and courage of a church mouse! I'm telling you, he's not your man. Whatever it was that lured those boys into that basement and knocked them off one by one...it wasn't a stuttering older man with bags under his eyes and wearing a bowtie. No, someone else did this. Maybe even more than one person, because these bodies are fresh. I don't imagine Daniel Gray could burn through 22 popular high school kids in just a few weeks and still have enough energy to go out looking for more. That just doesn't make sense."
There was a long silence in the room, and everyone finally let some of what I said sink in. As I looked back at Elias Sneed, I got the coldest stare imaginable from him. Then Freak said, "In light of these new observations, I think this info should be passed on to the Elders as soon as possible before any major movements are made. Don't you think?"
Sneed shut off the video feed immediately. "I'll be sure to add it to the report." He said abruptly. "I'm sure Miss Katrina will...appreciate your insight...Exile.” And just as he snatched some of his papers away and stormed off, the rest of the team turned to face me at the table.
Tariq said, "Way to go, boy wonder. Thanks for depriving us of another easy payday." His sarcasm flooding the sentence even more than usual. "What made you think of that?"
"Look, he didn't do it. He couldn't have done it. There's just no reason for an innocent vampire to die if he didn't commit the crime, right?" I asked.
"Well, what do ya know? The kid saved up his 'blood money', then went out and bough himself a conscience. Go figure." Horizon stood up and grabbed his papers to leave. Freak gave me an honorable nod and then did the same. Then, before getting up to join them, Rachael turned to me.
"I believe you, Adam. I'm glad you stopped us from possibly making a big mistake. At least for now." She said.
"So we're not going after him, right?"
"That depends on the Elders. And Katrina. But for now...you've given them enough doubt to think twice about the assault. I guess that's all we can hope for."
"Doesn't seem like a whole lot." I said. But she patted me on the shoulder and gave me a weak smile anyway.
"It's more than usual. Trust me." Then she left with the others.
As I gathered my crime file, I walked out of the room to see Dutch waiting for me to guide me back to my quarters. He anxiously asked me, "How'd it go, kid?"
"Fine, I suppose. But...something is seriously wrong here. You know?"
"Wrong? Wrong like how?"
"Well..." My mind started working things out, and I asked him, "You said that the Elders were looking out for me right? Why is that?"
"Honestly? Your record is amazing. Your skills in the field are undoubtedly some of the best we've ever seen. I'm guessing that they want you to work for them in a more personal capacity someday."
"So...Katrina and Sneed...they're not allowed to touch me. Is that right?"
"Well, in a manner of speaking, no. Not unless you've done something to purposely jeopardize what we're doing here."
I thought for a second. "But...if I die in the field, on an assignment...?"
"Incidental casualty. It can't be helped. Why? What is your brain telling you?" Dutch asked.
"Listen, Katrina sent down this profile of this Daniel Gray vampire herself. And it's way off base. Anybody with wo brain cells to rub together can see that. But Katrina and Sneed seem adamant amount getting me to go out on this assignment as soon as possible. Before I’m even healed up from the last one. And I wanna know why. If you get a chance, find out what connections this Daniel Gray has to the higher ups in the vampire order. Can you do that for me?"
Dutch smiled. "You know what? For a second there, you almost sounded like your old self, kid. I'm on it."
"Good. Thanks Dutch." I watched as he walked away, and wondered where my thoughts were going. What they were trying to communicate to me. Whatever it was...I hope it was enough to protect me from harm. Because something tells me that I'm not nearly as 'welcome' here as I had first expected to be. Something is going on, and I'm going to find out what it is.