Duel Nature by John Conroe

Duel Nature

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Chapter 1

The drops of rain had fallen thousands of feet, gathering speed and size before they smashed into the ground. Some, the very biggest, were smashing into the back of my head. Those particular drops were also, I’m pretty sure, the coldest.

The freezing spring downpour had been sheeting past us for twenty minutes, the only real activity around us during our stakeout. Only slightly interesting, but very annoying.

“Stop that! You’re being a wussy about this. You don’t even get cold anymore,” my partner said.

I hadn’t said a word, but the slim, black-haired and black-clad figure kneeling next to me could still read my inner whining like I had shouted it out loud.

“I don’t like sitting in the rain. Never have,” I replied, glancing sideways at Tanya. That was a mistake because my eyes found her beautiful features infinitely more interesting than the rainy night.

She sighed and glanced back at me, electric blue eyes glowing in the dark. “Focus, Christian. The rogue may be here soon, and we don’t want to miss him,” she said, pointing one slim, muscled arm down the side of the building to the bar entrance twenty-three floors below.

That was the other weird thing about our stakeout. We were kneeling on the side of an apartment building, using Darkkin energy techniques to Cling to the side, little pitons of quantum energy holding us in place. It was definitely weird, even if it was more comfortable than standing on the roof and leaning over the edge.

Two years ago, I hadn’t been aware that vampires and werewolves (not to mention other weres) existed. I had known all about demons, though, as those were something of a specialty of mine. You might even say I had been tapped by God to handle Hell’s children. But then I met Tanya (if by meeting, you mean driving away a demon and then feeding her most of my blood supply) and my life had changed. I had changed, drastically. When she gave me a small amount of her unique and potent blood, it had fit my DNA like a glove to a hand. I gained vampire-like abilities and a werewolf’s metabolism. And a life mate.

“There he is!” she whispered, as if the rogue was gonna hear her voice 230-plus feet above him in the middle of a thunderstorm. But that attention to detail was part of what made her an apex predator.

I looked below and spotted the man she was talking about. From above, all I could see was dark reddish hair and a green army jacket. But my ability to identify vampires and weres on sight was telling me he was the one we had been waiting for—a new vampire, maybe two weeks old. He was also the one who was most likely responsible for a two-week spate of recent murders.

“Okay. I’ll go round him up. See you out back,” I replied, standing up on the side of the building. Or maybe standing out is a better term. I don’t know—this whole climbing walls like Spiderman is still pretty new. Tanya has done it her whole life, but I’ve only been at it a couple of years now.

I released my Cling, my body immediately pulled down by gravity, free falling down the side of the building. Wind tugged at my clothing as the ground rushed up faster and faster. Forty feet above the ground, I Pulled my feet back to the wall, running as soon as my feet touched the bricks. Then I gradually slowed to a walk and finally stepped smoothly off the side of the building onto level ground. Bizarre—but really, really cool.

Puddles splashed around my boots, darkening my jeans with wet splotches. I had actually stayed pretty dry during our watch. My long, waxed, Aussie Drover-style duster had kept most of the rain from my clothes; just the drops that had hit my head and neck had gotten past its protection. My normal body temperature of 103 degrees had shrugged off the cold.

I still didn’t like sitting in the rain…too many hours spent on deer watch in freezing Adirondack weather while I was growing up, waiting to shoot deer that I really hadn’t wanted to kill, but that my grandfather insisted we needed for the freezer.

No one noticed my sudden appearance, mostly because no one was stupid enough to stand in the rain outside the sports bar housed in the ground floor of the apartment building. A glance up showed an empty side of the building. Inside was dry and noisy. It was one of those casual neighborhood places that are great for hanging out and watching a Monday Night Football game or just meeting friends after work. It seemed pretty busy for a Wednesday night, a mix of mostly young people, and slightly more guys than girls. The thirty-foot bar was fully occupied, and about two-thirds of the tables had occupants who were sipping drinks, laughing, and watching the ten or twelve flatscreens mounted around the place.

I scanned the room as I approached the bar, shaking the rain off the Drover coat. Two sweeps of the place and I had found my guy, standing back in a dark corner, holding a beer and watching the rest of the pub’s customers with predatory eyes.

A direct approach would either lead to a very short, very graphic fight (with blood-spattered walls and equally blood-spattered customers) or him bolting from the pub too early, so instead I decided to hang at the bar. Four big ceiling fans were swirling the warm air around the room, and very shortly, my scent would reach him. Then his attention would lock on to me. That was pretty much a given, as my AB+ blood mixed with whatever pheromones the V-squared virus had fostered inside me was pretty much an irresistible combination for hungry vampires. Like Taco Bell for teenage boys.

Unfortunately, the same virus that had left me smelling good to vampires had made me look good to humans, so I was starting to attract attention on my way to the beer-tap-bristling bar. Two of the young waitresses watched me as I wove between tables, and several of the seated customers, not all of them female, tried to catch my eye.

Ignoring the glances in my direction, I found a gap between stools and waited for the bartender’s attention, using the moment to keep track of my quarry. He had been watching two couples playing a half-hearted game of pool, but I just about felt the moment his gaze shifted to me.

“What can I get you?” the brunette bartender asked. Meeting her eyes, which widened at the sight of my violet irises, I tried to keep my peripheral vision on the rogue.

“Smithwick’s if you have it.” Might as well enjoy the role I was playing.

“Sure,” she said, taking a second to pull her gaze away from my strange peepers, then grabbing a pint glass from the rack behind her.

The rogue had shifted position slightly, his stance oriented in my direction now. Perfect.

“Nice coat,” the bartender said with a smirk as she slid the frothy beer my way.

“Gift from a friend. She meant it as a joke, but I ended up liking it. It really works well on a night like this,” I replied.

That was actually true. When Tanya and I had been selected to work as Coven Rovers, I had made a stupid comment in front of Lydia, Tanya’s best friend and de facto sister. It was one of those mental lapses that hit many people from time to time and me painfully often. I think I said something about heading west to be a cattle rover, and the spikey-haired little vampire had burst out laughing. She finally caught her breath and said, “It’s ‘cattle drover,’ not rover. Dumbass!” No matter how deferentially other vampires and weres treat me, I can always count on Lydia to bring me back to solid ground.

A week later, the coat had shown up in our quarters, wrapped in brown paper with a cow bell on the outside. However, when I tried it on, it had fit perfectly and Tanya had liked the look, so I kept it.

“Gift from your girlfriend?” the bartender asked, ignoring the guy three places down who was holding his empty glass in her direction.

“Girlfriend’s sister,” I said, wondering why that was important.

She nodded once, gave me a smile and then, after a pause, went to fill the man’s glass. I drank a third of the pint in one swallow, followed it with another third, and then finished the glass, making a production of smacking my lips.

“That tasted like another!” I said to the bartender’s surprised expression.

“Whoa! Someone’s thirsty tonight!” she said, giving me a bemused smile. She refilled the glass and then took the twenty dollar bill I left on the bar. I polished off half of the second beer while she was getting my change, earning myself a cautionary look from her and smirks from the trio of nerdy guys sitting next to me.

“Easy there, cowboy. You don’t have to rush. We’re not running out of Smithwick’s anytime soon,” the bartender said, her reappraisal of me starting to come up negative.

“First beer of the night?” one of the geeks asked. They had been discussing hadron colliders or something when I arrived.

“Well, first beer here, anyway!” I said with a laugh. The rogue was completely locked onto me and I knew he could hear my words even from across the noisy room. I polished off the second beer, then asked the science types where the men’s room was. They pointed in the direction of the rogue’s corner and I headed over, adding a slight weave to my walk.

Behind me, I could hear the bartender talking to one of the waitresses. “- first interesting guy in a month and he drinks like a frat boy!” she said.

“I don’t care. If he’s tipsy, maybe he’ll forget about that girlfriend he mentioned,” the waitress giggled.

I wasn’t really tipsy. My metabolism eats alcohol way too fast for me to even catch a buzz, and it would be a frosty frozen day in Hell before I’d ever forget Tanya.

Pushing into the men’s room, I moved to a urinal and pretended to take a piss, waiting for the rogue to follow me in.

Right on schedule I heard the door open and a miasma of scents flowed over me. Unwashed body odor mixed with dried, decaying blood. I think I threw up in my mouth a little.

Spinning around, I faced the young vampire up close for the first time. About six feet or so, thin with a whole slew of freckles to go with his red hair. Howdy Dowdy Dracula, in person. Sunglasses covered his eyes, which would be the red that all new vampires have for a time. Comes from all the blood vessels in the eyes that the V-squared breaks during the Turn.

He missed the fact that I hadn’t had to zip up or fix my clothes, his attention on my throat.

“Dude, you absolutely reek!”

He frowned, surprised, but quickly shook it off and pulled back his lips in a fang-filled snarl.

I took two steps forward and palm smacked his forehead.

“Stop that!”

He hadn’t been able to react to my speed, a fact that clearly puzzled him. He tried for the intimidating growling fang face thing again. I smacked him again—harder. Bouncing off the wall, his dark glasses knocked askew, he looked truly shaken.

Young vamps are one–and-a-half to two times faster than humans. As they age, vampires get stronger and faster. As they learn to harness whatever Dark energy or quantum particles allow them to manipulate Newton’s physics, old vamps get scary fast.

My Tanya was born into the species, the only vampire of her kind. At only twenty-four, she was as fast as the Elders who ran the Covens. I, even new to the virus as I am, am much faster than most vampires. I’m not really a vampire, but some odd hybrid, as unique as Tanya, in my own way. I’m usually nowhere near as fast as Tanya, but I was much quicker than Howdy. The only time that I am as fast as my vampire princess is when Grim comes out to play.

So carrot head was justifiably shocked when I knocked him on his ass. Prey wasn’t supposed to do that.

There had been three murders that fit a vampire attack profile in the last two weeks. Coven computers had picked up the news article on the first attack, flagging it for a set of eyes to review. The second attack had come just two days later, and the analyst had assigned it a high priority. Lydia had contacted us, as we were the closest Rover team to Chicago. We had been finishing an audit in Cincinnati (actually, Tanya had been finishing it; I’m not that patient with numbers and ledgers) and even though we only had three months on the job, we got the case. The third murder had occurred the night before we arrived. That made finding the murder scene easy…the police tape was still up.

Studying the back alley had resulted in one of my psychic visions, the kind I draw out on paper like a movie director’s story board. The pictures had given us enough detail to build a good likeness of the rogue. Asking around had resulted in a name—Len Corbett, whose friends hadn’t seen him in his usual haunts by daylight, but he had been seen at night. An unguided, newly made vampire was just a sack of impulses, the prime one being hunger. Without a mentor, he would stay in the area he was most familiar with. He would also draw attention to the supernatural world of vampires and other things that bump in the night because he would kill his prey in the most graphic of manners.

We had picked this bar as one of his more likely spots to visit. Sure enough, he had shown up right on cue. The rest of his story would play out very quickly.

“You’re a mess! You’ve been killing people all over the place, you have no idea how to keep a low profile, and you stink! Bad vampire!” I told him. The shock on his face deepened.

“So, we’re –” I pointed back and forth between us. “–gonna go find your maker and see if you can be salvaged. Got it?”

His expression turned to panic at the word maker and he leapt to his feet, glanced at the door, then me, then jumped through the three–foot-by-two-foot window slightly above us.

I sighed as broken glass fell to the bathroom floor, then followed him; my jump being a whole lot more graceful than his.

Chapter 2

Lenny boy had only made it ten feet from the broken window at the back of the building. He was frozen in place, staring at the giant canine form that sat on its haunches another six feet in front of him. At least 250 pounds of wolf watched Len’s every move.

I moved up slowly, so as not to spook him, trying to ignore the pouring rain. The fact that he wasn’t trying to outrun the giant wolf in front of him was a real sign of intelligence. Maybe, just maybe, he could be saved.

“His name is Awasos, and he will catch you if you run,” I said. Part of me hoped he would run. I’m not fond of murderers.

Awasos looked my way, and I could swear his left eye winked at me.

He does shit like that all the time. Winks, canine grins, even somehow opens the locked car door and lets himself out when no one is around. He even does it in his other form, the bigger one. Not your average canine. Or ursine.

Ghost quiet, Tanya drifted up next to my furry pal, catching the young vampire’s attention. She locked eyes with him, and the tension of the moment evaporated. She has that effect on young vampires. Some part of them recognizes what she is, the purest of vampires, the only vampire ever born to the species. Recognizing a higher-level vampire is a survival instinct in young ones. Failure to submit to an older vampire pretty much guarantees that a newborn vamp won’t get to be an old vamp.

Like most, Lenny the rogue immediately sensed Tanya’s place in the scheme of things and was her enthralled vassal in a slow second.

“Come with us, Leonard,” she said, and he did.

I kept my window cracked as we drove to the home of Chicago’s senior vampire. Lenny sat in the back of the big Chevy Suburban, Tanya next to me up front, and Awasos lolling about the open cargo area, which was the only space big enough for him. The rogue still stank, and now we had a serious case of wet dog smell floating about the SUV.

Calvin Langsdale, Master of Chicago, had been born in England in the late 1600s. He was Turned at the age of twenty-nine and immigrated to America in the early 1800s. Landing in Chicago, he had survived everything the windy city could throw at him, including the gang wars of Prohibition and evil Al Capone.

His home, which doubled as his headquarters, was in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, where houses routinely sell for five to ten million dollars. Langsdale’s home, according to the Coven file that we had reviewed on the drive from Cincinnati, was originally constructed in 1896 and had sixteen rooms total, with seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms. Twelve thousand square feet of French Provincial architecture with a dining room table that could seat fourteen. The lot it was on was standard for the area, with almost no land, but Calvin had solved that problem by buying all the properties around it, which cut down on the issue of nosey neighbors.

I pulled to a stop in the semicircular driveway, then rolled down the window to face the vampire sentry who was suddenly in my face.

“Rover team 29. Langsford here?” I said by way of introduction. The sentry, a big, box-headed vampire with long stringy hair and a heavy brow, glanced from me to Tanya, the sneer on his face sliding away even as recognition of my words hit.

He looked in the backseat where Lenny the young rogue waited and finally noted the giant wolfy bulk of Awasos in the back cargo area. Eyes wider, he slid back into the open guard booth that was tucked under the front porch. When he came back forty seconds later with two more vampires, he was slightly more receptive to us, or at least Tanya.

“Langsford will see you inside,” he said, addressing his comments to my vampire. I sighed, mentally preparing myself for what was sure to come next. Tanya patted my leg, then slid gracefully from the big SUV.

I grabbed Lenny from the back seat, then hit the latch release for the back of the Suburban. Awasos jumped down, his 250 pounds landing lightly on the ground. All three Darkkin guards suddenly reevaluated the situation as his size became apparent. Tanya caught my grin, then read me like a book, smiling herself at my thought. If they only knew that’s his smallest shape.

Our odd little group moved up the marble steps to the front doors, entering the grand mansion, where another five vampires waited. This obvious display of muscle was led by a mean-looking bruiser who stood about three inches over six feet and must have weighed as much as Awasos.

“Names?” he asked, dismissing me with a glance and leering at Tanya.

“Christian Gordon, Tatiana Demidova, Coven Rover team 29,” she answered him, not bothering to introduce Lenny or Awasos.

There was no sudden noise. Rather, a cessation of all noise and movement as the vampires froze. Rover team designations aren’t universally well known, but the Demidova name was huge in the Darkkin world, and Tanya was arguably its biggest celebrity.

After a moment, one of the vampires farthest away broke his stillness to flash through the door behind him.

“Tom is just going to announce you, Miss Demidova,” the leader said, his leer toned down ever so slightly.

Tanya just nodded, settling into a manikin-like stillness of her own. I don’t do well with sitting still, so I continued to look around at the opulent surroundings, noticing the valuable antiques and expensive decorations. Part of me, a part I keep locked down inside, noticed the doorways, windows, camera system, and alarm sensors. It also noted which priceless sculptures and artifacts would make the best weapons. There was a lot of that to choose from, as the mansion was an updated version of the Gilded Age lifestyle of the late 1800s.

When I was seven, my family went on vacation to the ocean. Newport, Rhode Island, to be exact, and while we were there, we toured the grand mansion, Breakers, which was built by a Vanderbilt in the 1890s as a summer cottage. Huge and ostentatious, Breakers has rooms literally plated in gold and platinum. Langsford’s place reminded me of that.

Ornate carved marble and wood trim, ceilings eighteen feet high, priceless antiques, and works of art; it was all intended to be overwhelming. The fact that I wasn’t overwhelmed was a testament to my last two years with Tanya and her mother, whose wealth dwarfed Langsford’s.

The vampire, Tom, came back in. “Master Langsford will see you now. The wolf stays out here, though.”

I glanced at Awasos, who heaved a canine sigh and promptly lay down, facing Tom and the door we went through.

Langsford’s office was done, or maybe overdone, in the dark wooded English library format, which was appropriate as he was, after all, English.

Seated behind a large ornate cherry desk that held pride of place in front of an immense stone fireplace, Langsford looked up as we entered. Eleven other vampires occupied various parts of the office, some standing near the Master of Chicago, while others lounged indolently in the oversized chairs and chaises. A cut crystal glass of brandy or whiskey sat near his hand, the matching crystal decanter standing at the desk corner.

Being as it was the middle of his business day, Langsford was appropriately attired in a tailored suit of dark wool that cost more than my first car. Behind him stood two lady vampires, looking like night and day. The one at his right shoulder was dressed in dark slacks with a leather jacket over her white blouse, her dark brown hair in a businesslike bun. The other was blonde, wearing a diaphanous gown of white, her long hair loosely flowing around her neck and shoulders, watching us with a carefully disinterested look on her face. At least until I pulled Lenny in behind me. I felt him twitch at the same time her eyes narrowed slightly. Well, well, well, that tells us who the careless vampire is.

“Ah, the famous Full Blood, herself, gracing us with a visit,” Langsford said in a rich English accent.

Generally, Rover Teams have blanket authority to complete their assignments, answering to the Elders for their actions. In most cases, a Master vampire would defer to the Rovers on site in a matter that required their presence. But vampires are territorial, and no Master liked having Rovers on hand to usurp their authority. The fact that we were only three months into the job and that Tanya was a vampire celebrity didn’t help in many cases.

I sighed again, already having an idea of how this would play out. Langsford noted my small huff of breath and turned his cool grey eyes on me. Sandy brown hair covered a high forehead and framed high, aristocratic cheekbones.

“And her pet human,” he added, studying me with amusement.

I shoved Lenny forward as Tanya began to speak.

“Thank you for such a gracious welcome,” she said, her tone sardonic. “My heritage and Choice of mate aside, we’re here cleaning up a mess in your city,” she continued.

Obviously not used to this kind of response, the master vampire frowned.

“This is Lenny, who was Turned here in Chicago, then left to fend for himself. He’s killed three humans in the last two weeks in the most blatant manner possible. The Coven assigned us to find him and stop him, as your organization has failed to do so.”

“See here, Ms. Demidova, I run this city, not New York, and I’ll decide what needs cleaning up,” he responded crossly.

“Actually, Mr. Langsford, you run this city at the whim of the Elders. But their whims can change rapidly! Now, who is responsible for Turning this man?” Tanya asked, her voice cold.

It generally took a lot to get her pissed off during introductions, but the English vampire had managed it in mere seconds.

Calvin studied her for a few moments, reappraising the situation, then waved a hand at the big bruiser who had never stopped ogling her.

Quick as thought, the big vamp grabbed Lenny by the throat, picked him effortlessly off the floor, then turned and smashed the young vampire’s head into one side of the marble fireplace, crushing the skull completely to paste. Immediately, two other men grabbed the twitching body and hauled it from the room so fast that only a few drops of blood spattered the floor.

Copyright John Conroe