Houston, Texas – June 20th, 2004
“Keep an eye on this fellow for a moment, would you?” Copperfield asked, when Charles came back from escorting his young grad assistants off to their well-earned rest. “I’m curious to see if there really was an order from room 624.”
“Right—“ Charles agreed, and stood where he could give their unfortunate captive his very sternest gaze. But being realistic about his ability to intimidate with his gaze alone, he also kept the sword in his hand and clearly visible.
Copperfield held the receipt in one hand and tapped in the room number. “Yes, this is the kitchen,” he said, when the occupant in 624 picked up, his voice picking up a very genuine French accent, “Pardon the intrusion, but did you place an order—“
Charles could hear the outrage sputtering out over the phone without even trying to listen.
“I just TOLD you, you nitwits, I ordered that swordfish steak dinner over an HOUR ago! And it’s STILL not here, but you guaranteed—”
“Yes, yes, sir, I’m so sorry sir, there’s been a bit of confusion—“ Copperfield said, keeping an absolute straight face.
“There sure has!,” the angry voice continued. “When are you lunkheads going to get it RIGHT? I run a three-billion dollar company, if I was as half-assed at filling MY orders as you seem to be in filling yours—”
“Pardonnez-moi, monsieur,” Copperfield said, raising one eyebrow. “But just who do you think you are, a prince?”
Charles blinked. That possibility hadn’t even occurred to him. But why would a prince order from—oh, right. Room service.
“I’ve had just about enough from you, Miss-Zure!” The angry patron’s rant had gotten a good deal louder. Copperfield was now holding the phone a good foot from his ear. “I am a Gold Passport member of this hotel chain, and I also happen to play golf with James Monroe, who is on your board of directors, and I will be sure to let him know—“
“Très bien. Vous faites cela,“ Copperfield snapped right back. “Après avoir supprimé le espadon de votre cul—” and hung up the phone. Then he chuckled. “Well, that was fun.”
“I—I don’t believe that is anatomically possible,” Charles pointed out. “Also not entirely polite.”
“Of course not,” Copperfield grinned. “But he did deserve it, you must admit. Now. As to our friend here—“
“Let me take this fellow back down to the kitchen,” Copperfield said at last. “Give me about five minutes, and then you can call housekeeping—just make sure they understand which room it is they’re not cleaning up, if you know what I mean?”
“Oh. Yes, of course—“ Charles nodded. “Certainly not one on this floor! But what about him?“
“I’ll take care of him. But do be on your guard. Our friend the FBI man might still be out there.”
* * * *
The story, as Etienne de Vaillant carefully explained to the now very cooperative Ramon, was that when delivering room service to suite 624, he found the door not entirely closed, and heard something like a cry for help inside. No one answered his knock, so he went inside—only to be ambushed in the dark, and splashed in the face with scalding hot liquid. When the lights came on, he faced a very startled and naked young man (who quickly threw a bedsheet around himself) apologizing profusely for having mistaken Ramon for someone else—possibly the husband of the young man’s female companion. The young man tipped him two hundred dollars (which Etienne generously made good from his own wallet), and told him he’d better go see a doctor about the burns right away.
By the time Etienne had led the now woozy Ramon to the elevator, the bellhop remembered only what Etienne wished him to, and would remain utterly convinced this had all happened on the sixth floor. Needless to say, he no longer recalled any mysterious meeting in an elevator with someone who might or might not have been an agent of the FBI.
Then it remained only to assist Charles in making sure the housekeeping staff recalled cleaning up room 426 (no naked people were in evidence, however), and send them merrily on their way, also with a generous tip. Etienne had learned that a good tip could explain away a great many oddities in a patron’s behavior.
It was impossible to come up with a coherent story that explained everything—well, short of the truth, but Etienne knew better than to resort to that. Sowing confusion with lots of impossibly contradicting stories where those involved were all utterly convinced what they’d seen and heard was exactly what had happened was the only thing to do. And since hotel management and mortal authorities couldn’t sort out the truth from the stories and the evidence, they’d be inclined to just pretend the whole mess never happened. Those actually behind the failed intrusion would not, of course—but they’d not gained from it, either, and Etienne was willing to take that as a win.
“What worries me,” Etienne told Hewitt later, after housekeeping had come and gone, and whatever confusion Ramon’s story had caused in the hotel’s kitchen had failed to find its way back to the eighth floor, “is that I’m quite certain Miss Webster did see someone outside the door. And he was undoubtedly Kindred.”
“I fear you’re quite correct,” Hewitt agreed. “We’re just fortunate he didn’t come in—not as if he really believed that prattle about needing a warrant.”
“The warrant part was a lie. But he couldn’t come in,” Etienne explained. “The ward would have stopped any Kindred other than myself from crossing the threshold—remember, I told you not to open the door unless I was with you?”
“But what if I had gotten to the door first? I mean, just hypothetically, since clearly I didn’t.”
“You couldn’t have entered either,” Etienne said. “That’s something I can adjust—if you will let me have a bit of your blood to add to the wards. Then I can set them so you and your students can come and go as you like.”
Etienne could see from Charles’ brief hesitation that yes, he’d heard the rumors. Most Kindred didn’t know much about Tremere thaumaturgy, but they’d all heard the warnings: Never, ever let the Tremere get any of your blood! But after a moment, the Ventrue nodded. “I see. Well. I suppose that only makes sense. And if it did keep him out, that’s a good thing, right? But who was he? And what was he really after?”
“A very good question,” Etienne said, sliding open the closet door, just to reassure himself that the case with the Professor’s artifact was still there, with the braided ribbons on its handles that rendered it all but invisible to any eyes other than his own. Satisfied, he closed the closet door again, and rejoined Hewitt in the main room of the suite. “I had rather expected that we might run into some difficulties of this sort at some point. I just hadn’t expected it to start quite this soon.”
“Actually, it may have started even sooner,” the Ventrue admitted. “I mean, at the time I thought what happened was just a coincidence. But maybe not—“
“Thought what was a coincidence, Hewitt?”
“Well, as I told you—I purchased the canopic chest from an estate sale. I didn’t actually buy it at the auction. I went and talked to the Foundation’s curator a few nights before. They knew me, I’d done some appraisal work for them. So I was able to persuade them to sell me a few items before they were boxed up for the auction house.”
Of course. Etienne was not surprised. Ventrue prided themselves on their connections—the backroom deals, favors exchanged, quiet ‘persuasion’—that usually ended up getting them what they wanted. Etienne had certainly made his share of the same kinds of deals when he could. Such ways of doing business had not changed in centuries. “But those items were already listed in the auction’s catalog, weren’t they? That could certainly have annoyed someone hoping to acquire them.”
“Yes, I daresay,” Charles nodded. “But as it happened, someone broke into the warehouse the night before the auction. Nothing much was taken, but… the security guard was killed. It’s just occurred to me—that maybe the thieves didn’t find what they were looking for.”
Aha. And then there were those who lacked such connections, or scorned the privileges of human society altogether. Vampires or mortals—but in this case, Etienne suspected vampires—who simply took what they wanted, and woe to any mortal security guard or even fellow Kindred who stood in their way.
“That’s certainly possible,” Etienne mused. “What about the rest of the set? The canopic chest, the other three jars? Are they secured?”
“Oh, that’s all quite safe. I made sure they were locked away in my storage facility before we left Wisconsin. And anyway, they’re just replicas. Not even a hundred years old. Surely they wouldn’t be after that—not if they know what they’re looking for?”
“Assuming they do, they still wouldn’t be certain you have the real artifact with you,” Etienne said. “Or that you even know what you have—which we don’t, at least not yet. Only that it’s sufficiently mysterious to warrant some investigation. I am coming to Baltimore with you, by the way.”
“Yes, I had assumed as much—if your unexpected resurrection won’t get you into too much trouble?”
“I’ve been through worse. But speaking of trouble…” Etienne hesitated. It was always touchy, talking about another Kindred’s blood-servants. “What are you going to tell them?”
“Oh, I’ll think of something,” Hewitt said, “Some kind of story. A prank gone wrong, perhaps. It’s not as though I can tell them the truth, after all.”
“It’s not going to get any safer,” Etienne warned. “In fact, if these are in fact Kindred artifacts, it’s going to get a great deal less safe. Especially if they’ve no idea what they’re up against.”
“Yes, but—the Masquerade,” Hewitt said. “I have to let them graduate. Let them get on with their lives, their careers. The less they know about us, the better off they’ll be.”
“Of course,” Etienne agreed. It was true. Close involvement with the undead was dangerous for the living; and once drawn into the Kindred world of darkness and blood, few mortals were ever able to escape it.
Unfortunately, despite Hewitt’s most noble intentions for TJ and Diane and their futures, it was likely already too late.
To Be Continued….