In loving memory of
Caden Joshua Grajkowski
Heaven welcomed a perfect little angel
August 28, 2009
After four hundred and ninety-nine years of existence, Connor Buchanan arrived at an inescapable conclusion regarding himself. He was a coldhearted old bastard.
He slowed to a walk after checking the extensive grounds at Romatech. He’d enjoyed zipping through the trees at vampire speed with the cool breeze whipping at his face and filling his nostrils with the heady scent of newly budded leaves and flowers. But then he’d realized why he welcomed the coming of spring. Not for the warmer temperatures. Not for the promise of rebirth and renewal, since he would remain the same as he’d been for centuries. No, to be brutally honest with himself, it was the shorter nights he was looking forward to. That meant longer days and more death-sleep. More time spent in utter oblivion. No thoughts. No memories. No remorse.
The main building at Romatech Industries came into view, and he slowed his pace even more, struck by a sudden reluctance to reenter the facility. More and more these days, he preferred to be alone.
Why bother with companions? Was there any conversation he hadn’t already experienced a dozen or more times? And if he even hinted at the black despair that threatened to engulf him, he would only receive knowing looks from other Vamps as they doled out the usual diagnosis. He was nearing his five hundredth birthday, and apparently, hitting that mid-millennium marker could plunge the most stalwart of Vamps into a mid-life crisis.
Bull crap. Roman and Angus were both older than him, and they were content with their lives. They’re happily married. He shoved that thought aside. He wouldn’t fall prey to that form of insanity, no matter how old he got.
No, he was fine with being a coldhearted old bastard. He was good at it. He’d been perfecting the condition for years. He strode through a flower bed, trampling the new blossoms underfoot.
At the side entrance, he slid his ID card through the security console and pressed his palm against the scanner. When his ultrasensitive hearing detected the faint click of the lock releasing, he pushed open the side door and trudged down the hall to the MacKay security office.
His footsteps echoed in the empty hallway. No one came to Romatech on Saturday night except those who attended Mass on the far side of the facility.
He let himself into the security office and scanned the wall of surveillance monitors. Parking lot clear. Corridors empty. Cafeteria empty. Heart empty. He pushed aside that errant thought and focused on the screen showing the chapel.
Out of habit, he searched the small congregation to make sure Roman and his family were all right. Connor had been officially watching over Roman for more than sixty years now as a MacKay S&I employee, first as head of security at Romatech, and in recent years as personal bodyguard. Since Roman Draganesti was the inventor of synthetic blood and the owner of Romatech where it was produced, he presented a tempting target for the Malcontents who considered synthetic blood an insult and threat to their murderous way of life.
But the hatred went deeper than that. Casimir had been the one to transform Roman back in 1491. The Malcontent leader had thought it would be an amusing slap at the face of God to turn a humble monk into a bloodthirsty, homicidal vampire. But Roman had refused to turn evil. He’d made his own group of good Vamps, so they could fight the Malcontents and protect humanity.
Connor was dying on a battlefield when Roman changed him. He owed his existence to Roman. And his sanity. Keeping Roman and his family safe gave him a noble purpose, noble enough to almost make him forget what a coldhearted old bastard he truly was.
He watched on the monitor as Father Andrew gave his final blessing, and the congregation moved from the chapel into the hallway. Connor’s heart squeezed at the sight of Roman’s children, Constantine and Sofia. They were as close as he’d ever get to having children. Tino had celebrated his fifth birthday last month in March, and Sofia would be turning three in May. He touched the screen that showed them prancing about the hallway. Having to sit still during Mass must have left them with pent-up energy that was now bursting free. He smiled as they skipped into the nearby fellowship hall, no doubt eager for punch and cookies. Their mortal mother, Shanna, gave Roman a quick hug, then chased after the children.
Connor’s smile faded as he watched his Vamp friends emerging from the chapel, nearly all of them with a wife at his side. Most of the men had succumbed to the silken trap of love. Poor romantic fools. How could they remain single for centuries, then out of the blue, one after another, plummet off the cliff like a dazed herd of sheep? Not only had they made themselves personally vulnerable to the heartache and despair that came with love, but they endangered the entire vampire world as more and more mortal women learned of their existence.
The men seemed happy enough for now. Ignorance was bliss, Connor supposed. They didn’t see the risk. They didn’t feel the cold shadow of doom hovering just outside their gilded cage. They had no idea how love could drive a man to commit desperate, unthinkable acts, destroying his own soul along the way.
He turned his head and focused instead on the monitor that was playing the Digital Vampire Network. A black animated bat flapped its wings while underneath a message announced: DVN. On 24/7 because it’s always nighttime somewhere.
The Nightly News came on, so Connor turned off the mute button.
“One last item.” Stone Cauffyn picked up a piece of paper that had been pushed across his desk. “A Vamp in Los Angeles believes he saw Casimir several nights ago.” The newscaster scanned the paper, his face blank as usual. “I’m afraid we cannot confirm the report at this time.”
Connor snorted. Last week, a Vamp claimed he’d seen Casimir paddling an outrigger canoe in Bora Bora, and the week before, someone swore he’d spotted Casimir milking a reindeer in northern Finland. The leader of the Malcontents had become the bogeyman of the vampire world, spied behind every tree and whispered about in dark rooms.
“And that concludes our broadcast for the night,” Stone continued with his bland voice. “For all the latest news on the vampire world, keep your televisions tuned to DVN, the world’s leading vampire network.”
Not a stellar achievement considering it was the world’s only vampire network. Connor muted the volume as the ending credits began to roll.
He glanced back at the monitor showing the hallway in front of the chapel. Most of the congregation was moving into the fellowship hall. Father Andrew appeared to be in deep conversation with Roman, who was solemnly nodding his head. They shook hands, then Roman proceeded into the fellowship hall while the priest walked toward the foyer, his leather briefcase in hand. He was leaving earlier than usual.
Connor switched his attention back to DVN. A commercial had started for Vampos, the after-dinner mint guaranteed to get rid of blood breath. A handsome male Vamp, dressed in an expensive tuxedo, slipped one of the mints into his mouth, then kissed his date, who, oddly enough, was dressed in a skimpy bikini in the dark in the middle of Central Park. On horseback. A likely scenario, Connor thought with a wry twist of his lips, although his gaze did linger over the woman’s curvaceous body.
Bugger. How long had it been? Thirty years? Fifty? Too damned long if he couldn’t even remember. No wonder he was a coldhearted old bastard.
Gregori, who always kept a roll of Vampos in his coat pocket, was constantly nagging Connor to go with him to the vampire nightclubs. Apparently, his plaid kilt and Scottish accent would make him an automatic “babe magnet.” There was a multitude of “hot chicks,” as Gregori called them, who wanted to relieve the boredom of immortality with a night of screaming wild sex. Gregori claimed it was their manly duty to keep all those Vamp women happy.
So far, Connor had declined. Attempting to cure his loneliness with a long line of faceless, nameless, desperate, Undead women didn’t seem appealing. Or very honorable. Hypocrite, a small voice in the back of his mind needled him. Who are ye fooling, pretending to be a man of honor? Ye know what ye did.
He struck the voice down and glanced back at the surveillance monitors. Father Andrew had reached the foyer, and he set his briefcase on the table where Phineas had checked it earlier in the evening. As a safety precaution, all items brought into Romatech had to be searched.
The priest had left his overcoat on the table earlier, but instead of putting it on and heading out the front door, he strode across the foyer into the hallway on the left. Connor frowned, wondering what the old priest was up to. The hallway was empty except for . . .
“Bugger,” Connor whispered as the priest marched straight toward the MacKay security office.
He couldn’t pretend he wasn’t here. With a groan, he pushed back a long strand of hair that had escaped the leather tie at the nape of his neck while he’d been running about the grounds.
He opened the door and stepped into the hallway. “Can I help you, Father?”
The priest smiled. “Connor, good to see you again.” He shook hands, then peeked inside the office. “Fascinating. I’ve never seen this room before. May I?”
Connor motioned for him to enter, then followed him inside.
Father Andrew pivoted, scanning the office. His eyebrows rose at the sight of all the weapons in the caged-off area in the back. He turned toward the wall of surveillance monitors. “I wanted to let you know how much we appreciate you keeping us safe during Mass.”
Connor inclined his head. It wasn’t an idle compliment. The Malcontents had tried bombing the chapel before. With Roman in attendance, along with Angus MacKay and other high-profile members of the bottle-drinking Vamp world, they were practically begging for an attack.
The priest gestured to the screen showing the chapel. “So you were still able to watch the service?”
“Aye.” Connor didn’t admit that he’d kept the volume turned off. “I wasna here all the time. I did four perimeter checks.”
“You’re very vigilant,” Father Andrew said with the hint of a smile. The silver fringe of hair surrounding his bald crown indicated an advanced age, yet his clear blue eyes and smooth skin lent him an oddly youthful and innocent appearance. “Roman and his family are fortunate to have you.”
Connor shifted his weight. “Roman is verra important.”
The priest’s smile widened. “You are all important in the eyes of the Lord. I was wondering why you volunteer to guard us every week. Surely you could take turns with the other men? I haven’t seen you at Mass for months now.”
Connor winced inwardly. He should have known this was coming.
“I’m concerned about you,” the priest continued. “Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I feel like you’ve grown more isolated and . . . unhappy in the last few years. Roman agrees—”
“Ye talked to Roman about me?” Connor snapped.
The priest’s eyes widened, but he remained quiet until Connor felt a twinge of guilt for raising his voice.
“Roman tells me you’re approaching your five hundredth birthday,” Father Andrew said in a soothing tone. “I’ve heard that can cause feelings of depression or—”
“—or anger,” the priest finished his sentence with a pointed look. “In your case, I fear you’re shutting yourself off from your friends, which will result in you feeling even more alone. What do you think, Connor? Do you feel isolated?”
Not isolated enough since he was forced to endure this conversation. He shoved the annoying strand of hair behind his ear. “ ’Tis no’ the same anymore. All the men are getting married.”
“I heard that you disapprove of their relationships.”
Connor shot him an irritated look. “ ’Tis no’ that I want them to be lonely and miserable. They just doona see the risk they’re taking. There’s nothing more important to vampires than keeping our existence a secret. That has been our top priority for centuries, and they’re foolishly flaunting it.”
“They’re in love.”
“You don’t believe in love?”
Connor grimaced as if he’d been poked with a spear. Oh, he believed in love all right. Love was a bitch.
Father Andrew watched him closely. “There’s no need to feel alone, Connor. You could come to Mass with your friends and take Holy Communion.”
The wily priest was going for the jugular. Connor was purposely avoiding Communion. He’d been raised to believe he would have to go to confession first.
Father Andrew slipped on his reading glasses and removed a Day-Timer from his coat pocket. “I’d like to set up an appointment with you.”
The priest ignored that remark as he thumbed through the pages. “Roman would give you the time off.”
“How about next Thursday evening at nine? I could meet you here.”
With his hand resting on an open page of his Day-Timer, Father Andrew peered over the rims of his reading glasses. “I’ve been a priest for over fifty years. I can tell when a man is in need of confession.”
Connor stepped back, his jaw clenched. “I confess nothing.”
Father Andrew removed his glasses and fixed his blue eyes on Connor with a hard stare. “You won’t scare me away. I will fight for you.”
A chill crept over Connor’s skin. The fight had been lost centuries ago.
The priest closed his Day-Timer with a snap and stuffed it into his coat pocket. “I assume you fought in the Great Vampire War of 1710? And until Roman invented synthetic blood in 1987, you survived by feeding off humans?”
Connor folded his arms across his chest. So in lieu of a confession, the priest was attempting an interrogation.
“I’ve learned a great deal about your world in the last five years.” Father Andrew slid his glasses back into his chest pocket. “I seriously doubt there is anything you could tell me that I haven’t heard before.”
He was wrong about that. Connor motioned toward the door to indicate that the meeting was over.
A hint of amusement glinted in the priest’s eyes. “You’re a man of few words. I like that.” He took one last look around the room, and his gaze fell on the screen showing DVN. “That woman looks familiar. Wasn’t she the one who tried to wreak havoc on Jack’s engagement party?”
Connor glanced at the monitor, which displayed a close-up of a woman whose bright red lips were twisted into a smug smile. “That’s Corky Courrant. She hosts the show Live with the Undead.”
“So this is the vampire channel?” The priest stepped closer. “I’ve never seen it before.”