Welcome to the seventh of ten excerpts from BOND OF FIRE.
Compostela Ranch, June 1st
Jean-Marie stirred his coffee while he scanned the watch center’s monitors, looking for any status changes from the daylight hours he’d been asleep. The room was part of the ranch’s underground warren, built to keep vampiros safe from daylight, and loaded with every technological device a group of very rich, very paranoid, and very, very intelligent men could want.
Large screens, whose brilliance and clarity would make sports moguls weep, hung just below the ceiling. Underneath them were two rows of workstations, with equally superb monitors and extraordinarily comfortable leather chairs. Men stood or sat before them, conversing in low tones, while they passed on key knowledge to the new shift, clustered into four groups, according to their commander. Luis Alvarez, the siniscal, and his men, who watched over Compostela Ranch and its safety. Ethan Templeton and his mesnaderos – sworn to protect Don Rafael at all costs – and who also oversaw Texas’s military might. Gray Wolf and his men – especially Caleb Jones, his cónyuge – who cherished Texas and its people. Finally, his own men, the finest spies and assassins in all of North America.
A raised platform on one end permitted the watch commander to have his own desk, pace, and entertain a visitor or two.
It had originally been built to guard against attacks on Don Rafael and the commanderies by other patrones. Here they also watched for any sign that the great multitudes of prosaicos had learned about vampiros. Those hordes were the deadlier threat, as the Parisian vampiros had so painfully learned two centuries ago. They’d made some changes – added technology, changed the mix of personnel, and more – since la patrona de New Orleans had sworn a blood feud against Rafael.
Months of vicious war against Madame Celeste had taught Jean-Marie, and all of Rafael’s other men, just how quickly life could go from calm to hellish. But that bitch hadn’t yet managed to damage El Patrón, despite placing a fifty million dollar price on his head. At least he now traveled with presidential quality security, no matter how much he fumed against it.
Today looked to have been fairly quiet. No major incidents; good. Next thing to check was the ranch’s arrivals log.
Jean-Marie frowned. What the hell?
“Is Don Rafael back from the research center yet?”
“No, sir,” the senior watch commander answered, his voice far too neutral. “He left there about five minutes ago.”
“Why the devil did he stay so late?” Jean-Marie swung around to stare. “I thought he was just going to drop off a check. You know, make his usual annual donation.”
A shrug answered him. “Emilio mentioned he spent considerable time talking to a lady veterinarian,” the ex-Ranger reported, his tone implying this was the only fact he could offer.
“Enough to risk trouble on his return, when he’s got hundreds of other lovers? Ridiculous.” Jean-Marie waved off the proffered explanation and turned to study the map.
Where was Rafael? He needed to be back here before sunset, when Madame Celeste’s vampiro assassins could take the field against him. Christ, if they lost him now. . .
The two red dots of Rafael’s convoy were skimming through the outer pastures. Compostela was located high in the Texas Hill Country, the Alps of Texas, full of roads with sharp turns and surprisingly steep cliffs. It would take time, far too much time for him to reach home – especially by car. That delay needed to be reduced.
Jean-Marie’s skin tightened, his instincts almost shrieking to him. He’d always had superb timing, which his swordplay had honed. But becoming a vampiro had brought his intuition to knife-edge perfection whenever it spoke to him.
“Get one of the mesnadero helicopters ready to launch,” he said flatly. He didn’t have the right to order them. But his own certainty cut deep into his bones and slashed through his words.
The hard-bitten watch commander flicked a glance at him before turning to the mesnaderos. “You heard the man – get that bird ready to roll!”
The mesnadero on duty tossed a salute and started talking into his headset, his tone low and urgent.
Jean-Marie set down his coffee cup, absently drumming his fingers while he watched the weather outside on the monitors. Rafael and Emilio Alvarez, a Navy SEAL currently on leave to lead Rafael’s daytime bodyguard, could be heard idly chatting over the radio.
The sun still poured sunset’s crimson through the skies. If anything went wrong, they’d need vampiro instincts aboard that bird to counter Madame Celeste’s bastards. Ethan couldn’t go, since he was a half-century younger than Jean-Marie and therefore certain to wind up a pile of ash.
Maybe they’d be lucky and this would remain a quiet day. Maybe. . .
“Incoming! Get down, sir!” Emilio shouted.
“Ambush!” shouted Caleb Jones, Rafael’s driver. Gunfire, explosions, and – damn, a landslide? – filled the watch center from the loudspeakers. The engine of Rafael’s big armored Mercedes snarled, clearly fighting for speed.
Jean-Marie’s stomach plummeted toward his boots. If anything happened to the man who’d saved his life and given him a family. . .
Not while he was alive.
“RPG, sir, firing from the hilltop,” Emilio, Rafael’s bodyguard reported. Bullets pinged all too obviously against the windows. “Shit, they’ve got two shooters in their chopper, too.”
Jean-Marie slammed the watch center door behind him and raced for the helipad. Combat’s familiar calm slid through him, easing him back into well-known patterns.
Rafael, we’re starting one of our helicopters now. ETA five minutes, he reported.
Maldito sea, no. There’s still too much light for you to be outside.
He barely stopped himself from laughing at his creador’s overprotective protest. Of course, he was coming to help. But he framed his counter in logic, hoping to keep the argument short.
I’ve been a vampiro for almost two centuries, enough to walk in twilight. You need another vampiro to fight beside you.
Mierda, Rafael cursed but said nothing else.
That had gone easier than he expected, probably because Rafael was too busy out there – damn Madame Celeste’s treacherous hide! If the only way to stop her from pulling her foul tricks was to kill her, by God, he’d be glad to pull the trigger.
He burst out of the underground complex and into the open. Gardens surrounded him, as was typical for one of Rafael’s homes. More importantly, the sun brushed him lightly – warmly.
He hesitated instinctively – but his skin didn’t tighten, didn’t start to smoke. . . He was still alive two, three, four steps later. Dammit, he could walk in twilight now.
But he didn’t have time to celebrate.
His stride lengthened into a run, and men jumped out of his way.
He accepted an MP5 from the armorer waiting at the helipad, yanked the chopper door shut behind him, and nodded to the pilot. Good; he’d be flying with one of Ethan’s best compañero pilots, who could surely catch any devil Madame Celeste sent.
The other shooter was an excellent compañero sniper, thank God, with combat experience dating back to Vietnam. Nobody was a fine shot from a moving helicopter, especially when aiming at another one, which would undoubtedly be dancing across the sky while it tried to take potshots at a speeding car. But Jean-Marie’s vampiro reflexes should help, as would the sniper’s intensive training.
God willing, Jean-Marie’s intuition would kick in with some help, too.
They’d succeed; they had to.
The chopper hurled itself into the sky almost before Jean-Marie strapped in. The bird was one of the mesnaderos’ larger helicopters, one frequently used by SWAT teams. It was fast, maneuverable, and the envy of the few local cops who’d seen it.
As soon as they were in the air, Jean-Marie pulled on the goggles and headset the crew chief gave him. The flight and weapons harnesses went on remarkably easily, a tribute more to their elegant modern designs than his experience. Like Gray Wolf, he was only checked out as a shooter in helicopters once a year, just often enough to accompany Rafael on his more startling excursions.
Success! Now he could open the door, assured he could fire at Madame Celeste’s assassins without falling from the sky.
He shoved the door back and braced himself with one hand against the opposite side, the wind whipping at his hair and trying to tear at the edges of his goggles. The bird bounced and jolted sideways in the unpredictable mountain air, making him grunt.
Ah, there was the enemy – an old police chopper, now used for crop dusting by a neighbor. It hung over a strip of narrow, unpaved, mountain road like a furious hornet, stabbing at everything in sight. Dust clouds boiled up in its wake.
But what about Rafael? Were they too late?
He cursed under his breath and looked harder at the road, fighting for glimpses snatched between mountainsides.
Rafael’s black Mercedes bobbed and weaved through the cloud of dust below, sometimes almost hanging a wheel over the edge, sometimes scraping its paint against the mountain – and always moving faster than even Jean-Marie would have driven.
A channel clicked to life in his headphones. Caleb was humming one of his beloved old songs, Rafael was singing the lyrics, while bullets provided percussion. Jean-Marie rolled his eyes at this evidence of his creador’s delight in a good fight.
“Bogey at twelve o’clock low,” announced his pilot, a student of old war movies. “Heading for those power lines.”
Jean-Marie braced himself as well as he could and cocked his MP5, its readiness echoed with a matching click from his companion’s submachine gun. Die, you bastards, die.
They dived at the vicious enemy, their own guns blazing. Jean-Marie aimed for the sniper in the doorway, the one closest to Rafael’s sedan. Again and again, he fired, timing his shots by his intuition’s tap on his shoulder, grimly following his skittering opponent across the sky as best as he could. Short, savage bursts poured from the weapon on the other side of his chopper.
Caught by surprise, the smaller chopper dived to escape. But its blades caught a power line, snapping the metal like twigs. Sparks flew, lighting the sky like fireworks.
The blades’ remains kept beating, once, twice, but they couldn’t keep the bird in the air. It hung in the sky for what seemed an endless moment. The nose dropped, and it dived into the hill below the road, exploding in a fireball.
Jean-Marie’s rage fell away – only to be replaced by an agonizing sense of loss.
He had just proven that he could walk in twilight a few years before anyone had thought possible. But Madame Celeste was still more than capable – indeed, probably eager! – to attack Don Rafael at any time.
If Hélène had been here, she’d have torched those murdering devils in an instant – and he’d have celebrated her success.
Agonizing loss wrenched him yet again, no less painful for the years he’d endured it.
The wind tossed his hair, as if mocking his grief.
He snarled and slammed the door shut on it.
Excerpt from Bond of Fire by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2008 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved