Natti had always felt like the most powerful person in the room no matter who had entered her office. She had chosen blood red paint for her walls to help fluster men and women whom were already infatuated with her tight dresses. While aroused, a man’s reactions were slower and they often let the distraction soften their negotiation terms. Arousing a woman wasn’t always as effective, but Natti still had fun tormenting her guests.
Dealing with vampires wasn’t the same. Unlike scavenged books and hard drives detailing human behavior and psychology, Natti’s study of vampires was quite limited. Upon reaching ambassador status over a year ago, Natti had had only a handful of personal meetings with representatives of Wayne Manor.
Reading them was nearly impossible. Without a need to breathe, Natti couldn’t tell how calm or irritated they were. They seemed able to control their facial features without an apparent need to concentrate, or even try. When a vampire smiled, Natti knew it was because they wanted her to see that smile.
Being read by a vamp felt like playing a game of poker, knowing you’d lose every bluff. Cliff and other council members that dealt with the blue eyes let Natti know about their ability to hear heartbeats, smell pheromones and keep their eyes from blinking. Hiding anything from a vamp was nearly impossible, and her life’s ambition depended on secrets.
Natti’s worst meeting with a vamp had been her first, Neal Hamilton himself. The man had a strong chin and a cocky smirk. He knew he was a good looking man, and he knew how to use it. On top of that, the man had looked at Natti like he could’ve eaten her out of curiosity. The power in his eyes had outmatched his charm, but the sense of control over himself and the meeting was most unsettling. In Natti’s experience, the men with the most control were often the most dangerous.
The woman sat in her wide, black leather chair at her polished, dark oak desk. Blackout curtains had been installed specifically for Wayne Manor’s ambassadors. Natti smoothed out her black pantsuit and glanced past her desk lamp to Harris. The man’s icy blue eyes stared at the desk with an old map filling most of the surface. Natti knew the man wasn’t interested in women, but she had chosen the least inviting clothes all the same.
Harris was a different breed than Hamilton. Harris didn’t care what anyone thought of his appearance. The man’s view of the world was as narrow as his riflescope. He was disciplined, but only to the point where he could cut loose.
Hiring Harris for a job had always made Natti nervous. He and his former partner had had a reputation for being quick, ruthless and thorough. Natti couldn’t remember the partner’s name, but when Harris had gone solo, she had heard he only became more wrathful and a lot less subtle. Natti hadn’t feared Harris before. He wouldn’t hurt anyone without being paid, and Natti always had a private stash to bribe an assassin, not that she was sure it would work.
Spending the last two days with Harris was much worse. She hadn’t gotten a straight answer as to how long ago he’d been turned, but he was definitely different. His usual calculating mind seemed looser, his stern eyes were more erratic and any sense of calm was replaced with twitches of paranoia. He might be a vamp, but he’s not quite acting like it yet.
Harris’ airless voice vibrated through the dimly lit room, “What about Myrtle?”
Natti cleared her throat and folded her hands over her lap, “Danny Dylan was elected two years ago. Once elected, the man’s first major act was to build a wall with a ring of ultraviolet spotlights that run from dusk till dawn. I’ve even heard she’s trying to recreate a pre-war laser rifle to specifically fire UV rays.”
He growled, “Don’t tell me someone like you doesn’t believe in misdirection.”
“If Danny is working with Wayne Manor, I’ll be surprised. Besides you, I haven’t been surprised in a long time.”
Harris rubbed his chin, “We could use her support. You think she knows the last chief dealt with Hamilton?”
“I’d guess yes, hence the fortification, and the former chief’s mysterious death.”
“Trust me. She won’t want to work with you either.”
“Fine, who else can we get to turn on the Manor?”
Natti looked at the map, “Emperor Carlan’s son Lee. The boy’s being groomed for the throne, but Hamilton is strictly urging me to support the emperor’s second daughter instead.”
“You’re not much of a politician, are you?”
“I don’t have to be. I just want to know how far this spreads, and how I can use these fools.”
“Most, if not all, of these people are in power because they wanted to be in power, and Hamilton let them. You might have more trouble with this crusade than you thought.”
Harris narrowed his eyes at the map, “It’s occurring to me more and more as each day passes. I’m not going to age anymore. I don’t have to be in a rush… What I did here was shortsighted,” he held his bald scalp and cringed, “I usually think ahead farther than this. I fucked up.”
Better keep him happy, “You might appreciate Mayor Klumpp in Chariot—” Natti stopped when she thought she heard a faint echo.
Harris was already staring at one of the curtained windows. With the minimum amount of movement, he reached for a radio, “Base Watch, report.” No response. “Second Step report.”
A woman’s voice answered, “They didn’t come up here.”
They? Natti had heard the end of Harris’ radio conversation earlier. Apparently Harris’ sentries were tasked to stay indoors and guard their infected family members. Is something else being planned, or maybe… “James?”
Harris glanced up at her, “If it is, would you prefer to see him die in person?”
Natti froze. She had ordered assassinations for plenty of people, most were for business. Hiring Harris to kill Tsara and James had left the worst pit in her stomach, but the alcohol had helped.
Harris shrugged, “I’ll kill him anyway, I like to see my contracts through, but as a favor for your cooperation, I’ll throw in the bonus if you’d like.”
Natti shook her head, “I don’t need to see it.”
The older man nodded and clicked the radio, “Evie and Lars, go scouting. If it’s James, kill on sight.”
Natti felt her heart pounding as the drafted soldiers confirmed the order. I never deserved him.
Harris pointed at other towns across the map, continuing to question whose leaders were in league with Wayne Manor. Natti would confirm who she knew of. They carried on for minutes. Natti watched the golden clock at the edge of her desk. Nine hours of daylight left. What’s the plan James?
“Second thoughts about James?”
Natti snapped her attention to Harris, “Excuse me?”
“When I told you he was alive, I saw relief in your face. You love him.”
“Love is a joke.”
Harris pushed his seat back and walked around the desk to the nearest window. “Years ago, fifteen or more I think, Daniel and I had just finished off a target. We were bringing her head back to our contractor. It was a few days’ ride, we didn’t have enough supplies to go sightseeing,” Harris pulled back a curtain and held his hand out into a solid ray of sunlight, “Daniel spotted a caravan in the distance, a ring of dust and smoke spiraling around them.
“They were under attack; I thought we should keep moving. Even if there were supplies to gather in the aftermath, we could still make it back to town without them.” Harris pulled his steaming hand out of the light and watched it with a smirk, “Daniel was driving. We snuck up on the raiders and took out all five – no, six – and I turned my gun on the survivors.”
Harris actually smiled, “Fucking Daniel slapped me in the back of the head, and told the victims that we were just going to collect from the raiders’ supplies. The caravan handed us two jugs of clean water, and a grateful mother hugged me with a kiss on the cheek. It was the most amazing feeling in the world.”
Natti wouldn’t dare interrupt. Daniel went missing some time ago. Cliff told me Harris started hunting vamps fulltime afterwards. He really doesn’t care who he has to throw at Hamilton to get revenge.
Harris circled around to his seat, “If you feel a tenth for James that I felt for Daniel, tell me now.”
Natti remembered the first time she had formally met James. She had just been an assistant to her mother, no official title or clout. Spending most of her youth near the top of Anthill’s social structure, Natti’s company had always included the cleanest, respectable and full of manners.
Around twelve or thirteen, Natti had been tasked to drop off a requisition order to the garage. Natti had thought her mother mad, sending her to the bottom of the town. The young lady had never gone further down than the third ring, and her mother had sent her to the building next to the ramp that kept out marauders and feral vamps.
Her mother had told her, “A lady must learn to mingle with the common folk, lest she take her position for granted. We only sleep higher than the working class, that doesn’t make our lives richer than theirs.” At the time, Natti had mostly just been irritated with her mother’s words and had just assumed she was being punished for borrowing her older sister’s new shoes without permission.
Each step towards the bottom of town had been, and still is, a step further into newer buildings haphazardly built by uneducated stucco masons and thrown-together shacks of recycled materials that didn’t even match. Natti remembered thinking that the denizens’ clothes obviously hadn’t been imported from New Lancaster, as they looked more like scavenged rags, clean enough to hide less subtle stains.
Avoiding as many curious glances and jealous stares as she could stomach, Natti had finally made it to the last plateau overlooking the ramp. She hadn’t realized how much of a view she had had before then. The people down here can’t possibly feel as safe as I, she had thought. The young woman had taken the next few steps to the garage with a bit more humility, not that she would show it.
The building itself looked more respectable than most of the houses below Natti’s home ring. Liam was a wiry man with wild brown hair, a stained sleeveless shirt and grease smeared, toned arms. He had waved Natti in with a smile, “Haven’t seen you in a while little Natti. How’s the family?”
She had answered, “My family is well,” and handed over the envelope, “My mother has a request for you.” Natti had remembered the mechanic visiting the upper rings on occasion.
The middle aged man hadn’t stop smiling at her cold greeting. After taking the paper, Liam had left to his office, “I’ll be right back. On his way, he had told an overly skinny boy with an equally crazy set of hair, “James, see if our guest would like a drink.”
James had all but ran up to Natti, just as much dirt and grime over him as his father. “Hi, I’m James,” his disgusting hand had been held out for a shake.
Natti had failed to hide a grimace as they shook, “I heard.”
The boy had rubbed the back of his neck with a wide, dumb grin, “Haha, I guess you did. Uh, want some ice water?”
The boy had lit up and pulled Natti by her wrist further into the garage. No one had ever man handled her like that, but she wasn’t offended for some reason. Natti had wondered if she was just curious to see ice, or if there was a cute boy under that layer of dirt.
James had waved his arms around a clunky box with a maze of metal tubes to the side and a jug of water on top. Inside a door to the side, the boy had retrieved a ceramic cup with something clattering inside. Natti had tried to peek in it, but James put his hand over top, “Close your eyes.”
“Just do it!”
Natti had rolled her eyes and obeyed. Something colder than anything Natti had ever experienced had suddenly rushed from the base of her neck, down her back and down her leg. She had jumped away with a shout, “What did you do barbarian?”
James had started laughing his ass off as he pointed to the wet cube on the ground. Natti had stared, transfixed. Then the ruffian had replied, “Watch this.” James had shaken another cube into his dirty hand and onto his tongue, and it stayed there as he shook it back and forth.
Natti couldn’t help but smile at the boy’s contagious laugh, “You are the weirdest boy I’ve ever met.”
Snapping back to the present, Natti practically spat out the words, “Don’t kill him.”
Harris immediately grabbed his radio, “Change of orders, scout and identify only.”
A rush of relief washed over Natti. Fuck.
“Do you think we can recruit him?”