San Francisco at last
Dan attempts to stretch his legs in seat spacing that is designed – apparently – for children. He looks out the port-side window. Flight regulations require the window blind be open now but he still can’t see anything.
“Nothing to see,” Cliff assures him, “Always cloud cover. Say, you see the weather map just now? Topped 100 degrees in the city! And it’s been like that all week! Crazy!”
Chicagoans like nothing better than to complain about the weather and Dan, the only native Chicagoan in the team, enjoys himself thoroughly as the team waits for gun-safes, “trophy weaponry” and tool-bag to be cleared through security.
“We need to be moving… we’re infernally late thanks to you Dan,” Paul snarks, shooting his Armani cuff to reveal his platinum Patek watch.
“But it wasn’t… oh, never mind now!” Dan exclaims. Truth to tell it had been Sandi’s idea to throw a hitch into the travel plans of the mysterious Bruno’s Bar survivor they had seen at Chippewa Airport. But Dan realizes it’s not a good look for a trained psychiatrist to admit he struck a wrong note on flagging a security risk in an airport. The team had missed its flight to SFO and had been consigned to State-hopping through the night.
“Well, we’re here now,” Hitch says as cheerily as he can. “We’ve all had worse nights. We know what we’re looking for but we have no great leads. And of course we need accommodation and wheels.”
“I’m going to hire something tolerable… I’ll make my own hotel arrangements,” Paul drawls, striding off in the general direction of the car-hire end of the terminal.
“Hang about!” Hitch calls, alarmed. “Paul – we really have no lead – we’re going to need you!”
Sandi and Cliff catch up: Sandi toting two gun safes, Cliff one gun safe and a heavy kit bag.
“What’s with the long faces, guys?” Sandi asks cheerily. The mirror shades she’s wearing take a bit of getting used to. She bought them in Chippewa, as a defense against “vampire hex” after hearing Paul’s brief account of his face-time with a Greater Vampire.
“Hot enough for ya?” Cliff adds.
“Hitch was just laying out our difficulties,” Dan explains. “We know we need to find the St. Vitellius cup, or grail, but other than that…”
Sandi’s smooth brow wrinkles as she diligently tries to contribute:
“Shame Shen isn’t riding with us: it’s like, probably totally hidden somewhere in Chinatown,” she offers, and then adds:
“Oh… didn’t you say that one guy Hiro settled here, Hitch? Is there like, a Japan-town around here Cliffie?”
Cliff looks dubiously at Sandi: “I only know Frisco as much as you do, remember? We maybe should ask Fran.”
“Yeah! Frisco Fran!” Sandi laughs. Seeing the others look blank, she elaborates:
“Fran is like, the campus head here. We filled in doing close protection for her when her campus got taken down big-time. She’s pretty cool.”
“Can we trust her?”
Surprised, Cliff grunts:
“Huh? First call I put in with my new burner was to Fran – courtesy call – she’s expecting us.”
“San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality”
– Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane
All it takes is a platinum card
Two hours later, the Chicago campus is hosted by the San Francisco campus. Over a late breakfast – Fran flips a neat omelet – they learn that she’s put together a lead already.
“I put a call through to Phineas Rumm, a contact of mine who’s hosting an auction of antiquities tonight. The reason it’s of interest is that one of the items is a bundle of letters from a Russian refugee named Videnko, dating back to the period you wanted. Apparently Videnko was an occultist and revolutionary. I’m told the auction’s taking place on the ferry out of Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s the Ariel.”
“Like the little mermaid!” Sandi comments brightly. Then scowls at Hitch, whose mouth is opening:
“Cool it, Hitch! You’ve got that ‘I’m about to lecture you on culture’ look! Don’t even start!”
It’s a typical bustling Saturday Night around Fisherman’s Wharf. Hitch half-recognizes a man ahead of him in the queue for Ariel: he can’t quite place why he seems familiar: then loses track of him in the crowd.
And quite a crowd it is, once the team has surrendered all weaponry and “special equipment” and filter through into the passenger lounge. Some people stand out: a short, middle-aged man with a pronounced mustache and girth held in check by a male corset under his waistcoat; a strangely haunted-looking young woman whose name, caught while Phineas greets her, is Emilia; a suave latino patiently waiting in a corner; and in another corner, watching Emilia, a tall, pallid young man dressed in a conservative suit.
The team stand out too: while most of the auction attendees are conservatively coiffed and suited like Paul, the others have gone very much for the avant-garde Goth look: Sandi’s taken Dan out shopping and they are both wearing black leather overcoats, which is fairly similar to Hitch and Cliff’s usual attire.
Dan takes a turn around the lounge as the ferry gets under way: his keen eye spots the main artifacts, the bundle of letters amidst an Anglo-Saxon bracelet and an Aztec head-dress and some items of puny provenance and scant interest.
Turning, Dan checks on his team-mates: Sandi and Cliff, though weaponless, are standing. Dan rejoins Hitch and Paul: then opts to stand as they take seats. Cliff moves in close.
“I don’t see any danger signals so far.”
“I’ll keep an eye out too, Cliff: between the two of us we should be able to pick out trouble.”
Sandi’s watching the pallid young man, who is intensely focused on Emilia. It seems to Sandi that he must have some type of “bland” charm going or Emilia could not help being freaked. Emilia for her part is keenly watching the auction: she seems excited.
Phineas, owner of the Green Man tavern and auctioneer here, talks up the items, offering some of the provenance. After subdued bidding for the lesser items, things hot up for the Anglo-Saxon bracelet. The little mustachioed man seems about to win it, then is outbid by the representative for anonymous East Coast interests. The Aztec Head-dress follows. This is clearly what the latino has been waiting for: Sandi is amazed that something that looks like a prop from Apocalypto is in such demand! At last, the latino succeeds: he seems well satisfied in an impassive sort of way.
The Russian Letters are brought out: Phineas runs quickly through a thumbnail sketch of Videnko’s career and occult qualifications before starting the bidding at a price that signals this must be pride of place in the auction! The bidding soon burns off everyone except the East Coast rep, Euro-trash Franz, Emilia, and Paul. At $48,000 only Paul and Emilia are left in it, and at $90,000 Emilia, distraught, buries her face in her hands and leaves Paul master of the field and owner of the bundle. Paul cannot conceal a smirk.
What’s with Emilia?
Sandi smoothly drops into a law-enforcement crouch: Glock gripped in both hands and extended in front of her: Emilia comes to an abrupt halt in her rush towards Paul!
“I… I just wanted to talk!”
Paul raises an eyebrow from behind Cliff, who is about to usher Paul into his rented Rover. “What’s the problem?”
“Please… I must talk to you!”
Sandi continues to aim her pistol directly at Emilia. She can see passers-by beginning to pay attention.
“My name’s Emilia Plant,” the woman calls, “I’ve been waiting to research those papers for years… they may concern my ancestor, a Britisher named Roundtree, and I can help you read them as well.”
“I think I’ll manage, thanks,” Paul sneers. A quick look through the documents has told him he’ll need to cope with hand-written Cyrillic and there’s probably some type of code as well. Child’s play once scanned into digital form.
“She might be of help,” Dan urges, surprising Paul. “I think she’s troubled, or haunted might be the right word…”
“Haunted is right!” Hitch exclaims. “Now I remember where I’ve seen that chap! The ghost of Roundtree was right behind her before!”
“…Haunted, OK,” Dan agrees, “but she also seems genuine to me. I think we should invite her along.”
“There’s no trouble here, officer” Sandi explains winsomely to the harbor cop. “I’m working close protection along with my buddy there” – indicating Cliff – “and our boss has bought something totally expensive in an auction. We’ll be going as soon as my buddy gets his ASS in the car!” – That, directed at Cliff, has the desired effect and Paul is manhandled into his Rover. The cop hands Sandi’s licenses back with a smile and nod, and offers an appreciative wink and a grin in Cliff’s direction. San Francisco loves a hunk in black leather.
“It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world”
– Oscar Wilde
An extra pair of eyes
“So, Emilia… I can call you Emilia?” Hitch checks from the driver’s seat.
“That’s Dan, I’m Hitch… or you can call me Joe.”
“Hi Joe, Dan,” Emilia replies faintly. “Do you think it will be OK for me to help? Your buyer – Paul? – didn’t seem interested.”
“Don’t worry,” Dan reassures her kindly, “Paul’s a mite cantankerous, but his heart’s in the right place.”
“Aye, somewhere in a vault in Zurich, isn’t it?” quips Hitch.
At the hotel, Paul remains suspicious until Emilia swiftly translates the lettering and dismantles the code. After half an hour it seems as though she, and not Hitch, has been a close colleague of Paul’s for three years. The others make themselves useful: Dan meditates, Hitch makes tea, Cliff stays on security outside the door, and Sandi waits hopefully for an assault team to come bursting through the windows.
The first letter dates to 1916. The next is a record of Videnko’s time in the Red Army unit that captured the peers in Niejetzie. “Roundtree is the Monk…” Emilia reads, puzzled, then struggles over an obscure reference to something like a small house, or vessel? Perhaps it’s a way of referring to the bowl, she and Paul muse.
A reference, much further through the letters in 1943, to the same item. It seems that Videnko brought the cup of St Vitellius over to San Francisco with him. His will and testament, however, does not mention it.
“So it sounds like a-digging we shall go?” Sandi asks cheerfully. “Come in Cliffie, you still awake? Yeah looks like we’ll need shovels… remember Seattle? Yeah totally.”
Emilia looks alarmed.
“Don’t worry love, we do this all the time,” Hitch assures her. “We’re Academy. Like your ancestor, Roundtree. We’ll do the right thing. Trust us.”
Before many more minutes pass, Paul has located the Russian Orthodox graveyard overlooking South Bay over the other side of the Golden Gate. “It’s a moderate to fair bet that Videnko chose Orthodox burial, regardless of his early years as revolutionary,” Paul comments in a chatty aside to Emilia. “Yes, here we are – a cross-reference through burials by name and yes, we have him. This GPS app locks him in to within 50 yards.”
“Cool! We’ll swing by Wal-Mart and get the shovels!” Sandi exclaims, sharing Paul’s GPS data to her own GPS. “Cliffie, we’re rolling in five!”
“And a burly bag or three… for the body parts,” Hitch says: then looks contrite as he sees how Emilia pales. “Just kidding love! It’ll be fine – it’s going midnight and we’re heading off to an old graveyard!”
“And we’re wearing shades,” Dan smiles at Sandi.
“What could possibly go wrong?” Paul sneers.
“I always see about six scuffles a night when I come to San Francisco. That’s one of the town’s charms.”
– Errol Flynn
Ill-met by moonlight
“I saw Roundtree! Just for a second – standing over the grave!” Hitch exclaims.
The final resting place for Videnko is an earth plot marked with a simple headstone. It’s in the last row before a rill of rocks then a smooth descent to the Bay. A couple of rows above it, more ornate mausoleums and concreted family plots are railed off with rusted iron. A graveled path winds around those and into the simple few final rows. At either side, stands of trees offer privacy during bright daylight hours but here, in the first hour after midnight, only offer menacing shadow and soughing noise cover for things that might be creeping through them. With city lights reflecting off low cloud and the ¾-moon doing its best to break through, visibility is fairly good where the trees do not lower shadow. It’s still hot: Hitch and Cliff strip down to tee-shirts before they cut the sod.
As the grave is opened, Emilia and Paul stand close together, reading over the scanned letters again on Paul’s PDA. Dan’s a little off to one side, ready to bring his powerful prayers into force. Sandi is removed by around 20’, watching the approach down the path and using a mausoleum as cover. She’s wearing NVGs: her field of vision is limited but details are clear.
And with that traditional noise, Hitch and Cliff unearth Videnko’s coffin. Cliff seizes his jimmy-bar while Hitch slide back into his coat. The coffin lid comes off: revealing, in perfect preservation, the body of an elderly Slavic man clutching an earthenware bowl, or large cup, in both hands. Loath to touch it, Hitch focuses his arcane energies, and commands a sprite to yank the bowl out. He readies a burly bag: as the cup arrives at his receptacle, Hitch is pleased he did: for the body’s fingertips have come out with the bowl! Even as the bowl disappears safely inside the bag, the body dissolves into dust.
“We’ve scored!” Hitch gloats.
And the attack begins.
A tiny red dot is briefly seen near Dan: then blossoms into a ballooning fireball! The team throws itself to cover as best it can, but fire sears all but Sandi. Emilia screams in pain: Cliff muffles the flames off her with his coat: Paul frantically beats one sleeve of his Armani into smoldering ruin.
Sandi’s Glocks open up: she calls “X up! Tagged him! Think he’s on your eight Cliff!”
Dan utters a healing prayer over Emilia, but Hitch and Paul seek targets: Paul with the red madness of revenge gleaming in his eyes! The suit he wore in transit is probably going to be neatly pressed by the time he gets back to his hotel, but that’s no consolation.
Cliff muscles his way into his body armor and readies his Colt, still hovering protectively over Emilia. By rights, he should be teaming up with Sandi but she’s sensibly using cover and he’s stuck riding herd on these four. Then he spots the pale face and glinting fangs of a familiar foe!
“Vamp! Your six my two Sandi!”
Even as Cliff yells the warning, more slinking shapes slide closer, using the trees and boulders to stay in shadow as best they can. Cliff sweeps Emilia into the open grave and opens up on one, knocking it back on its heels. Hitch Paul and Dan hurry up-slope to cover as best they can, Dan making an extra push to race up to Paul and heal his ruined arm.
Then a chill strikes the group, and they grit their teeth as the very depths of infernal cold seem to suck at their marrow. The vampires slink closer.
Able to focus his rage into cool anger, Paul draws his ‘sonic screwdriver’ and unleashes it at the nearest slinking shape, barely-seen against the trees. It freezes: success!
Then Dan’s voice thunders out:
“Flee from the righteous power of our Lord Jesus Christ!”
And the lesser vampires do: leaving our heroes cowering against the old lichen-rough headstones, listening and straining eyes into the dark.
Sandi breathes deeply: focuses her attention: first close, then methodically out. Then she swaps position a few feet and repeats the process: yes! A rock that wasn’t there before!
Sandi’s Glocks stammer again: chips are flung off a couple of headstones some 50’ away. She can’t tell if she tagged the X, but he sure reacts like a spell-slinger who has been seriously annoyed: strakes of blue-tinged agony lance into Sandi, making her convulse and grovel with the pain.
Hitch, keeping to as much cover as he can beside Sandi, unleashes a cascade of ice onto the area Sandi targeted! He’s sure that did some damage: but darned if he can actually see the guy.
Emilia whimpers: Cliff lifts her back out and runs with her toward the path:
Paul and Dan fall into line as Cliff pushes out. “We gotta blaze, Hitch!” Sandi warns.
“We’ll cover off last then!”
“OK…” Sandi replies, in a worried tone. She ought to be either hunting the X with Cliff, or fading into the dark. This is not safe.
Time to Make a Stand
Cliff arrives at the big van and half-lifts Emilia into the front. Sliding behind the wheel he turns the ignition: nothing.
“We got a situation!”
And another strike explodes around them.