JOIN THE CLUB
It was the beginning of Route 66, the spot where "America's Main Street" began to traverse the United States. Buckingham Fountain, the heart of Grant Park, was named for the brother of the woman who donated the fountain to the city of Chicago. By day, the fountain's main jet shot one hundred fifty feet into the air, a tower of water between the expanse of Lake Michigan and the expanse of downtown Chicago.
But it was late now, and the jets had been turned off for the night. The park was officially closed, but that didn't stop a handful of stragglers from walking around the fountain or perching on the steps that led down to Lake Shore Drive to take in the view of the dark and gleaming waters of Lake Michigan. I checked my watch. It was eight minutes after midnight. I was here because someone had been leaving me anonymous notes. The first ones mentioned invitations. The last one had invited me to the fountain at midnight, which meant the mysterious someone was eight minutes late. I had no clue who had invited me or why, but I was curious enough to make the drive downtown from my home in Hyde Park. I was also cautious enough to show up with a weapon - a short pearl-handled dagger that was strapped beneath my suit jacket on my left side. The dagger had been a gift from Master vampire Ethan Sullivan to me, the Sentinel of his House of vampires.
I probably didn't look the part of the stereotypical vampire, as the Cadogan House uniform - a slim-fit, well-tailored black pantsuit - wasn't exactly the stuff of horror movies. My long, straight, dark hair was pulled into its usual high ponytail, dark bangs across my forehead. I'd donned a pair of black Mary Jane-style heels which, my preference for Pumas notwithstanding, looked pretty good with the suit. My beeper was clipped to my waist in case of House emergencies. As House Sentinel, I usually carried a katana, thirty-odd inches of honed steel. But for this meeting, I'd left my katana at home, thinking the sight of a bloodred scabbard strapped to my side might inspire a bit too much attention from human eyes.
I was, after all, in the park after hours. The members of the Chicago Police Department were going to be curious enough about that; a three-foot-long samurai sword wasn't going to instill much confidence that I was here only for introductions and conversation.
And speaking of introductions . . .
"I wasn't sure you'd come," a voice suddenly said from behind me.
I turned, my eyes widening at the vampire who'd addressed me. "Noah?" More specifically, it was Noah Beck, leader of Chicago's Rogue vampires - the ones not tied to a particular House. Noah was bulky - broad shoulders topping a muscular frame. His brown hair stood up in spiky whorls. His eyes were blue, and tonight his jaw bore a trace of stubble. Noah wasn't cover-model handsome, but with the build, strong jaw, and slightly crooked nose, he could fill the leading role in an action movie with no problems. He was dressed, as he usually was, in unrelieved black: black cargo pants, black boots, and a snug, ribbed black T-shirt to replace the long-sleeved version he'd worn in cooler weather.
"You asked to meet me?"
"I did," he said.
When a few seconds passed without elaboration, I tilted my head at him. "Why not just call me and ask for a meeting?" Or better yet, I thought, why not call Ethan? He was usually more than willing to send me into the arms of needy vampires.
Noah crossed his arms over his chest, his expression so serious that his down-thrust chin nearly touched his shirt. "Because you belong to Sullivan, and this meeting isn't about him. It's about you. If I'd signed those notes, I figured you would've felt obligated to tell him about the meet."
"I belong to Cadogan House," I clarified, making it known that I didn't, contrary to popular opinion, belong to Ethan. Not that I hadn't considered it. "That means I can't guarantee I won't spill whatever you tell me," I added, letting a small smile curl my lips. "But that depends on what you tell me." Noah uncrossed his arms, slipped a hand into one of his pants pockets, and pulled out a thin red card.
Holding the card between two fingers, he extended it toward me.
I knew what it would say before I took it from him. It would bear the initials "RG" and the white stamp of a flower-like fleur-de-lis. An identical card had been left in my room in Cadogan House, but I still didn't know what it meant.
"What's 'RG'?" I asked him, returning the card.
Noah took it, slipping it back into his pocket. Then he looked around, crooked a finger at me, and began walking toward the Lake. Eyebrows raised, I followed him. That was when the history lesson began.
"The French Revolution was a crucial time for European vampires," he said as we walked down the steps that led from the park to the street below. "When the Reign of Terror struck, vampires got caught up in the hysteria - not unlike humans. But when the vampires began to turn over their fellow Novitiates and Masters to the military, when they were guillotined in the street, the members of the Conseil Rouge, the counsel that governed vampires before the Greenwich Presidium took power, began to panic."
"That was the Second Clearing, right?" I asked. "French vampires squealed about their friends to ensure their own safety. Unfortunately, the vamps they turned over to the mobs were executed." Noah nodded. "Exactly. Conseil vampires were old, well established. They enjoyed their immortality, and they weren't eager to become mob victims. So they organized a group of vampires to protect them.