Chapter One of Ordeal of the Scarlet Order

From the journals of Dr. Jane Heckman:

The sun had just set when I emerged from a pleasant but sparse upstairs motel room in Cortez, Colorado followed by a muscular vampire with dark hair and a mustache named Rudolfo. I'm also a vampire but I'd become one just a few months before and still hadn't adjusted to all aspects of my new existence. I knocked on the door next to ours. A third vampire with dreadlocks and a handlebar mustache named Daniel appeared. He clutched a steaming cup of coffee and yawned.

You wouldn't know it to look at us, but we were on the run. Less than a month ago, we broke into Los Alamos National Laboratories and destroyed a facility where scientists used nanochemicals engineered from vampire blood to make monstrous super soldiers who resembled Count Orlock from F. W. Murnau's film Nosferatu. Given enough time, we feared these monsters could learn to influence minds and even transform into animals like many vampires could. Daniel and Rudolfo had both visited the realm of those creatures who had created us and feared the super soldiers might learn to tap into even greater powers.

Of course, the project at Los Alamos didn't officially exist and our breaking in to destroy it should have been impossible. Because of that, the government hadn't retaliated against us yet. We guessed they wanted to learn how information about the project leaked out and how we'd breached their barriers. We planned to disappear before they found our trail.

Rudolfo clutched a newspaper and held it up. "We should get going. The real estate agent will be expecting us. It took a lot of work to get him to meet us after sunset."

I couldn't help but smirk. I'd read Dracula. Stories that started with vampires meeting real estate agents didn't seem to end well for our kind. Despite my amusement, I gave a curt nod and Rudolfo led the way down the stairs to my Subaru in the parking lot. As we reached the car, Daniel faced Rudolfo. "Maybe I should ride shotgun so I can navigate." He pointed to the glove compartment where I kept the maps.

Rudolfo glared at Daniel. Before he could say anything, I held up my cell phone. "It's okay, I've got it covered."

Vampires aren't exactly stuck in the time they were created, but they can find it difficult to keep up with all the changes that transpire during their long lifetimes. That was especially true of Rudolfo, who had fallen into a death-like slumber as a conquistador in 1680 and awoke earlier this year. He still had a lot of catching-up to do.

Once I unlocked the doors, Daniel and Rudolfo climbed in and I started the navigator app. We followed a series of narrow highways until we reached a dirt road twenty miles from Cortez, leading through a barbed wire fence to a distant farmhouse. As we approached, I pushed my glasses up my nose and noticed a man beside another car, waiting for us.

The real estate agent evaluated us as we stepped out of the Subaru. Vampires can't read minds like a book, but we can sense a person's emotions and thoughts. It's more than empathy but less than a full-on Star Trek mind meld. The agent believed Rudolfo and I were a married couple looking for some farm land. In Southern Colorado, the idea of a Latino man married to a blond white woman didn't arouse suspicion, but Daniel's presence confused the man. Few black people lived in this part of Colorado, not to mention black people with dreads and Victorian-era facial hair. Daniel also seemed to sense the agent's discomfort and took the opportunity to wander away.

I stayed with Rudolfo as the agent led us into the old farmhouse, turned on the lights, and showed us around. As the ad stated, it was a two-story house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a huge basement den, which the Realtor described as an ideal "man cave." I thought it would make an ideal laboratory for the experiments Daniel and I wanted to conduct on an artifact we'd acquired in New Mexico a few weeks earlier.

Most vampires can transform into animals of some kind. I hadn't yet achieved it and didn't understand how it worked, but when Daniel visited our creator's realm, he learned our abilities extended far beyond mere transformation. It seemed we could travel across long distances almost instantaneously. The artifact in his possession might help us unlock that ability. I might have been more skeptical of his claims, except I'd encountered some of the same creatures he had. They called themselves Kachinas. I didn't know whether these god-like creatures were the actual spirits venerated by the Pueblo people, or if they had the hubris to give themselves the same name as those spiritual beings.

As we strolled through the house, I noted several cracked windows. It looked as though one had been used for target practice. I inclined my head to the window. "Are there many troublesome kids in the area?"

The agent shrugged. "Some of the farms in the area have high-spirited boys. They won't bother the house once they know its occupied."

Despite the Realtor's words, I still harbored doubts. What's more, I sensed he didn't really want those doubts to vanish. It seemed other buyers had expressed interest in this property along with others nearby. Those buyers might not pay as much per acre as we would, but they would buy much more land. As I note, mind-reading isn't exact, but I could tell a group of Middle Eastern investors were involved.

"What do you think?" Rudolfo asked.

"I think with a little work, this house could suit our needs quite well."

I felt a psychic cringe from the Realtor and decided to find Daniel. Although he'd slept for centuries, Rudolfo was quite adept at "persuading" people to accept our desires.

I found Daniel out in the field behind the house, clutching his empty coffee cup. He gazed off at the distant mountains. Lightning arced through the clouds huddled along the summits – the last vestiges of summer thunderstorms. A chill wind made me shiver, reminding me that autumn approached. Once winter storms arrived, we might get snow here. Although not fond of snow, it might discourage government operatives from staking out the property.

Daniel's gaze drifted skyward. Our vampire sight never ceased to amaze me. I noticed details in the sky I'd never seen as a human. Of course, it helped that we stood on a high altitude plain far from city lights.

"This would be a nice place for a telescope. Too bad I didn't bring one with me."

"You could always order one online," I suggested. Daniel had become a vampire in 1898. As I said, vampires aren't necessarily stuck in the century they're from, but the world often sweeps past them and they forget about modern conveniences.

Daniel smiled. "That's a great idea. So, does the house suit our needs?"

"There are enough bedrooms and there's a beautiful basement room we can turn into a lab." I shrugged. "We may have to live down there at first until we can repair the windows and get some blackout blinds installed."

He chuckled. "Beats living in a motel room."

I nodded. Motel rooms were all too limiting. With a sigh, I wondered what it would be like to run through these acres of grassland as a wolf, or fly over them as a bat. Daniel and Rudolfo each could turn into bats, much smaller than themselves. I wondered where their extra mass went. Before I could ask Daniel about it, grass crunched nearby.

I turned as Rudolfo approached. He smiled and I shivered. My feelings for Rudolfo were … complex. "How did it go?"

"Mr. Campbell will take our offer to the owners. He says it's quite generous and suspects we'll be able to close within the week."

"What about the other party that's been showing interest in this whole area?" I narrowed my gaze.

Rudolfo rubbed his chin. "He had a tricky problem, you see. I don't completely understand modern real estate trading, but it seems several pieces of land in the area are still occupied and he's been trying to convince the owners to sell. I just had to persuade him that it was easier to leave those poor souls alone."

We turned toward the car. "There's only one problem with living in such a remote location," Daniel said. "How will we obtain blood to feed upon?"

Rudolfo pointed to my car. "Modern technology helps. Plus, there are those other souls I mentioned on nearby farms…"

I glared at Rudolfo.

He had the temerity to flash a smile. "I'm only joking."

I'm not sure I believed that.

* * *

We returned to our motel in Cortez. When Daniel opened the door to his room, another vampire, Mercedes Rodriguez, waved us inside. On one queen-sized bed sat two younger vampires, Hunter and Alice, who Mercedes – known as Mercy – considered her "children." Rudolfo had made Mercy a vampire in the 1600s. At eighteen years old, she'd already been a mother twice over. Four hundred years later, she still looked like a teen. Hunter and Alice also resembled teenagers, but Mercy had turned them into vampires during the summer of 1971. Both had long hair and wore bell-bottom jeans.

On the other bed lay two men, unconscious. "They're truck drivers," Mercy explained. "Alice and I were lounging by the pool when they whistled at us. We invited them to join us in our room and now here they are."

I knew she'd omitted some steps. Using her powers, she'd convinced them to follow her up to the room and lay down. I noticed tooth marks on each of their necks. Clearly the three vampires in the room had already taken some blood.

"They'll be fine." Mercy smirked and flashed a fang. "We didn't take much blood and there's plenty for the three of you."

Vampires need around a pint of blood per night to survive. I did some math. If all six of us limited ourselves to a pint, that would be about a quart and a half of blood taken from each of the two men. They would survive, but they wouldn't feel at all well.

Even as I made those calculations, my stomach fluttered. It no longer rumbled since I'd become a vampire, maybe because I never filled it with solids, but I still experienced hunger pangs. I knelt down beside one of the truck drivers and took his arm, then bit into his wrist.

"Ooh, that's gonna hurt." I didn't miss the snark in Mercy's voice.

Daniel put his arms around Mercy's petite shoulders. "Let her do what's comfortable for her. She's still new to our world."

Mercy shrugged. "Whatever. These dudes sure as hell ain't gonna forget the 'bug bites' they got when they visited Colorado!"

I drank just enough blood to quell my fluttering stomach, then sat back and sighed. "Thank you for getting dinner."

Mercy quirked a smile. "Hey, no problem."

Rudolfo leaned over the other trucker and drank from his throat. When he finished, he looked up. "Mercedes, you have always been a fine hostess and a lovely one as well."

Mercy actually blushed and looked away. Normally she affected the image of a tough, street girl, but for just a moment, centuries drifted away revealing the shy, all-too-young, eighteen-year-old mother of two she once had been. She closed her eyes and her features hardened. "You always were a smooth talker, Rudolfo. Too bad your actions ain't as smooth."

By the time Daniel had taken his fill, the clock showed half past midnight. The truckers still had their motel keycards in the little white envelopes with the room number written on them. Their rooms were just a few doors down from ours. Daniel peered out the door and made sure no one lingered nearby, then we carried the truckers to their room and left them to wonder what had happened. I looked through their belongings scattered on a table under the television and found a bottle of cheap whiskey. I poured a little on each of their shirts, then poured the rest down the drain. While vampires could drink alcohol, it shot to our heads. If I were going to drink anything, I would want something better than the truckers' swill.

So far, it seemed like a successful evening. We had found a place to live and we had dined. Rudolfo held out his arm to me. "We still have several hours until morning. Shall we explore this town called Cortez?" Although Rudolfo had been a conquistador at the time of Juan de Oñate, he'd become a vampire much earlier. I wondered if he'd actually known Hernán Cortés.

"I doubt there's much open." I shrugged.

"If we do acquire the house, we'll need supplies to repair it. We should at least walk through downtown and find out how late the hardware stores are open."

I shook my head. "You know we could do that online."

"And can you tell 'online' whether or not those stores appear reputable or have the things we need?" He narrowed his gaze.

Maybe I could review ratings and see what they had in stock, but I conceded, visiting the store in person would be better. "No, I suppose you're right." I took Rudolfo's arm and we closed the door behind us. Mercy, Hunter, and Alice stood at the railing, looking at the town. I waved. Hunter and Alice waved back, but Mercy glared at us as we walked away.

Three highways converge in Cortez. One of those highways doubles as Main Street. Lights illuminated the sidewalk, leaving few shadows even though it was late enough on a weeknight that just one small honky-tonk remained open. Rudolfo and I walked past Walmart, ubiquitous in small-town America. It closed at 11 p.m., late enough for vampires to do some shopping both for housing supplies and victims who wouldn't be missed. I shuddered at that. I still hadn't grown comfortable hunting human prey.

Local businesses in downtown occupied two-story-tall brick buildings, also fairly typical in small-town America. We soon came to a sizable hardware store that would serve our needs. They closed at 8 p.m., a little early, but we could place orders and pick them up when convenient for us.

"Rudolfo, did you force Mercy to become a vampire?"

His brow furrowed and he shook his head. "Not at all. Her husband had a farm near El Paso del Norte, where Juan de Oñate entered Nuevo Mexico. We planned to camp for a few days and refresh our supplies before moving north. Our relationship started with the two of us talking late at night after her husband and children fell asleep. She had dreams and wanted to see the world beyond her small farm. In those days, such dreams were not realistic for a young woman. She begged me to take her with us. I knew that would be a mistake. She would be unprotected while I slept through the day. She begged me to make her a vampirel."

He fell silent.

"What happened?"

"At first, I refused, but she persisted. I remembered the way Draco shepherded me through my early days and I thought I was strong enough to do the same for Mercedes." He referred to Desmond, Lord Draco, otherwise known as Desmond Drake, leader of the Scarlet Order vampire mercenaries. "I was wrong. She went mad and killed both her children and her husband." Rudolfo sighed. "The conquistadors caught her and planned to kill her. I freed her, but in her madness, she no longer recognized me. She fled into the night and I thought she had died."

Rudolfo looked so distraught, I pulled him into my arms. I don't know how long we remained like that, but finally he pulled back. His strong façade had returned. I found his rugged face at once handsome and frightening. We returned to the motel. Mercy, Hunter, and Alice had retreated to their rooms. We entered our own room and I sat on my bed.

He sat across from me and pulled off his boots, then met my gaze. "When I saw you after I'd been asleep for so long, I realized you were a type of woman I had known but rarely. Draco's companion Alexandra is such a woman. Another was the pirate, Grace O'Malley."

I didn't quite know what to think about being compared to a thief and a pirate, so I let him continue.

"You know your own mind. Mercy dreamed of seeing the world, but loved her family. You have a passion for knowing the world's mysteries."

I folded my hands and leaned forward. "Rudolfo, I love the passion that led you to explore the new world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I love the wonder that lights up your eyes when you tell me how the Kachinas swept you to a new world. I love your gallantry. That gallantry is what led you to make Mercy a vampire when she asked." I looked over at the clock. The sun would rise soon. "Where did that gallantry go when you met me?"

He blinked. "What do you mean?"

"The one thing that will always stand between us is that you never asked whether or not I wanted to be a vampire."

* * *

When I awoke the next day, Rudolfo sat at the room's table, the phone to his ear. From the conversation, it sounded like he spoke to the real estate agent. After a moment, he held the phone away from his face and looked at it perplexed. I grabbed the phone from him and pressed the button hanging up. The flashing message on the phone assured me my guess had been correct.

"So, what did the Realtor have to say?" I asked.

"The owner of the land has agreed to the terms of sale." His self-satisfied smile melted into a confused frown. "We just have to wait for the sale to 'close.' If the owner has agreed to sell, I'm not sure what we're waiting for."

I waved my hand as I stood. "The property has to be inspected, he has to follow up on the bank account and job references we gave him." I paused and looked at Rudolfo. "I presume Drake is good for all that."

Rudolfo nodded. "If Lord Draco said he has people lined up as references, you can be assured they're good."

I returned to my bed and faced Rudolfo. "What if the people who are hunting vampires, who want to punish us for what we did at Los Alamos, have already shut down Drake's operation?"

"He would have warned us if any difficulties had cropped up with his people." Rudolfo moved from his bed to mine and put his arm around my shoulders. Despite my words to him before we retired for the day, I appreciated his strength and self-assurance.

I leaned into his shoulder. "What do you plan to do for the night?"

"Since it's early and apparently we have little to do but wait, I thought I would walk through town again and get a sense of good places to hunt. I noticed some pleasant looking breweries a short distance down Main Street. Perhaps I could engage some people in conversation. Would you like to come along?"

The idea of learning where best to hunt in this new, tiny town turned my stomach, especially since we weren't far from Mesa Verde, a major tourist destination. It seemed like finding people who wouldn't be missed would be all too easy. That said, quiet conversation did sound pleasant. "I think I'll pass tonight. Maybe I'll talk to Daniel. I have some questions for him related to the research we want to do."

"Can't your research wait until we're established in our new house?"

My brow furrowed at the notion of 'our' house. It sounded a little too much like Rudolfo viewed us as the couple we pretended to be. "We're on the verge of unlocking a way vampires can travel rapidly from one point to another." I sat back and met Rudolfo's beautiful brown eyes. "What if government agents or vampire hunters attack? This might give us a way to retreat, especially if it's daylight and we have no easy alternative."

He nodded. "I see your point." He gave my shoulder a squeeze, then stood. "I'll see you later?"

I waved and he left the room. I took a few minutes to shower and dress, then knocked on Mercy and Daniel's door. Mercy leaned on the door frame. "Whatcha want?"

"Is Daniel available?"

"He found a Starbucks a few doors down. Try there." Without waiting for me to answer, she closed the door.

I shrugged, figuring I'd be going out on the town after all. A short walk later, I found Daniel, sitting outside the Starbucks, enjoying the night air and sipping a cup of black coffee.

"Do you ever take coffee with milk?"

He narrowed his gaze. "I've never tried it. Why do you ask?"

"In the most simplified sense, milk is just filtered blood. I don't know why I haven't thought about it before, but we might gain some nutrients from milk."

He flashed a pleasant smile. "Interesting hypothesis."

"Maybe I'll give it a try." I went inside and ordered a mocha. I returned a few minutes later. We lifted our cups in a salute and sipped. "Not bad. Not sure if it's nutritious, but it doesn't make me nauseous."

"We probably need a more scientific study." Daniel winked.

I leaned on the table. "Speaking of science, I wanted to ask what you know about transformation into animal form."

"Haven't you ever transformed?" His brow furrowed.

"I've tried a few times but I haven't succeeded." I shrugged. "To be honest, between being turned into a vampire, Rudolfo disappearing and reappearing, then raiding Los Alamos, I haven't had much time to try."

He placed his hand on mine and a pleasant warmth seemed to glow at my core. I wanted to hold onto it for a time. "I've been told it takes a while for some vampires to learn how to do it. I'm not sure I have any great insight. It just kind of happened to me the first time. I was in North Carolina in the middle of a mob scene. I needed to get away, and poof, I found myself flying."

"What happens to the mass?" I sat back, pushed my glasses up my nose and looked him up and down. He was as handsome as Rudolfo and he cut a striking figure in a vest and tailcoat. "You're not a small man. How do you become a bat?"

"The best I can explain it is that I don't exactly 'become' a bat. I'm still me, but the bat replaces me. I see through its eyes and I control it."

I sipped my mocha and considered that. "Where do 'you' go when you're the bat?"

"I don't know for certain." He sipped his own coffee and let his gaze wander to the stars. "Have you ever heard of sensory isolation tanks? That's the best way I can describe it. If I work hard, I still feel me in human form, but the bat replaces me on this plane."

"On this plane." I spoke the words slowly. "That's what I'm getting at and what I've been wondering about. Is vampiric transformation really a 'change' or is it an 'exchange?'"

His eyes widened. "You're saying our ability to transform may be the same as our ability to travel through space."

"Or at least linked to it." My heart raced, excited that Daniel understood the point I wanted to make.

He frowned and shook his head. "So where does the bat come from?"

I blinked a couple of times. "I don't understand what you mean."

"If transformation is an exchange, the bat must come from somewhere. Does it exist somewhere else in the world? Does it lead a life in a different plane of existence? Is it just waiting around until I call it?" He stood and began pacing. After a moment he stopped and looked me in the eye. "Is the bat my slave?"

I didn't know how to answer that, or how to console him. I sipped my coffee. The milk in the mocha did seem to revitalize me, or maybe that was just the sugar. "I don't know the answer, but I think it's another question we should investigate."

* * *

It only took six business days for the property to close. During that time, the owners allowed us into the house to take measurements. We ordered blackout blinds for all four bedrooms. We had picked them up from the hardware store the night before the property closed.

I went in with Rudolfo to sign the papers. I didn't like posing as husband and wife, but Rudolfo had been Drake's right-hand-man at one time and knew how he did business. Of all the vampires in our merry little band, I best understood how real estate transactions worked in the modern world. One pleasant aspect of being a vampire is that I could absorb the words on all those contracts we had to sign rather quickly, so the process of closing on the property didn't take long.

When we finished signing the paperwork, the Realtor brought out a bottle of champagne. He opened and poured us drinks, then toasted the sale. I took a sip. As usual since becoming a vampire, the alcohol went straight to my head.

We left as soon as we could. We wanted to get right to work moving into the new property. Returning to the motel, we found Daniel, Mercy, Hunter and Alice packing the vehicles. We helped them finish loading our few belongings and then caravanned out to the house. Much of what we brought with us came from Desmond Drake's lab and library in Northern New Mexico. Most of those things hadn't left the vehicles during our week in Cortez.

A partial moon illuminated the driveway and the house. Although I still needed glasses, my night vision had improved and everything stood out clearly. I couldn't help but notice the aging timbers badly in need of painting along with a suspicious dark spot in the roof. My stomach sank and I thought perhaps purchasing this house would prove to be a poor decision, then I reminded myself that we weren't here to make a permanent home – and permanent became quite significant as I considered it. We had purchased this house and land so we could exist away from the U.S. government's prying eyes and any agents or vampire hunters they might send against us. In that sense, this would be a perfect house.

Hunter and Alice were the first to hop out of their vehicle, a Volkswagen Beetle. They jumped up and down. "What a groovy pad," Hunter exclaimed as I stepped out of my Subaru.

Mercy emerged from Daniel's big red Buick. "Go on in and explore the house." She waved toward the front door.

They ran inside, excited like children. No lights turned on. There should be electricity, but we can see in the dark so well we don't need it. In fact, when we do use electric lights, we prefer lower wattage bulbs.

I opened the Subaru's hatchback and retrieved a box.

Rudolfo set his hand on my arm. "Are you happy with this house?"

I glanced over at it, then I turned and looked around at the land. "I like the property. The house satisfies our needs. If we're here long enough, I suspect I'll grow attached to it as well."

He smiled and nodded. "I've been trying to sort out my feelings on the subject and I think you've articulated them well." He bent down and kissed me gently on the forehead.

The gesture proved so sweet and simple that I didn't have time to object. This was the Rudolfo who I could feel attracted to when I forgot how he'd forced me to become a vampire.

I carried my load into the house's main room. Hunter and Alice tromped around upstairs as they continued their explorations. Mercy came in through the front door. "Hunter and Alice sound as though they're having fun," I remarked.

"That's good." She looked up and a slight grin formed. She reminded me of a proud mom. She viewed Hunter and Alice as surrogate children and wanted nothing more than for them to be happy.

I went out to the car to retrieve another load. On my way back, I found Alice standing on the porch. She flashed a shy smile. "Do we get to pick our own room?"

"You and Hunter can pick one of the three larger rooms." I carried my load inside and set it down. I looked back to Alice. "Follow me upstairs and I'll show you which ones."

She followed me. "I've been wondering … what will we do on all the nights we're out here?"

I cast a glance over my shoulder at her. "What do you mean?"

"In Las Cruces, we used to go to movies, find victims in bars, explore the town." She shrugged. "We're in a big house in the middle of an open field. What is there to do?"

I considered that. Daniel and I would certainly be busy with our experiments, but what would the other vampires do? "We'll still need food, and we'll need to renovate the house. Even though we're out in the middle of nowhere, we'll need to take turns watching the area to make sure no one is taking a particular interest in our activities."

"Can we go to Cortez?"

"I don't see why not, as long as the other jobs are taken care of. And we'll need supplies from there, so I'm sure we'll take turns with that."

She brightened and looked at Hunter, who stood in the hallway in front of me. "It sounds like there will be lots to do, Mr. Grumpy, and we'll get to go back and explore Cortez some more."

"Really?" He seemed doubtful.

"Really." Alice gave a curt nod.

I showed Hunter and Alice the three biggest rooms. I'd already reserved the smallest for myself. I didn't need more. Although I had been growing to understand Rudolfo, I didn't want to share a room with him.

Hunter and Alice soon picked a room and I suggested they should move their personal belongings into it. I went back downstairs and continued helping Rudolfo, Mercy, and Daniel unload the cars. Between the four of us, the work didn't take long.

Mercy and I went upstairs to sort out which room she would share with Daniel. Rudolfo would get the remaining room. She chose the smaller, more intimate room for her and Daniel. That would make Rudolfo happy. In Drake's absence, he saw himself as our leader. He'd be flattered when we gave him the largest room.

Mercy left to find Daniel. I went back downstairs and retrieved the materials to install the blackout blinds in my room, then installed a set in Rudolfo's. I passed the tools and the next set of supplies to Hunter and Alice, but noticed that Mercy and Daniel hadn't appeared upstairs yet.

I went downstairs and peered out the front door. The moon had set and Daniel stood with his hands in his pockets staring up at the stars. Mercy hung on his arm attempting to persuade him to come inside and help them move into their room. I looked up at the clear skies and wanted to linger as well, but knew I should leave them in peace.

Find out what happens to Jane, Rudolfo, Daniel, and their companions!

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