Sunday, February 20, 2022

First few chapters of the CULL - Bloodline

 NOTE: PG-18 (graphic violence)

WARNING: Read Chapter 4 with the lights on!


Black thunderheads obscured by the oppressive night air. Closer they move; drawn into explosive detonation. The first thunderclap announced a prodigious tempest. The strengthened glass wall shuddered as the sound waves tried to penetrate the quiet interior with their full force. Anka Syzmanski’s step hung suspended for a fraction of a second; the hallway lit with jagged electric blue. She completed the step; started another.
The lights went out.
Another celestial drumroll; quicker now, the storm approaching fast.
Seconds passed; she waited. Fighting against the darkness, the emergency lighting sputtered into action.
Plick, plick.
Plick, plick, plick, plick.
Spattering against the glass separating wet from dry, the rain began. A heavenly tap opened; grime swabbed down the transparent wall by sluicing torrents; lightning filtered through cascading wash forming eccentric shadows.
Syzmanski’s shoes picked up their clipping rhythm; pounding heels a counterpoint to the drubbing rain, announcing to all nocturnal dwellers: Beware! The night Nurse cometh.
She fell into her routine: step close, depress handle, open door, insert torso, listen, watch, decide; alive or gone? Gone meant a retreat to the Nurses’ station and a quick phone call. Alive meant close the door, move to the next room.
Syzmanski eased the door to room 359.
Listen: the shallow, laboured breathing.
Watch: no perceptible movement from the woman in the bed.
Alive… for now.
Windows rattling; another cracking roar as the storm ramped up. Close the door.

* * * * *

Nurse Syzmanski’s fleeting interruption done, a shadowy shape lowered itself from its hiding place under the metal-framed bed.


Ralph Graham and Amy Bree were cold. Toes no longer felt; lower legs going the same way. If they had to exit quickly from the panel truck now, they hoped adrenalin would overcome the lethargy they felt. Amy raised the binoculars for what seemed the millionth time that night, sweeping her magnified gaze over the single-story detached house on the outskirts of Houston. Although it was late, her wristwatch showed past two a.m., a fine tendril of smoke drifted lazily from the chimney, evidence of a cozy fire allowed to burn out after all had turned in for the night. Amy’s mind went to the soft couches in the large lounge; the warmth radiating from the stone fireplace; the comfortable beds with down to fight off the damp chill… She shook her head. No. She had never been in that house; hoped she never would.
She looked over at Ralph, sitting bored alongside. Two peas in a pod; cut from the same cloth. That’s what people said about them. Behind their backs, and often to their faces, they were just geeks. No mind they had both passed the physical and mental testing all Field Agents had to take; only just for Ralph in the case of the physical stuff, but a pass nevertheless. The commentaries were correct, however.
Both had excelled as students, gaining top honours. Both had IQs north of 150. Both had special abilities. Both were extremely competitive and ambitious, nurtured in a society that reduced everything to winning or losing. They were winners, yes; just not in the race they wished to run.
They both harboured secret desires. Once, some months ago at the party for Ralph’s retiring department head, with tongues loosened by liquid, they had confessed these wishes. Astounded to discover coincidence, as well as frustration, they had vouched to help each other win the prizes they wanted; not those imposed by others.
After University, Ralph could have gone to any of the Seattle or Silicon Valley computer software conglomerates; with some business experience thrown in, could have been another guru of Information Technology in ten years. But not him; he wanted to carry a gun. He applied to, and was recruited by, the FBI.
After an equally outstanding stint studying at MIT, Amy could have taken her talent for puzzle solving to NASA or any number of high-flying University or research outfits. Perhaps she would end up, one day in the not too distant future, working in the huge, secret National Security Agency data centre in Utah. Not what she wanted though; she needed to use her special talent in the field. She had also applied to the FBI.
Both had spent a little over seven years as junior Field Agents in small FBI offices, making up the numbers on raids, pushing paper around desks, fetching coffee for the Senior Special Agents; generally gestating disappointment. This was not their goal. It was, unfortunately in the rigid structure of the Bureau, a necessary rite of passage. Then, their talents had been noted.
Again, matters did not quite work out as planned. They were both now in the Behavioural Science Unit at the FBI’s training facility in Quantico. There they had met for the first time: Ralph developing software to provide Artificial Intelligence Support for various Field Units; Amy assigned to problem-solving methodologies and Crisis Intervention. Neither was where they wanted to be.
That changed today…
…just not officially.
“Any coffee left?” Ralph’s southern drawl made the sentence seem longer than three words.
“We drank the last an hour ago. I could go and find somewhere.” It was not really a question; Amy had no intention of leaving their stakeout.
“Forget it.” He yawned. “Any movement?”
“Nothing. It’s been over three hours since she turned in.” For the first time since they had discussed the night’s venture, an element of doubt rose in Amy’s mind. “What if we’re wrong?”
Ralph pondered this for a while; breaking the question down, exploring multiple logical paths, finally reaching a conclusion.
“If we are, then nothing’s lost. If we aren’t…” Left hanging in the frigid air of the panel truck.
“Let’s give it another hour.” Amy stretched, willing warmth to her toes.


It had been Ralph’s idea, although convincing Amy was the work of seconds. He had been loaned temporarily to the prestigious Behavioural Analysis Unit Team 2, the serial-killer catchers, to write some bespoke software for their latest investigation. The Blood Sucker, the uninspiring name by which this particular Unknown Subject was christened by the Media, had the BAU team stumped. Over sixteen months and thirteen gruesome murders; the victim’s blood, all of it, painted on the walls of their homes. Four States; children, adults and the elderly; males and females; college students, bankers, even one police officer. No clues. No connections between the victims. No suspects. No end in sight.
Ralph suggested they should take on, and of course, solve, the mystery. Combine Amy, and her uncanny ability to find clarity in confusion, with his knack of creating complex decision-tree designs he could rapidly convert to the zeroes and ones of the computers. That would get them noticed. That would get them where they wanted to be.
He tried to approach the BAU Supervisory Special Agent, but geeks had no credibility for this seasoned law enforcement professional. So one evening, when the BAU team were off looking at the fourteenth murder scene, Ralph used his temporary key card to allow Amy into the BAU Team 2 office.
The corkboard walls were covered with full-colour photographs of the preceding crime scenes. They had a predominantly red tint. Amy tried to relax, forcing down the bile the bloody images threatened to expel from her stomach. Ralph was less successful and made abundant use of a plastic wastebasket. Neither she nor Ralph had any experience of this sort of crime scene gore.
On a desk they found a folder containing reports and images of the latest killing. This was different. Five victims, a complete family, yet only one had been singled out for exsanguination and wall-painting. What was so special about this teenager?
Amy sat at an empty desk and started to turn the pages of the latest report. Victimology, investigating what connected the objects of such violence, is a technique often used by the BAU’s profilers to try to identify where, when, who had been the common factor. Amy turned a page in the profiler’s notes about the family’s history. When the mental light bulb lit, she smiled and called Ralph over.
“Look, five years ago.” She pointed to a brief annotation. “I’ve seen this also in the other three case histories you showed me, and all about the same time. Let’s check all the victim reports.”
Another half hour; all but two of the reports showed the same detail. The two that didn’t were the first cases. Ralph said he would make some phone calls and scuttled off.


The cold in the panel truck had become almost unbearable for Amy. Amazingly, it did not seem to bother Thin Ralph as much. He was proud of having used his FBI credentials to obtain this vehicle from the Police impound lot when they had flown into Houston earlier that day. This small victory empowered him in his eyes and he was determined to enjoy it to the full. He had tilted the driver’s seat back several degrees, to observe the house better he had said, and was now semi-reclining with his head tilted away, resting on the doorframe. It would have been a sell, if it were not for the gentle snoring coming from his obstructed sinuses.
Over at the house, nothing had changed; or had it?
Amy wasn’t sure; it could have been a trick of the light. For a fleeting second, her own eyes not entirely focused on their target, something, someone had moved past one of the front windows. This in itself would not be unusual. On many occasions she had risen from a warm bed to visit the bathroom, or the kitchen for a glass of water, even some ice cream, in the middle of the night. Yet, in all those instances, she had switched on the room lights.
The house was still in darkness. If they had tried to have their vigilance sanctioned, maybe, perhaps, they could have brought some night-vision scopes. Instead she had her own binoculars, which she now raised to straining eyes.
The slight humidity in the air made the grey bricks of the dwelling shine in the moonlight. Could it have been the shadow of a branch from the trees in their target’s yard, caught in the moonbeams as some nocturnal bird made it move? Everything was possible; more so from the safety of Ralph’s sequestered panel truck. She dug Ralph in the ribs, eliciting a cacophony of grunts and gripes.
“I think I saw something. I’m going to take a look.” Her right hand went to the holster on her hip. Simultaneously, she tapped her left inside ankle with her right foot. Amy pulled back on the door handle. The roof-mounted courtesy light flickered on. She pulled the door closed; the light went off. Reaching up, she sought the plastic switch that killed the light, prepared to break the fixture if it became necessary. Her fingers felt the rough edges of the switch and pushed it to a position as far from opposite to where it had been. The door pull did not illuminate the panel truck’s cabin this time. She slid from her seat and stood outside. Ralph was now awake, watching her.
“I’m going to take a walk round the house; check if all the doors are locked. If I’m not back in a couple of minutes…” She left the phrase hanging. She had no idea what she expected Ralph to do, alone, if she did not return. Amy shook her head and took a tentative step toward the house.
As she crossed the street, she drew the standard issue Glock 22 from her hip. Despite the Firearms Instructor’s insistence that the gun’s three separate safety mechanisms meant she could, and should, have a round in the chamber at all times, Amy did not trust the weapon not to go off and injure someone. She remembered now to work the slide, forcing a round from the magazine into the chamber. She had never had to shoot in anger. Even on the four raids in which she had participated, she had been in the last contingent of agents, armed with repeating shotguns. By the time she had reached the fray, it had always been well and truly over. Now she was leading; her backup, pray he hasn’t snoozed off again, at an ever-increasing distance.
She could almost feel the adrenalin course through her veins. Her fingers and toes tingled. Her hands were shaking.
She reached the low wall and black-painted railings at the front of the property. Reaching out, she unlatched the metal gate that gave onto the path to the front door. The hinges squealed as she pushed it inward, just enough to slip through. Four steps. Five. Behind her the gate crashed shut. She spun round, her gun levelled as they had taught her in Quantico. Should have closed it herself.
All pretence of stealth was now a thing of the past.
She ran to the front door and pushed with her left palm.
It was firmly locked. Moving along the grey brick wall to her left, she reached the large window, showing the lounge beyond. The moon’s rays illuminated enough for her to make out the fireplace, with its dull red embers, and a large screen TV. To their right, a couch and a single cloth-covered lounge chair. All empty.
Amy kept moving reaching the end of the wall, peering around. Nothing. No one. She moved down the side of the house, passing a tall hedge. A few feet from the rear, a door with a single, broad, stone step. She peeked through a vertical glass slit set at head height. The kitchen. She could not see anyone inside. A big kitchen knife was lying on the central island. Its blade and handle shining in the light filtering through lace curtains.
Amy placed her hand on the doorknob and turned. She expected resistance; a locked door. The knob turned smoothly; the door swung toward her. She was tempted to go back to the panel truck; fetch Ralph. A sense of urgency filled her. If they were right; if it was here, now, the house occupant could be in deadly danger. Amy realized just how much Ralph and her had screwed things up. No one knew they were here. They had not even left a note for their bosses, or anyone in the BAU. That meant she was on her own… with Ralph.
Amy pulled the door wide and entered. She sniffed. Something in the air. A faint tinge. A slightly metallic odour. She stepped forward; her pistol held straight-armed before her; the smell stronger.
She traversed the kitchen, emerging on a short hallway that led to the lounge. Amy poked her gun around the corner and swept her arms from left to right. No targets presented themselves. Apart from the stench, now much more pervasive, all seemed in order. She crossed the lounge, stopping briefly to peer behind the couch, before leaving it behind.
At the far side, another hallway ran toward the back. She could make out four doors on the right, and one on the left at the end. Bathroom and bedrooms, she supposed. The occupier lived alone, so several of the bedrooms would be empty, she thought. Amy stepped across the hallway to the first door.
A doorknob; a quick turn; an explosive push: a bathroom.
Amy suppressed a cough. She had been holding her breath; since when, she did not know. She inhaled deeply, almost gagging on the aroma impregnating the air. What was that smell?
She forced herself to step down the hallway, nearing the second door. If this were my house, where would I sleep? Which would be my bedroom? Probably the closest to the bathroom.
Amy reached the door. She could hear her own blood booming in her ears, creating a hypnotic drumbeat inside her head. Her hands felt sweaty; her feet were ice cold. She held her breath again. The door was partially open; a few inches. She placed her left hand against the wood and pushed gently.
The door imploded. Something grabbed her extended arm and pulled. The force propelled her across the room, up against the far wall, a couple of feet off the ground. It was too dark to see who had attacked her. It might be the house owner. She raised her gun-hand. Shocked, she realized the impact with the bedroom wall had shaken her grip on the Glock. She tried to crouch, her right hand reaching for her BUG, the backup gun strapped to her left ankle.
Someone grabbed her throat. Pressure from immensely powerful fingers pressed on her trachea. Tears jumped into her eyes. She felt numb; could sense life sliding away.
Summoning her will to survive; she lashed out, scoring a solid kick against a well-muscled body. She felt herself lifted; her feet leaving the ground. More kicking. The attacker absorbed the blows without as much as a grunt. Amy tried punching ribs, just as Quantico’s Instructors had insisted. There, your opponent would release their hold and go down; here…
Amy felt herself thrown against the floor of the bedroom. Her hands scrabbled about, looking for something to use as a weapon. The attacker was on top of her. She could not reach her backup gun.
The attacker now used both hands on her throat. The pressure increased exponentially. Amy felt her neck would snap at any moment.
A yell. Far, far away. Receding.
Suddenly the hands were gone. She sensed movement. Fast, flowing; like a big cat.
She could hear the sounds of struggle from the hallway. A gunshot, loud in the narrow space. Something small thrown, clattering down the corridor.
Amy struggled upright, snatching the backup Glock 27 from its nest on her ankle. She commanded her trembling fingers to pull back on the slide. Stumbling. The bedroom door. More light. A crumpled figure, limbs strewn against the wall.
Outlined against the lounge doorway, a large shape paused, looking back, eyes seeming to glow. She raised her pistol and emptied the magazine; panic, fear, pulling the trigger until no rounds remained.
She peered through the smoky haze. The figure had gone.
She looked down. Ralph lay still. She saw his gun on the floor near the lounge doorway. Amy powered herself forward, scooping up the weapon, feeling Ralph’s warmth still on the butt, rushing into the lounge.
On the far side, the moonlight showed a huge figure. Her mind, assailed by unfamiliar sensations, multiplied its height and girth. It filled the passageway leading toward the kitchen.
She started pulling the trigger again; her training forgotten, her eyes closed; primeval hate for hurting Ralph drowning all rational thought.
Amy opened her eyes when the detonations stopped. There was no corpse on the floor, brought down by her reckless gunfire. The figure had left.
She reached to her left hip, extracting one of the two spare magazines in their belt support. Reloading was a series of clicks, familiar from the range, yet alien in this suburban home. She rushed across the space and emerged into the hallway. Running now. The kitchen empty. Its door hanging lopsided, hit with tremendous impetus.
Care to the wind, Amy charged outside.
Left. Right. Gun barrel seeking a target. God help anyone who came to see what the shooting was about. Amy was primed. She wanted blood.
A distant siren moaned. Then another.
Amy retreated inside, still gripping Ralph’s weapon. She hit the lights in the kitchen.
Spotless. Except for the blood-stained kitchen knife on the central island.
She entered the lounge. Lights on. Crimson footprints, two sets, traversed the cream-coloured rug before the fireplace.
She stepped into the hallway. Lights. Ralph’s body lay unmoving. Amy knelt alongside, feeling for a pulse. He was gone.
She stood, wearily. A couple of steps brought her to the bedroom.
The hallway light illuminated blood-soaked walls, smeared where her body had collided.
She stepped gingerly inside.
The smell hit her.
Amy spun, directing the vomit into the hallway, careful, as her stomach heaved uncontrollably, not to defile Ralph’s body.


Amy Bree had scared her parents when she was six years old. The fright, and its consequences, marked her father and dictated his attitude towards her for the rest of his life.
She was always a curious little girl, and far brighter for her short years than other children. She had been sitting alongside her mother in the family kitchen, in Bar Harbor, Maine. Her father worked in a local hotel and was absent for almost all of Amy’s waking hours. Her mother occupied her time by working her way obsessively through puzzle books. Alphabet Soup word problems were her favourite and it was one of these that caused her brow to furrow with concentration now. This was a particularly difficult challenge, requiring the location of over forty medical terms in a hundred by hundred letters square. She needed coffee. Dropping the book containing the puzzle on her chair, she rose to replenish her cup.
Amy had been observing her mother for over half an hour, at first not comprehending the nature of the page’s contents. Amy had learned to read three and a half years ago, although her reading choice was limited to Dr Seuss. She picked up the puzzle, looked at the list of words that needed to be found in the character chaos, and picked up her mother’s pencil.
Her mother returned to her seat, taking a long sip from the steaming mug, then, carefully placing this in the centre of the coffee table, picked up her puzzle book. Every single word was ringed in the red pencil, not neatly, as she did, but in the unsteady hand of her six-year-old. She looked at her daughter for a full two minutes without speaking. Amy limited herself to gazing through the kitchen window, her attention drawn to the huge white sailboat leaving the harbour. Her mother turned the pages in the book, seeking a similar Alphabet Soup conundrum. She passed the book, without a word, to little Amy, watching as her daughter polished off the problem in less than a minute.
Her mother screamed.
That night the parents spoke. Over the next five months, Amy was subjected to CT and MRI scans, looking for tumour, aneurysms, or anything else that could offer a palatable explanation. Nothing. Then came the turn of the paediatric psychologists. They just reported back that Amy liked doing puzzles.
Then one day, while waiting for yet another session with a child shrink, the doctor’s assistant, who had been trying to get into Mensa, the high-IQ club, left a practice entry test on the table where Amy had been drawing sailboats with coloured crayons. He’d gone to take a phone call. When he returned, twenty-five minutes later, the test was completed. Amy was still drawing sailboats, so at first he thought it was a joke played by one of his colleagues, aware of his frustration at falling short. He checked the answers against the published results on the web page, and calculated the score. 154! Impossible.
For Amy’s father, though, this was not good news.
No, he wouldn’t agree to a special school.
No, he wouldn’t agree to private tuition.
No, he wouldn’t agree to more tests.
Amy’s younger brother, Barry, had shown no signs of precocious behaviour, so his daughter’s ability was not normal. From that moment onward, he treated Amy as a freak; something to be distrusted, even feared. Her mother had no choice but to shield her from her father’s displeasure as little Amy progressed through school and on to MIT. For Amy, her father’s attitude left her with an obsession of her own; the need to prove herself at every turn.
That was why she had embarked on the series of decisions that had ultimately led to Ralph’s death; why she found it almost impossible to explain her actions, let alone defend them. She knew this had ended badly for Ralph; and she knew it would abort any future she could have dreamt for herself.


The FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility raked Amy Bree over the coals. She was charged with gross misconduct leading to the death of an agent. There was even talk of criminal negligence charges, as they had not protected the house occupier. Had the surveillance been sanctioned, the first step would have been to remove the potential target to a safe house, under guard and far removed from the consequences if something went wrong. Ralph and Amy had not contacted the hapless victim before setting up their vigilance on the house, thus converting her into unsuspecting bait. Fortunately, politics intervened and this suggestion was quietly dropped. Politics did not help, in fact just the opposite, when Amy tried to defend herself by insisting they had spoken to the BAU team leader beforehand and had their suggestions summarily rejected. The BAU went on the defensive, and they carried far more clout than a geek from a Behavioural Science support unit.
Amy was suspended, told to attend an FBI shrink, and not to leave town pending the pleasure of the OPR investigators. She felt the suspension justified; the shrink, given her considerable experience of psychiatrists as a child, a walk in the park; the attitude of the OPR, on the other hand, worrying.
What made everything worse: the killings had stopped.
Amy recounted to the investigators the details of her ‘assessment’ and how they had deduced the last victim’s identity, but to no avail. The BAU was tasked to follow-up this theory. With politics in full flight, they lost no time in pointing out that, of the nineteen victims, only thirteen complied with Amy’s assertions; unfortunately, no data in this respect was available for the first two. So the BAU team-leader chalked it up to faulty analysis and dismissed the matter as quickly as humanly possible.
Amy was left high and dry, out on a limb, up a creek paddle-less, and with a future looking distinctly glum.
After four weeks, the OPR concluded a criminal prosecution was uncalled for, but Amy Bree would be immediately terminated as an FBI agent. Her own Supervisory Agent mentioned to her, as he said his goodbyes, never to try to join any branch of Federal Law Enforcement because she had been blackballed from On High.
Amy collected her personal stuff, left her apartment, and drove back to Bar Harbor to ponder her next step.
She had been home for six weeks, taking her daily four-hour stroll, aimlessly, along the waterfront, allowing her mind to freewheel, when matters changed.
For the last week she had been plagued by the sensation someone was following her. At first she thought it was the FBI doing some sort of follow up. Then it crossed her mind it could be the serial killer, tracking her down, seeking retribution for pre-empting the enjoyment of the last kill.
She had started to carry a handgun.
Then, after one of her walks, sitting in a seafront cafeteria sipping on weak coffee, she spotted her tail. He looked to be in his late forties; dressed smartly in a dark suit, white shirt and dark blue tie, not the sort of clothes people wore out of season here in Bar Harbor. He stood, in plain sight, across from the cafeteria. Amy watched him, watching her, through the large panoramic window, as her coffee went cold. Finally she stood, left the coffee behind, and crossed directly to where he was standing. Her right hand held the butt of the pistol in her battered shoulder bag. As she approached, the watcher made no move to leave or avert his gaze.
“Can I help you?” He took the initiative.
“You are following me. Why?”
“I’m sure you must be mistaken. I only arrived here a couple of hours ago. Today is the first time I have seen you in person. So I’m not following you, Miss Bree; my colleagues were.” The man’s perfect English was betrayed by an accent Amy could not place.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Cancelli, Monsignor Santiago Cancelli. I’m from the Vatican.”
“Which part did you not understand?”
“The Vatican? As in the Pope? Rome? That Vatican?”
“I am unaware of any other.”
“What do you want with me?”
“First, although the reports I have read about you have been thorough, I would like to talk to you personally. Then, if the answers you provide to the questions I bring are satisfactory, I may choose to offer you employment.”
Amy’s mouth opened; no sound escaped.
The priest took her left hand, threaded it through the crook of his right elbow.
“Please walk with me.” He took a tentative step. Amy stumbled alongside. “Oh and yes, I would feel more comfortable if you release your grip on that gun in your bag.”


Five hours later, Cancelli left Amy at the door to her parent’s house. A dark blue SUV waited for him across the street. He boarded and the vehicle drove away. Amy was in a state of confusion. Cancelli had not only offered her a job, at a vastly increased salary from her stipend at the FBI, but had promised to reinstate her in Federal Law Enforcement. She could not see how he could possibly perform that miracle. He was not even American.
Two weeks dragged past. Cancelli had told her to take the time to read as much as possible, from public sources, about the Blood Sucker, promising to augment what she discovered with official files, once he set certain wheels in motion. One morning a messenger service delivered a bulky package for her. Her curiosity was roused when she signed for the box, noting it had been sent from the Directorate of Intelligence at the FBI headquarters in Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington. Amy took the package to her room. She dumped the box on her bed and used a pair of scissors to cut her way in. She discovered it contained a copy of all the FBI files relating to the Blood Sucker case; not just the stuff she had already seen when Ralph smuggled her into the BAU, but more recent material.
Amy was impressed. Her degree of amazement rose several points when she read the Compliments slip folded into the topmost file. It was addressed to ‘Senior Special Agent A. Bree.’
She was about to tuck into the paper feast when the front door bell sounded. Her mother answered and called up the stairs to tell her she had a visitor.
Amy was surprised to see Cancelli chatting amicably with her mother as she descended. She waited in silence as the priest bade farewell to her mother, then following his indications, grabbed her coat and joined him outside. He pointed to the SUV, and without another word, they boarded the vehicle. In the driver’s seat sat a muscular man with short-cropped hair and ever-moving eyes. A bodyguard, thought Amy.
As soon as they were seated, the driver put the car into gear.
“Where are we going?” Amy asked.
“Well I thought we might have lunch together. Can you recommend somewhere? I am a man of simple tastes, but I do like good seafood.” Amy responded by giving directions to the driver, who limited his response to nodding once.
“Now to other matters.” Cancelli extended his hand and the driver passed back a briefcase. Cancelli turned to Amy. “Did you receive the material from the FBI?”
“It just arrived. How...?”
“You will receive whatever they compile as a matter of course, but I would suggest you return to Washington. I have arranged an office for you, with a secretary, at the FBI’s Headquarters building. They will be expecting you next Monday morning. But you must be clear on one thing: you neither work for, nor answer to, anyone at the FBI. I will request status reports as and when I require them. Maintain your secretary appraised of your whereabouts at all times. You have one assignment: locate the abomination they call the Blood Sucker. Should you require additional help, or support in the field, this should enable you to commandeer anything you need.”
Cancelli extracted an official ID wallet from the briefcase and passed it to Amy. She flipped it open. ‘Homeland Security, Investigations’ read the gold and blue badge, and underneath ‘Senior Special Agent’. The wallet contained a Personnel Credential ID, showing her old FBI photograph, and a matching Department Access Card.
“That card will allow you electronic access to all federal computer systems and installations. Use it carefully.” He rummaged in the briefcase extracting a bundle of dark objects. “You will also need these.”
Amy took the heavy pile from his hands. There was a holstered gun, a Glock 22; two full magazines in a belt support; and a BUG, also a Glock, with its own ankle holster. If she didn’t know better, she would have sworn these were the ones she carried while at the FBI. She clipped the bigger Glock’s holster on her jeans’ belt, checking the magazine’s full load before racking a round into the chamber and holstering the weapon. For now she placed the remaining items in her coat pockets.
“I’m glad to see you have learned your lesson.”
“What? Oh, you mean the bullet in the chamber.” Amy bowed her head slightly.
“It is good you can learn from your mistakes. Next time you meet with the Blood Sucker, shoot first; head shots; three or four should be sufficient.”
“Don’t you want me to arrest him?” She had noticed the absence of handcuffs.
“No. We cannot allow it to live. Even in the prison system, it will continue to kill. Furthermore, I am convinced there is no prison cell that could hold it for more than a short while. Allowing it to continue amongst us is a risk we should not take. Head shots; three or four at least.”
“You say ‘It’…?”
“Someone who commits crimes of that magnitude and brutality cannot be considered a member of the human race, Miss Bree.”
“What happens when he… it is dead? What do I do then? Will all this,” her hand waved the ID wallet, “be over?”
“Unfortunately not. The Blood Sucker is not the only concern we have.”
“I’ve never killed…”
“I know. Yet you showed no hesitation in pulling the trigger in Houston.”
“He… It had murdered my partner.”
“Then think of this as sanctioned revenge, if that helps. I can assure you, if you cross paths with it again… when you cross paths, it will not hesitate to kill you.”
Silenced reigned in the SUV for the remainder of the short journey. As they pulled up across from the restaurant, Cancelli spoke again.
“Do not underestimate this mission, Miss Bree. That is the undoing of your ex-colleagues. Use them, use whomever you have to, but stop this abomination, at whatever the cost.” He sighed, then smiled, disclosing small, perfectly white teeth. “Now, is the lobster good here?”


Monday. Amy had driven down from Maine the weekend before. During the long journey she could not stop her mind bombarding her with unanswered questions about her new role. Just who was Cancelli? How did a Vatican priest come to have so much influence in Washington? Was she really expected to kill the Blood Sucker, not arrest him? Did she want to do this?
When Cancelli had said his goodbyes in Maine, he had given her a thick, padded envelope. Just some expense money, he said. Did not need to be justified. Spend as she saw fit. For personal use. Back at her parent’s house, she had opened the package; fifty thousand dollars in hundreds. She had used a little of that money in booking herself into a decent hotel in Washington.
Amy took a cab to the FBI’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue. She had been told by Cancelli to use a small entrance on Ninth Street; more discreet, he had said. She walked up to the smoked-glass door, carrying the box of case files she had received. An agent, leaving at that moment, held the door for her and she passed inside.
The lobby area was unassuming. To her left, a security desk enclosed in a bulletproof glass cubicle. To her right, an X-ray machine and the ubiquitous metal detector arc. She approached the cubicle. There was no ledge to rest the file box, so she placed it on the floor. Amy took out her new ID wallet and slid it through the metal tray opening in the glass.
“Good Morning. I’m Amy Bree, Homeland Security. I’m supposed to ask for Office 312.” At the mention of the office, the guard’s attention spiked. He flipped open the wallet and checked her picture on the credentials with an image on his computer monitor. Then he extracted her Department Access Card, inserted it into a reader, then returned it to the wallet.
“I’ll need to call up, Ma’am. Please pass through the arc and wait on the other side.” He slipped her wallet back through the tray, and picked up the telephone.
Amy pocketed her ID, picked up the file box and approached the X-ray machine. She nodded to the guard standing by the machine.
“I’m a Federal Agent and I’m carrying.” She placed the box on the black rubber conveyor belt, lifted the right side of her jacket to display her weapon, and pointed to her left ankle. The guard looked over at the Security cubicle, receiving a nod from the man there.
“Insert your DAC into the slot on the right side of the arc, and step through, Ma’am.”
She complied. The arc did not emit the expected beep. The guard retrieved and returned her Department Access Card. The conveyor belt jerked into motion, shipping her files box into the beige-painted X-ray machine. As the box emerged on the far side, the guard made to lift the cardboard lid and examine the interior. A thin hand, speckled with liver spots, came down firmly on the top.
“Need to know, Joseph. Sorry.” The hand belonged to a short, frail woman dressed in a knee-length skirt, colourful blouse and a blue long-sleeved cardigan sweater. Her short, spiky hair was grey, the same shade as her eyes. She ported a pair of dark-tinted, horn-rimmed glasses on a chain around her neck. The lower part of her face radiated a beaming smile, showing teeth slightly stained by too much caffeine.
“Hello, my dear, I thought you would arrive early. May I introduce you,” she turned to the Security Guard, “Senior Special Agent Amy Bree, meet Security Officer Joseph Doherty. Joseph is the man who knows anyone important in this building. He’s also the person to go to if you want tickets for any Nationals’ games.” Amy extended her hand and it was vigorously shaken by the man. “Now, let’s get upstairs.”
Amy followed the elderly woman as she scooped up the box, turned and headed for the elevators. They rode in silence to the third floor. There they exited the cabin and turned right, walking some fifty yards before reaching the back corner of the building. The windows looking onto Ninth Street gave way to a solid wall painted light grey. A single, sturdy wooden door was set in the wall. Alongside its jamb, at a height perfectly matching the level of the older woman’s eyes, was a metal box with a keypad and a blue, silver dollar-sized lens set above. Amy’s companion moved her face close to the box. A faint blue light radiated from the lens, and an audible click came from the door.
“We’ll get you registered on the retinal scanner in a while, my dear. For now, let’s have a cup of tea and get to know one another.”
The woman pushed open the door and entered. Amy stood on the threshold for a few seconds, looking into the room. What she could see was totally not what she expected.


At the very same moment Amy stood before the door to Office 312, the man the FBI knew as the Blood Sucker glanced through the Cafe’s window toward the FBI building, suppressing a smile. He sat alone in a window seat, his bulk and serious demeanour, a barrier to table-sharing. The warmth from a coffee cup permeated the fingers of his right hand, although the cup itself could not easily be seen through his muscular fingers.
He was a patient man, marking time as the waitress brought him his full breakfast; the second that morning, though not eaten in the same place. That would attract the attention he eschewed; his size alone made him the focus of any room he entered; anything else was unwelcome. It didn’t do for the prey to be aware of the predator.
He took a large bite out of a slice of toast dripping with butter and honey, chewing slowly as he debated whether to continue this line of action, started weeks ago, or write it off and follow up other leads. The killing of her partner had sown the seeds of obsession and revenge, of that he was sure. When the tracker he had placed on her car in the small Boston town had finally begun its journey towards Washington, he had been relieved. It appeared she was getting back in the game. He had broken off his fruitless surveillance of the BAU team and quickly travelled to Washington to intercept her and follow her to the J. Edgar Hoover building. Seems she had somehow recovered her old job. That must be good; for her, and for him. With the FBI’s resources, she stood a better chance of locating his objective than he did. The United States was too extensive to find his target without assistance; assistance she would unwillingly supply. When it was time, and she was no longer of any use to him, she would die like her partner. She had seen him, he knew; she was therefore a loose end, and he never left loose ends.
He took another huge bite from the slice of toast.
He was a patient man.

*     *     *     *     *

Fate loves a good joke, although many often go completely unnoticed by those involved.
In the same Cafe, huddled together in corner table at the back of the room, three dour figures sat munching their way through frugal breakfasts. They did not speak more than was absolutely necessary. Occasionally, their leader glanced down at a tablet placed on the bench seat at his side. Its screen showed a street map of Washington. The red dot that had been pulsating near its centre, had just gone out.
He glanced upward, across the large room packed with office workers and not a few FBI agents. Through the far windows, he could make out the brown stones of the building which their assignment had entered scant minutes before. He raised his hand, touching his left ear; just a quiet hiss. Audio had gone a few seconds ago also. She must have entered a secure room. He nodded at his companions; no words were necessary. They would wait. He turned his attention back to the food.


Amy rocked back on her heels, swivelling her gaze to the left. Only light grey walls and similar-toned office furniture; the design brainchild of some low-echelon bureaucrat who thought this stark environment would be conducive to solving the FBI’s caseload. Before her, albeit set in an identical grey-painted wall, was an over-large, wooden door. Its deep red colour clamoured for attention, yelling its specialness to the Four Winds.
Now the elderly woman had entered and moved off to the right, Amy could see inside. The view was strange, to say the least. Staring back at her from a seamless floor-to-ceiling mirrored wall, her own image reflected her puzzlement.
She took a step inside. The outside wall seemed unusually thick and inside the passageway only allowed movement to the right. She could see it ended after about fifteen feet; a two-foot gap on the left beckoned. She tentatively walked down the passageway. Amy found herself blinking rapidly; her stomach felt queasy. Her reflection in the abutting wall at the end of the short passageway did not look right. Behind her, the large redwood door hissed closed. She forced herself to reach the gap, and stepped through.
Immediately to her right, a large leather couch paralleled the inner wall. She flopped down on it, forcing herself to take deep breaths.
“I’m sorry about that, dearie, but you’ll get used to it. After a couple of days you’ll hardly notice it.”
“Smoke and mirrors, my dear. This office is rather special. The mirrors slightly distort your image, and none of the walls or the floor are completely straight; they’re meant to disorient you. That wall is also one-way glass so we can see what’s coming, and with a quick keystroke, I can trap them in there and gas them.” Amy’s gaze flicked up to the older woman’s face, to be met only by a broad smile and twinkling eyes. She wasn’t sure if the grey-haired woman was joking or not. The woman approached Amy and held out her hand. “Let me show you around.”
Amy let herself be aided from the couch. She gazed around the room. It was rectangular, with two large windows on the back wall. Set between them was a large metal filing cabinet, painted bright blue with a prominent combination lock centred on the top drawer. Off to the right, sharing a wall with the couch, an oblong table held a coffeemaker and water kettle as well as all the necessary bits and pieces for continual liquid refreshment. Below the table sat a small refrigerator, more at home in a five-star hotel than in this strange room. Next along the wall, another door, wooden, red like its counterpart, but more subdued. It was closed.
“That’s your office. This is mine.” The woman walked over to a large L-shaped desk that dominated the other wall, its top festooned with large computer screens and a couple of keyboards. Just behind the desk, two large metal racks held an assortment of electronics and blinking red and green lights.
“Are you my assistant?”
The woman’s laughter was light and genuine. “No secretaries here, dearie. I’m your partner. Let me introduce myself. My name’s Mrs Lindon, but you can call me Katie. I’ll call you Amy, if that’s alright.”
Amy’s queasiness was passing. “Your accent; you’re not American.”
“Yes I am, my dear, at least sufficiently to be allowed to work at Fort Meade for the last thirty years.”
“Fort Meade. The National Security Agency?”
“My father was the head of the CIA station in London for many years. My mother was English. When he was posted back to Langley, we all came over. I was thirteen then, but the accent stuck. It’s come in handy once or twice over the years.”
“What do you do…?”
“Computers are my thing. Hate the buggers, but I have a way with them. I can hack into anything with a chip. Cuts down on the paperwork quite a bit, believe me.”
“So you’ll be providing backup from here?” Amy glanced towards the desks and its array of monitors.
“Oh no. I’ll be out in the field with you.” She pointed to a large, metallic grey carry-on bag sitting next to the desk. “With that I can be anywhere in the World and use the power of this kit,” she nodded toward the metal racks, “to do whatever we need. I’m also handy with a gun, just in case.” She smiled disarmingly.
“Yes, my dear, I understand. That misogynist Cancelli thinks of me as a secretary. I just ignore him.” She smiled again and Amy found herself grinning as well. “Let’s have a look at your room. It’s still a bit spartan because I did not know what you like.”
Katie crossed to the door and opened it inwards. She waited until Amy entered the room and then followed.
This room was identical in size to Katie’s, but occupied the corner of the building. Amy had four windows, instead of two. A wooden desk, with three computer monitors, occupied the space to her left. On the far side of the room, a large couch, identical with the one in Katie’s office, ran along the wall. Taking up a quarter of the right-hand inner wall was a metal emergency door with a push-bar.
“I know what you’re going to say. You didn’t see that outside, yes?” Amy nodded. “It’s camouflaged. Only for use in emergencies, if we are attacked in here.”
“I know we are on the third floor, but Office 312 is a bunker. Our foes are more than capable of trying to stop us if we get too close, so we need to be careful. This office was built to keep our investigations, and us, both secret and protected. The external walls are five inches thick with a steel plate and Kevlar core. The main door also has a steel and Kevlar layer inside. The whole setup is also a Faraday cage. Even the glass in the windows is the same we use at Fort Meade. It’s clear from inside, but opaque when viewed from outside, not just visually either. We can’t be monitored electronically or otherwise in here.”
“Has this always been here?”
“Good Heavens no. I’ve been running around like a headless chicken for the last four weeks setting all this up.”
“Four weeks? I didn’t know I was coming here until last week.”
“Yes, dearie. There was some discussion about that, but in the end, your motivation to track the Blood Sucker down won out. I knew someone would be coming, and, to be honest, I’m glad it is you. I think we are going to get on just fine.” Katie waved her hand at the remaining wall space. “I wasn’t sure how you worked, how you analyze your data, so I left the walls ‘old-school’; magnetic whiteboards and lots of them. There’s a filing cabinet in the corner, between the windows. And,” her eyes twinkled, “that couch is very comfortable; I’ve slept on mine for three nights so far while I was building our computer. It’s almost as comfy as my bed back home.”
“You built the computer? Couldn’t you just buy one?”
“There’s no fun in that, my dear, and SANTA is not just any old computer. You couldn’t buy him anywhere.”
“SANTA? You’ve given it a name?” Amy looked at Katie, trying to gauge if the older women was joking, or maybe even a sandwich short of a picnic, but her gaze was returned by steady grey eyes.
“SANTA is based upon work I did for the NSA. It stands for Secure Autonomous Networked Tracing Analyzer. SANTA. And, like the old guy in red, he has a huge number of Little Helpers to get the job done. You need to learn how to use him; he’s probably our greatest asset. And it certainly isn’t Windows!” Katie seemed a little miffed at Amy’s reaction.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“See that?” She pointed toward one of the walls in her part of the office.
Amy looked through the open doorway. She had noticed a few embroidery samplers framed and hung on the walls of Katie’s office. They were exquisitely done, yet consisted of short collections of letters, instead of the usual full alphabets. She followed Katie’s pointing finger and saw “D.A.A.” outlined in burgundy red with yellow and blue highlights, against a dazzling white background.
“Don’t Assume Anything. D.A.A.,” supplied Katie, observing Amy’s bemused expression.
Amy walked into Katie’s office and glanced around the room. There were eight other ‘samplers’, cryptically vying for her attention now.
“Don’t worry, dearie. I’ll let you know what they all mean, in time. Now about your office…?”
“I guess I could use a plant or two in there; maybe a poster.”
“Whatever you want, my dear. Just give me a list and I’ll make it happen. Let’s have a cup of tea and get to know one another a bit more.” She started to walk toward the table with the coffeemaker. “Tell me, how did you know where the Blood Sucker was going to strike? It wasn’t in your reports…”


They had hardly sat down to await the kettle boiling, when a sharp buzz sounded.
“We have visitors” announced Katie. She stood and walked to her desk. Touching a key on an overly complex keyboard, one of the monitors flicked on, offering an image of a young man sporting an FBI ID.
“Yes?” said Katie.
A reedy voice replied from speakers hidden in the frame of the monitor.
“Mrs Lindon. Director Marshall wants to see Senior Special Agent Bree. Now. In his office.”
“We’ll be right up.”
“No. Just Agent Bree, he said...”
“Thank you.” Katie hit another key, and they both watched in silence as the agent paused, spoke silently, realized the intercom had been cut off, then shook his head and left. Katie chuckled. “Ah, the game’s afoot, as old Sherlock would say.”
Amy wasn’t sure what was going on, and it showed in her face.
“First tip on how we operate. Washington is all about Perceived Power and Influence.” She pointed to another of the samplers; P.P.I. in grey and yellow against a dark red background. “The Director is going to try to bully you, one of his ex-agents and a lowly one at that, into telling him what we are doing here on his territory. Now you’re not a number on his payroll sheet; you’re an untamed force to be reckoned with.” She beckoned Amy and moved towards the door. “Let’s go have some fun.”
Amy was well aware of the Director’s reputation as a women-hating dictator who would voice his opinions against female occupancy of any position of authority at every opportunity. She felt her stomach flip.
They left Office 312. Amy glanced back, trying to spot the camera. Katie spoke, reading her mind.
“It’s hidden in the keypad. The keypad itself’s just for show.”
D.A.A., thought Amy; smoke and mirrors.
They took the elevator to the top floor of the FBI building. Katie seemed pensive to Amy as they rode upward. Shortly before the metal doors slid open, Katie spoke.
“Help me distract the secretary for a few seconds.”
Amy was still puzzling over this phrase as she watched Katie take something from her cardigan and palm it in her left hand. They exited the elevator and turned left, Katie in the lead, obviously knowing exactly where she was going. Amy looked around: deep dark blue carpeting, polished wood walls and soft leather couches adorned the Executive Floor. Obviously the low-echelon bureaucrat had spent the decorating budget here first, leaving scraps for the grey-painted walls of the rest of the building. Inverse Pyramid Theory, she thought: spend the most on the least productive area of the FBI; really creates a good impression for visiting dignitaries; any real law-enforcement people would not ascend to these lofty heights, so who is bothered about creating the right image for them? Only Politics here, Sir, Ma’am, move along please.
Their arrival at an unmarked door caused Amy to cut short her mental tirade. Without knocking, Katie flung the door wide and entered; a startled assistant was half out of her chair, when Katie spoke.
“Homeland Security, Office 312. Here to see Director Marshall.”
The secretary lowered herself slowly back into her chair. “He’ll be with you in a few minutes. Take a seat, if you will.” Amy automatically gravitated toward the large leather couch, stopping when she saw Katie still standing near the assistant’s desk. She spun slowly and strolled over.
Katie was talking to the assistant using a barely audible tone, causing the other woman to lean forward to hear what she was saying. As Amy neared, a subtle push from Katie’s right foot moved her to the far end of the assistant’s desk. The effect was a crude pincer movement, dividing the assistant’s attention between the two. Out of the corner of her eye, Amy saw Katie do something with the contents of her left hand at the USB sockets of the assistant’s desktop computer, all the time moving her right hand repeatedly toward Amy. The assistant’s eyes followed the right hand gestures and looked at Amy.
“Can you tell me if there is a rest room nearby; it’s that time of the month…” Amy babbled the first thing that came into her head. She didn’t listen to the other woman’s reply, just nodded as she watched Katie withdraw her hand from the back of the computer and pocket whatever she held there.
Katie made a show of looking at the clock on the assistant’s desk. “Tell Director Marshall we are in a hurry, so if he is tied up with something else, we’ll re-schedule for a more convenient time.” The brusqueness of the phrase was tempered by one of her big smiles. The assistant blushed and grabbed for the intercom handset. She spoke, then listened, raising her eyes to Katie on several occasions.
“You may go…”
Katie was already moving toward the interconnecting door; Amy had to quickstep to catch up.
The Director’s office was lavishly decorated with an overall theme of self-aggrandizing bad taste. The walls were strewn with plaques and framed medals; ostentatious reminders of the work of others. Where another colourful medal or shiny plaque would strain the mores of refinement, a framed photo imposed, naturally of the Director clasping the hand of someone important on the Hill.
Director Marshall sat behind a huge wooden desk, bereft of any papers or computers. At one end, a large glass ashtray crouched beside a burnished wood humidor; a statement if ever there was one. At the desk’s opposite extreme, a single silver-framed photograph of the President shaking hands with the Director in the Oval Office; what else?
“I see we’ve caught you at a busy time, Director Marshall.” Katie charged in. “Too busy even to stand when two ladies enter the room. I suppose we’ll have to put good manner aside, for now. We are very busy and don’t have time for political nonsense, so if you’ll get to the point, we’d appreciate it.”
The Director’s mouth slowly sagged open. Katie waited.
“Director, you asked to have a meeting with us. We assume it’s important; otherwise you wouldn’t have interrupted our work. So what is it?” Katie’s smile followed, disarming the barb.
The Director of the FBI shuffled his overweight form around in his chair, composing himself. Amy, standing a little behind Katie, had a hard time keeping a straight face.
“I wanted to… ask… for an update on your investigation…”
“That’s not going to happen, Director,” interrupted Katie. “We don’t report to you. If you want to be copied on our work, you’ll need to talk to your superiors. Our work, and how we do it, is highly classified.”
The Director’s cheeks turned noticeably red.
“I’ll have you know I have held Top Secret security clearances for many years…”
“Access to our… domain, is far above that. It’s compartmentalized; need to know, and, last time I checked, you are not on the list.”
The Director was certainly not used to being spoken to in this way, and by a woman who could be his Mother.
“What if I issued an order to suspend collaboration with your… unit?”
“Less than half an hour after you utter the word, your personal cell-phone will ring and someone, whose photo you have nearby, will be on the other end of the line. You’ll be lucky to keep your job if you choose to mess with us.” Katie paused, allowing the message to seep through the Neanderthal brain. “Now, if that’s all…”
“I don’t take too kindly to threats, Lindon…”
The Director stopped speaking, and sat back, as Katie leaned on the edge of the desk, claiming its expanse for the women.
“It’s Mrs Lindon, and should you have the balls to speak to me again, you will keep a civil and educated tongue in your head. You have no idea who you are talking to, and I, unlike the other women you terrorize in this building, will not take any of your crap. One phone call is all it will take to have someone more competent sit in that chair. Don’t mess with us, Director; it’s not in your own interest.” She paused and resumed with a more gentle tone. “If that’s all you’ve got, we’re busy.”
Katie smiled and turned to leave. Amy followed. The assistant watched them with a gaping mouth as they exited the Director’s office. Amy now realized that Katie had deliberately left the interconnecting door wide open so the assistant could hear everything. They walked to the elevator in silence. Once inside…
“What the f...!”
“Just a bit of acting, my dear. We need to draw the line to stop him and the politicos on the Hill interfering. Their messing about could get us killed, remember. Apart from that, I rather enjoyed that meeting.”
“But it’ll be all over the building tomorrow.”
“Exactly… payback’s a bitch!” Remember P.P.I.?”
Amy paused before replying.
“Would he really get a call from the President?”
“I couldn’t make that happen, but I’m sure Monsignor Cancelli could. The President is a devout Catholic, after all, …and that’s the sort of bluff that cowardly S.O.B. won’t ever think of calling.”
“I have another question…” Amy said timidly.
“Come on, dearie, out with it. I don’t bite, really; well, not much these days.”
Amy was not sure whether the question would be welcome, but…
“Mrs Lindon? Is there a Mr. Lindon?”
Katie chuckled.
“No. That’s a long story. Married to my work most of the time, but using Mrs is far more imposing than Miss or Ms, don’t you think?”
“P.P.I.” said Amy.
“You’re catching on.” said Katie.
“What did you do to the assistant’s computer…?”
Katie raised a finger to her lips.
“Not here, my dear. Let’s get that cup of tea and I’ll let you into a little secret.”


The Blood Sucker took a final swig of his coffee, dabbed a paper serviette across his full lips, and sat back. He stood, throwing a couple of bills onto the table, and fished out a pair of wrap-around sunglasses from the top pocket of his dark suit. Repeating a movement he had been doing for many years, he deftly opened the frames with one abrupt flick of his wrist.  The shades firmly in place, he made his way to the street door.
A movement; a sense of focused attention behind him in the depths of the cafeteria.
He continued moving forward, toward the door; his senses, however, were searching out the source of the disturbance.

*   *   *   *   *

The leader of the three-man team raised his eyes from the tablet. The pulsating red dot had reappeared some fifteen minutes ago, but had just blinked out again. He had listened, a wry smile on his lips, to the exchange between the women and the FBI’s Director. Worthy of one of the American reality shows, he thought. Expectantly, he noted the reference to something which was about to be divulged. Then, teasingly, the signal, and the audio, vanished again.
“It’s him!” The hushed whisper, delivered urgently by the man at his side, punctuated by a sharp elbow to his side.
“What?” The leader looked up at his teammate, following his gaze to the front of the cafeteria. Outlined against the strong morning light, a hulking figure moved near the entrance. He was big, yes, over two metres; bulky with muscle. The light, steaming in from outside, impeded a clear look at the face. He watched the figure take three steps toward the exit; the manner of movement flowing, feline almost, out of sync with such a broad, tall man; more like an athlete at the top of his game.
“It’s him, I tell you.” The phrase insistent, spoken in rapid Italian.
“You’re sure?”
“I caught a glimpse of his face when he stood up. I’m sure.”
Five years of working together, building trust, was enough. The leader scooped up the tablet and dropped it into a messenger bag, flipping its strap over his right shoulder. He grabbed a handful of notes from his billfold and threw them on the table. His left hand found and extracted his cell phone from an overcoat pocket as he stood.

*   *   *   *   *

He was aware of people standing quickly; movement, with him as the focus. He resisted the temptation to flick his dark lenses down and use his unprotected eyes to see into the darkness at the back of the cafeteria. His hearing, confused by intermittent kitchen sounds, by patrons’ conversations, by orders shouted, did little to help. Yet he knew, instinctively, to trust the feeling. He stepped through the door onto 9th Street and turned right.
The harsh morning sun tried its best to take away his visual advantage. He was walking east. At the corner he stopped for a few seconds, concentrating. Behind him a door banged shut; not a sound anyone else paid attention to; yet he had memorized the sound as he had passed through the same door only seconds before. He strained: footfalls, quick, hard. Two sets; no, three. Walking fast so as not to draw too much attention to themselves. Closer; ten feet.
He hopped off the pavement and trotted across to the FBI’s side of the street then turned right again, heading further down 9th Street, searching for a killing ground; somewhere more private to take care of the threat. He crossed F Street, still heading east, checking buildings; mostly storefronts and offices; not good for what he needed.
Behind, the footsteps of his pursuers dropped back slightly.
Ahead, a grey slate façade and a downward-sloping ramp, announcing a car park. Possible. At least out of the public eye. As he came level, he saw the length of the ramp would not give him enough time to reach its end before the attackers could start shooting.
The next building: more office space, with a Travel Agent on the ground floor. Between it and the car park, an alleyway, in deep shadow thanks to the morning sun. He turned instantly, his speed increasing exponentially.  Halfway down, he passed a large dumpster. With a deft flick of his hand as he ran past, he launched it into the centre of the alley to spoil a clear shot.
The alley jinked left, opening up behind some shops, the back of another office building on the other side. Right again, narrower. The taller offices blocking even more sunlight. He pocketed his shades as he ran; his brain processing the grey-tinted images received from eyes capable of seeing in complete darkness. He did not bother looking back; the sound of the dumpster being pushed out of their way told him all he needed to know.

*   *   *   *   *

They advanced more cautiously now, fanning out as much as the alleyway allowed. Their hands held large calibre pistols; their long suppressors probing the darkness ahead. Their leader knew the danger, knew the capabilities of their foe. He signalled for a halt, and all three donned compact night-vision goggles. Their world was now an array of green-washed hues that showed the alley branching left. A harsh light from the right, indicating another street-bound intersecting alleyway. Once they reached that corner, the light from the alley on the right would make the night-vision gear useless; a great place for an ambush.  He hand-signalled his team; they removed their headgear and advanced slowly, guns extended in two-handed grips.
The leader held back momentarily, speaking urgently into his cell phone.

*   *   *   *   *

The Blood Sucker waited, his breathing shallow; a deadly game of human chess playing out in the shadows.


Katie opened their office door and entered. Amy was so intrigued with the events that morning, her mind overflowing with unanswered questions, she was almost unaware of the psychedelic disorientation of the inner passageway. She flopped down on the couch, looking over at Katie as she flicked the switch on the kettle again.
“I would die for a cup of tea just now.”
“Katie. The…?”
“SANTA’s Little Helpers, yes. Although I call them my Subordinate Clauses,” she laughed lightly. “SANTA processes data it receives from out there,” her hand waved vaguely at the space beyond the windows, “stuff its bots supply it.”
“Yes, like netbots, or spy bots. We use them all the time at the NSA now. They can get at places human agents can’t, and usually much quicker and with far less risk.”
“So that’s what you did to the Director’s assistant’s computer…”
“Not just to her machine. Oh no, wouldn’t be worth the trouble. I needed access to his. It was on a credenza at the side of his… throne. Did you see it? A laptop, connected through Wi-Fi to his secretary’s machine, and maybe to a few others. Great setup. Even now my bot is working its way into its secrets.”
“But I don’t understand why we need to spy on him. He’s a bastard, yes, but he’s on the side of the good guys, isn’t he.”
“Yes and no. We operate outside his bailiwick and that irks him. That was my third run-in in as many weeks with him. He tried his overpowering bully crap on me the first day I arrived, when I went to see him to try to facilitate our installation here. I wasn’t having any of it, so I put him in his place. Two days later he cornered me in an office and tried again. He was with two of his bodyguards and I had to leave all three in some pain. Coincidentally, that’s when I decided on the bunker approach to our office.”
“Wait. You took on the Director of the FBI and two of his bodyguards? He must outweigh you by at least four times. And the bodyguards would be armed. How did you do that?”
“Oh, didn’t I mention it? I used to work in the Operations Directorate at the NSA. I started in Field Ops, because in those days we didn’t have the Internet to use as a means to attack our enemies’ computers. We had to go to wherever they were and break in to steal or copy what we wanted.” Katie waved a hand in front of her slight form. “I’m not exactly Rambo, so they found a way to provide me with some basic defence skills – firearms and Kyusho-jutsu; that’s vital points and how to attack them. I can look after myself quite well, even if I do say so myself.”
“So why do we need to spy on his assistant’s computer?”
“Well, her machine is just the entry-point. My bots have four basic functions: Seek, Hide, Tunnel and Send. When I send a query to them via SANTA, they search out everything in their particular domain that may be related to what I’m looking for. Then they package and encrypt the data and send it to SANTA. Tunnel is basically domain growing. I load the bot into the secretary’s machine and, at the first opportunity, it creeps undetected over to the Director’s computer. His is a laptop and probably not connected to the main FBI network; but it will be connected to his secretary’s computer. Also, did you see that his smartphone was plugged into the laptop? That means he probably syncs the two.”
“I don’t get it.”
“He may or may not take the laptop home. If he does, and if he connects it to the Internet to check his emails, watch porn or whatever, the Send part of the bot piggybacks on that connection and SANTA receives the info. However, supposing he doesn’t let the laptop leave the office – I either have to break in and steal the data, old school, or allow the bot to use the sync link to pass what I want to the phone’s memory and then either generate a call to SANTA or use the Internet connection to get the data to us. Tunnel is the bit of the code that grabs any and all data processors and uses them to create an area of influence. People can be very security-minded about a laptop, but will use a cell phone at the drop of a hat without giving a single thought to protecting their data. That’s what I, and SANTA, exploit.”
“And Hide is a sort of stealth mode, right?”
“You’re catching on. Hide does two things: it installs the bots without giving away any traces they are there, and, if push comes to shove, it destroys the bot leaving no trace of its activities.”
“And you invented all of that?”
“Yes, it’s part of my deal with Cancelli; why I’m here.”
A low, insistent buzzing came from one of Katie’s monitors.
“Is that SANTA?”
“No, it’s a phone call.” She picked up a wireless headset from the desk and, placing it in her right ear, hit a key on one of the keyboards. “Yes?”
Amy watched as Katie listened for a few minutes, typing furiously. One of the monitors lit up showing a street map. Katie gazed at it for a couple of second, then:
“That’s two blocks away! We’re on our way.” She dropped the earpiece on her desk, hit a key on the keyboard, flipped open a desk draw, withdrew a holstered pistol, then turned to Amy.
“You’re not going to believe this. That was Cancelli. The Blood Sucker’s been seen two blocks from here, a couple of minutes ago. Let’s go. Got your gun?”


The Blood Sucker waited. He could hear the breathing of his pursuers, even their heartbeats, if he strained his senses to their limits. There were three; one slightly ahead of the others, advancing in a triangular pattern designed to prevent all three being eliminated in the first onslaught. He had contemplated using his powerful legs to scale the wall of this narrower part of the alleyway; set an ambush from high above. However, his plan would allow him to take out only one of the attackers at best before the other two opened fire. So Plan B was the only option left. He lay absolutely still, wrapped in his dark overcoat, on top of a thick pipe running horizontally along the left hand wall at just above head height, his bulk pressed against the wall, his back to the alley. He could not see the men in this position, but neither could they detect his breathing or the lightness of his face and hands in the dark shadows. He relied on hearing and smell to provide information about their movements.
Footsteps, carefully placed; quiet, but not silent to his ears.
The first pursuer was directly below.
The Blood Sucker flexed his hands and pressed them against the wall to gain maximum leverage.
Less than ten seconds; another man was now below.
The Blood Sucker pushed against the wall. His strength, twice that of a fit human male, flipped him through the air. He landed catlike next to the third attacker. His right hand, fingers clawed open, clamped around the man’s trachea, pressing. He twisted his wrist violently to the right, feeling the snap as he crushed the attacker’s windpipe.
Despite his light landing and the speed of his attack, his presence had not gone unnoticed. The other two men had sensed movement through the air and had turned in his direction, their pistols seeking a target as they peered through the darkness. The Blood Sucker reached down, taking hold of the dying man’s weapon. He twisted around, grabbing the man’s arm, spinning the choking form toward the lead attacker. He dropped low and fired two quick shots at the other attacker; centre mass hits. The man staggered back against the far wall, but did not fall: Body Armour! The Blood Sucker raised the pistol and aimed higher. A single shot. His enhanced vision showing a spurt of liquid dark-grey ejected from the attacker’s head.

*   *   *   *   *

The leader had tried to sidestep his blood-spewing companion, but flailing, grabbing hands had impeded his intent. He shook off the man’s demands for help, pushing the dying form to his left as he levelled the barrel of his pistol. He fired two, three, four shots at the shadows, unclear about his target’s position. He sensed, rather than saw, movement off to his left and flicked the barrel in that direction, firing through fear more than training. The gun jammed open; desperation made for fumbling hands as he pulled back the slide and tried to retrieve and reload a fresh magazine from his coat pocket. Before the clip found the quick-load guide in the pistol’s butt, the leader was hit solidly from behind. The blow pushed his chest forward; inertia flinging arms out to the sides. Years of training finally kicked in; the leader dropped the pistol and grabbed the handle of a large knife hidden under his right shoulder, pulling down to free the razor-sharp blade from its tether.
As soon as the foot-long blade was free he wielded it repeatedly in a figure of eight pattern in front of his body, trying to create a shield against his foe.
A low chuckle filtered from the darkness.
“I think you’ve seen too many films, me darlin’. What’ya going to do? Lop off my head?” The voice threateningly close, its menace hidden by the gentle lilt of Irish brogue.
The leader flicked the blade in the direction of the voice, aiming blind, hoping for fortuitous contact.
He felt solid finger close around his forearm, trapping his hand in the air. Less than a second later a stinging blow to the back of his fist caused the extensors in his hand to contract. His finger flew open, launching the knife off into the black shadows at his left. He heard his last line of defence clatter against something metallic in the distance. His forearm was released.
The leader dropped to his knees, staring into the gloom.
“Padre nostro, che sei nei cieli, sia santificato il tuo nome, venga il tuo regno, sia fatta la tua volont…”
“Not His will; mine!”
The leader closed his eyes as he felt the contact of two powerful hands on his head and left shoulder. He thought he saw a brief flash; then he felt nothing.

*   *   *   *   *

The Blood Sucker allowed the limp body to crumple at his feet. He stood, allowing his senses to open; seeking signs the events of the last few minutes, the shots, despite being suppressed, were bringing more people to the alleyway. He could hear the slapping of multiple feet against the pavement, closing on his position.
He glanced down at the corpse and started to turn away, then stopped. He reached down, taking hold of a dark plastic rectangle poking from the dead man’s messenger bag. The Blood Sucker touched the tablet’s surface and was rewarded with a street map; two red circles blinked, overlapped, blinked again, in rapid movement.
“What do we have here?” he muttered to himself.
Turning he trotted further down the alley, deeper into the shadows of a tall wall. With a last glance behind, he sped up his pace, using forward momentum to keep his body upright as he ran up the wall and vaulted over into the grounds at the back of Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church. A minute later he emerged at the Tenth Street Northwest façade of the church. Only a grey-painted wire gate and three short flights of stairs separated him from the street. Thirty seconds, and he climbed into a cab in front of the Zara store on F Street.
“Lincoln Memorial, please,” he said to the driver, as he looked down at the tablet’s screen. The two dots were now in the alleyway, flashing their insistent rouge as they closed on the carnage he had left behind.

-- ooo --

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Reviewed in the United States on October 5, 2020
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