Tyler (the Brujah):

"God dammit, Nines," Damsel scowled. "Why do I always get the damned sentry duty? Tyler here is still pretty much a newbie, so that's fair, but why don't you put Skelter or Fenris outside once in awhile?"

Nines Rodriguez glanced knowingly at Tyler; who simply shrugged and put his hands up, palms facing Nines, as if to say he wanted no part of this discussion. Tyler had no problem taking sentry; it meant he didn't have to sit inside and listen to Isaac Abrams make yet another stuffy speech that sounded a lot like Cammie crap. He knew that whatever he had to say was probably important, but that didn't change how suffocating it was inside the Asian Theatre Abrams loved so much. As for Damsel; well, her passion, which Tyler loved her for, pretty much demanded that she sit this sort of thing out. She was better off when there was something to do than something to talk about. Nines hated politics, everyone knew that. But he was good at it, as little as he liked to admit it. That was pretty much why he was named Baron of Downtown L.A. after LaCroix blew himself up – with a little help from a few of the neonates he was trying to kill off.

"Really, Damsel," Nines replied with that Oklahoma calm of his. "I thought I was doing right by you. Trust me; this b-s would bore you to tears."

Damsel looked into the theatre; Tyler followed her gaze. Just about every kindred in the L.A. Baronies were in there. Fenris was sitting with Skelter, looking bored and tapping her foot. Marko was sitting with Therese Vorman, Baroness of Santa Monica. Janette wasn't here; just as well. That Malkavian had an even harder time sitting still than either Damsel or Fenris. Marko burst out laughing and quickly silenced himself under the Baroness' disapproving glare. Tyler couldn't see Gary Gold, but that didn't mean anything. That Nosferatu was nowhere and everywhere at the same time all the time. In fact, the only visible Sewer Rat was Ajax, one of the 'newbies'. Imalia was probably here, but hidden like the Cleopatra she is. On one of wings of the balcony, Strauss sat with his apprentice Tabetha and that Ventrue dick Cameron (he was called 'Cammie' at the Last Round and at Confessions). It was rare to see Tabetha at all anymore; almost as rare as it was to see Strauss. Cameron was always around, like a growth of mushrooms you can never get rid of. The three of them were obviously pushing for a Camarilla revival; not that it was going to happen. As it was, Strauss accepted Nines as Baron and afterwards focused most of his attention on 'Tremere matters'. Cameron somehow managed to buy out the Empire hotel, which was now the Cameron Hotel. What was it with Ventrue and the love they have for their own name, anyway?

"Fine," Damsel said finally. "I'm likely to start cracking skulls like fortune cookies if I stay in here anyway. Come on, Tyler. We're on guard duty."

"Yes, Den Mother," Tyler said with dramatic fervor.

Damsel stopped to glance over her shoulder. A playful grin touched the corners of her mouth. "Watch that lip of yours, newbie," she mock warned. "Or I might have to bruise it."

Tyler took one final glance inside on his way out, and caught Isaac greeting each Kindred with is customary "Evening, evening," greeting. Predictably enough, Velvet and Xavier were front row centre; just barely keeping their hands off each other. For a moment, Tyler wondered if Velvet would remember that this was a crowd it was best to keep her clothes on for.

Fenris (the Gangrel):

As Isaac Abrams, the Toreador Baron of Hollywood did his grandstanding and greetings, Fenris caught Damsel and Tyler leaving the theatre. It was probably because Nines put them on guard duty, but even that would be better than being stuck in here. Then again, Nines was a sharp guy; he probably sensed she just might bolt out of the city. Being cooped up like this was driving her batty. Each passing night, it seemed more and more like Beckett was right.

"You gettin' itchy feet, girl?" Skelter asked.

"What?"

"Itchy feet," Skelter repeated. "Hearing the call of the wild; feeling the blood calling you out into the open spaces and out the concrete jungle. It happens to all of us Gangrel from time to time; even me."

"Then why are here?" Fenris asked. "Why don't we get out of here and go to the places where we belong?"

"Why do you think I claimed all of Long Beach for the Gangrel Clan, girl?"

"I know that, Skelter," Fenris replied. "And that's great. But if the open is where we belong, if it's in our blood, then it's in our nature. Being here, in the city, is against our nature."

Skelter put his hand up to silence her. "We'll talk about that after we hear Isaac out, alright?"

That was fair. Fenris said nothing, but only nodded her agreement.

Marko (the Malkavian):

"She doesn't remember."

As Baroness Therese stood to accept Baron Isaac's greeting with an appropriate smile and handshake accompanied with a reciprocal greeting, someone on the Network gave Marko a hint. He looked at her and watched as she waved in acknowledgement to Strauss, Tabetha and Cameron on the balcony and sat down all prim and proper. It was clear to Marko that the Network was right again. Therese had completely forgotten that she and Janette were the same person, Janette knew, he knew, but somehow Therese had convinced herself they were sisters again; working together to rule Santa Monica as a secret alliance and pretending to bicker constantly.

Marko couldn't help it; he burst out laughing.

Therese Vorman snapped her head to glare at him. "Is something funny, Marko?" She asked with her obsessively perfect enunciation. Marko immediately stopped laughing, and apologized. He took a quick glance around the theatre to search out something to use as an excuse for his outburst; her amnesia was too priceless not to make use of later.

"It's just that I don't think I've ever seen VV in actual clothing before."

Therese craned her neck to look to the front row where Velvet Velour and the Toreador neonate sat, struggling to keep their hands off each other. She straightened out the seams of her business suit.

"That little black dress barely qualifies," she criticised. "But you're right; it is rare to see her in anything more than lingerie. Still, just because I...tolerate your fornications with my sister does not mean I abide such antics here. We are here in an official capacity."

"My voices and I understand perfectly, Baroness."

"Good," Therese nodded, adjusted her spectacles. "Also, I need you here to glean whatever you can about the other Kindred."

"Cleopatra loves the Chinatown cleaner."

"The student knows; the teacher doesn't."

"Wolf-girl has itchy feet."

"Ajax and Imalia are lovers. Tabetha is keeping a secret from Strauss; I don't know what. Fenris wants to leave the city." Mark told her what the Network told her.

"Here comes trouble!"

"Trouble is coming this way. I don't what. Maybe that's what Isaac called us for."

Ajax (the Nosferatu):

Keeping to the shadows himself, Ajax slid into position within the darkness provided in the corner of the theatre where he knew Imalia was standing; obfuscated, of course. She came out of obfuscate to clutch his hand.

"I can't believe that Gary is making me be here in person for this!" She whispered in a near-snarl. "Isn't it bad enough I have to keep an eye on this crappy part of town, watching all these empty-headed, no talent losers bask in the spotlight?"

"You're here because you know Hollywood better than any of us –except maybe Gary himself." Ajax countered as gently as he could. "Besides, if you think you've got it bad; I got to deal with all these assholes directly on a nightly basis."

For a moment, Imalia was silent. "I didn't think of that," she said finally; "sorry. That reminds me; any idea what this is supposed to be about? It bothers Gary that he hasn't been able to find out."

"Yeah," Ajax said. "I think it might be about some kind of kiddie-porn racket that's trying to set up shop all over the state. It's been real hush-hush. Isaac only caught it before we did because of his connections. So far it's all rumor, like most things with the Toreador; and the thing is, and I just found out tonight that Isaac thinks it might be connected to some kind of Snake-Cult."

"S-S-Setites?" Imalia stuttered when she asked, and pulled her hand out of his. That was a new one to Ajax. Imalia sounded scared.

"Yeah, that was it," Ajax confirmed. "Why?"

"Oh, shit!" she hissed. "I got to go and tell Gary now. You stay and find out if this is true. I hope not, 'cause if it is, shit is about to hit the fan."

Before Ajax could say anything else, Imalia was gone.

Xavier (the Toreador):

Isaac Abrams was a pretty good actor in his own right, Xavier had to admit. He wasn't Ash Rivers or Gary Golden, but he could hold up appearances as well as most and better than some. Though Xavier himself was no actor, he knew a thing or two about winning performances. Before his embrace, he was a musician. Since then, once all the hullaballoo over that stupid box was said and done and that son of a bitch LaCroix blew himself up with it, Xavier tried to get back into the scene, but found he couldn't. The songs inside him had dried up; as if they withered with his soul as a result of his embrace. Both VV and Isaac told him this was known to happen from time to time; even with the Toreador Clan. As a kind of consolation and reward for his role in the removal of LaCroix, Isaac offered him the title deed to Ash's old club, the Asp Hole. As Xavier found a form of solace in the fact that though he couldn't make music, he could scout out talent, he changed the club into a music venue he called the Pit. Here he showcased talent he discovered, offering the Kine an opportunity to catch a break in Hollywood. He also took on a local band called Ebola Cereal as a House Band.

You wouldn't know it to look at him, but for the past week Isaac had been a hair away from Frenzy. It was a week ago that he first heard rumor that a group called Setites, or the Followers of Set, were setting up a child pornography ring, and aiming to base this operation in L.A. The exploitation of children is abominable even to most Malkavians, but it was an intolerable offense to Isaac. Even VV was handling this news better than he was. She seemed more worried than angry; bless her heart. Where Isaac was concerned with stopping these Setites, VV wanted to save the children.

"VV, may I ask a question?"

VV hummed consent.

"Who are these Setites, anyway?"

For a moment, VV looked confused; like she couldn't believe that Xavier wouldn't know. "Of course; I keep forgetting how young you still are. The Setites are...corrupters. They worship an Ancient Egyptian Antediluvian named Set. They say he is...the Set of the Egyptian mythology...the god of darkness and storms. They seek to... corrupt the world into a state of depravity for their founder and rule at his side when he arises from Torpor."

Xavier blinked. "Are they a part of the Sabbat?"

"No," she replied. "As far as I'm concerned...they're worse. Where the Sabbat seeks our outright destruction, the Serpents are out to ruin our lives and enslave us. I'd rather meet final death...than go through that...again."

Xavier thought it best not to ask what she meant by 'again'. It was obvious that it was something she didn't want to talk about; maybe from her former life as Susan. Instead, he cupped her cheek in his hand and brushed her temple with his thumb.

"I don't plan on letting either happen to you, lover." He said.

VV smiled and rested her head on his shoulder. "You're always so good to me," she purred. "I don't know what I'd do if I ever lost you."

Tabetha (the Tremere):

From her vantage point above, Tabetha watched the gathering of Kindred in the Asian Theatre she had liberated from the Gargoyle ten years ago. Though Isaac thanked her profusely at the time, she was really acting in service to her Clan and to her mentor, Maximilian Strauss; as she was now. Isaac was greeting everyone in the audience personally, though he missed Ajax and Imalia; Imalia who appeared and disappeared again almost immediately. On an errand for Strauss a few years back, Tabetha happened on the two Nosferatu cuddling in one of the mausoleums in the Hollywood graveyard. Out of respect for Ajax, she kept this sight to herself. Also, the thought of those two making her out made her shudder.

"Is something disturbing you, my apprentice?" Strauss asked in his cold, detached way. He was a good teacher, but always so impersonal. He never used her real name.

"It's nothing, master." Tabetha replied, waving back to Isaac from a distance.

"What may seem insignificant to you may be of utmost importance, apprentice," Strauss reminded her.

Tabetha quickly scanned the room for something out of the ordinary and couldn't really find anything; Damsel stomping away with Tyler in tow, Fenris and Skelter looking bored as ever, Marko doing his best to behave under Therese's disapproving glare, Velvet and Xavier making every effort to not be total whores with each other. Isaac was high strung, but putting on a convincing air of calm. Everything else seemed normal; Tabetha saw no alternative but to tell her mentor what she knew. In her mind she apologized to Ajax.

"It has recently come to my attention that Ajax and Imalia are," Tabetha hesitates to find the right words, sighed. "They are having relations."

Cameron groaned in disgust from Strauss' other flank. "Thanks for sharing, Tabetha," he said. "Now I can't unsee that image."

Strauss turned his cold gaze over to Cameron. Without looking, Tabetha knew that even the swagger that Cameron liked to walk and talk with would falter under the gaze of her master. "Indeed, neonate, it is an unsettling image to consider."

Tabetha suppressed her grin; but only barely. It was good to know that Strauss regarded her with an actual title as opposed to simply as a 'neonate'. Strauss had turned his attention back to her.

"We shall discuss your reasons for not informing me of this immediately later, my apprentice." Strauss said with a subtle change in his tone that suggested he was not impressed with her little secret. "For now, we have a different lesson to review; why all the details are important. After the fall of LaCroix and by default the Camarilla in this city, Gary the Nosferatu Primogen declared his Clan neutral, and even went so far as to refuse to take a Barony, even though Chinatown was offered. If those two are lovers, and you are on good terms with Ajax, then perhaps you could convince him that clan Nosferatu should re-align themselves with the Camarilla."

Tabetha brightened. "Then Ajax could convince Imalia, and we have two voices in Gary's ear!"

"Very good, my apprentice," Strauss said.

"I'll get on it." Tabetha said, just as Therese waved politely to them. "Come to think of it, Bertram Tung is still in good with Janette, and Therese will likely be open to a Camarilla revival anyway..."

"Your sire chose you well, my apprentice," Strauss nodded slightly. "It's unfortunate he did not do so in accordance to our laws."

"Hey," Cameron chimed in, "Mitnick and I are pretty tight. I should be able to get him on board, too."

"Excellent, neonate," Strauss said without looking at him. "See that you do."

Cameron (the Ventrue):

Strauss was both right and wrong about Chinatown. It was true that Gary didn't officially claim Chinatown, but with the amount of operations he had going on there, he might as well have. The way Cameron figured it, with Mitnick's help, there was no reason he couldn't play things out so he could claim it for himself. Sure, he wasn't the most popular Kindred in L.A., but just about everybody owed him something. Cameron believed that if he timed everything just right, Chinatown would be his soon enough, and then the Camarilla would have a real foothold in L.A. That was more than what Strauss was doing. From there, he could lead the Camarilla back to their rightful place in the city; and there would be nothing Nines or Isaac could do about it.


Authors' note: This introduction is intended to introduce the "PC" characters. If you have a favorite, by all means feel free to let me know.

Chapter 2

Tyler

Tyler had to hand it to his brother from another mother, Fat Larry. Ever since he handled that briefcase issue regarding the Tong for the fat guy, his truck had become a very handy resource. For a human, Larry had a way of getting some wicked toys; like these modified rifles that could take phosphorous shells. Larry didn't know it, but these were called 'Dragon's Breath' among the Kindred. Getting tagged by one of these shells was like being shot with a bolt of fire; bad news if you're undead.

Before coming down to Hollywood for Isaac's announcement, Tyler grabbed a couple of these babies; one for himself and one for Damsel. He figured Nines would put them on sentry duty; it made sense to put folks where their strengths lie. If anybody came too close, he and Damsel had it covered. For a better vantage point, they both took position on the outer veranda that wrapped around the theatre; each watching from opposite sides of the building.

It was quiet. So quiet that Tyler didn't like it. He could see nothing to cause alarm, but it felt wrong out here. He reasoned it could be boredom that was making him edgy. From his vantage point, he could peer inside and see the Cammies; Strauss talking to his little student, and that Ventrue dick, who was situated closest to where Tyler was positioned. Tyler grinned as he trained the scope of his rifle at the side of Cameron's head. It would be such an easy shot... But no, it wasn't worth the ammo or the trouble; at least not tonight.

He pulled back and turned just in time to see Damsel approach form around the corner; rifle slung over shoulder and a slight curve touching the corners of her mouth. It was unlike Damsel to shirk duty like this, but even he could get bored, he supposed.

"You're getting bored too?" Tyler asked, reaching for a deck of smokes from his breast pocket.

The second that Damsel was close enough, he slight grin changed to a definite scowl as her free hand flashed from behind her back and plunged a wooden stake deep into his chest, piercing his heart. The last thing Tyler saw before slipping into a torpid state was Damsel grinning lightly as she hefted her Dragon's Breath rifle and walked wordlessly away.

Fenris

Abrams was almost finished his customary tour of greeting each Kindred in attendance personally. At the moment, he was exchanging a few words with Nines, and seemed pleased with what he was hearing. Next he'd probably talk to Xavier and Velvet. As Abrams turned to leave Nines, Fenris caught a scent. Someone else was here. She leaned into Skelter to whisper in his ear.

Not turning his head, Skelter replied; "It's probably just Gary, being a sneaky bastard as always."

"No," Fenris said plainly. "I'd know his stink or the scent of any kindred in L.A. This is someone new."

Skelter took a deep breath himself and indicated that Fenris was right. He looked up towards Nines and gave a hand signal; to which Nines responded with another signal.

Skelter turned his head to Fenris. "Alright, you go and check it out, girl." He said. "The last thing we need right now is some new lick coming in and crashing this Gathering."

Without a word of argument, Fenris got to her feet and headed for the exit. She was actually relieved to be out of the building and actually doing something.

Marko

Troubletoubletroubletroubletroubletroubletrouble...

The whole Network agreed. Something was very wrong. And not the right kind of wrong, neither; this wasn't fun at all.

"Look around, Baroness." Marko said to Therese. "Do you hear it?"

Troubletoubletroubletroubletroubletroubletrouble...

"I don't hear anything." Therese answered. She was watching Isaac converse with VV and X.

"Exactly;" Marko confirmed.

Therese turned her attention to Marko. "Your voices are giving you a warning." She stated more than asked.

Troubletoubletroubletroubletroubletroubletrouble...

Marko nodded. One hand instinctively reached into the waistband of his pants to touch the handle of the .45 he bought off Tripp. "Just to be safe, Baroness, you best be ready to take cover." The truth was he didn't know what kind of trouble was coming from or from where; the Network wouldn't say. Though he found Therese to be really rather abrasive, but she had her uses. Even more important than that, if anything bad happened to Therese physically, Janette would be hurt, too.

Ajax

From the shadows, Ajax watched the scene unfold in front of him. The Gangrels and the Malkavians looked uneasy; Fenris even left the building after Skelter and Rodriguez communicated in their hand signals. They believed there was a trespasser nearby, apparently. The Whoreadors were chatting before Abrams gave his big speech; Abrams doing his best to look like nothing was nothing. The Cammies were up high; scheming as always. Ajax noted the younger Tremere was paying attention to him in particular. He wanted desperately to get closer to them to know what they were up to. Not just that, maybe Strauss knew something about this Setite group that had Imalia all freaked out.

Ajax backed deeper into the shadows and activated his obfuscate. It just so happened he knew a way up there that probably even Isaac didn't know about.

Xavier

"...club doing these nights, X?"

Xavier snapped back into paying attention to the conversation he was in with Isaac and VV. As the two of them were previously chatting about David Hatter and his television series, Xavier started noting what was going on in the room around them. Fenris had just left without much explanation, apart from what appeared to be a signal from Nines. Marko looked like he was about to have a panic attack. Ajax had vanished without a trace. The Camarilla hold-outs were looking shady and shifty; as usual. As for Isaac and Velvet; VV was thanking Isaac again for helping her writer friend put together his television series, and Isaac was insisting that most of it really was the quality of Hatter's scripts. They were not quite cinema material; but made for excellent stuff on the small screen. Isaac also pointed out that part of the credit went to Xavier, as it was him who introduced David to him in the first place.

After taking and destroying Hatters' Vampire story, Xavier went to Isaac and requested he write a constructive rejection letter for the Vampire script, but also indicates a definite interest in some of his other material. Isaac did this, and actually found something that struck him as worthy for a TV Pilot, which in turn became a series. Now, 'Hotel', a series about a haunted hotel from the perspective of the ghosts is in its 5th triumphant season, and David Hatter is a wealthy man.

"I'm sorry." Xavier replied. "Did you say something?"

"I asked you how your club was doing." Isaac repeated. If he was offended, he hid it well. It was likely he simply presumed Xavier got enraptured in the architecture of the building.

"Oh," he said. "It's going great! The house band is playing tonight, but I have a promising act from Vancouver coming in this weekend. Thank you again for allowing me to take over Ash's club, by the way. I know it must have been hard for you."

"Yes," Isaac went a little distant, gazing at his watch. "Well, Ash made his choices, and perhaps it's better if I let him find his own way." He paused a moment, tapped the face of his watch. "In any event, I suppose it's time I got this Gathering underway."

"Break a leg, Isaac," VV called to him, blowing him a kiss as he took to the stage.

The crowd fell silent once Isaac Abrams stood center stage. "Evening," Isaac nodded to one wing of the theatre, and then next, "Evening. I'd like to thank all of you for coming out tonight, and I promise to make every effort to be brief; as I am certain you all have matters of your own to attend to. I would not have called this Gathering if it was not urgent that all Kindred in this City were made aware of the possibility of a very real threat to our community coming this way. As you are no doubt aware, there has been an upward spike in the number of missing children across the state lately, and I have sources in..."

KA-BLAM! KA-BLAM!

Gunshots rang out from above, followed by what looked like a pair of fire bolts raining down onto the stage. The first one hit Isaac in his side near the hip, the other into the side of his head. In a matter of seconds, Isaac Abrams was reduced to ashes on the floor. The flames were out quickly enough that none of those present went into frenzy, but as Xavier nudged VV to the floor so he could cover her, a quick glance around told him plenty. Though most of the Kindred were scrambling for the nearest exit, Skelter and Nines had already gone into action to prevent that, telling everyone they were safer inside for the moment. Once he was sure Therese was safe, Marko had joined the efforts of Nines and Skelter. Strauss was ever so calm, holding his ground. Tabetha and Cameron were just exiting the fire escape closest to where they were seated. How typical of the Cammies to run away. Xavier then joined Marko, Skelter and Nines in crowd control.

Tabetha

Tabetha and Cameron headed in opposite directions on the outer balcony of the Asian Theatre. For an instant, Tabetha was certain she saw someone, or something up there with them, but then it was gone. She rounded the corner to find Damsel crouched with a rifle, the barrel still smoking, pointed at her, ready to pull the trigger.

Now was Tabethas' chance to try that new path of Thaughmetergy that Strauss had been teaching her. Focusing he will and her blood, Tabetha reached out into the air between her and Damsel and plucked the rifle from her hands. Damsel gasped in shock as the rifle floated towards Tabetha and rested harmlessly at her feet. Damsels gasp became a sharp yelp as she herself was lifted off her own feet and pinned to the wall beside her; held there by thin air.

A smile touched Tabetha's thin lips. She was getting better at this Movement of the Mind stuff. She had to keep focused, though; Damsel was really strong and nearly broke out of her snare until Tabetha reinforced it as she approached. She found it got easier to maintain the snare as she got closer to her target.

"What have you done, Damsel?" she asked, only mildly disturbed by the lack of passion in her tone. It seemed that the cold veneer that Strauss was so well known for was rubbing off on her. Intellectual detachment, Strauss called it; to Tabetha it seemed like an effective way to balance her humanity with the Beast.

"Put me down, you Tremere Cammie Bitch!" Damsel shouted, still struggling.

Cameron

Once Cameron and Tabetha split up, Cameron turned the corner and found Tyler staked and torpid. There was a large rifle that looked customized in some way nearby.

"Now this," Cameron said aloud, flicking the butt end of the stake with his index finger "is interesting." Standing a moment over Tyler, Cameron wondered if it was true that a Kindred in torpor was aware of what was going on around him. He crossed his arms and looked down at the Brujah the way a father or teacher might at a student who just wouldn't learn from his mistakes. "The big, bad-ass Brujah, dropped and helpless as one of his Anarch brothers is taken out on his watch." This was too good; Cameron tsk-tsk'ed him. In his periphery, Cameron noticed the peephole that Tyler had used earlier. Taking a look, he saw that Rodriguez, Skelter, the Malkie and X were making decently quick work of calming the others down; except Strauss, who never seemed to flinch.

"You know," he said to Torpid Tyler "under Camarilla rule, this mess would never happen. So much for the fiefs, eh?" He silently cursed himself; he hated when his Canadian started to show. Shrugging, Cameron reached over and pulled the stake from Tyler's heart. The moment Tyler bounded to his feet; Cameron activated a light whammy of Presence to subdue him. He told the big guy to chill out and that he was among friends. Once he was certain that Tyler would not attack him, he deactivated his Presence.

"Do you want to tell me what happened, Big Guy, or are we going to play twenty questions?"

Tyler was silent; groaned partly in pain and partly out of resentment. As far Cameron was concerned, this was a good thing; it meant that he had the Brujah by the balls, and Tyler knew it.

"Damsel..." Tyler started.

"Put me down, you Tremere Cammie Bitch!" They heard Damsel shouting from the other side of the building.

Cameron turned to Tyler, grinning with no small amount of malice. "Don't wander too far away, big guy," he said waving a finger as if to caution a petulant child. Cameron sprinted around the building and got to the source of the shouting a moment after Strauss.

The sight he saw was perfect; Tabetha had Damsel pinned up against the wall with one of her Tremere magic tricks, and a rifle just like the one Tyler had was right at his own feet. The barrel of the gun was partially melted. It all made sense now. Damsel took sentry duty; she brought Tyler, whom she had whipped along so she could catch him off guard long enough to stake him and take Abrams out with some kind of special firearm. The Anarchs were imploding; and the Camarilla were the ones to bust Damsel. This was perfect.

"Your snare is getting stronger, my apprentice," Strauss said in his cold, measures tones. 'In time, your movement of the mind will get stronger still." He raised one hand like Darth Vader; creating a mini-vise with his thumb and forefinger. "You may release her, now."

Tabetha backed away, lowering her hands. Damsel stayed right where she was.

"I can assure you, Brujah. The more you struggle the tighter my snare becomes." Strauss cautioned her. Once she stopped struggling, Strauss moved his arm, and Damsel moved with it. "Let's bring her inside, shall we?" he suggested, allowing Cameron and Tabetha return inside the theatre ahead of him. Behind them, Tyler staggered in as well.

Cameron could not believe how perfect this was. It had to be the best night of his unlife so far.

Chapter 3

Tyler

Tyler could not believe how fucked up this was. It had to be the worst night of his unlife so far.

Not only was he staked, as if that wasn't bad enough, it was Damsel who staked him. Damsel was a traitor; who she sold out to was known only to her; that or she's gone batshit crazy. On top of that, it had to be Cameron, of all people in the world who pulled the stake out. Now he was indebted to that Ventrue bastard; and that was something Cameron would exploit; guaranteed. All Tyler could do now was hope that that would happen soon so it would be done with.

Still sore from being staked, Tyler staggered down the stairs to the main floor of the theatre and towards the stage where Strauss had used his magic to set Damsel. Nines, Skelter, Cameron and a few others turned to watch him as he sat down in one of the chairs.

"What happened to you?" Nines asked.

"Yeah, big guy," Cameron added with a smug look on his face. "Tell your Baron what happened."

Nines shot Cameron a warning glare, said nothing, and turned his attention back to Tyler.

Tyler didn't want to say it; but the truth was the truth. "Damsel staked me." He admitted.

Chuckling lightly, Cameron began fist pumping the air as everyone else in the room gasped in disbelief; even Nines and Skelter were taken aback. The only ones who showed no apparent reaction were the Tremere.

"That's BULLSHIT!" Damsel objected. "I got ambushed and knocked cold, and the next thing I know that bitch was coming at me with her weird ass magic!"

"That's a likely story!" Cameron butted in, rolling his eyes. "So much for the Baronies of Orange County; they can't keep from squabbling, and the Baron of Downtown can't even keep his own charges from staking each other."

"Watch your mouth, Cammie," Nines warned. "I'm no Baron of Downtown or anywhere else. It's only the other territories that call me that. You keep it up and you might find yourself on the wrong end of a sunrise."

Tyler muttered his agreement. Normally he would have backed Nines all the way, but right now he felt way too much like crap to do much of anything.

"Spoken like a true Baron," Cameron bowed. "It's just too bad we aren't on your turf."

"You will treat our guests with respect in Hollywood!" Xavier spoke, marching towards Cameron.

"Says who," Cameron challenged. "Isaac? Oh, wait, he can't because he's a pile of ash because Damsel shot him."

"I can speak in his place," Velvet said, standing up. "And you can treat our guests with respect...or you can leave."

"Wow," Cameron retorted. "The stripper takes the throne. That's just purr-fect!"

"ENOUGH!"

Startled, everyone including Tabetha turned to look at Maximilian Strauss. This was, apparently, the first time anyone in the room had ever heard him shout or express any emotion with any clarity.

Everyone silent, Strauss took a single step forward, leaned slightly into Cameron and said, "It would be best if you left Hollywood now, neonate." He had regained that signature composure of his, Tyler noted, but the threat implied in his tone of voice was clear to everyone including Cameron. Doing his best to look cool, the Ventrue scoffed and headed for the exit. Tyler couldn't help but to smirk.

"I'll talk to you later, big guy," Cameron said to him as he passed.

"With that nonsense out of the way," Strauss continued, "I think it might be best if we put Damsel's alleged transgression aside for the night so we can all approach rationally tomorrow. Is there somewhere we can keep her until then?"

Tyler noticed X glance at Velvet, who nodded once slowly. "I know a place," he offered. "There's a secure room at the Lucky Star."

"That will do nicely." Strauss said. "Will you be so accommodating as to escort her there now?"

"I don't believe this!" Damsel grumbled as X led her away. She glared angrily at Tyler as they passed.

"Now, Miss Velour..."

"Velvet..." She corrected.

"As you have named yourself the one to speak in your former Baron's staid, are you able to pass on the information he believed was necessary to impart upon us before his untimely demise?"

Reluctantly, Velvet hummed her confirmation and took the stage.

"Hey..." Marko spoke, looking around and through the crowd. "Has anyone seen Ajax or Fenris?"

Fenris

About a second after the shots rang out, Fenris spotted someone who looked like Damsel jumping off the balcony of the theatre and run into the alley behind it. Whoever it was, it sure didn't smell like Damsel. Damsel smelled like vinegar; the kind a mortal might put on French fries. This one, the one she noticed earlier, smelled more like honey – all sickly sweet. As this imposter ran off, she changed appearances to what now looked like a random guy.

Hearing the commotion inside, Fenris found herself having to make a choice; help calm the crowd down, or catch up with the shooter. It was obvious someone was trying to frame Damsel. Fenris and Damsel got along well enough, as long they stayed out of each other's way. Still, though Damsel was about as pleasant as a swarm of angry wasps, she didn't deserve to go down for a crime she didn't commit.

It was a no brainer. Fenris ran after the random guy into the alley. Whoever he was, he was a vampire; and with some wicked abilities in obfuscate, too. Too bad for him his sickly sweet scent would always give him away.

Tracking him by scent, Fenris came to an open sewer grate. Whoever he was went down there. To Fenris, that wasn't good; the combination of odours would serve to mask him, making it harder for her to follow him. On the other hand, down there, nobody could ever get far without the Nossies knowing about it. With that in mind, Fenris went down after him, figuring she could count on the Nosferatu to back her up; unless the random guy was Nosferatu...

"Going somewhere, Fenris?" She got maybe ten feet north of where she started down here before a voice called directly behind her. "You should know better than to try and hide down here, Gangrel."

Marko

VV was telling the crowd that Isaac heard through his sources in Hollywood North – Vancouver – that the Serpents were setting up a kiddie porn ring in California. This apparently started they got run out of Vancouver by the nascent Camarilla stronghold which had only recently ousted the Sabbat. This happened around the same time that Lacroix the jester prince blew himself up with Jack's boom-box. Nines realized this was a bad thing, but his head was clearly on damsel in distress. The Baroness Therese expressed her righteous indignation at the audacity of the thought. Tabby-Cat was full of questions. Wizard King had blah-blah-blah answers. The Network went silent. Was the porn-thing a real thing? Was it a front for something else? Blah-blah-blah...

Marko knew that the blah-blah-blah was important, but the Network was silent, and that was distracting. Serpents were snakes, Gangrels were wolves. Did Fenris know already? Did she go on a snake-hunt? Nosferatu were rats, snakes eat rats. Did Ajax know already? Did he run and hide? Did he get eaten by a snake?

Maybe Nines is right; they should settle Damsel in distress. Wizard-King has something to help with that matter, but it must be collected. Where did the wolf and the rat go? If I were a snake, where would I go? I don't know. I'm lost in snow. No, it's static. The Network is silent. Why can't I hear you? Are you listening? Tabby-Cat must fetch a bone...

One thing came to him from the Network. How does the Network work? It didn't matter. Everyone was leaving now. Baroness Therese tells me it's time to go home.

Ajax

Still obfuscated, Ajax was watching and listening as the Cammies spoke from their perch. It sounded like they were looking to gain his clan's support in their campaign. They fell silent enough when Isaac took stage. That was when the Baron of Hollywood was blown away. The Ventrue and Strauss' little protégé wasted no time heading for the fire exit nearby; at first Ajax thought they were trying to book it out of there, but after he followed them out he saw quickly enough they were investigating what was happening. The Ventrue found Tyler, and the junior Tremere cast some spell on Damsel.

What none of them noticed was Fenris running into the alley below while they all headed into the theatre; Strauss carrying Damsel telekinetically, and his entourage plus Tyler in drogue. Since he figured everyone would know about what was going on inside, Ajax jumped down to the ground to follow Fenris. It might prove valuable to know what she was up to.

By the time he got to the alley, the Gangrel was sniffing around a sewer grate; and then she climbed down. Incredulous to her arrogance if she thought that was a good escape route for her, Ajax followed. Below, he caught her about ten feet away to the north, still sniffing around.

"Going somewhere, Fenris?" He called to her. "You should know better than to try and hide down here, Gangrel."

Startled, Fenris whirled around and saw him. Ajax was disappointed that she regained her composure so quickly. Then again, the Gangrel Clan were typically tougher to scare than most of the other clans. It must have something to do with their proximity to the Beast.

"Not hiding," she said, "tracking."

"Is that so?" Ajax replied, dubious.

"Whoever shot Abrams was not Damsel."

"You don't say?"

"The shooter ducked down here somewhere." Fenris elaborated. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"

Sensing a threat in her question, Ajax bristled. "You'll want to be careful of your tone down here, Gangrel. Remember just where you are." His phone went off, indicating a text message; then another, and another. "Don't move," he warned her as he checked the messages. The first was Imalia, the second Mitnick, and the third Barabbas. They all basically said the same thing. Grumbling, Ajax sent a reply to all to indicate he was on his way.

"Come on," he said to Fenris. "What you have to say about your 'discovery' might be relevant."

Xavier

After spending some time alone and now being in close quarters with her, Xavier was starting to see what it was about Damsel that Tyler liked so much. Up until now, her seemingly perpetual rage and generally angry disposition was really quite a distraction from how attractive she really was. Now, however, he understood that it was that that anger, that passion for her core beliefs and the conviction with she held to her values and her cause that was part of her allure. It gave her a certain vitality that was actually quite rare even amongst the younger Kindred. It was really quite poetic; she truly was a warrior at heart, like a lioness protecting her cubs. Truly, Damsel had earned the title of den mother amongst her ilk Downtown...

"...hey X! Are you still here, or what?"

Xavier snapped himself out of his thoughts and back into the situation at hand; at the Lucky Star, watching over Damsel, who was talking to him and now glaring at him as if insulted by his lack of attention.

"Sorry Damsel," he apologized. "I lost focus for a moment there. You were saying?"

Damsel's glare softened, and for just a moment her frown turned upside down into a smile. She must have realized that he got caught up in his Clan's tendency to get all wrapped up in beauty. More, she probably realized that she was, albeit briefly, the subject of that rapture. The situation could now go two ways; either she would be flattered and be more at ease with him, or she could use his appreciation to catch him off guard. He would have to be careful.

"I was saying," Damsel repeated herself, "Don't you think I'd have run by now if I shot Isaac? If I was guilty, do you think I'd be cooperating at all?"

"Maybe you know that if you ran it'd only make things worse for you after I caught you."

"Oh, that's real," she countered. "Why would I shoot Isaac anyway? What purpose would that serve? And why would I stake Tyler?"

"To remove the Baronies and push the entire city into being a 'True Anarch State'. Isaac is...I mean was the Primary supporter and advocate to the Barony system."

Damsel groaned in dismay. "That sounds like something Cammie might say." She said. The words stung Xavier a little. "Now either you're stupid or you think I am. A bone-head move like that would destabilize the fragile truce we all have and give the Camarilla just the kind of leverage they would need to try to roll back into town full force."

Xavier had to admit that Damsel had a point. Back at the theatre, Cameron was acting like Isaac's murder was a good thing; and was all fired up to sing the praises of Camarilla order – or more accurately to sing the flaws of the Barony system. The Camarilla were sneaky bastards like that, too; set up a covert mission to shake things up and then openly swoop in to restore order and peace under their empirical banner.

"You've shown yourself to be reasonable before, X." Damsel continued, as gently as he had ever heard speak to anyone. "Maybe you should chew that for awhile."

Tabetha

"Master Strauss," Tabetha asked on their way back to the Chantry, "are the Setites really as bad as our documents seem to say they are? Based on what I've studied so far, it's hard to tell if they are even Kindred at all."

"Their religion and the zeal with which they hold to it is what make them particularly dangerous, my apprentice." Strauss answered. "They truly do believe they are of a lineage completely separate from the rest Kindred society, and therefore many of them believe themselves exempt from our laws. They reject both the Camarilla and the Sabbat, and hold no regard for any of the Anarch movement. As an independent Clan, they are very nearly a Sect unto themselves, and are clever enough to operate within many cities for a very long time before they are even noticed."

"Then Isaac's death and the discord it puts the Baronies in probably makes LA look a lot like low hanging fruit to them." Tabetha suggested.

"Indeed."

"Then maybe Damsel shooting Isaac is a good thing for the Camarilla. I mean, it's tragic that Isaac died, but now more than ever this city needs the stability that a consolidated Camarilla system of law and order can provide."

"Alleged shooting," Strauss corrected. Before Tabetha could ask if he thought Damsel was innocent and telling the truth, Strauss continued. "One must never be hasty to jump to any conclusions, my apprentice. Before we condemn Damsel, we must first explore and evaluate the validity of her testimony. Let us not forget, after all, that it was the Anarchs that dispatched the rogue plague bearers a number of years ago. I seem to remember Damsel played a role in that dispatch, along with the young Brujah; Tyler DeFaulte, I believe his name is."

Strauss was, as usual, right about that. Most of the heavy lifting around the plague bearers; the Ninth Circle Cult was dealt with by Tyler while Damsel gathered most of the useful intelligence. Shooting allies was out of character for her; even if it an ally she didn't much like the politics of.

"In principle, however, you are correct; with the new threat and the timing of this discord, this may well be an ideal time to demonstrate why the Camarilla is necessary for the survival of our kind and the stability of our society." Strauss concluded.

"Right," Tabetha agreed. "So how are we going to verify Damsels' side of the story tonight?"

"I'm glad you asked, apprentice." Strauss said just a little too warmly for Tabetha. Usually that tone meant she was about to be sent on an errand, and all errands, she had discovered, also contained a lesson; usually a hard one. "I have an associate in Chinatown; a most interesting man by the name of Ox. Mr. Ox has in his possession a number of artifacts that have proven very useful to our Clan over the years. Among them is a very specific bone that can be used to detect deception when one speaks. Tomorrow night, you will go to Ox and retrieve this bone from him, and we shall use it to test Damsel."

That didn't sound too bad. "Yes, Master Strauss." Tabetha complied as they arrived at the Chantry.

Cameron

The moment he entered his suite at the Skyline apartments, Heather was ready and anxious to greet him. She had just finished feeding the fish and had the place immaculate as always. It was obvious she was happy to see him. So like a dog; and she's already housebroken. On top of that, all the paperwork for the week at the Cameron Arms Hotel was done. Heather had done well tonight; surely she deserved her meal this month.

He fed his ghoul and led her to the couch. They had another matter to discuss.

"Yes master," Heather nodded. "I talked to Samantha while you were gone. She told me that Xavier and Venus over at Confession were talking about networking their clubs. She also said they were planning on proposing the idea to Therese at the Asylum as well." She clearly saw that that was not quite the news he wanted to hear; if they were networked, that would make it more difficult for him to buy any of them out. "I hope I didn't say anything to upset you, master," Heather said timidly.

"No, Heather, it wasn't you this time," he assured her; watching her sigh with relief. "While you are the bearer of bad news, it's not your fault." There was no need to torment her tonight. She had done well over all, and everything else was all good news; one little wrinkle wasn't going to kill his buzz.

His cell phone rang. Cameron shooed Heather away while he checked the display and saw it was Mercurio. Smiling, he hit the answer button in the hopes of hearing more good news.

"Cameron Hastings," he greeted.

"Hey, Cameron, it's me." Mercurio greeted back. "I got those documents you wanted, and by the look of the parcel they came in, there's more to them than you expected."

That sounded promising. "Really," he said. "You wouldn't have opened this parcel, by any chance, would you?"

"Of course not!" he shot back. "What do you think I am an amateur?"

Since Mercurio had been at this game longer than Cameron had been alive, let alone Kindred, he was willing to let a little bit of lippy attitude slide. Also, Mercurio was damn good at his job; especially for a ghoul. For all of LaCroix's shortcomings, he did train his former agent well; Mercurio was a definite asset to procure from the former Prince's demise.

"Excellent," Cameron said. "Put the parcel in the briefcase I provided you, and I'll be by tomorrow night to pick it up."

"Yeah, about that; you might want to send that girl in instead." Mercurio recommended. "It seems the Twins finally agreed on something from what I heard. They both say that Santa Monica is no place for you to come. Word is that Therese wants you killed on sight if you show up, and Janette hopes she sees you first 'cause she's got something even better than that in mind. I don't know what, but I don't think I ever want to find out."

Wrinkling his nose, Cameron looked over at Heather and considered Mercurio's suggestion. The he thought about Tyler and his associate Venus. Tyler was silent partner at confession, and that meant he had some part in this network mess. That meant he could get to Therese and Janette. Tyler owed him for tonight, so there was his pass into Santa Monica.

Thank you for the heads up, Mercurio," Cameron replied. "But trust me; I'll be by to pick it up personally." With that said, he hung up.

Chapter 4

Tyler

Tyler had barely taken five steps past the coat check into Confession before Venus waved him over to the bar. Ten years ago, he took care of her problem with her former Russian benefactors, and as payment for his trouble, she made him a silent partner. Since then, he had become a more known partner and partial owner of the business. Venus still held the lion's share, but he now had some controlling interest. Presence was a very handy thing to have. Sometimes Tyler DeFaulte found it hard to believe he was once a football player.

Tonight was supposed to be Damsel's hearing, but there was also a Club affair to take care of; setting up the network with Asylum and the Pit, specifically. Putting on his Club cool face, he approached the bar where Venus waited.

"One of your friends is waiting for you at table seven," Venus said to him over the booming industrial music, "the obnoxious lout."

Tyler nodded. It could be Marko she was talking about; sometimes his loony-tune antics could be interpreted as obnoxious. More than likely it was Cameron; who almost always was obnoxious. Tyler was hoping for Marko. He was a nutcase, but if you could get around that he was alright. Not only that, but if it was Marko, then he might save himself a trip to Santa Monica. He got to table seven, and Cameron sat waiting, feet propped up on the table. As Tyler approached, Cameron sat properly.

"What do you want, Cammie?" Tyler asked, still standing with his arms crossed.

Cameron guffawed lightly. "Good to see you too, big guy!" he spoke over the music. "Have a seat, buddy." He offered Tyler a chair.

"I asked you a question," Tyler remained standing. "What do you want?"

"Have it your way," Cameron replied, shrugging. "I came by to see if you could help me out with something."

"What? Out of my club?" Tyler offered. "Sure thing, pal; I'd be happy to!" He pointed in the direction of the exit. "The door is right over there."

Wagging a finger at Tyler and chuckling, Cameron said "You're a funny guy, Tie! But seriously, Strauss wants me to pick something up for him at Mercurio's in Santa Monica, but it seems the Twins actually agree on me not being welcome in their little burg."

"Gee, I wonder why?" Tyler interjected, dripping with sarcasm.

"I now, right?" Cameron matched him. "Anyway, I hear you're in pretty good with both of them, so..."

"I'm not picking anything up for you, Cammie. You can forget that."

"Well," Cameron started, "never mind that you do owe me, but that wasn't what I was going to ask. What I was going to ask is that you bring me into Santa Monica so I can work out any differences the Twins have with me, and I can go pick it up myself."

"Why should I?"

"I took LaCroix down, for starters, and wasn't it last night I pulled you out of Torpor?"

Tyler glared for a second. He was going to point out that he took Lacroix down, with six others helping to clear the path; including himself and Ajax, who took the Sheriff out. It was actually Marko who, laughing the whole time, snatched the key from Ajax and dropped just outside of LaCroix's grasp and urged everyone out of the building. Bottom line was that the former Prince took himself out when the box exploded after he opened it. That was all moot. Cameron had him over last night; and they both knew it.

Then Tyler's glare changed to a smile. "I get you passage into Santa Monica, and we're even?"

"Absolutely, Big Guy," Cameron agreed. "Get me into Santa Monica, and we're even."

"Fine; you have a deal." Tyler said. "But don't go getting one of your fancy limo's; that won't fly. We have to do this my way. Just let me get my car over at the Hollowbrook. I'll come pick you up."

"Fair enough," Cameron said.

Tyler left Confession and jogged back to the renovated Hollowbrook Hotel where he and Damsel lived together. He had to go to Asylum tonight anyway. On his way to his car, he pulled out his cell phone. He had a few calls to make...

Fenris

The sun had fully set, plunging into the sea on the western horizon; and Fenris Fraust rose from the sands of the beach, not far from the Santa Monica Pier. She had chosen here to retire the night before for a reason; it put her in close proximity to where she was supposed to meet with Ajax tonight. Of all the Nosferatu, Fenris found Ajax the least offensive. Sure, he lived somewhere in the sewers, but at least he made an honest effort to bathe on a regular basis. Granted, he smelled as if he bathed himself in bleach, but even that was better than the stink of most of the Sewer Rats. Bertram Tung, the new Primogen as of last night, reeked of motor oil; so much so that Fenris wondered if even mortals could smell him. Mitnick had that smell of an electrical fire on him, and Imalia walked in a cloud of some super-model expensive perfume and baby powder. The general smell of Chinatown clung to Barabbas; something Fenris attributed to the amount of time he spent there. Gary Gold, whom she learned was also killed last night, had smelled of moldy butter and stale movie theatre popcorn.

Last night, after Ajax had intercepted her tracking efforts, he escorted her to the cemetery. There, in one of the tombs, they met with some of the other Nosferatu. Gary had been assassinated. Ajax, Imalia, and Mitnick seemed completely lost; until Barabbas finally spoke up and indicated that it seemed Bertram should be next up for Gary's old job. Bertram reluctantly accepted the role. The first thing he did was arrange for Ajax and her to get to the business of finding this assassin; two City leaders in one night makes for a threat too big to let rest, he said. The second thing he did was send Fenris away while the Nosferatu handle 'Clan business.'

That was last night. Tonight, Fenris began by taking a deep breath to take in the night air; to savor the scent of sea salt and the subtle hint of cinnamon in the wind...

Cinnamon? This far from the Pier? No, this wasn't from the Pier at all. Following it, the scent seemed to come from the old beach house were that punk Dennis used to operate ten years ago. She heard it was recently leased out to someone; apparently this was so. Still, there was something about the way the scent was clear, yet understated that rang a bell for her for some reason.

Moving on, she continued towards the Pier; or more accurately beneath the Pier, where she was supposed to rendezvous with Ajax. It didn't take terribly long before that aggravatingly familiar cinnamon odor gave way to unmistakable bleach bathed smell that gave away Ajax every time.

"Sorry about your loss." Fenris said the moment he showed himself, taking care not to look directly at him.

"Shit happens." He replied coolly. "Bertram had more information that might be relevant. He thinks last night's events might be the work of an Assamite."

Fenris knew about the Assamites. Skelter told her stories about them. The way he told it, their founder was probably the first Hunter, and he hunted Cain. Skelter told her Haqim, the Hunter, got himself turned with Cain's own blood in order to hunt and kill Cain and all of his children. Camarilla, Sabbat, the independent Clans, it didn't matter; he wanted them all dead. Somewhere along the line, his progeny started hiring themselves out as assassins, their wages paid in blood for who knows what exact reason. Diablerie, probably, Skelter said. This was after the Tremere put a curse on them, and before that curse was overcome to be replaced with a different curse.

"So who hired him?"

Ajax shrugged. "Bertram believes it might be a faction of Ventrue who have been taking the West Coast by storm on behalf of the Cammies; all members of the same family; literally. It's almost like the Giovanni all over again if you ask me. They've managed to take Western Canada, Washington, and Oregon already, and have had something of a stranglehold on San Francisco for as long as anyone cares to remember. Apparently, LA is next on the menu."

"So?"

"So we're going to have to find this Assamite, bring him in alive if we can, and find out who hired him."

Fenris suddenly figured out where she knew that cinnamon smell from. It was in that tomb. The reason she had a hard time identifying it at first was because of all the conflicting odors. Without a word she turned on one foot and began to make her way briskly back towards the beach house.

"Where are you going?" Ajax asked, chasing after her.

"I know the first place to look." Fenris said, not even breaking stride. "Come on."

Marko

Just as Tyler, escorting Cameron, entered the Asylum, Marko had finished up his phone conversation with Knox to make sure everything for tonight's fun was in order. Knox assured him with his usual goofball enthusiasm and good cheer that it was. It didn't seem to matter much to either of their new guests that Bertram's ghoul was just outside the very same Club they had entered.

"Everything's in place," he told Janette, speaking directly into her ear to be heard over the Gothic Trance music blaring from the speakers.

Janette giggled and clapped like a schoolgirl. "Finally a little entertainment!" she shouted. "You really know how to show a girl a good time, kitten!"

She skipped towards the visitors, Marko keeping three paces behind her. He thought it best to let her take point on this for now; it was her Club, and he just loved to watch her do her thing.

Lustful Lord Hastings...

"Well, well, well, and what do we have here?" Janette greeted Tyler and Cameron, "a Tidy Bear and a Dirty Duckling having a night on the old town? The two of you make odd bedfellows, or are you bound together with Duck tape?"

"Trust me, Janette," Tyler said with just the right amount of resentment, "this is all about business tonight."

...suspects nothing and expects everything.

Janette giggled. "Oh, with you in town Tidy Bear, even business is pleasure." She gave Cameron a once over. "You, Dirty Duckling, are better off somewhere else."

"Apparently I've done or said something to upset you two," Cameron replied innocently. "Actually, that's part of the business that the Big Guy is here about. Isn't it, Big Guy?"

"Cammie here needs into Santa Monica." Tyler confirmed.

He wants to go to Mercury.

"Why should the Baroness allow this?" Marko nudged his way into the conversation.

"Believe me," Cameron said, "this is the last place I want to be; but since Mercurio is here, so am I. This is purely out of necessity, I assure you. He has something for me; some very sensitive documents that Strauss requires and insists that I pick up personally."

Lustful liar Lord Hastings...

"Right," Tyler added, "so I was thinking that if he comes here, straight to his ghoul and right back out again, there's no harm, right? Besides, Therese likes to play nice with the Cammies, doesn't she? Giving Cammie the Cammie of Cammies here will go a long way in that direction."

Janette twirled around to face Marko, her blonde pigtails swishing as she did. "What do you think, Kitten? I'm sure we can trust Tidy Bear, but what about Dirty Duckling?"

Marko had to laugh. 'Tidy Bear' was a name Janette started using after he told her that the Network once told him that Tyler briefly considered a rap career; in which he would call himself 'Tye-D'. This was before he started in football.

"I think Tye-D Bear has got some mad skills and a silver tongue, he's a gridiron king and he's forever young. He states his case like a first string pro and he's stepping on up for this downtown schmo. The Dirty Duckling wants in; the Bear says it's cool, check with the lady upstairs to get a pass for this fool."

Janette Laughed. Tyler rolled his eyes in amused exasperation. Cameron stared at Marko blankly.

"Alright, Tidy Bear," Janette conceded, "Just for you, I'll take your request to Therese." She turned again to Cameron. "Don't go anywhere just yet, Duckling. So far, it's still Duck season out there." Bobbing her head side to side, Janette skipped towards the elevator to the office that both sides her identity shared.

Marko offered them a seat at a nearby table, saying this could take awhile.

"So Therese has sympathy for the Camarilla?" Cameron asked, stroking his chin.

Marko shot a worried glance at Tyler. "Oh no!" he said in mock conspiracy. "He found out!"

"When will she be down, anyway?" Cameron was glancing at his watch, doing his best to ignore Marko's behavior.

"Not until her seams are as straight as her thoughts are crooked."

"So this could take awhile," Tyler said, doing his best to just play along. "Hey, how'd those two get to be such opposites anyway?"

"It's a broken mirror between them." Marko said as if that explained everything. As far as he was concerned, it did explain it all. Both Cameron and Tyler nodded, pretending to understand. Then the three of them went silent while they waited. In that silence, Marko contemplating making them understand. He considered repeating what the Network said that they were a broken mirror, too; and then showing them what that meant. He quickly decided against that; as much fun as it would be. Therese needed Tyler whole; at least for now.

Finally, Therese Vorman came down. She stepped out the elevator and walked to their table like a perfect lady fresh out of finishing school. Marko got up and prepared for her a chair, which she took, and then he stood half a step behind her chair and to the right in case she needed something else.

"Janette told me you were here," she said to Cameron. "We discussed at length the terms in which your visits to my city will be deemed acceptable. These are the terms, and they are non-negotiable. Is that understood?"

"Perfectly."

"Good," she said. "As long as Tyler is in Santa Monica with you, your visits to your ghoul Mercurio will not be interfered with. While you are in my city, you will visit Mercurio, conduct your affairs with him, and leave promptly when you are done. Sp long as you do not attempt to do anything else in Santa Monica, no physical harm will come to you. Again, and I cannot emphasise this enough, the only reason your presence will be tolerated in Santa Monica is to handle your affairs with Mercurio, and provided Tyler is in Santa Monica with you, your affairs with Mercurio will not be interfered with.

"These terms are not up for negotiation, and can only ever be altered by me or Janette. Failure to honor these terms on your part will result in your immediate seeing of the silly clown wallpaper. Are we clear on this matter?"

Marko restrained his urge to look at Therese; for a split second it seemed like Janette was about to came back out.

"We are clear," Cameron agreed, clearly not terribly impressed but willing to make do with what he can get. Whatever those documents are must be worth it.

"Good," Therese smiled. "These terms are effective immediately. Get out of my Nightclub before I decide you are in breach of the terms. Go to your ghoul and get what you need and get out of my city."

For once, Cameron had no smart remark. He got up and left without a word. Marko wondered if he had a modicum of respect for Therese.

He's terrified of her.

Cameron gone, Therese turned her attention to Tyler. Once they began to talk boring shop-talk, Marko wandered off into the Asylum.

Ajax

Bertram Tung once commented that he chose Knox as his ghoul because he can track like a bloodhound. Ajax had seen Knox at work; he was good. Part of his method involved acting like a boob to make it all too easy to underestimate him. Being that he also worked part time as a bounty hunter for a local bail bondsman was perfect. It gave him reason to go around asking about all kinds of shady and shifty characters.

All that said, Ajax still wondered if Bertram ever had much of a chance to really observe a Gangrel tracking someone. Watching Fenris go at it was something to behold. The second he updated her on the possible Assamite/Camarilla lead, she led him to an old house on the beach and started sniffing around like a bloodhound; literally! No stranger to tossing houses himself, Ajax started to help, but it was all Fenris who found anything of use.

"Can't you smell it?" she asked, sniffing. "Cinnamon; it's everywhere in here. He was here, alright."

"What are you talking about?"

"At the tomb last night there was a hint of this guy. Here he's all over the place; he's been living here, probably as a base of operations." She continued to rummage around until she found a scrap of paper with a card attached to it with a paper clip. She examined the card and dropped it. She looked at the scrap more closely and gasped.

"What...?"

Fenris didn't say a word; only bolted past him, thrusting the scrap paper into his hand. She went out the door, leaving Ajax to look at the scrap himself:

Targets to end:

I. Gary Golden: Nosferatu, Hollywood

II. Therese Vorman: Malkavian, Santa Monica (Asylum)

III. Nines Rodriguez: Bruja, Downtown Los Angeles (Last Round)

IV. Isaac Abrams: Toreador, Hollywood (Abrams Jewelers)

V. *Maximilian Strauss: Tremere, location uncertain.

Note: Strauss is not part of the agreement, but he is a hateful Tremere and needs to be ended regardless. All indications suggest he is located either in Downtown or Chinatown. Chantry most likely Downtown, but almost definitely hidden from the eyes of enemies through Thaumeturgical means.

It was a hit list. Fenris was right; this was probably where the Assamite set up shop. Gary was ended. Isaac was dead. Two 'official' targets were down, two to go plus a personal thing with Strauss. As far as Ajax knew, Assamites were vengeful, especially when it came to the Warlocks, but they were professional first. Strauss would be last. That meant it would either be Therese or Nines next. Ajax took a look at the card; it was one of Therese's. She liked to hand them out. That meant she may have even met this guy. That was probably where Fenris was headed. She now had one hell of a head start on him; but he knew one hell of a shortcut. Unless his estimations were off, they'd both arrive at Asylum at about the same time.

Xavier

When Xavier told Damsel about the possibility of the Setites coming into the state, she was furious at the notion. It became very clear very quickly that the Serpents were even worse than the Camarilla or the Sabbat in her mind. Not that he disagreed based on what he knew about them already; but he asked her why.

"They take everything good in the world and ruin it, that's why!" She exclaimed as they headed to Vesuvius. The Theatre was out because of last night, and VV closed her doors to have a 'private party.' "Here's what happens when those damned snakes come around: Anything that is right and good they pervert it into something nasty, they twist it until you can't even recognize it anymore. Next thing you know, some Camarilla asshole comes along to push them out, the Capes look like big heroes, and the Cammies take over and we're all back to square one."

"So it's like a conspiracy," Xavier said dubiously.

"Hey," Damsel shrugged. "You said it, not me."

"So we have to straighten your situation out and get our shit together before that happens." Xavier added to his thought. "You say you've been framed. Is that something the Setites might do to get a foothold?"

"Anything is possible with those Sons of Bitches."

"I see. So we need Strauss to prove your case..."

"As if that's going to happen," Damsel retorted. "More likely he'll prove the case against me to advance the Cammie line."

"Look, Damsel," Xavier said. "LaCroix was a first class jerk-off. You'll get no argument from me on that one. But Strauss isn't all that bad. I'm sure he really wants to do this fair. Besides, if he gets caught screwing around, there's enough of us to wipe out the remaining Camarilla anyway."

Damsel scoffed. "You're a lot like Tyler, X." She said. "Your heart is in the right place, but you still got a lot to learn."

Tabetha

The first thing Tabetha noticed when she got to Chinatown was that it was crawling with Nosferatu. They were all obfuscated, of course, but they were quite literally everywhere; she could see them in every alley, nook and cranny with her Auspex. Anywhere there was a shadow to lurk in seemed to have a Sewer Rat waiting and watching in it. If Gary didn't know she was headed here tonight, it was guaranteed he knew she was here now.

The driver stopped the car in front of the shop that Mr. Ox ran, which was now across the street from her. Tabetha crossed the street and entered the shop; a small and dusty place, the shelves crowded with all manner of items and curiosities. To Tabetha, the manner in which the shelves were stocked seemed completely random. Such chaos was very much anathema to her sensibilities; perhaps that was the lesson Strauss had in mind. Maybe this was about keeping her focus even in chaotic places. That was easy enough. Amid the clutter, she even found the clerk's desk easily enough and navigated her way to the man standing behind it. Out of habit, she checked his aura to get a grasp on who or what she dealing with. What she found gave her cause to pause.

This man had no aura; which was impossible as far as she knew. Even Kindred had auras, and though some could obfuscate to look like something else, they couldn't hide it completely; at least not to her experience. This man could be an ancient, she supposed. To look at him he presented as a very old man, withered and gray. His eyes suggested he was nearly blind, but that couldn't be since he beckoned her to him as she approached.

"You are always welcome here." He greeted her with a dusty voice.

"Thank you," she replied. "Am I right to presume that you are Ox?"

The man behind the desk made a noise that was a cross between a hum of contemplation and a laugh. "That is the name I use now, yes." He said, drawing out the last word.

"Very good," she said. "My name is..."

Ox chuckled. "I know who are you are, Tabetha Toussaint; protégé of Mr. Strauss. And I know why you are here."

"Excellent," Tabetha answered back. Strauss must have notified him. She reached for her money clip to pay him for the bone. Even as she touched it, Ox began again to chuckle dustily. She already knew what this was about; it was as she was taught. Sometimes, there are things that money cannot buy. Even before he spoke again, Tabetha realized he was going to ask a favor of some kind.

"I am reminded of a story," Ox began. "Once there was a young and beautiful girl, the daughter of a rich and powerful man. The daughter was the man's pride and joy, but she was very vain. One day, the girl was at a shop when she saw a beautifully crafted mirror that she thought she must have, but the shopkeeper would not sell it to her at any price. The girl desired the mirror so badly that she stole it. Do you know what happened to the girl?"

Tabetha gave it some thought. Since the shopkeeper wasn't willing to sell it, the father wouldn't have covered the cost of the mirror. Since the father sounds like he dotes on his daughter, he probably didn't make her give it back. She might have told her father that she bought it, and he would likely believe her.

"Did the shopkeeper press charges and take her to court for theft?" she asked.

"No..." he answered, stretching out the word. "The daughter took the mirror home and gazed into it, and then she fell into a trance. Even today, she lies in a coma in the hospital; and Kiki's father pays large amounts of money for her care and a search for the cure. The mirror sits in her room at home; her soul trapped behind the glass. Bring my mirror back to me, and the bone is yours."

That sounded easy enough. She asked Ox where her home was, and all he would say in response was with her father, who was at the Red Dragon Restaurant. Tabetha turned and left the shop to head for the Red Dragon.

At the front desk of the once grand restaurant there was a basket with about $100 dollars in small bills in it, and a picture of an attractive young woman behind it. On the picture was a small plaque which read 'find a cure for my Kiki'. Tabetha fished out a ten dollar bill and put it in the basket.

"Can I help you?" a waitress behind her asked.

Tabetha turned around to face her. "Yes," she replied. "I'm a medical researcher, and I need to speak to Kiki's father. I was told I could find him here. Do you know where he is?"

The waitress, who was clearly bored and unimpressed with her job, stepped around the desk and hit a button underneath it to reveal an elevator behind the desk. "Second floor, first door on your right," she said, letting her pass.

Tabetha thanked her and stepped into the elevator, hitting the button to take her to the second floor. The elevator opened up to a hallway which had three doors in it; one on the left, and two on the right. The door to the left was opened, and the first on the right was opened. She tapped lightly on the door to the right before peaking inside to see an office. Apart from the furniture and decor, the office was empty. On one wall there was a sliding paper door, which she tried upon entering the office. It slid open to a small apartment, which was kept immaculately clean. A quick exploration of the apartment revealed it was lived in by a man, who was not home at the moment. Tabetha found what she correctly guessed was the man exit of the apartment, which took her back to the hallway; standing just outside the second door to the right.

By process of elimination, Tabetha deduced that either Kiki's father had left the building or was behind the door to the left. Back up the hallway, she tapped on the last door lightly. There was no answer.

"Hello..." she called gently, "sir? My name is Tabetha Toussaint. I'm a medical researcher working on your daughter's condition. I'd like to ask you a few questions if I may."

Still no response; Tabetha stepped into a foyer which led into a larger, evidently more feminine apartment. It was apparent that Kiki lived in this one. It was as clean as the man's but not as well organised. It had a look that told her that the apartment was painstakingly maintained to look exactly the way it was found when Kiki's condition was discovered. Such behavior was common with humans when it came to missing or sick children. Calling out to whoever may be in the apartment, Tabetha explored until she found a man in the bedroom, eyes wide open and unblinking on the bed. On the floor beside the bed was a handheld mirror; face down.

Tabetha picked up the mirror, resisting the urge to look into it. Holding it so the glass faced away from her, she began to leave the room when the mirror in her hand jumped. A glint of light shot out from it and touched the man, who leaped up to a seated position in the bed as if from a terrible dream.

"What happened?" the man asked. "I was with my Kiki in an awful place we couldn't leave..."

"You must have dozed off," Tabetha answered. "You were having a nightmare."

"Yes," the man agreed. "That must be it." He looked at Tabetha. "Wait, who are you? What are you doing in my Kiki's apartment?"

Hiding the mirror behind her back, Tabetha established eye contact with the man. "My name is Tabetha Toussaint." She explained. Activating her dominate discipline, she continued; "we had an appointment to discuss your daughters' condition."

For a moment, he looked dubious, but then he finally succumbed. "Yes, I remember that now." He agreed. "I'm sorry if I seemed rude. I'm just very worried about my daughter. Do you have anything new to say about her condition?"

"Yes, sir, we do." Tabetha answered. "She has been showing very subtle signs of recovery, but it is much too early to say for certain. Also, we have developed some theories as to the how all this happened, which is very helpful. Your answers to my questions helped confirm some of our theories." She bowed slightly. "Thank you very much for your time, sir."

"Thank you," the man said back. "Please, I am begging you, heal my Kiki."

"We're doing the best we can, sir." Tabetha said, bowing again before turning to leave, making sure she kept the mirror concealed.

Cameron

In Mercurio's suite, Cameron Hastings checked the documents. Satisfied they were all in order, legitimate and not tampered with or altered in any way, he placed them back into the briefcase and thanked Mercurio for a job well done.

The documents confirmed what he always knew. He was true Hastings, and therefore privy to all the benefits that came with his pedigree. Soon, he would have all the help he needed in establishing himself and his family in Los Angeles, and all of it would be perfectly legal and in accordance to Camarilla law. Nobody; not Nines Rodriguez, not Therese Vorman, not even Max Strauss could stand in his way. They would either join him, or they would fall.

Outside, Tyler waited in his Challenger, idling and the speakers of his sound system pumping out that hip-hop garbage. He had a passenger; a rough looking sort, all black hair and an unkempt beard. He looked like some kind biker. As he approached the car, Cameron recognized the passenger by his unmistakable smile; it was Jack.

From the drivers' seat, Tyler rolled down his window. He did not open or unlock any of the doors.

"Did you get what you came for?" Tyler asked him.

Cameron held up the briefcase. "Yes, I did." He confirmed, and then added that Strauss would be very happy with the results. Cameron saw no harm in keeping his subterfuge in order. He noticed the ghoul that had been following him exit the Building where Mercurio lived. He snapped his fingers as if he forgot something and went back inside.

"Great," Tyler said in a too friendly tone. "I'm glad to hear it. So that means we're even now, right?"

Growing tired of this runaround, Cameron sighed and rolled his eyes. "Yes, Big Guy, we're even now." He agreed.

"Good," Tyler said, smiling. "See you around, Cammie." Tyler then rolled up his window, flipped Cameron the bird and drove away; leaving Cameron in the middle of the street.

It began to rain.

Chapter 5

Tyler

"So let me get this straight," Jack said. "Cammie the Cammie had what basically amounts to a boon on you, and you conned him into blowing it on a bad deal for Santa Monica access?"

"That pretty much is the size of it." Tyler confirmed as they sat in the Last Round, waiting for Nines to show up. Tyler was starting to lose his patience; Jack was wasting time. When he found him waiting at his car earlier, Jack said he had big news from San Francisco. He wouldn't go into any details until Nines was there to hear it; only that the Setite kiddie porn thing was a sham.

"Then you ditched him there, and now he's in violation of that deal."Jack confirmed with a chuckle. "You beat that Ventrue scumbag at his own game." Jack laughed warmly and gave Tyler a solid pat on the back. "That's not bad, kiddo; not bad at all."

Despite himself, Tyler grinned. Getting praise from an old hand at this game like Jack had a way of diffusing just about anybody; even in a loud watering hole blasting punk rock music like the Last Round. "So how did you come by this big news, anyway?"

"That's not important, kiddo," Jack said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "What matters is I got it. I just wish I could've got here quicker. Things are tough for us in San Fran. Prince Ezekiel may be a Ventrue and a cape, but he's not dumb. He runs a real tight ship; and he knows what he's doing. I had a hell of time getting out of there in one piece."

"That's good to know," Nines Rodriguez said, taking a seat at their table. "Glad you could make it, you old pirate."

Once the formalities of greetings-if you wanted to call lighthearted banter formalities – were done, Jack lit a cigar and got down to business.

Fenris

"You have got to be kidding me!" Fenris hissed under her breath. Just as she was approaching the Asylum from the parking garage near the Pier, Ajax stepped out of the shadows of the adjacent alley. She figured she would have to wait up for him after she took off from the beach house; but apparently he knew a shortcut. She knew she shouldn't be surprised, but the Nosferatu and their ways still managed to catch her off guard sometimes.

"Hey there, sweet stuff," Ajax greeted, grinning. That was when it occurred to her that Ajax had a permanent Cheshire grin on his face. In fact, his features in general gave him a look more like an alley cat than a sewer rat. "Long time, no see; we really ought to stop meeting like this. People will start to talk..." he snickered.

"And you better stop with all that dirty talk," Fenris warned, "or I'll just have to tell Skelter you've been putting moves on me. He tends to get possessive, you know."

Ajax guffawed. "You wish you could land a sexy thing like me. Tell you what sweet stuff; let's just keep out torrid night at Asylum to ourselves..." He stepped forward and towards the entrance that the twins were thoughtful enough to provide for the Nosferatu Clan.

Fenris stopped him short. "Hold up a second," she said, pointing to a cab waiting outside the front door. "Check it out."

Therese Vorman stepped out into the street, Marko close behind with an umbrella held above the Baroness's head as she let herself into the cab. Once she was in, Marko circled the cab and got in the other side.

"There goes one of them," Ajax observed. "That leaves one here."

It took a moment for Fenris to figure out what he was talking about. Of course he meant that Janette had to still be inside. While it was clear that Therese was the target, it was possible that the Assamite would try to use Janette as leverage; possibly even take out one twin to get the other worked up to make a mistake. Both of them had to be guarded. Both of them had to be warned.

Do you know where they're going?" She asked.

"Imalia says the gathering tonight is supposed to be a private party at Vesuvius," Ajax replied with a sneer. "I'm getting a little bit sick of being a guest at Whoreador functions."

"Too bad;" Fenris insisted. "Get your ugly mug to Vesuvius. I'll go inside and give Janette a heads up."

Ajax made a disdainful groaning noise that reminded her of an alley cat again. "Fine," he said. Then he faded again into shadows of the alley.

Fenris stepped out of the alley, around the corner in the rain and hustled to the front entrance of the Asylum.

Upon entering, her senses were assaulted with the industrial-techno-rave crap that passed for music in the place. How anyone could listen to that garbage, let alone dance to it was beyond any capacity Fenris had for comprehension. Also, the erratic lighting sequences would be enough to make her want to vomit if she were able. In her mind, it was places like this embodied the cities and amplified them 100-fold. This was the whole reason she wanted out. As she scanned the crowd to see if she could locate Janette, she momentarily lamented sending Ajax to Vesuvius; at least there the lighting and music would be toned down in preparation for the matter concerning Damsel.

Unable to see her, Fenris approached the bar.

"What can I get you, sister?" the bartender, a morbidly obese man covered in tattoos asked, leaning in a little too close.

"I need to speak with Janette!" Fenris shouted into his face, forcing him to back. He glared at her, but quickly realized his attempts at intimidation were to no avail.

"Last I saw she went up to the office," he grumbled. "She had to talk to Therese about something. I saw Therese come down and leave, but..." he hesitated, looked around. "Forget it. She has a way of sneaking past me. There she is on the patio lounge watching the floor." He pointed upwards. Fenris followed his finger and saw Janette. She thanked the bartender and started towards the stairs.

Fenris hated places like this; she found it difficult to use her senses. They tended to get overloaded; especially smell. With so many people wearing so many fragrances, smoking and drinking, sweating from heat, dancing, passion and in some cases outright insanity made for a very annoying stew.

"Janette!" she called.

Janette turned her head with a snap, her pigtails flapping wildly. She saw Fenris and smiled a smile one smiles when one sees an old friend long missed. Before the Malkavian could begin her babbling, Fenris got to the point.

"I don't mean to be rude, but we have to be quick about this," she explained. "On top of Abrams, Gary is dead. The Nosferatu think it was the work of an Assamite. Ajax and I found a hit list where we think he's hiding out, and it looks like Therese is next on his list. Ajax is watching Therese's back, and I need to get you to safety in case he tries to use you as leverage."

Janette cocked her head sideways as if in deep thought. "Are you sure my sister is safe right now?" She asked with a clarity that caught Fenris a little off guard.

"Yes."

"Okay, then," Janette shrugged and started walking casually towards the back of the patio lounge. "I know a place we can go just back here." She said. Fenris realized then that Janette was headed for a fire exit and followed her.

Once outside, Fenris paused to take in the fresh air; she could smell the sea nearby, which was marred really only by the mildly rank smell of garbage from the alley below. Even the subtle smell of cinnamon from Janette was better than the stuffy concoction inside...

...except that Janette always smelled like peppermint.

Fenris barely ducked in time to avoid having her throat slashed open by the Assamite's wickedly curved dagger. As the blade glinted like lightning overhead, she was only vaguely aware that it passed literally soundlessly. She instinctively popped her claws and swiped at her opponents' abdomen, only catch empty air as the Assamite deftly leapt backwards to avoid being gutted. For a moment, she saw that Janette was now a small man standing before her; poised and ready for a fight. Happy to oblige, Fenris lunged forward, claws extended. Still without a single sound, the man greeted her with a spinning heel kick to the side of the head, which knocked her over the fire escape railing and down into the dumpster below. Even as she regained her bearings, the man was jumping down after her; having switched his dagger for a shortsword which was covered in an inky black substance she could only guess was his own blood. She rolled aside and swung wildly with one of her claws. This time, she felt it pierce his flesh; right under his chin. Not much of a wound, but enough to draw first blood. It was also enough to distract the Assamite just long enough for Fenris to renew her attack. She lunged forward, swiping again with her claws and connecting this time across the Assamite's face; raking one his eyes. He let out a sharp cry of pain; the first noise Fenris heard since stepping outside of the Asylum. The Assamite spun, holding his face in his hands, his back now turned to Fenris. Seeing an opportunity, Fenris clocked him at the base of the skull with her forearm, knocking him unconscious.

Fenris retracted her claws and pulled herself and the Assamite out of the dumpster. Wanting to get him to Vesuvius discreetly and before he regained consciousness, Fenris picked the little man up and carried him through the alleyways of Santa Monica towards Mercurio's. At least the rain might wash some of the stink off her by the time she got there.

Marko

"Aw, man!" Knox laughed over the phone so heartily that Marko had to hold it away from his ear. "I really wish you could see this, man! First, Tyler left that creep in dust, then one cab just pulled away the second he tried to approach, and just now another one nailed him with puddle as it zoomed by like he wasn't even there!" Knox laughed again.

Cabbie won't judge...

Marko put the phone to speaker so Therese could hear the play by play of Cammie the dirty duckling. She may be wound tight, but she is of Malkav, so a good prank is bound to be appreciated. It's in her blood. Besides, Janette is in that head of hers, too; and she would love this.

"Now he's looking around like he's not sure what to do next," Knox continued. "He's eyeing the clinic, now the all night diner. No, it looks like he's going to check out Tripp's! Aw man, I hope he does! Tripp and me, we go way back, he was the first guy I got hold of for this gag."

A Mona-Lisa smile crossed Therese's lips. She took her glasses off for a second, and for a moment Marko thought Janette was going to come out. No such luck; Therese put her glasses back on as Knox announced that Tripp refused to open the gate just inside his front door and told Cammie he was closed for inventory.

"He looks pretty pissed, man!" Knox could barely contain himself. "I tell you, Bertram's going to love this! I think your guy is starting to figure out what happened, though. He's just heading back to his guy's place. Are those roadblocks up yet?"

Marko glanced out the cab window as the taxi eased past a drinking driving roadblock.

"Yes, yes they are indeed up," Marko confirmed. He spoke next to Therese, who was clearly enjoying the idea of Cameron Hastings suffering in her city. "They know what to do if they see one of his limos, right?"

"Of course," Therese replied in her professional tone. "If there's one thing I excel at in my city it is making sure law and order is well maintained."

On the phone, Knox said, "Oops, I better get inside; someone's coming up the alley. It looks like a chick carrying a guy. So you know I'll be at my buddy Carson's place."

Hanging up, Marko recalled briefly the time he met a bounty hunter named Carson; he was the one who got amputated in the line of duty by Gimble.

Now Knox does the hunting and Carson does research...

Ajax

One thing Ajax noticed over the past decade; the Kindred of LA tended to take the Nosferatu lightly. He sometimes wondered if they would be so flippant and glib towards the Clan if they had any idea how many of them there really were, or just how much access to each and every one of the other Kindred they really had through the Warrens under the city sewers. By taking several shortcuts through the Warrens, Ajax was well on his way to Hollywood; and probably way ahead of the Malkavians. Along the way, he picked up lots of juicy morsels, as Bertram liked to call them; The Witch-girl was in Chinatown picking up a Bone of Lies, Damsel and X were already at Vesuvius, and Smiling Jack was back in town, debunking the Setite kiddie porn ring to Nines and Tyler at the Last Round. He was also confirming the Ventrue family conspiracy that Bertram mentioned last night. Apparently the hub of that deal was in San Francisco, under their long-term Prince Ezekiel Hastings.

That was good to know. Ajax would have to remember to look into the possibility of any relation between the Prince of San Francisco and their own resident Ventrue. He already had one of the Clan get word to Bertram about the possible connection.

In fairly short time, Ajax emerged from the tomb in the Hollywood cemetery and was taking back alleys towards Vesuvius. He had decided he would wait outside until Marko and Therese showed up. Gary might have loved this part of town, but Ajax hated it; it was all so fake and pretentious; much like the Clan that claimed it as their Barony.

Xavier

Shortly after Therese and Marko showed up, it occurred to Xavier Vega to check the so-called secret access point for any Nosferatu that might try to use it. He had discovered it about eight years ago when he checked Vesuvius for security reasons. It was well hidden in the crawlspace beneath one of the smaller stages and led to another well hidden entrance into one of the electrical rooms; Xavier would probably have never found it if he didn't actually go looking for this sort of thing or made Auspex a high priority in his disciplines. When he did find it, he considered forgetting to tell VV, but thought better of it; it is her club, after all. She decided to allow it. As little as she thought of the Nosferatu, she said at the time, it is better not to incense them too much. "There are more of them than any of us know," she warned. "They could possibly overwhelm all of Hollywood with sheer numbers."

Still, Xavier reasoned to himself as VV greeted and entertained Therese, Marko and Damsel, there was no reason not to let the Sewer Rats know that we know of their little hidey hole. It might even do some good, he figured, if they knew they were getting into the new Baroness' club only because she allowed them to.

He discreetly opened the electrical room door just as the rigged meter panel began to swing open on the other side. As the panel opened, the odor of chlorine bleach was a little overwhelming. No doubt as to who among the Nos was going to attend tonight.

"No need to obfuscate, Ajax." Xavier said casually. "You were invited to this party anyway."

Wordlessly, Ajax stepped into the room. "How long have you known about this place?"

"Long enough," Xavier said, stepping aside to let Ajax pass into the club itself. The Nosferatu was hard to read; he always wore that weird grin no matter how he felt. Of all the Sewer Rats, Xavier always found Ajax the most unnerving because of that. The others were easy in comparison: Imalia was always upset about something, for example. Mitnick hardly anyone ever saw, but he usually wore his emotions on his sleeve. Barabbas was probably the most humane, and Bertram was so far removed from humanity some wondered if really felt anything at all anymore. Xavier suspected it was a combination of his youth and that ironic poker face of his that got Ajax got the job of clan liaison to the surface world.

"In the main room," he directed Ajax. "Marko and Therese are already here."

"I know," Ajax replied. "Jack, Nines and Tyler are likely to get here next, right after they pick up Skelter."

"What about Fenris?" Xavier asked before thinking. Even as the words came out he realized how bone-headed they were. It was well known that Fenris and Damsel had lots of trouble playing nice together; it was best if they stayed out of each other's way. Chances were just as good that the Gangrel wouldn't show at all.

"She's looking into something that might help clear Damsel," Ajax said as he passed Xavier and headed into the main room. "I gotta talk to Therese about something; now."

Tabetha

The ritual to prepare the bone was way more involved than Tabetha would have thought. It probably took even longer than normal since Max had her do it. She had mixed feelings about that fact; on one hand, she was a little peeved that she did all the work. On the other hand, she was pleases that her Mentor thought her ready for something so advanced. In response to her saying so, Max chuckled mildly and told her she had much yet to learn. That was one of the great things about Clan Tremere; there was always something new to learn.

By the time they were done and finally got to Vesuvius to test her work on Damsel's testimony, it seemed like other than a few Nosferatu, everyone except Cameron and Fenris were there. Even Old Smiling Jack was present. Tabetha glanced over her shoulder to see if Max would reveal any sort of response. It was no secret that Jack had rigged up the entire mess with the Ankaran Sarcophagus, which came perilously close to shattering the Masquerade into irreparable shards. Behind his tinted glasses, Tabetha could see a single eyebrow rise ever so slightly but otherwise he showed nothing.

Whatever the motley crew of Anarchs were talking about fell immediately silent when they came in. All eyes fell on the pair of Tremere. Strauss had told her once that despite everything their clan has done for the good of the Kindred, they were still regarded as 'Usurpers' and therefore never fully trusted. She should expect the others to watch them as closely as they could. Still, to be under this much overt scrutiny was more than a little insulting.

"Please," Strauss said evenly. "Feel free to continue."

"It can wait," Damsel said bitterly; "Let's just this Kangaroo Court crap over with."

"Very well," Strauss capitulated to Damsel's demand. He motioned Tabetha forward with the bone she collected from Ox. Tabetha came forward and noticed how everyone parted to let her pass; like a Red Sea of people. It was as if they feared the bone. She heard someone mutter something but couldn't quite make it out; it sounded like 'not right now' or 'quiet now'. Tabetha guessed it was probably Marko talking to the voices in his head. As she got closer to Damsel, she could see she was trying to conceal her apprehension with disbelief; rolling her eyes in what was supposed to look like disdain. Tabetha suppressed her smile. That was one of the other great things about Clan Tremere; nobody ever wants to mess with the Warlocks if they can at all help it. The real question Tabetha had about Damsel right now was what was it she was really afraid of? Was it that she suspected some kind of set up? Or was it that she knew she was guilty? Deciding it didn't much matter now, Tabetha held the human rib which she acquired from Ox and prepared for this ritual out n front of Damsel.

According to her mentor, all she had to do was ask simple questions and it would blacken if the one who answers tells a lie. "Damsel, did you shoot Isaac Abrams?"

"No, I didn't."

"Did you conspire to have Isaac Abrams shot?"

"No, I didn't." Damsel replied truthfully. The bone remained gleaming white. "Are you happy now? Can we move on?"

"I'll ask the questions for now," Tabetha insisted. "Did you have any reason or ill intent against Isaac Abrams?"

"I think he was a pretentious Cape, but I certainly didn't want him dead."

The bone remained unchanged.

"I think that will be enough, my apprentice," Strauss interjected. "It is clear to all that Damsel was being forthright with her claims. Whoever the shooter is clearly has formidable talents; particularly with the discipline of obfuscate."

Tabetha Toussaint put the bone away just as Ajax spoke up.

"We could be looking for an Assamite," he said, dispensing with formalities. Given the reaction of those present, Tabetha reasoned that mentioning this threat was enough to allow him his abruptness. "He got Gary last night, too. Bertram Tung is now Primogen of the Clan."

Cameron

He couldn't believe this had actually happened. That Bruja actually abandoned him in Santa Monica of all places. Tyler DeFaulte has no idea what he has done; Cameron told himself as he considered his options. That pothead Tripp snubbed him, and it was likely he would meet the same lack of hospitality anywhere he went in this joke of a town. The baroness and her idiot twin set him up for this humiliation and wired there little burg to shut him out. They must have. That meant there was no point in trying to go anywhere other than back to Mercurio. On top of that, their buffoon of a ghoul was tailing him; probably reporting his every move. Cameron thought it strange the ghoul would duck into Mercurio's building as he approached.

"Cameron!" a voice hissed at him as he passed the alley to one side of the building. He paused and peered down the alley in the rain. Drenched, bruised, and carrying a small man in her arms, Fenris Fraust came forward. "We have to get this piece of crap to Vesuvius, ASAP."

From humiliation to a whole new opportunity, Cameron thought. Truly this world does favor the Hastings family.

"What do you mean, 'we'?" He retorted. "Are you asking for my help?"

"What do you think?" She said, barely biting her tongue in time to keep from calling him some derogatory name. She was showing restraint; a rare trait to find in a Gangrel. "Look, I'll owe you a favor of similar value, okay? That's the way you Ventrue like to play it, right?"

Cameron smiled. "If you insist," he replied. "Alright, I'll help you. Let's get your new playmate inside, shall we? I have a call to make."

They went inside and headed straight for Mercurio's suite. The ghoul was on his couch. He stood and greeted them, hanging up his phone as he stood.

"I just got word about what Therese did to you," he said. "Talk about a raw deal. I don't get what she has against you. I've known you for ten years and never had a problem... Who is that?"

"Mercurio," Cameron said gently," I'd like you to meet my associate Fenris Fraust of Clan Gangrel. I'm afraid I don't know the name of her incapacitated playmate..."

"This," Fenris dropped the small man unceremoniously on the floor, "is the Assamite that killed Gary last night, and tried to kill me tonight after I ran interference in his attempts to destroy Therese."

In a panicked flurry, Mercurio kicked the table in front of him over, grabbed a cutlass fastened to the underside, and jumped across the room to lop the Assamite's head off. Once complete, as Cameron and Fenris stood stunned at how quickly the ghoul moved the remains of the Assamite crumbled to ashes on his carpet.

"What the hell, ghoul!" the Gangrel exclaimed.

What the hell is right," Mercurio retorted. "What the hell were you thinking about; bringing an Assamite into my house?"

"We needed him alive," Fenris replied icily, "so we could interrogate him. We need to know who hired him."

"I'll save you the trouble, sister." Mercurio said. "You wouldn't get nothing from him. That's a fact; and the thing with Assamites is they never stop until their target is dead, or they are."

Cameron suppressed a gleeful grin. What Mercurio said was true, but incomplete and inaccurate. With this one dead, their Clan would send another. The only way he knew of to end an Assamite contract was if the target killed his would be assassin. The Ventrue had to think quickly; and already a plan began to form.

"You screwed up, Mercurio," he said, holding up a hand to keep him silent and let him finish. "But since you have served me so well for a decade, I can and will resolve this. You were not his target, so another will be sent to complete his mission. As it stands now, you will be added to the list, but I have the right connections to save your hide. I will put word out that you never saw this Assamite; and that it was in fact Therese Vorman that bested him. This way, it is on record that his target nullified the contract."

"Just to be clear," Fenris interjected, "You're doing this for your ghoul as a favor for his service. I owe you nothing for this mess."

"Yes, of course," Cameron agreed.

"And since your help in getting him to Vesuvius is no longer needed, I owe you nothing; period."

Cameron frowned. That wasn't quite what he had in mind. "Fine," he capitulated reluctantly.

"Good," Fenris said. She turned to leave, saying she would get herself to Hollywood. Cameron made a note that the Gangrel was willing to go to lengths to stay out of debt. That was a problem; but it was one he would deal with another time.

Mercurio started to clean up the ashes while Cameron summoned his limousine on his cell phone.

Chapter 6

Tyler

It was clear that Damsel was still pissed at him when she sat beside Tyler but angled herself to face away from him; but the fact that she sat beside him at all was a good indication to him that she would get over it. While Jack was telling the gathering that the Setite rumor about the child porn empire was nothing more than a line of BS made up by a family of Cammie Ventrue to insert themselves into LA affairs, Tyler let Damsel sit and quietly fume.

"It's how the Hastings family took Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver." Jack said. "We already know Ezekiel has got an iron grip on San Fran; now he's reaching out across the whole state. Oakland and Bakersfield are holding out, but he's entrenched in Sacramento."

Tyler wondered if Cameron was party to this. He was, after all, a Hastings. He noted Damsel gave a sly smile to X. It had the 'I told you so' look to it; Tyler opted to let it go for now.

"Ajax," Tyler said, "you said an Assamite could be behind the killings, right?" Ajax nodded. "So what are the chances that this Assamite was hired by the Hastings' to destabilize the peace?"

"That," Nines chimed in, "sounds like the kind of thing a bunch of Cammie capes would do; hire a bunch of assassin thugs to get their dirty while they sit back all nice and clean in their Ivory Tower."

Tyler nodded at Nines. "I think we might want to ask our friend Cameron Hastings what he knows about his family and their activities once he deigns to grace us with his appearance." He turned to Strauss and Tabetha. "While we're waiting, why not ask our Camarilla contingent what they know about the Hastings family?"

"Don't look at me," Tabetha countered. "This is as much news to me as it is to you."

Strauss leaned forward onto the table he and his student sat at. "Ezekiel Hastings has been silent with me lately," he said in his carefully measured tones. "I was aware of his family moving northward through information provided via Clan lines of communication in the Vancouver Chantry, but that is all."

"Obviously we are looking at this backwards," Therese interjected. That came as no real surprise; she was just told that she was the next target, and was only barely satisfied by Marko's assurances that Janette was safe. "If we want to know who hired this Assamite, we need to capture him and question him. Then of course we eliminate him. Since I'm his next target, I should execute him and then end the contract."

As this point was being confirmed as the likely best course to take, Tyler turned his attention to Damsel. "Hey Damsel..." He started to say only to be silenced by her with a finger put up to his lips.

"I get it, Tye," she said. "You got faked out. Don't tell me you're sorry. Just shut the fuck up about it, I'll get over it."

Tyler nodded. That was about as close to peace on the issue they were going to get for now. Damsel pulled her finger back just as Fenris came bustling through the front door.

Fenris

"Damsel didn't shoot anybody." Fenris announced. "It was an Assamite; he made himself look like her to frame her. He nearly got me when I caught him disguised as Janette."

Therese stood bolt straight at the mention of her sisters' name. "Where is she? Is she alright? I swear if she's harmed in any way..."

"I promise you she's fine, Baroness," Marko took hold of her arm. "After Isaac got shot I made sure she was safe, just like you commanded." Therese looked at Marko and sat back down, clearly agitated at the thought of Janette being in harm's way. Fenris thought that odd since the two of them were always bickering. She reasoned then that it must be the fact they were sisters twice over, whatever disagreements they might have. Marko regarded her. "And where is the Assamite now?"

"He's dead." Fenris replied.

"You foolish Gangrel" Therese exclaimed, "We needed him alive to question him and to remove him in a way we could end the contract!"

Swallowing her pride, Fenris allowed the Malkavian her little tantrum. Given the circumstance, it was understandable. "I know that, Baroness," she said as soothingly as she could. "I took him to Mercurio's. He freaked out and killed him. Cameron was there, and he promised that he would arrange things to look like you nailed the Assamite." That seemed to calm Therese down. She mumbled something about be able to live with a debt to Cameron.

Xavier Vega spoke; "It sounds like he might know something we don't. Like maybe who hired the Assamite in the first place."

"I agree," Fenris replied, taking a seat beside Skelter, "One of them, anyway."

Skelter looked at her questioningly. "What do you mean one of them?"

"The one Mercurio killed is the one who killed Gary. The one who shot Isaac has a totally different smell."

"You mean there's another one in town?" Nines asked.

"At least," Fenris confirmed.

Jack whistled. "Wow, Old Zeke really means business about taking LA."

Marko cocked his head to an angle, as if listening to someone talking in an earpiece. Slowly he turned his gaze towards Ajax. "By any chance, cleaning agent, do you happen to have something from the dead Assamite?"

Marko

If he could have, blinked, Ajax would have. Mark Oxford was sure of that. The Network just informed him that the Nosferatu had a letter and a card.

"Yeah," Ajax confirmed. He handed a piece of paper and a card to him. The card was one of the Baroness' club cards and not much interest to Marko. The paper, however, was another story altogether; on it was a list of names which were probably targets. Marko set the card on the table in front of him and held the list in both hands.

Using his abilities with Auspex, Marko attempted to get an imprint off the paper's history:

A small man in a big room; it's an office. The small man is at a desk, writing down the names being dictated to him by another man. The names he's writing are the names on the paper. He adds Strauss to the list as an afterthought. The small man looks up from the desk to the man dictating the names; the second man looks a lot like an older version of Cameron, but with long hair, and a much older suit kept in perfect condition. He has a feel to him that suggests he is only barely human.

Marko dropped the paper and described what he saw off it. The Wolf Girl confirmed that the small man was the Assamite she discovered. Jack was able to confirm that the second man had to be Ezekiel Hastings.

"I'll tell you one thing," Jack added. "If there is ever one Ventrue that I have even an iota of respect for, it's Old Zeke. We've been at each other a long time, he and I; with a rivalry like ours it's hard to not gain some respect for each other."

"Great," Tyler interjected. "So now we know Cameron is probably related to the Prince of San Francisco. Odds are good they're in bed together somehow."

Beware the snake in the Emperor's lap.

"You say that you and the Emperor have a history," Marko said to Jack. "May I mine your grey matter?"

"Sure thing kiddo," Jack replied. "Fire away."

"Do you know, by any chance, if the Emperor has a love interest, or maybe an advisor, maybe?"

"Old Zeke holds Primogen Councils twice a month," Jack answered. "I don't know for sure, but word on the street is that he and the Toreador Primogen have a thing going on. Seeing how much he favors her, the rumor makes sense. I can't say I blame him, though; she's got curves in all the right places." Jack chuckled.

There's a Serpent in the Roses.

"I know the Primogen of San Francisco," X announced. "Cassandra has sent a few promising acts my way."

"I see." Marko replied. "I see as clear as stained glass. May I mine some more?"

Both Jack and X concurred.

"Good. Is there any chance that the Roses might have been infiltrated by the Serpents?" Marko asked.

Xavier blanched at the question. VV adjusted herself in her seat, obviously uncomfortable with the notion. Marko didn't need the Network to tell him why; if the Setites worked their way into the Toreador Clan, then they may have opened the door to let the Serpents in without even knowing it. Xavier glanced at VV, who nodded slowly.

"I'll look into it." He said, getting up to leave the room.

"I'll see what I can dig up on Cammie," Ajax volunteered. Again, Marko needed no help from the Network. Ajax wanted a little payback for Gary. Nobody made a move to stop the Nosferatu from leaving.

Ajax

Ajax wasted no time getting downtown and to the Skyline apartments. Along the way, he dropped word off that he was following a lead that Cameron might be making moves that screw with the Clan, and maybe had something to do with Gary's murder. Just below the Clan entrance to the Skyline, Ajax paused to calm himself down a little. Going into frenzy would do no good. Once settled, he let himself up into the building, and then into the ventilation system to get to Cameron's apartment. He wasn't too worried about his ghoul. She was probably managing the hotel that he bought. As for the Ventrue himself, Ajax actually hoped he was home; the Nosferatu was in the mood to grind some bones to get some answers.

Peering through the grate in the vent which led to the living room, it looked to Ajax like he would not be so lucky. He continued up to the bedroom grate, and checked the one in the closet as well; on the off chance he was heard and someone was waiting in ambush for him. Nobody was home.

Disappointed, Ajax quietly removed the grate and climbed through into the closet and out into the bedroom. Ignoring the decor, he headed for the desk upon which a laptop computer sat. It was one the Mitnick built. Ajax could hardly believe that Cameron would actually be making this so easy. He shrugged at the Ventrue's apparent foolishness and booted the computer up; it was password protected, not that that mattered. All of Mitnick's models had codes embedded in them so all Clan Nosferatu could easily hack them. The only trick was finding the right back door. That was okay, too. Ajax knew them all.

He ran them; one by one until one of them opened. Once in, he decided to check Cammie's emails. There was nothing too interesting in his inbox; apparently he avoided doing things digitally or at least on this unit. In his outbox; however, there was one message to at tower dot com. It read:

There has been a hiccup; our man is down. The contract is valid; the blood is on a wolf named Skelter. Request a new man be sent post haste.

"You Cammie son of a bitch, Hastings," Ajax muttered. He had found all he needed to know; Cameron was in on the Hastings family plot. Having a thought, he went back to the inbox to browse more closely. Sure enough; he found something written in a decently subtle code. It was an invitation to come and see a resort and enjoy a new nightclub in Sacramento, sponsored by the Hastings Tower Corporation.

Being true to his Clan, Ajax promptly forwarded both messages he found to Mitnick and Bertram via the Shrek net. He could keep that news within the Clan until they decided just what they wanted to do with it. They could just come forward with damning evidence against Cameron and therefore the Camarilla contingent in LA, or they could hold it over their collective heads and put their collective asses in a sling.

Taking a few seconds to remove all traces of him even being on the computer, he then logged out, and shut down. Once he was satisfied that he had everything exactly the way he found it and that there was no evidence he was ever even in the suite, he made his way back to the sewers.

In the building cellar, just as he was about to go through the access point he detected a presence there with him. Looking around, he activated his Potence to his maximum and clutched a broken two-by-four to use as a stake if the need arose. He searched the cellar, and then standing right in front of him was a scaly creature; humanoid in shape but covered with a hide that resembled the skin of a snake. The thing hissed at him before he plunged the makeshift stake into its chest, driving it all the way through its back. The thing reeled back a step, looking down at the wood impaled through it. Then it looked back up Ajax, and locked eyes with him.

Suddenly Ajax couldn't move; it was like the thing with its serpentine eyes had paralyzed him with its gaze.

"Now it's my turn," the thing hissed at him again before its tongue lashed out and nailed him square between the eyes, stunning him enough to cause him to reel back a step. Then the thing inhaled deeply and exhaled some kind of burning sand all over his skin. Ajax spun away, shrieking in pain. The thing easily pulled the two-by-four out of its chest and in turn plunged it into his chest. Its strike wasn't as through and through as his, but it was enough to pierce his heart and sink him into torpor.

Xavier

In quarters which he shared part time with Velvet towards the back of her Club, Xavier let out a subtle sigh of relief. Based on his findings, though the Toreador Clan in San Francisco had been compromised, it appeared the damage on the West Coast had been mitigated to that city alone. It wounded him that something must have happened to Cassandra, but at least whatever it was had not yet spread too far.

Because of his Pit, Xavier Vega had good relations with several prominent members of the music guild within the Clan across the country. This included no small number of Primogen within the cities they dwelt in, and even included one Prince; Stewart Bluenote of Nashville, Tennessee. Granted, he was often excluded from invites to parties, but he was well known and even revered by many in the Clan for nearly losing his life and, in the eyes of many, sacrificing his soul in order to destroy Andrei the Tzimizce ten years ago.

He had just finished viewing the responses he sent to each of his connections. In each, he asked the same question, designed to be a verification code to their identity; each was supposed to answer the question in a very specific manner. All of them, except for Cassandra, replied correctly.

He also received a request for a Skype conversation from Charity; former Primogen and now Harpy of Vancouver British Columbia. He accepted the request and engaged.

On his monitor, Charity appeared in the south wing of her gallery; behind her was the south entrance. He could tell from the series of paintings that spanned over the arch of the entrance, each depicting the path of the sun across the sky. Charity herself was radiant as always; her platinum hair tied smartly in a ponytail to accent her eyes which were as blue as the waters of Tahiti. Xavier made a point of not looking directly into his monitor for too long; lest the Clan curse take hold.

"We have just finished up with a Gathering of all Kindred here," she told him. "Oliver gave us the news."

That was the answer Xavier was looking for. Once again, it appeared the compromise was isolated.

"Thank you, Charity," Xavier nodded at the camera.

"Now, to be serious," Charity added. "We really did just finish, and Oliver really did bear news." The tone in her voice suggested this news was not very good. Oliver was the Sheriff of Vancouver, a Nosferatu. "He tells us his intelligence agents have detected large shipments of heroin being funneled through Vancouver all over the continent; probably courtesy of some snake or another."

That wasn't good, but it could be much worse. "Thank you," Xavier said. "We will keep watch for that."

"There's more. It's believed that within those shipments is a mummy headed for Los Angeles." Charity said. "Unfortunately we don't know who it is. If the serpents are keeping it quiet enough even Oliver can't find out, it has to be someone very important to them."

"I see." Xavier said quietly. "What is Daniel doing about it?"

"For now, all he really can do is delay the shipment. As you know, Prince Hastings is still a new thing to most of the Kindred here, so there are many who are not yet ready to trust him completely."

"So not everyone in Vancouver is behind the Hastings Empire?" He looked at the monitor long enough to catch a moment of surprise in her face.

"I take it Jack made it home, then." She concluded. "No, as a matter of fact, hardly anybody here likes the idea of one family of Ventrue holding the reins of power along the coast. Daniel himself is a Hastings, but insists he is not party to the Empire. Many are dubious of his claim. That is why I was given the role of Harpy by the Court; to keep an eye on him."

"Your court chose well." He smiled. "So why are they sending this mystery mummy here?"

"Again, we don't know. Whatever it is, it has Oliver in a near panic. He says his theory is conjecture, but he believes it might be either their founder or one of his first children."

There was no need to explain how bad that would be. Xavier thanked Charity again and indicated he would inform the council immediately. Charity asked him to greet Velvet for her.

"I will," X promised. Charity and VV had a long history together. As a thought, he asked. "By any chance do you know why she's so freaked out by the Followers of Set?"

Charity was silent. She pouted in contemplation, and finally said, "They did things to her. To both of us, really; it's amazing neither of us burned out totally. Can we please just leave it at that?"

Xavier nodded and they said their parting greetings.

Tabetha

X rejoined the Gathering; though his outward expression was one that appeared to be as confident as ever, Tabetha sensed a degree of melancholy in him. Before he said anything to anyone else, he sat beside Velvet and whispered something in her ear. She whispered something back, and he nodded. His expression revealed a distinct level of relief.

"If there has been an infiltration within the Clan," he said aloud to the group, "it has been isolated to San Francisco for the time being. However, a friend of mine in Vancouver has given me a heads up on large shipments of heroin being dispersed from there across the continent. The Nosferatu there believe it to be Setite in origin."

"Your sources are good, Toreador, I'll give you that." A gravelly voice said from the far end of the club. Everyone turned to the spot the voice came from and saw Bertram Tung standing there, dour faced as usual. "Care to tell them the rest of the story, or shall I?"

"How did you..."

"We can talk about how I got past your so called security measure, fledgling, or we can discuss the real threat the Serpents pose." Bertram interrupted. Since nobody spoke to that, he continued. "Within a shipment of that heroin coming here to Los Angeles, there is also supposed to be a mummy that Oliver believes is the Kindred the snakes claim is Set himself."

Everyone was silent.

Tabetha had been researching what the Tremere knew of the Followers of Set, and had a pretty good idea what was being implied; the Setites were gearing up to wake their progenitor and begin the final stages of their endgame.

"So what is being done about it?" she asked.

"For now," Xavier chimed in, "Prince Daniel Hastings is holding the vessel with that shipment in his city."

"Before you ask, fledgling, Oliver figures that the only Serpent old enough or powerful enough to wake the mummy properly is here in LA." Bertram answered her next question. "We don't know why they can't get him up there." He paused, looked towards the front entrance. "Welcome to the party, Ventrue. I'm sure we're all thrilled to see you."

"I have no doubt." Cameron said, swaggering into the gathering and casually tossing his coat onto a chair beside Tabetha, placing her square in between him and Strauss. Sitting down, he continued. "Pardon my tardiness, I was unavoidably detained."

"Then I trust your affairs in my city are taken care of?" Therese asked.

Cameron turned to face Therese. "Yes, Baroness, they are. Thank you for your hospitality."

"And what about the Assamite mess," Fenris blurted. "Is that taken care of too?"

"Yes, of course it is." He replied forcing patience. "I said I would deal with that, didn't I?"

Out of curiosity, Tabetha took the bone out again, but kept it under the table. "So the Assamites believe that Therese Vorman destroyed him, and that contract is void. Is this true?"

"Yes, it's true." Cameron said. "Are done with this line of questions now? Can we move on to whatever it was that you were talking about when I came in?"

While X caught him up, Tabetha looked down at the bone; it had turned black. Cameron was lying.

Cameron

About 24 hours ago, Cameron Hastings was wondering if a Kindred in a torpid state from a stake in the heart was aware of what was going on around him. Now, he knew the answer to his personal inquiry. The fact of the matter was that he was aware, but couldn't make much sense of anything. It was like a waking dream or a nightmare within a nightmare that he couldn't wake from no matter how he tried. Now that he knew, he wouldn't wish anything like this on his worst enemy. He was almost certain his eyes were open, but all he saw was absolute darkness. He was almost certain someone or something put him here; wherever here was. He had no idea who or what they were. He could remember the moments before being staked, but only barely:

After the hassle with roadblock after roadblock out of Santa Monica, he finally made it to his apartment. Heather wasn't home; nor did he expect her to be. She was meant to be at the hotel. He used the time alone to freshen up; change his clothes, fix his hair, that sort of thing. Then he sent the message to Prince Ezekiel framing Skelter the Gangrel for the destruction of the Assamite. The idea was to have the contract active until the remaining Barons were destroyed and Skelter as well in order to demoralize that little bitch of his. He already figured they would take a shot at Strauss; though he doubted they would have any success. Satisfied with his work, he logged out and turned around to face himself, grinning at himself maliciously before impaling himself with the stake. As he crumpled to the floor, a set of arms caught him and carried him away. Next he remembered a transport of some kind; a van, maybe. People were with him; laughing. One of them might have said something about the Nosferatu, but he wasn't sure.

Was the Nosferatu who did this? He wasn't sure. Was he in the Warrens? He didn't know. Was Bertram behind this? He didn't think so. Bertram had nothing to gain from this. If anything, Bertram stood to lose by going against him; he would lose a great opportunity to be placed high in the Hastings Court. Cameron meant to give him a very good position; Sheriff, at the very least, or maybe even Harpy.

Something else was happening. He was being moved again. He was falling deeper into the surreal state he was already in. Is this what final death is like?


Author's note: I apologize for the redundant format; I haven't figured out how to post each chapter as a separate document :(

Chapter 7

Tyler

Tyler wasn't buying what Cameron was selling; not for a second. First off, he actually thanked Therese, like he meant it. Second, he didn't so much as glance his way, let alone approach him after the Gathering. Third, he was being an impatient dick, sure, but he wasn't being rude about it. It was like Cammie was trying to suck up or something; definitely trying to make a sale of some kind. All Tyler knew for sure was that he wasn't buying it. Leaving Vesuvius, he hustled to catch up to Damsel, Nines, and Jack.

"Listen, Tye," Damsel piped in, "I already told you we were ok, alright? We don't need to do any heart to heart about it or anything like that. Just drop it, ok?"

Puzzled, Tyler frowned, and then realized what she was getting at. "This isn't about that! Shit, girl, hanging out with X must have gotten to you; all of the sudden you're an egomaniac."

Damsel pouted; that was a good sign. It was her way of saying maybe he should try to take the ego out of her. Apparently his attempt at banter was the right move. "What is it about then?" she asked.

"It's Cameron, man." Tyler said. "He's up to something."

"What else is new?" Nines countered. "He's a Ventrue, kid; and Camarilla to boot. Remember what I told you ten years ago; the Camarilla's full of shit."

Jack waved Nines off and turned his attention to Tyler. "Tell us what's on your mind, kiddo. What've you got on him?"

Nines and Damsel got real quiet. Jack had a way about him; if he was around, others couldn't help but follow his lead and take his call on matters serious. If he thought Tyler might be on to something, Tyler would get his chance to spit it out. Nines Rodriguez was great at what he did, but often he got onto a track and would not deviate from it. Tyler always thought that was both an asset and a liability, depending on the situation. Damsel had tremendous spirit and passion, she was quick thinking when it was needed, but again she could get so passionate about her ideals she sometimes got blinded by them. Jack was different. If he thought someone had something new to add, he would hear it out. If he thought you were off, he had no problem letting you know it; but if he thought you might be on the ball, you would know that, too.

Tyler said. "Was I the only one noticed how polite he was acting? I mean, for him, anyway? You'd think he want words with me after how I set him up; but nothing. And Therese; she was in on it, but he thanked her like nothing happened. I've seen him do business; it looks a lot like that, but different.

"You notice how cool he was about the Setites? It was like he figured he already had everything under control. I'm telling you; he's trying to sell some line of bull. We gotta watch it with him."

Jack, Nines, and Damsel all looked at each other.

"Sun's coming up soon." Nines said finally. "Whatever you've got in mind kid, it better be quick, or it'll have to wait."

Tyler glanced around. Across the parking lot, he saw Tabetha talking with Marko and Therese, discreetly showing them the bone she used on Damsel. It was black now instead of gleaming white. Strauss was waiting nearby, looking like he was eager to leave, clearly aware how soon it would be until the sun rose. Tyler headed towards them. By the time he got there, Tabetha had said her piece and joined Strauss on their way to their Chantry. Cameron was long gone in his limo; and Bertram was nowhere to be seen.

Fenris

Before having to endure watching X and VV do whatever it is they do behind closed doors, Fenris and Skelter got out of Vesuvius. Outside, Fenris noted Tyler was talking to Marko and Therese; most likely about that club network thing Tyler was going on about awhile back at the Last Round, she figured. Nines, Jack, and Damsel were at the other end of the parking lot, huddled together in what looked to her like a football huddle. The two of them headed for the huddle.

Damsel glanced in their direction as they approached and broke off a couple of paces. She waited for them, arms crossed over her chest, wearing her usual scowl that suggested disapproval as she eyed Fenris. Once they got close enough, Fenris stopped in front of her and Skelter continued to join the boys.

"Let me guess, Gangrel," Damsel said, "this is the part where get on me about how you saved my ass, right?"

Fenris rolled her eyes. "Look, Dame," she countered; knowing full well the Brujah loathed being called that. "It's no secret that you and I aren't exactly BFF's. We probably never will be. Despite that, I'm not going to let you get set up like that. You deserve better than that."

Damsel's glare softened a little. Fenris wondered if the Brujah was aware the subtle tells she let out. Somehow she doubted it.

"Yeah, that's cool." She said finally. Damsel made a fist and held it out in front of her. "Thanks, alright? I owe you one. Just don't go advertizing, alright?"

Fenris made a fist of her own and bumped it to Damsel's. "Don't worry. I get it." Fenris replied. "You have a reputation to keep up, badass."

Damsel almost cracked a smile. "Don't forget it, unless you want your ears wrapped around your chin."

Fenris scoffed. "Try it, bitch." She glanced casually over at Tyler. "So what's that all about? His club network idea?"

"No," Damsel said matter- of -factly. "That is Tyler putting up the idea that Cammie is selling more bullshit. He figures the Ventrue is in on the Hastings thing Jack was talking about."

Fenris raised an eyebrow. "It makes sense. Cameron is a Hastings Ventrue. What I don't get is why go and tell Therese? Last I checked she was a Camarilla wannabe, except Janette won't have it."

"Good point," Damsel sniffed. "A bunch of us are meeting at the Last Round tomorrow night. Join us."

Fenris nodded. "I just might do that."

Tyler left the Malkavians and headed back towards them just as Skelter parted from Nines and Jack. Damsel and Tyler rejoined their Clan mates, and she and Skelter headed off to retreat into the dark before daylight came.

Marko

Be careful...

The Network was warning him. They were being vague, but Marko didn't really need specifics. Agents from both the Camarilla and the Baronies were wary of Cammie the Cammie. Tabby Cat from the Camarilla told them Lord Hastings was a liar, just like the Network told him; and Tye D. Bear of the Anarch Movement told them how things weren't adding up. The bear was right, of course; when two and two were put together it kept coming up twenty two. The problem was...

"How much do we take the word of a Tremere to heart?" The Baroness finished his thought for him. "On one hand, a Hastings City might not be a bad thing. On the other hand, if the Hastings's are being aided by the Setites, do we really want to get involved with them?"

It wasn't so much that the Baroness was wrong, but Marko couldn't help but see the flaw in her logic. "If the Tremere are in bed with the Hastings family, why would they warn us of things being amiss?"

Therese smiled coldly. "You're still young." She said. "Never underestimate the Byzantine ways of Clan Tremere. They never do anything without a reason, and there is always some motive that benefits them as a clan first and foremost. Always be careful when dealing with the Warlocks, neonate."

Marko nodded. "Yes Baroness," he agreed. "Since I don't think you'd much like the Last Round, and clearly don't trust the Wizard, how about if tomorrow night I go off to see the Wizard, and you send Janette to play with the wolves and the bears. Then we both report to you what we find so you can make up our minds?"

There was a round of golf clap applause from the Network.

"I'm not sure I care for the hint of sarcasm I detect in your tone," the Baroness said meaningfully, "but that is actually a good idea. Janette could use a night out, and I'm sure her demeanor will win over the likes that would frequent a place like that better than I would. This way we can find out who our allies really are."

True to form, Therese began to script out all that she expected Marko to watch for and how to respond to any number of eventualities that might take place in the Tremere Chantry when he was there. Marko listened intently and swore he would follow her instructions to the letter. He also listened carefully to the Network people and their insights; they were yet to steer him wrong, unless of course whenever he got their directions wrong somehow.

Ajax

Ajax was used to sleeping with his eyes open. He'd been doing it on a daily basis for the last ten years. In a lot of ways it was actually helpful; as long as he kept his back to a wall when he slept, it made him a lot harder to sneak up on.

This was different. For one thing, the two-by-four impaled into his chest and piercing his heart hurt like a son of a bitch. There was more to it than that, though. In this state, he couldn't tell for sure if what he was could even be called 'asleep'. Though he was dimly aware of what was going on around him, he had no clear idea where he was; there was no context. All there was around him was darkness. Occasionally there were voices in the dark, but it was all gibberish. This was like a waking dream or nightmare. In the gibberish he was fairly certain he heard 'Hastings' and 'Ventrue' more than once. He also thought the word 'Sutekh' came up far too often for his liking. When it was spoken, it appeared to be said with a kind of reverence.

Was that thing a Setite? Did they have some kind of battle form? Was that where he was now? Was 'Sutekh' their word for Set? Were they trying to brainwash him?

For the first time in his admittedly short unlife, Ajax was afraid. Sure, he'd been in real danger where final death could very well be right n front of him before; lots of times. That had been pretty much the norm since his embrace. Final death wasn't what scared him. Being controlled by the will of another was what terrified him. Yeah, he often found himself having to do what anybody with a week seniority told him, but he always had a choice in the matter. Being made a puppet, like what could be the case right now, that is what made him want to shit himself. For something like that, he could only think of one defense; shut everything out, except for trying to find a way out of wherever it was that he was.

"Hang tight, mate," a voice in the dark whispered in his ear. It was a voice he knew, but couldn't quite place. "It took me most of the night to find you. We're too far out of the way and the sun's too close to comin' up to bust you out just yet, so hang tight."

Was it Barabbas? Or was it a trick?

"I owe you from Chinatown, so I'll get you out of here." He whispered. "I know you can hear me, mate. Come sundown, I'll pull that wood out of you, and Imalia gave me some of the red, red kroovy to tide you over. So hang tight."

The voice that might be Barabbas fell suddenly silent as the noise of shuffling passed them by. Maybe they were cloaked. Maybe this was a trick. It was so hard to be sure. The shuffling drifted away.

"I'm not leaving you here. We gotta be still, though. These snakes have their ghouls all over their hideout. While we're here, try to pay attention to what you see and hear. Bertram wants whatever leverage we can get on these bastards."

What the voice was saying was both right and wrong. If it was a trick, the Setites had an inside track on their ranks. That was bad. If he did listen, he might end up being an unwitting mole. That was worse. Ajax decided the only course he could take was to shut it all out except the thought that maybe Barabbas was here to get him out. He could sort out the rest after that.

Xavier

"Are you...sure..." VV asked, "That Cassandra is compromised?"

Xavier gave it careful thought. His contact in San Francisco missed the code, and didn't give a duress signal. While it was true that Cassandra wasn't a fan of the 'cloak and dagger crap', she did finally concur it was a necessity. Compromised wasn't really the word he thought fit the scenario; destroyed seemed more likely.

"Yes, VV," he said finally, "I'm pretty sure. I'm sorry. I know you, Charity, and her were very close once. I wish things were different."

VV let out a small moan that sounded a lot like a mourning weep. "Poor Cassandra..." she said quietly, a single crimson tear streaming down her cheek.

Xavier leaned into her and licked the tear away with just the tip of his tongue. That put a faint smile on her lips.

"I'll tell you what." Xavier offered. "First thing in the evening, I'll head out to San Fran to see what I can find out for sure. If it's as bad as I think it is, I will find whoever did this to her and make them pay a hundred fold."

"No!" VV blurted. "It's far too dangerous. I can't bear the thought...of losing you, too."

Xavier smiled reassuringly. "If I can take down Andrei, I'm pretty sure I can handle Ezekiel or whatever else might be there." He said with mock bravado. It didn't have the effect he was hoping for; VV still looked mortified at the idea. He held her face gently in his hands. "I promise I'll be careful." He vowed somberly and sealed the vow with a kiss.

VV nodded, albeit reluctantly. "It's time to retire for the day." She announced, taking his hand in hers. "Care to...join me?" she invited as she stood up.

Xavier stood. "It would be my pleasure and an honor, lover." He said.

Tabetha

With an alarm clock set in her quarters at the Chantry to let her know the sun was about to crest upon the horizon, Tabetha Toussaint got to work. She put aside all the news of the night, all the speculations about Cameron – who was definitely lying about his arrangements regarding the Assamites – and how deeply involved with the Hastings Empire he might actually be, and focused all her faculties on what to do about the coming of the Followers of Set...

...or at least she tried to.

On the ride home, Max made it clear that he was wary of the Hastings family. He was yet to gain any hard evidence, but he had suspicions about them. He believed their entire bloodline was tied to the Setites; either as willing converts or through some form of coercion. He had allowed Cameron to join their ranks in Los Angeles in the hopes that by placing him under Camarilla care early he would be spared the influence of the corruptors. It was starting to look like that hope was in vain. This was a problem.

"Enough of that," Tabetha said aloud to herself. "Time is short; and none can be wasted."

While sunlight was the bane of all Kindred, this is especially true of the Serpent Clan; she remembered reading. This captured her thoughts; what if there was a way to safely harness the sun's rays and use them as a weapon? Or would a facsimile to sunlight be sufficient? Perhaps with a Setite it would; apparently any form of light would cause discomfort, and that alone can give any opponent of Set a tremendous advantage.

Perhaps a conjuring would work. She wrote that onto the whiteboard Max had provided her. She doubted she would have much success there; since conjuring had more to do with objects than energy. Lure of flames would be handy, and she had learned to create flames on the palm of her hand, but again that wasn't quite what she was looking for. Levinbolt could also be very handy, and may be a step in the right direction – perhaps as close as she could get. That idea went onto the whiteboard. She also included the prospect of a reversal of Shadowcrafting (which was nowhere near the same as the Lasombra ability).

The most likely angle appeared to be in weather control; though the obvious problem would be how would a Kindred safely compel the sun to rise?

She wondered if maybe a ritual could be devised; to capture sunlight in a bottle. Her research found nothing of the sort. She supposed anything was possible; one only needed to figure out how.

Her alarm went off. She glanced out her window, which faced the north; and still could see the sky was getting subtly lighter. She looked at the whiteboard and could already see her handwriting was beginning to get sluggish; like an insomniac's scrawl.

"Damn!" she hissed. It was starting to look like her best options would be to either advance with lure of flames or try to learn the Levinbolt; which she saw only once before when she and Xavier were the ones to get closest to Andrei at the Hollowbrook. Begrudgingly, she closed the shutters to her window to block the sun entirely, and placed the whiteboard in front of that, the writing facing inside, for an extra measure, and set to retire until the sun set again in the West.

Cameron

This was the last place Cameron Hastings would have expected to come to; both in location and in situation. Though the surroundings were surprisingly pleasant, the scenario itself left much to be desired.

The first thing he noticed was the smell. The air was filled with an incense of sandalwood and some spice he was not familiar with. The room, apparently a bed chamber, had no windows and was decorated with a clear Egyptian theme. It evoked an image of a place a Pharaoh might sleep. A girl, naked and very dead, was at his feet; and from the taste of her in his mouth he was quite certain he was the one who had drained her. As was always the way, he knew all about her; she was exactly the type to fit into his particular tastes. The right type, and of good stock; she was a on her way to a very promising career. Of course, that was clearly all in the past tense, now. It was obvious to him he had awoken in a frenzy and ended her life.

"Oh, don't worry," a voice at the door told him. "We have everything covered. Your Masquerade is perfectly safe, and we'll certainly never tell a soul of your little infraction."

Cameron looked up and saw a man standing at the door, dressed in what looked like ceremonial robes – also with an Egyptian theme – holding a jar. It was too dark to tell for sure, but his dialect and what Cameron could make of his features suggested he was most likely Spanish, possibly mixed with Middle Eastern.

"Who are you?" he asked. "Where am I? Why have you brought me here, and what do you want from me?"
The man chuckled. "So many questions and not once do you ask about the morality of your recent actions; how delightful." He stepped into the room as Cameron looked again at the girl.

"What happened to her is tragic, but I can't undo it. All I could do is make it worse now." He said. "But then, since I'm here against my will, as I imagine she was, then ultimately you caused this. Whatever morality there is involved is on you. Answer my questions."

"How very Ventrue of you, Hastings; you take the stance of authority even when you clearly don't have it." The man said in a tone that was not hostile, but held a subtle yet clear threat in it. "To answer your questions; I have had many names. Most of them are probably beyond your ability to pronounce, so you may call me Alejandro. You are in my home; still in California, I assure you. I do apologize for the manner you were brought here. It was for both our protection. You see, Hastings, our paths were meant to cross, and we are going to be very good friends, you and I. I know this may be hard for you to believe now, but you will see soon enough. You see, we are going to help each other get what we both want most of all."

Cameron raised an eyebrow. "You don't say? Tell me, if you can, what is that?"

Alejandro grinned and winked. "What I want is not important yet; but you want Los Angeles. You want to be a part of your family empire."

"And I'm supposed to believe you can make that happen."

"The Hastings Empire started with me, and it will continue with me."

Cameron didn't like the sound of that. This Alejandro was making it sound as if his entire family was little more than puppets. He didn't want to believe that.

"I know what you're thinking, and you couldn't be more off the mark." Alejandro said. "By no means are any of your Princes on the West Coast puppets. All I mean is that my Clan was instrumental in making all you have gained possible. It is with our help that all the hard work of Ezekiel Hastings has borne fruit."

Cameron nodded slowly. "Let's say I believe you,' he said. "Let's say that I believe that you've been helping us along all along. What's in it for you?"

Alejandro sighed. "It's always the same thing with the Ventrue; always about some kind of business transaction. There's always got to be some kind of exchange of profit. What if I told you the reward for us was that the right people were finally in authority. Would that be so unbelievable?"

Cocking his head slightly to an angle, Cameron waved a finger. "You're the one who started talking exchange." He reminded Alejandro. "You said that we are going to help each other get what we both want most."

"I meant the success of your family, Hastings." The Setite said with a shrug.

"I don't think so." Cameron replied. "But for the sake of argument, what can I do to help you?"

Alejandro smiled and chortled lightly. "Very well, young Hastings," he said warmly. "Right now, there is a ship in Vancouver, the Ishtar's tear, with a shipment of illicit substances being held up by an errant member of your family."

"Let me guess," Cameron interrupted. "You need me to contact this errant Hastings to let your boat go."

Alejandro held up a single forefinger. "Not at all; we are willing to sacrifice that shipment completely. The substances on it would be traced to a Chinese Cartel should it be seized by the police. What I need for you to do is ensure that Daniel Hastings focuses all his attention and energy on that ship, and ensure that the trains keep running as scheduled."

"I see." Cameron said, stroking his chin. "You're asking me to help you pull a swerve."

Alejandro said nothing.

"Okay," Cameron went on. "Suppose I play along. How is this going to help us?"

Alejandro laughed. "Have faith, Hastings." He said. "Before you even know what is happening, you will be the hero of your small Camarilla group, and soon enough of the city. The Anarchs will find themselves in a place where only the Camarilla can keep them alive, and have little choice but accept your reign and the family legacy. The sun rises soon. Rest here for the day, and think it over." With that Alejandro turned to leave.

Cameron smiled. A plan began to formulate itself in his mind. He would play along with the Setites, and then become the man who ousts them; and thus becomes the hero. He would have to be patient, and careful, but he could very well become the hero of the entire Hastings legacy.

Alejandro stopped, turned around at the door. "I suppose it's only fair to mention this," he added, as if it was an afterthought. He held up the jar. "In case you are thinking of any treachery, you would be wise to remember that I hold your heart in my hand."

With an oily smile, Alejandro vanished into the darkness beyond the room. Cameron put himself onto the bed. He closed his eyes wondering if Alejandro was bluffing, and if he dared to call that bluff...

Chapter 8

Tyler

As he and Damsel stepped out of the Hollowbrook, Tyler was mildly surprised to see Tabetha waiting for them. Damsel groaned in dismay; on top of Fenris making every effort at her disposal to clear her name, Tabetha Toussaint of clan Tremere was the one who really came through and proved to be a straight shooter. Damsel hated owing anybody anything; even if it was just a word of thanks.

"What do you want, Cammie?" she asked. "You come all the way to these slums just to rub it in that your little magic bone cleared my name and saved my rep? I guess I should be grateful, huh? Well, fine...thanks, okay? There, I said it. Just don't let it get to your head."

Tabetha raised her fingers up into a peace sign. "Actually I'm here for a different reason. Well, it's related, but different. Max would probably rather I not tell you this, but I know for a fact that Cameron is lying about his dealing with the Assamite situation. I don't know what the truth is, but it's not what he says it is. Keep an eye on him."

"See?" Tyler said with a little more enthusiasm than he meant to. "I knew that son of a bitch was up to something."

Damsel held up a hand to shut him up. "How do you know this?"

"The same way I knew you were telling the truth."

"Your magic bone told you. It figures." Damsel retorted. "Why should we believe you?"

"Why would I warn you about an ally of mine unless it was true?" Tabetha replied. To Tyler, she was sounding more and more like Strauss every night. "In any case, that is all I wanted to say. Do with the information what you will. If you will excuse me, Max and I have an appointment."

As the Tremere left on her way back to the Chantry, Damsel and Tyler looked at each other. Damsel cracked a smile; albeit a wary one.

"Sounds to me like there might be a little bit of discord in the Camarilla ranks." Tyler commented.

"Maybe," Damsel agreed. "Still, we gotta be real careful. The Tremere are never that nice unless it benefits their clan somehow."

Tyler shrugged. "No problem," he said. "We sow more seeds of dissent, keep them off balance, and the team starts to crumble once and for all." Before she could say anything, Tyler added hastily: "I know we gotta be careful how we do it. I'm just saying we ought to put that on the table tonight."

Damsel agreed to that much. It was one possible foothold on dealing with the Cameron situation if the Cammies were wary of him, too.

Fenris and Skelter arrived at the front entrance of the Last Round at precisely the same time as Tyler and Damsel. After a brief and silent dispute about who should enter first, Skelter held the door open and allowed Damsel to pass, followed by Fenris, and then Tyler, letting himself in last. Fenris held back just inside so they could arrive together. The four of them slipped through the doorway into the 'steam engine' room towards the back, where Kindred could talk openly and away from kine's ears. Nines and Jack were waiting for them. Tyler wondered if Jack ever really slept.

"Hey, what've we got here, a double date?" Jack catcalled, laughing good naturedly.

The four of them sat, ignoring the Old Pirate's ribbing.

"So what've you got for us, kid?" Nines asked Tyler.

"There's no doubt that Cameron's up to something," Tyler replied. "Even the other Cammies seem to be worried about it."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Skelter asked.

"On our way here, Strauss's girl told Damsel and I that Cameron's lying about the Assamite situation. She says she doesn't know what the true story is, but he's full of it when he's saying he took care of it. I'm thinking it might mean there's a little bit of division in the ranks."

Jack chuckled. "That's perfect," he said; "So much for Camarilla safety and solidarity."

"That's if we believe she's being straight with us," Fenris cautioned. "She is a Tremere, after all."

"That's what I said," Damsel chimed in. "Yeah, she proved to shoot straight last night, but the Tremere wouldn't give up something like that unless they figured there was a way to work it to their advantage."

"That's probably true," Tyler agreed. "But it still shows a possible rift among the Camarilla, and that can be exploited."

"As little as I like playing it this way, he's right." Nines said. "If there's a crack in the Ivory Tower, we ought to take advantage of it; maybe run those bastards out of L.A. for good."

"The question is how do we do that?" Skelter asked.

"Well shiver my timbers and swash my buckles!" They all heard Janette call from the steam engine entrance. They turned their heads, almost in unison, to see her leaning up against door frame; decked out in her trademark schoolgirl outfit, pigtails and mascara gone horribly wrong. She licked her lips and swaggered into the room. "Look who it is back in town! Is it really Jack, or am I seeing a mirage?"

Fenris

Janette's arrival changed the climate of the room drastically. The main area of the Last Round always reeked of stale beer, sweat, and various other bodily fluids. The Stream Engine room, however, was actually quite clean. As soon as Janette announced her appearance, Fenris remembered how she was nearly fooled by the Assamite the night before. That little man almost got the drop on her by disguising herself as the Malkavian gothic schoolgirl. If not for her sense of smell, Fenris would have been ash by now. She couldn't afford to make that mistake again. While Janette swaggered into the room, mimicking the drunks in the main area, Fenris made a point of checking the scent of everyone in the room.

Skelter was easy to confirm. His old leather scent was unmistakable to her. Tyler had an odour that was faint, but equally unmistakable; like wet pavement after a summer rain. Nines smelled like freshly cut grass, and Jack like the sea; so far everything was right. Damsel was Damsel; based on that vinegar scent she carried with her, and finally Janette proved to be the real deal; she always smelled of peppermint. Fenris noted that Therese smelled exactly the same, and concluded it must be because they are twins. There was a new element to the room upon Janette's appearance; one of uneasiness, an odd mix of excitement and fear. Fenris wasn't sure if she was imposing her own feelings to her senses or if that air of imbalance was genuine. With Janette, you never could tell.

Without warning, Janette spun around and leaned forward; revealing more of her cleavage than Fenris needed to see. "Do you smell something bad, muffin?" she cooed, apparently oblivious to the fact that Jack couldn't resist angling himself to get a better view of backside as she leaned forward. "Or is that just a Gangrel thing?"

"Just checking," Fenris said plainly as Janette slowly stood up to her full height. "Everything is just as it should be."

Janette giggled, as if she knew something the rest of them didn't. "Well, that's a relief," she said, taking a chair and turning it backwards before plopping herself down. "Sorry I'm late, kids, but Kitten insisted on reviewing safety protocols before letting me go out in the big bad world all by my lonesome." She sighed. "I do love him, but sometimes he can be such a spoil sport. So what did I miss?"

Nines caught her up. On top of that, he addressed Skelter's inquiry by suggesting that either Fenris or Ajax shadow Cameron.

"Where is Ajax, anyway?" Fenris observed. "Last I saw him he was checking out Cameron's last night."

"I'm sure he's fine," Janette said with a wave of her hand. "As for Lord Hastings being a liar, Tabby Cat told Therese and Kitten that after the Gathering yesterday. Kitten is at the Magic house now to see if it's some kind of trick."

Nines nodded. "So Marko's got the Tremere, and as far as anyone knows Ajax has Cameron under observation." He said in review. He added, "VV contacted me earlier and told me X was on his way to San Fran to check out the Toreador leak there. What does that leave?"

"The other Assamite," Fenris pointed out. "If Cameron lied about that, we have to consider the possibility that he's still around. Since I know what to look for, I'll try to sniff him out."

"The Setites," Tyler added. "It's a good bet that that the Hastings legacy and the snakes are in bed together, and that means the snakes probably have a nest in or near the city. I can look into that."

Marko

Before entering the Tremere Chantry, Marko watched as Janette skipped happily along the sidewalk in the general direction of the Last Round. He was actually a little surprised she wasn't trying to skip down the middle of the road.

...crazy, not stupid...

His real concern as far as she was concerned, though, was whether he should be worried about her or the people she was going to be sitting down with. Most of the time she was fairly harmless; Therese was the genuinely dangerous one, but if provoked enough, Janette could leave some serious scars that might never heal. Not all of those scars were physical; which for their kind was much worse.

Deciding that he really had no choice but to hope everything would turn out fine at the Last Round, Marko opened the door to the Chantry and stepped into the front hall. He already knew to ignore the stairs; the doors up there were always locked and all but impossible to pick.

Tabby-cat lives there.

He seriously doubted that even the Nosferatu could infiltrate the upper floors of the Chantry. Not unless the Warlocks wanted them to for reasons only they would ever know. Of all the Kindred he met in his admittedly short time as a Kindred, the Tremere made him most uneasy. Bertram was right to say they were creepy. Steeling himself, he stepped on forward into the magic hallway that worked as a maze one could get lost in forever, perpetually finding yourself right back at the beginning unless you knew the right way to go. Fortunately, he had been through this before; once. He remembered the way, and got to the sitting room where Strauss stood near a fireplace and Tabetha sat on a sofa, reading something.

"Please, do come in neonate," Strauss greeted with his signature polite detachment. Tabetha looked up from her book, and shut it without a marker as she set it aside. She stood up as Marko carefully entered the room. "I can assure you," Strauss said, "you are not in any danger here tonight. You, neonate, are our welcome guest."

"Have a seat, Marko," Tabetha said. Marko noted she was taking on a lot of her Mentor's mannerisms; especially in her speech patterns. "We have a lot to talk about."

Welcome to the Ivory tower...

Cautiously, Mark took a seat; a high backed chair with cushions and wings. Strauss turned to face him with what was almost a smile on his lips. Tabetha sat back down. On the table between them were a glass bottle and a pair of wine glasses. She leaned forward and poured herself a drink from the bottle which was filled with blood. She took a sip, and gestured to the bottle, raising an eyebrow as if to offer him a glass.

Even without a warning from the Network, Marko knew better than to accept a drink from the Warlocks. The fact that Tabetha drank form it was no reassurance at all; it was fairly common knowledge that the Tremere clan practiced the blood bond. They did this especially among their own. Marko was crazy, but not stupid. If bonded to the Tremere, he would be more apt to ascribe to their ideals.

"No thank you," he declined the offer politely. "I'm already well fed."

"Very well," Strauss said as Tabetha shrugged and took another sip. "Let us begin. First, we review what we know. As you no doubt recall, Tabetha was able to discern with certainty not only that Damsel was innocent of all charges against her, but that Cameron was lying about his handling of the entire Assamite situation. Last anyone has heard Ajax was investigating his culpability in the matter."

Marko noted that Tabetha was beaming. Teacher used the students name...

"It has long been a suspicion of mine that the Hastings family of Clan Ventrue has been compromised. Your insight, neonate, regarding the Toreador of Ezekiel's City adds a degree of confirmation to those suspicions. For that I thank you; you have done well. Now we are in a position where we have grounds to investigate more closely, and take action to seal any breach that may exist within the Camarilla. For that, we are indebted to you. Such is our way; we look to resolve matters rather than assign blame."

Here we go...

"Master Strauss," Tabby-Cat interjected. "I don't mean to be contrary, but perhaps now it's best if we focus on dealing with the matter rather than singing praise of the Camarilla system over the Barony system."

Strauss turned his gaze to his pupil and regarded her silently. "Yes, of course, my apprentice. You are correct."

The older is capitulating to the younger? Marko had never heard the Network ask something before; he wasn't sure what it meant.

"Here's what I'm thinking," Marko ventured. "If Cammie...I mean Cameron is a Hastings Ventrue, and the Hastings Ventrue are in bed with snakes, then we have to consider the possibility the snakes are in his bed."

"Yes, neonate," Strauss agreed. "It is likely the Followers of Set have set up operations in our city. The question is where?"

"Once we find them," Tabby-Cat added. "I'm working on a way to rid ourselves of them before they can wake up their Progenitor."

How long?

"How much time do we have?"

"Based on our Clan's studies of their religion," Strauss offered. "The ritual has to be performed at a specific time in a specific point in the lunar and solar cycles under very specific conditions. With that in mind, it could be within a week, or they may have to hold off for another five centuries."

"So even if we can't destroy them, we can buy ourselves some time." Marko suggested. "While we're at it, we can make sure their next opportunity will get missed, too. Since the coffin is held up in Vancouver, we should tell them all of this."

Tabetha and Strauss fell silent. They looked at each other in a manner that told Marko he must have missed something. Tabetha solemnly told him that there was a news item saying the ship that was being held was seized by police. It was described as a huge heroin bust, but there was no mention of anything else on the ship. Strauss added that his Clan connections verified this bust, and that nothing other than the narcotics was aboard.

"So where's the mummy?" Marko asked.

"We don't know." They said in unison.

Lord Hastings knows.

"We have to find Cameron." Mark Oxford said, and began to stand back up.

Ajax

"There you go, mate." Ajax heard Barabbas say to him as the fresh, clean vitae poured down his throat like some divine nectar; both soothing and burning him as it restored his strength after the makeshift stake was removed. "A bit of the red, red kroovy to build you up; drink up, mate, we have to get moving quickly."

Groaning and still groggy, Ajax struggled to his feet. Barabbas steadied Ajax before the two of them began to move.

"This way," Barabbas led him towards a dark corner of the cell. In the corner, there was a candle holder mounted in the wall. Barabbas pulled it down, opening a hole in the wall beside them. "I found a whole mess of these while tracking you last night; that was why it took so long to actually find you. My guess is the snakes were in a rush to convert this place and missed these passages."

Ajax followed Barabbas into a narrow passage, bearing in mind this might not be the real Barabbas at all; but some kind of Setite trick. After all, what better way would there be to infiltrate a Nosferatu Warren than to rescue a Nos, then trick him into leading you home where you can get access to all the information you could ever want? The vitae he was given was strictly Kine; but that didn't mean much. All that meant was they aren't trying to bind him yet.

"Wait," Ajax objected as they proceeded through the twisting, winding corridors. "What exactly is this place?"

Without stopping, Barabbas answered. "You remember all that fuss with the box ten years back. Old Gary sold it off to the Giovanni, right? Well, after Lacroix and his errand boy got it back, we Nosferatu cleared them all out. You remember that, right?"

Spaghetti and corpses, boss, that's the Giovanni. Gary had said.

"I remember." Ajax confirmed. It seemed to him this Barabbas knew stuff that nobody but the Las Angeles Nosferatu should know. That was a good sign. Still, Ajax felt the need to be cautious.

"It seems the snakes have moved in to the old mansion now the Mob has moved out." Barabbas said. "Get rid of one bad tenant, and an even worse one moves in, right?"

Ajax put a hand on his apparent rescuer's shoulder to stop him at a T section of the corridor they were in. He pointed in each direction, and they could see a sentry posted a ways down each. After a series of quick hand signals, they both obfuscated from sight; each one going down opposite bars of the T. As he got closer to his target, Ajax could hear the heartbeat of what he guessed was a ghoul. This one was a living creature; and of good stock too. He was probably an athlete of some sort; track and field, maybe. Not terribly sharp, but he was very healthy. Ajax was so hungry...

The ghoul never had a chance. Ajax was practically on top of him already when he came out of obfuscation and clamped his jaws around the ghoul's neck; biting down draining his veins. The poor sucker tried to struggle free, but it was no contest. By the time the ghoul even realized what was happening, he was almost half way dead. Quickly the vain attempt to break free dropped off, and the ghoul went completely limp in Ajax's grip. Now an empty husk, Ajax dropped the ghoul on the spot he once stood.

"Not too wise, mate," Barabbas shook his head with mild disdain. "There's no telling what was in that bloke's blood. Just don't be too surprised if you catch a buzz that never quite fades is all I can say now."

"I had to do something." Ajax countered. Of course he new Barabbas was right; what he did was dangerous. He didn't feel at all bad about it, though. In fact, he felt great; almost like he was high.

"It's done now." Barabbas waved it off. "Let's go." Barabbas led Ajax through the labyrinth they were in to a large chamber that had what looked like an altar of some kind. They skirted past the chamber to a grate. "Through there," Barabbas directed.

If this was supposed to be some kind of trap, now would be an ideal time to spring it. "After you," Ajax insisted.

"If you say so," Barabbas said, ducking through the grate.

The grate led to an exit. Soon the both of them were outside, near an out building that looked like a garage. In the distance, Ajax spotted two figures approaching. Both he and Barabbas Obfuscated again and ducked into the darkness as the figures drew closer.

"I'm so glad you decided to help us help you." One of the two men said.

The other man scoffed. "It's not like I have all that many options, is it?" He said.

The voice was all but unmistakable. If only they were just a little more visible...

"Of course you have a choice, my friend!" The first man laughed. "You could refuse our help and ruin your legacy forever if you wish."

"That's some option," the second man quipped. By then the pair were clearly visible.

There was no mistaking it; the voice, the attitude, and that face all revealed his identity. Ajax was looking squarely at Cameron Hastings.

You son of a bitch!

A large Cadillac pulled up. The first man opened the rear passenger door and let Cameron in. Next, he stepped forward and got in the front passenger seat. Once the car pulled away, Ajax and Barabbas came out of obfuscate. Barabbas was quite perceptive; Ajax figured he could easily notice that he was fuming.

"Was that who I think it was, mate?" Barabbas asked.

"Yeah," Ajax confirmed. "That was Cammie."

"So what do we do now?"

Ajax was momentarily stunned; it was rare for anyone older than him to defer to his ideas. He had to give it some thought. Actually, this could work out well for him. One sure way to be absolutely certain this was really Barabbas was to send him back to Bertram, while he tried to head off Cameron to confront him.

"You go back to the Warrens to update Bertram. I'll head up to Cammie's apartment to deal with Lord Hastings."

Xavier

It wasn't exactly late by the time Xavier Vega reached the San Francisco city limits from Los Angeles, but it wasn't exactly what anyone could call early, either. The truth of the matter was that he got lucky as far as avoiding any police action, the way he was driving. Along the way, he got the impression that either VV or somebody else used some of their influence to make sure of that. With that in mind, he would have to remember that he was in another city now; a Camarilla city. He might have some stroke with the Toreador here, but at the end of the night that might not mean a whole lot to Ezekiel Hastings.

Even before he got into the actual metro area of the city, it was pretty clear he had been made and was being tailed. Given the speed he was currently travelling at, he thought about trying to evade his shadow. That quickly started to seem like a very bad idea, though; such a move would inevitably turn into a police incident, and not only would that be bad for the Masquerade, but there was no telling what kind of pull Prince Ezekiel had with the cops. If Smiling Jack has a hard time operating here, this guy must really know what he's doing.

Almost as if on cue, the car behind revealed itself to be a cop by flashing its cherry lights. Xavier was actually impressed. So far, everything was going down clean. Anybody that might be paying attention would likely just think this was a case of a cop trying to pull a suspicious vehicle over. He was speeding, after all. Trying to run now would be a mistake; that would lead to a chase, and a chase would get him nowhere, especially since he was in a city where he had no real standing. Xavier only really saw one way out; to play along. He pulled his Corvette over and the cop approach.

"Good evening, sir," the cop said. "Do you mind telling me what brings you to San Francisco?"

"Just visiting an old friend," Xavier replied casually. It struck him a little odd the cop didn't ask for identification. Using his Auspex quickly, he was able to determine this cop was a ghoul. On one hand, that was good; he could speak a little more freely now. On the other, he didn't know who this ghoul served.

"I see." The cop answered back dubiously. "Tell me, Mr. Vega, does this friend of yours in Ezekiel's city happen to have a name?"

Xavier was taken slightly aback. Not only was he made before he even got into town, but they knew his name. Jack wasn't kidding when he said Prince Hastings ran a tight ship. He noticed the cops' face softened a little; but wasn't quite sure if he was being sincere.

"Easy, fella," the cop said. "I just gotta make sure all my i's get dotted and t's get crossed, you know?"

"Right," Xavier nodded. It would appear that he wasn't in any danger yet. It looked like the cop was part of the Prince's network, and was really just doing what he was told. Cassandra was Toreador Primogen; and that alone put her on this ghoul cop's good list. On top of that, Cassandra was, according to Jack, involved intimately with Ezekiel. That had to work in Xavier's favor at this point. "I'm here to visit Cassandra DuPont."

This time, the cop was taken aback a little. "That's a pretty serious claim, sir. I hope for your sake it's true." He said. "I trust you also intend to make your presence know to Ezekiel as well?" He more asked than stated.

"Of course," Xavier replied, hoping he didn't sound flippant. "I was actually intending to that first thing. In fact, maybe you can help me by pointing me in the right direction in order to find him."

The ghoul scrutinized Xavier; assessing him. It was possible this cop had some low level of skill in Auspex, but that was unlikely. What seemed more likely was that he was simply a good cop who relied on his instincts to determine what people were really all about. Finally he nodded slowly and stood to his full height.

"I'll escort you." He said. "Just follow me, Mr. Vega, and I'll see to it that his grace will receive your audience."

"Thank you," Xavier said as the cop turned to go back to his own car.

Tabetha

Master Strauss had remained at the Chantry. Tabetha Toussaint actually had a hard time keeping up with the Malkavian, who seemed even more frantic than usual about tracking down Cameron. Rather than checking his apartment, the pair headed straight for the Cameron Arms Hotel. At the front entrance, Tabetha stopped him and suggested they might cover more ground if they split up.

Marko considered this. It was hard to tell if he was thinking for himself or listening to the voices in his head. Actually, Tabetha wasn't sure if there was really any difference. She did read once that there was a rumor that all Malkavians have some kind of psychic link with each other and are constantly chattering at one another; exchanging information and insights. While that would explain why it seemed the Lunatics were able to get ahead of the proverbial curve of events and secrets from time to time, it also seemed that the accessibility and reliability of this so called link was inconsistent and often unreliable. In Strauss' library, the rumor of this link was explored and theorized upon; many scholars dismissed the 'Network' as many called it as either a myth or an elaborate collective delusion. Others believed it was merely a massive group telepathy thing. Still others believed that it was that only the oldest or most powerful of the children of Malkav had access to this 'Network', while others speculated it was completely random which children could gain access. With the Malkavian Clan, any one of these was entirely possible, or it could be all were true to some degree or another, or that none of them were correct. Of all the Clans, Malkav was by far the most difficult to understand.

"That's a good idea, Tabby-Cat." Marko agreed. "You go on in, and I'll find another way to get inside. If Lord Hastings is here, we'll find him. If he isn't, then I'm sure princess Poe is. She'll know where to find him."

Tabetha agreed. Heather was Cameron's ghoul, after all; and chances were good she'd be here. While Cameron went about doing his thing, Heather Poe often ran the daily affairs at the hotel. Marko walked away and vanished around the corner of the building; presumably obfuscated once he was out of plain view. Once he was gone, Tabetha let herself into the main lobby of the hotel. She decided it was best to let the Malkavian be all sneaky, and that her best course of action was to be a little more direct; if subtle. She made her way to the front desk to speak to the attendant there; a young man, neatly groomed and wearing what struck her as a slightly forced smile. She had to give the man credit, though; that smile was well practiced, and most people would have no idea that it was forced at all.

"Yes?" the man at the desk greeted her with a syrupy, cheerful voice. "How may I help you?"

"Hi, there," Tabetha replied with a friendly smile of her own. "My name is Tabetha Toussaint, and I need to speak to Cameron Hastings right away on a business matter. Can you let him know I'm here?"

"I'm sorry." The attendant said. "Mr. Hastings isn't in right now." He looked through a book on the desk. "I don't see your name anywhere on the appointment schedule. You'll just have to come back later once you've booked an appointment."

"Is Heather Poe in?" Tabetha asked. "The matter I need to discuss can be dealt with through her as well."

"Yes, Miss Poe is in tonight," the attendant confirmed. "But she's with another client right now, and once again you will have to book an appointment to see her. I can do that for you if you like."

Using her Dominate discipline, Tabetha replied, "I need to see her right away. It's very important."

"In that case," the attendant responded, "I'll just see if she's finished with her current appointment right now." He picked up a phone and punched an in-house line. He announced to Miss Poe that a Miss Tabetha Toussaint needed to see her right away, and that it was very important. He apologized profusely for the unscheduled meeting, but it really is that important. He thanked Miss Poe, saying he would let her know, and hung up.

"Miss Poe will be down to see you in a moment." He announced, pointing to a nearby sofa. "If you would like to, please feel free to sit while you wait."

"Thank you," Tabetha said, maintaining her friendly yet professional smile and tone as she sat on the sofa that the attendant indicated. From her vantage point she could see could see the entire lobby, and the elevators. In the lobby there was a couple struggling with their luggage, a young woman smoking a cigarette and tapping her foot impatiently; probably waiting for a lover or something. A short time later, she heard the elevator chime, and the door slid quietly open as Heather Poe stepped out; wearing a form fitting but conservative black dress. Tabetha noted it was very similar to the one she was wearing.

"Good evening, Miss Toussaint," she greeted. Though the formality of the greeting struck Tabetha as a little odd, it was easy enough to dismiss as a professional necessity. Not only that, it did serve well enough to maintaining the Masquerade. "What can I do for you tonight?"

Tabetha stood up and straightened her seams before taking Heather's hand to shake it. "Hi there," she greeted back, taking care to maintain the professional exchange that was already established. "I'm an associate of Mr. Hastings. I wonder if we could speak somewhere a little more private, please."

"Of course," Heather said obligingly. "We can go to my office, if you like." Before Tabetha could say anything, Heather turned around gracefully and started back towards the elevators. "Follow me, please."

Tabetha followed her into the elevator. Heather pushed a button and the elevator began to rise. Looking at her in close quarters, Tabetha couldn't shake the feeling that something was amiss with her. While it could be the result of Cameron's training or some kind of Ventrue conditioning, Tabetha didn't think so. Playing on a hunch, Tabetha activated a mid-level degree of her Auspex to look at Heather with a little more scrutiny. She wanted to use a Thaughmetergy trick to take a sample of her vitae, but the trick would cause a cold tingle that Heather would feel, giving her away. This Auspex check would have to do.

It was enough. It took very little effort to determine that this was not Heather Poe at all. The hair was right, and the dress was genuine. The glasses were an affectation, and the features were completely different; it was like this person was wearing some kind of mask. Heather was Caucasian, this new woman was something else; Persian, maybe. That wasn't all there was. Heather was a ghoul. This imposter was Kindred.

Without saying a word, Tabetha switched to a different use of her Auspex; a higher level. She attempted to send Marko a telepathic message:

Heather Poe is probably dead. I have eyes on the likely assailant. Come to Heather's office.

The elevator rang. The door opened. The Heather imposter led her out onto the floor and towards her office. As Tabetha followed, she could only hope that her message got through. Even more desperately, she could only hope that Marko wouldn't dismiss the message as just one of his imaginary voices.

At the office door, the imposter opened the door and let her in first, closing the door behind her as she followed. The lock on the door clicked. "What is it that I can help you with, Miss Toussaint?" she asked, still sounding very convincingly like Heather.

Tabetha turned to face the imposter, and was met with a pair of serpentine eyes. Paralyzed, all Tabetha could do was watch as the imposter dropped her mask and approached her without blinking.

Cameron

With Alejandro gone, Cameron Hastings called his limo from the parking garage of the Skyline Apartments downtown to the train yard in Santa Monica. He was technically breaking the rules of the agreement made with that Malkavian freak Therese, but so long as he wasn't seen doing it, there should be no trouble.

Now that the Setite was out of the way, and the mummy was secure, Cameron had to move quickly to make a contingency plan; one which get him clear with the local Camarilla and gain him all he could from his new allies. The tricky part was Alejandro's bluff; if it was a bluff. Cameron had a hunch it was not a bluff at all. If his hunch was right, then the Serpents had his heart; literally.

The limo arrived. He got in, and instructed the driver to take him home; making sure he took a route that would keep them out of sight. On the way, he took a moment to consider the scenario. First, he had the backing of his family, and therefore was in a very good –if delicate- position to not only take Chinatown, but the entire city of Los Angeles for the Camarilla. Unfortunately, that apparently meant that along with family and Ventrue support, he had to deal with the Followers of Set. Second, chances were good the city currently thought he was up to something. They wouldn't be wrong to believe that, but they likely had the wrong idea. He'd have to clean that up quickly; starting with Strauss and the few Camarillas that were around. Third, the Setites probably had his heart in jar somewhere. That put him in a very dangerous place. What he had to do was figure out a way to earn the trust of the City and make sure the Serpents believed he was playing everything their way.

"We're here, sir." The driver announced. He got out of the car and opened the door for Cameron.

"Thank you," Cameron said, stepping out of the limo. He headed directly for the elevator and his apartment. He should have the place to himself; and that would give him time to make sure everything was running as it should. Unlocking the door, he stepped into his apartment.

"Welcome home, traitor," a voice in the dark hissed.

Chapter 9

Tyler

Normally, Fat Larry wasn't in market of information; his 'bidness' was all about merchandise. One thing he was good about, though, was keeping his ear to the ground so he could get a heads up on any potential competition. The Setites most typically deal in things that Larry won't touch: Prostitutes, drugs, inside trading, information to be used for extortion, slave trade. That was what Setites run in. There was a chance that Larry might have the lowdown on some shady affairs in town; he would want to know who to steer clear of. This is was why Tyler DeFaulte headed for Fat Larry's Truck of Mack the minute the group at Last Round broke up. He needed a lead as to where the Setites might be operating. He approached the truck to find his man leaning casually against the back of it; arms folded across his ample chest, dark sunglasses covering his eyes, his perfect afro showing only the slightest hint of gray at the temples. Fat Larry stood up straight as he saw Tyler draw near.

"My man!" he greeted. "How they hanging, what's shaking, and all that jazz; you need anything?"

"My brother from another mother," Tyler greeted back. "Just the man I wanted to see. Listen, man; I need the latest lowdown on where I might find me Madame H, if you know what I mean." Talking like this felt ridiculous, but he found over the years it helped to mirror people's lingo to get results quickly.

Larry blanched. "Now what would you want with that bitch?" he asked. "You know as well as I do that I'm no angel, but getting into that shit is bad news."

"Nah, man; it ain't like that," Tyler replied with a casual laugh. "I'm looking for her so I can take her out of play. The last thing Venus and I need is that crap running around in our establishment and bringing in any unwanted heat."

"Yeah, I hear you," Larry grinned. Venus never talked about it, but Tyler figured that Larry and Venus had a 'sinner-Confessor' thing going on. Fat Larry took a conspiratorial glance around. "Alright; I know some shady types have been around lately, chatting folks up and such. Now I ain't seen no dealing on the streets, but I do know that these shady folks have been giving out handbills that take people to that abandoned place where that crazy circle cult used to hang out."

That came as no surprise to Tyler. It just figured that religious fanatics would hole up where a bunch of religious fanatics once held up. Tyler remembered taking down the Ninth Circle very well, and he remembered the layout of Bishop Vick's shack of a headquarters like it was yesterday. In a sense, this was a good thing; it was starting to look like he was catching a break.

"That's great," Tyler said. "Thanks, my man. You just helped me in a big way!"

"Hold up!" Larry blurted just as Tyler was turning away. "If you're gonna go in there all Clint Eastwood style to take 'em out of play, you're gonna need some serious firepower to make it happen. Now that's something I'm more able to help you with." Fat Larry leaned in closer. "You need anything?"

Fenris

The sickly-sweet scent at the Asian theatre, the trail went cold in the sewers where Fenris was intercepted by Ajax. Sewers had a way of playing havoc with her senses; so many conflicting scents mingling together mad it almost impossible to sift through anything. It was almost as bad a bars and pubs. At least in sewers a lot of the mash was stagnant as opposed to constantly shifting. Either way, the trail was pretty much dead here. Coming here was basically a waste of time.

Fenris had to rethink her approach. Trying to find the Assamite would take way too long. A better plan, she started think, was rather than trying to track him down she should try to lure him out. The question to ask was what would lure an assassin out. The answer was pretty simple, really. He had targets. The next question was which one was most likely to be next. To answer that, Fenris had to think like an assassin.

She considered the targets. First there was Isaac and Gary. They were done first; that made sense. Isaac was probably the most suited to lead among the Barons. Gary would be the hardest to locate and destroy. Next there was Therese. While she was smart and competent, she was also insane. That made her unpredictable; for all Fenris knew, Therese might be able to be turned to the Hastings agenda. She might even be in on it now; it was unlikely, but it was possible. That pretty much left Nines. Nines Rodriguez was the least interested in taking on a leadership role; even if he had a natural talent for the job. He was, however, the most combat oriented of the targets; and one of the best fighters in the city. If she were an assassin, Nines would be next. Not only would it lessen the ability of the others to resist, it would crush the morale of most of the Kindred in the city.

Her mind was made up. Nines Rodriguez was most likely still at the Last Round. That was probably a good thing; it was a good chance that he was with Skelter and Damsel. That meant any assassin would have to try a ranged attack, and even then he would have a hell of time getting away. Pulling out her cell phone, Fenris dialled Damsel. Rodriguez had a phone, but he rarely had it on him. Skelter was something of a Luddite when it came to things like cell phones and computers, and Nines bought into some of Skelter's rhetoric. After a few quick words to Damsel, Fenris started back from Hollywood into the Downtown core.

Marko

Heather Poe is probably dead. I have eyes on the likely assailant. Come to Heather's office.

Dubious of what he thought just happened; Marko tapped his left temple with the first two fingers of his left hand. What he thought he heard was Tabby-Cat not only on the Network, but her voice was somehow in front of the Network; like she was right there with him, but also in the Network at the same time.

How was that possible? Did the Tremere have a way to hack into the Network? Was it really Tabby-Cat, or a badly timed prank? Was Tabby-Cat really a Tremere? Or was this more of their Magic?

Mark Oxford gave his head a shake, deciding it didn't much matter how Tabby-Cat got into his head. It was possible, he supposed, it might be some super-high level of Auspex he hasn't yet mastered. Whatever the answer to this riddle might be, the message was clear. Tabby-Cat was closing in on their probable target, and needed help to put it down. Whether it was a legit message or someone on the Network playing a badly timed -and therefore perfectly timed- prank, he had to go check it out.

He was already in the building; cruising one of the common rooms. From there he easily found his way to the elevators. The one he hopped into happened to have someone in it; a pretty brunette rocking a classy Goth-girl look.

"Pardon me," Marko said to her. "By any chance would happen to know where I would find the office of Miss Poe? It's very important I talk to her."

Goth-girl looked him over with a well practiced bored look. "Let me guess, you're with the exterminators, right?" She asked.

From behind his tinted glasses, Marko regarded her in bewilderment for a moment before realizing he was wearing his coveralls and gum boots tonight. He decided it was best to play along.

"Yes, that's right. I'm the pest buster." He agreed. "Our assessment is complete, and we have an estimate for treatment."

"How bad is it?" Goth-girl inquired with a tone that seemed a little less than interested. "The roach problem, I mean?"

Marko smiled, hoping his smile came off as reassuring. "Nothing we can't handle ma'am. Roach busting is what we do best." He gave her a salute.

She gave him directions to Heather's office. Marko thanked her, stepped off the elevator, and headed for the office. He could have dominated her into telling him, but in the past he found that sometimes created other problems that could screw with the Masquerade indirectly. He found usually it was better to play along with the presumptions of the social norm; keeping the really real and totally irrational reality all to himself.

SNAKE EYES! Troubletroubletroubletrouble...

Just as he was about to knock on the door, the Network screamed at him so hard it actually caused him to wince. Instinctively, he reached into pocket to grip the Magnum he brought with him, but then thought better of it. The Magnum was really loud, and the report would definitely attract unwanted attention. Besides, he had a better idea. He focused his Auspex to peek into the room. There he saw a shape of a man standing over a shape of a woman.

Tabby-Cat is down.

Steeling himself, he got ready to whammy whoever it was on the other side of the door with a dose of panic-driven madness. He took half a step back and mule kicked the door as hard as he could; just like in the cop shows he and Janette sometimes watched and laughed at like they were comedies.

It worked. The door flew open, and in the split second of surprise he had on the man standing above Tabby-Cat, he tossed his Dementation whammy out. The man, who looked to Marko like he might be Puerto-Rican, shrieked sharply in terror at whatever his momentarily deluded mind saw and suddenly darted towards a nearby ventilation duct, rapidly turning into a large snake as he did. Not the reaction Marko was hoping for, the snake started to slither into the duct.

Cursing quietly, Marko sprang forward, attempting to grab the snake by the tail. He only barely missed. He cursed again as the snake slid deeper into the ventilation system of the hotel. Marko looked first down the duct, then at the unconscious form of Tabetha. He was hoping to paralyze the snake-man in order to beat him senseless, but now he had a terrified cobra in building, or maybe in city streets. He also had a Tabby-Cat that he considered something of a friend who was in bad shape.

If Tabby-Cat could talk to people with her brain, maybe he could to. Marko took a deep breath, focused himself and massaged his temples.

"Marko calling Strauss, this is Marko calling Strauss..." he said aloud. "If you can hear me, Tabby-Cat is down. She looks bad. A Snake got her at Cammies' Hotel, Poe-girls' office. The Snake got away. I'm in pursuit. You might want to come and help Tabby-Cat. This is Marko signing out."

Hoping that worked, Marko raced to the fire escape stairs, figuring he would get to the basement quicker that way than in the elevator, also guessing that the Snake would want someplace dark to hide.

Ajax

Ajax relished the look on Cammie's face when he stepped out of obfuscation and spoke; Cameron Hastings looked like he just added about five pounds into his jockey shorts. If he wasn't so pissed off, the Nosferatu would have laughed.

"Who are you to call me a traitor?" Cameron challenged, trying to put on his typical bravado.

"I'm the guy who knows you hooked up the Assamites to take down the Barons," Ajax replied. "I'm the guy who knows you set Skelter up to take a hit, and I'm the guy who saw you conspiring with the Setites in order to build up your little family dynasty."

Regaining composure, Cameron scoffed. "Then you don't know half of what you think." He retorted. Cameron opened his jacket and tapped his chest lightly over his heart. "I, like most of my family, am being coerced into cooperating with those serpents. For all I know, they are the ones who arranged the Assamite connection. For my part, I'm only playing along until I can find a way to turn the tables on them."

Ajax sized the Ventrue up. He didn't have Auspex, or any special lie detector abilities, but he figured that Cameron's explanation was plausible enough to have some element of truth to it; taking into account Ventrue pride and the unlikely chance that any Ventrue would be willing to play second fiddle to anybody. Also, considering that Cammie was a sneaky son of a bitch, this was exactly the kind of play he might try.

"Okay, Cammie, let's just say I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt." He said. "What to the sand snakes have on you, and what do you intend to do about it?"

"Don't listen to him!" Cameron Hastings shouted from the entrance into the room. Both Ajax and Cameron turned to see another Cameron storming in and standing beside the first Cameron. "You need to destroy this imposter! I just escaped from the Setite stronghold; that is the other Assamite in disguise!"

"That's ridiculous!" The first Cameron countered. "I am Cameron Hastings, Clan Ventrue; this one is the imposter!"

Looking first to one, and then the other, Ajax could see only one way to be sure. Activating his Potence, he reached out and knocked both their heads together; hard enough to crush the skulls of any mortal kine.

Xavier

The ghoul cop led Xavier to the Ivory Tower hotel, about three blocks uphill from the Bay. Even from where they stood, the view was remarkable; he could only imagine what it was like from court area that surrounded the penthouse suites at the top of the tower. It must be breathtaking...

Xavier Vega blinked hard to regain his focus before his clan weakness started to take too much of a hold on him. He followed the cop into an underground parking garage, where he was next taken to a service elevator. The cop hit a button, and the elevator began its ascent to the Penthouse.

"Why are we taking a back door route?" Xavier asked. "What's wrong with coming in the front way?"

"Right now you don't want to ask questions, sir," the cop replied without looking at him. "I have my orders, and those include not divulging any information on the situation. Prince Ezekiel will deal with you directly."

Xavier didn't like the sound of that. It told him that he was being set up for something bad. For a moment he regretted that he did not arm himself; but then realized chances were good that he'd not only be disarmed before being allowed to see the Prince, but even attempting to bring in weapons would only make things worse for him. His only play right now was to go along, and see if he could talk his way out of whatever was going on. At the moment, that meant keeping his big mouth shut until he had an audience with the Prince. Chances were that this cop didn't know anything, anyway. If this is the way a Hastings runs the show, Xavier decided he would do whatever he could to keep that from happening in Los Angeles.

The elevator stopped. The door slid open without as much as a whisper of a sound. The door led into a back hallway, an oak door at the opposite end.

"Come with me, sir." The cop said without any inflection. He led Xavier towards and through the door, which led into a surprisingly lavish center court; guards posted all along a gangway which ran around a second floor of each of the three suites on the penthouse floor. He was facing west, the eastern wing of the penthouse apparently serving as some kind of staff area; or perhaps a conference hall. Precisely in the middle of the court in front of him, a rail-thin, almost skeletal man with empty sockets where his eyes should be stood. He had not a single hair anywhere on his body, no lips to speak of to cover his pearl white teeth which reminded Xavier of a shark, and it looked as if his ears had been cut off. This man could only be a Nosferatu, Xavier reasoned.

"Thank you officer," the Nosferatu said with a whistling, effeminate voice as he waved his right hand in a shooing gesture; his fingers thin and long like the legs of a spider, manicured fingernails that looked like claws. "That will be all."

"Yes, madam Sheriff." The cop bowed sharply before taking a step backward and turning around to leave the way he came. The oak door slammed shut behind the cop, and a man with a barrel of a chest stood in front of it. Xavier guessed this man to be a Brujah. This one was definitely a man, unlike the Nosferatu Sheriff, apparently.

"Xavier... Vega, is it?" The Sheriff asked him.

"Yes, madam Sheriff," Xavier replied, reasoning that when in Rome one should act as the Romans do.

"I understand you're here to speak with the Primogen of your clan in our city. Is this correct?"

"Yes, madam Sheriff."

"I see." The Sheriff said. "Then would I also be correct to presume that you have been sent by your Primogen? Isaac Abrams, I believe it is?"

By reflex, Xavier balked. "No, Madam Sheriff," he replied. "I regret to say that Isaac Abrams has been destroyed. It is now Velvet Velour that leads the Toreador in Los Angeles." Since Los Angeles was an Anarch Free State, the term Primogen actually meant very little, but Xavier thought now was not the time press that particular issue; better to let the Cammies use their own vernacular.

"My condolences," the Sheriff said, void of any emotion. "Then it is Miss Velour you are here on behalf?"

"No, madam Sheriff I am not." Xavier answered. "I do have her approval for this visit, but I am here on a more personal matter. I mean no disrespect, madam Sheriff, but the exact nature of this visit is sensitive, and before I speak of it further I would like to present myself to Prince Ezekiel."

The Sheriff was silent for what seemed like an eternity. By Xavier's estimation, she was scrutinizing him. He also got the sense that at least on some level, she was enjoying being in such a clear position of authority over him; a Nosferatu that quite literally held the life of a Toreador in her hands. Finally, she made a hissing noise that Xavier believed must have been what passed for laughter with her.

"Well said, Mr. Vega," she said finally; "for an Anarch. Very well, I shall speak to the Prince and his Seneschal. Wait here, if you please." The Sheriff deftly turned and slinked in a way that would have been seductive if it weren't so grotesque. She went through what Xavier presumed was the door to the western suite and quietly closed the door behind her. Even though the wait was really only a matter of seconds, it felt as if Xavier was alone in the concourse for at least half an eternity. For the briefest of moments, he considered striking up conversation with the barrel-chested man at the door, but the look in his eyes told him that was a bad idea; though Xavier couldn't quite read why it was a bad idea, other than what was readily apparent in the situation.

Xavier was just about to focus his Auspex in an attempt to get a read on the man's thoughts when the western door opened up again behind him.

"His highness will see you now, Mr. Vega." The Sheriff beckoned with a come-hither gesture with her spider-like fingers. "Bruno, please help Mr. Vega into the suite."

"Thank Madam Sheriff," Xavier replied as the man at the eastern door advanced. "But really, I don't need help."

"I'm sure you don't," the Sheriff concurred. "I assure you, this is purely a formality. I'm afraid Prince Ezekiel insists." She again made that spidery come hither gesture; Xavier thought crazily about Imalia. He wondered if this Nosferatu was like her; a former beauty queen that was turned as some kind of punishment. If she was, Xavier figured, this is one Cleopatra that did very well.

Before he could object any farther, Xavier was nudged lightly by Bruno the Bruja; though lightly still felt a little like get a love tap from a semi. It was suddenly becoming very clear to Xavier that he was getting set up for something nasty. Seeing no way out at the moment, Xavier let himself get lead into the suite. It was ridiculous; the suite was bigger and more elaborate than most houses that Xavier had seen. This facility, on the whole, put Cameron's condo and his hotel to shame.

"Your Highness, Mr. Seneschal" the Sheriff announced, "Mr. Xavier Vega of Clan Toreador from Los Angeles; he claims to have a matter to discuss with our own Cassandra DuPont."

The resemblance between Ezekiel Hastings and Cameron was uncanny; Ezekiel had longer hair, though not by much. Apart from that, he could've been Cameron's biological father. He sat in an easy chair in the front room. The chair invoked a sense that Ezekiel was sitting upon a throne; or at the very least granted him a very Presidential image. On a nearby couch, another man lounged, looking altogether much too comfortable. This man lazily straightened himself up. He had long black hair parted in the middle. His eyes were milky white; Xavier took note that this man was very likely stone blind. A woman in a wedding dress, complete with a veil which obscured her face, stood behind the couch. It appeared as if she was wearing some sort of mask beneath the veil. Xavier guessed she served as the blind man's guide.

"And this Mr. Vega," the man replied with a soft-spoken voice. "We can assume he has been checked for weapons and espionage equipment?"

"Of course, Mr. Seneschal," the Sheriff concurred. "I checked him myself, and he has been vetted several times before he even entered our city."

"I have no doubt." The Seneschal said. He stared directly at Xavier; as if he was scrutinizing an unwanted visitor, or perhaps like he was sizing up a young suitor for his daughter. "Mom,' he said, apparently talking to his guide, "Please come around and take a closer look at this Toreador. Leave the veil down, please; we don't need the mask yet." Without a word, the bride-guide-mother woman stepped around the couch and stood next to Xavier; looking him up and down. The Seneschal sighed, sounding bored. "I suppose he's safe enough." He said. "Thank you, Mom. Come back to me now."

The woman returned to original position. Without turning his gaze away from Xavier, the Seneschal nodded almost unnoticeably.

"Tell me, Mr. Vega," The Prince spoke. Even his voice was like a slightly more grown up version of Cameron. "What is the exact nature of your business with Cassie?" He sounded genuinely concerned. It was possible that the trouble Xavier thought he was in was nowhere near as serious as he originally believed. "I should warn you," Ezekiel added, "my Seneschal is very talented, and we will know of any deception on your part."

"I understand, Highness." Xavier replied. "Cassandra and I have been in contact with each other for nearly ten years, and our most recent exchange has given me cause to believe she may be in trouble."

The Prince glanced at the Seneschal, who made no move. "I see," he said. "Tell me, Mr. Vega; for what purpose have you been in contact with Cassie?"

"I run a club in Hollywood, and she has been recommending up and coming talent to play in my venue."

"True," the Seneschal confirmed.

"Very good," Ezekiel said. "Now tell me, what was it in your last exchange that gave you cause to worry?"

"When we do contact each other we do so in code, Highness." Xavier explained. "We use key words and phrases throughout our conversations and respond to those very specifically. The last conversation we had, Cassandra failed to respond properly."

The Seneschal laughed. When the Prince did not respond to the laughter, Xavier presumed it was not necessarily relevant. It could have been that he thought the measure was amusing; also, it was clear to Xavier that the Seneschal was a Malkavian.

Xavier continued. "Because of this failure, it is my belief that whoever I was corresponding with was an imposter."

The Prince stiffened in his chair. "Is that so?" he asked. "When was this last correspondence?"

"Last night, sir," Xavier answered.

Ezekiel raised a hand to stop the Seneschal short. "I already know that to be a lie, Mr. Vega." He retorted. "If your City wasn't a so-called 'Free State' surely your Primogen would know that Cassie has been missing for at least a week. Actually, I believe that you are aware of this, and now the Anarchs of Los Angeles sent you to cover their tracks in an effort to undermine my Court. I believe you're in league with that grinning pirate of a Bruja Jack."

Prince Ezekiel nodded at the Sheriff. Before he could speak or move in protest, the Sheriff and deputy Bruno seized Xavier and held him using Potence.

"I recommend that you do not resist, Mr. Vega," the Seneschal chimed in. "Or I will have to ask Mom to lift her veil." He giggled. "Believe me, Toreador, you don't want that."

Tabetha

Tabetha Toussaint opened her eyes. Her tinted eyeglasses, which were now purely an affectation that sometimes helped in making her Masquerade all the more convincing, were not on her face. Despite that, she could still make out the details of the ceiling above her. For a moment, she didn't recognize it; then she remembered where she was.

"You've recovered." She heard Master Strauss say nearby as she sat up. "I am pleased, Apprentice. Losing you would be a loss to the Clan and to the Camarilla."

Tabetha got to her feet and saw him standing in front of Heather's desk, arms folded across his chest. "Heather..." she started to say.

"Is deceased, I know." Strauss finished for her. "The one you encountered was a Follower of Set. The Malkavian is in pursuit as we speak. Apparently your use of Auspex confused him for a moment, but in the end you taught him how to add to his own skills."

So Marko was alright. Tabetha nodded. "We have to catch up to him," she suggested. "That Setite son of a bitch can't be allowed to escape."

"I agree, my Apprentice," Strauss concurred, void of emotion as usual. With a casual wave of his hand, a sliding closet door across the room slid open; behind it were the remains of Heather Poe. She looked as if someone had poured hydrochloric acid down her throat. "But first we have to remove all evidence of any crime. This mess would otherwise endanger thee Masquerade."

Cameron

Seeing what the Nosferatu was about to do, Cameron Hastings instinctively activated the full extent of his Fortitude to soak the brunt of the impact of his skull colliding into the skull of his apparent twin. Ajax must have been using a great deal of Potence, because even with Fortitude, the blow hurt enough to send him reeling; he nearly lost his footing. The imposter was not so lucky. For his part, the imposter also reeled as his obfuscate melted away to reveal a man with obviously dyed red hair, his features were either Puerto-Rican or Philippine; Cameron could never really tell the difference. Whoever he was, his eyes glazed over as his head wobbled stupidly before he collapsed on the apartment floor. Upon a glance, it was clearly evident that this imposter was out cold. Judging from the ache in his own head, Cameron guessed it would be quite some time before the pretender to his throne would recover.

Rubbing his head with his left hand, Cameron looked over at Ajax. "Was that really necessary?"

Ajax grinned; or whatever passed for grinning. "I'm afraid so," he said. "I had to know for sure. I figured you'd be the one standing after a shot like that."

"I suppose that's true enough," Cameron allowed, taking the remark as a compliment. "Still; ow, though..." he murmured.

"What about him?" Ajax asked. "What's his story?"

"Who knows?" Cameron shrugged. "My guess is he's the second Assamite that the Gangrel was talking about."

Both he and Ajax nearly jumped out of their skin when they heard a loud buzzer noise at the entrance of the room. They turned to see Marko standing before them, dressed in what looked like exterminator coveralls, his arms crossed into a giant 'X' in front of him.

"I'm sorry, Lord Hastings, but that answer is not correct." The Malkavian said in his best game-show host voice. "You do not win the million dollar prize or the all expense paid vacation to Tahiti. That is no Assamite. That is, in fact, a Serpent."

"How do you know that?" Ajax asked.

"Tabby-Cat and I visited the hotel. This snake got the drop on Tabby-Cat by pretending to be Poe-girl, but not before she gave me a heads up." Marko tapped his temple with his right pointer-finger.

In a moment of inspiration, Cameron spoke, doing his best to feign concern. "Heather? He impersonated my ghoul? Is she alright?"

Marko slowly lifted the goggles he always wore off his eyes. The Malkavian looked Cameron up and down, as if to scrutinize him. That made the Ventrue uncomfortable. Marko wasn't any older than him, but Cameron knew that Marko had a frightening way of knowing things he had no way of knowing. Marko suddenly tensed up and cocked his head to one side.

"It is with deep regret, sir, that the latest report I just received from Tabby-Cat is that Miss Heather Poe has been killed in the line of duty." He said in a comical Marine voice.

"What?" Cameron demanded, doing his best to sound shocked and wounded. He slowly turned his gaze to the unconscious Setite. Suppressing a grin, he twisted his face into a scowl and drew a pistol from his nightstand. "You son of a bitch!" he shouted, aiming the .45 at the Setites' head. Before he could pull the trigger, Ajax grabbed his wrist and wrested the gun from his hand.

"Think this through, Cammie," the Nosferatu said. "I get it; you want payback for your ghoul. But you aren't stupid; you know we need him alive for information. The right play here is to take him to Bertram, Nines, Therese, VV, and even Max and interrogate him. Once we get some answers, then I for one can care less what you do to him."

Cameron feigned contemplation to buy himself some time to adjust his plan to the new scenario. On the face of it, Ajax was right. The problem was this snake might know too much about his arrangement with Alejandro. Though Cameron was certainly being coerced, he had no interest n making that too well known; at least not yet. It was bad enough the Nosferatu knew as much as he did.

Then again, maybe he could use the Nosferatu to his advantage. To do that, he would have to play along for now. While he was at it, he could work the Malkavian in on this as well. Marko was unstable, but trustworthy enough; besides, better to be as straight as possible with him as long as possible since he had that weird insight thing going. Since Ajax knew as much as he did, it might be possible to appeal to him on the need to maintain cover; impress on him the necessity that his cover needs to go both ways for the time being. As for Marko; Cameron estimated he would respond well to being invited into the circle. Cursing under his breath, he pulled himself free of Ajax's grip.

"You're right," he said to Ajax. "Let's get him to the others. Where are they?"

"Janette met with them over at the Last Round," Marko informed them. "Not Therese, though, she's in the Asylum tonight."

"Alright, then," Cameron sighed. "Ajax, we can't really just carry this serpent out in the street. You should carry him to the Last Round from below while I catch Marko up to what's really going on."

The Nosferatu nodded, apparently satisfied with the implication that he was in the know. "That makes sense." He agreed, picking the Setite up.

"Come on, Marko," Cameron said, slapping the Malkavian lightly on the back. "I must admit, I do indeed have some explaining to do." With that, he led Marko out of his apartment; making a note to do something about improving his security system.