Chapter 6: Risk Management

"So if I were Mick, where would I be?" As soon as Beth asked the question, the last of her grief fell away and she felt empowered. On the hunt and on familiar ground. The adrenaline in her blood still sang to her, but now it was calling for a fight, clearing her mental pathways of unwanted distractions and focusing her awareness. Emotionalism was a thief. It promised release, but had simply robbedher of action, paralyzingher and wasting precious time. Beth remembered Miranda's expression as she'd gotten out of her car- that deep sadness for Mick comingled with a profound disgust. Beth supposed that she'd deserved it.

Even worse? She might lose Mick tonight, when she'd barely begun to understand him. What was the worth of butterfly kisses and tentative finger touches to a soul as damaged as his? She'd thought she'd known, once. But she'd only beenhalf serious,languishing in a secretive and exciting new attraction, enjoying the slow burn. When she'd kissed Mick in the parking lot and on this very balcony, she'd done so impulsively, fully aware that she wasn't free and he wouldn't push.

Now she was coming to recognize that the deep connection which had pulled so sweetly at her was laced with fear, self hatred, desperate loneliness and a dozen other darker emotions for Mick. Yet he'd persisted in reaching out to her- the first time he'd looked outside of himself in too many long years. And now, after tonight's terrible realizations, she might finally be able to meet him where he lived.

If they could find him.

She'd asked Josef a question to which she was sure neither of them had an answer. Not yet. But she was a reporter, and as good at hunting down clues as the P.I. for whom they were searching. After all, that's how fate had brought them together over and over again, searching for leads on completely separate cases. Beth watched as Josef drew in a breath to answer…and then released it without speaking as the sound of the balcony door sliding open captured both of their attentions, bringing their fledgling conversation to a temporary halt.

Beth looked on with no little amount of envy as Miranda joined them, crossing the tile floor with a preternatural smoothness. The woman didn't walk, she glided. In six inch stiletto boots no less. Beth couldn't help but wonder if the sleek pony tail which hung nearly to her waist was real or a weave. In L.A., half of everything you saw in a day was fake. Still…in her secret fantasies, she looked like this woman. Hell, like any of these vampire women. They were all classically beautiful, irresistibly svelte and intensely powerful. Beth vividly remembered Lola's predatory sang froid, that sexy superiority that mocked her for merely being human. They all had it. Especially Coraline.

Beth found that the corners of her lips had turned down, and she was sure there was a deep line furrowed across her forehead. She was out of her league, and she knew it. Mick's surrounded by women who act like they could kick his ass to the ground, then blow his mind…and he's got feelings for me? Beth wondered how this new vampiress knew Mick, and how she had come to drive him home.

Miranda eased her way between Beth and Josef, forcing both of them to take a half step to the side to allow room for her. She surveyed the L.A. nightscape spread out before her, marking a few familiar buildings from this new vantage. Then in one quick motion, she turned away, leaning her back against the rail. She rolled her shoulders a bit, trying the concrete out for comfort- clearly she'd found the gouge made by Josef- then crossed her arms and regarded them with no little amount of disdain, making it obvious that her vampire's hearing had picked up some, if not most of the conversation. Her eyes raked Josef over as if to say, "I expected more of you." Josef's face, already blotched with red, flushed more evenly and he turned away to the rail, caught out.

In fifty years, she'd never seen him so emotionally unsteady. She'd witnessed anger, passion, conniving greed. But sorrow? Real sorrow? Never. He kept such emotions close to himself. She suspected he hid them away, took them out from time to time for examination, and then replaced them again with the click of a mental lock. Not that she blamed him; she did the same thing. Old vamps understood that forward motion was impossible if you were mired down in the past. There was a reason the rearview mirror of a car was so much smaller than the front window. You were meant to check what was behind you, not live in it. Mick would have to come to terms with this concept if he wanted to survive.

Mick's freshie, meanwhile, had raised her head and was regarding Miranda with a fierce readiness that met and matched her challenge. Clearly, the premature mourning was finished. Finally.

Beth started in first, rephrasing her original question to bring Miranda into the conversation. "We need to pool our information and figure out where Mick might be."

"Play detective to find the detective." Josef's voice blew back to them on the wind. It appeared as if he were looking out over the city.

"Absolutely. And you were the last one to see him." Beth had taken on an aggressive, no nonsense tone, seeking to prod Josef into a more active participation. "Which way was he headed? What happened when you chased him?"

Josef pivoted on one heel, turning to face them, his elbow gently pushing against Miranda's. "Mick had an escape route all planned out. We ran north, then he doubled back and headed south. I lost him in Rosedale Cemetery." His mouth formed into a humorless smile, and he graced them both with a pointed look. A fitting enough place, no? he seemed to be saying. "I'm certain he meant to end up there, and equally positive that he kept on going."

"And he didn't say anything?"

"Unless you count grunts and panting as speech, then no. Nothing." Josef's words were strong enough, but Miranda saw his eyes track to the balcony door, unconsciously seeking an escape from the question. Miranda didn't believe him for a second, and from the expression on her face, neither did Beth. The blonde had taken on the pushy reporter's stance. Then the Cleaner saw her hesitate and, for some unknown reason, back down. Perhaps she only wanted to unearth good news. Obviously the conversation had been traumatic, and maybe Josef believed it to be final. Miranda wasn't so sure. "Josef, enough." She nudged his arm, hard. "Something's going to break soon. We'll have a window of opportunity."

"Maybe." Or maybe we already had our chances and blew them both.

"Probably." Miranda said firmly, and chose her next words carefully, mindful of the fragile state of these two, the ones who loved Mick so well. Unfortunately, there was no positive way to spin the inevitable chain of events. "He's hungry. Moving in and out of control. Sooner or later, no matter how good his intentions, he won't be able to restrain himself."

"He'll..." Beth swallowed, discomfited. She couldn't quite bring herself to say the word 'kill', and so chose another. "…feed again."

"Yes. And then we might have him. He stayed with the first body and called for a cleanup. That's how I found him."

Beth's mind flew to the worst scenario, conjuring ghastly images, a conflation of blood and gore drawn from all the crime scenes she'd ever covered. And still, she was sure that she couldn't capture the half of it. Because this time, the murderer in the shadows was Mick.

Miranda saw her response and shrugged eloquently. If Beth was toying with a union in the vampire world, she needed to understand certain realities. "Vampire survival instincts are strong. When you're as depleted as he is, the mind switches off and the thirst takes over." She caught Josef's eye. "You should have seen him on the ride here. One moment he was Mick; the next he was all appetite. He targeted a girl sitting in the back of a passing car and nearly went through both windows at eighty miles an hour to get at her."

The corners of Josef's lips twitched back as he processed the implications of his best friend's hunger gone wild.

He glanced over to Beth, who froze, her heart plummeting into her stomach. She wrapped her hands around the rail, squeezing hard as she was forced to acknowledge, once again, the extent of her betrayal. If she hadn't pushed him away, Mick would have been here, sipping from a silver flask with Josef calmly supporting him. Someone might die tonight for my mistake. A part of her recognized that the two vampires with her harbored no feelings of regret for the human whose life Mick had ended tonight. To them, it was simply the way of things. Mick's moral misgivings were the source of the problem, not the fact that he had given in to his nature.

Miranda's voice cut through their thoughts. "Stop it. You're taking this the wrong way."

It was Josef who responded, his voice low and intense. "And how should I take it, Miranda?"

"Mick's running on instinct, and instinct is all about living, not dying." She leaned over and placed a hand on his arm, squeezing firmly. "Our job is to be there for him when the thirst subsides and he starts thinking again."

She was right, and he knew it. Josef drew in a deep breath, exhaled it slowly. He'd lost more friends than he could count, vampire and human. Empires had risen and passed away while he watched, and hehad learned long ago that the amount of control he could exert over life and its circumstances was limited. A recognition of helplessness that he hated.

So he insulated himself as best he could with wealth, amassing all the trappings of power until he called the shots. Until he was the one from whom others sought favors and friendship, like the king of a nighttime court all his own. The image always amused him. You could take the courtier out of the feudal system, but never the feudal system out of the courtier. Ah well, whatever worked, right? All those lords of history pasthad understood something vital as they stood atop their own shifting dung heaps: that in the end, the powerful do not control life, they ride it, strapped across Fortune's Wheel like any other individual. One could only hope to influence events and people, not control them. Josef exerted his own personal charisma on a daily basis, guiding those who slipped alongside and drafted off his wake.

Mick had started out as such a client, dependent on Josef and Coraline for their knowledge and emotional support as well as for the nutritive and financial sustenance they provided. Then, as he'd matured, he'd changed, forging his own path alongside Josef's. And so they had walked together for a while, on separate but parallel tracks, and that made Mick's companionship all the more precious. There were so few people who had the strength to define their own set of priorities and then live them. Josef had been around long enough to appreciate Mick's fortitude.

"So what now?" Beth asked.

Josef's answer was decisive. "We pool our information like you suggested. All of it." He gestured toward the balcony door, inviting them to walk in front first. "Let's sit down inside and discuss our next move." Josef wasn't certain that any of their planning would amount to much, but it was worth a try.

Thirty minutes later, each of them had elaborated on their recent experiences with Mick, and while they certainly had a clearer picture, they were no closer to a course of action. Josef had been surprised- pleasantly so- to discover that Mick had downed a bag of Colin's best vintage. Surely someone was smiling on them tonight. Blood that carried a high emotional content fulfilled in ways that even a hunt couldn't. Which is clearly why Mick had calmed enough to carry on a conversation with Miranda, and on his favorite topic, no less: human/vampire relations.

The fact that Mick had composed himself to any degree was enough to give Josef a thimbleful of hope…and a very dangerous idea. Josef liked to hedge his bets, to play the odds carefully, minimizing risks and probing several possible approaches before committing. If he nudged things in this direction, he'd be all in with one move, and the responsibility for the final outcome would be his.He wasn't sure he could live with that. However, he wasn't sure there were any alternatives. He glanced to the left, to where Beth sat beside him on the couch. The idea of Colin's blood had clearly intrigued her, and he rather thought she might be flashing back to a certain hotel room in the desert.

More telling still was the fact that Mick had asked for the wallet of his victim. Josef wasn't under any illusions of what his friend had meant to do with it. He would have tortured himself, picked himself to pieces with a thousand little regrets and might have beens as he unearthed the details of the dead man's life. And undoubtedly, as he had with Beth, Mick would have assumed a responsibility for the family, a watchful readiness to intervene, to protect and nurture with finances or assistance.

All of which required that Mick continue among the living.

Beth had caught on immediately, nearly glowing as she'd latched onto the first positive news of the evening. Goodness knew she'd already been the lifelong beneficiary of Mick's care. "He's got a duty to the family. Mick's too honorable to leave them without support."

Josef hadn't disagreed on Mick's original intent, but after the incident in the parking garage, he wasn't so sanguine. "Don't count on it. Not entirely. If he…goes…he'd expect me to handle it." He'd exhaled, coming to a stop, crossing his arms against his chest. "Which I will, of course." He had glanced at Miranda, all business. "In fact, no matter what he says, don't ever let him have that wallet."

She stared back at him, mildly affronted that he'd expected her to make such an obvious mistep. "I'd never intended to."

"Fine." The last thing we need is for Mick to obsess over another human, let alone a group of them. "I'll send someone by your office tomorrow to pick it up."

"Agreed. Though he's not going to thank you for this. I would have taken the heat."

Josef had smiled grimly, a thin worn smile that reinforced the difficulty they faced. "Then by all means, do. Please. If we find him, I'll have my hands full. Give it to my people, and then tell him he can't have it." Josef's expression became pointedly wicked. "Though I'd suggest you do it over the phone. And then go on vacation for a while."

The Cleaner had snorted scornfully, letting Josef know exactly what she thought of his warning.

Still, Mick's request for the wallet had spoken to his intent, and suddenly Josef's thimbleful of hope was all but running over. If they found Mick, he could be reminded of his responsibility. Josef always liked leverage, and guilt was a powerful motivator.

When it had been Beth's turn to speak, and she'd outlined Mick's use of the compound and its effects, Miranda hadn't been surprised in the slightest. Not that Josef had expected her to be. Many of the vampires who had lived through the era of the Revolution had heard rumors of its existence. Josef had already been in America at the time, curious about the workings of the experiment called democracy, eager to experience a society ruled by, of and for the people. He'd never expected it to last, and certainly never intended to make the New World his home, but the unexplored, unconquered vastness of it all had lured him away from the endlessly tiresome pursuits of the courtier and called him to find his own purpose.

As for Miranda, she'd stayed in Europe and found herself on the outskirts of a second, far less benign Revolution. She'd been a small landowner in thetown of Arles, in Provence. The intensity of peasant anger had sparked riots in the countryside, and she'd found herself run off her estate just ahead of that a torch bearing mob. She'd sought asylum at a local monastery- one that specialized in the development and sale of botanicals. The connection didn't surprise Josef. Monasteries had made a vast business out of creating herbal cures and potions. The religious communities of Provence still made everything from soap to Chartreuse. In any event, a vampire monk (now there was a contradiction in terms) from the Ardennes had had a small supply and given her one dose, enough to pass the checkpoints between Arles and Marseilles, where she'd sailed for Spain and relative safety.

"So it's not just a masker?" Josef asked, stretching one arm along the back of the couch.

"I came to think of it as a suppressor, though I don't know how it worked. He sliced my arm near the wrist, smeared on the herbs, and a few minutes later I could pass for human." The Cleaner's expression reflected her distaste as long forgotten memories surfaced. "It was unnerving." She paused. "The transition back was a bitch; I drank like a newborn vamp for the first three days." Actually, she'd created such a mess the first night, she'd had to leave her lodging and flee through a smuggler's hole in the city walls. Right before dawn, she'd found herself in a crofter's barn, eyeing the cows in desperation. She'd taken the first farmhand to walk through the door…and the second as well and then run through the woods like the devil was chasing her.

"What about the compound? Was it widely available?"

She shook her head. "No. As the Revolution wore on, its existence became more commonly known, but no one outside of France ever seemed to be able to acquire any. And even inside the borders it was rumored to be extremely rare. Near the end, the vamp refugees who made it through the checkpoints as humans all seemed to be closely connected to the royal family in some way. It was assumed that they must have been the source of the compound. Of course, Louis XVI was executed, as were most of the higher functionaries of the court. After they were killed, the supply seemed to disappear."

"And nothing about Mick tonight led you to believe that he was recovering from the compound?"

"If I'd thought about it, I might have questioned him. But no. There were no obvious scents or signs."

Josef filed the information away. After this crisis had passed, rooting out information regarding the compound would become his top priority. Apparently Lance had been less than honest with him when he'd asked for Josef's assistance in locating Coraline in L.A. He tapped his fingers on the back of the couch, an urgent rhythm. He so hated being screwed. "Alright. So where do we think Mick is? I've got my people watching, but I doubt he'll show up at any of my properties." Not after leading me on such a merry chase.

"It depends." Miranda answered. "If he's gone entirely rogue, he'll pick out whomever's closest when he snaps, drag them into a corner and drain them dry. Like he did earlier at the storage facility. If he's more aware of himself, he might go to a popular night spot, looking for a crime in progress or a drug dealer. I've got my teams in downtown Hollywood and a few of the noisier places."

"Wait a minute." They turned back to Beth, who had suddenly sat avidly upright, straining forward from her end of the couch toward Miranda's chair. "What storage facility?"

"The one I found Mick at. A few blocks down from the Chinese Theater in Hollywood."

Beth's expression turned triumphant. "That's where he kept Coraline's lab. He boxed up the notes, the chemicals, the equipment- everything- and stored it downtown. It's got to be the same place." She placed her hand on Josef's knee, gripping tightly. "He went there tonight looking for the cure!"

Josef wasn't so sure that Mick had been actively searching for anything other than a meal. Beth didn't understand the primal nature of vampire thirst. Still, on some basic level, Mick might well have unconsciously brought himself to the one place where he believed he might find help. Perhaps by mixing some of the herbs together, he might have lessened the aftereffects enough to regain control. "Miranda, did you see any broken locks or bent doors?"

"No. Everything seemed secure. Mick didn't seem to care about the place."

Beth interrupted. "Of course not. From what you described, he wasn't thinking straight. Besides, once he'd killed...the deed was done, right? But he's still hungry and Coraline told him she'd hidden more of the compound. What if Mick's looking for it?"

Suddenly everything fell into place, and they found themselves staring across the table at each other, a thread of energy sparking between them. They might be wrong. But at least they'd be doing something.

Josef spoke first. "So we look in places where Mick and Coraline had a common history." He stood, looking to Miranda. "You should go back downtown. You've scented the compound before. Do you think you can recognize it if you smelled it again?"

"After two hundred years?!" She rolled her eyes, holding out her hands helplessly. From the looks she got back, that wasn't what they wanted to hear. She sighed. "Maybe."

"Do what you can. Find everything that's closest to the smell you remember, get it ready for transport and then call me."

"What about us?" Beth asked.

"I'm going to visit some of Mick and Coraline's old haunts. The hotel they went to on their wedding night, their favorite restaurant. Places only I'd know."

"Fine. I'll take their house."

Josef paused, caught in the crux of his gambit. Now came the choice, and it all came down to faith. Did he believe that Mick was searching for the cure? Possibly. If he was thinking at all through the hunger. Did he believe that Coraline really had hidden some part of it for Mick to find? Not on your life. Bait and switch, that's what Coraline did. Chances were she'd meant to hold out a false hope for Mick, one that would frustrate him until he eventually chased her back to France, right into the heart of her family's holdings.

The problem with all cons, however, is that there might be an element of truth. That small grain of hope that necessitated the wild goose chase he was proposing.

No, the real cure was standing in front of him with eager blue eyes and clouds of blonde hair. Her blood, filled with the taste of her love forMick was the real solution. Probably the only one that mattered. He glanced over at Miranda. She saw it too. Of course she does. She'd been in love with a human for forty years.

The question was deceptively simple: Did he have faith that Mick wouldn't kill her?

Twenty four hours ago- hell, two hours ago- he honestly wouldn't have cared. Not so much. Mick's outcome would have been of more importance than hers. In the previous two hours, however, he'd tested her mettle, and discovered that she loved Mick as much as he did, and for entirely different purposes. (Here he rather expected that he was lying to himself. He'd known for a while, but it was hard to lose a friend to a rival. Being the third wheel always sucked.)

As to the question of faith, he found that he didn't have an answer. And in Mick's absence, it fell to Josef to defend those things he held dear.

"No. You should go home." Josef's tone brooked no defiance. To punctuate his point, he walked away from her, grabbing his coat and swinging into it. Let her remember the cost of her earlier bickering.

Beth did, and for a moment she stood there silently, her mouth opening and closing as possible objections died in the face of her previous actions. If she had but listened to Josef, Mick would be here, ensconced safely in his apartment with Josef at his side. Exactly the situation they were trying to achieve. However, the circumstances were significantly less favorable now, and Beth was considerably more responsible. Her voice was hesitant in its protest. "I can't do that."

Josef's hands paused on the buttons of his duster, and he adopted his most sarcastic, most imposing manner. "Mick isn't in control of himself. What part of 'He'll kill you' don't you understand?"

Beth didn't have a good answer. She stretched open palmed hands towards him in entreaty even as her eyes tracked to the floor and her torso pulled away from him. "I trust him. You tell me I shouldn't, but I trust him." She looked up, straight into hiseyes. "You didn't see him downstairs. He wasn't himself, but part of him was aware. I crushed something in him, and I'm the only one who can make it right."

And so they were back to faith again.

Josef rubbed his hands through his hair. The tension in the room was palpable, and he felt stretched. "If he kills you…hurts you…he won't survive it."

And then she said it. The fear which had been plaguing him all night long. "No. But you don't think he will regardless."

Josef's tick was back again, and he moved his head in a tinyinconclusive motion. He might already be dead.

So what have we got to lose? Her look seemed to say to him.

Too much, his responded.

He cleared his throat. "Fine. You go to the house, and wait for me in your car. Preferably about a mile down the road." He glared at her intently, his gaze powerful and intimidating. "Do you understand? Don't go anywhere near it." She nodded mutely. "Promise me." Beth nodded again. "No, say it."

"I promise." She found her own thoughts and formed a question. "Where will you be?"

"I'm going to the hotel where Mick was first turned. To be honest, I think it's a better bet. Lance searched their house. My men searched their house. Hell, even you were there." Coraline was too smart to go for the obvious. She'd choose somewhere more private. More pertinent to herself and to Mick. And there could scarcely be a more significant place than their honeymoon suite.

Beth thought the chances were good that Josef was right. "Fine. I'll wait for you."

Josef nodded. "I'll be in touch." He pulled open the front door, calling back to them as he stepped out. "Exchange cell numbers with Miranda before you leave."

Miranda hoped he caught the witheringglare she sent his way before the door closed. Since when am I your secretary, stock boy? She snorted as he escaped, unscathed and undoubtedly amused. She glanced over to Beth, who was pulling on her coat. "Quite the bastard, isn't he?"

Beth smirked, letting go of the tension which the last exchange with Josef had engendered. "Mhhm. Way too overbearing." In truth, she didn't at all care for the way in which he used his physical presence to intimidate her. Or her instinctively submissive reaction.

"Give it time. He'll grow on you. He's Mick's best friend, right?" Miranda cinched her leather belt around her waist, pulled up the collar of her jacket, and motioned to Beth to lead the way. "Come down to my car. I have something that you should keep near you tonight."

The door closed behind them, and a few seconds later, a sensor clicked out and the lights in Mick's apartment dimmed automatically.

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