Chapter 12: Takeovers and Takeoffs

Disclaimer: All the characters and places belong to their respective creators and owners. I only own my OC and make no money whatsoever out of this.

"…And this is the first draft of the quarterly report, as you asked," Jill, my secretary, announced, placing the folder on the small column of documents "to be read" which occupied the top right corner of my – or better Strauss' – desk.

"Thank you Jill," I replied with a smile. "I am going to examine it during my trip: please, tell the guys at the accounting department that they will receive my feedback once I return and to avoid taking any further steps on this matter until then."

"Of course, Ms Wilson," she nodded politely, her strawberry blond high ponytail swinging slightly. "I have already postponed any meetings, I will hold your calls and relay only messages of a certain urgency or gravity. The director of that orphanage was quite adamant about speaking with you, though, but I told him you were away on a mission and would get back to him in a few days."

"Ah, yes, Mr Cooper, right? He is a stubborn man," I admitted, curbing a sigh.

On paper, LaCroix Foundation's main mission was raising money for charitable purposes; in reality, the beneficiaries were, via a net of small societies and associations, the Kindred and ghouls who worked for the LA Camarilla. To deflect suspicions, though, roughly a ten percent of the funds obtained were donated to real – and sometimes well renown - charities belonging to Kine. Some of these were even managed by or connected with religious entities, just to murk the waters some more. The orphanage directed by Mr Cooper had received donations from the Foundation in the last two years and Strauss and I had agreed to perpetuate the tradition. Still, for some reason, the man kept on insisting that one representative of the Foundation consigned the symbolic cheque personally on the occasion of the Christmas festivities, visiting the structure and the children under its care. I would have had no problems about complying, if not for the fact that the programme he had proposed required being there in the morning hours, which, for evident reasons, was impossible. I had tried submitting him a counterproposal, but he seemed adamant to go with his original suggestion, claiming that children were less active and more tired in the evening. On one hand it made sense, on the other a part of me felt that something was off: well, I would worry about it after this trip. Still, I could not afford to tarnish the reputation of the Foundation, so I would have to find a solution: since we were still in the second week of October, there was ample time and I did not understand Mr Cooper's urgency.

"Well, if there is nothing else, I wish you a safe expedition and I will see you in three nights," the apparently twenty-something looking ghoul proclaimed with a smile. In reality, I knew she had been under the employment of the Camarilla for some time, so she had to be forty, at the very least. Like for Mercurio and a few other ghouls, her Regent was an unidentified Ventrue Elder and her blood came in monthly, through a special refrigerated delivery system. This was a way the Camarilla had to ensure that ghouls placed in strategically vital roles were loyal to the organisation and not to the current ruler: first of all to have a further leverage on the Prince and secondly because highly specialised personnel took a long time to train and, especially in contested territories, having to replace them all every time a new Prince was elected would be quite a problem.

"Yes, Jill and thank you," I replied with a warm smile of my own: she had proved to be extremely bright and being on her good side would indubitably spare me a lot of troubles. If there were anything my parents had taught me about business, it was never to underestimate employees and that they could be either the most precious asset of a company, or the most dangerous threat to its existence, particularly if they were mistreated. Even though her being a ghoul and a subordinate would allow me to command her around, I had a feeling that being courteous and "human" would pay off in the end, being something that differentiated me from Cutteridge.

She bowed her head slightly and turned around and, as she walked to the door, I could not help but look up at the distant and expensively ornate ceiling, feeling out of place, for the umpteenth time: in my subconscious, even after almost four months, this was still LaCroix's "throne room". In theory, my office was in the small study just beyond the antechamber, but, in reality, when Strauss was absent, which happened quite often, I had to move here. I knew it was merely a way to keep Cutteridge "in his place", by denying him domain over any location which held a symbolic meaning, but sitting behind his desk still made me slightly uncomfortable.

Strauss had not yet renovated the penthouse or changed the name of the company, claiming there were more pressing matters to concentrate about and I had agreed. Just a few small alterations had been made, removing the small items and decorations which screamed "LaCroix", but the room's style still reflected predominantly his former occupant and, as a consequence, it felt foreign to us. I would have to talk to Strauss about this again, eventually: in our position image was important and, while a reasonable delay reinforced the idea of a man who focused on the priorities of the community, postponing it too much may send a wrong message.

I noted with an internal smirk that perhaps I had spent too much time studying all those books Cutteridge had given me, not to mention working under him and around other members of my Clan: I had seen more Ventrues in these last few months than in the previous two years, by far. The "training" had not been particularly difficult, the only real challenge being the tight schedule I had to work with. I had studied all those tomes on my own and just had a few "talks" with Cutteridge to make sure that all the important concepts had been assimilated: after all, this was not a real "Agoge" and nobody would test me directly on my knowledge. The examination was going to be indirect and subtle and books could only help to a certain extent. Anyway, maybe it was because it had been denied to me for so long, but I had been really eager and motivated to learn everything and that had helped me endure those moments when I had simply wanted some rest and to forget about politics and business, even just for a short while. Plus, I wanted to prove to everybody, Cutteridge and Lady Wallace included, that I had nothing to envy to the other Ventrue who had had a Sire, a formal Agoge and a proper introduction to the Clan, quite the opposite. At this bloody gathering I had to be nothing less than perfect, most especially for my sake, even if it meant giving LaCroix an indirect acknowledgement, as most Kindred would believe he had been the one to provide for my instruction.

Well, truth to be told, I had been surprised to discover how many rules and obligations I knew about or followed already, either subconsciously or by imitation. Part of the credit went to my parents and the education they had given me: they were well-spoken and sophisticated and had always asked nothing less of me. When I was a child, I had never heard them use a swear word, or foul language, no matter how angry they were. Moreover, they had a strong sense of personal honour and decorum: they had taught me that I could buy or obtain a lot of things, but I only had one face and one reputation and, if I lost it, it was most likely irretrievable. What us Ventrue call Dignitas was essential to them, with the difference that they truly believed in it and abided to it, even privately: of course, they were not saints or above reproach and might sometimes have been incoherent without realising it, but they meant well.

Another part of the merit, even though I hated to admit it, went to LaCroix: probably unintentionally, he had taught me quite a lot. It had been a "learning by doing" and by imitation: he had shown me what being Ventrue was about and, by being subjected to his methods and techniques, I had learnt a trick or two myself. Ironically, "Therese" had also been an example of what a stereotypical Ventrue was supposed to be like and, although I had never had the intention to mimic either her or LaCroix, they had given me a benchmark that I had used to build my personal style.

My musings were interrupted as the door opened and Strauss made his entrance, looking vaguely tired: since the election he had barely had the time or space to "breath" himself. I stood up and approached the front of the desk, gladly relinquishing the "throne".

"Are you ready for the departure?" he asked me, eyeing the pile of documents on the desk.

"As much as I will ever be, yes," I replied with a barely audible sigh. "Plus, as you can see, I have plenty of activities to keep me entertained."

"You have no reasons to feel nervous, Irene. In spite of Cutteridge's psychological terrorism, I am confident you will perform brilliantly," he proclaimed with a warm smile and a slight twinkle in his eyes. "You should merely take advantage of this opportunity to build precious connections. On public occasions, way before your Primogen's intervention, you have always been perfectly capable of acting like a true Ventrue and concealing what I would dare to define your… Tremere spirit."

The twinkle intensified and I had to chuckle at what I considered a great compliment, coming from him, although I wasn't sure I really had this "Tremere spirit", whatever that meant.

"Speaking of which, I am more concerned about your progresses with the Auspex discipline: when you return from this voyage, I would like for you to focus on it, given that you are going to have more time at your disposal," he said, approaching the "throne" and sitting down on it.

"Of course, Max, I will exercise whenever I can." I nodded, knowing that he was right.

With an effort, I now could spot the Auras of other people, but it still took all of my concentration and, as such, using it in urgent situations was out of the question, unless I improved. It did not come as natural as the other disciplines typical of my clan: I had the theory of it down and Strauss had even taken time out of his impossible schedule to give me some practical lessons and demonstrations, but it felt… alien.

Strauss believed that it was not a problem of lack of attention on my part, quite the contrary. The fact was that I needed to learn to trust all of my senses and heighten them. I knew I could do it, unconsciously, during emergencies (like when I had been able to "catch" Nines), but it was difficult managing it at will. He had trained me by depriving me of one or more senses, most prominently the sight and challenging me to detect the presence of other people, via their Auras, or objects, by fully exploiting the senses I had left. I had improved, yes, but the problem was that, in order to manage to see Auras, I still needed to close my eyes for some time first and I was unable to skip this passage, at least for now. Evidently, falling into meditation in the middle of a battle or even just as I was walking down the streets, to see if I were being followed, was impossible and, besides, would have given away immediately what I was trying to do.

Maybe my difficulties were connected to my tendency to over-think things and inability to simply let myself go and trust my abilities, unless my life was at stake. Ironically, I might actually be able to use Auspex perfectly under duress, but this line of reasoning was too risky to pursue. I had to get it right no matter what the situation and that was all there was to it.

I took the document wallet I had placed on a chair and started filling it with my "homework" for the next few days. It turned out to be quite heavy, but Cutteridge had undoubtedly arranged for us to travel with a number of lackeys and bodyguards, so the size of the baggage would not be a problem.

"Well, I guess I should go now, sir. Any further instructions?"

"No, Irene. Have a safe flight and… although the company will not be the most pleasant, make the most out of this expedition," he said with a smile, making me chuckle.

"Thank you, Max. I will see you on Monday."

Carrying the heavy case, I went into the elevator and rode it down a level. My shoes clicked on the marble floor as I reached the massive ebony door, sliding my key-card into the slot and waiting as the mechanism pulled it open. With a sigh, I deposited the load in the antechamber, near the other suitcases which I had already packed. In the end, Strauss had managed to convince me to move to LaCroix's former "quarters" and I had discovered that the definition was quite an understatement, to say the least. They did not simply consist of this more than ample apartment which was practically in the penthouse, as I had always imagined. No, apparently our dear Napoleon used to reside here mainly from Mondays to Fridays, when he was in a rush and had to be in the building until the morning came. The real "royal palace" was the imposing manor in front of the Tower, where he received important guests during the weekends and hosted the few unavoidable revels, mostly to schmooze Kine connected with the Foundation and raise money, although there had also been the occasional Ventrue happening.

The mansion was striking but in a somewhat disturbing and eerie way: the architecture was pseudo-gothic, as it had been built by one of LaCroix's predecessor at the beginning of the twentieth century, before the Anarchs managed to kick the "Cammies" out of LA. The whole place felt like a giant, empty, albeit luxurious, mausoleum and I basically stayed at the Tower, going there sporadically, when Strauss asked me to. It was ironic that he was doing all this only to keep Cutteridge out, because the Primogen was the one Kindred who I could actually imagine living there comfortably and fitting in the atmosphere of the place. Although, to be perfectly honest, I almost preferred it to the quasi-rococo style of the penthouse office: I had always been fond of an elegant minimalism in furnishing and decoration. Therefore, I had quite liked the haven at Skyline: yes, it had been a tad too aseptic, but that was merely because I had purposefully avoided to get attached to it or to make it "mine". Had it been my home, I would probably have added some slightly less modern furniture in the mixture, to balance things a bit and give a "warmer" feeling to the place.

I had to admit, though, that this apartment had been a rather pleasant surprise: upon first entering it, I had feared to find a small-scale replica of Versailles, considering LaCroix's mania of grandeur, the golden opulence of the Penthouse and the fact that he had had to adapt to a manor which did not exactly suit him. Unless one rebuilt it from scratch, the austere structural design doomed any attempt at an internal refurbishing: almost everything would clash with it, sticking out like a sore thumb.

Instead, this spacious flat was sophisticated without being flamboyant and, even though every single piece of furniture was probably worth more than an average car, it was a… subtle luxury and, most importantly, it was "liveable". The flooring was of a well maintained white marble, the walls were also white, contrasting with the antique ebony furniture. There were a few touches of modernity: the electronic appliances, the lamps, the couch… Moreover, the unused kitchen and the enormous bathroom could be defined state of the art and seemed to come straight from a design magazine. Still, the black and white theme was constant and the dominance of the latter gave the place a nice sense of luminosity, despite the fact that the only illumination which ever graced it was artificial. While the external walls had enormous windows, like in every skyscraper, there was a complex mechanism of UV-proof shutters which automatically lowered themselves one hour before sunrise. For security reasons though, they could only be raised "manually" on situ and the bedroom had been deliberately placed "internally", so that it had no windows. Additionally, its doors had extremely secure locks and were even more sturdy than the one leading out of the apartment.

Someone may deem these precautions paranoid, but I was glad they were present and I actually almost never raised the shutters, if not for a short time: sun was our worst enemy and one could never be too cautious.

I walked through the living room and entered the bedroom, as I wanted to change into something slightly more comfortable for the flight: I had already arranged the selected clothes on the quilt of the King – sized canopy bed, as if LaCroix would have ever settled for something smaller. Sleeping in his bed had been awkward at first, even if the mattress felt like heaven and the whole place had been "cleansed" of almost every trace of his presence before I moved in. Still, from time to time, I stumbled upon some things that had been left behind and forgotten, usually in the back of some drawer: a tie, a watch, a single white gold cufflink adorned with a small sapphire, an almost empty jar of soft-hold styling gel… It was ironic, really: every time I was nearly getting accustomed to living here and considering the place as "my haven", some little everyday object would pop up, marking the territory as his and making me feel like a squatter. It was as if the fates forbid that I forget about LaCroix, even if he seemed to have relented with his mails: thank goodness for small mercies.

Furthermore, in the living room there were a few shelves filled with various books of his: in all probability they were too heavy and not rare enough to warrant a cross-continental shipment. I had not had the time to browse through them yet, but I had to confess that they piqued my curiosity a bit. Books could tell quite a lot about their owner, after all, and, although a study in LaCroix's character was rather pointless, the inquisitive part of me was intrigued by the possibility to learn more about him. Of course, accomplishing the result with a few tomes was pretty impossible, unless I were a modern version of Sherlock Holmes and a master psychologist, which, sadly, I was not. Still, for example, the style of this apartment – more or less sober – and the striking contrast with the "throne room" made me wonder which one reflected the "real" LaCroix: either the ostentation of wealth was merely a façade to "impress" the audience, which he could drop in private, or his real haven had been his office, in a sense… The place which suited him best and where he spent most of his time, while these rooms had merely been used during torpor and, as such, he had not put too much effort or consideration in furnishing and decorating them. Or he had more than one side, more than one face, which was also most likely, especially for members of our Clan…

I snapped myself out of this train of thoughts, since I was once again fully clothed and ready to leave. I took one last look in the mirror and in my purse, reassuring myself that it did not contain anything that may cause a problem with the security at the airport: even though we were travelling with a special private jet, we still had to undergo the scans and procedures and attracting attention was never a good idea, no matter how proficient at Domination I could be. The intercom buzzed and Chunk's tremulous voice announced that Cutteridge was waiting for me in the lobby and someone was coming to pick up my luggage. I opened the door and recognised the guy as Martin, one of the Primogen's ghouls: he was very tall and very bulky, like an armoire on two feet. Of course, after having been in the presence of the former Sheriff, Martin paled in comparison, but at least he could carry out some semblance of conversation, even if he was not a man of many words.

Once we reached the entrance hall, I could sense that Cutteridge was impatient and nervous, while poor Chunk seemed nearly petrified: being in the Primogen's presence was very similar to entering a freezer and tonight he was even more cadaverous than usual. A wonderful way to start this trip.

"President Cutteridge," I greeted him politely, bending my head to perform a subtle bow, as he nodded in return. I could not exactly call him Primogen in front of a Kine.

"I hear ya're going to Florida, Ms Wilson," Chunk spoke up unexpectedly, as I was about to walk to the entrance.

"Yes, that is correct," I replied with a neutral tone.

"How long will you be out? You know… if someone calls here instead of on your private line and wants to speak with you..." he trailed off, his face reddening a bit and then whitening as Cutteridge sent one of his trademark icicle glares his way. The fact that he was more concerned (or curious) about my absence than worried about Cutteridge was very tender and slightly disturbing. Well, so was Chunk, generally speaking.

"We will probably return on Monday, but, please, forward any call to Jill."

"Sure thing… You know, I auditioned for the Dolphins back in the days… Ah, they said I was smashing," he announced with a proud smile. I wondered if it had been a virtual try-out for his virtual footballer career, but I decided I did not really want to know.

"Ah, yes… that is… interesting. Goodbye Chunk," I drawled in a neutral tone, walking towards the exit with Cutteridge, annoyance and boredom etched on his stern features.

The ride to the airport was immersed in perfect silence, and I took the occasion to start analysing the draft of the quarterly, while taking some notes. Thankfully the limo provided us with plenty of space to ignore each other.

We arrived at LAX roughly two hour before sunrise and quickly went to the area reserved to the passengers of private jets. Scans and procedures were speedily handled and we soon were sitting on the comfy leather chairs of the special "Kindred-friendly" jet, which belonged to the Foundation. It had a sealable area in the back with no windows where Kindred could rest safely, unless the plane crashed, of course, and even those in the front compartment near the cockpit were tinted and could be shuttered. The plan was to fly to Miami during the time of torpor, taking advantage of the different time zones to arrive there when sunset was approaching, thus saving time, although it was slightly more risky than travelling only at night.

I sipped on some blood brought by the ghoul hostess, scribbling a few minor corrections besides the commentary to a chart, when a sudden movement made me look up at Cutteridge, who was seated across from me, although at a good distance. His head had fallen down, his chin resting on his chest, his white hair working like a perfect curtain: torpor. The fact that my humanity was much stronger than his did not come exactly as a revelation, considering his appearance: he had probably tried to resist as long as he could, which would explain his being even grumpier than usual. The plane lurched a little and the glass in his hand, now devoid of a firm grip, shot forward, blood threatening to spill on my papers, before it rolled on the table and crashed on the floor, alerting the hostess.

I gathered up the folder as fast as I could, but a few droplets had already seeped on the top of the page, staining it irremediably. I took a few wet wipes and, with the help of the attendant, we managed to contain the mess. The important thing was that no evident bloodstain got on our clothing: that would have been hard to explain during a control, especially if it were in large quantity. The girl arranged the Primogen's chair so that it was in a reclined position and he may "sleep" more comfortably. Deciding one incident was enough, I finished my blood and tilted back my own seat. I was about to put away the document, when the largest blot caught my eye and, as a consequence, the text next to it. There was the amount of some expenses dated a few days before my employment at the foundation and something in it struck me as odd and familiar at the same time. I underlined the figure to remind myself I should check it more in depth, closed the folder and snuggled back in the chair, wishing for torpor to come, since the flight would be already over when I woke up. I was practically counting down the hours that I had still to spend in Cutteridge's presence: Monday could not come too soon, as far as I was concerned.

A/N: First of all, sorry for the delay, but exams come first and they take practically all of my time. This chapter was supposed to be much longer, but I decided to cut it here, first of all so that it would not be too long between updates and then because the next chapter will be really important and I want to be able to fully concentrate on it when I write it. So this is an introduction of sorts.

My deepest thanks to sister-b, StrangeoneXD, Olivia, Pagan Witch and Loving Companion Cube for your reviews and support.

Olivia: you always make perfect sense, do not worry. Thanks for the reassurance, as you see I will try to refrain from using that adjective again. As for Mercurio, well, you have already read my explanation in the chapter so… I did not think that it would make much sense for him being LaCroix's ghoul, since in the Camarilla Ending (well, in all the endings when you do not side with LaCroix) he still helps you even if you are plotting against him. Had he been fully bound to the Prince, I do not think this would have been possible, it would have taken him a great effort to betray his Regent in such a way… Plus I did not want an aging and miserable Mercurio in my story: he is a great character, so…

Thank you to all the readers and subscribers: it is great to know that you are out there!

Finally, a special thank you to Loving Companion Cube, for being a great Strauss ;) and putting up with all my doubts.