The limo was real. And here he thought that perhaps the guy was simply a well-dressed schizophrenic from the streets whom no one would believe. His heart sank with disappointment and a renewed sense of apprehension.
The soft leather of the interior was cool to the touch, and he shivered at the arctic blast of icy air conditioning that had rushed at him the moment he'd reluctantly entered the vehicle, Vlad standing by the door to make sure he did so. As the man clamored in after the boy, the chaffeur (Actually dressed in uniform!) bowed respectfully, and closed the door with a deafening thud. Danny eyed it nervously as the man walked around the other side of the gleaming black car to climb in the driver's seat. Though escape would be easy, he had to corner this joker first, and see if he had any REAL proof of his existence so that Danny could destroy it.
...and, as horrible as Danny felt about climbing into the backseat with some stranger, he WAS hungry.
His fingertips stroked the soft material of the seats, and he probably would have crawled up and taken a nap had the situation not been so serious. But just as he was admiring the dude's stereo system-looked like the guy had a good taste in music-he heard the strange guy clear his throat, and he turned to offer Danny a small slip of paper. Bemused, Danny took it.
Wow. Fancy business hoity-toity stuff. After carefully examining it, he turned the heavy, glossily embellished card around, eyebrows disappearing into the raven spikes hanging over his forehead in disbelief.
"You are NOT Vlad Masters," he said, incredulously tossing the card back to the other occupant of the vehicle. "Dude, you're talking about the man who BOUGHT OUT Bill Gates! No way."
The man raised an eyebrow, looking charismatically smug as the limousine swiftly began to purr down the street, sleek and elegant as a well-fed cat.
"I am the very same, Daniel. To be fair, however, to Mr. Gates, his corporation frankly wasn't exactly built out of longevity."
Danny cast the man an incredulous look, only to recall that the man DID look slightly familiar-hadn't he seen him on some of the newspapers he'd been sleeping on for the past month?
"Uh...that's cool." He nearly kicked himself at how stupid he sounded, but the man only smiled faintly in response, probably hoping to pull off the whole, 'I make a good 3.7 billion dollars a year more than you, but I still relate to you entirely' sort of look.
Rushing past several, brilliant street lamps that twinkled when Danny gazed at them cross-eyed, the teen saw Vlad return his gaze to the boy, looking like a cross between a craven worshipper and a scientist whose found thirty six new specimens of life suddenly appear in his petri dish.
His creepy stare was getting seriously unsettling. Danny shifted uncomfortably on the seat, feeling unexpected warmth rush up to his face. He wished he could return to making lovely light patterns with his eyes, but that could wait until he dragged a few words out of this weirdo.
"So...um...how d'you know my name?"
"I know rather a lot about you, my dear boy. I make it a point to stay informed of points with considerable interest."
Okay, so that wasn't seriously creepy. Danny shot the dude an affronted look, considering jumping ship now.
"Yeah, that tells me a lot, Mister. Look, just...give me a few straight answers here, alright? You're, uh, kinda starting to scare me."
Vlad looked displeased, and then anxious.
"I'm sorry, Daniel. Forgive my vagueness-I simply looked up your face on the list of Missing and Exploited Children's List, wondering if I might at least find a step in the right direction." He paused, and his voice became gentler. "Lo and behold, my suspicions were confirmed, and I..."
He balked; Danny was eyeing the golden door handle, expression bitter. He snorted lightly, wondering why he ever agreed to this insanity in the first place.
"So, are you trying to take me back to Mommy and Daddy, now? How magnanimous of you. Expecting a badge from the Mayor for this? Maybe a little more support than foreign tariffs?"
Feeling a surge of panic at the expression on Danny's face, Vlad's yelped, and his hand seized Danny's arm just as the boy went intangible, leaving Vlad with a handful of empty air.
"Daniel! No, no, please-it isn't like that, I swear!"
But the seat beside him was empty now. Going pale, Vlad seized a nearby phone near the gleaming glass between the driver and passenger seats, and all but tore it off its receiver.
"Stop the car! NOW!"
The machine stopped to a screeching halt almost immediately; Vlad anxiously peered out the windows, finding nothing in the sky, much to his dismay. He hurriedly opened the door once again, reconsidered, and started speaking again:
"My boy, I'm so sorry. I really should have decided on a more appropiate way of approaching you-I must sound like a raving stalker or a two-faced liar. Please, allow me to explain myself. I've wanted for so long to talk to you."
There was a pause, and then, Danny slowly reappeared beside the man, scowling slightly. He couldn't leave just yet. There was still the grueling matter of finding out how exactly the man had found out his spectral alias.
...and, okay, the guy had sounded pretty miserable, too. He could at least grant an ear before he started pulling punches.
Weak at the knees with relief, Vlad smiled at Danny, muttered an apologetic word of thanks, and gave the nod to his driver through the window, who was peering at the two curiously. As the car started moving again, Vlad turned to the boy, expression serious.
"Thank you. I promise you I'll try not to startle you unduly. Daniel, I did a little undercover work on you because I was insatiable in my hunger to find out more about you. I saw your ghost form for the first time on top of a building, much as we met tonight." A dreamy expression fell over his piercing, cobalt eyes. "Except that time, you were standing on a cathedral. I thought one of those solemn stone angels had become human, except I didn't expect one of those creatures to be quite so...illuminating."
Again, he exhaled, and again, Danny was slightly unnerved.
"Um...okay...so, how did you find out-hold on."
A hint of derision crept into his voice.
"You say you saw a ghost flying around that old church in the city. The only people who'll believe you are those weirdos who walk around with their 'the end is near' signs, you know. You don't have any proof."
Vlad's pleased expression was unfazed. Quite the contrary.
"I thought of that. Which," he said blandly, glancing down his front and giving his pocket a fond pat, is why I recorded it on my phone."
Danny froze, but before he could move a muscle, Vlad had started talking again, with a raised eyebrow:
"And before you think about going 'smashy-smashy,' on my property, or however you teenagers choose to call it-realize this: If I wanted to give it to the media, don't you believe I would have by now? Besides, I already have it downloaded on three different hard drives. Good luck finding them all."
This was a trick. Or a trap. Danny glared at the man, but said nothing. Okay, maybe the footage was made of unbelievable stuff, but it wasn't what compromised his real identity. Vlad couldn't coerce him into robbing a bank or spying on whatever competition the man had in his industry.
Vlad's voice was gentle when he broke through Danny's thoughts: "But if it appeases you, you certainly may keep my phone..."
Reaching into his pocket, the man pushed a gleaming rectangle into the boy's hand. Danny stared at it for a moment, then thrust it back, still surly. The man laughed.
"I thought so. But I'm still evading your true questions, aren't I? I'm afraid I simply must give you the entire story, else you'll be asking questions until sunup."
"Lately, I do as well. To myself. But, my dear boy, that will have to wait, as we've only just arrived at our restaurant for this evening. I do hope you enjoy Italian."
Okay, he had to admit it; the guy knew how to go posh. And at least he had a decent taste for doing so. The chandelier sparkling in the main hallway spoke up designer and expensive origins, and seemed fit for a Five Star establishment like this one.
At first abashed in his simple and dirty attire, he was surprised when the waiter only gave the two of them deep, respectful bows, and lead them past the many tables of diners to an empty room filled with stone cherubs on the stone walls, which were covered in Ivy, and had water gleaming on its surface and from the angels' hands into minature waterfalls that splashed into small stone basins at the end of the wall. There was glimmering candlelight everywhere, and all the other tables were deserted. The smell of fragrant flowers was so overpowering that Danny felt a little tipsy as he was helped into his elegant chair, and he stared up at the ceiling, where a glittering array that would make Michelangelo slightly jealous sparkled like stars. Somehow, there was a small rosebush sitting contently by their seat, its Earth untouched by the fine velvet carpeting surrounding it.
Regardless of what the man had said earlier on not being prepared, Danny knew that could not be the case. Judging by the fact waiters and busboys were practically kissing this guy's polished shoes as he passed, and the fact that he had this entire...place to himself...
He was planning something.
But as waitresses respectfully poured Vlad a glass of port, and offered one to Danny (There were few things money couldn't buy in this establishment, including a sealed mouth), the boy found it difficult to care, absorbed by the splendor.
"Well?" asked Vlad, once the endless line of people bringing them bread, oil, drinks, and condiments had ceased at last. "What do you think?"
This was...this was...
Danny swallowed; his mouth was dry.
"Magnificent." He thought he could hear someone playing a tinkling tune on a piano nearby. At the very least, there were no strolling violinists.
Vlad lifted up his glass, toasted it silently, and took a casual sip, looking uninterested.
"Mmm. It's alright...I advice you order anything Al Forno, Daniel. I haven't yet sampled anything on the menu, but I scarcely find the courses disappointing."
Danny swallowed, and shifted in his seat, taking one glance at the menu, and doubletaking.
"Dude. This is pretty expensive stuff! Seventy dollars for a side of steak?"
"That's one of their appetizers," said Vlad with a shrug, sounding bored once again. "Price is of no object, Daniel, I assure you. I have a membership in this place."
Vlad smirked when Danny's stomach rumbled, and the boy blushed immediately, throwing his arms around his stomach in a pointless effort to expunge the noise.
"I believe you've been outvoted, dear boy-2 to 1. Waiter! We're ready to begin."
Vlad slowly turned his glass around in the candlelight, watching it sparkle softly.
"Let me see...as to how I first glimpsed you, my boy, you already know I saw you on an old cathedral. I'd heard rumors of an apparition-like being moving about the city as of late, but I scoffed at them-assumed that the lower classes were simply degrading into more rubbish these days, or attempting some publicity stunt for a company. I was outside my building-in my the office at the top floor, on the unfinished ledge that I recently had commissioned to be made.
And then, that evening, I saw something soar past-so quickly that I wasn't quite sure I'd seen anything at all at first-and then, I saw you."
The man smiled a bit.
"I'd thought it had already happened if the world was seemingly coming to an end. That's how everyone likes to view it, in any case. But-"
Danny buttered a piece of bread, looking unconvinced.
"Uh-huh. And you just so HAPPENED to be standing on the unfinished ledge of your building?" he asked skeptically. "Like, half a mile above the street? And what's 'it,' anyway?"
Vlad patiently took a sip of wine, sending the contents of his glass an appraising look.
"Interestingly enough, yes. It just so happens that there is another character in this beautiful story of mine, though he only plays a minor role. It's a man."
Vlad poured the rest of the contents in his glass down his throat, still looking faintly amused.
"A man who came to work half past eight, same as usual, who checked in with his secretaries, same as usual, who started the day's paperwork, had a few phone conferences, and did a variety of tasteless, dull tasks in order to harvest the cash crop. He had coffee at his normal time...from the same place, with the same order his personal assistants had learned to get for him every day. He'd had lunch, canceled a board meeting, came up to his office alone, and climbed out of his window to the new ledge, which hadn't a railing installed yet. All there were a few small planks at the sides-practically a little box in the sky. The man stood there, and soon, sat there-for quite some time."
Danny had been about to take a sip of his tea, but lowered the cup to the saucer.
"What was he doing?" he couldn't help but ask.
The corner of Vlad's mouth twitched as a waitress hurried over with two silver plates of salad and two gleaming bowls of soup. It was only after she bowed and scurried away that Vlad answered, idly unscrewing a valve of pepper.
"Wondering if he should jump."
Danny only sat there, mouth dropping open with dismay. But the man hardly seemed very upset.
"So I see this miracle of nature soar by, and I start wondering if I've gone mad, or if I've already died, and angels or demons are going to start singing hymns or showtunes. Its hair was glowing white-I could tell that even in the sunlight. It was dressed in black, silver, had a small child on its back, and it was ascending downwards. I was stupefied; spellbound with wonder. It's not everyday an angel appears outside an office building, you know," Vlad said with a small smile, slightly amused at Danny's frozen, dumbfounded stare. He took another sip of water, fortifying himself before he continued:
"After a moment, I recollected myself to shout at the apparition , but it couldn't hear me-it was already too far down. So I hurtled back into my office and flew down the elevator to the main floor, and bustled outside, where quite a commotion was going on, already. Several people were scattered outside a building with a window that had exploded in flames, and fire trucks were scattered acrossed the premises across the street. Not one babbling fool could give me an answer, so I turned to the Chief, and asked if the boy I'd seen were an illusion or not.
Alas, if I wasn't already too late. He was stunned, with an ashen face, but at least he wasn't calling on his ancestors for deliverance like his fellow squad members were. He confirmed that a boy did indeed drop out of the sky, disappeared into a burning apartment building with a trapped child inside, and drew the child away before the flames became a true pyre. He and the little girl flew out, and he handed the girl to her father...I believe the firefighters were attempting to resuciate her mother, who'd passed out. I was told that the boy had also gone back for the family goldfish, following the little girl's request."
Vlad closed his eyes and smirked, chuckling softly under his breath.
"I went home, lost in thought. The next day, the story was painted all over the news . Most people surmised that the child was rescued by a stuntman with a retractable line that was difficult to see. However, I knew what I had seen, and wished to see more. I began asking questions all over the City, until I found a number of incidents scattered mostly in the poorer districts of town. A homeless man directed to shelter by a strange teen with white hair-a man who was whacked unconscious and handed over to the police after he'd tried to kidnap two boys-a woman who was hanging her laundry outside the window, and had had a 'vision' of an angel flying nearby, so she, for whatever reason, called up her sister-in-law to make ammends for throwing tea at her on Thanksgiving Day, or some nonsense. After circling the area for some time I at last found the boy comforting an alarmed man by the side of the road whose wife was in their damaged car, in labor. I was about to step forwards and offer my assistance with my phone, but the boy was already asking permission to 'fly' them there. The couple was too agog to speak, so the boy simply picked up the car with both of them inside it, and flew it to the hospital. It was amazing that woman stayed calm enough not to deliver in the backseat...but although I ordered my driver to follow the ghost, by the time we parked and I found the couple's room, it was too late. The angel had left them in the delivery room, and, according to the new mother, smiling with her newborn child in arms-when it appeared they would need a Cesarian section they could not afford, the boy had very, very reluctantly phased the child through the Mother's body-like magic! The delivery team insisted that it was a mere illusion, but neither parent seemed to think so. Again, I went home, fuming."
By this time, the main course had arrived. Danny twirled his pasta around his fork, saying nothing. Then-
"What makes you so sure the guy was an angel? It's not like he had a halo or wings or anything weird like that."
"I am not so foolish as to look for such Hallmark-induced symbols for goodness. While the ghost-boy WAS, to a ghastly extent, overwhelmingly lovel-ah, majestic, it was enough for me to see his actions reflect his true self. I suppose other beings must exist in this world like this boy in human, but I have yet to see something so marvelous. Perhaps I am cynical-or simply experienced. Finding the boy and asking him questions on his origins, what he came for, whom he came for, and what he wanted-became my prime obsession. More than anything, I wanted him to look at me; I wished for us to learn more about each other. I wondered if he already knew everything there was to know about me-I wondered if he were lonely. Curiousity is a prime ingredient of a human being-mine became ravenous. Pursuing him, I felt more alive than I had in years; finding a new trail of kind acts became an incredulous sort of treat. Surely this people had to be lying. No one is simply that good, Daniel-it's against our nature. When you become as old as I am, and you start taking tentative dips in the oily corruption pool in the name of business, you find that the world, regardless of how preachers and people try to delude themselves, is a revolting, filthy, brime-encrusted, scum pool."
Danny dropped his fork again to his plate, frowning.
"I don't agree. True enough, I've seen some things that'd make your stomach turn inside out, but if there's one spark worth keeping even if the rest of the world is bad, then the world hasn't been entirely lost."
Vlad quipped an eyebrow.
"Really? Just moments ago, I would have begged to have disagreed. But I suppose that if your theory holds water, I can hold testament that there is something in the world very much worth keeping, and if the rest of the world were to be spared because of it, then bygones, I suppose. If that precious thing were also to be saved, then ever the much so worth it, because without it, is there essentially any means to an end for existing?"
Okay, maybe this guy had just had too much port. Danny frowned.
"Scientifically speaking, not really."
"How did science come into this?"
"I dunno. I think real clarity is when emotions and Science somehow meet at a crossroad. Science is just logic-there's pretty much a calculation for everything. But it never gives us a why in anything. You ask why people are absolute jerks, or why the sun rises in the morning, you have to talk to a philosopher before making up your own mind, If you ask how people become jerks, or how the sun rises, you can talk to a psychologist or an astronomer. Science is in the how-just never the why."
Danny pressed a hand to his stomach, hearing a drill go off in his head, and closed his eyes.
"We also has to bend to the fact that while certain...certain things can be done with Science, the fact that we can also choose not to accept a calculation, regardless of how accurate it is, on the basis of...of humanity, is kind of a miracle considering what people do to each other, or what they'll do to accomplish their means to an end. The world hasn't eaten itself raw yet over that fact, and because we naturally want to save ourselves from going entirely up in smoke. If we can still feel and think like that, and agree to fight in a war if only to protect the people you really care about-on or off a field-then...we haven't lost too much, have we?"
There again was that unyielding gaze; Vlad stared at him for quite a long time, although this time, Danny met the man's gaze. Still, it was a bit of a relief when the man at last looked away, his expression inscrutable.
"...I see. Such...simple reasoning."
Danny scowled. Hey, he was only a teenager. One that the man had picked off the streets. But if this guy was going to get insulting...
Vlad picked at his beef of tenderloin, cheek in hand. He didn't look hungry in the slightest now.
"Hmmm. Back to the boy. I followed him once for three days straight, always narrowly avoiding to meet him, somehow. I cursed my own black fortune; it seemed to me I'd landed in some pitch degree of purgatory, though it also fed my desire and my drive to try harder. I chased the boy around the city, and thought of him in the hours I did not. I wondered where he lived, if anywhere. I grew frustrated, and nearly gave up once or twice, but I had now reconciled myself with the disturbing thought that I had never wanted something quite so badly before in my life. I carried on my search, though to my dismay, I spent a great amount of time in the city's less than...reputable areas. The boy haunted all areas of the City, though he seemed the most obliged to be in the place where people scarcely lended an ear to the sound of gunshots, or to shattering glass. I began seeing the boy in murals drawn on the brick walls in an effort to make them look a little less hopeless; and suddenly found the boy everywhere. I talked to Garbagemen, hired people to talk to residents, asked the owners of Soup Kitchens, looked about for anyone who might be willing to offer a clue. But while many people claimed to have met him, all said that the boy had disclosed nothing about himself. He would appear on rooftops, disappear on rooftops, and that was that.
So thus began my search on the roofs. After exhausting the poorer areas, I began moving up, relying on some of the larger ones to give me a better view. I began walking always with a camera and a set of binoculars on my purpose, just in case. One night, my faith was rewarded, and I saw the phantom lighting up the streets as he hurried to an abandoned alley somewhere below me. I started shouting-but again, he could not hear me, and so, I merely ran across the top of the building, keeping him in plain sight all the while. I don't think I would have been able to stomach the idea of losing him again-and I still can't. I pulled out my camera, and recorded him running to the back of an alley strewn with a chainlink fence blocking the end, with boxes barricading it."
Vlad's voice dropped to a soft, caressing murmur, and Danny found himself shivering uncontrollably as he spoke up again, just as the waiters hurried by with their dessert.
"In a flash of light, I saw him transform into a human, and I watched him disappear on the street, sliding in as smoothly as a fish. I was aghast when I came down, only to lose you once more, Daniel. I nearly went into a howling fit of fury before I realized I now had your image...and, well, as they say, the rest is history. I re-discovered your image in a matter of days with my team of private investigators, who only had to look so far before finding your profile on an extensive list of missing children. The match was immediate, and I took your image around the City, asking if they'd seen anyone like you. Eventually, a Relief Program Aid mentioned that a thin boy who looked very much like the boy in the picture and matched the persona perfectly, although a good deal more quiet and withdrawn. It was a gamble, but one that ultimately paid off...I learned you liked to haunt old buildings."
Vlad ignored his dessert, and stared at Danny again, his eyes boring holes into the stunned teenager's. His voice sounded ravenous, now.
"So this evening, I finally have the pleasure of meeting you, my boy."
Before Danny could smile, and then run out of the room, preferably to another continent, Vlad had Danny's hand trapped in his own, and, after pondering it for a moment or two, brushed his lips tenderly against it, masking a sense of manic triumph.
Danny's already wild heartbeat picked up several paces.