Following the note from the bike messenger, Steve finds a tall glass building, headquarters of Stratton Enterprises. He avoids security by stepping into the quiet place. No sense in turning over his gun. He nearly expects to dive underground to some secret dungeon, but the elevator carries him to the upper penthouse. The outer offices offer a view of city lights glowing within the drizzling haze. A guard opens a door into the core of the building, a dimly lit windowless vault.
His shoes tap on the black-and-white marble. Itoril seem to have admiration for checkerboards, or maybe his own interpretation of memories makes it seem that way. Standing against the wall, shady looking men in dark outfits watch him cross the room. Or it feels like they watch. It’s hard to tell what they gaze at through their dark glasses.
“Welcome to Roseland,” says a man, rising from behind a large oak desk standing on a dais. “I’m Charles Stratton. Magistrate.”
Steve inclines his head.
“Mister Reynolds,” says the magistrate. He pushes his golden hair from his shoulder and shakes his head. “It is customary to greet the magistrate and ask permission for operation within his domain on arrival. Yet, I hear you have been working within my city for several weeks.”
“My apologies.” Uncertain if he should bow, he nods. “I’m unfamiliar with many of the Itoril customs, and well, I’m not Itoril.”
“Of course. You seem quite human.” Stratton touches his finger to his chin. “How is it that Yasmine knows of you, and I do not?”
“Yasmine claims I saved her life when she was young. To my embarrassment, I must admit that I don’t recall the event.”
Stratton chuckles. “She’s not a forgettable woman.”
“Please, Magistrate Stratton, you have me at a disadvantage. I know nothing of what Yasmine may have mentioned, and I’m in need of education on Itoril politics.”
“Of course,” says Stratton, nodding. He glances over at the guard near the back corner, and sits. “Honestly, Yasmine has told me very little about you. Including the details about your business here in Roseland.”
“I’m investigating a matter.”
“The slaying of Itoril,” says Stratton, his eyes narrowing. He glances over at the same guard. “For venom.”
Heap of dark hair hanging over his shoulders, the guard stands motionless. Unlike the others, he doesn’t hide his eyes behind dark glasses. Instead, he stares at the checkerboard floor.
Stratton throws his hand at the air. “We are conducting our own investigation. You need not worry. This matter is in capable hands.”
“That might be the problem.” Plucking his notepad from his pocket, Steve flips to the most recent entry. “Your capable hands is the subject of my inquiry here tonight.”
Standing, Stratton leans over placing his hands on his desk. “Do you dare?”
“I do indeed, sir. Isn’t the magistrate’s office most capable of carrying out such a crime?” Pen extended, he points at each bodyguard ending with the one in the corner. “Extensive protection. Resources. An executioner at ready, and I assume a team to handle cleaning up. Wouldn’t you say all the necessary resources are here?”
Stratton’s blue eyes burn red.
Touching pen to paper, Steve sketches Stratton’s pose capturing the hands on table, face of stone, and those fiery eyes. The sketch is crude, and more than recording the moment, he wants it to appear as if he has much to note.
“Hugo,” says Stratton, snapping his fingers.
From the center of the west wall, the largest guard steps out of line.
“What does one do when the accused is the magistrate?”
Face going slack, Hugo gapes at the floor. Biting his lip, he looks up and faces the magistrate. “Go to a higher authority.”
“No, Hugo.” Stratton shakes his head. His eyes cool, and he stands up straight. “You’re dismissed.”
Head hanging, Hugo clomps out of the room.
“Someone else,” says the magistrate. He nods at another guard. “You. What’s your name?”
“Travis, sir,” the guard says, stepping out of line.
“Travis, what do you do if the accused is the magistrate?”
“Sir,” says Travis. He coughs. “Challenge the magistrate.”
Stratton nods. “And in such a scenario, I have no doubt I would lose that challenge to such capable hands.”
Travis nods and steps back in line.
Steve waves his pen in the air. “I’m not here to challenge you.”
“No,” says Stratton. He tightens the knot on his necktie. “You’re merely pointing out the subject of this meeting. And to answer your question. Yes, I have all the necessary resources to carry out such a terrible crime and keep it secret from my superiors.”
Feeling eyes watching him, Steve glances to the corner finding the guard staring directly at him.
“These are trying times,” says Stratton, folding his arms. He gazes up at the dim globe lights in the ceiling. “Our numbers grow larger as each generation grows weaker. The youngest barely pass for Itoril. Shades of their ancestors.”
Glancing, Steve spots the guard shaking his head at him. He turns his attention back on the magistrate.
“The elders are divided,” says Stratton. He looks down at his empty desktop. “Some wish to eradicate these shades. Protect our interests through cleansing.”
Steve jots down notes. Genocide is a last resort of the desperate.
“Yasmine has made the case to not merely blend in with society as many of us have done, but to bring humans into our world starting with the youth. Embrace change using the vampire mythos. ‘Make it cool to be a vampire’ as she likes to say. As you might imagine, this angers many of the elders.”
Finishing his note, he glances to the corner finding the guard watching the floor.
Stratton glances at the corner and back. His face sours. “Yasmine sympathizes with tradition, but she recognizes that the world changes. The younger a person is, the more open she is to change. And Yasmine is quite young.”
“Travis,” says Stratton.
Travis steps out of line.
“Tell me the name of the man standing in the corner behind me.”
Leaning to one side, Travis peers around the desk. Eyes squishing down tight, he searches the corner.
Glancing, Steve spots the man without sunglasses still looking at the floor. He looks at Travis’s puzzled face. Glancing back again, he finds nothing obstructing the view. Travis should see the man in question.
Travis shakes his head. “Sir?”
Studying the man in the corner, Steve spots a dark haze. The man stands just beyond the edge of shadows, which means he likely cannot hear the conversation. There are only a few Itoril with Kandy’s skill, and it makes sense that the magistrate employs one as a personal bodyguard.
Noticing all eyes in his direction, the man steps out of the shadows. Stammering, the other guards glance around before standing at attention.
Stratton glares at the guards. “All of you remain here with Xavier. Mister Reynolds and I will step outside.”
Outside the large office, a woman works at a desk near the window. Spotting the magistrate, she excuses herself and scurries to the elevator.
“I thank you, magistrate, for the demonstration.” Steve glances out the window finding panels of light filling the shorter building across the street. Hanging from the clouds, tendrils grasp at the buildings. “I expected you would have someone, besides Kandy, with similar skill.”
“You are a security risk.”
“Should I assume my name is on your executioner’s list?”
Stratton laughs. “Please. You’re a risk, but not a danger. I mean look at you performing a service for Yasmine. You’re a business man, Mister Reynolds.”
“A working man is a safe man. Is that your position?”
“I’ll be honest, Mister Reynolds,” says Stratton. Lowering his head, he gazes at the ground and takes a breath. Returning his gaze, his expression turns grim. “Fear is a terrible sickness. You’re not human. You’re not Itoril. Nobody knows much of anything about you, and that frightens some. I must say, there are those that have pushed me in the past, but I have never entertained the execution option to merely put unwarranted fears to rest. As long as you aren’t a threat to Itoril, I never will.”
If the magistrate lies, he hides it well behind a perfect poker face.
Inclining his head, Steve says, “I thank you for your honesty.”
“I apologize. You didn’t come here asking about politics.”
Steve shakes his head. “How difficult is it to bottle venom?”
“A challenge, even assuming one is skilled enough to capture a mature Itoril and extract it from his living body. Expensive, even. You see, there are two chemicals which combine during the bite, and once mixed, quickly loses potency.”
“So, one would need to store these chemicals in separate containers.”
“And one must be kept at body temperature. It’s possible, Mister Reynolds, but a losing business plan.”
Nodding, Steve jots a note as he speaks. “It would be easier for an Itoril to offer such services straight from the fangs.”
Stratton laughs. “Yes. That sort of activity is frowned upon, but it happens.”
He recalls Sabrina in the shower offering her arm to Kandy. A young woman trying to forget her past lives with an Itoril exchanging blood for a hit of memory loss.
Steve shakes his head. “I imagine such a symbiotic relationship is inevitable given an Itoril with a strong taste for blood.”
“You’d make a great executioner.”
“You already have a great executioner.”
“I’ve sensed for some time that Kandy grows tired of her position, but she keeps at it. She’ll never give in until her replacement takes the position from her. But I’m not speaking of myself. You’ll make a great executioner for Yasmine.”
Steve shakes his head. “You’re her sponsor.”
“Of course. It’s no secret. We’ve won over some of the elders, but many hold onto their old ways.”
“You don’t think she’s too young?”
“I never planned on giving up this position so soon, but in any case it’s not about what I think, Mister Reynolds. It’s about Fate.”
“Fate?” He touches pen to pad, but stops uncertain what to write.
“Fate is the voice of everyone. Plotting a course through politics. Picking out clothes for work. Decisions. Listen to them and you will hear Fate. Certainly each decision on its own merit, there is free will, but all of them together creates a tangle we cannot, and sometimes dare not, escape from.
“If you could see the future, such as your own death.” Stratton shakes his head. “No. Honor, accepting death, and all that gets in the way. If you could see the death of a loved one, like a child in a terrible accident, would you try to change it?”
Taking a deep breath, Steve nods. “Naturally, but if I change the outcome then I never truly see the future.”
“Fate is cruel. If all the collective decisions lead to that death, then trying to change a few decisions will not alter the outcome. This is like this venom issue you find yourself mixed into. I saw the signs many years ago. The fading of each generation. The struggle between the elders, some holding onto the past while others condemn the future. I saw this time coming, and I have a prediction for you, Steve Reynolds.”
Lowering his notepad, Steve looks into the blue eyes finding fear.
“Very soon, Yasmine will become the first female magistrate in centuries. The youngest ever to hold the position. And the venom issue will go away.”
“You must have a strong suspect.”
“That’s part of her cruelness.” Stratton’s expression turns cold, and the room seems to drop a few degrees. “No matter how long I stare at her tapestry, I cannot make out the threads.”