Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Night at the Opera

Last time, the Red Line Corporate Solutions team uncovered a London-based vampire cult with a membership that includes prominent business figures, at least one ambassador, and television personality Jeremy Clarkson.

Red Line Corporate Solutions is:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

Carmel suspects that the cult is a descendant of a similar group mentioned in the pages of Dracula, but what it is up to evades the team; Carmel and Max go back and forth on the cult's purpose, its connection -- if any -- to the mysterious EDOM, and what the cult is doing with its vampire. Is the vampire in charge of the cult? Is the vampire the cult's prisoner? Is there more than one vampire involved? Is the vampire Dracula himself?

Max gets in contact with Rodriguez Ortega, an old family friend who is now a Catholic archbishop in South America, and starts some tentative enquiries about exorcism and related subjects; Ortega's response is cautious and he seems concerned about Max, but he also indicates a willingness to help.

Max also buys a dog. A Chihuahua is suggested, for reasons of concealability and portability, but in the end the German settles on a more sensible animal, that he then names "Ramses". Ramses' main job is to go nuts when a vampire is near.

Royal Opera House - Floral Hall - Bow Street - London - 240404The next day, Carmel heads to Covent Garden and the Royal Opera House to meet her ex-husband Arthur, who has some information for her. He tells Carmel that he has organised a meeting between her and Lord Godalming for the following afternoon, but also seems a bit evasive, as if he's not telling her everything. Carmel decides not to follow up on her feeling and together they enjoy a performance of Die Fledermaus.

(How could I resist?)

Arthur heads off to the bar during the interval, but doesn't return; Carmel investigates, but also alerts her colleagues, who are hanging about Covent Garden trying not to make a nuisance of themselves. Aside from Natasha, who tries to walk into the building without a ticket or even any sort of cover story; alas, the Russian's brazenness is not rewarded, and the doormen refuse her entry.

Carmel finds Arthur at the bar in the company of a tall, beautiful woman, who gives an exaggerated but graceful bow as Carmel enters the room, then withdraws into the crowd. A quick glance in the mirror behind the bar confirms her guess that the mysterious woman has no reflection, and Carmel rushes after her, pausing only to ascertain that Arthur seems to be in some sort of trance.

Carmel directs the rest of the team to gather at the main entrance to the Opera House as she follows the woman; the Israeli stumbles on the stairs and loses ground, but is confident that her colleagues will catch her quarry.

She bursts out into the street to find Max, Natasha, and Sten standing dumbfounded, just like Arthur, and the woman nowhere to be seen. A couple of rough prods and pokes later, the three come to their senses and report that they did see the woman emerge from the building, but before they could do anything she looked at them and then everything went blank.

Carmel returns to the bar to find Arthur a little woozy but otherwise fine. He thinks only a couple of minutes have passed since he left his seat and has no memory of the woman. Carmel has a quick glance at his neck and sees no indication of a vampire's bite, but is no longer sure she can trust her former husband.

They decide not to bother with the rest of the opera and instead go for a drink, at which point Carmel decides to find out what Arthur is hiding from her. After a bit of nudging, he confesses that when Carmel asked him about EDOM he was less than honest; he has indeed heard of the organisation but knows little about it, beyond that it is dangerous. He does know a freelance journalist -- Laurel Teague -- who specialises in exposing dodgy dealings in the intelligence and political spheres, and he suggests contacting her.

Carmel, Max, and Sten return to base, while Natasha sneaks off to get a crucifix tattooed on her neck. During the night Carmel sets up an automated mailbox that, unless she checks in every few days, will send everything the Red Line team has gathered so far to her ex-husband; she does not tell the rest of the team about this contingency plan.

The next day, Carmel and Natasha head to Westminster to meet Lord Godalming. They are greeted by his assistant Simon Quinlank, a slimy young man who seems familiar to Carmel, but she cannot recall where she has seen him before, and Natasha shows no signs of recognition. Quinlank escorts the pair to the office of William Hinton, Lord Godalming, who welcomes them and gets straight to business.

Carmel's cover story is that she is a representative of the Israeli government, in London to sell a joint defence project to the British, and this does seem to capture Hinton's interest. After some discussion, she manages to get Lord Godalming to agree to a more private meeting, and Natasha and Simon head to the canteen, where the latter makes awkward small talk to the nonplussed Russian.

Now that she has Hinton alone, Carmel changes the subject and asks questions about clandestine groups within the British intelligence structure; Hinton claims that such matters are beyond his knowledge and that Carmel should instead book a meeting with MI6 if that is her true interest. Tired of Hinton's evasiveness, Carmel produces photographs of the team that hunted Dracula in 1894 -- these are copies of those found in the art gallery a few days before -- including the then Lord Godalming. She also mentions EDOM and implies that Hinton's involvement with the group is known to her.

With that, Lord Godalming's commanding and imposing demeanour diminishes, and he agrees to look into the matter for Carmel. He takes some contact details and then sends a message to Quinlank; in the canteen, Simon's phone beeps and he tells Natasha that the meeting has concluded. He and Natasha return to Lord Godalming's office, where the peer puts on a show of enthusiasm about working with the Israeli government on their new project, and then Carmel and Natasha are shown out. On the way, Carmel remembers where she has seen Quinlank's face before; he was present at the cult meeting caught on CCTV.

Meanwhile, the team intercepts a telephone call between two cult members -- they think Geoff Berkeley and Anton DeVille -- in which they discuss moving "her", because "they are too close"; upon Carmel and Natasha's return to the group's base, the team put together a plan to observe and perhaps interrupt the cult's operation.

Natasha visits her old friend "Hatchet" Harry Noone and asks if he can procure a high-powered rifle; he does so but -- unknown to the Russian -- the transaction alerts the authorities. Once the rifle is acquired, the Red Line team heads to the area Berkeley and DeVille discussed -- one of Berkeley's warehouses -- and perch on a nearby rooftop.

Night falls, and an Axel Logistics -- DeVille's company -- van arrives. The warehouse door is opened, the van enters, and the door closes. About half an hour later, the sequence is reversed, and the van drives off into the night.

The team waits and watches the warehouse but there is no further activity. As the sun rises, they sneak over to the warehouse door and after a minute or two Carmel gets it open.

Next: things go wrong.

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