Thursday, November 10, 2016

Jumping the Were-Shark

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team has run into a little bit of trouble in northern Romania. The team consists of:

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.

Sten is unconscious and Carmel is missing an arm. The team is miles away from anywhere and there's no telling if the would-be assassins are going to return. All in all it's been a bad day at the office.

One of the assassins' motorcycles is intact so Natasha wakes Carmel up, sticks her on the back, and then rides off in search of a petrol station and -- they hope -- some ice. Meanwhile Max wakes Sten and together they set about making the scene of the battle look more like a mundane car accident and less like a running gun fight with a black ops death squad.

Natasha's mission is successful and Carmel's severed arm is shoved into a cooler full of ice cubes; the Russian also thinks about stealing a car but she is the only customer the service station has seen all day and Carmel's serious injury means that there isn't time to wait for someone else to turn up.

Carmel is coherent enough to remember that she has a friend -- Dacien Comenescu -- who has been a local fixer for various intelligence agencies in the past. There is a hospital two hours away and Comenescu arranges for a -- discreet -- surgeon to meet Carmel there.

The team planned ahead and the van -- now lying upside down in a ditch -- has a small car in the back. Carmel rests as her colleagues wrestle the hatchback from the van; their luck is with them and aside from some dents and scratches, the car is in good working order. Carmel is driven to the hospital and is in surgery for three hours before her colleagues see her -- and her reattached arm -- again. There has been nerve damage and the arm will never quite be the same again, the surgeon says, but it could be much, much worse.

The team ponders its next move. Carmel is going to need to rest and recover but the hospital is not likely to be safe; Comenescu arranges for a nearby safe house and the group moves there. It will take some weeks for Carmel to recover, and her colleagues could do with some rest too, but even so everyone keeps busy. Vehicles and weapons are acquired from black market contacts and Max and Natasha begin study of Le Dragon Noir, to see if it is in fact a working tome of magic.

The plan is to use a healing ritual from the book to repair the lasting damage both Carmel and Sten have suffered and, after a week of preparation, the rituals begin. The first attempts come to nothing but Natasha refuses to give up and her persistence pays off as, days later, Carmel's flesh knits together and even the permanent nerve damage heals. The miracle does not come without a cost, and Carmel's mind snaps as she watches her arm regenerate before her eyes.

A day or so later, when Carmel returns to her senses, the team breaks cover to... visit a museum! With the confirmation that Le Dragon Noir is real and that its rituals work, the team decide to try a spell that -- the book promises -- will destroy any vampire. Among other things, it requires a sample of the vampire's handwriting, some of the creature's blood, and a handful of its home soil; as it turns out, many museums in Romania have letters or diaries written by local hero Vlad the Impaler.

(Assuming, of course, that Vlad the Impaler did in fact become Dracula.)

Sten visits the exhibit first to get a close look at the document and grab some pictures, then he gets to work on a forgery. The false document complete, Sten returns with the rest of the team and together -- after Max fakes a heart attack to distract museum staff -- they swap his forgery for the original.

Lacul; Rosu, RomaniaThe next stop is Dracula's castle. Putting together clues from the Dracula Dossier and the satellite imagery grabbed from EDOM's headquarters the team focusses on the Bicaz Gorge in the north-east of the country, and the Red Lake at its end. The lake is in a national park and the group is surprised to discover not a dark, gothic castle, but holidaymakers splashing about in boats and locals selling gifts and trinkets.

Max and Natasha ask around but no one seems to know anything about Castle Dracula; they are beginning to wonder if they are in the wrong place, when Carmel spots a pair of young thugs watching them from a nearby car. She reports the sighting to her colleagues and they convene to discuss their next move; suspecting that the pair are servants of Dracula, the team decides to spring a trap.

Everyone clambers into the group's car and they drive off along a wooded trail; sure enough the two youngsters follow in their own vehicle. The Red Line team pulls ahead just enough to lose sight of the pursuers for a couple of minutes and then uses the time to set up an ambush. Sten waits in the car while the rest of the team takes up scattered positions in the surrounding woods; the other car arrives and the occupants see Sten parked in the middle of the trail, so they bring their vehicle to a halt.

The rest of the team rushes into action. Natasha uses her riot foam gun to trap the occupants of the car while Carmel and Max provide cover. The youths are dragged from their vehicle, forced to their knees, and handcuffed; upon questioning they claim they are just going for an afternoon drive and are puzzled by the team's reaction. They remain calm, even cheerful, throughout the interrogation.

Perhaps their blasé attitude sets Max off, or perhaps the stresses of the past couple of months have taken their toll; whatever the cause, the German loses his cool and starts to beat one of the young men, pistol-whipping him again and again until Natasha is forced to drag Max away and talk him down.

Meanwhile, Carmel and Sten are surprised as the injured thug starts convulsing and shaking; surprise turns to concern when he gets to his feet, then to worry as he flexes his arms and snaps the handcuffs. Worry becomes horror as bristly grey hair begins to sprout from the man's skin, and his eerie smile distorts into a fanged maw.

Next: chomp!

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