The scent of salt and low tide was almost lost behind the reek of burnt cooking oil and overdone shrimp as Kal handed the keys of his Mustang convertible to the valet. “Keep it somewhere available and in the shade,” he said as he gave the old man an extra twenty.
“Yes, sir!” the valet exclaimed, jogging to the front of the car and carefully getting in.
It was unusually hot for Daytona Beach in early October, making Kal more drowsy than he normally would be, even at high noon. He uncomfortably adjusted his tie as he waited for a second valet to get the door for him. Sa’han Ulbrine, too, would be sleepy this time of day, making Kal question why he wouldn’t wait until the sun went down, but perhaps it had been easier to get a table at the exclusive restaurant now than at night, when the waterfront came alive and the Sandbar would be packed.
The inside was no cooler, loud and noisy with wealthy snowbirds. A few businessmen were bellied up to the bar as if it was their second home, drinking their lunch and comparing notes. Resigned to an uncomfortable hour spent justifying the slow pace of his research, Kal approached the host. A couple ahead of him were trying to get a table on the patio, arguing that they’d had reservations.
Sighing, Kal rocked back on his heels to wait. The large placard beside the restrooms touted a live band playing everything from the Beach Boys to Buddy Holly, but it was probably the restaurant’s location on the water that made it such a hot spot. Finally the couple were coaxed by free drinks to a less desirable table. “Kalamack,” he said, impatient as the host made eye contact. “I’m meeting someone. Reservation under Ulbrine for two.”
Immediately the man’s bored expression shifted to one of excitement. “Yes, sir. Your party is here already. Would you like me to take your hat?”
Kal shook his head, reluctant to hand it over as it sported one of his orchids, cut from his tissue-grown plants. “No, I’ll keep it. Thank you,” he said as he pushed forward to follow the man into the restaurant proper.
His grip on his hat tightened. He could think of only one reason the enclave would want to talk to him away from his work, and it probably had everything to do with that brilliantly researched and written paper that Trisk had published last week in an elf-exclusive journal. It made his work look clunky and almost criminally timid, but even a pared-down virus was potentially dangerous in his view. Far safer to use bacteria to introduce new genetic code than a virus that couldn’t be stamped out with antibiotics if it took on a life of its own. All he needed was a clean host bacterium, and he and his team would be poised to create an entire line of genetic fixes to keep his people alive for another generation. He had gambled his career on it.
Pace stilted, he wove through the crowded restaurant, not liking the loud chatter brought on by too much wine too early in the day. Trisk had a product on the shelf, but it was her theory to use a stripped-down virus to introduce new material to both somatic and germ cells that dogged him, not her drought-resistant, shippable tomato that was tart and firm even after weeks from the field. The human-based journal featuring her T4 Angel tomato claimed the desired traits had been introduced by careful splicing, but Kal was betting that a carrier virus, not mechanical butchery, had introduced them.
And now the enclave wanted to talk to him. Have I made an error? “Sir?” the host said, pausing at the open door to the patio.
Kal looked up, appreciating the cooling breeze coming off the ocean to shift his fine hair. He hesitated briefly at the empty tables, remembering the host saying the patio was closed, but then he saw Sa’han Ulbrine, looking like a tan, somewhat overweight tourist in bright clothes and flip-flops, his bald head shiny with sweat even under the shade of the palms.
He wasn’t alone, and Kal’s pace slowed as he took in the three men with him. The most striking was a small but tidy man in an army summer uniform, clean-shaven and trim, with a panel of ribbons on his chest. A businessman with a decidedly Asian cast sat opposite him, seemingly oblivious to the heat in a suit and tie, one leg propped up on the other knee as he smoked a thin cigarette. The third looked uncomfortable in his trendy, tight dress pants, his silky, wavy hair almost to his shoulders. His face was pale, and he was squinting despite being in the shade. A suit coat was carefully draped over an adjacent chair, but he still looked hot, even with his narrow tie loose about his neck and his top two shirt buttons undone to show a soft, old scar about his collarbone.
Ulbrine’s voice rose in welcome upon seeing Kal, and everyone stood. With a shock, Kal realized the one with the long hair was a living vampire; the grace he moved with and the uncomfortable squint at the sun gave him away. Not to mention he looks like a god, Kal thought as he scuffed to a halt.
“Dr. Kalamack,” Ulbrine said, beaming as he extended his hand. “Thank you for joining us on such short notice. I ordered iced tea for the table. Would you like something stronger?”
He did, but not with a vampire present, even if it was noon. Though living vampires could tolerate the light as their undead masters couldn’t, meeting when the sun was high would help tamp down any urges for blood that afflicted even the living ones. Ulbrine had probably rented out the entire patio for privacy.
“Iced tea is fine,” Kal said as he shook the elf’s hand. His eyes went to the military stiff, realizing that for all his smooth face and collected mien, he was a Were, an alpha by the look of it. A NASA pin hung at the end of his bank of ribbons, and Kal’s eyebrows rose. Good news, maybe?
“Colonel Jason Wolfe, with an E,” the small man said to his left, his handshake firm as he pumped Kal’s hand once and let go. “Right on time. I like that in a man.”
“Timing is everything,” Kal said, his flash of hope that this might be a job interview faltering as he realized the man with the cigarette was a witch. The scent of redwood coming off him was detectable even over the reek of tar and nicotine. Shit, Kal thought. He might be in trouble. Interspecies meetings to discuss territory rights, population control, and long-running plans weren’t unheard of, but they usually didn’t involve genetic engineers.
“Max Saladan,” the businessman said, voice rough as he extended his hand, and Kal shook it, feeling the tingle of the ley lines as their internal balances tried to equalize. He was a ley line practitioner, and fairly competent, judging by the pressure imbalance between them.
There was a decided coolness about him, and Kal decided he was using a charm to block the heat. Not a drop of sweat marred his severely straight black hair or lightly lined face despite his wrinkled black suit. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, and he looked nearly asleep. A cup of coffee steamed beside him in opposition to the three other half-empty glasses of iced tea.
“Dr. Trenton Kalamack,” Kal said, reclaiming his hand. “But Kal is fine.”
“Kal,” the vampire said, smiling a politically polite but warm smile. “I’m Rick Rales. CEO of Global Genetics.”
Kal stifled a shudder as he shook his hand, not liking that the man probably enjoyed his sex with blood and wasn’t picky about the container it came in. “That’s where Trisk Cambri works, is it not?”
Rick nodded as he sat down beside him, his satisfaction obvious as his gaze strayed to the distant servers in more than mild interest. “It is indeed where Doctor Cambri works.”
“Sit, sit,” Ulbrine said as he took his own seat, clearly comfortable in his lighter clothes. “It’s hotter than the demons’ ever-after out here. Kal, I asked the colonel, Rick, and Max to join us. I have a proposition for you that involves them.”
Uneasy, Kal handed his suit coat to the server who had darted forward to take it. He kept his hat, though, dropping it carefully on the table beside his chair before sitting down between the vampire and the Were. An ice-clinking drink dripping moisture was set before him, but he waited until the waiters vanished before sifting a spoonful of sugar into it with a casual slowness. A witch, a vampire, a Were, and an elf go out for lunch, he thought sourly, hoping he wasn’t the punch line. That he was by far the youngest man at the table didn’t bother him half as much as the fact that all four major Inderland species were represented.
“My research is far from a dead end,” Kal said to try to head off the coming accusations. “Once we have a stable host, the possibilities are endless.”
But Ulbrine held up a restraining hand. “You misunderstand. It’s not your research we have a question about, but Trisk’s—er, Dr. Cambri’s.”
Intrigued, Kal settled back under the shade of the shifting palms and took a sip of tea. “She’s working on coding new information into germ cells by way of a virus, is she not?” he said, looking at Rick in expectation. “Creating a true-breeding tomato that will save the world.”
Rick grinned to show perfectly normal teeth, capped, no doubt. He looked svelte and trendy enough to be an undead’s favorite. Scion, maybe. “Or at least save Global Genetics’ bottom line,” he said, dabbing the sweat from himself with a handkerchief.
Expression idle, Max Saladan blew smoke to the ocean. “It’s not your tomato anymore, Rick. It’s mine. Bought and paid for.”
“Like I said, Global Genetics’ bottom line,” the vampire said, laughing good-naturedly.
Ulbrine leaned over the table, his brow furrowed. “Have you seen Dr. Cambri’s paper on incorporating code into somatic cells by way of a virus?”
“Of course he has.” Colonel Wolfe chuckled, his short fingers carefully manipulating his spoon so it didn’t ting against the glass as he stirred it. His NASA pin caught a glint of light, and Kal felt a jolt of envy. “Can you not smell his jealousy?” he added, dark eyes knowing as they found Kal’s. “The boy reeks of it.”
Kal’s lip twitched. Setting his drink aside, he leaned back, his hands resting confidently on the arms of the wicker chair. He didn’t like that he was unable to see Saladan’s eyes, lost behind dark glasses. “Why am I here?”
Max snorted, and Ulbrine gave him a brief irate look before saying, “After your stellar display at presentation three years ago, I had no recourse but to put Trisk on the enclave’s payroll as security somewhere. We have standards, after all, and I’ll not have the university’s one-hundred-percent placement record tarnished. I sent her to Global Genetics on the rumor they were working up another planet killer.”
Kal’s eyebrows rose. He’d thought her position had been a step down, but apparently not. “So . . . she’s been working on something other than drought-resistant tomatoes?”
“I do not waste talent like hers on farm produce.” Ulbrine slurped his tea, getting a face full of ice when it slid. “Humanity is hell-bent on developing a line of bio-based weapons,” he said as he wiped the tea from his face. “So far, we’ve managed to sabotage the worst of the lot, but there are too many smaller labs without current governmental ties to keep track of.”
“We can’t allow another Cuban bioweapon crisis,” Colonel Wolfe said, his expressive eyebrows high as he handed Ulbrine a cocktail napkin. “With Vietnam heating up, we can no longer afford to ignore the possibility that a small group not under our control is making great strides. We can’t infiltrate every lab from pole to pole, so the easiest method to control them is to give them an outlet, a direction of study we can control.”
Rick brought his eyes back from the servers moving like fish behind the plate glass that divided the haves from the have-nots. His tongue was a sexually charged hint as he slowly licked his lips. “If they had the ability, humans would wipe us all from the earth.”
“No one is going to break the silence,” Ulbrine said placatingly as he wadded up Wolfe’s napkin. “But we can’t risk them accidentally destroying us along with themselves. Focusing humanity on tactical weapons instead of mass destruction is key. Developing a base virus we’re familiar with and can control seems more than desirable; it’s prudent.”
Kal felt a sinking sensation. “And Cambri has done this?” he asked.
“No, but her colleague has,” Ulbrine said. “Dr. Cambri assures us that due to her tweaking, not only is this new virus incapable of causing mass death, but that all of Inderland will be to some degree immune. We’d like to allow it to go to live trials, but we’ve been requested by several Inderland factions to get a second opinion.”
Relief spilled into him, and Kal nodded, the presence of the high-level witch, alpha Were, and vampire now making sense. “You want me to go over her work,” he said, not sure whether that was a compliment or a slap in the face.
Rick beamed at him. “Who better than the man who would give anything to see her fail?”
“Of course,” Kal said, suddenly relishing the idea. “Send the file and I’ll—”
“Send the file?” Colonel Wolfe interrupted, chuckling. “You have no idea the shit that woman has to wade through to do her job on a human platform. It would take three semis to carry the electronic files, and then you’d be unable to read them. Global Genetics’ computer system is large and unwieldy. Takes up an entire basement floor. You have to go there and read it on their system.”
“To the West Coast?” Kal’s enthusiasm faltered, and Rick beamed, nodding unapologetically as he downed the last of his drink. Exhaling in satisfaction, Rick set his empty glass aside, ice tinkling.
Max Saladan slumped, his hand shaking as he found his coffee. “We want the assurance that this new virus is safe as well. You will go in as my employee, assisting in the patent transfer of the T4 Angel tomato. And if you start chewing that ice, Rick, I swear I’ll spell you into a bat.”
“What about my work here?” Kal said as Rick sullenly pushed his glass of ice aside. Kal’s work wasn’t going well, but there had been progress.
“Ulbrine,” Max said, his thin voice taking on a trace of an Asian accent, “I did not stuff myself in a tin can for six hours and fly out here for a maybe. Make him do this. I thought the enclave could make him do this.”
Kal’s eyes narrowed. Across from him, Colonel Wolfe leaned back, his hands laced across his middle in expectation. Ulbrine shifted as if uncomfortable. “Ah,” the enclave member stammered. “Kal? We’ve gotten you a six-month guest pass at Global Genetics through Max. Saladan Industries and Farms acquired the patent to Dr. Cambri’s Angel tomato, and as his field manager, you’ll be assisting in the patent transfer. From there, Rick will get you access to Dr. Plank’s records on the tactical virus. The colonel will be on-site occasionally as the govern- ment’s contact facilitating the military acquisition. You will report your findings to both me and him.”
Six months! I can’t leave my research for six months, Kal thought as the small Were in his tidy uniform inclined his head, his expression still holding that wary expectation.
“There can be no question,” Ulbrine was saying. “No mistakes. The balance between the four major Inderland species has been maintained for over eight hundred years, and if the effects of this new virus are more detrimental than Trisk promises, there will be problems.”
Realization snapped through him, washing Kal with an icy breath despite the heat. The enclave could send anyone to double-check Trisk’s work. They were sending him so they could quietly mothball his current research with bacteria. They’d given up on it in the face of Trisk’s more promising, quickly evolving theory. Trisk’s results were attractively fast, but that’s where the danger lay. His theories were slower, yes, but safer. Why couldn’t they see that?
A feeling of alarmed urgency broke over him, but Kal kept his breathing even. His theory that bacteria could safely insert genetic code into mature cells would have as much chance of being developed now as a man had of walking on the moon.
Rick cleared his throat, drawing his attention. The living vampire beamed at him, his hand rising in a gesture of Well? as Max lit another cigarette, clearly not caring. Colonel Wolfe’s eyes narrowed in threat. And still, Kal couldn’t move, the heat of the day making it hard to breathe. If he left for six months, they’d close his project. He’d never find another lab willing to pick it back up. Trisk’s code-carrying virus would become a potential threat in their very children’s cells until something went wrong, and something always went wrong.
“Dr. Kalamack, a word?” Ulbrine said as he rose, chair scraping the worn wood.
I should have worked harder. Kal sat for three heartbeats as his failure trickled through him. With very little grace, he stood, pushing his chair back with a loud noise to follow Ulbrine to the railing, where the crashing waves might cloud their words. The wind was fresher, tugging at his short hair as the dampness wound its way past his shirt and coated him in a sticky, salty film.
“Trisk’s research is dangerous,” Kal said bitterly, not caring if the three men at the table now discussing the agony of jet lag could hear. “You expect me to leave my lab to become a field manager? For a witch? To help her?”
Ulbrine’s expression creased as he took Kal’s shoulder and turned him to the ocean. “This isn’t about Trisk, it’s about Dr. Plank’s tactical virus. We must be sure it will function as designed before other labs take it up as their template. Our numbers are too low to risk outside strife impacting us, and if it should go wrong, we won’t survive another species-specific war.”
They want to close my work down, he thought, seething. Trisk would laugh her ass off.
Ulbrine’s expression darkened, clearly thinking jealousy, not the loss of his own work, was making Kal reluctant, and he felt his face burn. When NASA had withdrawn their offer, he’d been forced to accept his second choice. It was still in Florida, but he felt like damaged goods. And it was Trisk’s fault. No wonder he hadn’t made any progress. Even his colleagues doubted him.
“I’m giving you this opportunity as a favor to your father,” Ulbrine said, and Kal’s focus cleared.
“Don’t do my father any favors,” he said coldly, turning to take his leave. But he stopped short when Ulbrine grasped his elbow, the tingle of ley line energy warning him to stay.
“Then consider it a last-ditch effort to save your family name,” Ulbrine said, his eyes inches from Kal’s. “You’re the very last one in a very long line, Trent. Your parents were lucky to bring you to full term, and they spent their entire fortune keeping you alive.”
He let go, and Kal caught his balance. He remembered the bitter medicines, the painful experimental treatments. It had been akin to torture, and he had lost most of his childhood, but his parents had tried to make it up to him in other ways. Part of why he worked so hard was so that no other child would ever have to go through what he had.
Apparently satisfied Kal was listening, Ulbrine turned to the ocean to prevent anyone from reading his lips. “There are two ways elven lines maintain power,” he lectured. “Through money, which your parents utterly spent to keep you alive, or by having many children. You haven’t had much luck there, either. If you do nothing, your name will die with you.”
“I haven’t—” Kal started, feeling his masculinity threatened.
“Stop.” Ulbrine turned from the two women walking the beach to look him up and down. “Our race is dying, but some families, once the most powerful, are dying faster than others. Yours is on a knife’s edge. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Kal thought about the women he had had relations with over the years. None of them had gotten pregnant. Not even for a month or two.
“Which brings me to the second reason I want you there,” Ulbrine said softly. “If Trisk successfully used a carrier virus to introduce new code into an established individual such that it breeds true, I want to know. People are not tomatoes, but technique is technique, and if it can be applied to repair our genome, she has to be moved into a real lab.”
A job at NASA, perhaps? he thought bitterly. Trisk’s ideas were dangerous, not only because they were inherently flawed, but also because they would suck the funding from his own research, research that wasn’t based on hasty assumptions. Somehow he kept it from his face. Trying to explain it to Ulbrine would only reinforce the old man’s idea that he was being jealously stubborn, not stubbornly pragmatic.
“She’s done more in that wretched human lab than ten men with access to all our elven advances.” Ulbrine hesitated. “This opportunity is a gift, Kal.” Hunched with his elbows on the wooden railing, the older man eyed Kal, the dappled shade of the palm making his eyes look black. “If you find errors in the immunity of the tactical virus, it will be your task to fix them.”
“You want me to fix her work?” Kal asked in disbelief, but in his very question he saw the beginnings of an idea.
“What I want is for you to give us control of something worth having,” Ulbrine said. “It will take stealth and cleverness and test your ability to manipulate to the utmost. These are the traits that define the best of us, Kal, and your father was the epitome of the warrior poet steadfastly doing what needed to be done to keep our people alive. Even the most ugly of deeds.” He hesitated, focus going back to the water. “Perhaps I made a mistake. Sometimes it skips a generation.”
But Kal hardly heard, his mind racing forward, seeing this for the golden chance that Ulbrine never dreamed it was. He could do what the enclave wanted and bring it to their attention that Trisk’s carrier virus was not the savior to their species it looked to be, prove that other avenues of research shouldn’t be shut down in the name of fast results. He could stomach Trisk thinking he was a field manager if it might bring the perils of her flawed research to light.
Pulse quickening, Kal gripped the worn railing. “I’ll do this,” he said. “But if I have to make repairs to her work, I want my name on it, not hers.” If it bore his name, he could keep her techniques and utilize them on his own organism. And with that, NASA would again be in his reach, his family name restored.
“That sounds fair, Ulbrine,” a light but resonant voice rumbled, and Kal spun, shocked to realize Colonel Wolfe had come up silently behind them both. Rick and Max remained at the table, the older man slumped in what Kal now recognized as jet lag.
“I knew he’d do it,” Rick said, jostling Max’s elbow. “Didn’t I say he’d do it?”
Max waved a listless hand, the cigarette dropping ash into his coffee.
“I need a few days to wrap up my life here,” Kal said softly. He had no emotional ties, and he’d accumulated only a few belongings in three years. It would be easier to leave everything behind. Except for his orchid collection, of course, carefully developed and tended like the obsessive-compulsive hobby it was.
“Wonderful.” Standing, Rick took his coat from the adjacent chair and put it on as if getting ready to depart. “I’ll let you three finish up. There’s a flight leaving in an hour, and I want to be on it. I don’t like to be away from my family.” He extended his hand. “Kalamack. Good to have you on board.”
Max leaned forward to look at Kal over his glasses as Kal and Rick shook hands. His eyes were a dark brown, and bloodshot. A thin hand held back the metal charm hanging around his neck. It was probably the spell that was keeping him cool. “I’ll have my secretary book you a flight for late next week and send you a listing of nearby apartments,” Max said. “Consider it part of your salary.”
“Thank you,” Kal said softly. “I appreciate the offer for transportation, Mr. Saladan, but I’ll make my own way out there if you don’t mind. I’m not leaving my orchids, and I’ll not risk them on a plane. The pressure shifts are damaging.” Not to mention he wanted to bring his car.
Rick peered at him in disbelief as he settled his coat about his shoulders. “Are you sure?” he asked loudly. “Eight hours versus three days? A small ear pop, and it’s as comfortable as your living room. Pretty women bring you drinks and food. Max, buy him two tickets so his plants can sit next to him.”
“No, thank you,” Kal said. “I’d appreciate the drive time to change my focus.”
Colonel Wolfe leaned in, whispering, “I don’t like my feet off the ground, either.”
“Suit yourself,” the vampire said, clearly not caring. “Ulbrine,” he said, shaking the man’s hand before giving Max Saladan and Colonel Wolfe a nod and walking away. Kal watched the waiter he passed shudder, the human clearly not knowing why.
Mood expansive, Ulbrine sat back down in the shade, his satisfaction obvious as he beamed at Max’s listless expression. “Gentlemen, shall we order, now that the predator has left?”
“I could do with a mimosa,” Max said as the waiter hustled forward. “And the breakfast special with the shrimp and scrambled eggs.”
“Meat tray,” Colonel Wolfe said as he found his place. “And no fish on it. I want meat.” He hesitated. “And a bowl of chowder.”
Kal slowly sat down. He was going west to work as a field manager to infiltrate a human-run lab headed by a vampire CEO. His loss of his own work would be temporary, and once he’d gained Trisk’s techniques, it wouldn’t matter. From there, he could fix the elves’ failing genome so that no one, not his child or anyone else’s, would have to go through the hell that he had endured.
“I’ll have the roast duck,” he said absently as the server hovered expectantly at his elbow. “With honey drizzle,” he added as he took the pollen-laced flower from the centerpiece and replaced it with his own faded orchid bloom from his hat.
Ulbrine was wrong. The elven savagery to survive hadn’t skipped a generation. He would do anything and everything to bring his name back to greatness and save what was important to him. Just the idea that Trisk’s theories were better than his burned holes in him. They were faster, maybe, but not safe. He’d find fault with Trisk’s work— even if he had to invent it.