DEAD DROP: A Lawson Vampire Story

A free story I wrote for my publisher St. Martin's Press in the USA, DEAD DROP in advance of my Lawson Vampire novel THE KENSEI.

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1. DEAD DROP

   I was parked up in a shitty Peugeot 406 that looked every bit the 15 years old it was, with rusted side panels and even a back bumper held on with bits of wire coat hanger.  I was surprised the damned thing still ran, but I'd been assured by the local Control it hummed like a dream when it took to cornering around the high hedgerows that lined the country lanes in this part of Ireland.

   I'd been loaned out - my Control Niles called it a personal favor to an old pal of his.  "McDaniels is on leave - his mom died - so he can't do it.  And my buddy doesn't trust the replacement the Council wanted to send him."  My usual area of operations is New England back in the States.  But now, I was sitting under thick cloud cover listening to the steady drizzle drum out a hypnotic beat on the roof of the Peugeot.

   Belfast in November.  Yuck.

   The job was easy enough: unload a dead drop.  I had no specifics of the assignment other than the fact that the dead drop was located inside an apartment building.  I had a key to the flat.  And once I spotted the load signal - in this case, a light would be turned on visible to me as I sat idling - I'd wait five minutes, retrieve the material, and then be on my way home to Boston.

   Easy.

   Except dead drops never are.

   They're supposed to be; that's what they drummed into us back at the Fixer Academy in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.  Dead drops preserve an established cut-out system that never compromises the entire intelligence network if done properly.  If one person gets pinched, they can't reveal the identity of anyone else in the network. And in our case - as Fixers - we were especially interested in making sure no one ever discovered the existence of a race of living vampires that had evolved alongside humanity for millennia.

   Of course, these days dead drops are a lot different than when I graduated Fixer training back in the mid-1960s.  Back then, pay phones were everywhere and all you needed for a drop was a piece of chalk and a magnetic key case.  Step into the booth, make a fake phone call, pluck the case off the underside of the phone bank, pocket it, then step out and stomp on a piece of chalk by the entrance to show you'd retrieved it.

   Easy.

   After graduation, new Fixers are apprenticed to seasoned active-duty Fixers for a period of a few years.  I got lucky.  My mentor was a guy named Zero, a living legend within the ranks of the service.  He had more kills on rogue vampires than anyone still working.  He'd been working black bag ops longer than they'd had black bags.

   One of our first assignments together was a dead drop, too.  In Ubon, Thailand of all places, right near where it snuggles up to Laos.  During the monsoon season, Zero and I had huddled in a cafe down the street from the pickup.  Rain made the streets look like swollen brown rivers of sludge and filth.  A short distance away, the Mun River merged with the Mekong and ran south through Laos into Vietnam where the US was engaged in a crummy war.

   The humidity, combined with the ceaseless rain, had turned my mood sour.  "Why are we here again?"

   Zero had eyed me with his customary thousand-yard stare.  "Dead drop.  What else is there to explain?"

   I shrugged.  "Details?"

   "You don't need to know details.  You just go get the pickup and then come back.  That's your job.  Just do it."

   "Why here, though?"

   Zero said something into his cup of coffee and then looked back up at me.  "The problem with you, Lawson, is that you always want to know everything.  I don't fault you for that.  But the thing is: you have to be careful what you wish for.  Need-to-know isn't just about people with control issues."

   "Meaning what?"

   "Meaning sometimes it's better if you don't know everything.  Ignorance is bliss."

   "It's got to be about Vietnam."

   Zero sighed.  "Yeah, I knew that wouldn't put you off."  He shook his head.  "So, here's the thing: Vietnam is an American problem. Only it's not.  Rumor is there's someone high up in the NVA that's leading a genocide campaign against villages in the south."

   "And?"

   "He's one of ours."

   I frowned.  It was the first time I'd heard that a vampire - one of my kind - was mixing with humans.  "Do the Vietnamese know about him?  What he is, I mean."

   Zero shook his head.  "My guess is no.  But that doesn't matter.  Once we get his identity, we pass it on up the chain.  The Council can decide if it warrants a sanction - which it will - and who gets to punch his ticket."

   I felt a shiver go up my spine.  As an apprentice Fixer, I had yet to get my first official termination order.  The thought the Council might give it to me pumped a spike of adrenaline into my blood.

   Zero didn't miss the slight shift I made.  He caught everything.  "Afraid not, my young friend.  There's no way the Council will task you with that.  Not yet, anyway."

   I frowned.  "They'll have to eventually."

   "They'll have to when I tell them you're ready."  Zero finished his coffee.  "And that time isn't here yet."

   "You think I wouldn't pull the trigger?"

   Zero sniffed.  "You think that's all it is?  Just shoot and forget about it?"  He stared at me some more.  "Once you start down that path, there's no turning back.  Not ever.  The faces...they're with you forever."

   But I was young.  New.  And I didn't feel like listening to the wisdom of my elders.  So I just dutifully nodded at the appropriate times until Zero finally told me to go and get the dead drop.

   "You can see the load signal from here?"

   Zero shook his head.  "In this rain?  No way.  But it's time.  You shouldn't have any problems."

   I downed the cold tea and checked to make sure the loose shirt I wore covered the Colt 1911 I had strapped on to my back right hip.  I glanced up at the sky and frowned.  "Gonna get soaked."

   "No doubt," said Zero.  "It's three blocks down.  Apartments.  Look for a potted plant on the second floor balcony.  Take the stairs up to the second floor.  Number 5.  Key will be under the floor mat."

   "What am I looking for exactly?"

   "A small kaleidoscope.  It'll have a microfilm in it that we bring back to the Council."

   I nodded.  "Wish me luck."

   "Make your own luck, Lawson."

   Outside, the light cotton shirt I wore was drenched within seconds until I got myself underneath the balconies of the buildings that ran up the side of the street.  Everywhere you looked, French colonial architecture had made its impression - even in this backwater town.  Art deco lettering emblazoned the signs of stores.  I passed few other people; most everyone was waiting out the worst of today's storm.

   I stepped off the sidewalk into about a foot of sloppy soggy mud and cursed quietly.  A veritable river ran through the streets and I was lucky I hadn't been swept away.  My shoes - slippers, really - were going to fall apart now.

   Two blocks away, I saw the potted plant taking the brunt of a leaky gutter on the second floor balcony.  Good.  Get in, get out, and get my shoes changed back at the hotel.  Then Zero and I could get back to the real world.

   I pushed through the door into the lobby and glanced around.  I saw no one sitting in the lobby, and aside from a payphone in the corner that looked as functional as my shoes were going to be in a few hours, the place was a mess.  A few chairs littered the scene, but the wicker on their backs had torn open in places.  A ceiling fan overhead sent a tepid breeze down atop my soaked head.  I ran a hand over my short hair and it came away drenched.

   The job.  I started up the stairs and heard my shoes squish as I did so.  Not the best way to stay quiet, so I slipped them off.  They were cotton slipper shoes like what the locals wore.

     At the top of the steps, I turned right and crept down the hall.  Number five should be on my right side, facing out on the street.  I passed four and stopped.  Five was dead ahead.

   My heart beat a thunderous rhythm in my chest and I frowned.  I'd been on plenty of training assignments before - all with potential real world consequences if we'd been discovered.  But I was with Zero now and his reputation spoke for itself.  I didn't want to screw up.

   The first problem was immediately obvious.  No floor mat.  And consequently, no key.

   I glanced up and down the hallway, but there was no one else around.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out the two picks I always carried with me.  The lock looked simple enough and we'd been taught to crack locks back at the Academy.  Improvise, adapt, and overcome. 

   I slid the picks into the lock and worked it until I heard the tumblers click into place.  And the door opened.

   I stepped inside quickly and shut the door behind me.  No sense advertising the fact that I'd just broken in.  Grab the kaleidoscope and go.  But first I had to find the damned thing.

   I stepped further in and heard the steady drumming of rain slashing down on the balcony outside.  The windows were open.  A breeze blew over me and I sniffed something that reminded me of fragrant jasmine.

   "Nice to see the Academy still trains its Fixers to pick locks, although I'm guessing it wasn't your greatest attribute given the length of time it took you."

   The voice, so suddenly breaking the silence, made me gasp.  I turned and saw a figure seated in the middle of the living room.  Short-cropped hair combined with a soft feminine face made it difficult to determine if it was a man or a woman.  Dressed in the soft black silk pajamas that looked reminiscent of those I'd seen the Viet Cong wearing on news broadcasts, the figure sat in quiet repose, regarding me with strangely luminescent eyes that looked full of mirth.

   But the shinai - a wooden sword made from split bamboo - resting in front of the figure looked anything but joyful. To me and others of my kind, it was deadly.  Get any wood into our bloodstream and we were toast.

   A slight scent on the air tickled my nostrils.  The jasmine had masked it to some extent but a breeze blew in a fresh gust of air and I knew what I smelled. 

   Death.

   Perhaps an hour old.

   My heart hammered against my chest.  I tried to stay calm.  "Who are you?"

   The figure smiled and kept its hands folded in its lap.  It certainly didn't seem to consider me a threat.  "They call me  su im lang mot.  Do you know what that means?"

   Languages weren't something that I found particularly bothersome and like others of my kind, I spoke a lot of them.  "The Silent One."

   The figure nodded once.  "One possible translation, yes.  You are here to recover something."  It reached into the folds of its pajamas using a movement so fluid, I scarcely caught the action.  But when it flipped the kaleidoscope end-over-end to me, I caught it easily enough.

   I looked down and then popped it open.  A slim roll of film slid out.  On it would no doubt be pictures of the vampire currently working for the North Vietnamese.  I glanced at the figure.  It still hadn't moved.

   "You killed the contact," I said.

   It nodded again.  "She was a traitor to the cause.  It's not nice to let slip my identity unless I happen to think it's all right."

   I held up the film.  "This is about you?"

   "Of course."

   "And you came here to kill my contact."  I paused.  "Are you also here to kill me?"

   "I haven't yet decided.  You're young.  And I'm guessing you haven't seen much action yet.  Where would the fun be in killing you now?"  The figure rose slowly to its feet.  The shinai stayed on the floor. 

   I felt the pressure of the Colt tucked behind my hip and wondered if I could draw down on the figure in front of me before it could close the distance.  My ego said I could.  But listening to my ego would get me killed, and the objective part of me said no way.  So I stayed still.

   Waiting.

   "Hmmm, very good, a Fixer that shows restraint.  I'm almost impressed."  A smile flashed across its face and then vanished.

   "Forgive me for asking," I said then.  "But are you a man or woman?"

   "You can't tell?"

   "You look almost like a monk-"

   But then the figure moved so fast that it was next to me and breathing into my ear in the next second.  I'd detected no shift, no sound, no intention that would have given me a clue that it planned to move.  It simply was at a distance from me and then it was next to me.

   A tongue tickled my ear lobe.  "I assure you...I'm all woman."  And then I felt a hand grab at my crotch.  "Would you like to satisfy your curiosity?"  She laughed then and spun away from me even as I was certain she'd feel my heart pounding.

   I was concerned the sweat in my palms would ruin the film I held.  "Why are you doing this?"

   "Teasing you?  Because I like to, silly."

   "Not that.  You work for the North Vietnamese.  Why?"

   She glanced over her shoulder at me.  "There are others in this world that are even better at dealing death than you Fixers.  Why shouldn't we make the most of our skills?  There are always those that need our services."

   "You're a mercenary," I said.  "Throwing your allegiance behind anyone with a few bucks."

   "Don't ruin what has otherwise been an enjoyable conversation."  She glanced down and looked at something in her hand, then back at me.  "Lawson."

   I frowned.  How did she know my name?  Then without thinking, I reached for my wallet.  I came out with a folded piece of cloth.  She'd fleeced me so quickly I hadn't even realized it.

   She laughed and threw it back to me.  "If you could see the expression on your face...but don't be mad.  I like to know who I'm dealing with."

   I tossed her the kaleidoscope and she caught it and pocketed it.

   I needed to end this.  But Zero hadn't told me what to do in this situation.  Did I shoot her?  Did I back out?  I had the film, after all.  That's what I'd been sent to recover.

   I made a decision and hefted my wallet.  "There still any money in it?"

   "Of course.  I'm not a thief."

   My heart hammered as I tried to keep my movement normal.  I reached back and replaced it in my back pocket and then slid my hand up toward the Colt.  My clammy hands closed around the butt of the pistol and I yanked it out-

   The tip of the shinai was already pressed against my throat.

   Jesus, she was fast.

   "Now, why would go and do a thing like that?  And to think: I was going to let you go home in one piece."  She sighed.  "Oh well-"

   But then I heard the door burst open.  "Down!"

   I dropped to the floor as Zero rushed the room.  But she was already driving forward, stabbing at Zero with the shinai.  She cut left and batted his pistol away. 

   Zero wasn't me, however, and even as she knocked the gun out of his hands, Zero punched her in the stomach.  She went with the shot and vaulted herself backwards toward the window, backflipping as she went.

   Zero dropped to one knee, jerked his left pant leg up and drew his secondary weapon.  I watched in awe as he leveled the gun and fired three quick shots.

   But she was already gone, out of the window on to the balcony.

   Zero grabbed at me.  "You okay?"

   I nodded.  "Yeah."

   "Come on, we've got to get her."

   We ran for the windows but when we got there, the only thing that greeted us was the ceaseless rain and wind.  The tepid breezes blew over us and the rain soaked our faces.

   The Silent One was gone.

   Zero ducked back into the room.  "You were taking too long, pal.  Hope you don't mind me interrupting like that."

   I swallowed, aware of the sudden adrenaline crash I was experiencing.  I felt like throwing up and moving my bowels at the same time.  Zero noticed my discomfort and motioned for me to sit down in one of the wicker chairs in the room.  "Take a load off while I confirm the contact's dead."

   I sat there, breathing deep, willing my heart to slow down.  Zero came back a moment later.  "Too late for her."  He shook his head.  "Well, this has been a total bust."

   "Maybe not."  I held up the film.  "She didn't seem to care that I had it."

   Zero took the film from me and regarded it for a moment.  "Come on."

   We left the apartment and made our way back down to street level.  I kept glancing around, wondering if we'd be ambushed.  But Zero seemed unfazed. 

   "She's gone, Lawson.  Not our time to deal with her.  At least not yet."

   "How can you be so sure?"

   Zero shrugged.  "Experience.  Someone like that?  They'll pick a time and place to take us on.  And everything will be staged so that it benefits them.  It will be subtle.  They might take years putting the pieces into place so that you don't even realize you're being manipulated.  But then they'll be there.  Ready to drop you.  Remember that."

   I was going to ask him why she hadn't killed me, but I already knew the answer: I was too easy a kill.  The Silent One lived for the challenge, the thrill of the hunt.  I wasn't in that ballpark yet.

   We returned to our hotel.  Zero asked for a place where he could get film developed. 

   "Aren't we supposed to turn that over to the Council?"

   "Yep."  Zero led me down another street and we found the photographer that the hotel said would develop the film for us.

   "You're disobeying orders now?"

   Zero glanced at me and smiled.  "Trust me, okay?"

 

   The photographer ushered us in out of the rain.  I wiped the water from my face while Zero handed over the film and some money.  The photographer vanished behind a red curtain and Zero sat down next to me on the divan.

   "It's not always so black-and-white, Lawson."  He leaned back.  "The things we do don't always fall on one side or the other.  Sometimes, we just have to make decisions that the Council doesn't know about."

   "Are you kidding me?"

   "Not even a little bit."  Zero closed his eyes and seemed to drop into a combat nap.  I sat there in that little room for twenty minutes and then the curtain parted and the photographer waved us into his dark room.

   Zero stood up and led me inside.

   "Phaph thi di," said the photographer.

   Zero laughed when he saw the prints.  "Yes, they are good pictures."  He glanced at me.  "Want one?  A souvenir, perhaps?"

   I was looking at shots of Zero and me walking into our hotel when we'd arrived.  There were two of us in a cafe later on.  Clearly they'd been taken at a distance, but they were us, no doubt.  The Silent One had switched the film in the kaleidoscope.

   "No thanks," I said.  I felt like an idiot. 

   Zero thanked the photographer and we left.  Outside, the rain had slackened off only a little bit, and we quickly got drenched again.

   "Guess that was a big old failure," I said.  "It's on me."

   Zero laid a hand on my shoulder.  "Forget it, kid.  It happens.  And she was good.  Real good."

   "That's why you had the film developed.  You knew."

   "I guessed," said Zero.  "When it's too easy, it's usually because something's messed up somewhere.  It's only when it's hard that you know things are going the way they ought to."

   "That's sort of the reverse of what they told us in the Academy."

   "No shit," laughed Zero.  "But they've got to do that.  It gives you a baseline.  Then once you get out into the real world, you realize that experience trumps what you learned in the safety of the Academy."

   "So, what now?  We're supposed to go back to the Council with pictures of the assassin the North Vietnamese are employing."  I paused in the humid evening air.  "We've got crap."

   "Indeed," said Zero.  "And I'm guessing that our descriptions won't amount to very much.  She didn't strike me as someone who can be pigeonholed very easily."

   "Why come out at all?"

   Zero led me down the alley back toward our hotel.  In the distance, I heard the cicadas buzzing.  "Because she's one of the dangerous ones.  To her, this is all a game.  She does it for the fun.  The thrill.  And whatever you do, never disregard the threat she represents."

 

    *  *  *

 

   The rain drumming on the roof of the Peugeot brought me back to the present moment.  Unlike Ubon, the temperature in Belfast was in the low-40s.  And the rain and wind made it feel even colder.

   I thought about the Silent One.  A few months after that run-in, we got word that a team comprised of CIA spooks and US Special Forces had been inserted into North Vietnam.  Their mission was to assassinate high-profile NVA targets.  According to the reports we saw, they targeted a resort hotel used by some of the power players in Ho Chi Mihn's inner circle.  Twenty generals and assorted other apparatchiks had been terminated before the team exfiltrated to the South.

   One of their victims was a woman with incredibly short hair.  Zero and I saw the pictures.  It was the Silent One.  Shot twice through the chest.

   A light showed in the window of the apartment I was watching.

   I gave it the required five minutes and then got out of the Peugeot and walked across the street.  I'd deliberately avoided the razor and had a few day's worth of growth spotting my cheeks and chin.  My hair was mussed and the grease stains on my jeans would make me look more like a local than what I really was.  Despite the promise of peace, Belfast was still pretty seedy with a lot of simmering tension.  There were still players with Provisional Irish Republican Army ties that would drop you as soon as look at you.

   I pushed my way into the door that led up to the apartment on the third floor.  My boots made little noise on the stair treads and I crested the flights easily enough.  I thought back to Ubon and how nervous I'd been back then.  I'd been green.  Inexperienced.  Zero saw to it that I got my feet under me...eventually.

   And now I operated alone.

   At the door to the apartment, I paused and gave my senses a moment to adjust to the surroundings.  I catalogued the ambient noises.  Creaks in the building.  Pings in the pipes.  Rain overhead.  A television set pumping out a music video a floor below.  A muffled voice a few doors away.

   Otherwise, nothing to be alarmed about.

   I slid the key into the lock.  The door creaked on its hinges and I stepped inside, closing it behind me.

   The light in the corner by the window had a timer activation switch on it.  The drop could have been made hours ago.  Or minutes.  It didn't matter.  I just had to get the pickup and hoof it.

   I was looking for a china leprechaun painted with four-leaf clovers.  About as horribly stereotypical a souvenir as you could find in-country.

   But when I stepped into the living room, I didn't see a cheap leprechaun.

   I saw a kaleidoscope lying on the floor.

   The memories rushed back.  It was the same one from the drop in Ubon.  The same one the Silent One had thrown at me and I'd tossed back to her.

   Here.

   I whirled, faster on the draw after so many years.  As I brought my H&K USP up, I expected the Silent One to already cutting down at me with her shinai.

   But the apartment remained empty.

   Quiet.

   Still.

   I stayed there for a few moments.  Just waiting.

   But nothing changed so I holstered my piece and knelt by the kaleidoscope.  It looked a little more worn than the last time I'd seen it.  But there was no doubt that it was the same one.

   I picked it up and shook it, hearing the rattle.  One of the ends popped off and something slid into the palm of my hand.  But it wasn't film of me and Zero this time.  Instead, I opened a small piece of parchment and read the elegant script written in Taluk, the language of my kind.

 

Dear Lawson,

I'll spare you the pleasantries and get right to the point.  It's been years since we met and you're much better now than you were in Ubon.  Back then, you weren't a challenge.  Now, you are.  And I happen to like a good hunt.  In other words, I now consider you fair game.  I hope you won't disappoint me the way so many others have.  I look forward to our reunion. 

        Lovingly,         The Silencer

PS:  Boom.

 

   But I'd already dropped the kaleidoscope and sprinted for the door.  I made it down the stairs and spilled out into the street, dashing for the Peugeot.  At the driver's side door, I stopped.

   There'd been no explosion.

   I exhaled in a rush, the sudden adrenaline crash causing me to grip the door handle hard and steady myself.

   Breathe, Lawson.

   I took a few more gulps of air.

   And then the apartment exploded.

   Glass rained down as I ducked and felt the concussion blast rush over me like a wave.  I heard car alarms blaring, people screaming, and sirens somewhere in the distance.

   And then I remembered what Zero had said all those years ago when we looked at the picture of the Silent One - the Silencer - with two bullet holes in her chest.

   "Since when do human bullets kill vampires?"

 

END  (For more info on Lawson and his adventures, please go to http://thefixer.tv)

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