PROCUREMENT by Jerry Guern

PROCUREMENT by Jerry Guern I go to the viewing room for a final check
before we let the guests in. The thick red curtain is up around the cage, and I’ve got
two of my beefiest men stationed on either side, armed and ready.
I pull the curtain aside. For a split second, all I see through the plexiglass is a bare
empty corner and my heart stops–but he’s in there, slumped on the floor against the
far wall. He looks up at me and hate blazes in his eyes. I put my hand against the glass
to block eye contact as I check him over. The leg irons are secure. The brass hook piercing
his forearms is attached to the chain around his waist. The steel horse-bit is pushed all
the way back behind his fangs, forcing his mouth into a permanent drooling snarl.
But the most disturbing thing about him is how calm and quiet he is. If he were hissing
and spitting and slamming against the glass, that would at least be normal, what we’re
used to seeing. Instead he just sits there, hell and murder in his eyes, watching us,
inspecting his confines, waiting for his opportunity. There’s an insane but mostly intact human
mind in there, a remnant of the person this thing used to be. If it weren’t for the bit
in his mouth, he’d be speaking–probably saying some really charming things to give my guys
nightmares. I let the curtain fall back into place and
feel like I’ve returned from the edge of the underworld. One of my men gives me a questioning
look, gestures toward the cage, and mimes cutting his jugular. Aren’t we feeding him
tonight? I shake my head no. This one gets sluggish
after he’s fed, and Mr. Van wants him lively for the guests.
“Heer Hamilton?” Mr. Van’s voice gargles from my earpiece.
I move several yards away from the cage before I respond. “Sir?”
“Are ve ready? May I bring mijn gasten in?” My watch says 9:58 p.m. I told him 10 p.m.
Mr. Van and I have an understanding that as long as I handle security for him, I am solely
in charge; everyone obeys my rules and my schedule, including him.
I switch to the open channel so all my men can hear. “We’re ready, Mr. Van. Bring them
in.” The double doors on the other side of the
room open. I hear Michelle outside reminding the guests to avoid eye contact and to refrain
from touching the glass. Then the first group of guests enters the viewing room. They stay
close to each other as they walk, and each carries an encrypted handset that they grip
a bit too tightly. Their eyes are big, full of fear they’re trying to disguise as bright
interest. When Mr. Van enters, I slip out a side door
into the reception room the guests are coming from. There are only fifty-four guests tonight,
a small group even considering Mr. Van only invited his best and most loyal customers
for tonight’s “special” auction. There aren’t a lot of sparkles or finery in the room either;
most of the bidders want to remain anonymous, especially from one another, so they’ve sent
middlemen. Two of my guys have an angry guest cornered
in the far alcove. I should go look into that, but first I need to check on Michelle.
She’s still by the door, repeating the etiquette primer. I hardly recognize her. She looks
pretty good in a dress, makeup, and heels–and elbow-length evening gloves to cover her scars.
But when I get close, I can see that she’s not well, her hands all clenched up and twitchy,
green eyes a bit glassy. It must be making her sick as hell, having to be this close
to a vampire all evening. I signal for her to come over where we can
speak privately. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m managing,” she says, but it sounds more like a command she’s giving herself than an
answer to my question. She gestures toward the argument brewing in the alcove. “One of
the guests has something silver in his breast pocket that he refuses to hand over.” I nod.
She motions for me to lean down close. “And there’s another vampire nearby, possibly more
than one.” Interesting. I’m glad she was speaking into
my ear and didn’t see my expression. I know her sense is strong, but I’m never sure how
precise it is. The Order of Saint Ottonius had Michelle out in the field culling vampires
for four years before I recruited her away. They allowed her to use her abilities when
it suited them, but they never allowed her to explore her limits.
She looks around like she’s trying to track a target. “I can’t tell where they are, but
I know they’re close.” “We know about them,” I say reassuringly.
“The team has it under control. Have you screened all the guests?”
“Yes, all of them.” “Good, then you’re off duty now. Go up to
the penthouse and get some rest. If you need to leave the building, let me know, I’ll send
some guys with you. Don’t go outside alone.” She just nods and walks a little unsteadily
toward the elevators. We’re on the fourth floor of Mr. Van’s hotel, and the penthouse
is on the thirty-fifth. Hopefully that will be far enough.
I look to the alcove again. Nashef, a buyer from Jordan, is arguing with my guards and
starting to get loud. When he sees me coming, he tries to push past them to get to me. I
don’t have the patience for this. “Sir,” I say sharply, and he shrinks down
when he hears my tone. “Bidding will begin momentarily. Since you will not surrender
your silver, I cannot let you into the viewing room. However, you may still bid.”
And I turn away. Behind me I hear some impotent sputtering, then repeated calls of my name.
I keep walking. This evening, thankfully, will be over soon.
Mr. Van sells special items by “Dutch” auction. The asking price starts out waaay high then
comes down little by little until someone takes that price; the first person to bid
wins. Buyers who really want the item end up in a contest of nerves, as they watch the
price tick down slowly to within their reach and worry when one of their competitors is
going to jump at it. These auctions are usually brief, and the winner usually overpays. The
winner tonight won’t be announced, of course, unless–
“Mr. Hamilton, I would have a word with you.” …unless the winner is the kind who wants
the prestige, who has never seen the irony or peril of wanting renown within secret societies,
who would come to this auction in person instead of sending a middleman.
I turn around and there is Seamus, in his gold-rimmed glasses and some ridiculous billowing
thing I guess you’d call a cloak. He’s got a chest-length red beard and a mane of swept-back
red hair that probably looked pretty dashing when he was twenty, not so much now with the
paunch and the bald patches. He’s tall but still half an inch shorter than me, so whenever
we talk he stands up rigidly straight, and I can tell his body isn’t used to doing that.
“Mr. O’Cleirigh, a pleasure to see you again.” He does not return the greeting. Instead he
raises his cane and taps the ferrule against the tea service on a nearby table, making
it ring dully. “Stainless steel. What did you do, take every scrap of silver out of
the building?” “Only the bottom floors.”
“And I saw Sister Michelle take Mrs. Nakamura’s crucifix from her. What the hell are you doing?
Are your men at least carrying crucifixes? Something?”
I really don’t have the patience for this right now. Before he inherited the family
fortune, Seamus tried to work for his grandfather in the same capacity as I work for Mr. Van–in
what we call occult procurement. He tromped out to abandoned temples in the Caucasus and
Himalayas, infiltrated the hajj, had a few scrapes in the forests of Southeast Asia.
About all he managed to procure was a couple tons of worthless trinkets and several nasty
drug habits. At some point, he had the sense to go home to his family and castle and to
accept his lot in life as an idle heir. “Mr. O’Cleirigh… Firstly, you might have
noticed that Sister Michelle isn’t a nun anymore. Secondly, the building is secure. I–”
“What weapons are your men carrying if that thing should get loose?”
“Guns and stakes. And the sense to not let that thing get loose.”
“Guns with silver bullets, I hope?” “No, sir, silver is what we’d use if we wanted
to kill the merchandise.” “God damn it, Hamilton! Are you insane?”
I’m getting there, I want to answer. I’ve been on duty for thirty-six hours, I’ve had
nothing eat this evening, and now I’m listening to a spoiled trust-fund baby questioning my
competence. “May I ask the obvious question, Mr. O’Cleirigh?
If you’re this concerned about safely containing the vampire, why are you here trying to buy
it?” He lets out a hot breath. “I have proper facilities
for it under the castle. Solid rock walls. And I’ll have every door and doorframe inlaid
with silver and topped with a crucifix. Real precautions, not a horse bit and a glass box.”
And a month from now you’ll have a dead vampire, I want to tell him. But Mr. Van wouldn’t appreciate
my saying that. Tell a person they can’t have their cake and eat it too, they might not
bid on the cake. “Well, sir, let’s hope the winning bidder
is equally cautious.” “Look, Hamilton, we both know that Van Amesfoort
doesn’t think about anything but money, but I thought you would have more sense than this.
Has it crossed your mind that if that thing is conscious, it had a master, who might still
be walking? Or that he has minions of his own? They could easily track him here.”
“If you don’t feel safe in the hotel, I will happily have an armed guard escort you back
to the airport.” I brace myself for his tirade, but simultaneous
buzzing from our breast pockets spares me. We both grab our handsets and flip open the
screens. The auction has commenced. Right away I see the anxiety settle in behind Seamus’
gold-rimmed glasses. He swallows and turns away from me like he just forgot I was there.
I slip away to attend to other business. It’s time for me to go see Yuri.
It’s been a fairly quiet evening; but I don’t really enjoy quiet anymore because eight years
of this job has made me paranoid. I walk through the office lobby, past the picture windows
that look out on Zurich and the lake, and all I can think about is how many people out
there are quietly waiting for me to slip up so they can take us all down. The Church would
send us to hell quickly if they knew about this auction. The Mossad, the CIA, the EUIA,
and al-Harakat all consider us their most important supplier of occultic items–but
also seriously consider killing us for supplying the other three. And soon I’ll have the job
of smuggling tonight’s Lot #1 across international borders to wherever the buyer wants it delivered.
Unruly vampires are the least of my worries. Another buzz from my pocket tells me that
the auction has ended just as I reach the hallway to the main office suite. Stephen
and Reinhart are guarding the door. “Any problems?”
“No, sir,” Stephen answers as he opens the door for me.
I go through the anteroom and another set of doors into Mr. Van’s plush office. It’s
dim inside, just the city lights coming through the window and a lighted picture frame on
the mahogany desk. “How is the auction proceeding?” Yuri’s voice
rasps from the shadows. I see his broad, dark form seated on the leather couch.
“It just finished. Do you mind if I turn the light on?”
“Go ahead.” I switch on the Tiffany desk lamp. Yuri looks
away from the light for a moment, then his black, gazing-into-the-abyss eyes orient on
me. I make just enough eye contact to be polite, then I turn my attention to the computer and
enter my password. “Okay, the buyer’s payment has already been
moved from escrow to Mr. Van’s account. Your boy brought in–hey!–18.7 million euros.
Even better than we expected.” Yuri just gazes into the distance with that
bored, weary look that Russians can do even better than other Europeans. “Not better than
I expected. How soon will Mr. Van be here to pay me?”
“He’ll be with his guests for a bit, but we don’t need to wait for him. We set it up so
I can transfer your money online right now.” I click the button.
A moment later, Yuri’s phone buzzes. “Transfer complete,” he reports without relish.
“Very good. Well, you’re welcome to wait for Mr. Van if you’d like to speak to him, or
if you would prefer a room–” “Actually…” Yuri comes suddenly to his feet.
He’s an imposing figure in a suit; taller, broader, and thicker-armed than me, with a
heavy brow and a head that looks like a battering ram. And then there’s his claws and fangs.
“I require one more thing from you; the name of the buyer.”
Here it comes. “Yuri, you know that our agreement was–”
“I am now changing our agreement.” “Sorry, Yuri, but that’s not how an agreement
works. You can’t just–” The argument ends half a second later. He
moves. I draw. He veers. I know he’s faster than me, so I shoot where he’s going instead
of where he is. He arrives beside me just in time to meet the bullet. Yuri’s head snaps
back and he crumples onto the carpet. The doors slam open behind me as I’m reholstering.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I call as Stephen and Reinhart burst in, guns drawn.
Even so, they sweep the room to make sure I’m not being coerced. Good men.
“Go back outside,” I order them. “Stephen, watch the door. Reinhart, go upstairs and
bring me something from the kennel.” “Yes sir,” they say at the same time, confused
as hell but unhesitant. The doors close. Everything goes back to being
quiet. It occurs to me just then that I haven’t eaten
anything since noon. No wonder I’ve been in such a mood. I step over Yuri and check the
refrigerator behind Mr. Van’s wet bar, but he’s got nothing in there but booze and his
insulin. I can’t order anything from the hotel kitchen until the guests are gone. Maybe in
the desk– There’s a little moan from the floor behind
me, then a whimper. I close the fridge and turn around. “You awake already, Sunshine?”
Yuri rolls onto his side, puts his hand to his face, and feels the jagged hole where
his left cheekbone use to be. He lets out a surprised little cry and moves his hand
to feel the back of his head. “No, it didn’t come out the other side, unfortunately.
Silencers slow bullets down quite a bit, you know.”
Yuri manages to get to his hands and knees, and dark blood pours out and soaks into the
thick carpet. “Hyou… I… fhuckigg… khhill… hyou…”
Oh. Apparently I was being too subtle when I shot him in the head. So I stoop down, jam
two fingers into his gaping face, grab his head like a bowling ball, and drag him to
the wall. He screams the whole way until I slam him into the corner and give him a steel-toed
kick to the mouth. Then another. And another. And another.
When I finally stop, he seems convinced, because he quits trying to talk and just falls to
his side in the fetal position, holding his head. This is one of the drawbacks to being
undead. Yuri will be good-as-new next nightfall, but in the meantime he’s suffering through
cranial trauma that would put a human being thoroughly out of his misery.
“Now, Yuri, I hope you understand that when Mr. Van made this deal with you, he didn’t
really expect you to honor your end. But we had to give you the chance. That’s our code.
But you broke our deal, so the deal is off. Now I’m going to tell you our new deal.”
I think maybe I see a glimmer of anger in his eyes, so I reach quickly for my piece
again. But this time all he does is throw his arm across his face and cower.
Good. He’s listening. The doors open behind me again, Reinhart returning
from the kennel. He hands me a wire cage with a long-haired black cat inside. He just glances
at Yuri and backs out of the room without a word. I open the cage, pull the uncooperative
cat out by the scruff, and offer it to Yuri. “Here, have a drink. You’ll feel better.”
Yuri looks up at me, uncertainty written all over what’s left of his face. He hesitates
then takes the cat from me quickly like he’s afraid I’ll snatch it away. He has some trouble
getting started because his fangs and jawbone are a bit loose now, thanks to me.
I give him a moment. “You’re going to go home, Yuri. In a few months,
we’ll send you another idiot stupid enough to want to be like you. You will turn him
and convince him he’s being groomed as a new master vampire. Next year, I’ll come for him.
We’ll still split the take 80-20, but this time Mr. Van and I will take the 80. And all
the times after that.” He looks up at me, half of his face buried
in black fur. The sucking sounds pause like he’s not sure if he’s supposed to answer.
Well and truly cowed. This is the thing people don’t understand
about vampires. They’re like big bruisers who can’t take a punch because no one’s ever
had the stones to punch them before. I see it in Yuri’s eyes right now; he’s afraid of
me, my gun, my boot… but mostly he’s afraid of how afraid he is. Fear is a big deal to
vampires. Make them afraid of you once and they stay afraid of you. They remember fear,
literally, in their bones. “We know where you live and where you’re bound
to, Yuri. And we set things up so we can track you by your money, too. We’ll be watching.
If you deviate even a little bit from our arrangement, if you make the slightest problem
of yourself, I will come after you. And then you will be behind the plexiglass with a hook
through your arms. But of course, you know too much for us to just turn around and sell
you. So instead I’ll tear your fangs out with pliers. Every night.
You’ll be our little experiment to find out how long it takes a vampire to starve.”
He’s practically shaking now. As much as they fear the physical pain immortality can bring
them, it’s hunger that scares them the most. “Do you understand me, Yuri?”
Slowly, his head dips down into a nod. “Good.”
I offer him the empty cage. He gingerly puts the dead cat back in, licking his swollen,
bloody lips. Which reminds me… I’m still really hungry. END

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One Comment

  • George Chadderdon says:

    Enjoyable short story with an unexpected conclusion, and nicely narrated! I've read "No Moon to Pray To" (which takes place in the same universe as this story, but in an earlier century), and if you like vampire and alternative history stories, it is definitely a worthwhile read.

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