Monthly Archives: February 2018

The Second Chance Club – Ep 04 – Act 2

Val reclined her chair back and took a sip from the tiny glass of orange juice the stewardess had handed her. Flying coach didn’t bother her, but she wished one of the “more leg room” seats had been available as an upgrade. At 5’7” she fit into the standard seats easily enough but getting to stretch out a little more was always a good thing.

Being trapped in the back wasn’t all bad though. Tam and Anna had scored seats closer to the front of the plane that was whisking them off to the west coast, but by keeping her original boarding pass, Val got to sit with JB which she always enjoyed.

“Tessa’s lawyer will be able to meet with us once we touch down,” JB said, looking up from their laptop.

“Were you able to get Margaret Hemmings to handle the case?” Val asked. Margaret was a member of the Second Chance Club and a practicing defense attorney in California. She’d helped them on a couple of the assignments already and generally had solid legal advice when they needed to check with someone.

“No, she’s tied up in a case down in San Diego,” JB said. “She was able to recommend someone though, Noelle Lee, one of the associates at her firm.”

“If Maggie trained her, she’ll be good,” Val said, setting her hand on JB’s arm for encouragement.

“I hope so.” JB’s expression belied their words, worry pressing a heavy weight on their eyes and mouth. “This should never have happened.”

“Yeah, well, it’s our job to make sure what’s going to happen happens to the right person, and that’s not your sister,” Val said.

“I keep telling myself that,” JB said. “You and Tam and Anna have got a good track record. And she’s innocent. That’s got to be enough.”

JB leaned sideways and rested their head on Val’s shoulder.

It was an unusual thing to see JB at something other than their best. They were usually a calm harbor of refuge no matter how chaotic a storm Val and the others found themselves swept up in. It was JB who acted as the Second Chance Club’s primary public liaison. They had a knack for connecting with people and understanding what those people needed to hear to do their job. Even when there was an exceptionally good reason to panic, JB would be there with quiet and reasonable suggestions for people that could help make the situation better.

But no one can be strong and unaffected all the time.

Val left her hand on JB’s arm and ran the fingers of her other hand through their hair, trying to soothe away the worries that were eating away at the JB she knew. It wasn’t great to see them distraught, but it was nice to get to support them for a change.

“It will be enough,” she said. “Your sister is not going to do jail time. One way or another, I am not going to let that happen.”

“But it’s not that easy.” JB sighed. “Her life is already in a shambles. This is just another nail in the coffin.”

Val drew JB’s hair back over their ear. JB didn’t keep their hair long enough for anything interesting like braids but since Val was in the same boat she was also aware of how relaxing it could be to have someone do something as simple as comb away the stress that tags along with deep worries and settles into the scalp.

“You said she lost a custody battle?” Val asked. “How many kids does she have?”

“Two, my niece and my nephew,” JB said. “I haven’t seen them in far too long either.”

“Did you have a falling out with her?” Val asked. She didn’t mind prying into people’s live in general but Val respected JB too much to want to force them to spill secrets they’d rather keep to themselves.

“With Tessa?” JB asked. “No. She’s always there for me. She was the first one I came out to, and she’s never been anything but supportive. Her husband on the other hand…”

“Not the most welcoming of guys I take it?” Val asked, guessing that she was probably going to have an urge to hit someone in a moment.

“He was fine at first,” JB said. “I didn’t like how he joked about Tessa though and I think that put me in his bad graces. I caught a part of one of the last arguments they had. ‘Freak’ was one of the nicer terms he threw out when he figured out Tessa was on the phone with me.”

“I’m guessing Tessa wasn’t happy with that either?”

“She divorced him,” JB said. “A few years later than she should have, but I can’t hold that against her. Especially with how the custody battle turned out.”

“Yeah, that’s unusual isn’t it?” Val asked. “Doesn’t the mother generally get the kids?”

“Technically, custody is decided in terms of what’s best for the child,” JB said. “A bit over 80% of the time the mother is the one custody goes to, but there are plenty of cases where that’s not what happens. Tessa and I stayed with my father when my parents split, for example.”

“Did that work out ok?” Val asked.

“Not really. I stayed at his place for a year and then left to live with one of my aunts. Tessa joined me about a year later.”

“I’m sorry. That sounds rough.”

“It worked out ok,” JB said. They seemed content to continue resting on Val’s shoulder, and Val had nowhere else to be until the plane landed on the west coast. “My aunt was great, and my parents managed to turn things around eventually. We talk on holidays now.”

“So what happened with your sister? Why did she lose the kids?” Val asked.

“It was pretty simple. She was out of work, and he wasn’t,” JB said. “Wouldn’t have been a big deal probably, except that she was fired from her job a month before the custody hearing and charged with embezzling.”

“I could see how that might weigh against her,” Val said. “What was up with the embezzling charge?”

“She’s still fighting it,” JB said. “Supposedly the case against her there is weak. The only evidence they had was a server log that tied her account to the thefts but the company had a data breach before the funds went missing, and hers was one of the accounts that was exposed.”

“And no one told her?” Val asked.

“They did, and she secured the account, but the damage was done in the period where she was exposed.”

“That sounds really fishy,” Val said. “Someone happens to line her up to take the fall for a career ending theft, and then she’s framed for murder?”

“I know. It’s stupid, but it could play with a jury,” JB said. “The prosecutors for the embezzlement charge paint her as a woman desperate for some extra money because she’s left her husband. The murder prosecutor paints her as a woman desperate for revenge on the man who took her kids away from her. Both of them point to the other accusation as support that she’s unbalanced and capable of anything.”

“Or,” Val said. “We find the person who really killed Judge Klairborn, and when that case falls apart, the Tessa’s defense lawyer for the embezzling charge is able to point to it as part of conspiracy against her and discredit the prosecution’s paltry server logs.”

JB smiled and glanced up at Val.

“I could see that,” they said. “It still leaves her in a tough place though. No job, and no kids.”

“Yeah, that’s not the best,” Val said. “Good thing we don’t have to solve all her problems at once.”

“It would be more convenient though,” JB said, resting against Val’s shoulder once more.

The extended hair massage had achieved the desired effect and left JB more relaxed than they’d been since news of Tessa’s plight first came in. By the time the stewardess came around to ask whether anyone wanted a microscopic bag of chips for a meal, the two were fast asleep.

***

Noelle Lee was ready and waiting for her clients when they arrived. She had papers ready, and her case laid out. That was the good news.

The bad news was that more evidence had surfaced against Tessa.

“These came in about an hour ago,” Noelle said, passing copies of the evidence reports to everyone in the room.

“Crime scene results?” Tam asked, glancing at the dossiers label.

“They place Ms. Ogden at the scene of Judge Klairborn’s murder. Fingerprints on his door handle, and on his desk. DNA too from her blood.”

“She left blood at the scene?” Tam asked, flipping the dossier open to study it as she powered on her laptop.

“And a broken glass,” Noelle said.

“But I thought he was electrocuted?” Val said.

“He was. Tied to a chair and then connected to a power cable that was cut from one of his floor lamps.” Noelle pushed a photo to the center of the table in their meeting room. It showed the deceased Judge Klairborn, still tied to his chair with a pair of wires tapped to his chest.

“How is this supposed to add up?” Val asked. “Tessa came in, tied him to a chair, and then broke his glass so that she could bleed on his room a little before plugging him into the wall?”

“The prosecutor will say it shows a pattern of erratic behavior,” Noelle said. “It goes along with the narrative of her being distraught and enraged by the decision against her in the custody trial.”

“Tessa can offer another explanation though I believe,” Anna said, the ghost of a question lingering over a field where certainty was taking root.

“She can. Ms. Ogden has stated that she did visit the judge’s office on the night in question. She did not previously disclose that she had broken a glass, but she was not asked any questions in relation to that either. When I spoke with her a few minutes ago, she said she dropped a glass of water which Judge Klairborn handed to her when she learned that he had not summoned her to the office to work out a revised plan for the custody agreement.”

“That’s not enough to clear her though, is it?” Tam asked.

“I’m afraid not,” Noelle said. “With the physical evidence in place, the prosecution can show that Ms. Ogden had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the murder. That alone isn’t necessarily enough for a conviction but the rest will depend on what they can get the jury to believe concerning Ms. Ogden’s overall character.”

“What will you be presenting in her defense?” Anna asked.

“We have character witnesses that we can call,” Noelle said.

“Yes. Definitely,” JB said. The worry Val had massaged away was back, though it was suppressed under a sheet of professionalism that was cool enough to turn metals into superconductors.

“How much is the embezzling charge going to hurt her there?” Val asked.

“That’s where things get a bit uncertain,” Noelle said. “The accusation alone won’t be admissible as evidence. Ms. Ogden isn’t guilty of anything until a verdict is rendered in that case. Also, even if she is found guilty in that case, the conviction can only be used to attack her credibility. Any other witnesses we call, or evidence we present, won’t be affected by it.”

“That sounds good, but I’ve got to imagine it’s not that simple,” Val said.

“Juries aren’t perfect law-robots,” Noelle said. “What they hear in the courtroom can and will influence their opinions. Even learning that Ms. Ogden did not get custody of her children may leave some of the jurors questioning her innocence.”

“We have a very simple task ahead of us then,” Anna said. “For Tessa’s sake, we must make sure this case never goes into a trial against her.”

“I’m not sure that’s possible at this point,” Noelle said. “The date for the first hearing has already been set.”

“That gives us a timetable to work against,” Anna said. “But we have an advantage working in our favor. We already know who the guilty party is.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 04 – Act 1

Tam wasn’t afraid of heights but she really hated climbing mountains.

“You have one more hour at most until the storm arrives,” Anna said over their earbud phones. “Do you have a visual on our target yet?”

In the background, Tam imagined that she could hear the crackle of the cozy fire at the ski lodge which Anna had commandeered as their command center. Age had its privileges, one of which being that Anna got to stay behind and coordinate their efforts with the local authorities while Val and Tam hiked up a frozen peak looking for a runaway from the law.

“I think so,” Tam said. Below her, almost paralyzingly far below her, there was a slight bit of blue visible against the otherwise blinding white snow. The same blue as the jacket they were looking for.

“I do too.” Val said. “Do you have our position?”

“I’m scrambling the medical crew there now,” Anna said.

“Don’t have them come to us. They’ll need to take the Snow Bear trail,” Val said. “We can lower Vanessa down to them.”

“That’s a pretty long drop and a fairly narrow ledge. You sure we can manage it with the storm coming in?” Tam asked.

When they’d been requested to find Vanessa Chin, the assignment had looked like a pleasant chance to visit the ski resorts around the Lake Tahoe region to find where Vanessa and her boyfriend had fled to after he was charged with three counts of armed robbery.

Finding the two had been the easy part. Donny, Vanessa’s boyfriend, was no brighter about picking a hideout than he’d been about planning his robberies. All Tam had to do was check his credit card history and set the GPS to take them to the ski resort Donny had visited for the last three years.

Where things started to go wrong was the moment they asked for the fugitives’ room number. Due to some spectacularly unfortunate timing, Vanessa and Donny had been in the lobby when Anna asked for their room number and they overheard the request. What made matters much worse though was the presence of two police officers who were standing behind Anna on completely unrelated business.

Justifiable paranoia had sent Donny and Vanessa scrambling out to flee their pursuers as best they could. Since the parking lot had two police cruisers in it, Donny, in his infinite wisdom, had stolen a snowmobile and, from the story he gave once he was in custody, then planned to scale the mountain and come down on the other side where they could check into a resort in the next town over.

Donny however was not much of a mountain climber. He’d lasted all of five hundred yards up a steep but not terribly challenging trail before he’d wandered off, exhausted, and collapsed without telling Vanessa.

Vanessa, for her part, had taken the championship of her Regional Girls Wrestling Competition and was in significantly better shape than her boyfriend.

From what Val was able to determine from her tracks, she’d proceeded a half mile up the mountain before noticing that Donny had abandoned her. She’d spent some time trying to find him after that, which allowed Tam and Val the opportunity to catch up a bit, but had been spooked by the search party that was looking for them both and had headed back towards her original target, presumably thinking she’d regroup with Donny at their destination.

Tam would have been impressed by the girl’s tenacity and bravery if it wasn’t so incredibly inconvenient. Vanessa’s trek up the mountain was a fantastic attempt at navigating the unfamiliar terrain, especially for someone inexperienced with mountain climbing techniques and who lacked any of the gear a serious enthusiast would use.

Sadly, Vanessa’s luck wasn’t the equal of her skill or courage though. Mountains are treacherous and unforgiving and it hadn’t taken a particularly large mistake to send Vanessa tumbling down to the side of a steep cliff to land hard on a narrow lip of rock part way back down to where the mountain broadened out and roads ran along it.

“Don’t risk yourselves if it looks uncertain,” Anna said. “We can have trained climbers to your position in 45 minutes.”

“That won’t give them enough time to get Vanessa off that ledge before the weather turns,” Val said. “Send them anyways, but I think we can handle this.”

“Will you have the need of any supernatural assistance?” James asked. He’d joined the call from the even greater comforts of their home base, but could be with them in spirit, literally, if the need arose.

“We have a favor from a spider collector that’s outstanding still, don’t we?” Val asked.

“Yes, we do. It will take a short time to make the necessary arrangements with them however,” James said.

Tam grinned at the thought of the poor young man in Brussels who was about to get a call in the middle of the night from James asking to speak to the largest of his spiders.

“That’s ok, go ahead and make them,” Val said. “We can handle the trip down to Vanessa’s position. I just want to have some options once we get there. If she’s hurt a bit of wall crawling might be the best chance of getting her to safety before we’re buried in ice and snow.”

“Even if we can stick walls, will we be able to move her?” Tam asked.

“Depends on why she’s not moving down there. If her back’s ok, we’ll be in good shape. If it’s not  then we’ll need setup a shelter on that tiny ledge to protect her from the storm, at least until these can get us the proper medical gear to move her safely,” Val said.

Since Tam couldn’t see how they’d manage to construct anything in such a small space, she prayed Vanessa wasn’t badly hurt. The drop was a long one but it wasn’t straight down. If they were lucky, Vanessa had simple lost her grip and slid down the slope, taking mostly abrasion damage in the descent, without any serious injuries to bones or spine.

“Do a quick gear check for me,” Val said, turning around to allow Tam to inspect her equipment. Val then did the same for Tam and then they both checked the other’s vision and balance to make sure the thinner air wasn’t affecting them too much.

Their ropes weren’t strictly necessary, but under the circumstances they couldn’t risk any errors so they used them to descend until they were standing on the narrow ledge where Vanessa lay.

. Their questions as to her status were answered when she groggily lifted her head and blinked trying to work out who the two people standing above her were.

“Don’t move yet,” Tam said. “You’ve fallen and we need to see if you’re in one piece still.”

“Who are you?” Vanessa asked. The fall had knocked her senseless and the exhaustion of being on the run for a few days and the monumental effort of climbing the mountain had left her ready for far more than the short period of sleep she’d managed on the ledge.

“We’re here to help,” Val said. “You don’t have to worry. You’re not in trouble, and we have a medical team on the way.”

“Can you move your feet?” Tam asked.

Vanessa nodded and flexed her toes back and forth.

“Give her a hat,” Anna said. “She’s been exposed to the weather for a while and she wasn’t wearing one when she left the resort.”

Tam pulled a spare hat from her bag. It was a heavy wool cap with puppy dog ears one of the Club’s members had knit and donated “for a good cause”. From the shivering of Vanessa’s lips, Tam was sure giving it away under the present circumstances qualified.

“Do you have any sharp pains?” Val asked, gazing into Vanessa’s eyes and watching how they well tracked together.

“My wrist hurts,” Vanessa said. “And  my left ankle.”

“That’s good. Pain means things are still attached,” Val said.

“I’m going to be arrested aren’t I?” Vanessa asked. She was laying still, the distance in her eyes a reflection of how far she wished to be from the reality she’d fallen into.

“Did you know your boyfriend had committed the robberies he’s accused of?” Tam asked.

“No, he never said anything about that. He said his parents were trying to break us up and that he was running away so they couldn’t control him anymore. He didn’t say anything about the cops until he saw them at the resort. Then he was all ‘you have to help me, they’ll get you too for aiding and abetting’, so I just kept running,” Vanessa said.

“We know some good lawyers,” Val said. “I think they can work with that to keep you out of trouble with the law.”

“But you’re still going to need to face your parents,” Tam said.

Vanessa went silent for a long moment as the color drained from her face.

“Maybe you could just leave me up here?” she asked.

“Sorry, we’re bringing you home safe and sound even if we’ve got to pull this mountain down to it,” Val said.

***

“I trust that the mountain is still standing?” Charlene asked over the speaker phone. Her words fought to overcome the sound of raucous children at play and the ocean breeze that gusted into her phone’s mic. Being chaperone to several dozen small humans was taxing to even her legendary reserves of poise.

“More or less,” Tam said. “The good news is Vanessa’s exam went well. No damage to her spine, and no concussion, just some scrapes and a sprained wrist.”

“I think for a while there she was hoping the news would be worse, so her parents would go easier on her,” Val said.

“Yeah, but she didn’t have anything to worry about,” Tam said. “They were so happy to see her they didn’t even mention grounding her for the first hour or so.”

“All in all, I think we can call this one a successful mission,” Anna said. “But we are gathered here for another I think. It feels more like a new briefing than a report on the last one?”

“Yes, I’m sorry to have to send you out again so soon,” Charlene said. “I gather the ski resort has some nice accommodations, but a problem has arisen that hits us rather close to home.”

“PrimaLux made a move against us? Or Izzy?” Tam asked.

“No. Closer than that,” JB said. “I have a younger sister. We’re two years apart, and when we weren’t trying to kill each other as children, she was my best friend.”

“What kind of trouble is she in?” Val asked.

“She’s accused of killing someone,” JB said.

“Did she do it?” Anna asked, without any judgmental air to the question.

“To the best of my knowledge, no,” JB said. “I’ve spoken with her, but she had already been arrested and was speaking from the police station, so an honest confession of guilt would have been problematic I suppose.”

“Is she capable of doing something like that?” Tam asked.

“Everyone is capable of violence,” Anna said. “It is only the necessary provocations which differ from person to person.”

“Who’d she supposedly kill?” Val asked, flipping through the briefing packet JB passed out to them.

“The judge who denied her custody of my niece and nephew,” JB said.

“Ok, that’s a decent provocation,” Val said.

“And yet and unusual one,” Anna said, her eyes narrowing as she read the details in the report. “Custody battles are rarely civil, but murders of the judges associated with them are vanishingly rare.”

“It says here that Tessa had a violent outburst in court when the decision was announced though?” Tam said, reading from the second page of the report.

“I am sure that she did,” Anna said. “Whenever a woman shows a hint of anger it is read as violence.”

“Sounds to me like someone needs to learn what a violent woman really looks like,” Val said, cracking her knuckles.

“See if Jimmy B has our plane ready,” Anna said. “Someone is going to pay for the murder of Judge Klairborn, and I want to make sure your sister can look the guilty party in the face before we send them away for the rest of their life.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 03 – Act 4

The frozen vampire bodies weren’t the creepiest thing in the basement of the Wainwright Health facility.

“Should a worm look like that?” Val asked, pointing to the bloated creature inside a sealed glass case towards the back of the room.

“That’s a worm?” Tam asked, shuddering at the sight of it.

The creature was at least three feet long and several inches thick with weird bulbous protrusions irregularly placed along its body.

“Judging from the case? I would say its condition is not a natural one,” Anna said. “No air holes, and the only tubes leading into the cage are covered with fabric which is probably a very fine mesh air filter.”

“So whoever made that thing doesn’t want it exposed to the outside world?” Val said.

“Or the outside world exposed to it,” Anna said.

“Do you think it’s a coincidence that it’s down here with the vampires?” Tam asked, connecting a USB drive to one of the computers and powering it up.

“The procedures Izzy was subjected to required numerous breakthroughs,” Anna said. “I believe this could be part of the new trials.”

“Why do you say that?” Val asked.

“The researchers who worked on Izzy were not afraid to try experiments which resulted in the deaths of their subjects,” Anna said. “Here they are testing something on a nonhuman lifeform first though? Why? Possibly because they can’t afford to lose the subjects the test is ultimately intended to work on. While they may have a ready supply of human volunteers for their experiments, their stock of ‘vampires’ would be more limited.”

“That is a very astute observation.” The woman who spoke was as tall as Anna, with hair a bit more grey and eyes a bit more wrinkled. “But that’s not to say we wouldn’t get interesting results if we were to test the parasite’s effect on a baseline human.”

The gun in her hand decided the question of whether she was friendly or not rather easily.

“Dr. Welkman?” Anna asked, ignoring the menace of the pistol pointed at her as though it wasn’t there at all.

“You have me at a disadvantage,” Dr. Mila Welkman said, and gestured forward two security guards who also had their weapons drawn.

“Yes, and I suspect I always will,” Anna said. “Your name was listed on the shipping manifest for the cargo from the clinic you burned down.”

“That is a fascinating accusation for a burglar and arsonist to make,” Welkman said.

“You think that is how this is going to play out?” Anna said. “You’ll do what exactly? Call the police and have them arrest us?”

Anna strolled over to one of the desks that had been setup to one side of the row of cryogenic coffins the vampires were stored in. She leaned against the desk and tilted her head waiting for an answer to her question.

“We could do that I suppose,” Welkman said, walking over to the desk opposite Anna’s and leaning against it with the same unconcerned air. “You are trespassers here, and there’s nothing you can point to which would excuse that.”

“But you’re not going to do that,” Anna said. “Your patients might raise the wrong kind of questions.”

“Our patients? Why, you don’t mean the medical cadavers we have in storage do you?” Welkman asked.

“Medical cadavers?” Anna said, offering a nod and a smile. “That’s quite clever. False identities for the cadavers I presume?”

“It is easier when they’re awake to use their original names,” Welkman said.

“Understandable. Are they even aware of their alternate identities?” Anna asked.

“That would be unnecessary,” Welkman said.

“Of course,” Anna agreed. “But you still don’t want any attention on your medical cadavers, and so you’re not going to be calling the police.”

“That is true, but what makes you so certain?” Welkman asked. “The fire?”

“Among other things,” Anna said. “Setting up all of this equipment in a new location is too time consuming to be done trivially. Even with deep pockets backing you, the prospect of wasting that much time is something you only agreed to because of dire need.”

“Labs move location all the time,” Welkman said. “It’s not so traumatic as all that.”

“Do you think so?” Anna asked. “Consider for a moment then that the equipment here will need to move again once our chat is concluded. How does that make you feel?”

Welkman scowled and then suppressed the reaction.

“No worries though, I have good news for you on that front,” Anna said. “You won’t have to move any of this equipment, or your patients.”

“You are going to kill yourselves and clean up the mess when you’re done?” Welkman asked. “That’s an impressive trick. I look forward to seeing how you carry it out.”

“It is simpler than you might think,” Anna said, “but no, we will leave by the front door, and when we do, we will be taking everything with us.”

“And I will be dead, I presume?” Welkman asked.

“Dead? No. You will be standing at the door with a smile, and you will shake my hand before we leave and tell me how happy you are with how everything turned out,” Anna said.

“You’ll excuse me if I find that somewhat unlikely,” Welkman said. “I see things playing out a bit differently than that. In my version of events, there are two extra cryotubes with occupants in them and I spend a few minutes tonight placing an order for two additional identities for my new medical cadavers. I leave it up to you whether the occupants are merely frozen, or shot and then frozen. The second involves more mopping but we do have an unfortunate history of lab accidents as precedent to explain away the blood stains.”

“You want to do that even less than you want to move again,” Anna said.

“While this conversation has been amusing, I assure you, I have no desire to move again, and no compunction about shooting you,” Welkman said. “It’s really in your best interest for you and your friend to climb into the cryotubes of your own accord. We can make you quite comfortable and you’ll only feel a brief chill as you are put under.”

“And then a thousand years will pass before you thaw us out again, right?” Val asked.

“A thousand years? I’m afraid our cryogenics isn’t quite that advanced yet,” Welkman said. “When an unmodified human such as yourself is frozen, the freezing process damages all sorts of cellular functions. There is no revivification process that can bring you back. Even if in the far future we learn how to restore life to a frozen human corpse, the person who awakens will share almost no brain cells with you. They would be a pretty young woman with your face and none of your memories, or anything else that makes you who you are.”

“With unmodified humans? Then the same is not true with reviving your patients?” Anna asked.

“They are the wave of the future,” Welkman said.

“An effect of their healing factor?” Anna asked. “No, that can’t be it. Even if they could restore damaged brain tissue they would be just as much a blank slate as anyone else.”

“It is a shame to waste a mind like yours,” Welkman said. “The healing factor, as you call it, is only one of many advances their biology supports. Their cells are also many times more resilient than ours.”

“But shorter lived,” Anna said. “I can see how that would fit together. They’re more isolated from their environment but that also means being isolated from the support network human cells rely on. So they’re harder to damage, but as a result starve themselves in a manner normal cells don’t.”

“Where did you get your Biology degree from?” Welkman asked.

“Oxford, but I studied finance there,” Anna said.

“Fascinating. What you described took us the better part of two years to discover,” Welkman said.

“I have the benefit of seeing the end result,” Anna said.

“I could offer to try the procedure on you,” Welkman said. “There would at least be a chance you’d survive it and could endure the cryo-freezing. Something tells me though that I would not want to see you with superhuman strength and endurance.”

“I have been told my endurance is quite sufficient as it is,” Anna said.

Welkman sigh and straightened up.

“Sadly we will not be able to put that to the test,” she said and gestured with her pistol for Anna to stand as well.

“There is one more thing for you to consider,” Anna said. “Before you try to put me into the cryotube, you might want to ask how you are going to get all of them back in there as well?”

She gestured to her right side, towards the first row of cryotubes.

The ones with their covers open.

The ones which had all of the newly awoken vampires peering out at the rest of the room.

***

“What happened then?” Izzy asked.

“Dr. Welkman agreed with my proposal that we take her patients off her hands,” Anna said.

“But why?” Jenny asked.

“The patients they froze, the ones we woke up, those were the ones who didn’t work out as enforcers or security. They were normal folks with supernormal abilities but that didn’t mean they wanted to embrace a life of violence all of a sudden,” Val said.

“Most of them just wanted to finish their cures,” Tam said.

“They had agreed to be put into suspension because the aging effect was progressing too fast and they trusted their doctors to do what was right to save them,” Anna said. “Waking up as they did, and seeing how they’d been relegated to the status of interesting furniture meant they wouldn’t be extending that trust to Dr. Welkman again.”

“Welkman was pretty confident when it was her and two armed goons against two unarmed women. Once the odds shifted to a include a couple dozen vampires in the mix though things didn’t look so rosy for her anymore,” Val said.

“Two of you?” Izzy asked.

“Anna kept Welkman talking long enough for me to initiate the thawing process on each of the cryotubes,” Tam said.

“And they didn’t see you doing it?” Jenny asked.

“It’s not like a disappearing girl effect is hard or anything,” Tam said.

“Where does that leave us though?” Izzy asked. “Where you able to find a cure?”

“They found information,” Dr. Shavitz said. “I’m afraid a ‘cure’ isn’t on the table. If Welkman had the process working without drawbacks, I think we’d be living in a very different sort of world already. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we do have some options.”

“Are any of them good ones?” Izzy asked.

“Well, the easiest one is the cryo option,” Dr. Shavitz said. “If you want to retain the biology you have now, we know that we can freeze you and keep you frozen indefinitely. That would buy us the time we need to work out a method of correcting the accelerated aging effect.”

“But that could take years, couldn’t it?” Izzy asked.

“At the very least,” Dr. Shavitz said. “It could be substantially longer too.”

Jenny’s face had become an emotionless mask, but Izzy met her gaze and shook her head.

“What else do you have?” she asked.

“There is an approach that might allow for a reversion to a predominantly human biology,” Dr. Shavitz said. “Right now, your unique blood is generated by a symbiotic microbe which they cultivated within you. I’m not sure we can ever fully eliminate it, but given the steps required to allow it to gain dominance in your system, I believe there’s a method of returning your human systems to their active states and replacing the new ones which have supplanted them.”

“I can be normal again?” Izzy said, blinking in disbelief.

“I don’t want to oversell this,” Dr. Shavitz said. “You will always have a complicated biology going forward, but I believe we can remove the accelerated aging, at the price of also losing your superhuman regeneration, strength, and speed.”

“That’s fine, I don’t need to be a superhero,” Izzy said.

“What about the leukemia though?” Jenny asked.

“There is no trace of that in Izzy’s system anymore,” Dr. Shavitz said. “We’ll need to continue to monitor for it of course, but she is in full remission now and I believe the residual symbionts would continue to target any new occurrences as a priority just as they do now.”

“And the other patients?” Izzy asked.

“We brought them up here too,” Tam said.

“They’ll have the same care options that you do,” Val said.

“What about this Dr. Welkman? What happened to her?” Jenny asked.

“Dr. Welkman and her team have chosen to pursue other career options, under new identities,” Anna said.

“She wasn’t exactly happy about it, but like Anna pointed out, when you’re employer is willing to burn down a building to protect their secrets, your termination notice is likely to be delivered in a very terminal fashion.” Val said.

“Not to worry,” Anna said. “I suspect we’ll see the good doctor again. Everyone deserves a second chance after all.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 03 – Act 3

The clinic was empty, boarded up, and burned.

“They were more thorough than I thought they would be,” Anna said, testing the charring around the edges of one of the door frames.

“The fire department says that this location burned down three weeks ago,” Tam said.

“Which means Izzy’s doctor pals decided to bug out a few days after she went missing,” Val said. “They are not the most laid back bunch of people it seems.”

The Mulberry Park Associates building was where Izzy had gone through the majority of her procedures. It wasn’t a particularly isolated location. No lonely mansion on a windswept outcropping, or other suitably mad science sort of locale. It was, or had been, a decently sized three story office building, set on an open parcel of land near a small shopping center. Before the fire the building had been colored in a sandy shade of cream that was just mild enough to appear harmless and yet offer the eye no noteworthy features to alight upon.

The fire had changed that, rendering the building into a hollow, gutted wreck with an interior that was dark enough, even in the broad daylight, to suggest unnatural shadows waiting to pounce on the unwary.

“Unfortunately, paranoia is working in their favor in this case,” Anna said.

“Maybe not,” Tam said, She’d left her laptop behind and was fiddling on her smartphone instead. “This was a high-end research facility right?”

“Yeah, but the fire cleaned up any traces they might have left behind, didn’t it?” Val asked from inside the building. A little thing like the door being nailed shut hadn’t been a sufficient deterrent to keep her out.

“It did, at least inside the building,” Tam said. “But the equipment Izzy described wasn’t listed in the fire department’s Incident Analysis Report. High end gear like that may have been too pricey for them to let burn up in a fire.”

“Or, perhaps, they didn’t want to have to explain why a simple primary care practice had enough imaging machinery to put all the hospitals in the state to shame,” Anna said.

“That makes sense too. The fire wasn’t hot enough to completely slag something like an MRI machine and if it had been that would have been incredibly suspicious all on its own,” Tam said.

“So if they took the special gear away before the fire that means that there was some hauling that was done,” Val said. “Maybe at night so people wouldn’t see the building being emptied before it burned?”

“Maybe, but these folks have been reasonably smart, so I bet they did it in the middle of the day,” Tam said. “For something like this, it’s less about not being seen, there’s too many buildings and people around her to guarantee that. What you want is for people to see you and think you’re doing something else. Something they don’t care about.”

“Linens,” Anna said. “Hospitals and hotels send out their laundry to bulk processing plants. I would venture to guess that they have a truck with a Linen company’s logo which they used to get the equipment into the building in the first place and which drove the machines to their home.”

“If it’s their truck though, it’ll be a little challenging to track down won’t it?” Val asked from the far side of the buildings lobby.

“We can narrow it down some if we can confirm that Anna’a guess is right.” Tam said.

“Our luck with witnesses will be poor,” Anna said. “The fire was too memorable an event. It will dominate their thoughts and eclipse the lesser details from the day.”

“Maybe, but we could we ask the people who were used to seeing the delivery truck,” Val said. “If it was a linen truck, then the building’s janitorial staff might remember which company it was.”

“Wouldn’t they be in PrimaLux’s pocket too though?” Tam asked.

“Did PrimaLux own this building directly?” Anna asked.

“It’s hard to say.” Tam checked the notes she’d copied to her tablet. “Definitely not directly, but the actual owner is a property management company, so Prima could have a stake in them that I can’t track down.”

“They might, but even if so, the two operations would be kept separate and unaware of each other,” Anna said. “As you mentioned, they have been behaving with intelligence so far. Secrets stay hidden when as few people as possible know of them.”

“Can you find out who was employed here?” Val asked as she exited the building. There’d been nothing left inside that offered any clues, just as she’s suspected before she entered.

“Sure, I’ve already got that list. I just need to filter it down a bit,” Tam said.

***

The visit to the ex-janitorial staff of the Mulberry Park Associates building turned up gold faster than anyone had expected it would.

“Yeah, I remember the truck that came in that day,” Clara Bellingford said, putting the menu she’d been reading back onto its holder. The Pink Elephant diner didn’t have a large menu, so it hadn’t taken her long to decide on what she wanted. Her new friends were treating and not having to worry about the cost for a change made things a lot simpler too. “It was a big 18-wheeler. Had a sign on the side that said ‘Pure Stream Cleaning’. Used to swing by once a week or so on Mondays, but that Tuesday it came back for a special pickup. Then the building burned down and I lost my job.”

Clara made the last bit sound bright and cheerful, when it was anything but.

“No luck finding any other work yet?” Tam asked.

“Every place needs to be cleaned but no one wants to pay anyone to do it,” Clara said.

“Did your former employers give you any severance pay?” Anna asked.

“Not really. They said the fire burned up too many of their assets and that their money was all tied up until insurance sorted things out,” Clara said. “We got a full week’s pay but they said not to go anywhere because the police might want to question us about the fire in case one of us set it.”

“How many people did you work with?” Val asked.

“There were twelve of us. Two shifts of three people each spread out enough to keep us all at part time,” Clara said, “Some of them bounced back quick. They had family who could get them in somewhere. The rest of us were just left flapping in the wind though.”

“That sucks,” Val said, joining the group with a platter of sweet teas that she’d liberated from the overworked waitress.

“We might be able to make it suck a bit less though,” Tam said. “We know someone at the Marigold estates. There’s a position open there if you want it? I think we can put in a good word for you too.”

“That’s nice of you, but you don’t have to go to all that trouble,” Clara said.

“It’s no trouble,” Anna said. “You are helping a friend of ours, it is only right that we help you.”

“Well that would take a world of weight off my shoulders,” Clara admitted.

“Here’s a card for the Custodial Services Manager there,” Tam said. “On the back I wrote the number for our liaison with the Marigold Estate. If you have any trouble getting through to the Manager, just give JB a call and he’ll get things sorted out.”

***

The Pure Stream Cleaning company had two offices in the Greater Atlanta area. One was the corporate office while the other was the plant which did the cleaning and transport of the clothes and linens for a variety of businesses in the Atlanta area. Tam was more than slightly annoyed when all her efforts to break into the business office quietly failed to up the required information, not because they were caught but because the shipping manifests were only kept at the processing plant.

“What kind of luddite company still relies on nothing but paper records!” she revved the engine on her bike almost fast enough to catch up with Anna, who was, as ever, still in the lead.

***

The break in at the laundering plant was more rushed and slipshod than the one at Pure Stream’s business office had been. Tam argued that picking the lock with a crowbar was a perfectly viable option and neither Anna nor Val had the heart to disagree with her.

The paperwork they needed fortunately did turn out to be there, though it took them long enough to find it that Val had to put a roaming security guard in a sleeper hold when he came too close to discovering them.

Maurice Clevenger, the security guard in question, woke up a minute later with a terrible headache but no further damage. Since nothing was disturbed or missing as far as he could see, he very quietly went back about his rounds without trying to explain why he’d unexpectedly passed out on the job.

A few days later he visited his doctor for a physical, driven to it for the first time in years by the worry from his fainting spell. No cause for the fainting was determined but the blood work did reveal an elevated white blood cell count which lead to an early diagnosis and successful treatment of the prostate cancer he wasn’t aware had been developing.

***

The cleaning company’s shipping records didn’t list the pickup from the Mulberry Park building, but they did list the trucks that had been in service, and the transponder codes for the ones that were theoretically parked in the lot that day. Tam cross referenced that list with the telematics data that showed when trucks left and arrived to discover that one of the 18-wheelers had apparently been taken for a joyride the day before the fire consumed the Mulberry Park building.

“They have telematics and GPS on their trucks but they print everything out to store on paper records? Oh my god this company needs to be shutdown!” Tam said as she searched for the addresses of the company’s senior management with plans to wreck a horrible and unspecified vengeance on them for their poor management practices.

“That is less important at the moment than discovering where our delivery truck dropped off the missing equipment,” Anna said.

***

Stealing the GPS data was so trivial that Tam felt obligated to rewrite the information in the device’s flashrom to always pick the third slowest route out of the top ten options it could calculate.

***

The Wainwright Health facility, the spot the GPS data pointed them too, was cut from the same overly sanitized block as the Mulbery Park building had been. Unlike the burnt husk that remained in Mulberry Park though, the Wainwright building was whole and well lit. Somehow it captured the same uninviting air as its ruined twin though.

“Do we wait and come back tonight?” Val asked.

“No, I don’t think we give them that chance,” Anna said.

“What’s the plan then?” Tam asked.

“Very simple. We are going to walk in and take the information we need,” Anna said and began striding directly towards the front door.

Val and Tam exchanged quick looks, reading the surprise in each others faces and, with a shared shrug, trotted forward to catch up with Anna’s long strides.

“Hello, can I help you with anything” the receptionist said. He was a brown haired, mildly handsome, young man who could have been pulled from any college campus in a three state radius.

“That will not be necessary,” Anna said, glancing around the interior without bothering to look at him. She didn’t break her stride at all before venturing through a door that lead into back of the building.

“You can’t…” the receptionist began to say.

“It’s fine, we’re here for the records” Val said, cutting him off. She met his gaze briefly before turning away like that was all the explanation she was required to give.

Tam said nothing at all, instead adopting an expression somewhere between disinterest and casual malice. The receptionist didn’t try to meet her gaze. It seemed like a poor idea to attract her attention if he didn’t need to.

Anna navigated them through the corridors of the office building, setting a pace that didn’t look frantic or hurried but conveyed a sense of purpose. She didn’t avoid encountering people either. She made them avoid her.

At least until they got where they were going.

In the basement they found the room where the MRI machine and other medical gear had been stored, or setup again.

“We have a problem,” Val said as they took in the large open room before them.

There was more than scanning equipment waiting for them in the basement. In close to two dozen glass and metal canisters there were bodies frozen in a dreamless, breathless sleep.

Izzy wasn’t the only vampire the doctors had made. She was just the only one still walking around.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 03 – Act 2

The key to defanging a vampire turned out to require learning what had given her fangs in the first place. That meant tests, and lots of them. To her credit Isabella Rodrigo was a model patient, but then it was a lot easier when the doctor working with her kept her informed at every step in the procedures.

“This will be the last draw for today,” Dr. Helen Shavitz said, filling the final vial with the red liquid which passed for blood in Izzy’s veins. “We’ll be testing this one for your platelet count, though I’m going to guess that what we’ll find will be as irregular as the rest of the outcomes.”

“That doesn’t sound very promising for figuring out what they did to me,” Izzy said, keeping her eyes closed. She didn’t mind the sight of blood. It neither frightened her nor, contrary to several vampire myths, threatened to send her into a feeding frenzy. She had simply grown so used to having her blood taken over the years that she’d learned to take the time as small moments of relaxation in an otherwise busy and unpleasant day.

“I can’t usually say this, but the more the results are out of the ordinary, the better in this case,” Dr. Shavitz affixed the vial’s label and turned to face her patient.

“Because it confirms that Isabella’s hematology is wholly unique?” Anna asked.

“Any one of these tests would prove that,” Dr. Shavitz said. “No, the results we’re seeing are useful because while they don’t make sense on their own, they compliment each other. I can see, in part at least, how Izzy’s system supports itself, even if it’s radically different from the mechanisms we typically use.”

“Too soon to be asking about a cure though I’m guessing?” Val asked.

Anna, Tam, and Val had insisted on accompanying Izzy to the Boston medical center where Dr. Shavitz had access to a private lab for testing. Jenny and Meg had joined them, because, as Jenny stated emphatically, she’d spent a month under Izzy’s protection and come out perfectly fine and healthy and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone was going to do to prevent her from returning the favor. Sera had tagged along as well, happy to have an all expenses paid for vacation and a chance to babysit her niece whom she hadn’t seen in over a month.

They made for a bit of a crowd in Izzy’s room, even with Sera and Meg safely away from the medical center’s potential contagions. Being surrounded by a small throng seemed to buoy Izzy’s spirits though so no one minded the crowding.

“Depends what you mean by ‘cure’,” Dr. Shavitz said. “Izzy’s biology is terra incognita at the moment. Even if we could come up with a method of reverse the procedures she’d been through, there’s nothing to suggest yet that we would want to.”

“But what about the accelerated aging?” Jenny asked. She was holding Izzy’s hand, and showing all of the worry that Izzy was appearing to be free from.

“That is the primary condition that we need to deal with. Not the blood dependency, or the aversion to strong odors,” Dr. Shavitz said. “But we need to be careful in how we approach it. The rapid aging may be responsible for keeping her alive at this point.”

“That sounds kind of counter-intuitive doc,” Val said, swinging her legs on the table she had taken a roost on.

“Not exactly,” Izzy said. “Remember, I didn’t start off on this in perfect health. I was pretty close to kicking the bucket even before I became one of the undead.”

“You are right and wrong there,” Dr. Shavitz said. “It’s true that your prior medical condition has an impact on your future prognosis. Removing the effects of the procedure could leave you with compromised or failing systems. I’ll know more about that once the results of these tests are in. You are wrong however about being ‘undead’. You are every bit as biologically viable as anyone else in this room.”

“I’ve been shot in the heart. Normal people don’t get up and walk away from that,” Izzy said.

“I believe that incident did disable you for a brief period however, am I correct?” Dr. Shavitz asked.

“It may have stung a little, yes,” Izzy said.

“That would be because you are still using your heart. And your lungs. And your other organs as well,” Dr. Shavitz said. “You are more resilient than someone without your current biology but you are not immortal, or unkillable. From the scar tissue that remains at the entrance and exit wounds, I believe the bullets did not directly pierce your heart, though in another woman they might have. If they had, or if you were to drown, or burn, even the impressive recuperative capabilities you possess could be taxed beyond their limit.”

“I know the doctor’s I worked with before looked into that a bit,” Izzy said. “Some of the tests they did couldn’t even have been close to ethically sanctioned.”

“I have to wonder what they were hoping to get out of this?” Tam asked. “I mean on the one hand, a vampire treatment could be amazing, especially if it can cure something major like cancer, but it sounds like the survival rate is pretty low. Something like that shouldn’t be in human testing yet, should it?”

“Definitely not,” Dr. Shavitz said. “The work to produce this complete a change in someone’s biology requires multiple breakthrough level inventions, any one of which should have been peer reviewed and studied for a decade or more before any sort of clinical trials on humans began. From the sounds of it, Izzy was far from their first subject too, which suggests this wasn’t a lucky and unpredictable effect of the treatments they gave her.”

“So what can we do then?” Jenny asked. “I mean we don’t understand cancer fully but we can fight that. There has to be someone way to fight this too, isn’t there?”

“Maybe I’ll just turn into an infinitely shriveled old lady,” Izzy said, offering Jenny a smile.

“At this point, I have nothing specific to offer,” Dr. Shavitz said. “But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. There’s still a lot of data to collect, and a lot of possible options. I don’t want to get your hopes up yet, but I don’t want to dash them either. These are early days still. One thing that I believe will help will be to prevent Izzy from suffering any more significant injuries.”

“Apart from the obvious, why is that doc?” Val asked.

“It’s just a hypothesis, but I believe her aging and her regeneration are linked,” Dr. Shavitz said. “I think her body is able to fabricate and replace cells at a rate vastly quicker than normal. There’s a degree of metabolic deterioration in the “quick copying” her cells do though and that adds up to the accelerated aging.”

“So, PrimaLux has a procedure that makes people incredibly healthy, strong and fast, which is frequently fatal to administer, and kills the subject in an unfortunately short time frame? Who would they sell that to?” Val asked.

“Is it possible they’re still running tests in order to work out the accelerated aging side effect?” Tam asked.

“I don’t think so,” Anna said. “If Dr. Shavitz is correct, then the aging element is a central part of the process. Correcting that would be done via trials in an animal population first. It seems more likely that they have accepted the losses, both short and long term, and were running this trial as an off-book project searching for some other benefit.”

“Maybe they were trying to make super soldiers?” Izzy said. “I can certainly fight a lot better than I did before.”

“For that they would want candidates with combat ability, or who they could rapidly train as combatants, before the aging rendered them incapable of fighting. Did they offer you any formal combat training after the procedures began?” Anna asked.

“No. The closest they came to that were the endurance and reflex tests they put me through,” Izzy said. “I learned to fight on my own time.”

“What do you practice?” Val asked, leaning forward.

“Mostly boxing,” Izzy said. “But I took a few years of jiu jitsu too.”

“We’ll have to get in a ring sometime,” Val said with a wide smile. “After your better of course.”

“You’d hit a little old lady like me?” Izzy said.

“I hit Anna all the time,” Val said. “Or I try to.”

“Yeah, don’t fight with Anna,” Tam said. “I’ve watched those matches. She is mean.”

“I am not mean,” Anna said. “I just know more tricks that you do.”

“While I’m all for age and treachery beating youth and skill,” Dr. Shavitz said. “No one is to do any fighting while you are under my care. In a ring or out.”

“Agreed,” Anna said. “We have a more important foe to deal with than each other.”

“PrimaLux. They are not going to be an easy group to handle,” Tam said. “They’ve already fried one of my systems just for poking around their front door.”

“And if they were renting out Izzy’s talents as an enforcer to a scrub like Boyers, it’s means they’ve got plenty of other muscle for targets that are closer to home,” Val said.

“I wasn’t thinking of taking down PrimaLux directly,” Anna said. “We need more information on them before we engage in a contest of that scope. Their lab, on the other hand, would make a much more manageable target I believe.”

“What are you thinking of targeting at their lab?” Val asked.

“I hope you’re about to say ‘the research notes on the procedure they put Izzy through. If we had access to those, it would catapult us forward in terms of coming up with a treatment for her,” Dr. Shavitz said.

“That was exactly my thought,” Anna said. “None of the work they’ve done has been peer reviewed, and if anyone else had made parallel discoveries they would be racing to apply for patent protection on it. Our only chance at understanding what their treatment plan was, and avoiding the mistakes they’ve made, will be to take the data we need from them.”

“We’re going to need to find out where the trials are being run now then,” Val said.

“I can give you the address,” Izzy said.

“I’m willing to bet we find an empty office space there now,” Tam said.

“Losing an asset tends to make people involved in highly illegal endeavors somewhat nervous,” Anna said, focusing on Izzy. “When you disappeared for a month after being sent on an errand they had to consider whether you had been compromised, and would in turn compromise them.”

“The good news, is they didn’t send out a strike force themselves, or send another vampire to help Boyers out. So there’s a limit on how invested they are in this,” Val said.

“What if Boyers lied to them?” Jenny asked. “He was already embezzling from them, why would lying about losing Izzy bother him?”

“He was probably smart enough not to try that,” Izzy said. “I was supposed to put in some time with him to help offset the costs of the procedure, but I was still expected to come in for my usual weekly checkups. Even if Boyers told them I was busy they would have been suspicious by the second week.”

“What I suspect is that they were nearly ready to wrap up your tests and saw this as a chance to close up shop with the data they had collected and move elsewhere,” Anna said. “We will certainly follow up on the locations you can provide us, but if my guess is right, we will find little or nothing to confirm your story.”

“But you still believe her, don’t you?” Jenny asked.

“Of course we do,” Tam said.

“Seriously, how could we not?” Val asked. “Saying ‘a secret lab turned me into a vampire’ might seem like a wild story, but she has the fangs, and blood that’s X positive to prove it. That’s some pretty solid evidence right there.”

“Maybe I’m from some ancient mystic bloodline that refuses to let the mortal world know of our existence though. Isn’t that what a conspiracy whonk would think?” Izzy asked.

“Sure, except for two things,” Tam said. “One, you have an extensive medical history which I apologize for intruding on, but the hospitals you’ve been treated at really need better security, and all of that history says you were a non-vampire up until the records run out. Also, point number two, we’re going to find the doctors who worked on you and then they’ll be proof that what you’re saying is real.”

“And, just to eliminate all suspicion,” Anna said. “I’ve met enough real vampires to know their biology is nothing like yours.”

 

The Second Chance Club – Ep 03 – Act 1

Having a hungry vampire prowling the house did not make for the best Saturday morning, Anna decided. There was only one solution to the problem. She had to feed the beast.

“The eggs will be ready in a few minutes,” she said, glancing to the island countertop Isabella was pacing back and forth around. The vampire had complained of hunger pangs since waking up but had insisted that regular food would serve her appetite just fine.

“I could kill for some waffles,” Izzy said, forcing herself to stop behind her chair and relax with a long, slow breath.

“I thought vampires could only subsist on the blood of the living?” Tam asked, twirling her fork so that it danced between her hands in a complicated but repeating pattern.

“Blood’s good too,” Izzy said. “Two years ago, I couldn’t imagine drinking the stuff, but I guess your appetite changes based on what you need?”

“The body is not usually that smart,” Anna said. “We crave sugar whether we need it or not for example. Your condition may have affected your senses as well though.”

“Maybe. I don’t think there’s a lot of research that’s been done on it,” Izzy said. “From what I gathered there’s not a whole lot of us.”

“”Must be more than a handful though,” Val said, wandering into the kitchen in workout sweats with a bagel in one hand and her phone in the other. “Phil Boyer was too small time to lend for PrimaLux to lend a truly unique resource to.”

“You said they offered you an experimental blood treatment and that’s what modified your physiology right?” Jenny asked, as she fed baby Meg from a bottle.

“Yeah,” Izzy said. “I fought leukemia as a kid, remember? Did really well too, but then when I got to college it came back. I was in pretty rotten shape when this new doctor took my case and made me an offer. He said was the option to take part in an experimental program that was working on a cure, and…I knew it was ridiculous, but I jumped at it. My options were kind of limited at that point that.”

Jenny gave Izzy a supportive glance, and adjusted Meg’s bottle to see if the baby would take anymore.

“That limits the pool of potential affected people rather substantially,” Anna said. “I gather the success rate was not high however.”

“They didn’t say, but I think I might have been the only one to pull through in my group. From some things they said though, I’m pretty sure there were other groups that had been through the program already,” Izzy said, sliding into her chair as Anna started transferring the pile of scrambled eggs from the pan in front of her on the stove to the warm serving plate Jimmy B had wrangled for them.

The women were enjoying the luxuries of the Marigold estates. They could have taken breakfast in the Grand Dining Hall and allowed the staff to provide their meal, but they needed a certain degree of privacy to discuss the details of Izzy’s case, so they’d gathered in Anna’s suite and made breakfast for themselves.

“That’s a pretty convenient population to do shaky medical experiments on isn’t it?” Val asked. “I mean, any failures you can explain away as the disease following its natural course.”

“There are usually more thorough reviews of the patient outcomes and closer monitoring of studies like the one Isabella described,” Anna said. “I suspect this one did not follow the accepted guidelines though?”

She placed the plate of eggs, bacon, sausage, and cheeses on the table before glancing over to Tam. Tam was busy working on a laptop she’d brought to the breakfast table, and looked up at Anna’s words, taking a moment to process them.

“I’m checking Izzy’s records and there’s no listing for that study at all,” Tam said. “Of course, these records also say that she’s still receiving treatments. Not just in general, but right now, this morning.”

“I haven’t been sick in two years,” Izzy said, portioning out a generous helping of eggs and meats for herself and then preparing a plate for Jenny whose arms were occupied with Meg still.

“At least not with a conventional illness,” Anna said.

“Yeah, no offense, but you’re looking a bit weathered for a twenty two year old,” Val said.

Izzy didn’t look any worse than the night before when they’d rescued Jenny from Phil Boyers and his crew, but her features were clearly no longer those of a 22 year old. For all that though, she still looked vastly better than Phillip Boyers had as the police carted him and his men away.

Boyers had made the mistake of shooting “Jenny” on camera. That it hadn’t actually been Jenny but rather a clever illusion arranged by Tam meant the recording wasn’t evidence for a charge of “Murder in the First Degree”. The police still brought Boyers in though, and he was going to stand trial for murder due to fifteen other cases which they were able to link him to via DNA evidence and other incriminating details they acquired after someone (Tam) gave them probable cause to search his home and workplace.

“The doctors said this was normal.” Izzy managed between bites of the bacon and eggs.

“You said you heal rapidly?” Anna asked.

“Faster than you can imagine,” Jenny said. “Which is kind of a good thing I guess. Otherwise she wouldn’t be here.”

“She shot me,” Izzy explained when the other women looked at them curiously.

“To be fair, she was breaking into my apartment, and I knew Boyers was going to send someone after me,” Jenny said.

“Where did you get hit?” Val asked.

“Center torso. Two shots,” Izzy said. “I think I would have gotten one in the head too if I hadn’t recognized her in time.”

“That must have been a fun scene,” Tam said. “Why were you breaking into Jenny’s apartment though?”

“It’s messed up and complicated,” Izzy said.

“I will get the waffles going,” Anna said.

“You were working for PrimaLux, who was backing Boyers for some reason right?” Val asked.

“Yeah. I mean, not originally. Originally I was just taking part in the study. Then, right when I started to change, the study finished up.”

“That’s a good trick,” Val said. “String you along and if it looks like things are working out, threaten to take the treatment away.”

“That’s basically what they did,” Izzy said. “I mean, they said they would pay for another three months of normal hospital care so that they could monitor me for any long term impact from their study, but the protocol that I was on was going to be cut off.”

“And you weren’t cured yet, or even in remission, so they had you over a barrel,” Val said.

“At first all they wanted was for me to check into a new hospital, a private one, where they could monitor me 24/7,” Izzy said. “Then they wanted me to take part in evaluation exercises. I think that’s what working for Boyers was in a sense. I’d passed all the physical tests, but they said they had ‘behavioral effects’ to check for too.”

“They weren’t evaluating the effects of their treatment,” Anna said, making explicit what Izzy was suggesting. “They needed to see if you would do the sort of work they needed you for.”

“I thought it was supposed to be like bounty hunter work,” Izzy said. “You know, find someone who’s trying to skip out on a debt they owe, bust down their door, and make it clear that they can’t just bail on a deal like that.”

“I think Boyer had a different idea in mind,” Jenny said. “He’d already sent some of his men over to threaten me. They said if I couldn’t pay off the money we borrowed for Lewis’ operations, they’d have to find some collateral to use against me. They were looking at Meg when they said that.”

“I don’t blame you for shooting first,” Val said.

“I don’t either,” Izzy said. “I’m pretty quick now, and I came through her door like a freight train. I mean I can heal from bullet wounds but it’s not exactly fun. Didn’t matter though. I got about two steps into the room and I was on my butt with two new holes in my torso.”

“I didn’t recognize her at first,” Jenny said. “And I was scared someone else might be with her, but then it turned out that this poor woman bleeding on my floor was Izzy, and she was alone, and she wasn’t dying and nothing made sense anymore.”

“Whereas for me, everything finally made sense at that point,” Izzy said. “I let the doctors turn me into a freak and I just kept going with the flow. No matter how wrong things started to feel. I didn’t want to be Boyer’s muscle but I thought I needed the doctors to make sure the changes that were happening to me were going to be ok. I was stable, but I’d thought I was out of the woods before too and that turned out to be a bust, so it felt like just doing what I was told was the most important thing in the world. Turns out that sucking chest wounds have a knack for changing your perspective on things though.”

“We took off after that,” Jenny said. “I tried to drop Meg off with Sera to keep her safe, but it wasn’t the right time.”

“I’m so sorry about that!” Sera said. “I had no idea your situation was as bad as it was but I still should have helped you that night!”

“No, I would have gone mad if I hadn’t had Meg to look after,” Jenny said. “I’m just sorry we didn’t contact you. I was afraid if I did, Boyers would find out and try to come looking for me through you. I don’t know why I thought he wouldn’t come after you anyway.”

“You’ve been on the run for a month,” Val said. “I think you can be forgiven for not thinking too clearly under the circumstances.”

“I take it you two used Izzy’s money for rooms and food?” Tam asked, and the two women nodded. “That was smart. I don’t know if Boyers could have tracked Jenny’s accounts, and it sounds like Izzy had plenty of cash to work with?”

“Let’s say Boyers paid my salary in hard currency without technically being aware of it,” Izzy said.

“That was even smarter,” Tam said. “I’m sure the PrimaLux people were monitoring your accounts, but Boyer’s books were so crooked I don’t think even he would be able to tell if some of the cash went missing.”

“What was his plan in all this?” Val asked. “I mean he was loaning out a lot more money than a Payday loan shop should be trafficking in, and Lewis wasn’t exactly a good candidate for long term lending given the condition he was in.”

“That I do have an answer for, thanks to you and Anna picking up their actual ledgers,” Tam said. She spun her laptop around and put it in presentation mode. Financial charts filled the page, overlaying a series of spreadsheets that were open in the background.

“Am I reading these numbers right? Because I’m not just seeing a lot of big loans, I’m seeing a lot of really bad ones too,” Val said. “Boyers would have to have been an idiot to be lending like this.”

“He was, but not because of the failure of the loans,” Anna said. “Do you see these accounts here? They are all marked closed by the estate of the debtor. The amounts shown in the official report do not match the amount of the original loan balance though. I’ve seen schemes like this before. Mr. Boyers was laundering money for PrimaLux but that wasn’t enough. He was embezzling from them as well, increasing the reported loan amount and pocketing the difference between the amount his backers thought they were lending and how much the debtors received. He focused on lending to people who were likely to die before the loan was completed so that the discrepancy could be hidden in the loss when the estate wasn’t able to pay out the original loan amount.”

“I take it PrimaLux is going to find out about the embezzlement now that Boyers books are being entered as part of the charges against him?” Val asked.

“Definitely,” Tam said.

“We will want to watch what happens to Mr. Boyers. It will tell us something about how our adversaries operate,” Anna said.

“Sounds like a job for JB,” Tam said. “I think we’ve got a more urgent matter to take care of.” She nodded towards Izzy who was finishing her second plate of food.

“Yeah, somehow we’ve got to figure out how to defang a vampire,” Val said.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 02 – Act 4

Val wasn’t fond of the guy who was poking her in the back with a pistol, but she was glad he was staying so foolishly close to her. Right within easy grappling distance. It was almost like he didn’t realize that firearms were intended to be ranged weapons.

“This the place?” Boyers asked one his henchmen, looking up at an abandoned theater that hadn’t been seeing good days even five years before when it shut its doors forever. It was a small three story building nestled into a mixed use development to the south of Atlanta’s more prosperous metro area.

“It’s the right address,” the guy with the gun to Val’s back said. His breath reeked of the cheap booze he’d been swilling with his boss and, for as unpleasant as that was to breath in, it also made Val smile.

Coming into a gun fight more than half drunk meant you would be sure your reflexes were superb when they were in reality slowed to a snail’s pace. From Anna’s expression and how she rolled her eyes when Val cast her a questioning glance, Anna was aware of their captors’ weakness too but didn’t want Val to move on it yet.

“Figures she’d be hiding out in a place like this.” Boyers smiled broadly at a joke he never got to complete because even in his semi-addled state he noticed something was wrong with the picture before them. “Wait, where’s Donny?”

Boyer’s other men looked around. There was a car parked outside of building, but no one was in it. And no one was waiting for them outside the building. And as far as anyone of them could see, all of the lights in the building were off.

“Give him a call,” Boyers ordered the guy holding Val at gunpoint.

He didn’t take the pistol away from her back, which said he wasn’t completely plastered, but Val felt an itch in her fingers as she heard him start to call Donny’s number on his cellphone. Between the alcohol and the distraction of being on the phone there was no chance he’d get a shot off before Val could get the gun away from him. Ann shook her head though. Not yet.

With nothing else to do, Val eavesdropped  on her captor and could hear the phone ringing and ringing with no one answering.

“He’s not picking up?” the gunman said.

“These guys,” Boyers said, shaking his head. “Come on, let’s get these two inside.”

Val allowed herself to be prodded forward, leading the small group into the theater’s darkened interior through it’s broad and open front doors.

In its prime, the Royale had been as grand as its small footprint would allow, and the bones of that grandeur were still visible in the moonlight that streamed through the broken windows. A pair of spiral stairways, long fallen into disrepair, wound up to the balcony level while the faded and mildewed remains of what was once an opulent red carpet covered the ground floor like a crimson tide gone to rusty brown.

“Hey! Donny! Larock! Stets!” Boyer called out to the hollow darkness of the theater. “Where are you guys?”

“Maybe they decided this was not a place they wanted to be?” Anna asked. “It does not seem very friendly here. At least not for people like you.”

Boyers whirled on Anna, his hand rising as though he intended to hit her but he checked himself at the last moment. Meeting Anna’s gaze had that effect on a lot of people. It wasn’t so much that she was unafraid of the violence he intended. Fear didn’t enter into the picture. What lay in the depths of her icy gaze was a sleeping bear that was all too ready to awaken if the thin layer of civilization Anna surrounded herself was cracked. She wasn’t a violent woman, but she had lived too long and seen to much to be overly burdened by mercy or restraint when the situation called for their absence.

“You keep talking,” Boyers said, backing off without meaning to. “This place is going to be get real unfriendly for you as soon as we find my guys.”

“Sounds like there’s something in the back,” Val said, lying through her teeth to draw Boyers crew deeper into the theater.

All of the fun waited inside, but she caught sight of a flicker of motion above them.

Except it was too early for any traps to be spung.

She risked a quick look up again but couldn’t see anything in the shadows of the high ceiling. She knew better than to doubt her senses though. Someone was up there. Which was odd. Of all the allies they had, or could call into service, Val couldn’t think of any that were particularly gifted at clinging to ceilings.

Her pulse quickened at the thought of a rogue element coming into play. Boyers and his men were idiots. They were at most ten minutes away from multiple broken bones, followed by their arrest, and then years spent in a maximum security prison.

If there was someone here who could wall crawl on the ceilings though, that meant Val might get a decent work out for a change. Since the shadowy presence seemed to be something of an ambush predator, Val decided to keep Boyer’s attention focused elsewhere for the time being. There were a lot of dangerous things that lived in dark corners. Val dearly wanted to hear Boyer’s reaction to running into one of them unexpectedly. Little girls had nothing on high pitched screams compared to terrified adult males.

“I don’t hear anything,” Boyers said, some animal part of his brains trying to alert him to the danger he was in, but failing to pierce the bravado he substituted for actual thought.

“Sounded high pitched, like someone crying,” Val said. As bait went, it wasn’t terribly subtle. Boyers expected to find Jenny inside the building, so of course he assumed she would be crying. In his conception of the world, she was just a scared, helpless woman after all, wasn’t she?

“Somebody find a light,” Boyers said and started walking forward, slowly and with his gun held in a shaky hand before him.

As they walked into the theater’s main auditorium, Val noticed that there were some sounds that she could make out. They weren’t high pitched though. Instead they sounded like the sort of low moans that barely conscious and noticeably injured men made as they struggled to either escape or regain consciousness.

A flicker of motion to their side caught Val’s eye again. Someone had run behind one of the grand pillars that held the balcony up.

Also, one of Boyers men was missing. Or perhaps it was two. Their party had consisted of six of Boyer’s men (including Boyer himself) with Anna and Val held at gunpoint. A quick glance showed that only the two gunmen, Boyers, and the guy beside him who was holding a light remained. Val began to wonder if the theater was Jenny’s hiding spot, or if it was something very different.

Someone who ran away from people as violent as Boyers was might not look for a place to hide. They might look for somewhere that they could secure. Someplace that people who came after them might regret finding. And they might not be alone.

Val saw a trapdoor at the other side of the theater flash open and close in an instant. Whatever else was true of the theater, they were definitely not alone in it, though it was still possible that they were the only human beings who were present.

No more of Boyer’s men disappeared before they reached the door to the backstage area, but Val felt the creeping weight of someone watching them from the shadows and as she got backstage she saw why.

In the staging area behind the main curtain, Boyer’s first crew was strung up and groaning. They were hung from the rafters by cords that were looped around under their arms, and around their waist and legs. Some weren’t moving, all were painfully contorted, but from the ones that groaning, Val guessed that none of them were dead. That didn’t make the tableau and less disturbing though.

“Boyer,” someone called out in a lilting voice. “We’re waiting for you Boyer.”

Boyer whipped his head around. It was plain which direction the voice was coming from, but he was still jumping at the shadows that seemed to press in around him. He was so nervous though that he missed the fact that the men who’d been holding guns on Anna and Val had vanished.

Boyer started to creep forward, taking the lead, and Val saw Tam peek out from behind a door as he passed, beckoning Anna and Val to slip inside.

“What’s going on?” Val asked in a whisper once they were safely separated from Boyers and his remaining henchmen.

“You found Jenny?” Anna asked.

“And her friend,” Tam said.

“I thought all her friends had tried talking to Sera?” Val said.

“This one’s a special friend,” Tam said. “Give her a moment and you’ll see.”

“What’s happening now?” Anna said.

A trio of gunshots rang out.

“Phillip Boyers just provided us will all the evidence we’d ever need to get him convicted for Murder 1,” Tam said, and threw open the door casually, not bother to remain quiet any longer. “He just shoot to death a startlingly convincing replica of Jenny Williams and her daughter Meg. And he did it on camera.”

Tam held up a finger to forestall questions and opened casually the door they were hiding behind.

“Isabella? Is he disarmed yet?” she called out.

“He still has his arms. They’re just in a few extra pieces now.” The woman who stepped from the shadows ahead of them was even darker skinned than Sera had been. What caught Val attention though wasn’t her piercing gaze, or her lithe, hard muscled figure, or the early wrinkles of age that creased the woman’s skin. It was her perfect, white teeth. Especially the ones that were just a bit longer and pointier than a human’s were really supposed to be. “You’ll want to give this to the police when they get here though.”

Isabella offered Boyer’s pistol already inside a plastic ziplock bag to Tam.

“We seem to be in your debt,” Anna said.

“I feel like I’m a few steps behind though,” Val said. “Wasn’t the plan that you would get here before we did, sneak Jenny out to safety, and then setup some surprises for Boyers’ crew.”

“I did,” Tam said. “Jenny’s safe and sound. I just found that there was already a surprise waiting here for Boyers. It’s really your story to tell though Izzy. Could you fill my friends in?”

“I was the one they sent to collect Jenny in the first place,” Izzy said, her gaze flicking back and forth to read Anna and Val’s reaction to the revelation.

“You worked for Boyers?” Anna asked, a frown of disbelief creasing her lips.

“No, I work for the people he reports to,” Izzy said. “Or I used to, I guess.”

“What made you quit?” Val asked.

“Jenny shot me,” Izzy said, a proud smile spreading across her face.

“Ah, that was the blood they found at her place then?” Anna asked.

“Yeah. I surprised her, and she surprised me. Then we surprised each other,” Izzy said.

“Not quite how I hoped our reunion would go, but I’ll take it,” Jenny said, stepping out from behind a curtain that led to the dressing rooms. In one arm, she held Meg who was sleeping with the profound peace only briefly seen in a contented infant. In the other Jenny had a sensibly sized black semi-automatic. Val made a mental note that Boyers was probably lucky Tam had been in charge of setting up the sting to take him down. Neither Jenny nor Izzy looked like they were interested in merely terrifying him out of his wits and extracting the evidence needed to put him away for life.

“Your reunion?” Anna asked.

“We were classmates,” Izzy said.

“We dated,” Jenny said, nudging Izzy with her elbow and rolling her eyes.

Val glanced at both of them. Dating was easy to imagine. They were both attractive enough, but classmates seemed unlikely. Jenny was around Val’s age, in her early 20s. Izzy looked closer to Anna’s age, if maybe a bit younger. Mid-forties in all likelyhood.

“It was in high school,” Izzy said. “I’m not quite as old as I look.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Anna said. “Perhaps it is something we can help with though.”

“I don’t think so,” Izzy said. “I made some mistakes and I don’t think I can walk them back.”

“We’re going to need to move too,” Jenny said. “Izzy’s bosses are going to go nuts when they find out that Phil’s out of the picture.”

“That we can definitely help you with,” Tam said and dialed her phone. “JB, can you book the Marigold estates for two more residents?”

“The Marigold estates?” Jenny asked.

“Yeah, you’re sister’s going to be staying there for a week or so while we sort this out, and I think she’ll be kind of happy to see you safe and sound,” Val said.

“Sera’s staying there?” Jenny said. “Oh my god, Izzy, do you think we can?”

“I think that’s a fantastic idea,” Izzy said. “I should probably take off though. With Boyers down, the powers that be at PrimaLux aren’t going to be after you anymore. If I hang around, you’ll just get caught in the backblast when they come for me.”

“Wait, Boyers was reporting to PrimaLux?” Tam asked.

“Those were the guys backing Larson, that real estate guy in North Dakota, weren’t they?” Val asked.

“Yes,” Anna said. “It seems their reach extends a bit farther than we imagined. Ms Isabella, I believe we know someone who would be most interested in speaking with you, and if there’s anyone who can offer you shelter from your former employers, it’s her.”

“Yeah, Charlene’s all about giving people second chances,” Val said. “Even people with pointy teeth.”