When Zoltan Czakvar entered the armory of his Transylvanian castle, his gaze automatically shifted to the arrow that had killed his father. Barely visible where it was mounted on the far wall, the arrow still made him stop in his tracks. Still made his nerves tense. Dammit. He should rip the bloody thing down, toss it into a fire, and be done with it.
Since he was a man who prided himself on never quitting until a job was done, the arrow served as a painful reminder of his one major failure. He’d never found those responsible for murdering his father and destroying his village. Unfortunately, those events had transpired in 1241, so any chance at success seemed long gone.
He had tried. God, how he had tried. Starting at the age of fourteen, he’d traveled with that damned arrow for years, desperately searching for anyone who might know where it had originated. A curious design was carved into the wooden shaft of the arrow, making it unique. But no one ever recognized it. It remained a mystery to this day, mocking him and reminding him of all he had lost.
With a sigh, he set down the ice chest he had carried down the dimly lit spiral staircase. When this part of the castle had been completed in the fifteenth century, this cavernous room in the cellar had become the armory. The medieval pikes and battle-axes were gone, but an assortment of swords and crossbows remained, along with a modern array of firearms and ammunition.
Like most of the castle, the cellar was now wired for electricity. He switched on the lights. Although the far corners of the room remained dark, the nearby walls gleamed with an impressive display of swords that reflected the light and eased his sour mood. Like loyal friends, they had served him well over the centuries. A good sword was still the weapon of choice for him and his older undead companions. His modern friends were different.
He glanced at his watch. Ten minutes until the appointed meeting time.
The supplies he’d brought down the night before were neatly arranged on the long wooden table. A few knives. A box of cartridges for an automatic handgun. Another box filled with some shotgun shells and hand grenades. And a long box containing modern arrows. He moved the ice chest to the end of the table. The dry ice inside would keep the bottles of synthetic blood cold for days.
“Hey, Zoltan,” a voice emanated from the spiral staircase. “Are you down there?”
Damn. It was Howard, his new security guy. Zoltan turned to face the huge were-bear as he bent over to keep from clonking his head on the low entrance into the room. “No need to check up on me. I’m fine. I thought you were taking your wife out to eat.”
“I am. She wanted to clean up first.” Howard’s sharp gaze wandered about the room, then lingered on the supplies on the table. “So this is the armory.”
“Yes.” A week ago, Zoltan had hired Howard’s wife, Elsa, and her team of renovation experts to do some work on the crumbling east wing and tower. They’d jumped at the chance to feature a real Transylvanian castle on their home improvement television show. Meanwhile, Howard had barely seen his wife for the past six months, since he’d been stationed in Japan. His boss, Angus MacKay of MacKay Security and Investigation, had asked Zoltan to accept the were-bear as his new head of security so the couple could enjoy some time together.
Zoltan knew that was only an excuse. For the last three centuries, he had served as Coven Master for Eastern Europe. One of his duties was protecting his constituents from the evil vampires known as Malcontents, so he’d pissed off his share of enemies over the years. More recently, he’d broken up a band of Malcontent human traffickers. Angus was worried they would seek revenge, so he expected Howard to do a complete overhaul of the security measures at both the castle and Zoltan’s townhouse in Budapest.
Zoltan had reluctantly agreed. How could he decline, when Elsa had begged him to agree with such a hopeful expression? She’d been excited all day, waiting impatiently for her husband, who had arrived about an hour ago. Bad timing, as far as Zoltan was concerned, since he had a secret meeting scheduled to begin in eight minutes.
“I’m sure you’re eager to be with your wife,” he told the were-bear, “so I’ll give you a tour of the castle tomorrow evening. Or, if you like, my assistant, Milan, can give you a tour in the morning.”
Howard nodded. “I just met him upstairs. He . . . talks a lot.”
Zoltan winced inwardly. No doubt Milan had been trying his best to keep Howard from coming downstairs. “Why don’t you take one of my cars into the village? Milan can show you where the garage is.”
“He already offered to do that.” Howard frowned. “You know, as your new head of security, I have to tell you I’m shocked by the lack of it around here. I’ve spotted only one surveillance camera, outside by that iron gate—”
“The portcullis, yes.”
“And it’s not working.”
“I see, well . . .” Zoltan walked toward him, motioning toward the staircase. “We can discuss it tomorrow. Enjoy your evening.”
Howard didn’t budge. “As far as I can tell, everyone in the castle knows you’re a vampire.”
“And that restaurant you recommended—I called to get directions, and the guy asked if I was staying at the castle with the local Vamp.”
“There was no need to call. There are only two streets in the village and one restaurant. You can hardly miss it.”
“That’s not the point! Zoltan, how many people know you’re undead?”
He shrugged. “Quite a few, I suppose. This is Transylvania, after all.”
“It’s too big of a risk. You should do some of that mind control stuff and erase their memories.”
With a sigh, Zoltan glanced at his watch. He only had six minutes. “It’s their memories that provide my security. The people in this area know that they and their ancestors have been safe for generations because of me. I’ve protected them from Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Hungarians, Prussians, Germans, Russians, and countless gangs of thieves and brigands. The villagers would never let anyone harm me. You might call them my first line of defense.”
Howard tilted his head, regarding him curiously. “So that’s why the mortals I talked to claim you’re a hero? Even so, I have to object—”
“So do I. If I’m such a bloody hero, why am I alone?”
Howard scoffed. “How would I know? I’m worried about your lack of security, not your lack of nookie.”
“Eloquently put.” Zoltan motioned toward the staircase. “And on that note, you shouldn’t leave your wife waiting.”
“I’m serious about this, Zoltan. It doesn’t matter how many loyal friends you have. It takes only one enemy to kill you.”
“Indeed.” Zoltan gestured again toward the stairs. “We can discuss my imminent demise tomorrow. Have a good evening.”
“Why do I get the feeling you don’t want me down here?” Howard asked.
“He doesn’t want you to see me,” a voice said from a dark corner.
With a groan, Zoltan turned toward the Vamp who had just teleported in. “You’re early.”
“I’m starving.” He stepped into the light, dropped an empty ice chest on the table, and retrieved a bottle of synthetic blood from the full ice chest.
Howard stiffened. “Russell.”
The ex-Marine gave him a wry look as he wrenched the top off the bottle. “Howard.” He took a long drink.
Howard’s gaze narrowed on the items on the table, then switched to Zoltan. “How long have you been supplying him?”
Zoltan shrugged. “About two years.”
Frowning, Howard crossed his arms. “You mean since the time he went AWOL?”
“Thereabouts. Would you rather he starve to death? Or be forced to bite people?”
“We’d rather he report in every now and then,” Howard growled.
Russell paused with the nearly empty bottle an inch from his mouth. “Don’t mind me. Just keep talking about me like I’m not here.”
Howard shot him an annoyed look. “You think we don’t worry about you? Angus keeps sending J.L. and Rajiv to China to search for you.”
“I know.” Russell finished the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’ve had to bail them out of trouble a few times.”