MOST PEOPLE WOULD FIND being led into an underground bunker on a stormy night scary. Not me.
Things I could explain away and define with data didn't frighten me. That was why I kept silently reciting facts to myself as I descended deeper and deeper below street level. The bunker was a relic of the Cold War, built as protection in a time when people thought nuclear missiles were around every corner. On the surface, the building claimed to house an optical supply store. That was a front. Not scary at all. And the storm? Simply a natural phenomenon of atmospheric fronts clashing. And really, if you were going to worry about getting hurt in a storm, then going underground was actually pretty smart.
So, no. This seemingly ominous journey didn't frighten me in the least. Everything was built on reasonable facts and logic. I could deal with that. It was the rest of my job I had a problem with.
And really, maybe that was why stormy underground trips didn't faze me. When you spent most of your days living among vampires and half vampires, ferrying them to get blood, and keeping their existence secret from the rest of the world... well, it kind of gave you a unique perspective on life. I'd witnessed bloody vampire battles and seen magical feats that defied every law of physics I knew. My life was a constant struggle to hold back my terror of the unexplainable and try desperately to find a way to explain it.
"Watch your step," my guide told me as we went down yet another flight of concrete stairs.
Everything I'd seen so far was concrete - the walls, floor, and ceiling. The gray, rough surface absorbed the fluorescent light that attempted to illuminate our way. It was dreary and cold, eerie in its stillness. The guide seemed to guess my thoughts. "We've made modifications and expansions since this was originally built. You'll see once we reach the main section." Sure enough. The stairs finally opened up to a corridor with several closed doors lining the sides. The decor was still concrete, but all the doors were modern, with electronic locks displaying either red or green lights. He led me to the second door on the right, one with a green light, and I found myself entering a perfectly normal lounge, like the kind of break room you'd find in any modern office. Green carpet covered the floor, like some wistful attempt at grass, and the walls were a tan that gave the illusion of warmth. A puffy couch and two chairs sat on the opposite side of the room, along with a table scattered with magazines. Best of all, the room had a counter with a sink - and a coffee maker.
"Make yourself at home," my guide told me. I was guessing he was close to my age, eighteen, but his patchy attempts at growing a beard made him seem younger. "They'll come for you shortly."
My eyes had never left the coffee maker. "Can I make some coffee?"
"Sure," he said. "Whatever you like."
He left, and I practically ran to the counter. The coffee was pre-ground and looked as though it might very well have been here since the Cold War as well. As long as it was caffeinated, I didn't care. I'd taken a red-eye flight from California, and even with part of the day to recover, I still felt sleepy and bleary-eyed. I set the coffee maker going and then paced the room. The magazines were in haphazard piles, so I straightened them into neat stacks. I couldn't stand disorder.
I sat on the couch and waited for the coffee, wondering yet again what this meeting could be about. I'd spent a good part of my afternoon here in Virginia reporting to a couple of Alchemist officials about the status of my current assignment. I was living in Palm Springs, pretending to be a senior at a private boarding school in order to keep an eye on Jill Mastrano Dragomir, a vampire princess forced into hiding. Keeping her alive meant keeping her people out of civil war - something that would definitely tip humans off to the supernatural world that lurked beneath the surface of modern life. It was a vital mission for the Alchemists, so I wasn't entirely surprised they'd want an update. What surprised me was that they couldn't have just done it over the phone. I couldn't figure out what other reason would bring me to this facility.
The coffee maker finished. I'd only set it to make three cups, which would probably be enough to get me through the evening. I'd just filled my Styrofoam cup when the door opened.
A man entered, and I nearly dropped the coffee.
"Mr. Darnell," I said, setting the pot back on the burner. My hands trembled. "It - it's nice to see you again, sir."
"You too, Sydney," he said, forcing a stiff smile. "You've certainly grown up."