It was an unusually warm spring night in New York City. People on the Upper West Side, who were wearing jackets the other day, now sported short-sleeved shirts and had the irritable look of those seeking air conditioning. A few passers-by stopped to watch a sleek black limousine pull up in front of a co-op building on West End Avenue. A minute later, the doorman opened the door for Marlene Dumont, a tall, athletic-looking, sophisticated young woman with long blonde hair, navy blue eyes, classical features and very pale skin. She wore a black cocktail dress that revealed her shapely body. Her only jewelry was an expensive pearl necklace. She paused a moment, took in her surroundings with a raptor's glance, then got into the limousine.
The driver, Jacob Freedman, a big, well-muscled black man with a shaved head, a scar across his right cheek and a flattened nose testifying to violent confrontations, said in a high, cultured voice: "Good evening, Marlene."
"Good evening, Jacob. How's your mother?"
"Mom's getting better, thanks to that doctor you sent her to."
"Glad to help."
He looked at her gratefully. "I can't thank you enough ..."
She held up her hand imperiously. "That's not necessary. You're more than a driver to me. I don't want to hear anything else, unless you need my help with something. Now let's go."
Without another word he pulled the limo into traffic and headed downtown. Traffic was heavy. The streets were particularly crowded with people enjoying the first warm night since early the previous fall. When they got to midtown, the Broadway theaters were letting out and hordes of patrons, many of them not looking entertained, flocked west to retrieve their cars from the parking garages on 10th and 11th Avenues. They overflowed the sidewalks into the street and slowed traffic to a crawl.
Jacob alertly checked his mirrors regularly, as well as monitoring front and sides. Marlene looked at people on the street through the tinted windows, lingering on someone for a moment who caught her attention. As they inched along. a man bumped the side door. Marlene and Jacob instantly turned, ready for an attack. They relaxed when he lurched off and bumped into another car. The dour look on his face and his drunken stumbling suggested he saw a drama, rather than a lively musical.
"That boy almost got a surprise," Jacob said with a smile.
Marlene smiled back knowingly as they resumed their journey. A few minutes later, they stopped behind a line of limousines unloading passengers in front of a nondescript commercial loft building not too far from the Hudson River. Security guards kept a loose cordon around the front of the building and when a photographer got too close, two guards intercepted him and prevented him from taking pictures.
"Hey. What do you guys think you're doing?" he protested.
The older guard said pleasantly, "This is a private affair and we don't allow photographers."
"What are you talking about? I got a constitutional right to be here. This is a public street."
"Of course you do," the older guard said agreeably. "But we'd appreciate if you'd leave us alone tonight."
Before the photographer could react further, the guard reached into his pocket, took out some bills and handed them to the irate man, who abruptly closed his mouth after he counted the money.
"Three hundred bucks. Wow! I guess I'll head over to Times Square and get something to eat. Thanks, guys."
The guards watched him for a minute as he sauntered off, then moved back near the entrance. Jacob had been monitoring them while still scanning the street, and he told Marlene, "She's in a doorway three buildings down."
"I know. I saw her."
"Do you want me to shoo her away?"
"No. We've kept her at arm's length so far. She could become a pest if we chase her."
"She could always go for a midnight swim in the Hudson."
Marlene smiled. "You're very recreationally minded, Jacob."
Patti Vendessa, a short, chunky, aggressive lesbian, had cropped black hair, small brown eyes and a pudgy face. She wore nondescript clothes that covered her fleshy body. She lurked in a doorway across the street, clutching her video camera. She watched the limousines intently, urgent to see the woman she had been following -- well, stalking -- for weeks. Patti tried to think of herself as a video journalist, but she knew she was just another eager paparazzi. She was afraid she'd never get a reputation in the business, unless she got a great story that might change her life. She had first spotted the mysterious, glamorous woman going into an anonymous West Side building, and something aroused her curiosity because the woman seemed out of place there. When she tried to enter the building the guards turned her away. There were no signs or a directory, which had made her even more interested.
"What is this place? Some C.I.A. hotel for the rich?" she had challenged.
"It's a private enterprise, Miss," one of the guards said pleasantly, as he ushered her out.
"How can I get in touch with them?"
"You can't, Miss."
"Are they doing anything illegal?" she'd asked provocatively.
"I'd like to talk to them."
"That's not possible. Now good day, Miss."
Patti was determined to find out what went on in that building. She started watching the entrance at different times during the day and night. Three weeks later she was no closer to answers. She was completely unaware that she had been noticed and was being monitored by guards and security cameras. This was the first time some kind of major event was going on, judging by the number of limousines arriving. She watched avidly, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fascinating woman who so far had eluded her.
As Marlene got out of her limousine, Madame Francesca's limousine pulled in behind her, and she waited for her. Madame Francesca was the senior director of the Enhanced Life Foundation that employed Marlene, and a formidable woman. She seemed somewhere between 60 and 65 years old, depending on mood and temperament. She had a tall vigorous body, long grey hair, striking facial features and pale skin. The resemblance between her and Marlene was coincidental, but Marlene could have passed for her granddaughter.
Madame Francesca's bodyguard stepped out, looked around carefully, then signaled her to come out. When she saw Marlene an expression of pleasure flitted over her face. She went to her, they exchanged kisses European fashion and entered the building. Patti had almost jumped out of her shoes when she saw Marlene. She started across the street, but the instant reaction of the guards who moved towards her, made her go back towards the doorway, determined to wait all night for her target.
The lobby was nondescript with a concrete floor, pale green walls and a faded off-white ceiling that did not reveal its thick, reinforced armored plating. The security station just inside the entrance didn't seem unusual at a casual glance, but it concealed highly sophisticated monitoring, detecting and identification devices, overseen by two very fit, alert guards.
The women and Madame Francesca's bodyguard, Ruffino, went to the two elevators, only one of which worked, which was manned by a very competent-looking operator. The elevator only went to the second floor, where they got out and passed through an even more elaborate security checkpoint. There were two doors behind the checkpoint. One led to the Foundation's business office, empty this time of night, and the security center, manned 24/7. The other door was marked executives only, and inside was a third security checkpoint. Behind that was an elevator that went from the third to the sixteenth floor and required retinal and thumbprint scans for access.
Floors three through seven contained research and laboratory facilities, eight through twelve had living quarters, with a kitchen and commissary, as well as recreational facilities. Thirteen through sixteen was reserved for the directors and included a commercial kitchen, spa, private luxury suites, an auditorium and conference rooms. On the top floor there was a large, enclosed formal dining room. The furniture and décor in the communal area's was muted, elegant and expensive. The private suites were furnished to the taste of the occupant. Madame Francesca preferred 16th century Italian furniture, and the prize of her art collection was a 'Venus of Urbino.' Marlene, considered a radical modernist by some of the directors, but not by Madame Francesca, preferred bright airy colors and contemporary furnishings. Her favorite painting was a large Wesselman canvas of a languorous nude.
They got off at the top floor that was guarded by two large dogs and their equally large handlers, and entered the dining room. They greeted fellow directors and guests as they made their way to the main table. Eli Pallette, executive director of the Foundation, rose to greet them. He respectfully kissed Madame Francesca's hand, hugged Marlene, whom he considered his protégé and adored, except for her taste in art. Eli looked about 45 years old, was tall, handsome, powerful looking, with dark hair, features of a warrior, pale-skinned and elegantly dressed. He fancied himself an art connoisseur and collected Impressionist paintings, especially Renoir nudes.
Eli chatted casually with the women for a few minutes, then slowly stood up. His magnetic personality reached everyone in the room and they fell silent.
"I'm honored to welcome Directors and guests to the quarterly meeting of the Board of Directors of the Enhanced Life Foundation. All board members were provided with the quarterly report in advance, so with your consent I'd like to skip the normal agenda and just tell you about our recent accomplishments."
He looked at Madame Francesca, who nodded graciously, obviously pre-arranged. The other directors quickly nodded agreement.
"Thank you. Before I proceed I would like to offer a toast to all of you who are responsible for the success of the Foundation."
Eli signaled an assistant at the door. A moment later, handsome young men and women servers, carrying trays of champagne glasses and packets of blood plasma, entered leading blindfolded hirelings. A special task force recruited young, needy college students who were paid a large fee to participate in what they were told was a religious society's ritual, that of biting the neck and drawing blood. They were picked up at their campus, blindfolded and returned the same way. They never knew where they had been. The servers went to the right of each guest, offering a person or plasma, according to preference. Eli said cheerfully, "To the future."
The older guests stood up and bit the necks of the hirelings, taking several deep gulps of blood, some of them discreetly covered their biting behind spotless white linen napkins. The servers poured plasma into the glasses and the younger group drank with gusto, sending disapproving looks at those they considered crude bloodsuckers. There were a few insolent murmurs about the barbarous mannerisms of the elders. The servers collected the glasses and empty packets, then led the hirelings out. Several youngsters were smirking at the elders and Eli stopped them forcefully. "There will not be any disagreements tonight on the politically correct way to consume blood. That includes impertinent remarks."
"But Eli ..." a foppish youngster started to protest.
Eli stared at him and several other youngsters, until the force of his personality intimidated them. Then he continued quietly, "Now that formalities are over, unless there is some vital business that cannot wait until morning, I'd like to tell you about our plans for the next year, as we continue our efforts to preserve the purity of the blood supply."
Marlene stood up. "I'm sorry to have to bring this up now, but I think this is important."
"I don't know if you read my memo about the threats we've been getting recently ..."
"I recollect seeing it, but it's not on our agenda. Can't it wait until tomorrow?"
"I'm afraid not. This morning we got a letter bomb that was addressed to the laboratory director at our other location. An hour later this letter was shoved under their front door."
"Read it to us please," Eli prompted.
Marlene took the letter from her handbag, looked around the room for a moment to get everyone's attention, then read, "To the degenerate supporters of homosexuals and other deviates. You are indecent sinners and abusers of the Bible."
Some of the youngsters mumbled comments to each other and one of them made the sign of the cross, which made them laugh. The elders shook their heads disapprovingly at them, and Eli quieted them with a glance.
"Please continue," he said.
Marlene nodded thanks, then read: "We will punish you and your disgusting followers. Anyone who encourages the pollution of the pure American blood stock ..."
The same youngsters giggled. One of them stood up and mimed driving a stake through his neighbor's heart. This time Eli glared at them and they sat back quietly.
Then Marlene continued: "... deserves retribution. we know where to find you and the filth you support. Signed, The Righteous Avengers."
"They sound like cranks," Eli remarked.
"That's what I thought, until the incident this morning."
"I'm still not convinced this is a serious problem. We get crank threats regularly. Let's wait and see if they do anything else."
"I disagree, Eli. They sent a bomb. I suggest we either turn it over to the police ..."
Most of the elders shook their heads 'No', and some of the youngsters jumped up and said: "No. No."
"That is not an option," Eli said firmly.
"Then we should develop an action plan immediately and deal with it ourselves."
Madame Francesca slowly stood up and all eyes turned to her. Eli and Marlene bowed respectfully to her.
"Could you be over reacting a bit, my dear?"
"No, Madame Francesca. Someone sent a bomb to our lab. If it went off, besides deaths and destruction, it would have brought the authorities. I don't know what the lunatics will target next. We can't live with this threat."
"I get your point."
Madame Francesca consulted with the board members on either side of her, then told Eli, "We authorize you to take whatever action is necessary to resolve this distasteful situation promptly."
"Yes, Madame Francesca." He turned to Marlene. "I'll meet with you later in my office."
"There's one more problem," Marlene added.
"This is supposed to be a celebration," Eli reminded her.
"I'm sorry, but this may have some relevance to the bomb threat."
"As you know, the Gay Health Alliance has been pressing us harder and harder for more direct involvement in one of our projects."
"I don't see the connection."
"If they have a qualified person who could assist us in an appropriate project, we can satisfy their demands and they'll stop pestering us. We can let him help us with this investigation. You never know, he may be able to go places where we can't."
Some of the youngsters laughed at her suggestion and Eli signaled them to silence. "You know our restrictions about outsiders," he reminded.
"Of course. That's why I brought it up for discussion now."
Once again Madame Francesca consulted with the board members next to her, then told Eli, "Let Marlene interview candidates for participation in a collaborative project. If she finds someone acceptable, she can include him. It might benefit all of us."
"Yes, Madame Francesca," Eli replied.
She smiled graciously and said, "If there is nothing else ..."
She looked at Marlene, who shook her head 'no.'
"Then I'm dreadfully thirsty, Eli. Beverages please."
Eli pressed a button on the dais. The servers came in as they did earlier, bringing beverages and blindfolded hirelings, and took their places on the right of the guests.
After the second round of beverages, everyone was sated and relaxed. They listened politely to Eli's description of future plans without really paying attention. A few minutes later, Madame Francesca said goodnight to everyone and departed. The older directors left shortly after that. The youngsters lingered a while, catching up on the latest news and gossip, then they left for various parties, clubs and other late night entertainment. Eli instructed his assistant to supervise the clean-up, then he and Marlene went to his suite.
Most of the walls were covered by blond oak book shelves that contained history, science and poetry sections. There was no fiction or drama. As well as several Impressionist paintings of nudes, there were landscapes, several by Sisley and Pisarro. The furniture was simple, but comfortable. Eli used one room as his office, which had a Victorian roll-top desk next to a table with the latest computer and communication equipment.
They briefly discussed an action plan to deal with whoever sent the bomb and letter, that would result in elimination of the threateners. Then they reviewed the qualifications of a representative from the Gay Health Alliance.
"You do understand the complications of involving an outsider in our activities?"
"Yes, Eli. I'll select someone who can keep information confidential. If there's any risk of his discovering any of our secrets, I'll eliminate him."
"Good. At all cost our identities and the Foundation must be protected."
"Thank heavens that not all of you youngsters are squeamish."
"You don't have to worry about me," Marlene said reassuringly.
"It's disgraceful that so many of those young fools object to biting humans. The plasma they sip has turned them into sissies. They can't conceive of anything but prosperity. They're soft. How will they ever survive if they can't get plasma and have to hunt again? When I was young nothing felt more exciting than the lust for a soft neck ... Do you ever feel that way?"
"Frequently. That's why I go to the clubs. Nobody ever notices who leaves with who."
"Perhaps you could take me with you one night. I'd like to see how the real youngsters hunt for a living."
"Oh, Eli. We don't always have to be deathly serious."
"You're incorrigible," he said sternly, but a hint of a smile twitched his lips.
He looked at her fondly and didn't conceal the pride and affection he felt for her. They talked about art for a few minutes, he condescendingly about what he called her poor taste in decadent modernism and Pop Art. She informed him that Warhol, Lichtenstein and Wesselman were already considered old masters, and chided him for preferring what she called soft, sedate, pretty pictures, without any fire. As was their usual habit, they agreed to disagree. He escorted her to the door and just before he said goodnight, he reminded her:
"Meet this candidate in your office at the other building."
"Of course, Eli," she said patiently, rolling her eyes.
He held out his hands placatingly. "I know. I know. It's just my protective habit."
"Your thoroughness is one of the many reasons I admire you. Goodnight Eli."
Jacob drove Marlene to one of her favorite clubs, Drift, on Avenue of the Americas, just off Canal Street. She danced for a while, but didn't meet anyone of interest. She wasn't hungry and not in the mood for hunting, so she went home and read for the rest of the night. She was halfway through Tolstoy's War and Peace and made a note to learn Russian, so she could read it in the original. She already knew six languages, and was learning Chinese and Japanese, before she went to the Foundation in the morning. One of the benefits of not sleeping. She was fascinated by how often men destroyed each other in war, and devoured history and fiction in an effort to understand why it happened over and over. Her favorite book was The Red Badge of Courage, which moved her with the struggle of one boy, caught up in the vast maelstrom of war, who had to overcome the shock of discovering fear.