The air of downtown Tel Aviv was one of the several things that made Rachel thankful that she was dead. The atmosphere of that city had a foul tang that took centuries to accumulate. The smell of every human emotion, transit methods that ranged from donkey-back to Mercedes Benz, cordite and grime, saturated the air and sank into every surface, old or new The only exception that Rachel could think of was Los Angeles in the summer of 1982.
Even inside, there was scant relief. Almost no buildings had air-conditioning, and certainly not the tiny restaurant that Rachel occupied. She had to admit that she had been spoiled in California, with it's almost constantly controlled environment.
She pushed such irrelevant thoughts out of her mind and tried to focus. She was more occupied by wondering if she was going to be alive by dawn.
It never fails, she berated herself. Go in to solve a few favors, and promptly tread on the toes of somebody more powerful. I really hope-
Rachelís thoughts ceased with the entrance of a new customer. He was a swarthy middle-aged man, with features as familiar to her as her long-dead fatherís. He made unerringly for Rachelís table. She, herself, was garbed as a redheaded French journalist, dangling press tags and all, and it always unnerved her when anybody could see directly through her disguises - even this man. Still, she was slightly relieved that it was he was the one to meet her, and not another.
"Yv-" he paused. "Sarah." he greeted her, sitting down and waving away the establishmentís sole waiter. "Youíre looking well." he commented in Arabic.
Rachel nodded curtly, said nothing. She deliberately placed her empty hands upon the tabletop and noticed her companionís scant nod. Feigning nonchalance, she rested her chin upon an upraised hand. "Thanks." she finally replied, even managing to smile. "Itís good to see you, Mahmoud."
Her sire frowned. "Is it really?" Rachelís actions of the past few months, particularly related to the death of Min híAllah, had caused some questions to be asked, questions that she had perhaps not answered adequately.
Rachel blinked in surprise, tried to swallow a moment of fear. "Of course it is." she said quickly.
Mahmoud spoke slowly. "Then why did you fail to call us when you came into this area? Imagine our surprise at seeing Sarah Johnson on the airport logs..."
Rachel considered her words carefully, and decided upon the truth. "Iím sorry." she apologized. "I blundered. Iím not here on clan business-"
"All your business is clan business." Mahmoud disapproved. "That is how it should be.".
Another benefit of death - no blushing. Rachel stared at the tabletop and managed to look apologetic. It wasnít too difficult.
"Iím sorry." she repeated. "Things have changed so quickly..."
"I know they have." Mahmoud said gravely. "But you must remember that we come first."
"You do!" Rachel insisted, glancing at him and hoping he believed.
"Then how did you manage to forget us, eh?" the rebuke was soft, but wounding.
Rachel was torn between contrition and anger. "Iím not even here on kafir business." she snapped. "Iím taking care of a debt I owe one of my human contacts."
"Really?" Mahmoudís tone was dry. "And who would that be?"
Rachel frowned, not liking the accusatory undertone. Again, she hoped the truth would suffice. "Farrar, an Englishman Iíve been cultivating."
"Yes, I remember him." Mahmoud nodded. "So how does that put you in Israel?" he asked.
"Iím getting to that." Rachelís voice was tight. Mahmoud stiffened but said nothing. He found his childeís anger more reassuring than contrition. He was patronizing her, and she should find it rankling, anything else would be suspicious. "Thereís a man in Mossad whoís been keeping Farrar briefed on their affairs - unofficially, of course. That agent has gotten himself into trouble, and, because I owe Farrar a large favor, Iíve been asked to help this agent out - and keep his position intact, if possible."
"How large a favor?" Mahmoud was curious. Yvette - Sarah - usually kept her contacts in her debt.
Rachel sighed ruefully. "Quite large. I was accused of doing some dirty work against his people recently. It was cleared up, eventually, but not before he got singed. I owe him for sticking by me during that." Rachel concluded quickly.
Mahmoud approved of that sentiment, and believed she was telling the truth, but also believed that there was more going on that she had not told him about. "Who is the man who you need to save?"
"Josiah Benjamin." Rachel shrugged.
Mahmoud quickly reviewed the list of people he cared about in this city. It was a very short list. "I donít know of him. What do you intend to do?"
"Salvage what I can." Rachel sighed, wisely choosing not to inquire about her Sireís curiosity. "Benjamin made a mistake, a stupid one. I think I can move him sideways and ensure that his replacement is palatable to Farrar. Making it palatable to Benjaminís boss may be a little more difficult."
"Can you do it?"
"Yes, of course." Rachel resented the doubting question. "I wouldnít try otherwise."
That statement needed deflating. "I seem to recall youíre being confident of other things, recently, with less success."
Rachel glared at the tabletop. "And I recall being punished for that mistake. Am I still on probation?"
"Sarah," Mahmoud kept his voice as gentle as possible, aware that what he was about to say would sting. "you're always on probation."
Rachel winced. That was a truth she didn't care to be reminded of. She didn't even try to console herself with thoughts of her true alliances, lest that pride seep through and give her away. Instead, she clenched her jaw and nodded briefly. "Of course."
There was a long pause. Mahmoud waited patiently for Rachel to break it, as he believed she would.
"I...I forget that sometimes." Rachel admitted, her voice barely audible.
"That's what I thought." Mahmoud decided to match admission with admission.
Rachel summoned every ounce of effort she had to maintain her outward calm. This discussion was evoking issues that she had been trying to avoid. But she couldn't stop now, it would only provoke Mahmoud further.
"I've been so far away from you, from the clan." Rachel sighed. "And playing my part is so consuming...I feel like one moment I have the monster on a leash, and the next...I'm the one who's tethered."
Rachel's sire nodded. She's been away for too long, he realized. And there are things that she has not told us about. What would she want to hide from us? Mahmoud considered the possibilities and was surprised at the number of factors. Maybe I have allowed some things to go beneath my notice. Important things. He reluctantly decided.
"Yvette." Mahmoud ignored Rachel's annoyance at this use of her name. "Don't forget that we can support you. I know we're...distant most of the time - we have to be - but if you're starting to feel that events are overtaking you -" As soon as he said that, he realized it was the wrong thing.
"I'm not being overwhelmed." Rachel snapped, drawing away from him. "I'm just...crowded. I've been forced to take a very public position within that court, and it's requiring more adjustment than I expected." She paused and waited for her Sire to berate her. He didn't. Instead, he considered her words in silence. Rachel sighed. "It's my own fault. I haven't been challenged in a while. I've become complacent."
Now, that is likely. Those who are used to success become unused to failure. Mahmoud thought. What can I do to counter this? He filed the question away for consideration in the near future. "Alright." He soothed. "But if you need me, or even if you don't, I can't know that when you don't keep in touch."
Rachel smiled wryly. "Back to that, is it?"
"Of course." Mahmoud could feel the tension ease, and made a note of that, also. "Iím glad I know what youíre up to, now. But you must check in with us before you leave, alright?"
Rachel nodded, stunned that she had gotten away with only a mild scolding. "That shouldn't be for a couple more days."
"Good, good. You know where to reach us." Mahmoud's departure was as abrupt as his arrival, and he did not hear Rachel's muttered response.
FIVE WEEKS LATER.
The slums of Cairo are the most dynamic part of that city. They are the only neighborhood that has never slowed its growth, not even when aluminum-sided shanties came within a mile of the unprotesting Sphinx. Cairoís slum, like any other urban region, has its own micro-neighborhoods, some better than others. A sprawling structure, a construction of cinderblock and mud in one of the worse neighborhoods, concealed several dark rooms that were adequate for the eveningís meeting of several members of the Assamite clan.
Mahmoud Levant regarded his companions and tried to pick the best of a rapidly withering sheaf of arguments. Their discussion had already spanned several days, and he knew that such extensions could only be bad for the subject of their debate, his childe, Yvette Collier. The five others in the room, the investigation panel who would decide the fate of Mahmoudís childe, waited patiently.
"It seems that Raviq was correct about Yvetteís...evasion." He said, finally. That's a start, begin with modestly admitting your opponent has won a point. "And we need to decide our course of action."
"What is there to decide?" Mahmoud's detractor, Raviq Isaiah, asked. "Her security has been compromised, kill her."
Mahmoud resisted the temptation to snap angrily. The elders of the Assamite clan had learned to respect each other's tempers and moods. Raviq was a man who's victories were so rare, that he would cling to those he got with a stubborn vigor.
"And it could be re-established by restoring the Bond. She admitted, freely, that it had been broken, and that she did not know how. And you know she was telling the truth."
"Why should we go to that trouble?" Raviq interrupted. "How do we know that this mysterious group she began to tell us of won't simply break it again?"
Mahmoud nodded. "A valid concern. Which is why I was going to suggest," Raviq had the grace to scowl at this observation of his lack of courtesy. "that we reinforce the Bond with conditioning. Extensive conditioning. They may break the Bond - but not if we are more vigilante than we have been in the past. Perhaps Yvetteís freedom has been a little too great." Not that anyone here will ever admit to a mistake. "She has been a valuable spy and she is highly placed within the court she frequents. I think that rehabilitating her will be more productive than destroying her.
Raviqís expression was flinty. He had definitely appointed himself the voice of the prosecution. "I'm also worried - as if the breaking of Collier's thralldom isn't worrying enough - " Raviq continued. "By her mental state." he turned to face another of his companions, an apparently young Israeli man. "Mark, you've been talking to her. Please share your opinion with us."
Mahmoud tried not to look too concerned. Mark Rigsby was a man whose young appearance belied decades of experience with agitprop and psychology on the individual and mass level. He was an expert on judging state of mind, and his opinion could be the deciding factor. Mahmoud was sure he didn't like the smug undertone to Raviq's request - he must have a reason for it.
Mark, hair tangled an as obviously fatigued as an undead being could be, glanced at his notes and began speaking. His voice was quiet, but firmly confident. "It seems that Collier has been the victim of the manipulations of several people, starting with that of Paul Viersan - who's acquaintance with her predates our own - and most recently, that of her husband, Cassius Ionitus."
Mahmoud tried not to pull a face at the mention of that name. He had some very firm opinions of this so-called Ďegalitarianí prince, before Cassius had even met Yvette. This was not the time to let that opinion be known.
"Lately," Mark continued. "Yvette has doubted the validity of her servitude to the clan. This may seem like a major obstacle, but itís not. Yvette is a woman looking for a cause. We were once that cause, and part of her current disquiet is caused by the fact that she still craves our approval, but that craving is being overshadowed by a growing resentment of our apparent lack of appreciation of her decades of work."
Raviq made a derisive noise at that, and Mahmoud almost agreed with him - for the first time. So Yvette felt unappreciated, so what? Mahmoud thought. Her first concern used to be the Haqqim, not her ego.
"Re-establishing us as her primary concern and removing that resentment would be quite easy." Mark stated, to Mahmoudís internal relief. "It would also be the ideal time to counter some of the damage that has been done to her psyche, which will, in turn, help restore her to her former levels of productivity and loyalty."
Raviq did not look happy, Mahmoud was pleased to note. Obviously, that was not what he wanted to hear. Mahmoud was also glad that he had reminded Mark of a years-old favor that he owed to Yvette's sire, shortly before this meeting convened. Mark's initial opinion was that Yvette was probably beyond salvaging, but he could not deny the debt he owed.
The meeting's moderator, an elder Silsila named Jabir Ibn Haiyan, regarded first Mahmoud and then Raviq carefully. He was quite aware of the passions of both sides, and of the need to keep peace between them. "So the question remains; should we attempt to rehabilitate Yvette Collier to continue taking advantage of her connection to the Alameda Camarilla, or minimize our losses and destroy her? Both courses have advantages and disadvantages, of course. Mahmoud, what do you think is best for the Haqqim?"
Mahmoud was irritated that Jabir felt the need to remind him of the greater needs of the clan, but he had anticipated this question. "I understand that some may think that the cost and risks of rehabilitation of my childe are prohibitive," Mahmoud didn't even glance at Raviq. "But are our spies so common that we can throw them away at the first mishap? Yvette has been a superb servant since her Embrace -" Mahmoud heard Raviq mutter something. It sounded unflattering.
"Whatís that Raviq?" Mahmoud asked with exaggerated politeness. It was a tone that warned of great unpleasantness for the one it was directed towards.
In return, Raviq gave an equally smothered apology and indicated that Mahmoud could continue. Mahmoud took a moment to register, and then ignore the insult and to regain his thoughts. He continued: "...and I think that we can easily overcome the events of the past few months. I'm not a doctor of the mind, but I believe that Yvette will be glad of rehabilitation - even without being told to be."
There was a long pause while Raviq regarded Mahmoud carefully, obviously contemplating his next move. Mahmoud returned the stare, uncaring of the rising tension. That tension finally broke as Raviq glanced away and moved onto another part of the conflict. "What about this group that Cassius is supposedly a part of? Who are they, if they even exist?"
Mark interrupted Mahmoud's answer with a quick gesture of apology. "I'm almost certain this group does exist. I've spoken to Yvette since herľfainting spell, and they, whoever they are, they felt the need to place a significant trap into her memory. She now claims no knowledge of any secret alliances of her husband - even under, ah, intense questioning." Mark had the tact not to look at Mahmoud as he said that. They both knew how intense such questioning could be.
"She is convinced that we are trying to suggest that he is a member of the Sabbat and she vehemently, and truthfully, denies that. She is convinced that her husband is an erratic member of the Camarilla with a heart that is perhaps too soft for his own good - whereas previously, she was stating the truth when she warned us that he was part of a society that she considered more intimidating than even us."
Mahmoud spoke before Raviq could interrupt. "And while that may not seem to have any immediate bearing on the cost of keeping Yvette as a spy, I think it does. We need to learn more about this group that has subverted a Prince, and if Yvette is our only way in, then we should use it."
"Or they'll use her against us." Raviq countered.
"All the more reason to thoroughly bind her to us while we have this chance, and subvert this group, then." Mahmoud responded quickly. "And this is also an opportunity to...adjust Cassius' influence over Yvette." There was a long silence at that. The assembled knew he was referring to the strange dynamic that had developed between their chosen spy and her new husband.
Finally: "So, Mahmoud, you want us to go the efforts of rehabilitating her, with no assurance of success, and with a great deal to lose if we fail?" Raviq asked, barely polite.
Mahmoud resisted the urge to bristle. I donít like your tone, Raviq. I havenít liked it all night. It sounds like this is a personal matter for you. Is it? He wondered. I think it is... "The risks aren't as high as you might think. Yes, Yvette has confided in Cassius about her work for us, but notice that he has been protecting her even since then. His love - or whatever you want to call it - for her has given him a vested interest in her safety. He is not going to betray her, because if her true nature is discovered, not only will she die, his own life will be forfeited as an accessory to her crimes. Furthermore, using her against her husband will be much easier following any re-indoctrination we subject her to." That point, at least, could not be argued.
There was an extended silence, which pleased Mahmoud greatly. It meant that no-one else had yet closed their mind on this issue, as Raviq had.
Finally, Jabir glanced at the watch on his wrist. "Itís getting late. I suggest we adjourn for the evening. We can continue this tomorrow."
Mahmoud stifled a sigh of relief. He had counted on Jabirís keeping the meeting short - to minimize the conflict between himself and Raviq - to buy him so time. His suspicion that Raviqís negative inclination was personally motivated was growing. Raviqís snappish behavior and muttered comment had confirmed that. The remainder of the night could be used to investigate that fact and, with luck, perhaps break Raviq on their next meeting.
They reconvened the next evening, all six of them. The Cairo air tasted no more filthy than usual and certainly no fouler than that within the meeting room. Raviqís incriminations began almost immediately.
"The fact is that she has proven too weak for her duties. When a beast of burden grows too old to carry its load, you destroy it." Raviq argued, heat finally creeping into his voice.
Mahmoud gave a small nod and for one wild moment, Raviq thought he had convinced his opponent and won. However, Mahmoud instead looked to the meetingís moderator and said, "If you could give me a few moments, Haiyan, I would like to establish a few facts."
Jabir Ibn Haiyan thought for a moment. He could sense that Mahmoud was almost excited about something. It would have to be quite significant to save Collier, he thought. Finally, he nodded his approval.
Mahmoud chose to address his initial remarks to Haiyan, as he should. "Yvette Collier is my childe, correct?" Haiyan nodded and wondered what structure Mahmoud hoped to build on such a basic foundation. "And I am of the Haqqim, the blood of Hassan is in my veins - as it is in all of us here. That cannot be argued."
"Granted." the moderator agreed.
"So Yvetteís ancestry cannot be questioned. She may be called Caitiff, but she is, in fact, one of the Haqqim, trained in our ways, but in the supremely fortunate position of being unaffected by our curse."
"A thin-blooded mongrel cannot-" Raviq burst out, suspecting where Mahmoud was leading.
Mahmoud calmly turned towards Raviq. "Thin-blooded? Hardly, unless you would like to call me that, Raviq Isaiah?"
The following silence was thick, and Raviq realized that he could not continue his outburst without insulting Mahmoud Levant, one who should not be insulted lightly. "Of course not." Raviq replied with some semblance of grace. "Please go on." he added, reluctantly.
Mahmoud continued without acknowledging Raviq. "In fact, Yvetteís existence as a..." Mahmoud frowned slightly. "I hate to use the kafir term for her state. Let us say that Yvetteís lineage and immunity to our curse has caused much debate for the scholars who are striving to break the curse." Mahmoud let that sink in. It was something everyone in that room knew, but they needed to be reminded. If nothing else, Yvette had value as a specimen and that alone could be used to grant her continued existence, albeit and an unpleasant one. "But that is a matter for another day. My point is, is that Yvette is of the Haqqim, even if we donít care to be told."
There were assorted nods around the room, and varying degrees of the thought Why does he need to tell us this?
Mahmoud suddenly faced the man he had been ignoring thus far. "Raviq, you have a childe, donít you?"
Raviq regarded Mahmoud with deep suspicion. "Yes, Joseph ben- Isaiah, as you know."
Mahmoud smiled coldly and Haiyan noticed that this was a gesture that his childe would sometimes imitate - smiling like a jackal. "Yes, and he, in turn, has a childe, Michael ben Joseph- Isaiah. Flattering that he chose to keep your name." Mahmoud murmured, causing Raviq to scowl darkly for a moment. He must know where Iím leading now. "And then Michael was given permission to bring someone into our ranks, Ibrahim was his name, wasnít it?
Raviq nodded curtly. Now he knew, and there was little he could do to stop this, not without losing some dignity.
"But he broke tradition and took on a rather evocative nom-de-guerre, Ibrahim Min híAllah, didnít he?" Mahmoud asked, his tone as light as one who was asking the time.
Again, Raviq could only nod. He could sense the sudden change in the room as that fact was assimilated. The two lesser members of this panel may not know that name, but Raviq, Mahmoud and now Haiyan knew where this was leading.
"If you are trying-" Raviq blurted.
Mahmoud raised a hand. "Iím not done." his voice was flat, now, no longer wheedling.
Raviq bit back his protest and, instead, used the next few moments to marshal his thoughts.
"I wonít bore this assemblage with the details, they are all in the recent files, but just to remind everyone, Yvette, under her guise of Rachel DuNoir, was charged with complicity in the death of Raviqís great-grandchilde. And she was cleared of those charges."
That was too much. "She was not cleared." Raviq burst out angrily. "Her chatter-"
Mahmoud needed to stop Raviq, and could not wait for the moderator. "She was punished, for her one inadvertent remark that might have been a factor in the matter. But it was the conclusion of the independent investigator that the cause of Min híAllahís death was his determination to kill Eric Rose within his own chantry - a building saturated with magical defenses." Raviq seemed about to speak, but decided against it. "And, if I may remind you, Raviq, it was also noted that Min híAllah would not have been able to even enter that building without information given to him by Yvette." Mahmoud paused for a moment, and then continued. "Once again, Yvette Collier is under investigation and, once again, Raviq Isaiah has managed to procure himself a place upon the investigating panel. I wonder if-"
"How dare you!" Raviq was now standing, anger forcing him to rise.
"How dare I what? Please let me finish." Mahmoud said mildly. "How dare I wonder if you are arguing for Yvetteís death for reasons that are not borne of the needs of the clan, but for your own personal reasons?"
"Just as you are." Raviq replied, his voice thick with restrained fury.
"Ah, but I was asked here, as the party who could best argue for Yvette Collierís defense, and, as her sire, I am not allowed to join you in deciding what will happen to her. You are supposed to be making your decision based upon the needs of the Haqqim." Mahmoud decided it was time to corner this annoyance. He moved a little closer to Raviq.
"Can you give us your word that your motives for being a part of this investigation, for the stance you have taken, are entirely borne of what you think is best for the clan?" Mahmoudís voice rose, the anger seeping in. "Can you give us your solemn word that you do not harbor an atom of personal malice towards Yvette Collier and that you, like her inquisitors, have forgiven her her part, however minute, in the death of your childeís grandchilde?"
Raviq glared at his opponent, and Mahmoud knew he had him. Such a promise was the most serious vow an Assamite could make, and to lie in this situation could result in a reduction of rank or even death. A vampireís word was his bond. They all knew this, even Raviq, and Raviq knew that he could not say that he had completely forgiven the death of one of his line. Such a thing was hard to forgive, especially when convinced that the murderer still walked free.
The angry silence continued. Finally, Haiyan had to break it. "Raviq?" he asked quietly. "Levant is right. You are on this panel as an investigator, not an avenger."
Privately, Haiyan was not surprised by any personal motive of Raviqís, but it was something that he should have admitted at the outset - not let Mahmoud turn it into a weapon. That was a stupid mistake.
Raviq broke away from Mahmoudís glare. "I cannot say that my arguments against Mahmoudís childe havenít had perhaps some personal reason." he admitted. "But I am trying to argue what is best for the clan. Mahmoud has con-"
"Thatís enough." Mahmoud interrupted. "Thatís all I need from you."
Jabir Ibn Haiyan shot a warning glance at Mahmoud, as he was pushing his luck. Mahmoud ignored it. "I have taken the liberty of meeting Mark, Sallah and Fayed," Mahmoud indicated his fellows with a quick gesture "earlier this evening. They are all in agreement that rehabilitating Yvette is worth the effort." That took some severe bullying. Mahmoud didnít add, and I will no doubt pay for it, later. "The only dissenting voice is Raviqís personal one."
Haiyan regarded the others. "Is this true?" he asked. "Your recommendation is to keep her alive?" they nodded. Haiyan noticed those who were more reluctant than others and made a note of it. "To take the course that Rigsby and Levant suggest?" again, another round of confirmation. Haiyan thought for a long moment, glancing obliquely at the fuming personage of Raviq. "Alright, then. If that is the majority view... Then we shall follow the recommended course." The assembled pretended to ignore Raviqís muttered curse. "Mark, Mahmoud, I shall need to meet with you privately, and we can discuss how it is to be done..."