The tradition in the Lessening Society was that once you were inducted, you were known only by the first letter of your last name.

Mr. D should have been known as Mr. R. R as in Roberts. Thing was, the identity he'd been using when he'd been recruited had been Delancy. So Mr. D he had become, and he'd been known by that for the last thirty years.

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Weren't no nevermind, though. Names never did matter none.

Mr. D downshifted as he headed into a turn on Route 22, but going into third didn't help him pull through the curve much. The Ford Focus had getup like a ninety-year-old. Kinda smelt like mothballs and flaky skin, too.

Caldwell, New York's farm alley was a stretch of about fifty miles of cornfields and cow pastures and while he putt-putt -putted through it, he found himself thinking about pitchforks. He'd killed his first person with one. Back in Texas when he was fourteen. His cousin, Big Tommy.

Mr. D had been right proud of himself for getting away with that murder. Being small and appearing defenseless had been the ticket. Good ol' Big Tommy had been a rough-neck, with ham hands and a mean streak, so when Mr. D had run screaming to his mama with a beat-in face, everyone had believed his cuz had been in a killing rage and deserved what he'd got. Hah. Mr. D had tracked Big Tommy into the barn and riled him up but good for to get himself the fat lip and black eye necessary to argue self-defense. Then he'd taken the pitchfork he'd propped up against a stall beforehand and gotten to work.

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He'd just wanted to know what it felt like to kill a human. The cats and the possums and the raccoons he'd trapped and tortured had been okay, but they weren't no human.

The deed was harder to do than he'd thought. In the movies, pitchforks just went right into people like a spoon to soup, but that was a lie. The tines of the thing had got tangled in Big Tommy's ribs so bad to where Mr. D had had to brace his foot on his cousin's hip to get the leverage to yank the fork out. Second thrust had gone into the stomach, but got jammed again. Probably in the spine. More with the foot bracing. By the time Big Tommy stopped baying like a wounded pig, Mr. D was puffing the sweet, hay-dust air of the barn like there was too little of it to go around.

But it hadn't been no total bust. Mr. D had really liked the changing expressions on his cousin's face. First there had been anger, the stuff that got Mr. D hit. Then disbelief. Then horror and terror at the end. As Big Tommy had coughed up blood and gasped, his eyes had peeled with righteous fear, the kind your mama always wanted you to have for the Lord. Mr. D, the runt of the family, the little guy, had felt seven feet tall.

It had been his first taste of power and he'd wanted it again, but the police had come and there been a lot of talk in town and he'd forced himself to be good. A couple of years passed before he did something like that again. Working at a meat-processing plant had done right by his knife skills, and when he was ready, he'd used the Big Tommy kind of setup again: bar fight with a bulldozer of a man. He'd madded up the bastard, then lured him over to a dark corner. A screwdriver, and not the kind you drank, did the job.

Things had been more complicated than with Big Tommy. Once Mr. D had started in on the bulldozer guy, he hadn't been able to stop. And it was harder to pull self-defense out your pocket when the body done been stabbed seven times, dragged out behind a car, and dismembered like a machine that were broke.

Packing the dead guy into some Heftys, Mr. D'd taken his little buddy on a road trip, heading north. He'd used the guy's own Pinto for to make the miles, and when the body started to smell, he'd found what passed for a hill in rural Mississippi, set the car on the incline facing backward, and given the front bumper a push. The trunk with its stinking cargo had gone smack into a tree. The bomb burst had sure been exciting.

After that he'd hitchhiked to Tennessee and then hung around doing odd jobs for room and board. He'd killed two more men before drifting up to North Carolina, where he'd almost been caught in the act.

His targets were always big, beefy assholes. And that was how he'd come to be a lesser. He'd targeted one of the Lessening Society's members, and when he'd nearly killed the guy in spite of his size, the slayer had been so impressed he'd asked Mr. D to join up and go after the vampires.

Seemed like a good deal. Once he'd gotten over the whole good-dog-was-this-for-reals.

After his induction, Mr. D had been stationed in Connecticut, but he'd moved to Caldie about two years ago, when Mr. X, the then-Fore-lesser, had tugged in the Society 's reins a little.

In thirty years, Mr. D hadn't been called by the Omega.

That had changed a couple hours ago.

The summons had come in the form of a dream when he'd been sleeping, and he hadn't needed his mama's manners to get him to RSVP in the yes. But he had to wonder if he was going to live through the night.

Things weren't going so good in the Lessening Society. Not since the prophesied Destroyer had pulled his horse into the barn.

The Destroyer had been a human cop, from what Mr. D had heard. A human cop with vampire blood in him who had been tinkered with by the Omega to real bad results. And, of course, the Black Dagger Brotherhood took the guy on and used him but good. They weren't no dummies.

Because a kill by the Destroyer was not just one less slayer.

If the Destroyer got you, he took the piece of the Omega that was in you and drew it into himself. Instead of the eternal paradise you was promised when you joined the Society, you ended up stuck in that man. And with each slayer what got destroyed, a piece of the Omega was lost forever.

Before, if you fought the Brothers, the worst that could happen was you went to heaven. Now? More often than not you got left half-dead until the Destroyer could come by and inhale you into ash and cheat you out of your rightful eternity.

So things had been right tense lately. The Omega had been nastier than usual, the slayers were prickly from looking over their shoulders, and new membership was at an all-time low because everyone was so worried about saving their own skin that they weren't looking for new blood.

And there had been a lot of turnover of Fore-lessers. Although that had always been the case.

Mr. D hung a right on to RR 149 and went three miles down to the next RR, the sign of which had been flattened, probably by a baseball bat. The winding road was just a footpath frosted with potholes, and he had to slow down or his guts milk-shaked it: The car had suspension like you'd find on a toaster oven. Which weren't none.

One bad thing about the Lessening Society was they gave you POSs to drive.

Bass Pond Lane... he was looking for Bass Pond La¡ª There it was. He wrenched the wheel, stomped the brake, and just made it onto the road.

With no streetlights, he blew right by the shitty, overgrown yard he was looking for and had to throw the clunker into reverse and backpedal. The farmhouse was worse off than the Focus, nothing but a loose-roofed, barely sided rat hole choked with New York State's equivalent of kudzu: poison ivy.

Parking on the road because there was no driveway, Mr. D got out and adjusted his cowboy hat. The house reminded him of back home, what with the tarpaper that showed and the sprung windows and the poorman's lawn of weeds. Hard to believe his fat, housebound mother and his worn-out farmer father weren't in there waiting for him.

They musta passed a while ago, he thought as he walked over. He'd been the youngest of their seven kids, and both had been smokers.

The screen door had almost no screen and a frame that was rusted out. When he opened the thing, it squealed like a stuck pig, squealed like Big Tommy, just like the one back home had. Knocking on the second door didn't get him no answer, so he took off his cowboy hat and pushed into the house, using his hip and his shoulder to bust free the lock.

Inside smelled like cigarette smoke, mold, and death. The first two were stale. The death was fresh, the kind of juicy, fruity stuff that made you want to go out and kill something so you could join the party.

And there was another smell. The lingering sweet scent in the air told him the Omega had been here recently. Either that or another slayer.

With his hat in his hands, he walked through the dark front rooms and into the kitchen in the back. That was where the bodies was. Two of them on their stomachs. He couldn't tell the sex of either because they'd been decapitated and no one was in a dress, but the pools of blood from where their heads should have been mingled, kind of like they was holding hands.

It was real sweet, actually.

He glanced across the room, to the black stain on the wall between the harvest gold fridge and the spindly Formica-topped table. The bomb burst meant a fellow slayer had bit it and bit it hard at the hand of the Omega. Evidently the master had fired another Fore-lesser.

Mr. D stepped over the bodies and cracked the fridge. Lessers didn't eat, but he was curious what the couple had in there. Huh. More memories. There was an open package of Oscar Mayer bologna, and they were almost out of mayo.

Not that they had to worry about making sandwiches no more.

He closed the fridge and leaned back against the¡ª

The temperature in the house dropped by twenty degrees, like someone had cranked a central-air unit on so the dial read, Freeze Your Nuts Off. The wind followed, roughing up the still summer night, gathering in force until the farmhouse groaned.

The Omega.

Mr. D came to attention just as the front door blew open. What came down the hall was an inky mist, fluid and transparent, rolling along the floorboards. It coalesced in front of Mr. D, rising up into a male form.

"Master," Mr. D said as he bowed at the waist and his black blood raced in his veins out of fear and love.

The Omega's voice came from a vast distance and carried an electronic cadence with static. "I am appointing you Fore-lesser."

Mr. D's breath caught. This was the highest honor, the single most powerful position in the Lessening Society. He'd never even hoped for it. And maybe he could actually hang for a spell in the job. "Thank¡ª"

The Omega misted forward and blanketed Mr. D's body like a coating of tar. As pain took the place of every bone in his body, Mr. D felt himself get spun around and pushed face-first into the counter, his hat flying from his hands. The Omega took control, and things happened that Mr. D would never have consented to.

There was no consent in the Society, though. You had only one yes, and that was the one that got you into it. Everything else that came after, you had no control over.

When what seemed like centuries passed, the Omega stepped out of Mr. D's body and clothed himself, a white robe covering him from head to foot. With ladylike elegance, the evil arranged his lapels, his claws having disappeared.

Or maybe they'd just been worn to stubs after all the ripping and tearing.

Weak and leaking, Mr. D sagged against the pitted countertop. He wanted to get dressed, but there wasn't much left of his clothes.

"Events have come to a head," the Omega pronounced. "The incubation is done. It is time now to shed the cocoon."

"Yes, suh." As if there was another answer? "How can I serve you?"

"Your task is to bring this male to me." The Omega extended his hand palm up and an image appeared, hovering in the air.

Mr. D studied the face, anxiety kicking his brain into high gear. For sure, he needed more details than this translucent mug shot. "Where do I find him?"

"He was born here and he lives among the vampires in Caldwell." The Omega's voice was out of a sci-fi movie, echoing with eerie displacement. "He is newly transitioned by but months. They believe him to be their own."

Well, that sure did narrow it down.

"You may marshal the others," the Omega said. "But he must be taken alive. If anyone kills him, you shall be accountable unto me."

The Omega leaned to the side and put his palm to the wallpaper next to the black bomb burst. The image of the civilian imprinted on the stretch of faded yellow flowers, burned there.

The Omega tilted his head and gazed at the image. Then, with a gentle, elegant hand, he caressed the face. "He is special, this one. Find him. Bring him back here. Do this with haste."

The or else didn't have to be said.

As the evil disappeared, Mr. D bent down and picked up his cowboy hat. Fortunately, it hadn't been crushed or stained.

Rubbing his eyes, he counted the ways he was in it up to his buckle. A vampire male somewhere in Caldwell. It was gonna be like looking for a blade of grass in an acre of meadow.

Picking up a paring knife from the counter, he used the thing to cut around the image on the wallpaper. Peeling the sheet off carefully, he studied the face.

Vampires were secretive for two reasons: They didn't want humans interfering none with their race, and they knew that the lessers were after them. They did go out in public, though, especially the newly transitioned males. Aggressive and reckless, the young ones hit the seedier parts of Caldwell's downtown because there were humans to have sex with and fights to get into and all kinds of fun things to snort and drink and smoke.

Downtown. He'd get a squad together and head to the bars downtown. Even if they didn't find the male right away, the vampire community was a small one. Other civilians were bound to know their target, and information gathering was one of Mr. D's strengths.

To heck and gone with truth serum. Give him a claw hammer and a length of chain, and he was a machine with getting a pair of lips to babble.

Mr. D dragged his sorry, too-used body upstairs and took a careful shower in the dead people's shitty bathroom. When he was done, he changed into a pair of overalls and a button-down, which were naturally too big for him. After he rolled up the shirt cuffs and cut three inches off the legs of the pants, he combed his white hair flat to his skull. Before he left the room, he put on some Old Spice from the guy's bureau. The stuff was mostly alcohol, like the bottle had been sitting there for a while, but Mr. D liked to be classy.

Back downstairs, he swung through the kitchen and picked up the strip of wallpaper with the male's face on it. Eating up the features with his eyes, he found himself getting bluetick hound dog excited even though he was still aching all over.

The hunt was on and he knew who else to use. There was a crew of five lessers who he'd worked with on and off during the past couple years. They were good guys. Well, good was probably the wrong word. But he could deal with them, and now that he was Fore-lesser he could give them orders.

On his way out the front door, he tugged his hat into place and tipped the brim to the dead people. "See y'all later."

Qhuinn walked into his father's study in a bad mood, and he sure as hell didn't expect to leave feeling all glowy and shit.

And there you go. The second he entered the room, his father let one side of the Wall Street Journal flop loose so he could press his knuckles to his mouth, then touch each side of his throat. A quick phrase in the Old Language came out in a mutter, then the paper was back up in place.

"Do you need me for the gala," Qhuinn said.

"Didn't one of the doggen tell you?"

"No."

"I told them to tell you."

"So that would be a no, then." Like asking the question in the first place, he pressed for the answer just to be a pain in the ass.

"I don't understand why they didn't tell you." His father uncrossed then recrossed his legs, the crease in his slacks as sharp as the lip on his glass of sherry. "I really only want to have to communicate things once. I don't believe that is too much¡ª"

"You're not going to say it to me, are you?"

"¡ªto ask. I mean, honestly, the job of a servant is self-evident. Their purpose is to serve, and I really don't like repeating myself."

His father's free foot tapped at the air. His tasseled loafers were, as always, by Cole Haan: pricey, but no more showy than an aristocratic whisper.

Qhuinn looked down at his New Rocks. The treaded soles were two inches thick at the ball of his foot and three inches at his heel. The black leather went up to the base of his calves and was crisscrossed by laces and three boss chrome buckles.

Back when he'd been getting an allowance,before his change hadn't cured his defect, he'd saved up for months to get these mean-ass motherfucking shitkickers, and he'd bought them as soon as he could after his change. They were his prezzie to himself for living through his transition, because he knew better than to expect anything from the parents.

His father's eyes had nearly popped out of his establishment skull when Qhuinn had worn them to First Meal.

"Was there something else," his father said from behind the WSJ.

"Nah. I'll get good and ghost. Don't you worry."

God knew he'd done it before at official functions, although really, who were they kidding? The glymera was fully aware of him and his little "problem," and those cobassed snobs were like elephants. They never forgot.

"By the way, your cousin Lash has a new job," his father murmured. "At Havers's clinic. Lash fancies becoming a doctor and is interning after his classes." The newspaper flipped around and his father's face briefly appeared... which was a curious killer, because Qhuinn caught the wistful cast to his old man's eyes. "Lash is such a source of pride for his father. A worthy successor to the family mantle."

Qhuinn glanced at his father's left hand. On the forefinger, taking up all the space beneath the big knuckle, was a solid gold ring bearing the family's crest.

All the young males from the aristocracy got one after they went through their transitions, and Qhuinn's best friends both had theirs. Blay wore his all the time except when fighting or out downtown, and John Matthew had been given one, although he didn't put it on. They weren't the only ones with the flashy paperweights, either. In their training class at the Brotherhood's compound, one by one the trainees were going through the change and showing up with a signet ring on their finger.

Family crest pressed into ten ounces of gold: five thousand dollars.

Getting it from your father when you became a true male: priceless.

Qhuinn's transition had occurred about five months ago. He'd stopped waiting for his ring four months, three weeks, six days, and two hours ago.

Roughly.

Man, in spite of the friction between him and his dad, he'd never thought he wouldn't get one. But surprise! New way to feel out of the fold.

There was another rustle of the paper and this one was impatient, as if his father were shooing a fly away from his hamburger. Although, of course, he didn't eat hamburgers, because they were too common.

"I'm going to have to talk to that doggen," his father said.

Qhuinn shut the door on his way out, and when he turned to go down the hall, he nearly bumped into a doggen who was coming from the library next door. The uniformed maid leaped back, kissed her knuckles, and tapped the veins running up her throat.

As she scampered off, muttering the same phrase his father had, Qhuinn stepped up to an antique mirror that hung on the silk-covered wall. Even with the ripples in the leaded glass and the blackened flecks where the reflective part had flaked off, his problem was obvious.

His mother had gray eyes. His father had gray eyes. His brother and sister had gray eyes.

Qhuinn had one blue eye and one green eye.

Now, there were blue and green eyes in the bloodline, of course. Just not one of each in the same person, and what do you know, deviation was not divine. The aristocracy refused to deal with defects, and Qhuinn's folks were not only firmly entrenched in the glymera, as both were from the six founding families, but his father had even been leahdyre of the Princeps Council.

Everyone had hoped his transition would cure the problem, and either blue or green would have been acceptable. Yeah, well, denied. Qhuinn came out of his change with a big body and a pair of fangs and a craving for sex... and one blue eye and one green eye.

What a night. It had been the first and only time his father had lost it. The first and only time Qhuinn had ever been struck. And since then, no one in the family or on the staff had met his stare.

As he headed out for the night, he didn't bother to say good-bye to his mother. Or to his older brother or sister.

He'd been sidelined in this family since the moment of his birth, set apart from them, benched by some kind of genetic injury. The only saving grace to his pitiable existence, according to the race's value system, was the fact that there were two healthy, normal young in the family, and that the oldest male, his brother, was considered acceptable for breeding.

Qhuinn always thought his parents should have stopped at two, that to try for three healthy children was too much of a gamble with fate. He couldn't change the hand that had been dealt, though. Couldn't stop himself from wishing things were different, either.

Couldn't keep from caring.

Even though the gala would just be a bunch of stuffy types wearing gowns and penguin suits, he wanted to be with his family during the glymera's big end-of-summer ball. He wanted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother and be counted for once in his life. He wanted to dress up like everyone else and wear his gold ring and maybe dance with some of the high-bred, unmated females. In the glittering crowd of the aristocracy, he wanted to be acknowledged as a citizen, as one among them, as a male, not a genetic embarrassment.

Not going to happen. As far as the glymera were concerned, he was less than an animal, no more suitable for sex than a dog.

Only thing missing was a collar, he thought, as he dematerialized to Blay's.

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