About an hour later, the vampires he was waiting for arrived. There was an immediate spike in tension among the humans in the unit. However, Angel, Derrick, and Gunnar, who had worked with the vampires before, offered their fanged teammates a friendly greeting. Full trust would take time to build, and everyone was still getting to know one another.
It didn’t help that the stockiest of Alex’s guards looked every inch the killing machine he was. The man was built like a heavyweight champion. Thick strands of dark-bronze hair fell across his forehead and brought attention to his gray-blue eyes. His Roman nose and rough features suited him, though his full mouth was a surprise—a touch of the sensual in an otherwise no-nonsense face.
“I’m Istvan.” The guy made the introduction starkly and offered a firm handshake.
Wess accepted and was glad when he didn’t get his fingers mashed. Apparently Istvan had nice manners.
Natalia was equally blunt in her own way. “Hello. I understand you requested me.”
“Yes, I did.” He looked her over.
The scientist was dressed in dark-gray slacks and a blue collared shirt with sleeves that ended right below her elbows. She had her mousy brown hair pulled back into a tight bun—not a strand out of place or a single bang to get in her eyes. That couldn’t be an easy trick since he could see her hair was naturally curly. While her eyebrows were on the fuller side, her lips were a tad thin, at least when she compressed them into a serious line like she was doing now. All that was missing to complete her image was a white lab coat. He wondered what it would take to ruffle a woman like her.
“Thanks for coming,” he said. “I’d like to discuss some things in private with you, but first let me get everyone settled.”
Wess turned to look for Angel and Gunnar and discovered Faust had already made his way over to the pair. The vampire said something that made Angel laugh.
“Is he flirting on the job?”
“It would appear so,” Natalia said, straight-faced. “Faust can be a smooth talker when he wants to be, and given his nickname, he probably thinks it’s funny to make a deal with an Angel. Do you have rules against fraternizing within the unit?”
“Not yet. Do you think that would do any good?”
“Not likely,” Istvan answered. “The vampires in our house do not refrain, but it has not become a problem. Those who pair up gain the advantage of having a drinking partner.”
For a vampire, a drinking partner was either a human he made his permanent lover and donor or another vampire with whom he regularly exchanged blood. Since the Human Rebellion had started tainting the blood supply, Wess could see why such a relationship would be an advantage. The only alternative was for a vampire to drink bagged blood, since it went through a rigorous screening process. Those vampires who shared blood occasionally had to augment their diet with the bagged stuff, but at least the arrangement cut down on their trips to the fridge.
“I’ll leave it alone for now, but only if no one complains.” Wess called Gunnar over to him. “Istvan, you go with Gunnar to the gym. We’ve only had time to throw down a few mats, so the space is crude, but it will do the trick. I want the two of you to work out a training program—a way to integrate human and vampire tactics and fighting styles. We need to operate as a cohesive unit instead of winging it every time we face a threat. Think you can do that?”
“Of course.” Istvan sounded confident.
Although Gunnar looked a little wary of the vampire, he voiced his agreement. “Come with me. I’ll show you around.”
The two walked off, leaving Wess alone with Natalia.
“I have a private office,” he told her. “This way.”
He led her into what had once been the old mill office and offered her a seat across from his desk. The furniture was beat-up but durable and made him feel like he was starring in an old private-eye movie.
“I wasn’t sure if Lucas would be willing to spare you,” he admitted. “I guess you’re not in the middle of some big project right now.”
“I’m always working,” she informed him. “As a vampiress, I just happen to have more time than some.”
Wess blinked at her for a moment. He never would have guessed that Natalia had a sense of humor, not even the droll one her last sentence implied.
“Well, I’m glad you can spare some of that time. While I wasn’t involved with the Rebel scientists, I got used to being a part of an organization that had them at its disposal. They were constantly researching new weapons and means of defense. You seem to do the same for Lucas.”
“When necessary.” Her tone let him know she wasn’t about to share the details of what she did for her master.
Her discretion only bolstered his conviction that she was the one he needed.
He met her gaze, taking note for the first time of how richly brown her irises were. “I’m hoping you’ll give the CRU a hand with research and development. For starters, I’d like to know more about whatever acid you tossed at Taspar’s soldier during the battle in Charlotte.”
The bloodsucker had been rushing right at him and Natalia when the vampiress had thrown something in the man’s face. Whatever she’d used on the guy, he’d hit the ground screaming and had clutched at his eyes until blood stained his fingers.
“Vitriol attacks are hardly new,” she informed him, “and even medieval alchemists played around with acid.”
He refused to be derailed by the history lesson. “That might be true, but I remember you saying that whatever you used was experimental. You said you wanted to see how it worked.”
Her lips parted—a subtle show of surprise that drew his attention to her mouth. He didn’t know why he’d thought her lips were thin. They plumped into a dainty bow when she relaxed them.
“You have a good memory.” Her opinion of him obviously improved. “To answer your question, I used sulfuric acid as the primary ingredient. It is hygroscopic and has strong dehydrating properties in addition to its corrosiveness. The acid destroys living tissue on contact through hydrolysis in a manner not dissimilar from the human digestion of food. Then dehydration causes secondary burns to add to the damage. It’s what you might call a one-two punch. The resulting thermal burns can—” She stopped and cocked her head. “Why are you smiling at me?”
“Maybe I like the way you talk,” he teased her.
Those lips of hers curved up at the corners. “Are you referring to my vocabulary or the way I describe flesh-eating chemicals?”
“Mostly your vocabulary,” he said with a chuckle. “Although I get the feeling you have a macabre sense of humor.”
“Many vampires do.”
Wess shouldn’t have forgotten for a second that he was talking to a vampire, but he had. Hanging out with so many people with fangs must be wearing off on him. At least now he saw them as just that: people
He laced his fingers behind his head and settled back in his chair. “Why don’t you take it down a notch and only give me the broad strokes? I get that sulfuric acid can melt a man’s face, but wouldn’t a vampire heal too quickly for it to be effective?”
“We heal from bullet wounds too,” she pointed out. “That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt or slow us down. The acid not only decomposes skin, fat, and flesh but can even dissolve cartilage and bone. Used against a vampire, its initial capacity to blind is its primary effectiveness. Damage to the nose and mouth and inhalation of the acid vapors can also restrict breathing. While a vampire won’t suffocate to death, we do need oxygen for our brains and muscles to function properly. The dehydration caused by sulfuric acid may also slow a vampire’s natural ability to heal. What I used was experimental because I added a strong topical anticoagulant similar to heparin. An anticoagulant is—”
“Something that keeps a person’s blood from clotting,” he said. “So you hoped to burn the bloodsucker and bleed him out at the same time.”
“Not bleed him out, per se, but keep him from healing as fast. You wouldn’t want his eyesight clearing before you could take his head, now, would you?”
“I basically borrowed the idea from human bombers,” she said. “Historically, most began building homemade bombs to fight against vampires, at least until they strayed from that purpose and started using the weapons on their fellow humans. It makes you wonder which group is more vicious. Many such bombers mixed rat poison with their shrapnel in order to cause their targets to bleed out from their wounds. I wasn’t sure how effective the added anticoagulant might be in the case of the acid, but it made sense to impede the accelerated healing ability that we vampires are blessed with.”
Wess had already seen her weapon work, so he only had one question. “Can you make more of that acid brew? Enough to arm my unit?”
“Not a good idea,” she told him flatly.
The unexpected response made him frown. “Why?”
“Your people are as apt to hurt themselves as they are the enemy.” She held up a hand when he would have protested. “I’m not insulting their skills, only pointing out that humans are more fragile than we are. We’re talking about a highly dangerous and corrosive substance. To be safe, they would need to wear protective gear and have a neutralizing agent on hand. Even then, it would be hazardous. Bad aim, a burst of wind, or a vampire with fast reflexes could cause the acid to splash back on the person wielding it. It’s too risky.”
“Yeah, and a bullet can ricochet back at you or hit an unintended target,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop carrying guns.”
“It’s not the same. A stiff breeze isn’t going to shove your bullet back through your face after you fire it.”
He saw her point, but he still thought the chemical weapon was worth pursuing. “What about if you put the acid in aerosol form so that we could use it like pepper spray?”
“I’d tell you to use the pepper spray instead,” she said smartly. “Vampires are no more immune to it than humans are. In fact, with our enhanced senses, we should find it even more irritating. It’s the same principle behind our using tear gas on the underground tunnels in our attempt to flush out Taspar’s men.”
“We all know how that worked out.” Wess wasn’t sure why he said it, except he wanted to see if he could get Natalia riled.
Her dainty nostrils flared ever so slightly, but her tone remained calm. “The tear gas did as predicted. Taspar’s men didn’t. If his army had been present in the underground storm drains at the time we gassed them, I assure you they would not have enjoyed the experience.”
“I guess we’ll never know.” He taunted her with a small grin before he continued. “Say we did use pepper spray. As you pointed out, we wouldn’t want the bloodsucker’s eyesight clearing before we could behead him. What’s to keep him from using that superfast healing and then coming after us?”
“I thought you said you weren’t going to stop carrying a gun,” she retorted. “Shoot the vampire attacking you, and try to watch where you aim.”
Wess was torn between aggravation and amusement. The woman had a smart mouth on her, among other body parts. He was surprised by how excited he was by the verbal sparring—a feeling akin to sexual arousal humming beneath his skin. The realization was as disturbing as it was intriguing.
He forced his mind back to the business at hand. “Then maybe you can come up with some other weapons. Ones you don’t think are too dangerous for us measly humans to handle.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” She sounded sincere, though he could have sworn she had been about to say something far more provoking.
“There’s something else I want you to work on,” he told her. “Something you can’t tell anyone about—not my sister, or Lucas, or the rest of the team.”
Natalia narrowed her eyes until he felt like a bug under a microscope. “That sounds ominous. Lucas has earned my loyalty, and I don’t like the idea of keeping secrets from him.”
“I’m not plotting against him, if that’s what you’re worried about.” He tried to sound reassuring. “I also wouldn’t do anything to hurt my sister. That’s actually why I want to keep this quiet. I don’t want anyone to get their hopes up only to be disappointed.”
She hesitated for a moment before speaking very slowly. “If that’s true, I’ll keep whatever it is you want me to do a secret, but only as long as it doesn’t threaten Lucas’s or Alex’s interests. You should also know that I’ll be the sole judge of what is and is not a threat.”
“Fair enough.” Although he would have liked a more binding promise, he recognized that this was as good as he was going to get. Wess leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. “I want you to research ways to transform a turned vampire into a human again.”