Last time, the Red Line Corporate Solutions team infiltrated Ring, the headquarters of MI6 offshoot EDOM, and escaped with bags full of loot and data. The team consists of:
Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.
The team holes up in a dacha just outside Saint Petersburg -- courtesy of Natasha's "Uncle Ivan" -- and the next few weeks consist of long days going through the heaps of data acquired from Ring.
Among other juicy details, the Red Line team discovers the codenames of the EDOM Dukes, and a rough idea of their individual roles and responsibilities within the organisation. EDOM's section chief is referred to as "D", a codename that causes Carmel to be suspicious -- or perhaps paranoid is more apt -- of EDOM's true loyalties.
EDOM's goals and standard operating procedures are detailed, and at least two other locations -- a remote house in Cornwall, and an HMS Proserpine in the North Sea -- are mentioned; the latter in relation to the still-missing members of Ibáñez Security Solutions, who appear to be imprisoned there. The team decides against attempting a rescue, a decision that causes Max some discomfort.
EDOM's field guide to fighting vampires proves useful, confirming some suspicions the team have about the monsters, and providing new information on their weaknesses. The advice on Dracula himself is less useful; EDOM suggests that its agents, if they encounter Dracula, should make a run for it!
Sten is packed off to a local clinic -- also laid on by Natasha's generous uncle -- to make sure that the wounds he suffered in Rotterdam are healing; while he's there the doctors conduct tests on the Englishman's blood and find it to be normal, if a little light on red cells.
The old, strange leather-bound book is written in a number of languages, only some of which the team can translate, so a couple of students are borrowed from Saint Petersburg State University and paid a big stack of cash to stay at the dacha, translate the book, and keep quiet about what they are doing.
All this research proceeds to the team satisfaction for a few weeks until Sten receives a telephone call from an unknown number. The caller introduces herself as Hound -- one of the Dukes of EDOM -- and congratulates the team on their success; she claims that EDOM is quite impressed with the way the team infiltrated Ring, and requests a meeting. It becomes clear that EDOM has at least a rough idea of where the Red Line team is hiding so the team decides that it has nothing to lose and agrees to meet in Moscow in a couple of days.
Max and Sten arrive at a church in Russia's capital, while Carmel waits nearby in a car, ready to pick them up if things go wrong, and Natasha watches through her rifle's scope from a rooftop. Hound turns out to be a beautiful woman -- who does have a reflection, Max notes -- and Sten, the old womaniser, finds his resolve weakening.
Once again Hound congratulates the team but Max rejects her flattery and demands to know what she wants. The Duke tells him that EDOM is happy to let the team keep the money and kit stolen from Ring, and even the data -- a brief attempt at blackmail results in a laugh from Hound; "who would believe it?" -- but that they want the book back.
"Which book?" Max asks, which prompts a raised eyebrow from Hound, but she confirms that it is the leather-bound book that EDOM wants. She claims it is useless to Max and his friends but that it is precious to EDOM, for sentimental reasons. None of the team is convinced.
Max makes a deal; if EDOM bust the London cult -- he gives her the names of the members -- and present evidence that the vampire in charge is dead, then the book will be returned. Hound agrees to the terms but also makes it clear that the entire Red Line team could be dead if she wished it; it's at that point that Natasha sees the EDOM snipers she didn't spot earlier.
The team returns to the dacha, whereupon Carmel discovers that the security cameras at the house have been tampered with; nothing is missing and the students and house staff report no intruders, but even so the group decides to move to another location. "Uncle Ivan"'s resources are limited and the second hideout is not as fancy as the first, but it will do.
Sten does not sleep well in the new location, and has frightening dreams of mist and a familiar female voice calling to him; he wakes feeling not at all refreshed.
The students announce that the translation has been completed; the book is called Le Dragon Noir and appears to be a genuine fifteenth-century grimoire. It is rare but famous in occult circles and is supposed to be one of King Solomon's spellbooks, concerned with the summoning and binding of demons. Natasha has a good look and decides that she will try to cast at least one of the spells, but before that she takes the two students for a walk in the woods, to clear their heads after the long days of study. She returns alone.
Carmel keeps an eye on the news over the next few days and notices that the members of the London vampire cult all get into some sort of trouble; some have fatal accidents -- poor Simon Quinlank stumbles in front of a bus -- some are forced into retirement, and some -- Jeremy Clarkson is implicated in sexual crimes -- are arrested. Soon after the group receives an email containing a single attachment; a photograph of a chair in some sort of concrete room. The chair has manacles attached and the chains are taut, even though the chair appears to be empty; it seems as if EDOM has caught a vampire.
The team decides to take a risk and double cross EDOM; Natasha contacts Hound and claims that the book will be delivered in a week, rather than right now. Then the team packs up, rents a small truck, and starts a long cross country drive to Romania.
All is well for a couple of days but -- just after crossing into Romania -- the team spots a number of vehicles in pursuit. Two motorcycles -- each carrying a passenger in addition to the rider -- rush past and a pair of heavy four-by-fours moves up behind the truck.
The motorcyclists return, brandishing submachine guns, and a tense moving battle ensues. Sten's reactions are slowed due to the nerve damage he suffered at the
The cars ram the truck, the truck rams the cars, and something of a stalemate develops, until one of the car's passengers fires a grenade into the truck's cabin. It turns out to only be a gas grenade but Sten is not fast enough to don a mask and he falls unconsciousness, just the opening his opposite number needs to ram the truck once more, flipping it over.
The truck rolls and tumbles and while most of the Red Line team escape with minor injuries, Carmel is crushed by part of the truck's cabin and her forearm is sheared right off!
With Carmel bleeding out and Sten unconscious, Max and Natasha fear that their time is up as the pair spot the cars stopping and their -- armed -- occupants disembarking. Max and Natasha decide to go out fighting and lob grenades at their opponents; Max's is a standard fragmentation grenade that scatters some of the approaching assassins, but the bloodthirsty Russian uses a white phosphorus charge and shows no sympathy as her opponents burn and scream.
The cars speed off as their drivers see that the day has gone against them, but the Red Line team find it difficult to feel triumphant. They are stranded in northern Romania without transport and -- although Natasha stabilises her -- Carmel is in a critical condition.
Next: Roman(ian) Holiday.