C H A P T E R O N E
His smile was perfect, fixed, eternal...
The doorman wore gold braid on his scarlet coat, and white gloves that matched his bloodless pallor. His eyes were the green of antique glass, unfocused, absorbing everything without betraying emotion. Such synthetics were common, but hurrying by, Marie shuddered. She hated the idea that artificial life forms passed heartless years—like failed dreams—spinning cold unfathomable thoughts she could never understand.
She ignored the creature’s polite bow.
Inside the building, another synthetic in red jacket and black slacks stood within the elevator. She entered the cage and moved to a back corner.
“Floor?” His tones were soothing, mellow, annoyingly so.
“Thirteen.” The number was a hell of an omen.
“Coming right up, Ma’am.”
She endured an endless ride, freed at last when the doors opened with a ding. She hurried on, without response to the operator’s tipped cap. The directory on the wall sent her to a frosted glass door with gilt lettering:
Hesitantly, she turned the polished brass latch. The door opened into a sun-lit parlor. She brushed past a tall Persian vase that bristled with peacock feathers, and padded softly across a thick charcoal carpet. It contrasted nicely with cream-colored furniture, end tables, and bookcases of sandalwood. Floor lamps with frosted glass shells were abstract sculptures—expensive, like everything else inside.
The part of her that believed this trip to be a mistake was glad to find the place empty. Now, she could run … and run … and run forever…
“Please have a seat. Ms. Siris will be with you shortly.” The slick, cybernetic voice startled, ambushing her from hidden speakers.
Marie breathed deeply, and strived for calm—ignoring the offer of comfort. Her restless gaze slide across several old movie posters: The Mummy Returns, Death on the Nile, The Green Eyes of Bast. They lured her closer, playing to her love of all things old and mysterious. The last poster wasn’t vintage, but advertised a recent remake, autographed by someone purporting to be Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess herself.
How weird is that.
Her glance slid on to an engineering degree from MIT, an honorary doctorate in Paranormal Studies from Berkley, and a framed newspaper clipping that showed a woman pumping gunfire into some sort of shaggy bog beast. The headline read: HD Consultant Saves Hikers!
“Homeland Defense uses her. Guess I’m in the right place.”
“Have you one of my cards?”
Marie jumped a second time. Her hand fell across her heart. She could feel its desperate efforts at escape as she turned to see a sun-bronzed woman with a distant sorrow in her eyes that was stark and painful to see. She wore a teal green sheath with matching jacket. The sleeves were rolled, revealing serpentine bracelets of gold that sported fanged heads with ruby eyes. A winged scarab, carved from green crystal, dangled on a gold chain at her throat. Small burnished disks with dangling crescents swung from her earlobes. She had the look of someone who’d conquered time—but not regret.
Marie didn’t understand how she knew this, but felt it to be true .
“Are you all right?” The woman waved a hand past Marie’s eyes, as if unsure of her attention.
She nodded. “Oh, yes, just surprised. I thought I was alone.”
“’Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?’“
Marie delved into memory. “I know that line. Thomas Wolfe?”
“Yes, but you have come to ease a troubled soul, not hear quotations.”
Marie fumbled in her purse for the white linen card she‘d been given as an introduction. It had an embossed gold balance on it; one scale occupied by the Feather of Justice, the other empty. “Here. Madam Roma said … said…”
The woman glided closer to reclaim the white linen card. “Call me Olivia. Come, sit.” It was more order than invitation. “Tell me who you are, and how I can help you.”
Marie sank into one of the couches. Her head roll back and she stared at the ceiling. It opened for her, a portal into madness…
She and Sherri were in the wine cellar, staring into a hidden niche behind an oak barrel. They drew out something heavy, protected by plastic. Stripping away the wrappings revealed a book. Words were written on it in blood: NECRONOMICON. Something gold glinted, falling out of the pages. She reached for it … and something dark eclipsed her soul.
A snake swallowing its tail—the memory consumed itself, vanishing. Eyes closed, she shuddered, and wondered what she’d been thinking about.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Olivia asked.
“I very much doubt it.”
“Let’s start with your name.”
“Marie … Marie Valentine. Can you help me? The police wouldn’t do anything. They don’t believe me. I’m not sure I believe me either.” Tears came to her eyes. She pressed her hands together so they wouldn’t tremble.
Olivia took an opposite seat. “Look at me!” Her dark eyes blazed, beaming shadow that dimmed the room.
Marie yielded to that mesmerizing force. Though sitting motionless, it felt as if she were spiraling down a gentle vortex. Reverberations chased her, sibilant whispers that made no sense, echoes of a language she didn’t know. Thought fragmented. Her will drained. Her pulse slowed. Muscular tension bled from her body, as calmness set in.
“Now,” Olivia said, “you are in a safe place. Start at the beginning. Tell me everything.”
Everything? Alright then. “I live just outside St. Louis, in Creve Coeur. My home’s been in the family since the Civil War—what a thing to call a war, as if it were all some polite function where manners must prevail. Sorry, I ramble when I‘m terrified. Where was I? Oh, yes, the house. It started off as a modest mansion with servant quarters behind it. In the mid twentieth century, a reclusive ancestor turned the main house into a warehouse of the macabre, a private museum of sorts.
“I’ve been living on the estate with my mother for the last few years, since my father was murdered during a break-in. He was everything to Mom. Without him, she toppled into a bottle and has stayed there ever since. My sister couldn’t deal with drama that wasn’t her own. She ran off, and went stealth mode. We haven’t heard from her in a while.”
“You have suffered,” Olivia said, “but my business is the unnatural, not the tragic.”
“It comes down to this,” Marie said, “I believe my mother performed a hell-born rite to bring my father back to her. Something … answered. I don’t know what, but it wears my father’s face ... and tried to kill me.”
“Kill you?” Olivia’s voice acquired a musical lilt. She grew still, a hunter scenting prey. “Explain?”
“The sun had just set and I was leaning against a balcony railing. It gave way. I caught myself on the balcony’s edge and screamed like a maniac for help. Ten fingers from death, I saw my father, all misty and white with patches I could see through. He was there just a moment, but I got a good look. When death approaches, time draws itself out. Seconds turn into minutes, minutes turn into hours… You may not believe me—”
“Why wouldn’t I? I know all too well that death ends nothing.”
Marie frowned at the statement. “What do you mean?”
“Never mind. I sense darkness has touched your spirit. There are gaps in your memory you are unaware of. I’d like to know what was excised and why.” She paused, eyes half-lidded. “I have a salon appointment that I dare not miss, and other matters to attend to, then we can go.”
“Back to St. Louis? You’re taking my case?”
“Yes, child. I have fond memories of that town. I lived there for a while when I was someone else, and fonder of challenges than was wise.” She shook her head to dislodge memories she’d rather not indulge. Her gaze sharpened. “I must warn you, I have associates that are … shall we say … unusual.”
“Hey,” Marie laughed with relief, “any friend of yours is a friend of mine.”
Rising to her feet, Olivia shrugged. “You might not want to go that far.”
* * *
Sirens screamed behind him. Frank shifted his eyes to the rearview mirror. His head bobbed as he checked his look. Familiar blue eyes set in a stranger’s face met his stare as the wind combed his long golden mane. An over-sized hand adjusted the mirror. It reflected the blue lights of a Sheriff’s patrol car. Frank sighed with mild irritation, downshifted, and eased toward the shoulder of the road.
“Always something,” he rumbled softly.
To his surprise, the police car zipped past on the way to more important business. Frank shrugged massive shoulders, and set his cherried-out antique Mustang into motion again. He merged with traffic and continued.
A mile further, he was forced to cool his heels while emergency vehicles dealt with an accident. A tanker loaded with petro-chemicals had overturned, trashing an electric car and a sedan, converted to hydrogen fuel like his own.
Frank frowned. Fire was likely. He didn’t like fire.
Images from the distant past crowded his present. He remembered another world, another time: angry voices ripped across the night, torches burned and waved above the heads of a blood-crazed mob. Farmers came at him, armed with sickles and pitch-forks. Townsmen waved clubs, hurling stones and epithets. He ran as rain fell. Lightning scorched the sky. Bright jags ignited the forest…
Frank shook away the stale past. He stilled the tapping of his ring finger on the steering wheel, a nervous habit. The ring on his finger was gold, his latest Super Bowl ring, a symbol of how far he’d come--with a little help from the world’s foremost plastic surgeons.
He left his car and advanced until a cop stopped him at a yellow police ribbon. “Hold it right there. If that mess blows, you won’t want to be any closer.”
Frantic screams drew his attention. Frank looked over and saw a woman being hustled into an ambulance chopper for an airlift to the hospital. “What’s her problem?” He asked.
The cop was obviously torn up inside, but was trying to be professional; as a student of humanity, Frank could tell.
“There’s a kid still trapped in the wreckage. Nothing anyone can do. We’re waiting for the firemen to get here and cut the girl out. Until then, everybody’s gotta stay back. We could lose a lot more than just the kid.”
Frank stared across the debris-littered asphalt at a mangled station wagon. He heard the faint, shrill cry of a terrified child. The deep-frozen chunk of tissue he called his heart doubled its slow beat. A red haze of fury swept away all thought. He thrust the policeman aside, and ripped through the police tape. Another officer tried to catch him, but Frank brushed him away like an afterthought. The station-wagon door was caved in, wedged solidly in place. Through the shattered window, he saw a young girl with ponytails and a tear-streaked face. Her eyes were dark with fear and pain.
“My feet are getting hot!” she said.
Frank tried to reassure her, but he only had one smile and it wasn’t pretty, most often used on the football field to make quarterbacks piss their pants. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you out.” He gripped the door, spreading his feet wide, getting down in a low crouch. He grimaced with exertion, baring his teeth like a crazed beast. Every muscle knotted with strain. His neck tendons became pronounced, and color came, enlivening his pale flesh. His guts tightened. An animal sound of defiance swelled out his throat, into a savage bellow of exertion.
The entire vehicle shifted with a screech of rending metal and Frank was leaning back, the car door in his hands, its hinges torn. He tossed it thoughtlessly aside, reached into the car, and worked the girl’s legs free. As he pulled her out of the vehicle, she wrapped her arms around his neck and held on with ferocious strength.
He ran back to safety, into a swarm of sheriffs. The cop he’d talked to earlier spoke up. “Gawd, I thought for a moment you were lifting the entire car. Never seen anything like it. My name‘s Patterson. When this is all over, I‘d like to buy you a beer.” Conversation ended as they slid behind a police car for shelter. The tanker blew, spewing orange fire and oily smoke into the sky. As the thunder of the explosion died away, ambulance attendants claimed the child.
An officer ran up and grabbed his shirt. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, breaking police lines, throwing cops around? You think you’re some kinda hero, don’t cha?”
“Hey, lay off,” Patterson said. “That’s Frank ‘the monster’ Steinman, the greatest offensive-tackle ever to terrorize the NFL. He didn’t mean nothing, just couldn’t help himself when he heard the kid cryin‘ out.”
Frank was released. A respectful space was created around him. He wasn’t surprised. His status as a star athlete often allowed him indulgences denied the common man.
“Sorry,” Frank said. “Just got a little excited. No hard feelings, I hope?”
The angry cop visible cooled. “I suppose not. Just don’t let it happen again.”
Another officer extended a note pad. “Say, can I have an autograph…for my kid? He’s a big fan.”
“Sure.” Frank grinned at the wall of blue forming around him as he scribbled. “You boys want some free tickets to our next home game…give me a call. I’ll set it up.” He paused a moment in thought. “You guys are the real heroes.”
“I know a little girl who’d disagree with you there,” Patterson said, “but thanks. Oh, about those tickets…”
A few minutes later, Frank slipped away to his car. He got in and adjusted the mirror again, brushing his hair back from his face, checking his look once more. Yeah, the electrical treatments were still working; there was no sign of cellular decay. His glance went to the steel briefcase in the seat next to him. It wouldn’t be needed for a while yet.
The phone on the dash beeped at him. He snatched it up. “Your dollar,” he growled. “Whaduya want?”
“It’s Olivia, Frank. I need a favor if you’re not too busy…”
C H A P T E R T W O
This is the life. Vlad used the term loosely.
The hotel room was dark. The windows were painted black. He lay on a king-sized bed. These days, he saved the coffin for his movies. His pale flesh was the color of a freshly exhumed corpse, and nearly as warm, but he’d yet to be mistaken for a synthetic. And the chicks didn’t seem to mind. Now that Retro-Goth was in again, he was the Prince of Cool in all his sated glory, a happy victim of his own legend. His laugh took flight. It amused him to be an incarnate cliché, a vampire pretending to be a vampire on film. Yeah, ‘twenty-forty was going to be his year. Bast had been right, this was a good career move for him.
The phone chimed. Vlad thought about answering. It was probably important. Those who dealt with him knew better than to interrupt his pleasures with trivialities. He raised a hand into the air, dislodging various female limbs. A blue-chrome wafer floated off the dresser on a magnetic field, guided by the house computer. He snagged the instrument out of the air, activated it, and set it against a pointy ear.
He waited in dignified silence for the other person to speak; after all, the caller was the one desiring conversation. Until a message was received, Vlad wouldn’t know if civility was even required.
“Hello, Vlad? You have to tell me if you’re there; I can‘t hear you breathing.”
Vlad recognized the voice and smiled. “Olivia! I had hoped you’d call.” He tortured himself with the memory of her beauty. She had yet to yield to his potent charm, but it was only a matter of time...
“I have a new case and can use your help.”
Well, he was between projects... “Anything for you.”
“Can you pick up Pete in Cache Creek, then drive to St. Louis?”
“Pete? Why is the wolf cub hanging out with the American aboriginals?” Vlad asked.
“He’s helping them to scalp the white-eyes at games of chance, and studying Native American shape-shifting while he’s at it. He thinks it will solve a … personal problem.”
“Hmmm, all right, but if he pisses on my tires—he’ll have to fend for himself.”
Olivia laughed. “That’s only fair. I’m catching a flight tomorrow with our new client. When you get to St. Louis, go to the airport and pick us up. I have a feeling about this case, Vlad. I think it’s going to be important to us all.”
“Very well, I trust your judgment, Olivia. You haven’t been wrong yet.”
“You’re keeping score?” she asked.
“Always,” Vlad killed the connection.
One of the warm bodies next to him stirred. A young woman’s hand slid across his sunken chest. Her fingertips drew teasing circles on his skin. Face hidden by long black locks of hair, she placed her mouth against his stomach, licking his flesh with a studded tongue. Vlad drew her up across his body, and rolled her face away, exposing a virgin throat.
He paused, seeing a small gold cross on a fragile chain, then laughed. Wrapping a hand around it, he yanked, separating the trinket from the girl. Vlad flicked his wrist. The necklace sailed into a far corner of the room. It’s amazing, he thought, the number of people that actually believe symbols have power unaccompanied by faith. Fortunately, there is little of that left in the world these days.
“Take me.” Her sighed words turned into a moan as he bared his fangs, and sank them into her throat. Blood filled his mouth. He swallowed greedily, but stopped himself from taking too much. He had no desire to kill. He usually took just enough to survive, and tried not to repeat an attack. He was not into creating new vampires. There were too many predators around these days as it was, dead and undead alike.
He finished his meal, slithered out of bed, and strolled toward the closet. Its motion sensor activated. The door opened. He went inside, made his selections, and dressed quickly, without wasted motion. Vlad returned to his bedroom, as the door burst in. His bodyguards fell into view, piled around an old man with white beard, horn-rim spectacles, and the crazed stare of a fanatic.
The intruder stopped struggling, staring at the groupies stacked like cords of wood on the bed. “My God! You’ve … you’ve…”
“Killed them all, Van Helsing? I know you’d like to believe that I’m the perverted monster your ancestor warned the world of, but the only thing that ever stalked him was dementia. The girls are quite alive—though delirious with pleasure, and quite exhausted. Now, please get a life, and leave me to mine.”
Van Helsing spit as Vlad passed. “You can’t fool me.” The old man screamed with ever growing intensity. “I know what you are. I know what you are: Dracula—prince of the damned, lord of vampires. I will prove it to the world.”
Vlad’s laughter filled the air. “Go read my press releases,” he said. “The world already knows. Hey, Max?”
“Yeah, boss?” a bodyguard said.
“Keep the old fool here for the cops. When they arrive, show them the restraining order I have against him. Perhaps some jail time will curdle his venom. Oh, and have my things sent to my San Pedro estate. I’ll join you there … eventually.”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
Vlad paused in the doorway. “Where’s Lenny?”
“With the limo, in the underground garage. He said he didn’t want it to get lonely.”
“Excellent!” Vlad left the bedroom, passed through the living room, and opened the front door. Hotel security was on their toes; the usual throng of Goth-fans, photographers and wanna-be rock-and-rollers were absent. Dressed in a split-tail duster, a vintage slouch hat, and a pair of sunshades, he swept down the hallway toward the elevator.
It approached his floor as he got there. The door opened and a young Japanese man leaped out with a wooden kendo sword and a fierce shout. “Die, filthy beast!” The sword slashed diagonally across Vlad’s chest, ripping through his black tee shirt. An arc of blood was drawn into the air as Vlad spun away, hissing his wrath. The sword followed, but failed to connect a second time.
He vanished in a burst of white, dissolving his molecular bonds to become primordial vapor. He held the un-made state long enough to reconfigure his quantum signature, altering composition. As much of his mass dispensed in mist, he ran at his attacker on tiny furry feet, baring rodent teeth. His scaly tail lashed like a whip.
The sword came down, but Vlad paused at the last second and leaped over it, letting the blade whack the carpet. Midair, he his miniaturized finger and arm bones attenuated. The space between them filled in with leathery skin as his ears lengthened. His front incisors melted away, replaced by fangs. He flapped wings and vented a shrill skreeeee. The sound bounced around the hall, giving him a sonar impression of his environment.
The sword slashed air, continuing to track him.
Only centuries of fancy flying gave him the skill to avoid being spitted or slashed. He moved in close to the young man, knowing it was safest there—swords were designed to extend the reach, not function effectively at intimate distances.
Vlad fluttered past the swordsman's ear, gashing it with his clawed toes on the way to the closing elevator door. He barely made it in. As the car sank, Vlad landed. His bat form became a stretching shadow that took on human shape, acquiring depth and new textures. He trembled. His vision blurred as he leaned against the back wall. The lights dimmed as he drank energy from the surrounding area, a temporary fix. The elevator stalled briefly, but then continued.
If only such transformations were done by magic, he wouldn’t have to sweat blood inducing matter/energy conversions with the psychic powers of his undead brain. Now, he’d have to feed again—soon.
The elevator car reached the underground parking garage. He braced himself for further surprises as the doors opened. It was not unheard of for back-ups to have back-ups. As a skilled tactician, Vlad did not discount the unlikely. It was how he’d survived so long, almost too long he often thought.
The area under the hotel was clear. He stepped out of the elevator looking immaculate. His reformed tee shirt wasn’t torn. Every strand of slicked-back hair was in place. He walked without haste toward his limo.
Drawing near, he heard thunderous drum fills and screaming guitar riffs. Lenny was in the car, listening to the rock and roll sound track from Vlad’s latest movie: Crimson Rain. Synthetics weren’t supposed to get bored, or enjoy music. It was a defect that drove Lenny’s previous owner up the wall. Vlad, however, appreciated idiosyncratic behavior—as long as it was harnessed in his service.
He tapped on the window. The music dropped in volume. The window rolled down and Lenny stuck his head out. His voice was silken and bland. “Hi, Boss. Where to?”
“St. Louis, by way of Cache Creek. If you see any prostitutes on the way, pull over. I’ve grown thirsty for company.”
“Sure thing, Boss.” Hydraulics, controlled by the driver, eliminated the need for Lenny to get out; the door opened with a heavy sigh. Vlad climbed in. The door resealed behind him, locking. The glass partition rolled up, sealing him into silence. Like all windows, except for the windshield, it was tinted black—but the vehicle was more than an expensive toy. It had armor-plating, bulletproof glass, and solid tires, able to withstand an incredible amount of punishment. This was one of the few places Vlad knew himself to be truly safe. And the Transylvanian earth concealed under the upholstery meant he could even get a good day’s rest.
* * *
Pete left the casino while there was still daylight to dull the moon already in the sky, weakening its power. He affected a slight stagger, as if he’d drunk more than was wise. He was sober, but out of sorts so close to nightfall. His control wavered. He couldn’t afford distraction with footsteps haunting his back-trail.
He stopped and draw a deep breath, reaching deep for reserves of strength most men would never need. This let him shrug off burning disorientation and the itch he felt from flesh wanting to writhe into some other shape.
Tightly focused once more, he was acutely aware of the browning automatic in its snap-away shoulder rig. He was not fond of guns, but he knew how to use one. He couldn’t complain about the hardware; it was his idea to play human target. Someone had to. Someone had been sandbagging high-rollers, taking them to ATMs, draining the winner’s accounts of the funds electronically transferred to them by the casino. The crimes were hurting business and he didn’t want to leave things to the cops. He took it very personally when the bad guys worked his territory.
Pete ignored the large man in the badly wrinkled suit, standing across the street, pretending to read a news-download. Bud was shadowing him, ready to come running if something heavy went down. Pete doubted he’d need the help which could prove more hindrance than anything else.
His steps took him to the rusting piece of junk he laughingly called his car. He’d won the tiny British convertible in a bet, and regretted it ever since. He couldn’t trust the vehicle for more than local trips. Still, he patted the car’s fender in a friendly fashion as he passed. “I’ll get you a tune-up next paycheck.” His promise was a soft mutter nearly too low even for him to hear with his heightened hearing.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed Bud discretely keeping up with him. Pete preferred to take his chances alone. That way, if he had to do something desperate, possibly unnatural, there’d be no credible witnesses to spread the tale. He shrugged. Can’t be helped. The boss wanted things this way and no one argued with Bob “Iron-Foot” Crazy-Feathers, not for long. The man was built like a grizzly on steroids, and his temper, when roused, was terrible to behold. Bob defied all aspects of the stereotypical “reservation Indian”. He‘d put himself through law school after being discharged from a Marine recon unit, and wound up a big wheel in California politics after the state successfully sued the federal government for the right to secede from the Union, back in twenty-twenty-five.
A plain brown panel van turned a corner and cut him off. The steps behind him quickened, growing louder. This was it; the bad guys were making their move. The side door of the van slid open. A man with mean eyes and a red bandana jumped out, as the man behind Pete closed in, trying to pin his arm behind his back.
Pete flipped on one hand, into a forward roll. The maneuver straightened his arm out though it was still held captive. Lying face-up on the sidewalk, Pete rolled back the way he came, delivering a double scorpion kick to the guts of the man holding him. Free, Pete rolled sideways, getting hands and feet under him. He levered himself up quickly. The man he’d kicked was still down. Pete turned his attention to the man from the van, running straight at him.
Fueled by the ghostly moon, Pete felt a surge of rage sweep through him. “C’mere, you deviant son of a…!”
“Against the van, spread ‘em!” It was Bud’s voice, coming from the other side of the vehicle. He had the driver.
The man Pete chased scrambled back through the side door and went forward, taking the wheel. Pete launched himself into the air. He made it in, but jumped out again, as bullets drilled holes in the air, ripping past head. The muzzle-flashes were punishing, blinding. His head echoed with thunder. He wrinkled his nose at the stink of gunfire, falling to the street to lie in a crumpled heap. Pete growled as the van squealed away, burning rubber. With a snarl, he pounded the street with the bottom of his fist. He felt the beast rising in him—hungry, feral, slipping like a shadow toward the surface of his soul. The wolf remained close during the nights of the full moon, though he’d leaned how to fight the tidal pull stirring his blood.
His head cleared. He saw the escaping van careen wildly. It smashed through trashcans, sideswiped several parked cars, and skidded, turning into an ally. A final, definitive crash sounded, telling Pete that the vehicle had encountered a wall that stopped it cold.
He climbed to his feet, drew his weapon, and went back to the first attacker who was getting to his feet again. The man looked like he wanted to run, but held still, knowing he couldn’t out run a bullet. Pete cuffed the man as Bud hurried up, gasping for breath, pushing his captive ahead of him.
“You … all right?” his partner asked.
“Yeah, I’m going to check the van. That idiot driver might still be alive. You call nine-one-one and watch these two guys.” Pete started off.
“Hey,” Bud called, “watch out for bat droppings. I thought I saw something swoop into the van as it made that last turn.”
A bat? Could it be him?
This gothic/sci-fi excerpt is a semi-finalist in the Breakthrough Novel Contest being sponsered by Amazon.com. I urge my long time friends here at Authors Den to not only leave a review here, but go to http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00121WEQE
and leave one there as well. The review will be sent to the judging panel along with my entire manuscript. For this, you have my profound thanks.