I watched Catherine's cab vanish around the corner. She never turned, or waved, or spoke. She would wake tomorrow with vague memories. Just a night out with the girls.
I would like to have thought she was out of it, safe, but I knew better. The air smelled thickly of rain. The street lights glistened off the sidewalk. The air was almost too thick to breathe. St. Louis in the summer. Peachy.
"Shall we go?" Jean-Claude asked.
He stood, white shirt gleaming in the dark. If the humidity bothered him, it didn't show. Aubrey stood in the shadows near the door. The only light on him was the crimson neon of the club sign. He grinned at me, face painted red, body lost in shadows.
"It's a little too contrived, Aubrey," I said.
His grin wavered. "What do you mean?"
"You look like a B-movie Dracula."
He flowed down the steps, with that easy perfection that only the really old ones have. The street light showed his face tight, hands balled into fists.
Jean-Claude stepped in front of him and spoke low, voice a soothing whisper. Aubrey turned away with a jerky shrug and began to glide up the street.
Jean-Claude turned to me. "If you continue to taunt him, there will come a point from which I cannot bring him back. And you will die."
"I thought your job was to keep me alive for this Nikolaos."
He frowned. "It is, but I will not die to defend you. Do you understand that?"
"I do now."
"Good. Shall we go?" He gestured down the sidewalk, in the direction Aubrey had gone.
"We're going to walk?"
"It is not far." He held his hand out to me.
I stared at it and shook my head.
"It is necessary, Anita. I would not ask it otherwise."
"How is it necessary?"
"This night must remain secret from the police, Anita. Hold my hand, play the besotted human with her vampire lover. It will explain the blood on your blouse. It will explain where we are going, and why."
His hand hung there, pale and slender. There was no tremor to the fingers, no movement, as if he could stand there offering me his hand forever. And maybe he could.
I took his hand. His long fingers curved over the back of my hand. We began walking, his hand very still in mine. I could feel the pulse in my hand against his skin. His pulse began to speed up to match mine. I could feel his blood flow like a second heart.
"Have you fed tonight?" my voice sounded soft.
"Can you not tell?"
"I can never tell with you."
I saw him smile out of the corner of my eye. "I am flattered."
"You never answered my question."
"No," he said.
"No, you haven't answered me, or no, you haven't fed?"
He turned his head to me, as we walked. Sweat gleamed on his upper lip. "What do you think, ma petite?" His voice was the softest of whispers.
I jerked my hand, tried to get away, even though I knew it was silly, and wouldn't work. His hand convulsed around mine, squeezed until I gasped. He wasn't even trying hard.
"Do not struggle against me, Anita." His tongue slid across his upper lip. "Struggling is - exciting."
"Why didn't you feed earlier?"
"I was ordered not to."
He didn't answer me. Rain began to patter down. Light and cool.
"Why?" I repeated.
"I don't know." His voice was nearly lost in the soft fall of rain. If it had been anyone else I would have said he was afraid.
The hotel was tall and thin, and made of real brick. The sign out front glowed blue and said, "Vacancy." There was no other sign. Nothing to tell you what the place was called, or even what it was. Just vacancy.
Rain glistened in Jean-Claude's hair, like black diamonds. My top was sticking to my body. The blood had begun to wash away. Cold water was just the thing for a fresh blood stain.
A police car eased around the corner. I tensed. Jean-Claude jerked me against him. I put my palm against his chest to keep our bodies from touching. His heart thudded under my hand.
The police car was going very slowly. A spotlight began to search the shadows. They swept the District regularly. It was bad for tourism if the tourists got wasted by our biggest attractions.
Jean-Claude grabbed my chin and turned me to look at him. I tried to pull away, but his fingers dug into my chin. "Don't fight me!"
"I won't look in your eyes!"
"My word that I will not try to bespell you. For this night you may look into my eyes with safety. I swear it." He glanced at the police car, still moving towards us. "If the police are brought into this, I cannot promise what will happen to your friend."
I forced myself to relax in his arms, letting my body ease against his. My heartbeat sounded loud, as if I had been running. Then I realized it wasn't my heart I was hearing. Jean-Claude's pulse was throbbing through my body. I could hear it, feel it, almost squeeze it in my hand. I stared up at his face. His eyes were the darkest blue I had ever seen, perfect as a midnight sky. They were dark and alive, but there was no sense of drowning, no pull. They were just eyes.
His face leaned towards me. He whispered, "I swear."
He was going to kiss me. I didn't want him to. But I didn't want the police to stop and question us. I didn't want to explain the blood stains, the torn blouse. His lips hesitated over my mouth. His heartbeat was loud in my head, his pulse was racing, and my breathing was ragged with his need.
His lips were silk, his tongue a quick wetness. I tried to pull back and found his hand at the back of my neck, pressing my mouth against his.
The police spotlight swept over us. I relaxed against Jean-Claude, letting him kiss me. Our mouths pressed together. My tongue found the smooth hardness of fangs. I pulled away, and he let me. He pressed my face against his chest, one arm like steel against my back, pressing me against him. He was trembling, and it wasn't from the rain.
His breathing was ragged, his heart jumping under his skin against my cheek. The slick roughness of his burn scar touched my face.
His hunger poured over me in a violent wave, like heat. He had been sheltering me from it, until now. "Jean-Claude!" I didn't try to keep the fear out of my voice.
"Hush." A shudder ran through his body. His breath escaped in a loud sigh. He released me so abruptly, I stumbled.
He walked away from me to lean against a parked car. He raised his face up into the rain. I could still feel his heartbeat. I had never been so aware of my own pulse, the blood flowing through my veins. I hugged myself, shivering in the hot rain.
The police car had vanished into the streetlight darkness. After perhaps five minutes Jean-Claude stood. I could no longer feel his heartbeat. My own pulse was slow and regular. Whatever had happened was over.
He walked past me and called over his shoulder. "Come, Nikolaos awaits us inside."
I followed him through the door. He did not try to take my hand. In fact he stayed out of reach, and I trailed after him through a small square lobby. A human man sat behind the front desk. He glanced up from the magazine he was reading. His eyes flicked to Jean-Claude and back to me. He leered at me.
I glared back. He shrugged and turned back to his magazine. Jean-Claude moved swiftly up the stairs, not waiting for me. He didn't even look back. Maybe he could hear me walking behind him, or maybe he didn't care if I followed.
I guess we weren't pretending to be lovers anymore. Fancy that. I would almost have said the master vampire didn't trust himself around me.
There was a long hallway with doors on either side. Jean-Claude was halfway through one of those doors. I walked towards it. I refused to hurry. They could damn well wait.
The room held a bed, a nightstand with a lamp, and three vampires: Aubrey, Jean-Claude, and a strange female vampire. Aubrey was standing in the far corner, near the window. He was smiling at me. Jean-Claude stood near the door. The female vampire reclined on the bed. She looked like a vampire should. Long, straight, black hair fell around her shoulders. Her dress was full-skirted and black. She wore high black boots with three-inch heels.
"Look into my eyes," she said.
I glanced at her, before I could stop myself, then stared down at the floor.
She laughed, and it had the same quality of touch that Jean-Claude's did. A sound that you could feel with your hands.
"Close the door, Aubrey," she said. Her r's were thick with some accent that I couldn't place.
Aubrey brushed past me as he closed the door. He stayed in back of me, where I couldn't see him. I moved to stand with my back to the only empty wall, so I could see all of them, for what good it would do me.
"Afraid?" Aubrey asked.
"Still bleeding?" I asked.
He crossed his arms over the blood stain on his shirt. "We shall see who is bleeding come dawn."
"Aubrey, do not be childish." The vampire on the bed stood. Her heels clicked against the bare floor. She stalked around me, and I fought an urge to turn and keep her in sight. She laughed again, as if she knew it.
"You wish me to guarantee your friend's safety?" she asked. She had gone back to sink gracefully onto the bed. The bare, dingy room seemed somehow worse with her sitting there in her two-hundred-dollar leather boots.
"No," I said.
"That is what you asked, Anita," Jean-Claude said.
"I said that I wanted guarantees from Aubrey's master."
"You are speaking with my master, girl."
"No, I am not." The room was suddenly very still. I could hear something scrambling inside the wall. I had to look up to make sure the vampires were still in the room. They were all utterly still, like statues, no sense of movement or breathing, or life. They were all so damn old, but none of them were old enough to be Nikolaos.
"I am Nikolaos," the female said, her voice coaxing and breathing through the room. I wanted to believe her, but I didn't.
"No," I said. "You are not Aubrey's master." I risked a glance into her eyes. They were black and widened in surprise when I looked at them. "You are very old, and very good, but you are not old enough or strong enough to be Aubrey's master."
Jean-Claude said, "I told you she would see through it."
"The game is over, Theresa. She knows."
"Only because you have told her."
"Tell them how you knew, Anita."
I shrugged. "She feels wrong. She just isn't old enough. There is more of a sense of power from Aubrey than from her. That isn't right."
"Do you still insist on speaking with our master?" the woman asked.
"I still want guarantees on my friend's safety." I glanced through the room, at each of them. "And I am getting tired of stupid little games."
Aubrey was suddenly moving towards me. The world slowed. There was no time for fear. I tried to back away, knowing there was nowhere to go.
Jean-Claude rushed him, hands reaching. He wouldn't make it in time.
Aubrey's hand came out of nowhere and caught me in the shoulder. The blow knocked all the air from my body and sent me flying backwards. My back slammed into the wall. My head hit a moment later, hard. The world went grey. I slid down the wall. I couldn't breathe. Tiny white shapes danced over the greyness. The world began to go black. I slid to the floor. It didn't hurt; nothing hurt. I struggled to breathe until my chest burned, and darkness took everything away.
Voices floated through the darkness. Dreams. "We shouldn't have moved her."
"Did you want to disobey Nikolaos?"
"I helped bring her here, did I not?" It was a man's voice.
"Yes," a woman said.
I lay there with my eyes closed. I wasn't dreaming. I remembered Aubrey's hand coming from nowhere. It had been an open backhand slap. If he had closed his fist...but he hadn't. I was alive.
"Anita, are you awake?"
I opened my eyes. Light speared into my head. I closed my eyes against the light and the pain, but the pain stayed. I turned my head, and that was a mistake. The pain was a nauseating ache. It felt like the bones in my head were trying to slide off. I raised hands to cover my eyes and groaned.
"Anita, are you all right?"
Why do people always ask you that when the answer is obviously no? I spoke in a whisper, not sure how it would feel to talk. It didn't feel too bad. "Just peachy keen."
"What?" This from the woman.
"I think she is being sarcastic," Jean-Claude said. He sounded relieved. "She can't be hurt too badly if she is making jokes."
I wasn't sure about the hurt too badly part. Nausea flowed in waves, from head to stomach, instead of the other way around. I was betting I had a concussion. The question was, how bad?
"Can you move, Anita?"
"No," I whispered.
"Let me rephrase. If I help you, can you sit up?"
I swallowed, trying to breathe through the pain and nausea. "Maybe."
Hands curved under my shoulders. The bones in my head started sliding forward as he lifted. I gasped and swallowed. "I'm going to be sick."
I rolled over on all fours. The movement was too rapid. The pan was a whirl of light and darkness. My stomach heaved. Vomit burned up my throat. My head was exploding.
Jean-Claude held me around the waist, one cool hand on my forehead, holding the bones of my head in place. His voice held me, a soothing sheet against my skin. He was speaking French, very softly. I didn't understand a word of it, and didn't need to. His voice held me, rocked me, took some of the pain.
He cradled me against his chest, and I was too weak to protest. The pain had been screaming through my head; now it was distant, a throbbing ache. It still felt obscene to turn my head, as if my head were sliding apart, but the pain was different, bearable.
He wiped my face and mouth with a damp cloth. "Do you feel better now?" he asked.
"Yes." I didn't understand where the pain had gone.
Theresa said, "Jean-Claude, what have you done?"
"Nikolaos wishes her to be aware and well for this visit. You saw her. She needs a hospital, not more tormenting."
"So you helped her." The vampire's voice sounded amused. "Nikolaos will not be pleased."
I felt him shrug. "I did what was necessary."
I could open my eyes without squinting or increasing the pain. We were in a dungeon; there was no other word for it. Thick stone walls enclosed a square room, perhaps twenty by twenty feet. Steps led up to a barred, wooden door. There were even chains set in the walls. Torches guttered along the walls. The only thing missing was a rack and a black-hooded torturer, one with big, beefy arms, and a tattoo that said "I love Mom." Yeah, that would have made it perfect.
I was feeling better, much better. I shouldn't have been recovering this quickly. I had been hurt before, badly. It didn't just fade, not like this.
"Can you sit unaided?" Jean-Claude asked.
Surprisingly, the answer was yes. I sat with my back to the wall. The pain was still there, but it just didn't hurt as much. Jean-Claude got a bucket from near the stairs and washed it over the floor. There was a very modern drain in the middle of the floor.
Theresa stood staring at me, hands on hips. "You certainly are recovering quickly." Her voice held amusement, and something else I couldn't define.
"The pain, the nausea, it's almost gone. How?"
She smirked, lips curling. "You'll have to ask Jean-Claude that. It's his doing, not mine."
"Because you could not have done it." There was a warm edge of anger to his voice.
Her face paled. "I would not have, regardless."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
Jean-Claude looked at me, beautiful face unreadable. His dark eyes stared into mine. They were still just eyes.
"Go on, master vampire, tell her. See how grateful she is."
Jean-Claude stared at me, watching my face. "You are badly hurt, a concussion. But Nikolaos will not let us take you to a hospital until this...interview is over with. I feared you would die or be unable to...function." I had never heard his voice so uncertain. "So I shared my life-force with you."
I started to shake my head. Big mistake. I pressed hands to my forehead. "I don't understand."
He spread his hands wide. "I do not have the words."
"Oh, allow me," Theresa said. "He has taken the first step to making you a human servant."
"No." I was still having trouble thinking clearly, but I knew that wasn't right. "He didn't try to trick me with his mind, or eyes. He didn't bite me."
"I don't mean one of those pathetic half-creatures that have a few bites and do our bidding. I mean a permanent human servant, one that will never be bitten, never be hurt. One that will age almost as slowly as we do."
I still didn't understand. Perhaps it showed in my face because Jean-Claude said, "I took your pain and gave you some of my...stamina."
"Are you experiencing my pain, then?"
"No, the pain is gone. I have made you a little harder to hurt."
I still wasn't taking it all in, or maybe it was just beyond me. "I don't understand."
"Listen, woman, he has shared with you what we consider a great gift to be given only to people who have proven themselves invaluable."
I stared at Jean-Claude. "Does this mean I am in your power somehow?"
"Just the opposite," Theresa said, "you are now immune to his glance, his voice, his mind. You will serve him out of willingness, nothing more. You see what he has done."
I stared into her black eyes. They were just eyes.
She nodded. "Now you begin to understand. As an animator you had partial immunity to our gaze. Now you have almost complete immunity." She gave an abrupt barking laugh. "Nikolaos is going to destroy you both." With that she stalked up the stairs, the heels of her boots smacking against the stone. She left the door open behind her.
Jean-Claude had come to stand over me. His face was unreadable.
"Why?" I asked.
He just stared down at me. His hair had dried in unruly curls around his face. He was still beautiful, but the hair made him seem more real.
He smiled then, and there were tired lines near his eyes. "If you died, our master would have punished us. Aubrey is already suffering for his...indiscretion."
He turned and walked up the stairs. He moved up the steps like a cat, all boneless, liquid grace.
He paused at the door and glanced back at me. "Someone will come for you when Nikolaos decides it is time." He closed the door, and I heard it latch and lock. His voice floated through the bars, rich, almost bubbling with laughter, "And perhaps, because I liked you." His laughter was bitter, like broken glass.