The someone was a girl. Well, she could have been a hundred years old for all I knew, but she looked as if she'd be carded for buying cigarettes. Although it was quite dark in the pit, my undead eyeballs were working just great, and I could make out her delicate, pale features: sharp chin, high cheekbones, and big dark eyes. Pansy eyes, I think they're called, large and pretty and fringed with beautifully sooty lashes. We stood in the pit together and stared at each other. She looked so young, so fresh; if she'd whipped out a pair of pom-poms and started cheering I wouldn't have been surprised.
Instead, she dropped to her knees and bowed so low her forehead was scraping the pit's bottom. "Majesty, I beg your forgiveness...I couldn't help you upstairs, there were too many of them."
"Get up, don't call me that, and don't sweat it. Jeez, will you get up? This floor is disgusting." I shifted tentatively; yup. My shoes were definitely sticking. It was like being in a movie theater after a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "Seriously: get up." I bent, seized her arm, pulled her upright.
She looked away from me, then shyly glanced back. "I can't. Could you call Elizabeth the Second 'Betsy'?"
"Well, no," I admitted, "although someone probably should. And I'm not the queen."
"Not yet," she said mysteriously.
I let that pass. "Where are we? I mean, why am I down here? Is this like the dungeon?"
"If only, Majesty. The Master keeps his Fiends down here. Even now he is rushing to pull the lever. The cage doors will go up, and the Fiends will be upon us."
"Well, that's a helluva note." I was a little nervous, but not out-and-out terrified. Not yet. I found the cheerleader extremely interesting. Why did she jump in with me? And why did she have the idea in her head that I was a queen? I wasn't even a Leo. "The walls are pretty steep in here...I'm betting this is so we don't have time to climb out. Any suggestions?"
"Yes." The cheerleader was digging in her jeans pocket and came up with a small, thickly padded envelope, the kind you mail discs in. She practically threw it at me, so anxious was she to get rid of it. "For you. Only you can wield this."
"Uh...thanks. Gee, I don't have anything for you." I opened the envelope and peeped inside. And smiled. I upended the envelope and felt the cool gold chain slide into my hand. It was a beautiful gold cross on a chain so fine even I, with my super orbs, had trouble seeing it. I put it on, feeling the teensy clasp with my fingers and getting it hooked around my neck after a few seconds of fumbling. "Thanks a lot. I left mine at home."
"This is why you're the queen. Or you will be. You were foretold, you know."
"No I don't know...and who are you, anyway?"
"Thank goodness!" I said so loudly she stepped back. "No silly-ass overdone names for you, m'girl."
"It's short for Christina Caresse Chavelle."
"Well, you did the best you could."
I heard a creaking noise just then, a really obnoxious one; it was like hinges clotted with dirt were turning in torturous slowness. The sound made me want to clap both hands over my ears. I didn't, though. No need to start losing coolness points with Tina who had, after all, jumped into a pitch-dark pit with me and brought me a present. "What the heck is that?"
"The gate is going up. The Fiends are out." Tina said this in a perfectly placid tone, but she was nibbling at her lower lip. "Don't be afraid."
"Are you talking to me, or yourself?"
"Both," she admitted. She glanced up at me-boy, she was tiny. Barely up to my shoulder, and just as cute as a bug. "They will come at you but over my body, Majesty."
I tried not to laugh. "Thank you, Tina, but that's not very Queen-ey, is it? Cowering behind someone smaller?"
There was a rushing noise, like wind through capes, and I saw their eyes in the dark, little sullen coals. I counted ten coals. Clearly the pit had an entrance, other than the top. But the other end was blocked, or the Fiends would be gamboling out in the moonlight like big evil puppies. If we dealt with them (big freaking if), we'd have time to climb out, but what then?
Tina stepped in front of me just as the first fiend reached us. For once I was sorry I could see so well in the dark. They were vaguely human-like the devil is vaguely human. Although they had two legs, they scrabbled about on all fours. Their hair was, to a man (or a woman...their sex was indistinguishable), long and lank and kept flopping into their eyes. Their mouths were all fangs: toothy and sharp and terrifying to contemplate. Their cheeks were so hollow they'd be the envy of any supermodel. They were wearing rags, unbelievably filthy and pitiful rags, and tho' they were there to put the hurt on me, I felt a stab of sympathy all the same. These things were Nostro's pets, and he wasn't taking good care of them.
"Back off, boys," I said, my voice booming around the small walls. "You don't want to mess with an out-of-work secretary. We're real testy."
The Fiends cringed away from me, but I doubt it was because of my threat. And I suddenly realized I could see a lot better than a few seconds ago.
The cross. The cross around my neck was glowing.
Not much. Not blazing with a pure white light like they do in the movies. The glow was feeble and yellowish and the cross wasn't burning me, wasn't even warm, but the Fiends couldn't bear it. Neither could Tina; she'd thrown her arms over her face.
"Wait a minute!" The hair...the scrabbling motions...the way they were more animal than human...I knew these things. "You attacked me! You guys attacked me outside Kahn's last fall!" I wanted to fall down. I wanted to kick them in their evil ribs. It was a shocking idea, unbelievable, but I suddenly knew how I'd come to be a vampire. These...things...had infected me. Then along came the Aztek a few months later, and whatever the Fiends had put into my bloodstream from the scratches and nips had become active.
Was that why most anti-vamp things didn't work on me? Because I didn't die by a vampire's hand, I'd only been infected by one? Or five?
I shook myself like a dog to get my head clear-I'd been standing there like a dummy, my mouth sprung ajar, but this wasn't the time. The Fiends were still cringing away from me, from the cross. I knew now why Nostro had thrown me down here-these ornery little fellas would have torn a regular newborn vamp to pieces. There but for the bravery of Tina would I be kibble for the Fiends.
"Get out of here," I said softly, and took a step forward. They scuttled back, then turned and fled.
"Come on, shortcake," I said. "Let's get out of this fucking hole. And I've got a few choice words for your boss."
"Nostro isn't my boss," Tina said. I tucked the cross into my shirt and she slowly lowered her arms. "You are."
"We'll talk about it later. Come on."
It was short work for us to climb out of the pit. The walls were made of brick, and there were plenty of vampire-friendly crevices. Nobody was standing guard-Nostro was pretty confident we'd been chomped, then. Tina knew the back way out, and I followed her. I had a rather large problem with her next suggestion, though.
"No fucking way!"
"-it's for your safety. Sinclair must know what Nostro tried to do. And what he could not do. This is the chance to band together and defeat him once and for all. If you join Sinclair, Nostro will be destroyed."
"I hate that creep."
"Both, frankly, but especially that snooty jerkoff, Sink Lair."
"Well." I had the sense Tina was choosing her words carefully. "If you help us defeat Nostro, you will be the reigning queen. You could order the jerkoff to leave town."
"Now that's a little more like it. Although I have no queen qualifications."
"Untrue," she said quietly. "I saw. You were foretold."
We were driving steadily south. Some fool had left his keys in a handy unlocked Lexus, so we climbed in and off we went. I didn't feel terribly bad-served him right for living in a vampire neighborhood, anyway. Probably was a vampire. Besides, I'd leave the car in a safe place, and have Marc or Jessica call the owner. After what I'd been through this week, it was tough to break a sweat over a little grand theft auto.
"Foretold," I said, clutching the armrest as Tina took the turn nearly on two wheels. "You said that before."
"There's a book. We-vampires-call it the Tabla Morto. The book of the dead. A thousand years ago, vampires knew you were coming. 'A Queen shall ryse, who has powyer beyond that of the vampyre. The thyrst shall not consume her, and the cross never will harm her, and the beasts will befryend her, and she will rule the dead.'" Tina nodded in satisfaction.
"My!" I coughed. That bit about the beasts...it explained the dogs. During the short walk to the car, every dog in the neighborhood had broken free and come to see me. Tina was wide-eyed while I swore and scolded and tried to gently boot them away. When we drove off they were barking enthusiastically at our taillights. Real subtle getaway. "What a lovely story."
Tina didn't crack a smile. "That's you, Majesty. You're the first vampire in a thousand years who could hold a cross without screaming or throwing up or being burned. Nostro threw holy water in your face and you laughed. You laughed." She said this in a tone of complete admiration. "The dogs do your will-"
"The hell they do. They never leave when I tell them to. Just lick my ankles and slobber on my shoes. My shoes!"
She quirked a little curl of a smile at me. "They don't leave because they know you're not truly angry with them. They just want to be near you. Best get used to it."
"Super." And here I figured I'd had a lot to think about in the pit! Tonight was blowing all my circuits. "If that's true, if I'm the foretold SuperVamp, how come you're the only one who knows it? Why were you the only one who came in the pit with me? And thank you a thousand times, by the way. That was really brave. I didn't know what I was getting into, but you did, and you came down anyway." I touched her shoulder. "Thanks a lot. If you need a favor, sunshine, you come and see me first."
She gave me the biggest smile I'd ever seen. "Oh, Majesty, it was nothing! It was the very least I could do for you! If I could have gone in the pit alone, I would have." The smile disappeared as quickly as it had shown up. "As to your question, the reason I was the only one to come with you is because Nostro's followers are a pack of fucking cowards."
"Tina!" Not that I'd never heard the F word before, but it sounded especially bad coming out of that cute mouth, that sweet face. Plus, the way she switched from formal English to 21st century jargon was jarring, to put it mildly.
"They won't fight," she said stubbornly. "They do only what he says. Even if it means hurting innocents. Also, you're more myth than reality. Like the second coming of You-Know-Who."
She flinched, but nodded. "Yes. Him. Everyone knows about it, but how many people really truly believe it? Or would recognize That Person if He were to return? They talk about miracles, about walking on water, but if I ever saw someone doing it, I'd be so afraid. So would a lot of people, I think. Well, that's like you, Majesty. Every vampire knows about you...but hardly anyone believes."
"What about Sinclair?"
"He was the first to suspect who you could be. One of his men called you, asked you to come to the bookstore...remember, the night you were kidnapped?"
"Which night?" I grumbled. "Getting hard to keep track." But I remembered. So Sinclair's henchman had called me, not Nostro's. But there was obviously a spy in camp, because Nostro's men got to me first. Sinclair must have busted a gut to get to the mausoleum before I did. I remembered noticing his shoes, trying to get a closer look at them. He'd been leaving tracks, as though he'd arrived only seconds before I did. "So you work for Sinclair?"
"He saved me from Nostro," she said simply. "If not for him, I'd be one of those spiritless creatures."
"I gotta tell you, Tina, it creeps me out that you work for ole Jerkoff. What, you're like his runner or something?"
"I'm his servant, yes."
"So he's like Nostro."
"No. I'm with him because I choose to be with him. If I wanted to leave tomorrow and live in France and never do another thing for him, he wouldn't demur. I made him, you see."
The car seemed to shrink, suddenly. I stared at her, and she stared through the windshield. "You made Sinclair a vampire?" I practically squeaked it.
"Yes. I was desperate. Nostro hardly ever lets us feed, it's his way of controlling us, making sure no one gets stronger than him."
"Jerkoff," I commented.
"Indeed. I found Sinclair in a cemetery at night. His parents had died that week. Been murdered. He was alone in the world. He saw me...I was too hungry for stealth and he saw me."
Tina's voice was getting softer; she could hardly get the words out. It was as if she was desperately ashamed of her actions that night, so long ago. "He opened his arms. He invited me to him. He knew I was one of the monsters and he didn't care. And I-I took him. I killed him."
"Well...uh...that's what you guys do, right?"
She shook her head. "That's another thing forbidden...we're only allowed to make more vampires if we have Nostro's permission, but I was starving and I didn't care. I was waiting for Sinclair when he rose."
I digested that one for a while. "Wow." I didn't like the story for a number of reasons, and big number one was because it made me feel sorry for Sinclair. I could picture the scene-him in a black suit, pale with grief, alone, not caring about anything anymore. And Tina coming up to him, stick-thin and ghastly white and shaking with hunger. And how he took her in at a glance and opened his arms to her, welcomed her. "Wow. That's...that's really something. And he got you away from Nostro."
"Sinclair was strong the moment he awoke. Some-a few--are like that, you know. His will...it's incredible. Nostro didn't want to mess with him, nobody did. So he let Sinclair go, and Sinclair took me with him. And that's how it's been, for years and years."
"How old are you?"
"I was born," she said, taking a sharp left and driving down a dirt road-when had we left the city?-"the month and year the Civil War began." "Wuh...hmm. Okay, my mom's really into the Civil War and I'll have about a thousand questions for you later, but meanwhile-how old is Nosehair?"
She giggled at that, but abruptly snapped off the sound, as if it was dangerous to laugh at him, even miles away from his lakeside lair. "No one knows. From his strength, I would guess at least four hundred years. Maybe more."
"I told you Sinclair was born strong, but for most vampires, strength is acquired. The longer you feed, the more you learn, the stronger you become. An eighty year-old man has more life experience than you, yes? They've-uh-been around the block? Now: picture the old man in a young body that never gets tired, with limitless strength and speed."
"Gotcha." Unlike most of what had happened to me lately, this made perfect sense.
"So a three hundred year old vampire is much, much stronger than the vampire who died yesterday. I suspect Sinclair was an extraordinary man when he was alive, because he was strong so quickly after death."
"Oooooooh, Tina! Sounds like you've got the hots for the boss."
She smiled at me. "No, Majesty. I admire him a great deal, but as for the rest...I gave that up a hundred years ago."
"That may be the most depressing thing I've heard this week, cutie. Uh...sorry." The woman was old enough to be my great-great-great-great grandma, even if she looked like she just made the pep squad. Time to 86 the condescending nicknames.
"Majesty, you may call me Mistress Putz if you prefer. It's a pure pleasure to just be in your company."
"That's enough of that." If I'd been able to blush, I would have. "And I still haven't agreed to go to Sinclair's house."
"We're here," she said apologetically, as the gates swung open. We scooted through, fast enough to press me back into my seat, but when I heard the gates crash closed I knew why.
"Damn! The guy doesn't leave the front door open very long, does he?" "He's a careful man," was all she said.
I mumbled something in reply, and I'm pretty sure Tina caught the word 'jackass', but she was too polite to comment.
We pulled right up to the front of the house-it was a gorgeous red Victorian, but after Nostro's palace and, of course, growing up with a zillionaire pal, I was getting pretty bored with grand beautiful manors. Why didn't anybody live in tract housing?
Tina shut off the car, scooted around the front, then held my door open for me before I'd even realized we'd stopped. "Quit that," I said, stepping out.
"Like the dogs," she said with a smile, "I know you don't entirely mean it. Shall I carry you up the steps, Majesty?"
"Only if you want to feel my foot up your ass," I warned, and she grinned. I was glad to see it. Tina was a little intimidating. And old! Sure, Nostro was old, too, ditto Sinclair, but the difference was, I kind of liked Tina. It was too bad...she wouldn't think I was so swell if she knew I lisped when I was hungry. The door opened as she approached, and we were ushered inside by a man who was maybe an inch taller than Tina. He had a small, sleek head and a pencil-thin mustache. His eyes were small and set close together, and his features were almost delicate...he looked like a clever whippet. He was wearing a billowy white shirt, black tailored pants, and small leather boots. Super dapper. "Hi," I said to the top of his head, because when he saw me he went into a deep bow. "I'm Betsy."
That straightened him up in a hurry. "Betsy?"
"Donald..." Tina warned.
"You mean the future queen of the undead-my future queen--is named Betsy?"
"Hey, it's a family name," I said defensively. "And I'm not going to be the queen of anything; I've got enough problems of my own without taking responsibility for a bunch of two-legged parasites. And will somebody get these dogs away from me?" To add to Sinclair's odious qualities, he apparently kept a hundred dogs. On closer inspection, it was more like six, all big fat black labs. All slobbery. Thank God I was wearing last year's shoes!
"It's just a shock, that's all," Donald said, looking me up and down. "You're-different from what I expected." Then, "Did you just call me a two-legged parasite?"
"Donald, help me with the dogs," Tina ordered. She looked stern, but as soon as she hustled the dogs into the other room I heard her laughing. At me, Donald, or the big stupid dogs, I had no idea. Probably all three.
I looked around the entryway. It was a room unto itself, with soaring ceilings and a glorious staircase that looked like it had been lifted from one of the houses in Gone with the Wind. God, I loved that book. How could I not? The heroine was a trendy, vain jerk. I read GWTW about ten times the year I stumbled across it in high school, and twice a year since then. Sinclair's staircase looked like the one in Twelve Oaks.
Tina came hurrying out, dog-less. "If you'll stay here, Maj-Miss Taylor-I'll let Sinclair know you're here. Donald will get you anything you need."
"Yes, I surely will." Donald had finally remembered his manners. "Tea? Coffee? Wine?"
"I'd love a glass of plum wine," I admitted.
He blinked, then smiled. "Of course. The boss likes that stuff, too. Not me, though. It's like drinking sugar syrup out of a wine glass."
I followed him to the wet bar in the corner. "That's why I like it. Most wines taste like sour grape juice to me. Plum's the only stuff that's sweet enough." I glanced up at the ceiling and saw the mirror over the wet bar. "Jeez, that mirror's bigger than my whole bedroom."
Donald followed my gaze and lowered his voice. "I'll tell you, Miss Betsy, I was shocked when I rose and found out I still cast a reflection. It took me days to get over it. I felt like all those movies had betrayed me."
"Why wouldn't we cast reflections?" He cracked a brand-new bottle for me, poured, and handed me the glass. I sniffed-yum! It smelled like sugar and dark purple plums bursting with ripeness.
"Well. Because of not having a soul."
"We have souls. Sure we do. Otherwise we'd do bad things all the time. You know, like politicians."
He dropped the trendy butler attitude and stared at me with what looked a lot like hope. It made him seem much younger. "Do you really think so?"
"I know so." I said this with complete conviction, and added, "Besides, a minister told me. Also, that whole 'vampires don't cast reflections because they have no soul' makes no sense. I mean, look up." He obeyed. "D'you see the bar? How about the bottles? And the floor? And the chair in the corner? Under the movie theory, we shouldn't be able to see those in the mirror."
"...true. But that doesn't exactly make your case about vampires keeping their souls."
"You make my case. And so do I. I mean, you probably hated blue jeans before you died, right?"
He actually shuddered.
"Right, easy, don't yark all over the bar. Well, you're not sporting any now, right? You don't have a pile of Levi's squirreled away in the back of your closet, do you? The stuff that made you you...it's all still there. You're just on a liquid diet now." I took a gulp of my wine. "Like me!"
"You know, there's something there," he said thoughtfully, but he wasn't looking up at the mirror, he was looking at me. He topped off my glass. "Some sort of odd charisma. Even when you're being a pill, I like listening to you." "Uh...thank you?"
"Frankly, Sinclair and Tina are about the only vampires I can stand."
"I haven't been one very long. Maybe that's what it is."
"No, it's not," he said seriously, "because young vampires are the worst. All they can think about is how hungry they are. You can't have a civilized conversation with them for at least five years."
"Bummer!" How had I managed to escape that fate? Oh, yeah...I was the superqueen. "Listen, what's taking Tina so long? Where's Sinclair?"
"I think he's feeding with his ladyfriends." He said it just like that, all one word. "I'll see if I can give Tina a hand." He put the bottle away, then hurried up the stairs. "Excuse me, I'll be right back," he said over his shoulder, then got to the top and disappeared around a corner.
I let a minute go by, then said, "Well, screw this." I drained my glass, put it down...and then I heard the scream.
I bolted up the stairs after Donald.