Blood Red Chapter 1


M ark Davidson watched the couple at the bar, who seemed to be like any couple at any bar.

The man leaned toward the woman. She was pretty, in a tube top that displayed sculpted abs and a short skirt that afforded a long look at longer legs. She batted her lashes now and then, lowering her head, offering a shy, even rueful, smile to the man at her side. He was tall, and dark. Despite his apparent ease with her flirtation, there seemed to be a tenseness in him, a leashed energy that, to Mark, at least, suggested something wasn't quite right.

The couple laughed together, teased each other. Body language. She'd been looking for something that evening;he'd definitely been set on action.

’’Another drink, sir?’’ Momentarily, he was distracted by the waitress, an attractive but older woman with large eyes and a nice figure. Her voice was polite but also weary, he thought. Maybe it hadn't been easy for her over the last few years.

’’Um...’’ He wasn't sure why she was asking. He'd barely touched the beer he'd ordered earlier. Then again, they needed to make money here, so maybe it was just a hint.

’’Sorry, I guess you don't,’’ she said with a little sigh. He had a feeling she was a native. Her accent was richly Southern. Not that New Orleans was a city where only natives could be found. It was the kind of place people simply fell in love with, as if it had a personality all its own. Of course, some people loathed the city's free and easy spirit, and, he had to admit, the vomit in the streets after a particularly wild night during Mardi Gras wasn't exactly a selling point. None of that mattered to him. He loved the place, the narrow streets, the old buildings and the mixture of cultures. He loved everything about the place.

Oh, yeah. He loved everything about the place, except for...

The waitress was blocking his view, he realized. He had chosen a back table, in the shadows. He was away from the jazz band playing to the far left of the bar, near the entrance. The group was great;Mark would have happily come here just to listen to them. That was one of the things he loved most about New Orleans;some of the best music in the world could be heard here, often just by walking along the streets. Young talent, fine talent, often began their careers playing in Jackson Square or right on any street corner, performing in the hope that the passersby would be tossed their dollars in a guitar case or a hat.

There was so much to love about New Orleans.

Like the many times he had come here with Katie...

No.

He took a long swallow of the beer in front of him, lukewarm now, and gritted his teeth. He wasn't here to walk down memory lane.

’’Sure, yeah, another beer. Cold, please,’’ he said, trying to look around the waitress. But when she moved, he saw that the couple at the bar had gone.

He leapt to his feet and dug into his pocket for a bill. He handed it to her.

’’Never mind,’’ he said, heading for the door.

’’Sir, your change,’’ she protested, staring at the fifty he'd handed her.

’’Keep it,’’ he murmured, his eyes already riveted on the door to the street.

Out there the world was bright, alive with neon, laughter and the dueling beats of jazz and rock, as the music from the bars and clubs lining the sidewalks spilled into the humid air. Flashing lights advertised all manner of drinks and entertainment;old buildings seemed to peer at the rush of people with a haunting, even if decayed, elegance, despite their cloaks of commercialism.

Men and women, groups, duos, even singles, meandered down the street, some slowly, slightly inebriated, bumping into one another as they walked. Others moved with purpose.

He didn't see the couple from the bar, and he swore bitterly to himself.

Where the hell would the man have taken the girl? It wasn't as if he had to commit murder in a darkened cemetery;he could have rented a room anywhere. Hell, he might even have a place of his own here. Where? Alone, he might have moved as quickly as the wind. But he had the woman with him, slowing him down.

’’Sir?’’

He turned. The waitress had followed him.

’’I said to keep the change,’’ he said gently.

She smiled. ’’The bartender said the couple you were watching went left. The guy talked her into a late night cemetery visit.’’ She shrugged, a soft and thankful glow in her eyes. ’’Lots of assholes trying to pick up women convince them to slip into the cemeteries at night. Risky business. Drug dealers hang out there-and worse. You take care.’’

’’Thanks,’’ he told her. ’’Thank you.’’

Now that he had a direction, he started running down the street. So much for thinking the guy might just opt for a hotel room or the courtyard of some nice bed and breakfast.

As he ranm, he patted a hand against the pocket of his Chinos. He could feel the vial. He was armed, as well-conventionally armed-but he knew that wouldn't mean a damned thing, given what he was up against.

He reached the cemetery. Entry at night was illegal, but he scaled the fence easily, landing with a soft thud on the other side.

As he did, he heard the laughter. They were deeper into the grounds, behind the chipping stone and plaster of an above ground tomb, with its sad angels and praying cherubs.

’’Ooh, this is decadent. Creepy, and kind of exciting,’’ a female voice said.

’’Yes. I know.’’

’’You want to...here? Right here?’’ she whispered. Her voice sounded a little uncertain. Now that she had come to the cemetery, perhaps she was feeling a little bit bothered by such disrespect for the dead. Or maybe it was fear of getting caught by the police.

’’You tell me,’’ the man answered. ’’Do you want to feel my lips touch your flesh?’’

The girl made a sound Mark couldn't identify, and he clenched his jaw tightly, seeking to control the pain and fury that swept through him. He didn't blame the girl. She might as well have been hypnotized.

’’I want...yes....’’ she murmured.

Mark crept closer. There they were.

The man had stripped off his shirt. The girl was stretched out on top of one of the tombs, her bare torso glistening beneath the moonlight. The man was bent over her, his hand stroking the length of her legs, his lips teasing the bare flesh of her midriff.

’’Wait, please!’’ There was fear in the girl's voice now.

’’Too late.’’

’’No. No!’’

’’You're very pretty.... We could have had so much more fun first. Excitement like you've never imagined. Too bad that tonight...well, I'm really am hungry. It's been a while for me, I'm afraid.’’

She was gasping out another protest again. She had just realized she was about to die, Mark knew, and she was trying hard to scream. But terror, as sweet as sugar in the blood, was beginning to fill her, and she couldn't choke out the agony trapped in her throat.

Now!

Mark inhaled, tensing. She wouldd be dead any second now if he didn't act. He reached into his pocket. He sprang.

He was in terrific shape, having served with the Marines before putting in several years as a bouncer while getting his own work sold. Even so, as fast as he was, the man sensed his approach. He heard the snarl of rage before he saw the man at the tomb swirl around, ready to meet him, a horrible, twisted mask of fury on his face. He saw the mouth open, the glint of the fanglike teeth in the darkness. Oddly enough, they had a fascinating opalescent glow.

He swore softly to himself. This wasn't the same man he had been trailing with such dogged determination. It was another, no doubt equally as bad.

His heart sank. And, yet...

This creature was about to kill. He had to remember justice-had to put it above revenge. He couldn't let his guard down;he couldn't falter for an instant.

Before he could reach the creature, however, the man gave a harsh laugh of amusement. ’’Going to shoot me?’’ he demanded.

’’Hell no,’’ Mark assured him. His vial was full, and it was open. He aimed directly into the face and eyes of his opponent.

It let out a bloodcurdling cry of rage and astonishment as the holy water bathed its features. There was a flutter of shadow and darkness, a weak flapping of wings. It took off and crashed hard into a tomb.

Mark followed it. He drew the small but sharply honed stake he always carried from his pocket, then skewered the mix of shadow and substance and bat wings by the tomb.

There was a burst of misty color in the night. Dust exploding in the air, crimson with the blood of many lifetimes.

The flapping stopped. For a moment there was something of the lumpen and darkened essence of a man by the grave...then there was nothing. Dirt and ash. Dust to dust.

He stood there, just staring, suddenly shaking as he broke out in a cold sweat.

Suddenly the girl started to scream. The sound jerked Mark back to reality, the here, the now. He turned. She was staring at him with wild, tear stained eyes, obviously in a state of total shock..

’’Shut up,’’ he said, sharply but not unkindly.

’’He was a...a vampire!’’ she said. She blinked in disbelief at her own words.

’’Yes.’’

’’You killed him!’’ she gasped. ’’But...he was real.’’ She shook her head. ’’That's...impossible.’’

’’I'm afraid not.

She swayed, still reeling, shaking as if she were suffering from a severe chill.

’’He-he really was a vampire?’’

Mark could hear sirens approaching. Someone must have heard her scream. ’’Yes, he was.’’ But not the one I was looking for, he added silently.

’’I don't...I can't...believe this,’’ she said.

’’We need to get out of here. The police are coming.’’

’’Shouldn't we stay and report...um...this?’’

He arched a brow at her. ’’You're going to report what happened here?’’ he asked.

She stared at him, still shaking. ’’Yes, but...no, it isn't real, can't be real, but...’’

’’It is real.’’ He was trying very hard to be patient, but time was running out. He sighed. ’’They won't believe you, though. We have to get out of here.’’

Her jaw worked hard as she tried to form words. At last, still shivering, she said, ’’Get me over the wall, please?’’

’’Of course. Head that way.’’

He could move like the wind himself-college football-but she was still so stunned that he felt as if he was dragging dead weight. He had to urge her to help herself as he pushed her up the wall, then jumped to safety behind her and brought her back down on the sidewalk.

Back on solid pavement, she stared at him, shaking her head. ’’He was really a vampire?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’No,’’ she argued, then, ’’Yes,’’ she said.

She was going to need some major therapy, he thought.

’’You...you saved my life. I-I-oh, God, I owe you...you...’’

’’You and I both have to get out of here. They'll think we're junkies or thieves or something,’’ he said flatly.

’’Yes, but...I need to...to thank you somehow.’’ Her eyes were wide, frightened;she wasn't being se*ual, just grateful and unsure what to do about it.

She straightened her spine, still unable to believe what had happened, but trying for proper dignity.

’’My life. You saved my life. I owe you something.’’

The patrol cars were nearly at the gates.

’’You want to do something for me?’’ he demanded ’’Be careful. Don't go off into cemeteries with assholes you meet in a bar, okay?’’ He grabbed her hand. ’’Let's go.’’

He ran, pulling her along after him, and stayed with her down Canal Street and all the way to Harrah's.

’’I don't even know your name,’’ she told him.

’’And you shouldn't,’’ he said gently. ’’Go in there. Call a friend. Go home.’’

He turned and left her, suddenly exhausted, and more disappointed than he cared to admit.

He'd thought he'd been chasing...someone. But he hadn't been. It was that simple.

He swore softly.

Damn, but there were a hell of a lot of foul beasts preying upon the world.

It occurred to him as he walked wearily back to his hotel that man himself could be considered one of them-even before the taint of pure evil touched upon him.

He stopped and looked at the roiling sky. He'd killed a murdering bloodsucker tonight. And it was all just beginning.

’’I'm coming to get you. You're going to be mine, in a world of blood and death and darkness,’’ Deanna Marin whispered darkly.

’’Oh, for the love of God, cut it out,’’ Lauren Crow pleaded.

’’Seriously. Perhaps we'll open a door to another world, and demons will spring out and bring darkness and evil into this world,’’ Heidi Weiss said, laughing, unable to maintain a low, threatening tone with the same success Deanna had managed.

Both Deanna and Heidi were staring across the outdoor table at Lauren with ridiculous grins on their faces. Of course, they were both holding drinks obtained from one of the bars here in Jackson Square, though she couldn't remember which one. Deanna's glass was in the shape of some kind of nuclear material container and Heidi's looked like a naked man, buns, pecs and all. Perhaps due to a combination of alcohol and the atmosphere of New Orleans itself, they were suddenly eager to visit one of the numerous fortune-tellers who worked the area around Jackson Square with their tarot cards and crystal balls at the ready.

Lauren was delighted to be there-New Orleans was one of her favorite places in the world. Few locations offered such an artistic setting, with not just the visual stimuli but the with the history of the area and liveliness of people filling the very air as New Orleans did.

Tonight, however...

Maybe it was due to the one Cosmo she'd imbibed, but instead of feeling light and giddy, she felt as if a strange sense of dread and darkness had settled over her.

’’Lauren, what on earth is the matter with you?’’ Heidi demanded. ’’It's just for fun.’’

Lauren just didn't like the idea. She didn't know why-she wasn't particularly superstitious-but she had never wanted to have her cards read, let someone see her future in her palm, or receive any other kind of astral or otherworldly advice. Time, in her opinion, brought enough hardship without having to worry ahead of time about the bad things that could happen.

But she hated to be a wet blanket when they were here in New Orleans for a much anticipated pre-bridal shower for Heidi. Since they worked together at the artistic concepts company they had created after college, it had taken a lot of planning to get all their projects completed so they were free to take off together.

It was Heidi's party, and Lauren had promised herself that she was going to make sure everything went exactly the way Heidi wanted it to. But this desire to play with the occult was somerthing new, and it was making her very uncomfortable.

’’You said you would do anything at all this weekend to make me happy. Remember, you're my bridesmaid, so you're supposed to be my slave,’’ Heidi teased.

’’Why are you so bugged about it?’’ Deanna asked.

Lauren didn't know why, and she knew it was silly, but she really didn't want to look into the future.

’’You can pick whoever we go to. How's that?’’ Heidi asked.

’’Guys, I just think-’’

’’You need to do this just so you won't be frightened of a few dramatic effects and some spooky patter,’’ Deanna said.

’’I'm not afraid,’’ Lauren protested quickly, but even as she spoke, she realized that in fact that was exactly it. She was afraid.

’’Really, think about it,’’ Deanna said, ’’Most of the psychics here are just college kids, trying to make a few bucks. Think of all the times we came here to draw, and how badly we needed the money people paid us for our sketches.’’

’’I think you're forgetting the important point here. I told you. You're supposed to be my slave, remember?’’ Heidi said.

’’Yeah, yeah, yeah,’’ Lauren muttered. ’’All right. In that case, I think we should see some kind of voodoo queen. This is New Orleans, after all.’’

’’And do you know an authentic voodoo queen?’’ Heidi asked, grinning.

Lauren had to smile;she couldn't help finding a certain amusement in the question. Heidi Weiss had powder blue eyes, platinum hair and a smile a mile wild, the kind that coerced you into a good humor whether you wanted to feel cheerful or not. That grin was a little lopsided now, but just a little. They hadn't been drinking to the point of saturation, only enough not to feel any pain.

’’We can walk around, look them all over,’’ she suggested.

Lookswise, Deanna was the opposite of Heidi, with almond dark eyes, sleek, almost blue-black hair, and now she decided to take charge. ’’I've got it. We'll walk around the entire Square to start. And then, if we don't see someone Lauren likes, we'll walk the entire French Quarter.’’

Lauren wondered if Deanna really had that much energy, or if she thought Lauren would decide more quickly if the alternative involved endless walking, since she was already-and obviously-exhausted They had arrived that morning on the red-eye from Los Angeles, and they hadn't stopped since. Lauren always felt very much at home in New Orleans, since she came from Baton Rouge, but Deanna had grown up in NewYork, and Heidi was from Boston. They had come often after becoming friends in college, but neither Heidi nor Deanna knew the little quirks and twists and turns of the place the way she did. They'd hit the casino early;then she'd been assigned to lead them to every little shop in the French Quarter, every place that wasn't part of a chain. Now she was tired and just wanted to get this over with.

’’There,’’ she said, pointing completely at random.

The woman she had chosen was sitting at a small portable table, facing the Cathedral. She appeared to be older than they were, but beyond that, her age was indeterminate. Her hair was tied back with a scarf, and she wore a white peasant shirt and skirt. Her face was stunning, with strong features and skin a beautiful shade of gold that spoke of a multi-ethnic heritage. She was speaking earnestly to a man in the chair across from her, pointing to the tarot cards she was laying out before her as she spoke. She might have been at a Renaissance fair, rather than the French Quarter of New Orleans. Behind her was a small red tent that would have looked at home on a medieval battlefield. There was a table just inside it, covered with a cloth that depicted the moon and the stars. On the table was a crystal ball.

’’She already has a customer,’’ Deanna noted.

’’I'm sure he won't take that long,’’ Lauren said with a shrug. She wasn't sure why she had pointed to the woman, but now that she had, she was suddenly determined. Suddenly she realized that she did know why-she would have liked to draw the woman. Her face was so arresting.

’’We could go to Madame Zorba right there,’’ Heidi teased, inclining her head toward a younger woman just a few feet away.

Lauren grinned. Madame Zorba was definitely a college student. ’’I like the woman over there,’’ Lauren insisted.

’’There's a good-looking gypsy guy up the street,’’ Heidi said.

’’You're engaged,’’ Deanna teased her.

’’Yeah, but you and Lauren could use a guy,’’ Heidi said.

’’Wow. Thanks,’’ Deanna said.

’’Just what I need, a gypsy,’’ Lauren said. She didn't let her smile falter. Heidi, damn it, you know I'm not looking to meet a guy.

’’You don't have to fall in love, pack him up and take him home with you,’’ Heidi told her. Then she added softly, ’’But you could date. We're talking well over a year here.’’

’’Thanks for the advice, Mom,’’ Lauren murmured. She paused, shivering suddenly, looking up. The night sky seemed to have clouded over;it had suddenly become cooler. There was a moon trying to come out, she thought, but it was shadowed by the clouds. She frowned. It was strange. There was a red glow where the moon should have been. ’’We may get rain tomorrow,’’ she said.

’’It's supposed to be clear all weekend,’’ Deanna said.

Lauren shrugged. ’’Look at the sky.’’

’’Um, well...could be smog,’’ Deanna said.

’’Hey, we're not in L.A.,’’ Heidi said with a laugh.

’’What-is it just called pollution when you're not in L.A.?’’ Deanna asked.

’’It's just an angry red sky,’’ Lauren murmured.

Heidi groaned. ’’Oh, Lord, we haven't even gotten to the fortune teller yet, and she's talking about poetic doom.’’

’’It's just strange,’’ Lauren said.

’’Is there anything weird in the wind?’’ Heidi teased.

’’As a matter of fact, it's gotten a bit cooler,’’ Lauren said.

’’Thank God,’’ Deanna breathed.

’’You know, we could just go have another drink,’’ Lauren suggested.

Heidi giggled. ’’The guy is gone. Let's go.’’

Lauren let out a sigh of impatience. ’’Just remember, you two wanted to do this. I'll do whatever you want, but I want it on record that I'm against such silliness.’’

’’This trip is all about silliness,’’ Heidi reminded her. ’’I'm going to get married. No more wild weekendss with the girls. No more adventurous vacations. I mean, Barry is great, and he'd never care if I wanted a few days away with you guys, but...well, you know. And I guarantee you he's going to have one of those wild bachelor parties with strippers, and his idiot brother is going to make sure he has a lap dance-’’

’’I'll be happy to get you a lap dance,’’ Lauren said.

Heidi laughled. ’’I don't want a lap dance. Now humor me, slave,’’ she told Lauren.

’’I'm all humor,’’ Lauren muttered. ’’Let's go.’’

As they approached the woman, Lauren decided that she must look as on edge as she felt. Either that or she had talked herself into some kind of ridiculous paranoia, because it seemed as if the woman frowned when she saw them, as if she looked worried. Still, Lauren couldn't help noticing the strength of her features, and she wondered if she dared ask to do a sketch of her at some point.

There was no nameplate, nothing like Madame X or Madame Zenia or any other cliche, on her table. She rose, stretching out an elegant arm and offering a slender hand with elegantly polished nails. ’’Hello,’’ she said simply.

’’Hi,’’ Heidi said cheerfully.

The woman stared at Heidi gravely. ’’You seek the future?’’

’’Absolutely,’’ Heidi said, introducing herself. ’’I'm Heidi Weiss, and I'm about to be married. I'd love some advice.’’

The woman nodded, but her expression said that she read in Heidi's polite words the simple fact that she didn't really believe in what she was doing. It was all for fun.

’’I'm Deanna Marin,’’ Deanna said, stepping forward. ’’And this is Lauren Crow.’’

The woman arched a brow slightly, studying Lauren. ’’Crow?’’

’’I've been told that my great-grandfather was Cherokee,’’ Lauren said, taking the woman's hand. There was strength in her grip. It offered a strange assurance.

’’I, too, have Cherokee blood. We have the same green eyes.’’

’’So we do,’’ Lauren agreed, though she wasn't sure green eyes came from the Cherokee part of her background.

’’You're tall...five-ten?’’

’’Around there. Another grandfather was from the Orkney Islands. A big tall guy, so I was told. Some Norse, some Scots.’’

’’Ah, and thus you are redheaded.’’

’’I like to think auburn.’’

The woman smiled. Lauren had to admit, she liked her, but more than ever, she didn't want a reading, didn't want to know what the future supposedly held. She wanted to ask the woman to have a drink with them, instead.

’’I like to think I am not turning gray. I'm Susan,’’ the woman said.

Heidi started to giggle. ’’I'm so sorry,’’ she apologized quickly. ’’It's just so...normal.’’

Susan offered a slight smile in return. ’’Life is normal, the cycle of life is normal, the air we breathe is normal. So many things are normal, including much that we don't understand yet.’’

’’You have a beautiful face,’’ Lauren heard herself blurt out.

Susan inclined her head slightly, acknowledging the compliment. When she lifted her eyes again, she smiled. ’’You're artists?’’

’’I'm a graphic designer, actually,’’ Deanna said. ’’Heidi and Lauren can draw anything in the world, though. They're fabulous.’’

’’And you'd like to sketch me?’’ Susan asked, looking at Lauren.

’’I'd love to.’’

’’That's not why we're here, though,’’ Heidi said.

’’Ah, yes, the future,’’ Susan said. She lifted her hands. ’’What will it be? Would you like a reading of your palm? Or shall we see what's in the cards? And then, of course, there is always the crystal ball.’’

’’We should each do something different,’’ Deanna suggested.

’’Tarot cards,’’ Heidi said.

’’I'll take a palm reading,’’ Deanna determined.

Lauren shrugged. ’’Crystal ball.’’

Susan nodded, indicating several small fold-up chairs inside the tent. ’’Lauren, you are welcome to sketch. I'll begin with the bride.’’

Lauren always carried a small sketch pad in her handbag, but she wondered how Susan knew that, and she was slightly disturbed. Or slightly more disturbed, if she were being honest Then she told herself that Susan already knew they were artists. Guessing that she carried a sketch pad was just a logical assumption. No doubt most people who did this kind of thing for a living learned how to assess people, how to read a great deal in a few words and intuit where to go from there.

Deanna had unfolded the little wooden chairs. She sat on one side of Heidi, while Lauren backed her chair away a bit and took out her sketchbook. As she sat, watching Susan instruct Heidi on how to choose her cards, she could hear the sounds around them. Music in the distance, coming from the bars. People talking, then stopping to ooh and aah at the artwork available on the street. Across from them, near the Cathedral, a lone flutist had set down his cap, and now he performed a plaintive and beautiful tune.

She looked up at the sky. Clouds still rode heavy over the moon, like a red curtain in the air.

She studied Susan. The woman was soft spoken. Elegant. Not at all what she had expected. Her pencil moved over the paper. She drew the lines first, then filled in the shades and shadows. Finally she added background, the greenery around the Square, the sidewalk, the tent, the statue of Andrew Jackson rising far behind Susan's back.

’’Ugh! What does that mean?’’ Heidi asked, drawing Lauren's attention to the table, where Heidi had turned up a card with a skeleton.

’’It's...death, isn't it?’’ Heidi asked.

Susan shook her head. ’’It often signifies change, an ending so that there can be a new beginning. You are about to end your single life. You will start into a new life.’’

’’Whew,’’ Heidi murmured. Though she spoke lightly, Lauren thought she was seriously relieved, and she felt a new wave of discomfort.

’’What's that?’’ Deanna asked, pointing to another card.

’’Love.’’ Susan looked at Heidi. ’’You can rest assured in this-your fiance loves you very much. You are all he has ever wanted, all he could ever need in life.’’

’’Oh,’’ Heidi breathed happily. ’’Ditto.’’

’’Yes, I can see,’’ Susan murmured.

’’Will the wedding go off without a hitch?’’ Heidi asked.

’’No wedding goes off without a hitch,’’ Susan said dryly as she scooped up the cards, patting them back into a neat pile. ’’But you are deeply loved, and you love deeply in return.’’

’’Thank you.’’ Heidi rose and looked at Lauren with an expression on her face that plainly said, See? Nothing to be afraid of.

Lauren smiled back weakly, wondering if Heidi had really been listening. Susan hadn't said anything specific about Heidi's wedding at all-she had just generalized about weddings. And she had said the skeleton card often indicated a change.

Then again, Lauren told herself, maybe she was the one hearing words that weren't being said.

’’On to the palm,’’ Deanna said. She and Heidi changed seats. As Deanna started to sit down, she glanced at Lauren's drawing and frowned.

’’What is it?’’ Lauren asked.

’’Uh, nothing, I guess. It's a great drawing. It's just that...well, you made the skeleton card the focus of it.’’

’’I did not!’’ Lauren protested and looked down at the sketch. It was one of her best, she thought. She'd captured not just a two-dimensional image but given it great depth. She'd found the strange and arresting beauty that was Susan's. She'd caught the atmosphere of the Square. You could look at the drawing and almost hear music.

And yet...

Deanna was right. Somehow she had detailed the tarot card down to the finest line so that it unerringly drew the viewer's eye and became the focus of the picture.

’’Don't draw me,’’ Deanna whispered to her.

’’Okay,’’ Lauren assured her quietly in return.

Susan was watching them both. Deanna noticed and gave her a rueful smile. ’’Lauren was engaged once.’’

’’And her young man died,’’ Susan said. Wow, damned good guess,

Lauren thought irritably. Though it was a fifty-fifty shot. Either they'd broken up or he had died. She knew that she was just one of many young women of her day. She'd fallen in love with a soldier. He'd gone to war. They'd emailed for six months, and then she'd stopped receiving replies.

Until the army lieutenant had come to her house.

She'd gone through it all. The devastation, the anger. And the healing. She didn't feel that she had any terrible psychological hang-ups. She just wasn't actively looking to find love again. But if the right person came along...

Would she be ready?

She really didn't know.

’’I'm so sorry,’’ Susan said to Lauren gravely. She was clearly sincere, making Lauren feel vaguely guilty, though she wasn't quite sure why.

’’Thank you,’’ she said, ignoring her uncomfortable feelings. ’’But, hey, that's the past, and we're looking to the future, right? What does Deanna's hand say to you, Susan?’’

Susan studied Deanna's palm and looked up gravely.

’’What?’’ Deanna asked impatiently.

’’So far, it has told me that you do not like housework at all,’’ Susan said.

Even Deanna laughed. ’’Okay, I suck. Seriously, I'm really bad at it, so I gave it up.’’

’’Don't worry, she has a wonderful woman who comes in twice a week,’’ Heidi assured Susan.

Susan traced a finger down a line in Deanna's hand.

’’The life line, right?’’ Heidi asked.

Susan shrugged.

’’It doesn't look very long,’’ Deanna said worriedly.

Susan shook her head, looking at Deanna. ’’Often, things are what we make them. The line...it's like the card. It might not mean anything bad at all. It signifies change. A change in life. Heidi is getting married.’’

’’I'm not even dating steadily,’’ Deanna said.

’’You're a beautiful woman,’’ Susan said, sidestepping.

’’What else do you see?’’

Susan pointed. ’’Here...artistic success. You are clever and determined.’’ Susan looked up and stared hard at Deanna. ’’When you set your mind to something, you can make it happen. When we fail, far too often, it is because we're afraid. Remember, you have the talent and the will. Don't be put off by circumstances that seem dire. You are very strong. And there will be changes.’’

’’Will I ever get married?’’ Deanna asked.

Susan shrugged. ’’Your palm is not telling me. I can say that you are passionate and giving, and that you are quite capable of creating fire, passion-and love-around you.’’

’’I like that,’’ Deanna said.

Lauren looked at her, trying to avoid Susan's eyes. Lots of people could have said that to you, her stern gaze said.

’’Your turn,’’ Deanna said.

’’Ah, the crystal ball for our talented young artist,’’ Susan murmured. She didn't move, though, and her eyes were downcast.

’’I think Susan is tired,’’ Lauren said.

’’Oh no, you are not getting out of this!’’ Heidi insisted.

’’May I see more fully?’’ Susan asked.

Lauren handed her the drawing she had done.

’’You are very kind,’’ she murmured. ’’You have caught me on paper with great beauty.’’

’’I want to work more on it. I'll send you a copy when I'm done,’’ Lauren told her.

Susan nodded and handed back the drawing. Lauren flipped her sketchbook closed and returned it to her purse.

’’It seems like you've had a busy night. You look tired. You really don't have to do another reading,’’ Lauren said.

’’She's trying to get out of this,’’ Heidi explained.

Susan stood. She wasn't smiling. ’’I think that we must look into the crystal ball.’’

Heidi and Deanna started to rise.

’’There is only room in the tent for one-I'm sorry. The crystal ball is quite different from the palm and the cards.’’

Susan waited gravely, and at last Lauren followed her into the tent, the sounds from the street and the night receding. As she sat in the chair opposite Susan, the world outside all but disappeared.

’’Your fiance, he was a soldier?’’ Susan asked, staring into the crystal ball.

Startled, Lauren looked at her. ’’Yes.’’

’’I'm very sorry, truly. But...there are those who believe there are certain fates we cannot avoid, and others who believe we have a hand in our own futures. Perhaps many people lived because your young man died,’’ she said softly.

’’Thank you. I like to think that,’’ Lauren murmured.

’’You don't date much.’’

’’I've dated.’’

Susan smiled enigmatically.

’’What?’’ Lauren asked.

’’You don't date much because you feel that you meet nothing but dimwits and users since you lost your man.’’

’’It's hard to meet the right person.’’

They had been chatting casually, almost as if they were engaged in a normal conversation at any one of the smaller cafes or bars in the city. But Lauren realized that something had been subtly changing since she had come into the little tent.

The crystal ball had begun to glow, to fill with a red mist.

She stared at it, unable to tear her eyes away. She only dimly noted Susan's face, registering as if from a great distance that the other woman looked tense, even distressed.

’’You must leave here...you and your friends...must go.’’

’’Yes,’’ Lauren said.

But she couldn't move. It felt as if she were frozen where she sat, as if her very muscles were paralyzed.

There was something dark at the core of the crystal ball, dark and red, finding form as the milliseconds ticked by.

It was a bird. A winged thing.

Then it was not.

It took the shape of a man. Tall, the face dark, the figure imposing.

A sound seemed to rise in her ears, and she realized that it was laughter. Deep, rich, taunting-and cruel.

She heard words.

So soft at first that she couldn't understand what was being said. Then she knew.

’’I'm coming for you. I'm coming to get you.’’

’’No,’’ Lauren murmured, struggling for sanity, for reality. Someone had heard them talking earlier. Someone had heard the words that Deanna had spoken teasingly.

’’Lauren...’’ The dark figure called her by name. ’’I'm coming to get you, Lauren....’’

’’No!’’

’’I'm coming to get you, and you'll be mine in a world of blood and death and darkness.’’

Susan suddenly jumped up, as if she, too, had suddenly broken of the invisible bonds holding her there.

She made a strange sound and her arm flew out.

The crystal ball flew off the table and shattered on the ground.

But even as it flew into a thousand pieces, it seemed to Lauren that she heard a husky whisper of evil laughter.

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